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´╗┐Title: Comrades of the Saddle - The Young Rough Riders of the Plains
Author: Webster, Frank V.
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Comrades of the Saddle - The Young Rough Riders of the Plains" ***

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COMRADES OF THE SADDLE

Or

The Young Rough Riders of the Plains



BY

FRANK V.  WEBSTER


AUTHOR OF "ONLY A FARM BOY," "THE YOUNG TREASURE HUNTER,"
"THE BOYS OF BELLWOOD SCHOOL," "TOM THE TELEPHONE BOY," ETC.



ILLUSTRATED

NEW YORK
CUPPLES & LEON COMPANY



BOOKS FOR BOYS

By FRANK V. WEBSTER

ONLY A FARM BOY
  Or Dan Hardy's Rise in Life

TOM THE TELEPHONE BOY
  Or The Mystery of a Message

THE BOY FROM THE RANCH
  Or Roy Bradner's City Experiences

THE YOUNG TREASURE HUNTER
  Or Fred Stanley's Trip to Alaska

BOB THE CASTAWAY
  Or The Wreck of the Eagle

THE YOUNG FIREMEN OF LAKEVILLE
  Or Herbert Dare's Pluck

THE NEWSBOY PARTNERS
  Or Who Was Dick Box?

THE BOY PILOT OF THE LAKES
  Or Nat Morton's Perils

TWO BOY GOLD MINERS
  Or Lost in the Mountains

JACK THE RUNAWAY
  Or On the Road with a Circus

THE BOYS OP BELLWOOD SCHOOL
  Or Frank Jordan's Triumph

COMRADES OF THE SADDLE
  Or The Young Rough Riders of the Plains



Copyright, 1910, by
CUPPLES & LEON COMPANY

COMRADES OF THE SADDLE


Printed in U. S. A



CONTENTS

CHAPTER

    I  AN EXCITING ESCAPE
   II  MR.  ALDEN BRINGS NEWS
  III  WORD FROM THE WEST
   IV  GUS MEGGET
    V  THE HALF-MOON RANCH
   VI  IN THE SADDLE
  VII  A RACE IN THE MOONLIGHT
 VIII  HORACE IN DANGER
   IX  THE MESSAGE FROM CROSS-EYED PETE
    X  THE RETURN TO THE RANCH
   XI  PREPARATIONS FOB PURSUIT
  XII  WHAT NAILS LEARNED
 XIII  OUT ON THE PLAINS
  XIV  ANOTHER DISCOVERY
   XV  THE CONTESTED TRAIL
  XVI  WHAT JEFFREYS KNEW
 XVII  LOST!
XVIII  A MYSTERIOUS CALL
  XIX  A TERRIBLE PLOT
   XX  THE PRAIRIE FIRE
  XXI  A RIDE FOR LIFE
 XXII  LAWRENCE'S PLAN
XXIII  IN THE MOUNTAINS
 XXIV  CAPTURING THE CATTLE THIEVES
  XXV  HOMEWARD



COMRADES OF THE SADDLE

CHAPTER I

AN EXCITING ESCAPE

Twilight was settling on the land.  The forms of trees and houses
loomed big and black, their sharp outlines suggesting fanciful
forms to the minds of two boys hurrying along the road which like a
ribbon wound In and out among the low hills surrounding the town of
Bramley, in south-western Ohio.

As the darkness increased lights began to twinkle from the windows
of the distant farmhouses.

"We're later than usual, Tom," said the larger of the two boys.  "I
hope we'll get home before father does."

"Then let's hurry.  The last time we kept supper waiting he said
we'd have to give up playing ball after school if we couldn't get
home before meal time."

"And that means that we won't make the team and will only get a
chance to substitute," returned the first speaker.

As though such a misfortune were too great to be borne, the two
young ball players broke into a dog trot.

The boys were brothers, Tom and Larry Alden.  Larry, the larger,
was sixteen and Tom was a year younger.  Both were healthy and
strong and would have been thought older, so large were they.

The only children of Theodore Alden, a wealthy farmer who lived
about three miles from Bramley, unlike many brothers, they were
chums.  They were prime favorites, and their popularity, together
with their natural ability and cool-headedness at critical moments,
made them leaders in all sports.

As it grew darker and darker, the brothers quickened their pace.
Talking was out of the question, so fast were they going.  But as
they rounded a turn in the road, which enabled them to see the
lights in their home, a quarter of a mile away, Larry gasped:

"There's no light in the dining-room yet.  Father hasn't gotten
home!"

"Come on then for a final spurt," returned Tom.

Willingly Larry responded, and the boys dashed forward as though
they were just starting out instead of ending a two-mile run.

On the right-hand side of the road a fringe of bushes hedged a
swamp.

The patter of the boys' feet on the hard clay road was the only
sound that broke the stillness.

Their goal, with the bright lights shining from the windows, was
only about three hundred yards away when suddenly from the
direction of the swamp sounded a sullen snarl.

"Did you hear anything?" asked Larry.

"I thought so."

As though to settle all doubt, the growl rang out again.  This time
it was nearer and sounded more ominous.

For a moment the boys looked at each other, then, as with one
accord, turned their heads and looked in the direction whence the
startling noise had come.

Just as they did so there came another howl, and an instant later a
big black form, for all the world like a large dog, leaped from the
bushes into the road.

"Quick, quick!" cried Larry, seizing his brother's arm and pulling
him along, for Tom had slackened his speed, as though fascinated by
the sight of the strange animal.  "It must be that wolf father read
about, the one that got away when the circus train was passing
through Husted."

And, Larry was right.  The animal was indeed a wolf that had
escaped from its cage through the door, the fastener on which had
been jarred out of place by the motion of the train, and had leaped
to liberty.

The circus people had reported the loss as soon as it had been
discovered and it had been duly announced in the papers.

Mr. Alden had read about it, but all had laughed at the thought of
a wolf in placid Ohio and dismissed the story as a circus man's
joke.

Rejoicing in its freedom, the beast had wandered about till it
struck the swamp and now the air brought to its keen nose the scent
of the boys passing.  Ravenously hungry, the wolf hastened toward
the lads.

As it bounded into the road the glare from the lights of the
farmhouse momentarily blinded it and it stood blinking.

But only for an instant.  Instinctively realizing that it must
catch them before they reached the lights, the wolf uttered a
savage snarl and bounded forward.

Larry's words to his brother had roused the boy, and together they
were racing toward the welcome lights of their home.

But the wolf with its leaps covered three yards to their one, and
as the older of the boys looked over his shoulder he saw that the
beast was gaining on them.

Fifty yards ahead was the house and thirty yards behind them was
the wolf.

Well did the boys know they could not win the race.  But they did
not lose their heads.

"Father! Harry!" yelled Larry.  "Joe! The wolf! the wolf!  Get the
rifle!"

"The wolf! the wolf!" added Tom.  "Shoot the wolf!"

The yells, breaking the stillness of the night, startled Mrs. Alden
and the hired men, who were awaiting the coming of Mr. Alden and
the boys.

Unable to distinguish the words, the hired men rushed to the door
and threw it open.  Peering along the path of the light, they saw
the forms of the boys.

"Quick!  The rifle!  The wolf's after us!" shouted Tom.

Fortunately Mr. Alden always kept a loaded rifle on a rack on the
kitchen wall with which to shoot foxes that attempted to raid his
hen-roost.

Hastily the hired man named Joe sprang for the weapon, seized it
and dashed from the door, shouting:

"Where is it?  Where is it?"

Before the boys could answer, however, his keen eyes espied the
black form.

Joe had often amused himself shooting at a target with Larry and
Tom and was able to make four bull's-eyes out of five, but never
before had the opportunity to aim at a live mark come to him, and
as he raised the rifle his hands trembled.

"Shoot! shoot!" yelled Larry.  "No matter if you don't hit it,
shoot!"

Bang! went the gun, and as the report of the firearm died away the
wolf was seen to stagger and fall.  Soon the beast arose again, but
by that time the hired man was ready for another shot.  This
finished the beast, and with a yelp it rolled over and breathed its
last.



CHAPTER II

MR. ALDEN BRINGS NEWS

Exhausted by their run and the excitement of their escape, Larry
and Tom staggered into the house and dropped into chairs, their
mother and the hired men pressing about and plying them with
questions.  But it was several minutes before the boys recovered
their breath sufficiently to speak.

Tom was the first to get over his fright, and, as soon as he could
control his voice, gave a vivid account of their attempt to reach
home before their father, their hearing the uncanny sound from the
swamp, the sudden appearance of the wolf behind them and their
desperate race to get to the house before the beast should overtake
them.

"It's a good thing I practiced shooting last winter," exclaimed Joe
as the story ended.  He was proud of what he had accomplished.

"There's father," declared Mrs. Alden as a "whoa!" sounded from the
yard.

Quickly Larry picked up a lantern, and, followed by all but his
mother, went out to help unhitch the horses and take them into the
barn.

"What's been going on?" demanded the farmer as the others joined
him.  "I heard the rifle shot."

Eagerly they all started to tell.

"Don't all speak at once," interposed Mr. Alden.  "You're talking
so loud and so fast I can't understand a word.  Tom, suppose you
explain?"

Excitedly the youngest of the brothers poured forth the tale.

"A wolf in Bramley, eh?  Well, well!  It's a good thing you boys
were so near home.  This is sure a great day for happenings.  My
sons get chased into their own dooryard and I----"

But as though to arouse their curiosity, the farmer did not finish
his sentence.

"You what?" asked Larry.

"Never mind now.  Put the horses up.  You won't have to feed them;
they're too hot.  Give them a little hay and then come in to
supper."

Knowing it was useless to try to get their father to satisfy their
curiosity, for Mr. Alden, though a kindly man, was what his
neighbors called "set in his ways," Tom and Larry ran to the barn
to open the door, while the hired men followed with the horses.

After rubbing the animals down and giving them some hay, the four
returned to the house.

But not until the supper was finished did the farmer deign to
impart his news.  Then, tilting back in his chair, he looked at his
wife and asked:

"How would you like to take the boys to Scotland for the summer,
ma?"

"To Scotland?" repeated Mrs. Alden, as though scarcely believing
her ears.  "Theodore Alden, are you going crazy?  What are you
talking about?"

"About going to Scotland," answered the farmer, grinning.  "And I'm
not crazy."

At the mention of the trip, Larry and Tom looked at their parent
and then at each other in dismay, for they had planned a different
sort of way for spending the summer.  But their attention was
quickly drawn to their father again.

"I've got to go to Scotland and we might as well all go," he was
saying.  "The hired men can run the farm for the summer."

Lapsing into silence as he watched the effect of his words, Mr.
Alden enjoyed the looks of surprise and curiosity, then continued:

"When I got to Bramley this morning I found a letter from a man
named Henry Sargent, a Glasgow lawyer.  He said my uncle, Thomas
Darwent, had died, leaving me the only heir to his estates.  Just
how much money this means I don't know.  He said it might be ten
thousand pounds."

"Phew! that's fifty thousand dollars," interposed Larry, excitedly.

"Just so," returned his father.  "It may be more.  I can't make out
whether that's the amount of cash or if that's what it will come to
when the land and houses are sold."

"You can write and find out," suggested Mrs. Alden.

"I can write, but I doubt if I can find out," chuckled the farmer.
"Those lawyer chaps use such high-sounding words, you can't tell
what they mean.  If Uncle Darwent made me his heir, I'm going to
see I get all there Is to get.  No Scotchman is going to cheat
Theodore Alden out of what's his.  Soon's I'd made up my mind to
that, I drove over to Olmsted and made arrangements to sail from
New York on Saturday."

"Saturday?  Why that's only three days off!" protested Mrs. Alden.

"Well, it'll only take a night and part of a day to get to New
York.  That'll give you a day and a half to get ready, ma."

The thought of a trip to Scotland delighted Mrs. Alden, and she
immediately began to plan how she could get the boys, her husband
and herself ready in such a short space of time.

But Larry and Tom showed no signs of enthusiasm.

Noticing their silence, their father exclaimed:

"Don't you boys want to go?  I never knew you so quiet before when
a trip was mentioned."

"But the ball game with Husted is on Saturday," said Larry, giving
voice to the thought uppermost in his mind.  Then, as though he
realized that it was foolish to compare a trip to Scotland with a
game of baseball, he added: "Besides, Tom and I were planning--that
is, we were going to ask you if we couldn't go out to Tolopah and
spend the summer with Horace and Bill Wilder on their ranch."

With this announcement of a plan which the brothers had discussed
over and over, wondering how they could bring it about, the boys
anxiously watched their father's face.

"So that's how the wind blows, eh?" he commented.  "Well, ma, what
do you say?  Shall we take the boys with us or let them go to the
ranch?"

With her quiet mother's eye Mrs. Alden caught the appeal on her
sons' faces and after a short deliberation replied:

"I think they'd be better off with the Wilders--that is, if they'd
like to have the boys visit them."

"Hooray! hooray!" cried the boys together.

"We can telegraph and ask Mr. Wilder tonight," said Larry.  "Can we
go to Bramley and send the message, father?"

"You can telephone the message to the station and the operator will
send it."

And while the boys puzzled over the wording of the telegram, their
father re-read his letter from Scotland.

"I've got the telegram ready," Tom exclaimed presently.  "Listen."
And picking up the piece of paper on which he had been scribbling
he read:

  "BILL AND HORACE WILDER,
    "Tolopah, New Mexico:
  "We can leave Saturday to visit you.  Do you
  want us?  Answer quick.  Father and mother
  leave Friday for Scotland.  We'll have to go,
  if you don't want us.
    "LARRY AND TOM ALDEN."

"You might make it shorter," chuckled the farmer.

"And muddle it all up so they wouldn't understand it any better
than you do your lawyer's letter," returned Larry.

"That's a bull's-eye," grinned Joe, whose mind was running to
shooting terms.

And as neither their father nor mother interposed any objections,
the boys telephoned the message to the operator at Bramley, who
promised to send it at once.



CHAPTER III

WORD FROM THE WEST

Anxiously the two brothers waited for some news from the West and
in the meantime got ready for the trip to Scotland.

"Oh, I don't want to go to Scotland!" sighed Tom.  "I want to go to
the ranch."

"Well, we've got to take what comes," answered his brother.

The boys went down to town and said good-by to their school chums.
All were sorry they were going away and said they would be missed
from the baseball team.

Returning to the farm, their mother met them with a peculiar smile
on her face.

"Any news?" they asked eagerly.

"Yes, word came over the telephone a while ago."

"And what Is it, ma?"

"The Wilders say to come and----"

"Hooray!"

"And not to bring a trunk," finished the mother.  "The idea of two
boys going away all summer without a trunk!"

"Of course we won't need a trunk!" declared Tom.  "From the time we
reach the ranch till we start for home I don't intend to wear a
white shirt or collar."

"When we get out there we can buy some cowboy outfits," said Larry.
"Hooray for Tolopah!"

The receipt of the message, which had been telephoned by the agent
at Bramley while the boys were on their way back from the town, was
more of a relief than either Larry or Tom was willing to
acknowledge.  And they ate their food with greater relish in the
certainty that their dream of going to live on a ranch was to come
true.

Each was absorbed in his own thoughts when the voice of their
father roused them.

"Now that it's decided you are going West," he was saying, "I
reckon I'll go over to Olmsted and make sure about our steamer
tickets.  We won't have any too much time in New York.  You boys
can go with me if you like."

Glad of the opportunity, the boys finished their dinner quickly and
were soon whirling over the hard clay road behind their father's
span of spirited horses.

"I've decided to give each of you two hundred and fifty dollars,"
said Mr. Alden, as though expressing his thoughts out loud.

"Phew! Two hundred and fifty dollars! That's more money than I ever
had all at once," exclaimed Tom in delight.  "Think of having all
that to spend, Larry."

"But you mustn't spend it all," warned their father.  "I was going
to say when you interrupted, Tom, that out of this money you must
pay your railroad tickets, for your berths to sleep in, and for
your meals.  These things will amount to about seventy-five
dollars, I should think."

"But that will still leave us one hundred and seventy-five
dollars," declared Tom.

"True enough, but don't forget it will cost seventy-five dollars to
get back.  If I were you, when you get to the ranch, I would give
the money for your return tickets to Mr. Wilder.  He'll keep it for
you, so you'll be sure not to spend it.

"It's a thing you ought always to remember when you take a trip of
any distance--always save enough out of your money to carry you
back home"

The boys promised to do as their father suggested, and the farmer
continued:

"This will be your first experience with the world, and I don't
want you to forget the things your mother and I have taught you.

"It takes bad men as well as good to make up life, and somehow it
seems as though the bad men had the easiest time of it.  You'll
find gamblers and others who live by their wits in Tolopah.
They'll try to be pleasant to you because you are young, and when
they learn you are from the East they will try to get your money
away from you.

"You must also be careful to whom you speak on the train.  Under no
conditions mention anything about the money you have with you.  A
lot of people, when they have any substantial sum, either like to
show it In some way or to talk about it, and then, if they happen
to be robbed of it, they wonder.  Remember you can't recognize a
thief by his clothes, and lots of the slickest of them travel about
the country."

With this and other advice Mr.  Alden counseled his sons, and so
interested did they become in what he told them about the country
of which they were soon to have their first glimpse that they were
in Olmsted almost before they knew it.

Going first to the bank, Mr. Alden drew out the money for his sons,
obtained a letter of credit for himself and then arranged to
purchase his steamship tickets in Pittsburg, whither all four
travelers were going together.

When they reached home Mrs. Alden had finished her packing and all
was practically ready for the start on the morrow.

After supper the farmer and his wife drove to Bramley to say
good-by to their friends, but the two chums decided to stay at home.

Eager to be on their way, it seemed to Larry and Tom that the hours
never passed so slowly.  They tried to read, but in place of the
print on the pages pictures of cowboys and bucking bronchos danced
before their eyes, and they soon shut their books.

"Wish we'd gone with father and mother," exclaimed Tom.  "It's more
stupid here than saying good-by."

But scarcely were the words out of his mouth when the door opened
and in came an old friend named Silas Haskins, a former gold miner.

"I got to go to Husted to-morrow, so I came over to-night to say
'so long,'" he said in explanation of his call.

Cordially the boys made him welcome, and the time passed quickly
when they had led Silas round to talking about his adventures in
the far West.

When at last the gold miner rose to go he said:

"I brung some presents for you.  They'll be useful in the West."

And from his pockets Silas drew forth two fine big jackknives and
two long pieces of thong.

"They're both the same, so you won't need to quarrel about 'em," he
smiled as he handed their presents to each.

The boys were deeply touched by such evidence of friendship from
their aged friend and were profuse in their thanks when he again
put his hands in his pockets and produced two little bags made of
buckskin and attached to a stout strip of the same strong material.

"I don't know how you're intending to carry your money," he began,
"but----"

"Why in our pockets," interrupted Larry.

"That's just what I supposed," grunted the old gold miner.  "Now I
want you to put it in these two bags and hang 'em round your necks.
There can't no one get to 'em without waking you up nor take 'em
without giving you a chance to fight."

Readily the boys promised to wear the money bags, and with a hearty
handshake with each their aged friend went home.

The night passed quickly and the morning was busily spent in
getting the luggage to the station.

As the family waited for the train the dingy little station was
alive with people who had come to wish the Aldens pleasant
journeys.  And as the train left the Bramley depot the members of
the ball team gave three rousing cheers for Larry and Tom.

The parting with their parents at Pittsburg was hard for the boys,
but fortunately for them their train left first, and soon they were
engrossed in watching their fellow passengers.

These consisted of a German boy, who seemed about their own age;
two elderly gentlewomen, and two big men, who would have seemed
well dressed had they not worn so much jewelry.

With interest the two chums watched the German youth and several
times when they had turned to look at him they had found him gazing
at them.

It was only the memory of their father's advice to be careful as to
whom they spoke to on the train that prevented them from striking
up an acquaintance.  But when they found themselves at dinner
seated at the same table with the foreigner they broke their
reserve and told him their names.

In return the German said he was Hans Ober.

A speaking acquaintance thus established, Hans lost no time in
asking questions about the United States and particularly the West,
to which Larry and Tom replied as well as they were able.

Evidently glad of their company, the German sat with them after the
boys returned to their car from dinner.

Once or twice Hans had tried to learn where the chums were going
without asking directly, but they had given evasive answers, and at
last, as though believing confidence would beget confidence, he
announced that he was going to join his brother Chris, who had a
store in Tolopah.

As they heard their destination mentioned, Larry and Tom exchanged
surprised glances, which did not need their words to let Hans know
they were all three bound for the same place.

This coincidence removed whatever of reserve was left and the three
boys talked freely.

Hans said he had come from Berlin and that his father had given him
money to buy a share in his brother's business and told them of how
his fears that he might lose the money had made him sit up the
first two nights he was on the steamer.



CHAPTER IV

GUS MEGGET

The boys were at breakfast the next morning when Hans, happening to
look out the window, caught sight of the mighty river that almost
divides the United States in half.

"My eye! but that's a big river," he exclaimed.  "What do you call
it?"

"The Mississippi," returned the brothers.  They were too engrossed
by their first glimpse of the "Father of Waters" to correct the
German as he struggled to pronounce the name.

"Oh, look at the funny boats!" exclaimed Tom, pointing to the long
line of river steamers that were tied up at the levee.  "What are
those things on the back end?"

"They are the paddle wheels.  I know, because I've looked at
pictures like them in my geography," replied Larry.  "They have the
paddle wheels on the end because the water is so shallow in places."

It was Just after noon that the two chums and Hans were vouchsafed
a glimpse of real "dyed-in-the-wool" cowboys.

The train had stopped at a crossing, as stations are known in
Oklahoma, because of a hot-box on one of the wheels.

Learning that it would be all of a quarter of an hour before the
trouble could be repaired, the boys had left their car and were
filling their lungs with the bracing air.

It chanced that a gang of cowboys had ridden Into the town for a
celebration and, as it was unusual for a train to stop for any
length of time at the crossing, they rode up to find out the reason.

For a few minutes they contented themselves with putting their
ponies through all sorts of "stunts" to the great delight of the
people on the train.

At the sight of them, Larry, Tom and Hans walked toward the cowboys
and stared at them in wonder and admiration.

The cowboys had noticed the three lads, and, because they had been
drinking bad "fire-water," suddenly decided to amuse themselves
with them.

"Whatcher lookin' at?" roared one of the cow-punchers, a big fellow
with close-set eyes and a heavy jaw.

The boys made no response.

"Can't cher speak?  I'll teach you some manners then!" he bellowed.

In a thrice he whirled his pony and rode for the boys at full speed.

Ignorant of the roughness of cowboy fun, the three lads stood their
ground, never thinking the fellow would hurt them.

The cowboy was riding straight at Hans.  When the pony was within
two leaps of the German, boy Larry cried to him to jump to one side.

But Hans was too terrified to move, and the pony was almost upon
him.  In another moment he would be run down.

From the train rose shouts of warning and anger, changing in the
next moment to cheers.

Realizing that the German boy could not save himself, Larry threw
up his hands right in the face of the pony, causing the animal to
rear so suddenly that only its rider's expert horsemanship saved
him from being unseated.

At the same time Tom seized Hans and jerked him to one side just
before the broncho's forelegs struck the ground again, almost on
the very spot where the German boy had been standing.

Furious at the interference with his so-called fun, the cowboy
roared at Larry:

"I'll teach you to scare Gus Megget's pony, you calf tenderfoot!"

Black, indeed, did it look for the three lads.  The companions of
the bullying cowboy who had announced himself as Gus Megget were
riding up, yelling to him to make the "tenderfoot dance."

His race very white, but every line of his body breathing defiance,
Larry faced his tormentor.

With a calmness that fairly took the breath away from the bully the
elder of the brothers exclaimed in a voice loud enough to be heard
by the other cowboys and the men about the train:

"I didn't pick this quarrel with you, but if you will get off your
horse so that you have no advantage over me; I'll give you all the
fight you want!"

An instant Megget glowered with rage at the mere stripling of a boy
who had announced his willingness to fight him, then with a savage
growl started to swing from his saddle.

"I'll fix you, you whelp!" he roared.

He aimed a savage blow at Larry, who ducked.

"Hi! leave my brother alone!" cried Tom, coming to the spot.

As Tom spoke Larry stooped and picked up a handful of dust.  This
he hurled straight into the cowboy's face.

"Good!" shouted Tom and did likewise.

The dust caused the cowboy to sneeze, and some bystanders commenced
to laugh.

"He's got the best of you, Megget," observed another cowboy.

"I'll eat him!" yelled Megget and rushed at Larry with blood in his
eyes.

But before he reached the boy a voice rang out:

"Keep on your horse, Gus Megget!"

Though Larry did not dare take his eyes from the bully, Tom and the
cowboys looked to see who was taking a hand in the affair.  They
beheld a quiet-looking little man pointing a finger at the leader
of the ruffians.

"I can't arrest you for driving off Jim Larson's cattle because
we're in Oklahoma," continued the determined stranger.  "But if I
ever get my hand on you in Texas it'll go hard with you!  Now
vamoose before you try my patience too far!  Come on back, boys.
Gus Megget won't bother you any more."

"Prickly cactus! but it's 'Shorty,' the sheriff from Pawnee
County!" gasped one of the band or cow-punchers.  "Come on, Gus; we
must dig out of here!  Shorty may pass the word he's seen us."

Fear of the law caused the bully and his companions to wheel their
ponies.

At this move the three boys turned and ran back toward the train,
while the excited passengers hooted and yelled at the discomfited
cowboys.

The shouts of derision were more than Megget could stand.  He shook
his fist at the crowd in general and then at Tom and Larry in
particular, Then he whirled around and disappeared from view in a
cloud of dust.

Quickly the passengers all trooped to the cars and five minutes
later the train was again in motion.

All the passengers wanted to shake hands with Tom and Larry, and
for several minutes the boys were at the mercy of their
well-meaning admirers.  Again the sheriff came to their rescue.

"Go back to your own cars," he commanded.  "The boys want to be
left alone."

But the people gave no sign of heeding his words.

"Well, if you won't go at the asking, I'll make you go," he
continued, and seizing the person nearest him, the sheriff turned
him round and gave him a shove along the aisle of the car.

After three or four of the passengers had been pushed none too
gently away, the others began to leave of their own accord, and the
two brothers were able to make their escape.

"If it keeps on the way it has started, we're likely to have a
lively summer," remarked Larry when he was again back in his seat.

"I hope they don't come so quick for me," exclaimed Hans.  And his
tone was so plaintive that the others could not help but laugh.

"You'll either have to get some nerve or else stick mighty close to
your friends here," declared the sheriff, who had remained to talk
with the boys who had shown such pluck.

"Maybe I'll go back to Germany," sighed Hans.

"Oh, you'll get used to this part of the world after a while.
Where are you going?"

"Tolopah."

"Well, that ain't the most refined place in the world," chuckled
the man of the law, "but I don't believe you'll get as bad as what
you got."

Pondering over this none too reassuring remark, Hans lapsed into
silence, while Tom and Larry plied the sheriff with questions about
life on the ranches and the antics of the cowboys.

As evening came on the boys grew restive.  Their train was due at
Tolopah at nine the next morning, and despite the fact that it was
rushing along at the rate of forty miles an hour, it seemed to them
to be scarcely moving.  They had already passed two nights and two
days on the train and the thought of putting another night in the
berth, especially as it was very hot, seemed impossible, making
them fretful and cross.

"Who is he?" asked Larry of the conductor, after the sheriff had
left the train.

"What, you never heard of Sam Jenks, sheriff of Pawnee County?"

"We come from Ohio," said Tom, as though apologizing for their
ignorance.

"That accounts for it.  If you lived between the Mississippi and El
Paso you wouldn't ask such a question.

"Sam Jenks, known to every cowboy as 'Shorty,' is the nerviest man
I know.  There isn't a cattle thief or a bad man in this part of
the country that won't run when he sees him--if he has the chance.

"You saw how Gus Megget and his gang got scared.  It was just the
sight of Shorty that scared him.  He's got a record of sending more
cattle thieves and crooked gamblers to jail than any three other
sheriffs in the country.  There never was anything he's afraid of,
and he's just as tender-hearted as a kitten.  Why, I know one time,
after he'd sent a train robber to prison, he took the money out of
his own pocket to support the rascal's wife and baby till he could
get her folks to take her home.  You sure made a friend that's
worth having."

On Hans' account, Larry and Tom kept up a lively chatter during the
evening, and it was not until the brothers were in their berths
that they broached the subject of what to do should the sheriff's
suspicions prove true.

Hans' unfitness for holding his own among the rough men of the
plains made them sorry for him, and they discussed various plans,
without arriving at any conclusion, till well into the night.

"What's the use of worrying?" said Tom finally.  "Chris will
probably show up all right.  Let's wait and see."  And with this
understanding the boys dropped the matter.

Despite the fact that the day was to see the end of their journey,
the boys slept late.

"You ge'mmen better hurry if you all wants yo' breakfas' befoh yo'
gits to Tolopah," interrupted the porter.  "We'll be thar in half
an hour."

It was not a hearty meal the brothers and Hans ate, and soon they
were back in their seats, looking to see that they had forgotten
nothing before they closed their suit-cases.

Bringing two big valises of the extending kind the German sat with
Larry and Tom.  But their high spirits found no response in him,
and as they neared their destination he could with difficulty keep
back the tears, so worried was he.

"Here we are!" exclaimed Larry as he caught sight of some houses
and barns.

And his words were verified by the porter, who came through the car
calling:

"All out for Tolopah!"

Picking up their luggage, the boys hastened to the car steps.

"Hello, Bill!  Hello, Horace!" cried the brothers eagerly as they
caught sight of their friends on the station platform.

At the greetings the Wilder boys hurried toward the car.

In the pleasure of the meeting Tom and Larry forgot Hans.

"Come on," commanded Horace, seizing Tom's suit-case.  "We won't
dally here in Tolopah.  We must get to the ranch before it gets too
hot."  And he led the way to where four bronchos stood tied to a
railing.

Quickly the Wilders made fast the suit-cases to their saddles and
untied the ponies.

"This is Blackhawk, Tom, and this is Lightning, Larry," said Horace
as he handed the reins to the two boys.  "They're a couple of the
best ponies in New Mexico, and while you're here they'll be yours.
You can get acquainted with them on the ride to the ranch."

Both animals were splendid creatures, well built and powerful.
Blackhawk, as the name suggests, was jet black, his coat glistening
in the sun, and Lightning was a roan.

Already Bill and Horace were on their ponies, and the two brothers
were just swinging into their saddles when a voice cried:

"Tom!  Larry!"

Turning their heads, the boys beheld Hans, the tears streaming down
his cheeks, rushing toward them as fast as his valises would let
him.

No need was there to ask if he had found a trace of his brother.
The tears told all too plainly that he had not.

"Who in the world is that?" asked Horace in astonishment.

"A German boy who traveled with us," explained Tom.  "Do you know
any one in Tolopah by the name of Chris Ober?"

"Struck out for old Mexico, prospecting for gold, three months
ago," replied Bill.  "Why?"

"That's his brother Hans, who has come from Berlin to visit him,"
returned Tom.  And hurriedly he gave an outline of the German lad's
story.

"Phew!  Chicken-hearted, is he?" commented Horace.  "It won't do to
leave him in Tolopah.  Luckily one of our men is in town with our
grub wagon.  He can ride out to the ranch with him."

When Tom imparted this information to Hans, the poor fellow was
delighted and asked where he could find the outfit.

"I'll show him.  You all ride on," said Horace.  But the others
refused, declaring they would all go together.

As the cavalcade started with Hans and his valises trying to keep
up with them, many were the jests and laughs cast after them.

But the boys paid them no heed, and in a few minutes the German
youth was safe in the provision wagon.

Putting their horses into a brisk canter, the four lads set out for
the ranch.

Many were the questions the Wilders asked about their friends back
in Ohio, and so busy were Tom and Larry in answering, and in
relating all the events of consequence that had transpired since
the family had left Bramley two years before, that the twenty miles
which lay between Tolopah and the ranch seemed scarcely one.



CHAPTER V

THE HALF-MOON RANCH

As the boys drew rein in front of the broad, vine-covered piazza of
the ranch house they were greeted by Mr. and Mrs. Wilder,

"Well, it does seem good to see some one from home," exclaimed the
latter as she shook the hands of Tom and Larry.

"It sure does," asserted her husband.  "Wish you'd brought your
father and mother with you.  What in the world started them off to
Scotland?"

Quickly the brothers explained.

"Well, well!  So Uncle Darwent really had some money," commented
Mrs. Wilder.  "I'm real glad, though of course it isn't as though
your father needed any more.  I should have thought you boys would
have wanted to go with them."

"Not when we could spend the summer on your ranch," returned Larry.
"But we began to be afraid we would be obliged to go, and we should
have if the telegram had been any later.  No time ever seemed so
long as when we were waiting for your answer."

"It was just luck we got your message," declared Horace.
"Sometimes we don't go to town for a week.  But something seemed to
urge me to ride in the other morning, and when I arrived Con Brown
hollered to me he had a telegram.  When I read it, I didn't lose
any time answering, and I made Con promise to rush it."

"Con's our telegraph operator," explained Bill.  "Come on in and
change your duds and then we'll look the ranch over."

Nothing loath to remove their clothes, which still smelled of
engine smoke, despite their ride over the plains, as the brothers
seized their suitcases and followed their young hosts, Larry
exclaimed laughingly:

"You see we took your advice not to bring a trunk."

"Glad of it," asserted Horace joyously.  "There's no need to dress
out here.  It's just great!  You don't have to put on a collar from
one week's end to another.  But if you had brought a lot of
clothes, mother would have made us dress too.  That's why I
mentioned the matter in my telegram."

This explanation was given in a low tone that Mrs. Wilder might not
know her son had taken such effective measures to prevent his being
obliged to "dress up," and the boys laughed heartily at the
harmless joke.

The home of the Wilders was only one story high, but the rooms were
big and comfortable.  Around three sides ran the piazza, from which
French windows, extending from the floor to the ceiling, opened,
admitting any breeze that might be stirring.

The room assigned to the boys was on the west side of the house,
and through the vines they could look across the plains to some
mountains that towered in the distance.

"Our room is the next one to yours," said Bill.  "We'll wait there
till you are dressed.  If you want anything, sing out."

Hastily Tom and Larry took off the clothes in which they had
traveled, and bathed, glad of the opportunity to remove the cinders
which had caused them no little discomfort.

"Bill and Horace seem just the same as when they lived in Bramley,"
observed Tom when they were alone.  "Horace hasn't grown a bit."

"They are tanned up till they look like Indians, that's the only
change I can see," returned his brother.  "Horace always will be
short, but Bill's tall enough for two."

"You can't wear those caps," declared Bill as Tom and Larry
appeared with the light baseball caps they had brought with them.

"But that's all we have," protested Larry, "except, of course, our
straw hats.  You don't expect us to knock round in those, do you?"

"Sure not.  But if you wore those caps you'd get sunstruck out on
the plains.  We've got some sombreros you can take."

As the boys trooped out onto the piazza Tom espied a five-bar fence
about a hundred yards from the house.

"That's the horse corral," explained Horace, noting the direction
of his friend's gaze.  "We don't keep our ponies in barns out here.
The horses are all out on the range now, except eight we keep at
home for ourselves."

Passing from the cool veranda, the boys walked toward a long
building some thirty yards away.

"This is the bunk-house, where the cowboys stay when they're home,"
announced Bill.  "There are ten of them, the best boys in this part
of the country, but they are a lively lot.  It's a good thing they
are with the cattle.  You'll have a chance to get used to ranching
before they come in or they might amuse themselves at your expense.
Politeness isn't a cowboy's long suit."

"So I gathered," said Larry as he thought of his experience at the
crossing in Oklahoma.  But his mind was quickly diverted by his
brother.

"What's that half-moon over the door mean?" asked the younger of
the Alden boys as he caught sight of a gilded crescent that
sparkled in the sunlight.

"Oh, tenderfoot! oh, tenderfoot!  It is indeed fortunate the boys
are away," exclaimed Bill in mock solemnity.

"That is the brand of this ranch.  Every horse, every steer, cow
and calf we own bears a half-moon because this is the Half-Moon
Ranch.  When any of our ponies or cattle go astray or mix with
others, the only way we can tell which belong to us is by the
brand."

"How do you put it on?" asked Tom.

"Burn it into the flesh with hot irons.  If you can stay till fall,
when we have a round-up, you can see how it's done," said Horace.

Feeling that they were indeed ignorant of ranch life, the two
brothers decided to use their eyes and ask no more questions than
were necessary.

Entering the bunk-house, they saw a long table covered with white
oilcloth and a line of bunks built in two tiers against the wall
opposite the door.  A big stove stood at one end, and there were
pegs for saddles, bridles and lassoes all about.

From the bunk-house the boys went to the wagon sheds, which
contained three or four farm wagons and also a buckboard.

"That's for mother," explained Bill.  "She doesn't like to ride,
but she can though if it's necessary.

"Here's where your saddles are," he continued, pointing to a beam
into which pegs had been driven.  "You want to remember them,
especially when the boys are home.  They don't like to have any one
else take their saddles."

"We'll remember," declared Tom and Larry meaningly.

"I suppose we'll find our ponies in the corral?" hazarded Tom.

"Sure thing.  And here's something else to keep in mind.  Father
always insists that each man put his pony in the corral himself.
Of course this morning he did it for us, but he won't again."

"How do you get the horses when  you want them?  Call 'em?" asked
Tom.

"Sometimes that will work--after a pony has come to know its
master--but the quickest way is to take some oats in a pan,"
declared Horace.  "We keep the oats here," and he opened a bin at
one side of the wagon shed.

"You can use oats on Blackhawk and Lightning and our own ponies,
but when we want a strange horse we rope him.  That makes me think,
I've saved a couple of dandy lariats for you.  Cross-eyed Pete, one
of our boys, made them for me out of rawhide.  They are in my room.
Come on, we'll get them and then show you how to use them."

"Is it hard to learn?" inquired Larry.

"Yes, to throw one every time," replied Bill.  "Horace and I have
been practicing ever since we came out.  We can do pretty well.
But you ought to see Cross-eyed Pete!  He's the best of all the
boys.  He's so good, he can drop a noose over a rattlesnake, and
that's going some."

Before the lads could get the lassoes, however, Mrs. Wilder called
them to get ready for dinner.

As the two visitors took their seats at the table a Chinaman, clad
in white, glided noiselessly into the room and took his place
behind Mr. Wilder's chair, ready to serve.

"Hop Joy, this is Mr. Larry and this is Mr. Tom," said Mrs. Wilder.
"Whatever they ask you to do, you must do it."

The celestial, who was cook, washman and general factotum on the
Half-Moon Ranch, bowed gravely to each of the boys.

"That sounds very fine," laughed Mr. Wilder, "but you must be
careful what you ask Hop Joy to do.  If you disturb him when he's
cooking he's apt to throw a pail of water at you."

"Hop's all right, father," declared Horace loyally.  "He only
throws water when the boys try to steal his doughnuts.  Um--m, but
Hop can make doughnuts!  You two just wait till you're riding all
day and then see if they don't taste good."

"So that explains the reason you keep on the right side of Hop Joy,
eh?" answered Mr. Wilder, smiling.  "I've often wondered why you
were so willing to help him when the boys are home."

After the laughter this sally evoked had subsided Mrs. Wilder asked
the boys about their journey.

In amazement the Wilders listened as the experiences were related,
and when Larry finished the account of his mix-up with the
cow-punchers Bill exclaimed:

"And here Horace and I have been making fun of you for tenderfeet.
The joke seems to be on us."

"That's what it is," asserted their father.  "There are not many
men, let alone lads, who can say they have faced Gus Megget and got
the best of him."

It was the chums' turn to be surprised as they heard this statement.

"Then you know him?" queried Tom.

"I know of him," corrected the ranchman, and the boys noted that
the kindly expression of his face disappeared as he spoke.  "Gus
Megget is a very bad man.  He hasn't done an honest day's work for
five years.  People say he is a train robber, and I've always
believed he was a cattle thief, too.  From what you tell me, that's
Shorty Jenks' opinion.  If the truth were known, I think Megget
would prove to be the head of a gang of cattle thieves."

And how true were Mr. Wilder's suspicions, they were all destined
to learn.

The recital of their adventuresome journey recalled to the boys
that they had entirely forgotten to tell about Hans' coming.

Each of the four apparently thought of the timid German boy at the
same time and looked at one another uneasily.

And their anxiety was not lessened when Mrs. Wilder asked:

"What became of Hans?  Did you call him?  Did his brother meet him?"

"No, he didn't," said Larry.  Then, determined to get the matter
settled at once, he continued: "Mr. Wilder, I'm afraid I have
imposed on your kindness, but I asked Bill and Horace to let the
German boy come to your ranch until we could decide what he should
do.  He's so--so scared, I did not like to leave him alone in
Tolopah."

"I asked to have him come, too," declared Tom, as though unwilling
his brother should bear all the blame, if blame there was to be.

"That was right, quite right," said Mr. Wilder, after a quick
glance at his wife.  "Tolopah wouldn't agree with him very well.
We've plenty of room and perhaps he will get over his fear.  I can
use another hand very well, if he wants work."

It was a great relief to all the boys to have the matter settled so
pleasantly, and they resumed their laughter and chatter.

When dinner was finished they all went out onto the piazza, where
Tom and Larry were initiated into the mysteries of throwing a
lasso.  Then the visitors were taken around and shown many sights
new to them.



CHAPTER VI

IN THE SADDLE

"How far away are those mountains?" asked Tom, gazing in their
direction as they walked to the corral the next day.

"About forty miles," replied Bill.  "They are called the 'Lost
Lode' hills, because there is said to be a rich silver mine in them
somewhere that the Spaniards worked hundreds of years ago.  Just
where it is, though, no one has ever been able to discover."

"Wouldn't it be great if we could find it?" exclaimed Larry
eagerly.  "Do you suppose your father would let us go and try?
Have you ever been over to the hills?"

"Lots of times on hunting trips.  But we never explored them very
much.  The trouble is no one knows whether the mine is on this side
or the other."

"But haven't they searched for it?" queried Tom, to whose mind a
silver mine suggested unlimited wealth.

"Lots of men have tried, but no one who has gone to find it has
ever been seen again," returned Bill.  "They say the mine is
haunted by the ghosts of the old Spaniards who discovered it and
that they kill any one who goes near it."

At the suggestion of phantom Spaniards guarding the mine and
despatching those who found it the brothers laughed.

"You surely don't believe in ghosts?" inquired Tom, a tone of scorn
in his voice.  "Who started the story about the ghosts, anyhow?"

"I don't know," responded the elder of the Wilder boys, rather
disappointed that the legend did not make more of an impression on
his friends.  "We heard it when we came here.  The cowboys all
believe it, and nothing would make them pass a night in those hills
if they could help it."

But ghosts were something in which the two brothers had been taught
not to believe, and Tom exclaimed:

"Huh!  I'll bet some one has found the mine and started these
stories to keep other people from going there.  Maybe there are
three or four mines," he added as his lively imagination began to
work.

"It's all right for you to laugh; you haven't been in the hills,"
snapped Horace.  "If you'd heard Cross-eyed Pete tell about the
night he was camping there and was scared away by hearing men
shooting you might think differently."

"Just the same, I'd be willing to go and hunt for it," persisted
Tom.

"And so would I," chimed in his brother.  "I say," he continued,
"why can't we go on a hunting trip?  We needn't say anything about
trying to find the mine.  Then, if we didn't, no one could laugh at
us and say we got scared."

The refusal of the boys from Ohio to believe in the haunted mine
had at first nettled Bill and Horace, but they had always been keen
to hear or see phantoms, and at Larry's proposal of the hunting
trip they became enthusiastic.

"It will be great sport, if father will let us," assented Horace.
"Come on, we'll ask him."

And abandoning their intention of roping ponies, they turned back
to the house in search of Mr. Wilder.

Finding him on the piazza, they lost no time in laying their plan
for a hunting trip before him.

As he beheld the eager faces and noted the lithe, supple bodies of
the boys, in whose eyes shone the light of fearlessness, the
ranchman replied:

"I have no objection, if you don't go beyond the foothills.  Bill,
you remember the trails I showed you last spring, don't you?"

"Yes, sir."

"All right, keep to them.  You boys certainly ought to be able to
take care of yourselves.  Go and tell Hop Joy to put up some grub
for you.  You had better camp on the plains to-night, so you won't
be able to shoot your food."

Delighted at the thought of going on a hunting trip, the boys
hurried away to the Chinaman.

"Golly!  You boyee go shootee?" exclaimed the celestial when he had
received the orders to pack their food.  "No flaid ghostee?"

"Of course not," replied Horace.  "There's no such thing as ghosts,
Hop Joy."

"Mebbe so, mebbe not; no be too sure," grunted the Chinaman.
"Plete, him say they be."

But the boys did not linger to argue the matter, and only waiting
to see that Hop Joy put in a quantity of doughnuts, went to get
their rifles and shells ready.

To their surprise, when they returned to the piazza, they found the
ranchman busily overhauling his guns.

"I reckon I'll go with you," he explained.  "I haven't been hunting
for some time, and as everything is quiet I can get away for three
or four days as well as not."

"Oh, good! Hooray!" exclaimed the boys.

And Horace added: "Now we won't have to worry about getting lost."

Not long did it take the lads to clean their rifles and fill their
cartridge belt with shells.

"Have you two got any knives?" inquired Mr. Wilder, looking at Tom
and Larry.

"Sure," replied Larry, and he told of the old gold miner's presents
and his advice about always carrying the pieces of thong with them.

"Silas is no fool," smiled the ranchman.  "If you remember all he
told you, you won't get into trouble.  Still, I think it would be
just as well for you to let me put your money in my safe.  Then you
surely can't lose it."

"That's what father told us to do," said Larry as he and Tom
removed their buckskin money bags and gave them to the ranchman.
"We forgot it, though."

"Speaking about forgetting, what about the German boy?" asked Mrs.
Wilder, who had come to learn the cause of the preparations.

At the mention of Hans the four lads looked at one another in
dismay.  But the ranchman came to the rescue, saying:

"From all Larry and Tom say, I don't reckon he'll be keen on
hunting.  You can let him help Ned."

"Ned's our handy man," explained Horace in a whisper.  "He drives
the grub wagon to Tolopah, and to the boys in their camps."

"Well, here comes the wagon now," observed Mrs. Wilder as she
caught sight of the big white-covered wagon, called a prairie
schooner in the old days, bobbing over the plains about a mile away.

"Oh, don't let's wait," protested Horace.  "We can saddle up and go
and meet them.  I'll make my pony dance and perhaps that will scare
Hans so he won't care to go."

"All right," laughed Mr.  Wilder.  "Bring up the ponies.  Get
Buster for me."

Running to the wagon shed, the boys gathered the saddles, bridles,
some oats and pans and started for the corral.

Opening the big gate, they entered, closed it and then threw their
saddles on the ground.

"Always close the gate before you start to get your ponies,"
instructed Bill.   "Sometimes they cut up, and if they get out onto
the prairie it's the old Harry of a job to catch them again.

"Now put your oats in your pans.  Watch Horace and me and you'll
see what to do."

When they had prepared the oat bait, the two Wilder boys began to
beat on the pans, calling Buster and the other ponies by name.

The animals, which were at the farther end of the corral browsing,
lifted their heads and then came trotting toward them, halting
about ten feet away.

"Swish your pans so they can hear the oats," whispered Bill.

Slowly the ponies approached, as though deciding whether they
preferred their oats or their liberty.

"Come, Blackhawk!  Come, Buster!" called Horace.

The boys set the pans on the ground.  For a moment the ponies eyed
them and then trotted up, the eight crowding one another to get at
the four measures.

"Now's the time," breathed Bill.

In a trice the bits were thrust into the ponies' mouths and the
leather over their ears.

Lightning plunged back, but Larry grabbed the reins just in time
and held him.

"Push the pan to him," directed Horace, and, as he smelled the
oats, the pony grew still and was soon munching contentedly.

After catching his own mount, Bill had bridled Buster, and as soon
as the oats were devoured, all five were saddled with little
trouble and the boys were quickly on the backs of four of them,
Bill leading the pony for his father.

It required but a few minutes to make fast the saddle bags Hop Joy
had filled with food, tin plates, cups, knives and forks, coffee
pot, sugar and coffee and to tie on their sleeping blankets.

Then they buckled on their cartridge belts, slung their rifles
across their shoulders and again mounted.

By the time they were ready, however, the grub wagon was coming
into the yard.

"Where's Hans?" gasped Larry, the first one to discover that there
was only one occupant.

With a broad grin suffusing his face, the driver cried:

"Whoa!"

As the horses stopped Mr. Wilder, fearing that the boy had been
made the butt of some mad prank, said severely:

"If anything happened to that lad, I shall hold you responsible,
Ned.  Where is he?"

"Gone with his brother Chris."

"His brother!" cried Tom.  "Did his brother come back?"

"He did--yesterday.  Hans found him, and such a meeting nobody ever
see before.  The brother is going to another town and Hans with
him.  They started to-day."

The knowledge that Hans had found his brother was a great relief to
Tom and Larry, and they lost no time in saying so.

"If you feel that way, then it surely is all right," declared the
ranchman.  "We're going into the hills for a few days hunting, Ned.
If you need me, you'll find me somewhere on the 'Lost Lode' trail."

"With them tenderfeet?" inquired the handy man, eyeing Tom and
Larry doubtfully.

"Don't take them for easy, Ned.  They put the laugh on Gus Megget,
so I reckon they can take care of themselves in the hills and on
the Half-Moon, too," he added with an emphasis which was to act as
a warning to be passed along to the cowboys.

"So it's them two I heard 'em talkin' about in Tolopah?  Howdy,
gents!  I sure takes off my bonnet to you," and Ned swept his
sombrero good naturedly from his head.  "Say, you two are the only
topic of conversation in Tolopah about now.  Couple of passengers
told what you all done, and now everybody's telling everybody else.
So it was you kids put the kibosh on Gus Megget.  Phew!  I hope I
don't get you riled up."  And clucking to his horses, Ned drove on
to the wagon shed.

"When you go into Tolopah, you'll own the town," smiled Mr. Wilder,
looking at the brothers.  "You see, you are famous already."

But Larry and Tom only laughed, while the latter exclaimed:

"I'd rather find the Lost Lode than fight Megget."

"So my boys have told you about the mine and the ghosts, eh?"  And
shaking his bridle, the ranchman waved good-by to his wife and
cantered away, followed by the others.

For a few minutes they rode without talking, the Wilder boys a
trifle envious of the reputation their friends had achieved and the
chums trying to get accustomed to riding with a rifle bumping their
backs.

They soon got the swing of it, however, and, as the ponies settled
into an easy, steady lope, Tom exclaimed:

"Larry, we're in the saddle and on the plains at last."

"Like it, what?" queried Horace.

"It's what we've been dreaming of for months," declared Larry.
"Only, I say, Mr. Wilder, let's drop Megget.  All we did was to get
away from him."

"As you like," smiled the ranchman, "but that's something."



CHAPTER VII

A RACE IN THE MOONLIGHT

Now through waving grass up to their knees, now through stretches
of sage brush the hunters rode.  Three or four times they caught
sight of cattle in the distance, which Horace eagerly declared
belonged to the Half-Moon, explaining that the biggest herds were
in Long Creek bottoms, about fifty miles southwest, where the
cattle could find water as well as good grazing ground.

"Fifty miles, gracious!  Do you own so much land?" asked Larry of
Mr. Wilder.

"No.  We have a thousand acres, more or less.  But my neighbors and
I have leased the rights to graze in Lone Creek."

"Neighbors?" repeated the elder of the brothers in surprise.  "Why
I can't see any house but yours.  In fact, I haven't seen any since
we left Tolopah."

"And there isn't any within thirty miles.  There are two on the
south and more north, even farther away.  But we call them
neighbors just the same.  Anybody within a day's ride is a
neighbor," explained the ranchman.  And as he noted the look of
amusement that appeared on the faces of the brothers, he added:
"You won't think so much of distances after you've been out here a
while."

At the end of two hours, as they mounted the crest of a great roll
in the prairies, the dried-up course of a stream was disclosed.

"If you follow that, it will lead you to Lone Creek," explained
Horace.  "Down about ten miles there's a place called the Witches'
Pool, where we go fishing.  It's so deep it never dries.  We'll go
there some day."

"More ghosts?" inquired Larry as he repeated the name of the pool.

"No, no ghosts," laughed Mr.  Wilder, "just the _ignis fatuus_, or
will-o'-the-wisps.  All cowboys are very superstitious, you must
remember.  The land round the pool is swampy and at night you can
sometimes see the lights dancing about.  I suppose some one saw
them, and, finding no person there, immediately decided the pool
was a gathering place for witches."

"Pete says it's the bodies of the men who have died of thirst on
the plains searching for water," declared Horace in an awed tone.

"That's an ingenious explanation, but it is not the truth, my boy.
The lights are caused by certain gases that come from the marshy
ground and glow when the atmosphere is in a certain condition.
Over in Scotland, on the peat bogs, they call them 'friars'
lanterns.'"

"My, but I'd like to see one," sighed Tom.

"Then I'm afraid you'll be obliged to camp by the pool.  You might
go there a hundred nights and never see a sign of one," returned
the ranchman.  And then, as the shadows cast by the mountains were
reaching farther and farther out onto the prairie, he thought it
best to turn the minds of the boys into other channels.

"Shall we camp in the open or would you rather push on to the
foothills?" he asked.  "It'll be dark by the time we get there."

"I vote to keep going," answered Larry.

"How far is it?" inquired Tom, who was beginning to feel the
effects of the many miles in the saddle.

"About fifteen, which means two hours at least, because the darker
it gets the slower we'll be obliged to go till you two get more
used to riding the plains," responded Bill.

"If we keep on, and I feel stiff in the morning, we'll be there and
I shall not be compelled to cover the fifteen miles," mused the
younger of the brothers as much to himself as to the others.  "I'm
for pushing on, too."

Laughing at their guest's discomfort, the others readily
acquiesced, and they crossed the stream bottom.

Save the noise made by themselves, the twitter of birds, and the
occasional cry of some prairie dog routed out by their approach,
the silence of the plains was intense.  At first Tom and Larry did
not notice it, but as they rode mile after mile they began to feel
its depression.

"It often drives men crazy," asserted the ranchman when Larry
mentioned his feeling.  "That's why we never send a man out alone
to herd.  Having some one to talk to it a big relief, I can tell
you, after you've been a week or so on the prairies with nothing
but a bunch of stolid cattle.  The very monotony of their grazing
and chewing their cuds gets on your nerves."

As darkness came on, however, the awful silence was broken.  From
all sides came the barking of coyotes, as though they were
signaling one another their whereabouts.

"That howling would scare me a great deal quicker than any ghosts
or witches," observed Tom.  "My, but it's mournful! Do they keep
that up all night?"

"Indeed they do," replied Horace, delighted to think one thing had
been discovered which the two visitors feared, "only it gets worse
the darker it grows.  Besides, when they are hungry, they'll follow
you and attack you."

"That wouldn't be so bad so long as you had a gun with you,"
interposed Larry.  "I'd like to get a shot at one."

"Then there's your chance, over on the left," exclaimed Mr. Wilder.

Unslinging his rifle, the elder of the Alden boys looked eagerly in
the direction indicated.  But it was so dark he could see nothing
and he said so.

"Can't you see those two little balls of fire right opposite you?
If you can't, say so.  I'll stop him myself," returned the ranchman.

Yet even as he spoke the coyote turned and fled.

"It's just as well," added Mr.  Wilder after he had announced the
fact.  "You'll have a chance to shoot at something better than a
measely prairie wolf to-morrow, I hope."

"Or perhaps to-night," chimed in Horace.  "Maybe a ghost'll attack
our camp."

"That will do, youngster.  If you talk any more about ghosts, I'll
make you ride back to the ranch in the dark.  If you keep on,
you'll work yourself up so you'll think every sound you hear is a
Spaniard from the mine, and there will be no sleep for any of us."

This command had the desired effect, and Horace gave up the attempt
of trying to frighten his friends.

For a time the darkness grew more and more intense till it was all
the riders could do to make out the forms of one another.  But at
last the clouds passed over, revealing the stars, and soon the moon
rose, full and brilliant, changing the swaying grass into a seeming
sea of silver with its light.

In wonder the brothers gazed at the transformation and Larry said:

"I wish the plains could be like this always.  They don't seem half
so terrible."

But the boys soon had other things to think about.  They were so
close to the mountains that they could see the great cliffs
glistening in the moonlight above the trees from which they rose,
sheer.

"I don't wonder they say these mountains are haunted," exclaimed
Tom.  "I can almost believe I see men moving along the top of that
middle cliff."

"Better curb your imagination then," chided Mr. Wilder.  "It's a
good thing we've got to pitch camp pretty soon or you'd all get the
nerves."

At Tom's words the other boys had sought the middle cliff with
their eyes and suddenly Bill exclaimed:

"Tom's right, father!  There are men moving along the top of the
precipice!"

Mr. Wilder had been intent on searching the base of the mountains
for a place to camp for the night.  But at his elder son's
statement he looked up quickly, drawing rein that he might be sure
the motion of his horse played no trick on his eyes.

Breathlessly the others waited his decision.

The cliff at which they all were staring so intently was about half
way up the mountain and above it rose another wall of rock.  And it
was against the base of this latter that the objects which
attracted Tom's attention were silhouetted.

"By jove! They are men," exclaimed Mr. Wilder excitedly.  "I never
knew there was a trail along the base of that cliff before."

The boys were tremendously stirred up as they heard this
confirmation.

"Perhaps they are the men going to guard the Lost Lode for the
night," Horace whispered.  "They wouldn't need a trail to walk on,
father."

"Steady, boy, steady," returned the ranchman.  "Those men are flesh
and blood, don't worry about that.  Who they are I don't know.
Probably some hunters like ourselves."

"That couldn't be the way to the mine, could it?" hazarded Larry,
whose eagerness to discover a silver mine had received new impetus.
"Can't we go there to-morrow and find out?"

"We'll see when to-morrow comes," declared Mr. Wilder.  "But
there's no occasion to get excited.  The mountains are full of men
hunting and prospecting all the time.  Come on, we'll camp under
that big tree up there to the right.  Whoever gets there first will
be boss of the camp."

The challenge for a race, with the honor of being in command of the
hunt as the prize, served to take the boys' thoughts from the
mysterious men on the trail as nothing else could, and quickly they
leaped their ponies forward.

The spot selected by the ranchman for their night's bivouac was
about a quarter of a mile away and in the opposite direction from
the cliffs.

Yelling like young Indians, the boys urged their jaded ponies to
greater efforts.

Tom and Horace, being lighter than the others, had not tried their
mounts so much, and rapidly they drew ahead.

"We simply must beat them," called Bill to Larry.  "If they get in
first, they'll make us haul all the water and wash dishes--at least
Horace will, if he wins."

Leaning over their ponies' necks and rising in the saddles to
lighten their weight as much as possible, the two elder boys set
out to overtake their brothers.

With spur and lariat end they belabored their mounts and gamely the
horses responded.

Leap by leap they cut down the lead, were soon abreast of the
others and then forged ahead, shouting in triumph as they opened
clear ground between them.

Only about a hundred yards were the leaders from the tree.

Feeling his pony tiring under him, despite his urging, Horace
gasped at Tom:

"Hit Blackhawk with the end of your lasso and then hang on for dear
life!"

Instantly Tom obeyed.

As the big black felt the blow he uttered a snort of rage, jerked
forward his head and seemed to fly over the ground.

Like a flash he caught Bill and Larry.  Frantically they strove to
keep up with him, but in a few bounds he had passed them.

"Tom wins!" yelled Horace with glee.

But his delight at the success of his ruse was shortlived.

Blackhawk was not accustomed to being beaten and, though ordinarily
he had a good temper, when he was angry he could be very mean.
Accordingly, as though reasoning to himself that he had done his
share in carrying his rider so many miles, when he felt the sharp
cut of the lariat he resented it.  And his resentment took the form
of a vicious lunge forward of his head, which enabled him to get
the bits in his teeth, with which advantage no one could control
him.

Despite his greater weight, the ranchman had been close up with the
boys and had noted Blackhawk's action.

Realizing that it would be hopeless to try to overtake the runaway,
and fearing that some injury might befall Tom, Mr. Wilder shouted:

"Rope the black, Bill! He's got the bit!"

Loosening his lariat as quickly as possible, the elder of the
Wilder boys began to whirl it round his head.

"Throw it! throw it!" roared the ranchman, "Can't you see you're
losing ground every second?"

Never before had Bill been called on for so important a cast of his
lasso, and for a moment his hand trembled.

"Steady! Let her go now!" counseled his father.

At the word Bill put forth all his strength and the rope shot from
his hand, the noose opening perfectly as it sped through the air.

Fascinated, the others watched as it hung a moment in the air and
dropped directly over Blackhawk's head.

"Pretty cast!" praised the ranchman.  "Now ride along.  Don't pull
up too soon."

But his words were too late.

The pony which his elder son rode was perfectly trained to rope
steers.  As it caught the sharp hiss of the lariat the animal had
slackened its stride, and the instant it felt the rope tighten had
stiffened its legs and braced, almost squatting back on its
haunches.

And the next moment Blackhawk was jerked from his feet, measuring
his length on the ground, while Tom went sailing through the air,
alighting about twenty feet away.

"Hold as you are!" ordered Mr. Wilder of Bill and then dashed for
the kicking black, with Larry and Horace at his heels.

"Tom! Tom! are you hurt?" called his brother.

For a second there was no reply, and then their anxiety was
relieved by seeing Tom stand up.

"Any bones broken?" asked Mr. Wilder, who had reached the black and
was dismounting.

"No.  I'm all right, thanks to the prairie grass," replied the
younger of the brothers.  "Is Blackhawk hurt?"

"I don't think so.  Ease up, Bill.  I've got him by the bridle."

Quickly the elder of the Wilder boys rode forward, and as the
prostrate pony felt the rope loosen he bounded to his feet.

With skilled eye the ranchman looked him over and there was a world
of relief in his voice as he said:

"We got out of that scrape mighty luckily.  There isn't a scratch
on Blackhawk, and if Tom's----"

"There's no scratch on me either," returned the boy.  "But what
about the race, do I win or not?"

"Considering you flew from Blackhawk's back almost to the tree, I
reckon you do," declared Mr. Wilder.

And looking up, Tom noticed that he was, indeed, standing under the
branches of the tree that marked the goal.



CHAPTER VIII

HORACE IN DANGER

As the others reached the tree they dismounted, unbuckled the
saddle bags and removed the saddles.

"Well, commander, do you wish me to select a place to hobble the
ponies?" asked Mr. Wilder, addressing Tom.

"Yes, sir.  I never was in charge of a camp before, so you must
tell me what to do."

"Oh, make me your lieutenant and I'll tell you," pleaded Horace.
"I know all about it."

"You can give orders all right," grunted Bill, "there's no doubt
about that.  I see myself lugging wood."

All laughed heartily at this reference to Horace's fondness for
commanding, and the younger of the comrades replied;

"All right, Horace, you may be my lieutenant.  Only you must tell
me what there is to be done, and I will give the orders."

Although by this arrangement the youngest of the party would be
deprived of most of his powers, he readily agreed, saying:

"Wood must be collected for the fire, the food and dishes must be
unpacked, supper cooked and water located."

"Better put me on the job of getting water, because I shall picket
the horses where they can get a drink," declared the ranchman.

"Then, Larry, you and Bill build the fire and get supper ready.
Horace, I'll put you in charge and you must arrange the place for
us to sleep.  I can see some pine trees yonder.  Break off some
limbs and spread them on the ground.  Then put the blankets over
them.  I'm going with Mr. Wilder to bring the water and to learn
how to hobble the horses."

"You're a fine commander to be lieutenant for--not," declared
Horace.  "Gave me the meanest job of all."  Yet he lost no time in
obeying.

Quickly each one set about the work assigned to him, for the sight
of the doughnuts and other good things to eat, after their long
ride, made them hungry.

"Get the coffee pot and then sling the reins of Lightning and
Buster on your arm and come with me, Tom," said Mr. Wilder.  "I'll
take Blackhawk, because he's still cranky, and the other two."

The ranchman, however, let the ponies lead him more than he led
them, for he knew their instinct would take them to the nearest
water.

Yet there was no need of their guidance, for in a few minutes the
ears of the hunters caught the sound of running water.

"That's a brook," declared Mr. Wilder, and quickly he led the way
to a spot where they found a fair-sized pool formed by a stream
coming from the hills.

The coffee pot was a monster, holding all of two gallons, and this
the ranchman directed Tom to fill before allowing the ponies to
satisfy their thirst.

As the animals were drinking Mr. Wilder took the lariats he had
brought and tied an end around the left ankle of each pony, making
another noose round the hind ankle on the same side at such a
distance that there was about three feet of the rope between the
hoofs.

"Such a short line makes it impossible for them to run or even walk
very well," he explained, "so they will just stay here and browse,

"Now we'll remove the bridles.  Always remember to hobble your pony
before unbridling."

"But the rope ends?" asked Tom.

"In a place like this, where there are no rocks between which they
can get bound, you can let them drag.  When it is rocky, you can
wind the rope loosely round their necks."

Before the task was finished they heard Horace calling.

"Hey, you!  Hurry with that coffee pot!" he shouted.  "We want to
start it boiling."

"Then come and get it," replied his father.

But Tom had already picked it up and was carrying it toward the
camp fire, which was blazing cheerily beneath the big tree.  Taking
the bridles, Mr. Wilder soon followed.

Larry had spread a blanket on the ground for a tablecloth and
arranged the plates, knives and forks.  In the middle he had made a
pile of doughnuts and around them set three pies.

To Bill had fallen the task of cooking, and he was busy frying eggs
and bacon in a long-handled pan, which he rested on a bed of coals.

At the sight of Tom and the coffee pot, he called:

"Tell Horace to pour some water into the drinking cups, put the
coffee in the pot and set it in the fire.  Supper'll be ready
before the coffee unless you hurry."

But Tom was not a boy to shirk work, and directing his brother to
bring the cups, he sent his aide for the coffee while he prepared a
good hot bed of coals.

The odor from the sputtering bacon whetted their appetites, and all
but Bill devoted their energies to hurrying the coffee and to such
good purpose that they disproved the old saying, "A watched pot
never boils."

At last all was ready, and the hunters squatted tailor fashion on
the ground, each before his plate of eggs and bacon and a steaming
cup of coffee.

"My, but this tastes better than anything I ever ate before,"
declared Larry.

"Because the ride has given you a keen appetite," said the ranchman
with a smile.

The others were too busy eating to offer any comment, and the meal
progressed in silence till almost the last bit of food had
disappeared.

"Hop Joy certainly can cook," complimented Tom as he reached for
another doughnut from the fast vanishing pile.

"That's what I told you," returned Horace.  "From the way they are
going, it's a good thing I went back and put in an extra supply
when Hop wasn't looking."

"He'll fix you when we get back!" cried Bill.  "Tom, who does the
dishes?  For your benefit and before my young brother gets a chance
to speak, I'll tell you that the cook never washes the dishes."

"Oh, what a whopper!" cried Horace.  "Tom, the cook always washes
them.  That's all he does, wash dishes and cook."

"Well, we'll all help," declared the youthful commander of the camp.

This arrangement met with laughing approval, and because of the
many hands, the task was soon finished.

"And now, as we must be up with the dawn if we are going to get a
shot at any deer, I suggest that we turn in," remarked Mr. Wilder.

"Where did you put the pine boughs, Horace?  I don't see them."

"I left them over by the tree," replied the lieutenant, grinning.
"I didn't know how many each of you would want, so I thought the
best way was to let you pick out all you pleased."

"Lazy bones!  Lazy bones!" shouted the other boys, and Tom cried:

"That trick won't work this time.  Now, hurry and tote the boughs
over."

Making a face at his superior, Horace Jumped tip and soon came
back, dragging a monster pile of fragrant pine branches, which he
quickly separated into five heaps.

"Does the honored general wish me to wrap and tuck each one in his
bed or will they do that themselves?" he asked, bowing in mock
deference.

"The honored general sentences you to do the dishes in the morning
for that," returned Tom with assumed dignity, and in rare good
humor they quickly placed their saddles as pillows and unrolled
their blankets.

Fixing the fire so that it could not spread and cause any harm, Mr.
Wilder bade the boys turn in, and soon they were sound asleep.

Exhausted from the excitement of their arrival and the long ride,
Tom and Larry were so deep in slumber that though Mr. Wilder called
them when he himself got up, they did not wake.

His own sons, however, heard his call and quickly crawled from
their blankets.

"Come on, we'll get breakfast.  Let Tom and Larry sleep," exclaimed
their father.  "Remember, they are not so accustomed to riding as
you two are."

This caution was uttered just in time, for Horace was in the very
act of yanking the youthful commander by the foot when his father
spoke.

Not long did it take to prepare the food, and Bill was just pouring
the coffee when Mr. Wilder aroused his guests.

"Wh--what is it?" gasped Larry, sitting up and staring about him
dazedly.

"It's breakfast, that's all," said Horace.  "Hey, Mr. Commander,
you'll be court-martialed if you miss grub."  And he proceeded to
drag Tom from his bed of boughs by the heels.

Chagrined to think they had not helped with the meal, Tom and Larry
quickly arose and ran to the brook to wash.

As they stood at the pool they forgot their ablutions in the beauty
of the scene before them.

The grass of the prairie was heavy with dew and in the rose glow of
the sky the particles of moisture sparkled and glistened like
countless crystals.

"Seems like fairyland," whispered Tom, as though afraid if he spoke
out loud the scene would vanish.

A call from Horace, however, roused them to action, and in a few
minutes they were, eating heartily.

"What sort of a brook is that?" asked Larry.  "I didn't see any
outlet, yet water keeps running into the pool all the time."

"There must be some underground stream into which it empties,"
replied the ranchman.  "There are two such subterranean rivers in
these hills, and, I suppose this pool connects with one of them."

Discussion of such phenomena was prevented by his continuing:

"Hurry now and pack up.  I'll bring up the ponies while you are
getting ready."

Eager to begin the ascent of the hills, the boys worked rapidly,
and by the time Mr. Wilder appeared with the horses everything was
in the saddle bags, though Horace had dispensed with the formality
of wiping the dishes.

It was the task of but a few minutes to make fast the saddle bags
and blankets, and just as the sun flooded the plains with its
golden light the hunters swung into their saddles.

Riding southward, Mr. Wilder followed the base of the hills for a
good mile till he came to a well-worn trail.

"We'll follow this run for a while," said he.  "Bill, you and Larry
can ride at the rear.  I'll keep Horace and Tom with me, so they
won't be tempted to spoil our sport by shooting at the first deer
they see, no matter how far out of range it is.  For the benefit of
you two," he added, addressing the brothers, "I will say that when
you are riding a trail, and especially a mountain trail, always let
your pony have plenty of rein.  It's easier for him.  He won't be
so likely to stumble and fall, and a pony can generally keep a
trail better than a man."

These instructions delivered, Mr. Wilder turned his pony into the
run and the others followed in Indian file, the two elder boys
bringing up the procession.

For an hour they rode, now with their ponies scrambling over rocks,
now up such steep ascents that the comrades feared the animals
would fall over onto them.

But by leaning far forward at such times, they had no mishaps and
at last rode out onto a plateau from which they looked down into a
vale some two hundred yards below.

A mist hovered over the basin, rendering it impossible for them to
see the bottom.

The boys were disappointed and said so.

"On the contrary, it is lucky," declared Mr. Wilder.  "There is a
brook down there and it is a favorite drinking ground for deer.
Under the cover of the mist we shall be able to go down, and it
will act as a blanket to keep our scent from the sensitive-nosed
beauties."

"Going to ride down?" queried Tom, looking about for some trail.

"No, we'll leave the ponies here.  Lively now and hobble them and
don't talk."

The plateau was some hundred yards long by half as many wide, and
quickly the hunters rode their horses to where the mountain again
rose, turning the horses loose in some delicious grass.

"Be very careful, very careful in descending," cautioned the
ranchman.  "The ground is wet and the rocks are slippery, and if
you once start to fall, there's no knowing where you will land."

All the boys had hunted enough to know that the safest way to carry
a loaded gun is with the muzzle pointed to the ground, the butt
resting against the back of the right shoulder, with the arm
akimbo, thus forming a rest for the barrel.

And in this fashion they set out.

After a few minutes' search Mr. Wilder exclaimed:

"Here's the run the deer use.  Steady now.  Mind your feet.  Don't
make a sound."

With almost no noise, the party descended.  Now and then one of the
lads slipped, but there was always a rock or a sapling at hand
which they could grasp to steady themselves and no one fell.

As he reached the edge of the mist, Mr. Wilder held up his hand as
a signal to halt.

Turning his head, he listened intently for some sound that might
give him an inkling as to the whereabouts of the deer.

In his eagerness to locate them, Horace moved away from the trail
to the left and then stopped.

Barely had he halted when a loud sneeze rang out from directly in
front of him.

So sudden and so near was it that Horace cried out in fright.

At the same moment the antlers of a big buck appeared from the mist
and then vanished as quickly, only to reappear a moment later,
followed by its head and shoulders.

Whether the buck or the hunters were more surprised it would be
hard to say.  For several seconds they stared at one another.

Larry, Tom and Horace were trembling like leaves, victims of "buck
fever," a species of stage fright which makes it impossible for any
one to hold a gun steady, and Bill was in such a position behind
the others that he could not aim his rifle unless he put it between
the heads of the others.

The ranchman alone was where he could bring down the buck, and he
hesitated, unwilling to risk a chance to get several other deer by
dropping the one in front of him.

It was the buck himself that put an end to the remarkable
situation.  Of a sudden, with a snort of rage, he lowered his sharp
pronged antlers and charged at Horace.

With a yell of terror the boy turned to flee and stumbled.

In an instant the scene had changed from one of comedy to one of
possible tragedy should the infuriated beast reach his victim.

But Mr. Wilder was equal to the occasion.  Throwing his rifle to
his shoulder, he fired.

True was his aim and the buck threw up his head, staggered and then
toppled over.

The sound of the shot had galvanized Tom and Larry into action, and
with a lightning movement they both stooped, seized their friend
and pulled him to them just as the body of the buck struck the
ground.

So unnerved were they all by the narrowness of the escape that for
several moments no one spoke.

Then Mr. Wilder rallied them by exclaiming:

"See! see!  The mist has lifted.  There go three more deer up the
valley.  Come on!  Let's see who can bring one down."

The chance for a shot brought even Horace out of his fright, and in
a thrice the boys had sighted their rifles and fired.  But no deer
dropped.

"I hit one, I know I did!" declared Bill.  "Let's follow."

"No, shoot again," returned his father.  "We have the advantage
here from being above."

Again the rifles cracked, and this time one of the deer gave a
bound in the air and dropped flat.

"Hooray! We've got another!" cried the lads,

"Don't fire any more.  The others are out of range," declared the
ranchman.

"Please, just one more," begged Horace.

But his father refused, telling him that a good hunter never shot
when there was no hope of bringing down his game.

"Never mind, we've got two," said Larry.  "I call that pretty good
luck."

And speculating as to whom the credit of hitting the second
belonged, they all hastened to where it lay.



CHAPTER IX

THE MESSAGE FROM CROSS-EYED PETE

The shells shot by the rifles belonging to the two chums
were .44-.50, while those of the Wilder boys were .30, so that
it would only be possible to tell whether the boys from Ohio
had proved better marksmen than the Westerners.  Yet the boys
were eager to settle the question.

Chaffing each other good naturedly, they tramped along, and when
they saw the size of the antlers and body of the second buck they
forgot all rivalry.

"He's a beauty!" cried Horace.  "I'm glad it wasn't he that made a
jump for me.  His prongs stick out a yard."

Though this was an exaggeration, the branches of the antlers were,
indeed, surprisingly long.

"And there are fourteen of the prongs," ejaculated Tom, who had
been counting the sharp points.

"Which makes him fifteen years old," asserted Bill.  "Just look at
their spread; they must be all of four feet."

"Easily," said his father.  "He's the biggest buck I ever saw.  Ah,
here's the bullet-hole, right back of the shoulder.  It certainly
was a splendid shot."  And as he bent closer to examine it, the
others awaited his decision as to which party the trophy belonged.

"Ohio wins!" he declared at last.

"Then Tom probably got him.  He's a better marksman that I am,"
asserted Larry.

Though the Wilder boys were naturally disappointed, they made the
best of it, and Bill exclaimed:

"Come on, Larry.  Let's go into the woods and search.  I'm positive
I hit a deer the first time I fired.  Can we go, father?"

"Surely, only don't get lost.  It will take me some time to dress
the two bucks.  If you are not back by the time I am finished, come
to the plateau.  We'll wait for you there."

Promising not to wander far, the elder boys entered the woods while
the others assisted in dressing the monster buck.

After skinning the animal, the ranchman cut out the most savory
parts and placed them in the pelt.

"Shall we take the antlers?" asked Horace.

"They'd be fine to have mounted, but they'll be awfully in the way
while we're hunting.  What do you think, Mr. Wilder?"  And Tom
appealed to him as to their proper disposal.

"They will be awkward to carry, that's a fact," assented the
ranchman.  "If you want them very much, though, we can leave them
here and then stop on our way home.  They'll be safe enough till we
get back."

Readily Tom agreed, and he and Horace were just stooping to pick up
one end of the hide, containing the deer meat, when Horace let out
a cry.

"Oh, what's that thing up by my buck?"

"It looks like a tiger," exclaimed Tom, and then added: "But you
don't have tigers out here, do you?"

"No.  That's a mountain lion, which is almost the same thing,
though," answered Mr. Wilder.  "Now's your chance to show your
marksmanship, Horace.  Take a good aim and see if you can't knock
him over."

No urging did his son need.  Raising his rifle to position, the lad
squinted along the barrel carefully and then fired.

Above the report of the shot rang out an ear-splitting howl, and
the mountain Hon turned to face the direction of the sound.

"Give him another, son.  You hit him, but not in a vital spot,"
said his father.

Again Horace aimed and fired, this time with better success, for
the lion dropped in its tracks.

"Good work," praised Tom heartily.  "That was a mighty long shot to
make.  Now if Bill and Larry only get something, we'll have bagged
a trophy."

Elated at his success, Horace was starting toward his prize when
his father called him back to help carry the pelt.

"My, but he's a beauty!" declared the younger of the chums when
they reached the carcass.  "I should hate to come across one
suddenly."

"They are not pleasant customers to meet," smiled Mr. Wilder.  "I'm
glad this fellow didn't visit us last night.  Though why he passed
the horses by I don't know.  Mountain lions are great ones for
horse or cattle flesh.  While I am dressing the buck you boys had
better climb up to the plateau and see that our ponies are all
right.  Take some of the meat with you and then we won't be obliged
to make so many trips."

With a piece of meat in one hand and a rifle in the other, the lads
started up the trail and, though they went bravely enough, each in
his heart was a bit frightened.

"Pete says mountain lions usually travel in pairs, so keep your
eyes peeled," advised Horace.

But though they imagined several times they heard the purr of one
of the prowlers, they reached the plateau without adventure.

The ponies were huddled together, tails to the rocks, and were
sniffing the air in obvious uneasiness.

"Steady, boys, steady," called Horace soothingly.  And setting down
his meat, he patted each reassuringly.

The presence of the boys was an evident relief to the ponies, and
after a few minutes they began to champ grass again.

"That lion must have come quite near, to scare 'em so," asserted
the young rancher.  "Pete says ponies are almost as good as dogs
for watching, and I believe him.  They can smell things, oh, way
off."  And sitting down, Horace entertained his companion with
stories of the keen scent of horses, which lost none of their color
because of his lively imagination.  Indeed, he succeeded in getting
them both so worked up that when Mr. Wilder's hat appeared above
the edge of the plateau each boy seized his rifle and aimed at it.

"What are you going to do, hold me up?" laughed the ranchman as he
saw the barrels leveled at him, and then, as he noted the alarm on
their faces, he added: "Steady!  Put your guns down carefully."

Laughing nervously, the boys obeyed.

"You are a fine lot, you are," he chided, "to leave me to bring up
all the meat alone.  Why didn't you come back?"

In explanation Horace told how they had found the ponies and said
they had stayed to quiet them.

"And I'll wager you've been relating some wonderful yarns for Tom's
benefit, judging from the way you received me.  Now, boys," he
continued seriously, "when you are in the mountains you must never
talk about things that will excite you.  There are so many things
that can happen.  A man always needs to be cool and collected, so
that if emergency does arise he can think quickly and well."

This bit of advice made a deep impression on the lads and they
promised to remember it.

The sun was high in the heavens and its heat was becoming terrific.

"Fetch the horses and come into the woods," commanded Mr.  Wilder.
"We'll get dinner ready and wait for Bill and Larry where it's
cool."

"Why it's a quarter of twelve," said Tom, looking at his watch.  "I
had no idea it was so late."

"Time flies when you are hunting," returned the ranchman, "a fact
that you should remember, and with it that darkness falls quickly
in the mountains."

The ponies were nothing loath to move from the broiling plateau to
the cooler woods and stood contentedly, now and then nibbling the
leaves and tender twigs from the trees near them.

Lighting a fire, Mr.  Wilder soon had a choice slice of venison
broiling In the saucepan, and the aroma was so good that the boys
could hardly wait to taste the meat.

At last it was ready, and they ate it ravenously.  "How much better
it tastes when you've shot it yourself," declared Tom.  "I've had
venison before, but it wasn't nearly so good as this."

"A keen appetite and the mountain air certainly do give a zest to
your food," smiled the ranchman.

"I reckon I'll put another slice on the fire so it will be ready
for the boys when they come."

But it was fully an hour later before they heard the others hail.

"Up here in the woods," called back Tom and Horace, running to the
edge of the forest to guide them to the camp.

It was several minutes before Larry and Bill came in sight, and
before they did the others had learned that they had found the deer
Bill thought he had hit.

"I ran across it," explained Larry.  "It's hind leg was broken and
it was lying down when I came upon it.  The poor thing tried to
jump up, but it couldn't very well."

"But I didn't hear any shot," interrupted Tom.  "I've been
listening, too."

"Good reason why, because it was way over in another basin,"
answered his brother.  "It must have been all of three miles from
here, don't you think so, Bill?"

"Easily."

"Then how did you follow it?" demanded Horace.

"By its blood and where its leg dragged."

"Well, I'm glad you found the poor creature and put it out of
misery," declared his father.  "That's the only objection I have to
deer hunting--the animals have such wonderful vitality that they
travel miles and miles after being crippled and then drop from
exhaustion, like this one.  As a usual thing, I don't allow any one
to fire at a deer unless at short range.  I made an exception this
morning, but I never will again."

"We didn't bring much of the meat back, it was too long a haul,"
said Bill after he had partially satisfied his hunger.

"We have plenty," returned his father.  "In fact, we have so much
that we won't fire at any more deer."

"Then what can we hunt?" protested Horace.

"Bear," returned his father.

"Oh, goody! and mountain lions!  Say, you deer slayers, you may
have knocked over some bucks, but it took me to stop a mountain
lion."

"So you were the one who got him, eh?" asked Bill.  "He must have
been asleep.  You can't hit a deer, and yet you got a mountain
lion, which is smaller."

"He wasn't asleep, and I made a dandy long shot.  Tom said so,"
declared his brother hotly.

"You certainly did well, son," interposed his father.

"Then we've all bagged something, if you can call my getting the
deer Bill wounded a hit," said Larry.  "This is sure Jim dandy
hunting.  Back home you can tramp all day without even seeing a
woodchuck."

Heartily the others laughed at this statement of the difference in
hunting grounds, and for an hour or so they talked and joked.

"Are we going to camp here for the night?" inquired Horace at last
of his father.

"No.  I reckon we'll go farther into the mountains.  We'll have a
better chance for bear there.  This is a little too near the
plains."

Well rested, the boys were eager to be on the move and gladly they
made ready to advance.

In and out among the hills the trail wound, and sundown found them
entering a basin similar to that where they had captured their
deer.  On two sides walls of rocks towered and dense forests formed
the others.

Lonesome, indeed, was the spot, and this effect was heightened by
the rapidly descending darkness.

"Commander, I think we'll hobble the horses right here," said Mr.
Wilder, dismounting in the center of the vale.  "It would also be a
good idea to have our camp fire close beside them.  Then, if any
prowler smells the deer meat or the horses, it can't reach either
without our knowing it.  And, because we must keep a fire all
night, we shall need a lot of wood."

Recalled to the fact that he was in charge of the camp, Tom said:

"You fellows come with me and get the wood.  I guess Mr. Wilder
will attend to the horses, and we four can gather enough before it
gets real dark."

Quickly the boys dismounted and ran to get dry limbs and branches,
making a monster pile.

"I reckon that's enough, commander," said the ranchman at last,
"and, besides, supper is ready or will be when the coffee is
poured."

"Coffee!  Where did you get the water to boil it?" queried Larry.

"From the canteens.  I filled them this morning."

"And here I've been wondering where we could look for water.  I was
surprised you didn't tell Tom to send some of us."

Being less tired than the night before, the boys sat round the camp
fire after supper, talking and listening to the stories the
ranchman told about his life as a soldier.

When at length they were ready to turn in, they rolled themselves
up in their blankets and formed a circle about the fire.

Without adventure they passed the night, sleeping till long after
sunrise, there being no occasion for getting an early start.

Indeed as they ate breakfast they were debating whether to push on
or stay where they were and set a bear trap when they were
surprised to hear Mr. Wilder's name called.

Shouting in return, they jumped to their feet, trying to see who
had hailed them.

"It's some one on horseback.  I can hear the click of horseshoes on
the stones," declared Larry.

"Some one from the ranch probably," asserted Mr. Wilder, and the
next moment his opinion was confirmed by Horace, who had run to the
trail and was returning, yelling:

"It's Nails! It's Nails!"

"He's one of our boys," explained Bill to the chums.  "What do you
suppose he can want, father?"

"Wait till he tells us.  There are so many possibilities, it's no
use trying to guess."

Their suspense was short-lived, for in a few moments the cowboy
called Nails dashed into the basin, his pony in a lather.

Realizing from this condition of his mount that something serious
was amiss, Mr. Wilder asked:

"What's wrong, Nails?"

"Cattle thieves!" gasped the cowboy.  "Cross-eyed Pete said to get
everybody you could and meet him at the Witches' Pool to-morrow
morning.  He's driving up the herds from the Long Creek bottoms."



CHAPTER X

THE RETURN TO THE RANCH

The knowledge that his herds had again been raided by cattle
thieves made Mr. Wilder very angry.

"This makes the third time some of my cattle have been stolen.  The
thieves will find it is three times and out.  I'll take their trail
this time and stick to it till I round them all up."

Never had Bill and Horace seen their father so wrought up, and they
wisely held their peace while the cowboy who had brought the news
of the raid busied himself removing the saddle and bridle and
wiping the lather from his pony.

Before Nails had finished the task, however, the ranchman had
regained control of himself.

"I am glad Pete is driving the cattle home," he said quietly.
"They will graze about the Witches' Pool without watching, so I can
take all the boys with me, and the more there are of us the less
trouble we will have.  Sit down and eat breakfast, Nails, and then
tell me about the raid."

No urging did the cowboy need, for he had not tasted a mouthful
since he had left the herd, twenty-four hours before.  He had
expected to find the ranchman at his home, and when he learned Mr.
Wilder had gone on a hunting trip he only stopped long enough to
change ponies and then started again to find him.

Attentively the boys waited on him, impatient to hear his story.

"It was night before last it happened," said Nails, after having
eaten more than it seemed possible for one man.  "All during the
day the cattle had been restless and we boys were kept on the jump
holding 'em together.  But with the darkness they quieted down and
we all turned in.

"When morning came, nary a steer was in sight.  It didn't take us
long to get after 'em, and in about an hour we found them.  But the
short-horned Durhams were missing."

"The best cattle in the herd," interrupted Mr. Wilder.

"Just what Pete said, but not in the same words," grinned Nails.

"But how do you know they were stolen?" asked Bill.  "Perhaps they
only wandered off.  You said the herd had been restless."

"A hundred head don't all go together," replied the cowboy.
"Besides, after looking around, we found the hoofprints of seven
ponies."

"Which way did they drive?" demanded the ranchman.

"Toward old Mex.  But I reckon that's only a bluff.  It's my idea
the headquarters of this gang are right in these mountains,
somewhere.  Pete thinks so, too.  That's why he set the pool as the
meeting place.  There's an old trail he knows and he wants to
strike it, you agreeing of course," he added, looking toward the
ranchman.

"We'll decide about that later.  But if Pete suggested it, he has
some good reason.  Still, I can't see the necessity of getting any
of the neighbors.  It will only take time, and we can save
twenty-four hours by riding straight to the pool from here."

"The reason for getting others is because the Half-Moon isn't the
only herd that's been raided."

At this statement the Wilders were amazed.

"By the tracks from the direction of the Three Stars there must
have been two hundred, at least, lifted from them."

"Then Jim Snider and his outfit are on the trail by this time,"
declared the ranchman.

"No, they aren't.  I saw Sandy the other day, and he said they were
all going up to Tolopah to bring down a herd Snider brought from
Montana, It's my idea the thieves knew this and planned a wholesale
raid."

"H--m.  That sounds likely," commented Mr. Wilder.  "Who do you
think is at the head of it, Nails?"

"Gus Megget.  He's the only one with the nerve to pull it off."

At the mention of the ruffian cow-puncher the boys looked at one
another and then at their father, who said:

"That can't be, Nails.  Megget tried some of his funny business
with these two boys, Larry and Tom Alden, up in Oklahoma the other
day."

"And they made a monkey of him," interposed Horace gleefully.

"What, them two?" returned the cowboy, looking at the brothers with
keen interest.

"They certainly did," smiled the ranchman.  "So I reckon we can't
blame Megget for this raid."

"But he could have come by train, the short line, you know."

"We'll find out in time.  There's no use arguing, Nails," said the
ranchman.  "Bill, bring up Buster and Blackhawk.  Tom, you will
have to take Nails' pony.  We must get back to the ranch as soon as
possible and that other horse is too played out.

"You boys can pack up and follow as fast as you can.  Be at the
house by the middle of the afternoon, at the latest.  Mind now, I
have enough to think of without worrying about you."

Nails was helping Bill with the ponies, and almost as soon as Mr.
Wilder had finished his instructions the animals were ready.

Vaulting into the saddle, the ranchman again cautioned the boys to
be careful, shook out his reins and rode from the basin at a
gallop, the cowboy close behind.

With a will the four comrades went to work packing the saddle bags,
and less than an hour after the others had left were following them.

The raid, the pursuit, wonder if they would be allowed to go on the
man-hunt and speculation as to whether the thieves would be
captured formed topics for endless conversation as they rode.

"Do you suppose those men I saw on the cliff are part of the gang?"
hazarded Tom.

"They may be.  I never thought of them," declared Bill.  "I must
remember to speak about them to father.  Still, I hardly think they
could have had a hand in it.  It is all of thirty miles from where
we saw them to the Long Creek bottoms, and no sizeable herd of
cattle could be driven through the hills that far in a day.  Twenty
miles on the prairies is a stiff hike and half that far would be a
good drive in the mountains."

When they were obliged to ride Indian file over the trail much
talking was not attempted, and each boy busied himself with his own
thoughts.

Because of his knowledge of the route, Bill led and Larry brought
up the rear.  Their advance was slow, however, as they wished to
give the pony Tom rode as much chance to rest as possible before
they reached the plains.

With eyes and ears alert, they proceeded, and without mishap
finally rode out onto the prairie.

[Illustration: "With eyes and ears alert, they proceeded."]

"Let's eat now," suggested Horace.  "That will give Whitefoot more
rest, and by the time we have finished he'll be as good as new.
He's a tough one and can stand sixty miles, day in and day out."

"Which is about half as much as he'll get this time," added Bill.
"Still I think Whitefoot's good for it, especially as he hadn't
been ridden for a week till Nails took him last night."

The halt was made and the boys ate as heartily as though they had
not breakfasted only three hours before.

When they were ready to start again Larry said:

"So long as Whitefoot is tired and Horace is the lightest, don't
you think he'd better ride him instead of Tom?"

"Good idea," acquiesced Bill, and the shift in mounts was made,
after which the boys headed for the ranch house.

As they were starting on the long forty-mile ride, Mr. Wilder and
Nails were ending it.  Though forced to ride carefully so long as
they were on the mountain trail, when the latter reached the plains
they had "cut loose." Both were expert horsemen and the ponies
under them were mettlesome.  Indeed, Blackhawk had not entirely
recovered his temper since his roping and it was he that set the
pace.  Yet the riders did not allow the ponies to run themselves
out in the first few miles, holding them down to a long, steady
lope that covered the ground rapidly.

"Where do you suppose we are the most likely to strike the outfit
from the Three Stars, at home or in Tolopah?" asked Mr. Wilder
after a time.

"At home.  They were to get the cattle day before yesterday, and
Sandy told me they planned to stay at the ranch to-day to pack grub
so as to save a trip of the wagon."

"Then we ought to find the whole crew at home."

"That's just what Pete and I were banking on," returned Nails.

This point settled, the ranchman refused further conversation, to
the disappointment of his companion, occupying himself with mapping
out his campaign.

After a time the ponies began to slacken their stride, but the
vigorous rowelling they received from the spurs of the men on their
backs told them they were bound on pressing business, and they
responded gamely.

"I hope Ned is at home," Mr. Wilder exclaimed suddenly.  "If he
isn't, there won't be any but slow ponies in the corral.  And that
means it will take me the whole afternoon to get to the Three
Stars."

"No, it don't," asserted Nails.  "I kinder thought you might be off
somewhere, so I cut out three ponies from the bunch and brought
them up with me.  When they told me you were hunting with the kids,
I naturally knew you wouldn't go far into the mountains, so I left
the best ones at the Half-Moon."

This foresight of his cowboy pleased the ranchman, and he commended
him heartily.

"You seem to have a pretty level head, Nails.  What do you make of
these raids on my herd?  This makes the third.  It rather seems to
me as though the thieves had marked me for their particular victim."

"That's my idea exactly," declared the cowboy.  "And that's what
makes me so sure Gus Megget had a hand in the raid."

"But what grudge has Megget against me?" asked Mr. Wilder in
surprise.

"You are the one who leased the Long Creek bottoms, aren't you?"
returned Nails, answering the question, Yankee fashion, by another.

"To be sure.  But what has that to do with it?"

"Everything.  Megget's been rustling cattle for years, and the Long
Creek bottoms were where he used to drive the cattle he'd lifted.
If any one jumped him, he could either cross the line into old Mex
or strike out for the mountains.  Maybe you don't know it, but
there's a greaser just across the line--they call him Don
Vasquez--who makes a fat living buying stolen cattle.  He's got
some old Indian remedy for making hair grow, and he cuts out the
old brands, makes hair grow out and then burns in his three
crosses."

"And so my leasing the bottoms has spoiled this criminal dealing?"

"That's what.  I heard a greaser down in El Paso last winter
boasting you'd sell your ranch inside of two years."

"Why didn't you tell me?" demanded Mr. Wilder severely.

"Didn't think it was necessary.  Fatty and I fixed him so he
wouldn't brag any more."

Deeming it unwise to inquire Into the means taken for silencing the
Mexican, the ranchman lapsed into silence for a few minutes and
then declared:

"No cattle thieves can drive me out of business, Nails.  I have the
right on my side, and right always triumphs."

"We boys are with you, Mr. Wilder.  You've always played more than
fair with us, which is more than we can say of some folks, and we
appreciate it.  Cowboys have feelings same as other people, though
there seem to be a lot of folks who don't think so.  And I'm
speaking for the other boys of the Half-Moon as well as myself.  We
talked it all over before Pete sent me to the ranch.  But when you
join 'em at the pool, don't say anything about what I've told you.
Sentiment and hunting cattle thieves don't mix."

This expression of the esteem in which his men held him, crude
though it was, moved Mr. Wilder deeply, and reaching over, he
seized the cowboy's hand and shook it warmly, an action that
delighted Nails greatly.

The statement about Megget gave the ranchman a new train of
thought.  He realized for the first time that he was engaged in a
cattle war which would only end with his ruin or the capture of the
entire band of thieves.  And being a man who could not be
frightened, the owner of the Half-Moon Ranch vowed to accomplish
the latter alternative.

The hard ride was tiring the ponies, wiry though they were, and the
men on their backs were obliged to resort to almost continual use
of their spurs.  But at last the buildings of the ranch home came
into view, and soon Mr. Wilder and Nails were at the corral.

"Saddle the best of the bunch for me," ordered the ranchman as he
dismounted.  "I'll go to the house for a bite and then start for
the Three Stars."

"What about me?" inquired the cowboy, disappointment in his voice
at the thought of being left behind.

"I want you to ride into Tolopah.  Don't say anything about the
raid.  Just listen round and see if you can learn anything."  And
turning on his heel, Mr. Wilder started for the house.

"Where are the boys?  You didn't let them stay to hunt, did you?"
inquired his wife anxiously as he sat down at the table and ordered
Hop Joy to bring him something to eat.

"No.  They'll be here during the afternoon.  I'm going to get Jim
Snider and his outfit.  Nails says they are at home."  And briefly
he told her of the information he had received from his cowboy.

No longer than necessary did the ranchman linger at the table, and
when he had finished a hasty meal went out, mounted the pony Nails
held waiting and galloped away in the direction of the Three Stars
Ranch, which lay to the east.

Having far less to go, the cowboy ate leisurely and then rode
toward Tolopah.

In the meantime the four boys were making the best time they could,
but before they had covered half the distance Whitefoot gave out
completely.

For a time they proceeded, with Horace riding now with one boy and
now with another.  But it was slow work, and at last Bill suggested
that he ride on ahead, get fresh horses and return.  After some
argument, this plan was agreed upon.

As she saw her elder son ride up alone, Mrs. Wilder was greatly
alarmed, but he quickly reassured her, and with Ned's help caught
two ponies, saddled them and went back to meet the others, all
reaching the house a little later.



CHAPTER XI

PREPARATIONS FOR PURSUIT

"Oh, dear!  Father and Nails have gone!" exclaimed Horace as he
counted the ponies in the corral while the others were unsaddling.
"Now we can't go with them.  I was afraid that was what father
intended when he didn't wait for us."

"But Buster and Blackhawk are here, and there is one more pony than
before," returned Larry.

"That doesn't prove anything.  Ned told me Nails brought in three
extra ponies with him," said Bill.

"Then you have known all the time that father and Nails were gone
and never told us?" demanded Horace.

"It was because I didn't know for certain where they had gone that
I said nothing," replied his brother.  "Ned was away when they
arrived and departed.  Here comes mother; you can find out from
her."

After returning Mrs. Wilder's greetings and giving her a brief
account of the trip, Horace asked:

"How long have father and Nails been gone?  I think it was mean of
them to give us the slip like that."

"But they haven't gone to the hills yet," returned his mother.
"Your father has ridden over to the Three Stars and Nails has gone
to Tolopah."

"Oh, goody!" exclaimed Horace.  "We may be able to go, after all.
Momsy, won't you try to make father take us?"

It was only with this last question that Mrs. Wilder understood the
purpose of her son's eager inquiries, and the disclosure did not
tend to quiet the anxiety she felt over the outcome of the pursuit.
Yet she only said:

"That is a question for your father to decide.  I think, though,
that you would want to stay here and protect me."

"But you are in no danger, Momsy.  Besides, Ned and Hop Joy are
here."

The thought of the Chinaman as a protector made the other boys
laugh, and realizing that they could not count on her espousal of
their cause, they went off to the wagon sheds to devise a plan to
win permission from the ranchman.

As the owner of the Half-Moon galloped up to the ranch house of the
Three Stars his horse literally dripping water, Jim Snider and his
cowboys ran up from all directions to learn the cause of such
evident hard riding.

To the accompaniment of various exclamations of anger and surprise
Mr. Wilder hurriedly told his neighbors of the raid.

"That's Megget's work!" ejaculated Snider as the story was
completed.  "He's the only one cute enough and with nerve enough to
do it.  I didn't suppose any one knew my herd was unwatched, yet
the minute my boys ride in the gang raids it.  Wilder, if you and I
are to stay on our ranches, we must round up these cattle thieves."

"That's my idea exactly," declared the owner of the Half-Moon.
"That's why I rode over.  My boys and I start to-morrow morning,
and I want to know how many from the Three Stars will go with me."

"Every man jack of us, save the cook and grub man," replied Snider.
"That makes nine."

"Good! We'll ride back to the Half-Moon for supper and then go to
the pool.  The sooner we start the better.  If you'll lend me a
fresh pony, I can travel faster."

Without waiting for orders from their master, the boys of the Three
Stars ran to the corral, all agog with the excitement at the
unexpected turn of affairs.

When the two ranch owners were alone Mr. Wilder imparted his
information about Megget's enmity and the Mexican, Don Vasquez.

The facts amazed the proprietor of the Three Stars and the two men
were discussing the evident declaration of a cattle war, especially
against the Half-Moon, when the cowboys trotted up with the ponies.

Deeming the information too important for general discussion with
the men, the ranch owners swung into their saddles, changing their
topic of conversation to the trails that would be the most likely
to be taken by the raiders.

Never sparing their mounts, they reached the Half-Moon just at dusk
and their arrival threw the boys into great excitement.

"Has Nails returned?" asked Mr. Wilder of Ned.

"Not yet."

"Send him to me when he comes.  Make the boys from the Three Stars
at home in the bunkhouse and tell Hop Joy to give us supper as soon
as he can.  Also have him pack some bacon, sugar, coffee, crackers
and doughnuts, enough to last the Half-Moon outfit a week.  When
it's ready, hitch up and carry it to Pete at the Witches' Pool.

"Hello! Glad you lads arrived all right," he added as he caught
sight of the boys.  "Any trouble?"

"Nothing, only Whitefoot gave out.  I had to come on and get
another pony," replied Bill.

"Good!  Snider, I want you to know Larry and Tom Alden," continued
Mr. Wilder, introducing the boys, adding in a low voice: "They are
the lads about whom I told you."

"I'm sure glad to meet you," declared the owner of the Three Stars,
giving each of the lads a grip that made their hands ache.

Upon arrival he had exchanged greetings with Bill and Horace, and
altogether they trooped onto the veranda, whence they were summoned
to supper before the lads had the opportunity to ask Mr. Wilder
whether they could accompany him or not.

Evincing a lively Interest in the two Eastern boys, the Three
Stars' owner plied them with questions about Ohio and was so
impressed with their answers that he extended a cordial invitation
to them and the Wilder boys to pay him a visit at his ranch,
promising to have his men give an exhibition of "broncho busting"
for their special benefit, an invitation which all four eagerly
accepted.

Just as they were ready to rise from the table Hop Joy glided in.

"Nail, he backee," he announced.  "Say he got heap talkee."

"Tell him to come round to the veranda," ordered Mr. Wilder.  "By
the way, how are you coming along with the cooking, Hop Joy?"

"Allee lightee.  Bymeby, two hours maybe."

"Well, don't be any longer.  The sooner Ned can start, the sooner
he'll reach the Pool."

In answer the celestial bowed low, then turned and left the room.



CHAPTER XII

WHAT NAILS LEARNED

While the ranchmen and Mrs. Wilder made themselves comfortable in
chairs, the boys squatted or stretched out on the piazza, their
restlessness proclaiming the expectancy with which they awaited the
"heap talkee" Nails desired to impart.

The cowboy soon appeared, and, after seating himself at Mr.
Wilder's bidding, launched into an account of what he had learned
in Tolopah.

"There are twenty of them in the gang," he said, "and Megget has
joined them by this time, though he wasn't with them when they made
the raids.  As near as I could make out, their headquarters are in
the Lost Lode Mine.  There are three trails to it, one leading in
somewhere near the trail you all took on your hunting trip and the
others to the south, along which they drive the cattle they steal.
I----"

"Mr. Wilder, you don't suppose that could be the trail where I saw
those men crossing the face of the cliff, do you?" interrupted Tom.

"I shouldn't doubt it a bit.  I'd forgotten about them entirely."
And he briefly told Snider of the figures they all had seen,
adding: "Much obliged for reminding me, Tom.  That may have been
Megget and the fellows you met with him.  Go on, Nails; anything
more?"

"Nothing but that it's my opinion they have a spy in Tolopah who
keeps 'em mighty well informed on the happenings at the Half-Moon
and Three Stars ranches."

At the words Mr. Wilder and his neighbor exchanged significant
glances.

"What makes you think so?" the latter asked.  "Where did you learn
all this, anyhow?"

"Oh, just nosing round," drawled Nails, but his tone suggested that
he was sure of his information and at the same time unwilling to
disclose its source.

"You certainly did well, Nails," complimented his master.  "Knowing
how many there are in the gang will enable us to lay definite plans
for action.  Now go and get your supper.  I suppose you have seen
the boys from the Three Stars in the bunkhouse?"

"I could hear 'em half way to Tolopah." "Then tell them we'll
start.  At what time do you think Pete will reach the pool?"

"About midnight."

"Good.  Be ready to move by ten o'clock."

"And tell my outfit to make less noise," added Mr. Snider.

Until they could hear the other cowboys greeting Nails the two men
were silent, and then Mr. Wilder declared:

"I had no idea Megget had twenty men with him.  It's a good thing
we found out.

"Let's see, there are nine of you from the Three Stars; nine of my
boys and myself.  That makes nineteen."

"And the four of us, that makes twenty-three," added Horace,
deeming the moment auspicious for settling the question that was
uppermost in the minds of all the lads.

"Your arithmetic is better than your facts," laughed his father.

"Oh, can't we go, please?  If Megget should see Larry and Tom, he
might run and----"

"On the contrary, I'm afraid he might try to wipe out the disgrace
they put upon him.  No, my son, it's going to be a hard trip.  If
you were along I should be worrying about you all the time.
Besides," he added, noting the keen disappointment his refusal
brought, "I shall need you here so you can ride down to the pool
every day and see that the cattle and horses are all right."

"That's well enough for the others.  They would be in the way, but
I wouldn't," protested Bill.  "I'm old enough and strong enough to
go, and the experience would do me good.  If you take it, it will
make just twenty on both sides."

"What do you think, Jim, shall we take Bill or not?"

As the boys awaited the answer of their friend, it was so still the
fall of a pin could have been heard.

But their suspense did not last long.

With a drawl that was tantalizingly deliberate the owner of the
Three Stars Ranch replied:

"I reckon we might as well.  Bill's got a level head on his
shoulders, and some day he'll be boss of the Half-Moon.  If
anything like this happens then he'll know how to act.  Yes, I
think we'd better take him."

Aware that it would be useless to try to persuade Mr. Wilder to
change his mind in respect to taking them, Tom, Larry and Horace
made the most of the fact that they were to inspect the herd daily.
But it was poor recompense, and in a few minutes they went on to
see how near Ned was ready to start, stopping to sample Hop Joy's
cooking on the way.

"You goee?" asked the Chinaman as the trio entered his kitchen.

"Going to eat," grinned Horace, helping himself to a doughnut and
just managing to dodge a potato that Hop Joy tossed at him.

"Shoo! shoo!  Lun out!  Me bigee hully.  No plague! no plague!"

"Poor fellow!  It must be some job to get enough food ready for
twelve men.  Come on, let's leave him alone," said Larry.  "I'd
like to go down to the bunk-house."

"That's so.  Maybe Sandy or some of his boys know the trail to the
Lost Lode," agreed Horace.  And to the Chinaman's surprise they
left him in peace.

The men from the Three Stars were lying in the bunks and sprawling
on the benches, getting what rest they could in anticipation of
many long hours in the saddle, laughing and talking the while.

At the entrance of the trio the chatter ceased and the cowboys
stared at the two Eastern boys with undisguised interest.

"Boys, these are the famous cowboy tamers, Larry and Tom Alden,"
said Horace, bowing in feigned deference and indicating his friends
with a wave of his hand.

"Don't be afraid, though.  We won't try our hands on you unless you
get gay with us," declared Larry seriously.

"Thankee, thankee kindly, on behalf of me and my men," bowed Sandy
gravely, and then they all burst into a roar of laughter.

Cowboys love a joke, and the words and manner of the brothers,
together with their clean-cut faces and manly bearing, appealed to
them, winning the way to their good graces as nothing else could.

All reserve thus broken, the men bade the lads sit down.

"I s'pose you'll be going with us?" hazarded Sandy.

"No, father won't let us.  He thinks we're only babies.  Says he's
afraid we'll be in the way.  So we've got to stay home and watch
the herd at the Witches' Pool."

"You may have your hands full at that," declared one of the cowboys.

"Keep quiet," growled Sandy, frowning at the speaker.

But the remark had suggested all sorts of possibilities to the
lads, and, glancing at Tom and Larry, Horace asked:

"What makes you think so?"

Again Sandy cast a look full of meaning at his fellow and the
cowboy answered:

"Oh, nothing in particular.  I was just talking."

The boys had noted Sandy's glances, however, and the reply only
whetted their curiosity.

Drawing himself to his full height and striving to be as severe as
possible, Horace said:

"If any of you men know of any trouble that may come to the
Half-Moon herd, it is your duty to tell my father before he goes
away."

The words and the seriousness of the boy standing before them sent
the men into another roar of laughter.

But Sandy hastened to say:

"There's nothing we know, kid.  Skinny was only joking."

Horace was about to reply when Hop Joy poked his head through the
door, saying:

"Glub all leady, Ned."

"All right, Hop."  And springing from his bunk, Ned went out to
harness his horses, accompanied by several of the cowboys.

For an hour or so the chums stayed in the bunkhouse, listening to
stories of marvelous feats of broncho-busting and whatever else the
men pleased to tell them, only leaving when Nails announced it was
time to go to the corral and saddle up.

"Aren't you going with them?" asked Tom.

"No," returned Horace.  "We are liable to get hurt, it's so dark.
We couldn't see anything if we did go.  Besides, father may have
some orders to give us."

The only instructions Mr. Wilder had to give, however, were to be
careful not to do anything that would cause his wife to worry about
them.

"Suppose the herd gets in trouble, what shall we do?" persisted
Horace, on whose excited mind the words of the Three Stars' cowboy
had made a lasting impression.

"Use your own judgment.  But don't let your imagination play tricks
on you.  The cattle will be all right--unless you get them
restless."

"Oh, we won't do that," quickly declared Larry.  "We'll take such
good care of them, you will want to hire us as cowboys when you get
back."

The shouts from the corral told the ranchmen that the time for the
start had arrived, and quickly they made themselves ready, while
Hop Joy appeared to say he had sent saddle bags with food for Mr.
Wilder and Bill by Ned.

With a great clatter of hoofs, the cowboys rode up.  The Wilders
and Mr. Snider bade a hurried good-by, mounted and galloped away
into the darkness of the night, with the wishes of Mrs. Wilder and
the boys for success and a speedy return ringing in their ears.



CHAPTER XIII

OUT ON THE PLAINS

Unlike the night when the hunting party had ridden over the plains,
black clouds covered the sky, making the darkness so intense that
the riders could not see fifty feet ahead of them.  But Mr. Wilder
and Nails knew the route well, so that the absence of the moon made
no great difference.

That they need not tire their mounts by hard riding, Mr. Wilder had
purposely set the start early and, with Snider on one side and Bill
on the other, he led the cavalcade, setting the pace at a slow lope.

Now and then the cowboys talked or laughed, but for the most part
they were silent, the creak of the saddle leathers and the swish of
the horses' legs as they brushed through the grass being the only
sounds to tell that a body of men were riding through the darkness.

So lonesome was the ranch house after the departure of the party
that, though they made several attempts to talk, Horace and the two
Eastern lads finally decided to go to bed, to the evident relief of
Mrs. Wilder.

But sleep did not come to Larry and Tom, and as they lay tossing
and turning, the former asked:

"Do you think that fellow they call Skinny really meant there was
any danger threatening the herd at the Witches' Pool?"

"I don't believe so," replied Tom.  "I suppose there is always the
chance that a lot of things may happen to a big herd like that.
Some of them might try to wander away or they might get frightened
and stampede.  I read about a stampede once where the cattle ran
right over the edge of a cliff."

"Well, they couldn't do that at the pool, because there aren't any
cliffs near there," replied Tom.

Larry was not satisfied, however, and said:

"I wonder what cowboys do to stop a stampede?  I wish we'd thought
to ask Mr. Wilder."

"Don't always be looking for trouble, Larry," protested his brother.

"Still, we ought to know.  He said he'd hold us responsible for the
cattle."

"We can ask Ned when he gets back, if you really want to know.  But
don't, for goodness sake let Horace hear you.  His imagination is
so lively that he would think it was a stampede every time the
cattle moved.  I think it was because Horace is so excitable that
Mr. Wilder had us stay home.  He probably thought we were older and
could steady him down.  Now don't try to think up any more things
that might happen.  I'm tired and want to go to sleep."  And
turning his back to his brother, Tom refused to talk any more.

Out on the prairie the body of horsemen were riding silently and
steadily.

"I hope we shall not be obliged to wait long for Pete," said Bill,
giving voice to his thoughts.

"He'll be on hand, barring accidents," returned his father.

This confidence of the owner of the Half-Moon in his foreman was
justified, when, at the end of another hour, the men caught the
flare of a camp fire in the direction of the pool.

"Must have hurried some," asserted Snider.

But this comment elicited no other response than a quickening of
the pace.

When they were within a mile of the fire Mr. Wilder drew rein.

"You boys wait here," he commanded.  "I haven't any doubt but that
it's Pete's fire.  Still, it won't pay to take any chances.  Snider
and I will ride ahead to reconnoiter.  If we are not back within
half an hour, you'll know it's all right and can follow."

Little relishing the enforced halt, the cowboys, however, obeyed,
some of them dismounting and stretching out in the grass.

Riding a rod or so from the others, Bill, Nails and Sandy eagerly
peered through the darkness, listening intently for any sound that
should indicate danger.

The two ranch owners, being experienced in the art of scouting,
rode to the left into a roll of the plains, one crest of which shut
them off from the light.  For they were aware that should they ride
in its glare they would be seen by whoever was about the fire, and
they wished to make sure it was Pete and his men at the pool before
disclosing themselves.

But their caution was unnecessary.  When they had covered only a
little more than half the distance the lowing of cattle broke on
their ears.

"That's the Half-Moon outfit, sure enough," declared Snider.  And
putting spurs to their ponies, the ranch owners galloped straight
for the fire.

"Queer we can't see any of the boys," muttered Mr. Wilder in a low
voice.  "I know they are tired.  But, all things considered, one of
them at least ought to be on watch if for nothing else than to keep
the cattle from breaking away.  That they are restless, you can
tell from their lowing.

"It's no wonder the raiders were able to cut out my short-horned
Durhams if the boys didn't keep better watch."

His tone showed deep annoyance, and he was on the point of speaking
again when a sharp challenge rang out from their left:

"Who goes there?"

Instantly Mr. Wilder's anger vanished as he recognized the voice of
his foreman and replied:

"Don't get excited, Pete.  It's only Jim Snider and me."

In response to his master's greeting the cowboy sprang to his feet
and a movement of his hand toward his belt showed both ranchmen
that he had been prepared to dispute their advance should they have
proven foes instead of friends.

"Where are the others?  You two didn't come alone, did you?  I told
Nails to have you get as many as you could," said the foreman.

"We left them back yonder," returned the owner of the Half-Moon.
"Nails said we were to meet you in the morning, and when we saw the
fire Jim and I thought we'd make sure it was you."

"Well, I'm glad you've come," responded Pete.  "Now we can get on
the trail so much the sooner.  How many did you bring?"

"Nine from the Three Stars, including Jim, Bill, Nails and myself.
With your boys that will make twenty, just the number of the
raiders."

As he uttered the last words Mr. Wilder expected his foreman to
evince surprise, but instead he and Snider were the ones to be
taken aback as Pete remarked:

"So Nails found out, did he?  What else did he?  What else did he
learn?"

Briefly the owner of the Half-Moon reported the information Nails
had gleaned at Tolopah and then told him of the opinions he and the
proprietor of the Three Stars had formed.

"You got the lay of the land down to the last sage brush," declared
the foreman.  "But we will put a crimp in Megget's plans that he
will not forget.  My men are asleep by the fire, so there is no use
waking them till we've decided what to do."

"Then we must get down to business," returned his master.  "I told
the boys to ride up unless we returned in half an hour."

A moment there was silence, as though each were waiting for the
other to make some suggestion as to the best course to pursue, and
then Mr. Wilder said:

"So long as we know the headquarters are in the Lost Lode Mine, it
seems to me we had better strike for it direct.  Nails told me you
knew some trail."  And he looked at Pete.

"I know trails enough, but which is the one that leads to the Lost
Lode, I can't say.  That's just the trouble.  It would take a month
of Sundays to ride them all down.  While we were driving the cattle
up here, I was trying to figure out which trail to take in case
Nails found the mine was the place."

"You have tried some of the trails, haven't you, Pete?" inquired
the owner of the Three Stars.

"Sure.  There are six I know that don't lead to the mine.  That
leaves three between the pool and the Long Creek bottoms, and it
may be any one of them."

"Why do you think so?" asked his master.

"Because I know the right trail is between the pool and the
bottoms."

Again the men lapsed into silence, which Mr. Snider broke by
inquiring:

"What was it that young Alden mentioned about men crossing the
dirt?"

"That's so.  I'd forgotten it again," and quickly Mr. Wilder
narrated the incident to his foreman.

"Probably that was Megget," asserted Pete.  "But that doesn't help
us much.  We don't know where that trail breaks on the plains.
Besides, while we practically know the headquarters are near the
old mine, we don't know they are driving the cattle there.  They
may be heading straight for Don Vasquez's ranch.

"The plan that I kind of made up was to follow the trail from the
bottoms till we were sure which way the raiders were headed.  If
it's for the mine, we can ride back along the plains and try out my
three trails."

"But why not follow the cattle?" interrupted Mr. Wilder.

"Because I'd rather head them off than creep up on them.  The
raiders will be expecting us from behind.  By riding on the prairie
we can cover ten miles to their one, which will give us time to try
out the three trails, and, when we find the right one, we can get
in ahead and block the trail."



CHAPTER XIV

ANOTHER DISCOVERY

For several minutes the ranch owners discussed the suggestion and
finally decided to act on it unless circumstances should make a
change advisable.

Having settled the matter, they rode to the fire and aroused the
sleeping cowboys, being joined a few minutes later by Bill, Sandy
and the others.  Soon the men of the Half-Moon were saddling their
ponies.

"Queer we don't meet Ned anywhere," Bill exclaimed.  "I see from
the bags he's been here, Pete."

"He got here all right, but he didn't like to go back very well.
Had a bad case of nerves, so he took down the white awning."

"It's just as well," returned Mr. Wilder.  Then, finding that the
men were impatient to be on the move, he gave the command to start
and they rode toward the Long Creek bottoms.

When Tom and Larry awoke it was bright daylight.

"Why it's nine o'clock," exclaimed Larry in amazement as he looked
at his watch.

Hastily the brothers dressed and then went to see if Horace was in
his room or had played some joke on them in letting them sleep.  To
their relief, they found him in bed.

"Hey, you, get up!" cried Tom.  "You're a fine one to be in charge
of the Half-Moon Ranch.  If you stay in bed much longer, it will be
dark."

Deeply chagrined to think he had overslept, Horace leaped to the
floor, and soon the three boys were ready for breakfast.

At the sound of their voices Mrs. Wilder had ordered Hop Joy to
bring in their food, and as the lads entered the dining-room she
was awaiting them.

"Why didn't you call us?" protested Horace.

"Because I thought you were all tired and that sleep would do you
good."

"And I suppose if Larry or Tom hadn't happened to wake up, you
would have let us sleep all day?"

"I suppose I should," said his mother, smiling.  "When you are in
bed I know that you are safe."

"You must not worry about us, Mrs. Wilder," interposed Larry.  "I
always tell mother that we are old enough to take care of
ourselves.  So I wish you would feel the same.  I think it would
save you no end of anxiety."

"Undoubtedly.  But I never can think of my Horace except as my
baby."

"Huh!  I'm a pretty husky baby," grunted the boy.  "See here,
mother, I'm fifteen now, so I wish you'd stop calling me your baby.
When a fellow has been put in charge of the Half-Moon herd he
doesn't like to be called a baby."

"I'll try to remember," returned Mrs. Wilder gently.  Yet there was
a wistfulness in her voice that caused Horace to look up, and, at
the sight of her face, he left his chair, ran and put his arm
around her neck, exclaiming:

"If you want to call me baby, you can, Momsy!  I don't care.  Tom
and Larry are the right stuff and they won't laugh."

Ere either of the brothers could reply Hop Joy appeared.

"Ned he goee pool," he announced.  "Say if you boys wantee go, you
hully."

"Tell him to bring up Blackhawk, Lightning and Lady Belle.  Then
put up some food for us, Hop Joy.  Plenty of it, mind."

As the Chinaman glided from the room Mrs. Wilder asked:

"Why do you take anything except for lunch, son?"

"Because I think we will spend the night at the pool.  Larry and
Tom want to see the will-o'-the-wisps, and we maybe able to catch
some fish early to-morrow morning.  You know father always says
early morning is the only time to fish in the pool."

"Well, I don't suppose it will do any harm for you to be gone over
night.  Only be careful.  I shall worry if you are not back before
dusk tomorrow night."

Permission to pass the night obtained, the comrades quickly
collected their rifles and some fishing tackle, mounted the ponies
Ned had brought up and rode away.

After learning from their companion that he had found Pete and the
herd at the pool when he arrived, the lads indulged in speculation
as to when and where the pursuers would come across the raiders and
the chances of recovering the cattle.

Of a sudden, remembering his discussion, with his brother the night
before, Larry asked:

"How do you stop a stampede, Ned?"

"You generally don't," replied the man with a grin.

"But you try, don't you?  I'm sure I've read of cowboys stopping
stampedes."

"I guess they do it easier in story books then than on the plains.
The best way to stop a stampede is not to let it start.  Still, if
there's enough boys on hand, I suppose it could be done.  The only
way, though, would be to ride down the leaders and turn them round.

"As I said, if there are enough boys on hand when the trouble
breaks, they can get them to milling, which is going round and
round in a circle until the cattle get tired out.  But it takes a
mighty lively bunch of cow-punchers to do it."

After riding for two hours they came in sight of the cattle, and
the two brothers quickened their pace, eager to see them at close
range.

"Steady now.  Don't go riding at them like a pack of Indians or you
will have all the stampede you want to see," exclaimed Ned.  "My,
but they surely are restless!"

This last remark was caused by some of the steers which raised
their heads at the approach of the riders, then turned and dashed
back to the body of the herd.

"Oh, dear! I'm afraid we've started them," said Horace.

"Pull in your horses!" commanded Ned.  "The main bunch is all
right.  If we come up to them slow, there won't be any trouble."

Obeying instantly, the boys reined their horses to a walk and
reached the pool without causing further alarm among the cattle.

"So this is where the ghosts live, is it?" asked Tom, gazing from a
little knoll at a placid body of water about one hundred feet long
by twice as many wide, surrounded by reeds.

"Maybe you won't laugh so much to-night," declared their friend and
then, because he did not like to be joked about his belief that the
place was haunted, he added: "Come on, let's see if we can find
which direction father and the boys took."

The chance to try if they could track any one on the prairie
appealed to the others, and they started to ride around the pool.

"I can see where they had a camp fire!" cried Tom, pointing toward
a pile of white ashes.

"Here's where the grass is all tramped down.  Look, there's a
regular path right for the mountains."

"No, this is the way they went, to the south, here," returned Larry.

Each boy was firm in his declaration that he had found the trail
and to prove it they dismounted and began to examine the ground.

"I'm right.  I can see horse tracks!" cried Larry.  "This is the
way they took, isn't it, Ned?" Thus appealed to, both Horace and
the man rode up.

"Larry's right," announced Ned, after a few moments observation,

"Then what caused my tracks?" demanded Tom.  "Here are horse
tracks, too, only most of the hoofprints are made by cattle."

"Oh, you can't tell a cow from a pony print," taunted Horace.

"Come over and see for yourself," retorted Tom.

Examination proving that he was right, his friend exclaimed:

"That was made by the boys coming up."

"But the tracks are all going toward the mountains.  They certainly
wouldn't drive any cattle away with them.  You don't--you don't
suppose it's another raid, do you?" and Tom glanced at Ned.

"Yes."



CHAPTER XV

THE CONTESTED TRAIL

The thought that the cattle thieves should have dared to make still
another raid on the very night when the outfits of the Half-Moon
and Three Stars ranches had set out to run them to cover was so
startling that for several minutes after Tom had suggested it no
one spoke.

Larry was the first one to recover from the shock of surprise.

"There's no use in trying to guess," he declared.  "We must find
out.  The only way to do that, so far as I can see, is to follow
the trail and discover where it leads."

This proposition received the excited endorsement of the other two
boys, and Horace added:

"Wouldn't it be dandy if we could round up Megget and his men
before father and the others?  Come on!"

"Don't be in too much of a hurry," urged Tom.

"Oh, if you are afraid to go, you needn't.  I'll go alone," sneered
Horace.

Flushing at the taunt of cowardice, Tom bit his lips that he might
not say anything he should regret.

"You ought to know, Horace, that neither Larry nor I are afraid,"
he responded.  "I was only thinking about your mother.  We promised
her we would be back by to-morrow night.  The idea of our going in
pursuit of Megget by ourselves is foolish.  The thing to do is to
make sure this trail leads into the mountains and then go and try
to find your father and his men."

"Now you're talking sense," interrupted Ned.

"To find them will certainly take us longer than until to-morrow
night.  In order that Mrs. Wilder need not worry, we must let her
know of the change in our plans."

"That's so," agreed Larry.  "Still there is no reason for our all
going back; one is enough.  Let's draw lots to see who it shall be."

"Not much," returned Horace.  "So long as father and Bill are away,
I am in charge of the Half-Moon.  The rest of you must do as I say.
Ned is the one to go back!"

"But you boys don't know anything about the trails," protested the
man.  "You will get lost."

"We certainly can follow this one," retorted Horace hotly.  "And we
can always find our way back.  Just tell mother we shall join
father."

In vain the driver of the grub wagon endeavored to dissuade the
lads, but the thought of taking part in the pursuit of the raiders,
after all, made them deaf to all his arguments, and at last Horace
exclaimed impatiently:

"You are only delaying us, Ned.  I say you are to return to the
ranch.  That settles it.  Larry and Tom and I are going to take the
trail."  And, without further ado, he shook out his pony and headed
for the mountains, the two brothers at his side.

The pace at which Horace rode was terrific, and because of the hot
sun, the horses were soon covered with lather.

"Look here, we've got to go at a slower gait," announced Larry.
"If we keep up this clip, our ponies will give out.  They can't
stand it and the heat, too.  And if they do give out, it will be
sure to be just at the very time we need them most."

"But we'll soon be in the mountains, and then it will be cooler,"
asserted Horace.  "I want to overhaul the raiders before night.
Won't father and the others feel small when they learn that we
three, whom they left behind because we were too young, have
rounded up Megget?"

"You don't mean to say that you intend for us three to tackle the
raiders alone?" exclaimed Tom.

"Why not?"

"Because we wouldn't stand one chance in a thousand--no, nor in ten
thousand--of being able to capture them.  We don't know the trail
at all, and they probably are familiar with every rock and turn in
it.  If they should discover that we were pursuing them, all they
would need do would be to lie in wait for us and capture us when we
came along."

The truth of what the younger of the chums said was so evident that
even the impetuous Horace was forced to admit it.

"Then what shall we do?" he asked.  "If you have any better plan to
suggest, out with it."

Tom, however, could think of nothing feasible and was silent.

The boys had pulled their ponies down to a walk and for several
minutes none of them spoke.

Of a sudden Blackhawk raised his head, sniffed the air and then
uttered a low whinny.

The sound, coming so unexpectedly, scared the lads, and they looked
at one another in alarm.

"He smells something," exclaimed Horace in a whisper, as though
fearing to speak out loud.

The boys were in the lowland between two crests of the rolling
plains.

"Perhaps it's the cattle.  They may be on the other side of that
rise in the plains," returned Larry.

Anxiously the three boys gazed toward the crest.  The thought that
they might be close upon the very men they were chasing startled
them, and they were at a loss as to the best thing to do.

"If it is the raiders and the cattle Blackhawk scented, then
they'll be on the lookout for us," murmured Tom.  "They could hear
that whinny for----"

"By jove! it is they," cried Larry excitedly.  "See those horses'
ears bobbing?" And he pointed to the south.

Following his finger, his companions beheld two sharp points
steadily advancing from the farther side of the crest.

"Be ready to give it to 'em," breathed Horace, at the same time
unslinging his rifle.

But before he could get it to his shoulder the head of the horse
came into view and the next instant the head and shoulders of a man.

In a flash the chums seized their rifles.

The horseman was only about one hundred yards away, and as he
caught sight of the rifles pointed toward him he pulled his pony to
its haunches.

"Throw up your hands!" yelled Horace.  "If you make a move, we'll
drop you.  You are a prisoner of the Half-Moon Ranch!"

As the horseman heard the name he shouted:

"Steady, there! I'm Jim Jeffreys.  What are you up to, anyhow?"

"Who's Jim Jeffreys?" demanded Larry of Horace.

"He's one of our neighbors, if it's him."

"Well, don't you know?  Can't you recognize him?"

Having recovered from his fright, the boy stared at the man who had
caused it and then announced:

"Yes, it is Jim."

"It's a pity you couldn't have recognized him before!" snapped Tom
as he and his brother lowered their rifles.



CHAPTER XVI

WHAT JEFFREYS KNEW

Jeffreys, as soon as he understood his identity had been
established, leaped his pony toward the boys and was soon beside
them.

"You are a fine lot to be packing rifles!" he snorted, his anger
rising as the danger passed.  "You may think it's a good joke to
cover anybody you meet on the plains, but some one may turn the
joke on you by firing before you get your aim.  You aren't what you
call 'quick on the trigger.'"

"Which is fortunate for you--in this case," declared Larry,
resenting the manner and tone of the stranger.

The sight of the two serious-faced boys, whose eyes showed them to
be keen and alert, brought Jeffreys to his senses.

"I reckon you're right," he exclaimed.  "But what's up, Horace?  If
you and your friends are out for a little excitement, just take my
tip and turn your attention to jumping a coyote or you may----"

"We are not after excitement," retorted the boy from the Half-Moon
Ranch.  "We don't have to go looking for it.  We've got all we
want.  Some of Megget's gang have raided our herd."

"No?  It must have been them I saw over near the hills early this
morning."

"Where were they?"  "Which way were they going?"  "How many were
there of them?" demanded the lads, each one asking a question.

"It was just after sun-up.  I was too far away to recognize the
cattle, but I counted four men.  As they only had about fifty head
with 'em, I sort of suspected something was wrong, so I got out of
sight before they could see me.  Leastways, if they did, they
didn't make any move to get me."

"Where have you been?"

"I've been up in the hills for a few days prospecting."

"Did you find the mine?" inquired Tom, forgetting the raid and
pursuit in his eagerness to learn about the Lost Lode.

"No, I didn't.  I just learned another trail, which isn't the right
one."

Larry, however, was more interested in the cattle thieves and
brought the conversation back to them.


"Were the men near the hills when you saw them?" he asked.

"About a quarter of a mile away."

"Then come on.  We must get to the hills so we can find their
trail," declared Horace.

"You kids sure ain't going after 'em alone?" exclaimed Jeffreys
incredulously.

"But if there are only four of them?"

"To you three, and they are men, don't forget that."

"But you'll make four," suggested Tom.

"Providing I was going with you, which I ain't, I'd like to, but I
reckon I'd better ride back to my own ranch and see they haven't
lifted any of my cattle.  If they have, I'll get my boys and take
up the trail."

Realizing from the expressions on their faces that the lads were
surprised as well as disappointed at his refusal to accompany them,
the horseman said:

"You all just take my advice and don't try to follow those raiders
into the mountains.  What you want to do is to find Wilder and
Snider as quick as you can, providing you won't go back to your
ranch, where you ought to be."

"Which you can bet your whole outfit we won't!" snapped Horace.
"We started on this chase and we're going to stay on it."

Jeffreys smiled at the determined manner of the young rancher,

"Then join your father as soon as you can.  Don't try any fool
stunt like going into the mountains.  Remember, when you are on the
prairie you can sec on all sides of you."

"Except when you're behind a crest," chuckled Tom.

At this reference to the recent contretemps Jeffreys frowned,
started to say something and instead dug his spurs into his pony,
galloping away without even so much as looking back.

"He's a fine neighbor--not," declared Larry as the trio resumed
their way.  "I should have thought he would be only too glad to
help your father and Mr. Snider get back their cattle."

"He isn't very keen for the Half-Moon," rejoined Horace.  "Father
beat him in a law case over a boundary line once and he's never
forgotten it."

"And I reckon he won't forget his meeting with us to-day," said
Tom, grinning.

At the memory of the reception they had given, Jeffreys the
comrades had a hearty laugh.

"Still, he gave us some good advice," asserted Larry.  "I agree
with him that the thing for us is to find the Half-Moon and Three
Stars crowd as soon as we can."

"Which seems to be a pretty big order in itself," mused Tom.  "I
say we go and see where they drove the cattle into the hills and
then decide."

This suggestion met with no opposition, and as the boys rode toward
the mountains, the wooded sides of which looked inviting because of
the relief they promised from the torrid heat of the plains, they
discussed various plans, only to discard them.

At last they reached the hills.  Dismounting, they hobbled their
ponies, removed the saddles and bridles sticky with lather, and
then broke out some lunch which they ate ravenously, despite the
fact that their mouths were almost parched.

Greatly refreshed by the food, the boys decided to follow the trail
of the cattle till they could get some idea of its direction.

"Let's go on foot," suggested Tom.  "The ponies will be all right,
the rest will do them good, and we can get through the brush and
over the rocks with less noise."

Readily his companions agreed, and picking up their rifles, they
quickly found the tracks made by the cattle.

For some distance the trail seemed more like an abandoned wood road
than anything else.  But gradually it began to grow narrower and at
last became no more than a path winding in and out among the rocks.

Several times some sound caused the boys to raise their guns to
their shoulders and peer about in all directions, but nothing could
they see save the trees and rocks, and they ascribed the noises to
some denizen of the forest roaming about.

Of a sudden Tom, who was in the lead, stopped.

"I smell something awful queer," he whispered.

The trail wound along the edge of a sharp descent and just ahead
was an abrupt turn.

Ere either Larry or Horace could reply to their companion's
announcement all three were dumb-founded to see a big, shaggy brown
head appear round the turn in the trail.

"It's a bear!" gasped Horace.

At the sight of the three boys the big head had paused in surprise.
Then its lips began to curl, disclosing a wicked looking set of
teeth, and finally it broke into a savage snarl, at the same time
rising in the air.

"He's getting to his hind legs.  That means fight!" breathed
Horace.  "Come on, let's run!"

"But he'd overtake us and beat us down with his paws," returned
Larry.  "We've got to kill him."

Less time did the action consume than is required to describe it,
and the boys were standing terror stricken when the bear charged
upon them, making vicious lunges at them with his huge paws.

Roused from his fright by the imminence of his peril, Tom raised
his rifle, only to have it knocked from his hands by a swing of one
of the bear's paws.

[Illustration: The rifle was knocked from his hand.]

"Drop down! drop down so I can shoot!" yelled Larry as he saw the
desperate situation in which his brother was placed.

Instantly Tom obeyed, throwing himself to one side as he fell.

But as the younger of the brothers dropped the bear, as though
singling him out for his particular antagonist, also dropped to all
fours, and Larry's shot went over him.

Horace, however, shot lower, and a terrible roar told them that the
bullet had struck home.

In the fury of his pain the bear seemed to think that the boy lying
flat on the rocks was the cause of his suffering, and, with mouth
distended, charged upon him.

In a frenzy lest they might not be able to save Tom, Larry and
Horace both fired.

At the impact of the bullets the bear rose on his hind legs, swung
wildly with his paws at the steel barrels that were pouring the
terribly painful things into him and fell prone, the huge carcass
missing Tom by less than a foot.



CHAPTER XVII

LOST!

From the moment when his brother had cried to him to drop, Tom had
kept his eyes on the bear, and when he saw the beast plunge forward
and realized that it was dead, he leaped to his feet, his pale face
telling of the awful strain under which he had been.

The reaction from their excitement made Larry and Horace tremble
and, for the time, they could only look from their companion to the
carcass of the bear, too unnerved to speak.

Tom was the first to recover from the fright, and he thanked the
others for what they had done.

"Let's not talk about it," interposed Larry.  "The thing for us to
do is to get out of here lively.  The reverberations from those
shots are echoing yet.  The raiders must have heard them, and
they'll know some one is on their trail, so they will either come
back to sec who it is or else hide to waylay us."

Tom and Horace were perfectly willing to give up following the
trail farther, and all three were retracing their steps when the
elder of the chums cried:

"The rifle!  Tom, you forgot to pick up your rifle."

"Which shows I was some scared," and he smiled apologetically.

"But it's a worse one on Larry and me," protested Horace.  "There's
some excuse for you.  But the bear wasn't charging us."

"Oh, well there's no harm done," returned Larry, pleased at the
spirit Horace's words showed.  "We can go back and get it.  It's a
mighty good thing, though, that we thought of It before we reached
the ponies.  From the looks of the sky and the shadows it won't be
long before dusk, and Mr. Wilder told us night comes quickly in the
mountains."

Ere Larry had finished speaking they had started back to the scene
of their encounter.

Yet when they reached the spot Tom's rifle was nowhere to be seen.

In dismay the boys looked at one another.  Already the mountains
were turning purple-black in the twilight, the shadows transforming
the trees and rocks into weird figures.

"Perhaps it's under the bear," hazarded Horace, his low voice
evidencing the awe which the silence and the surroundings inspired
in him.

"Then give a hand while we move him," commanded Larry.  "It won't
do to stay here long or we may lose our way as well as the rifle."

Little relishing the thought of wandering through the woods in the
dark, the boys seized one of the paws and pulled with all their
might.

But, to their surprise, they could move the carcass scarcely at all.

"My, but he's a monster!" gasped Larry.  "It's only a waste of
valuable time to try to lift him or even move him.  The only thing
we can do is to try to feel under him with our hands."

Dropping to their knees, the lads thrust their arms under the
shaggy fur, being able to reach far; enough to make sure that the
much-wanted rifle was not beneath the body of the bear.

"Bet he knocked it over the cliff," declared Horace.  "From which
side did he strike it, Tom?"

"More than I know.  All I could see was paws.  The air was full of
them and they seemed to come from all directions at once."

This explanation brought laughter to Larry and Horace, which ceased
abruptly, however, as from somewhere on the mountains there
suddenly rang out a low wail, more like the howl of a coyote than
anything else, yet with a certain difference that even the chums
were able to distinguish.

"Whatever that is, I don't care to meet it," exclaimed Horace.
"Let's go back.  We've still got two rifles.  If we stick to the
plains till we join father we can get along all right."

"Suppose we don't meet your father, what then?" returned Larry.

"Always looking for more trouble, as if we didn't have enough
already," chided Tom.  "Of course we'll meet him.  Anyhow, this is
no place to argue about it.  If you and Horace can't protect me,
I'll take both your rifles and watch over the two of you."

There was a suggestion of mockery in Tom's voice, but taking it
good naturedly, Larry replied:

"Oh, no you won't.  You can't throw your gun away every time you
get scared and then take ours from us.  You just get in between
Horace and me.  Horace, you lead because you know how to follow a
trail better, and I'll keep off the bears and raiders," he added
with a smile.

The movements of the boys, however, were more rapid than their
words, and they were traveling the trail once more ere Larry's
joking allusion to the loss of the rifle and the protection he
would afford.

So long as their way lay among the rocks they followed the trail
with little difficulty, but when they entered the woods their
troubles began in earnest.

None too self-possessed in the dark, even when going about the
ranch, when he entered the inky darkness caused by the maze of
boughs and foliage, Horace lost his head completely, and it did not
take the comrades long to realize they had wandered from the trail.

"Better let me take the lead, Horace; I'm taller," said Larry, at
the same time giving his brother a poke In the ribs as a warning
not to object.

"Well, you'll have to be a giraffe to see your way over the tops of
these trees," chuckled Tom.

Their plight was too serious to admit of jest, however, and after
wandering for half an hour, stumbling over dead limbs and running
into trees and branches, they halted in despair.

"I remember Si told us back home that when a man's lost he
generally travels in a circle," said Tom.

"So he did, and he said It was usually to the left, because a man
takes a longer step with his right foot," added Larry.

"That may help when you know which is the right and which is the
left of the way you have been going, but here we've turned round to
talk, so we don't even know that much," interposed Horace.

"That's a fact," admitted the elder of the chums reluctantly as he
realized that by facing one another they had lost all sense of
direction.  "It's a good thing you thought of it, Horace, or we
might have got ourselves into a worse mess than we're in now,"

"If it weren't for all that good food cooked by Hop Joy back with
the horses and the fact that I'm hungry, I'd be in favor of staying
right where we are till morning," announced Tom.

"I reckon that is the best thing we can do, anyhow," declared his
brother.

"Not with my appetite," retorted Tom.

"This is no time to be funny," reprimanded Larry.  "If we keep on
moving, we may never get out, while if we stay here we can climb
into one of these trees and be safe till daylight shows us----"

"By jove! That's the very thing!" exclaimed the younger of the
chums, and there was such a tone of genuine enthusiasm in his voice
that the others asked excitedly:

"What?"

"Why, the trees.  We won't need to sleep in them.  By climbing a
tall one, we can get the lay of the land as soon as moonlight
comes, which will show us at least how to get out onto the plains
again."

"Hooray!" cried Larry and Horace together.

Each realized the plan was feasible, provided the night was not
cloudy, and once on the prairie it would not be difficult for the
young rancher to lead the way to the horses.  And, although they
knew that the moon would not rise for two hours at least, they were
so eager to try the plan that they began to discuss who should be
the one to do the climbing.

The two brothers claimed preference because they were both stronger
and taller than their companion, but Horace silenced them by
declaring that not only could he go higher because he was lighter,
but that he would be able to recognize their whereabouts from his
knowledge of the mountains.

Restraining their impatience as best they could, the boys sat down.

"When we do get out, which way shall we go to join Mr. Wilder and
the others?" asked Larry.

This question started further discussion.  One suggestion after
another was made only to be rejected because of some obstacle, and
finally they decided the safest thing to do would be to ride till
they found the trail over which the cattle had been driven from the
bottoms and follow that.

Soon Horace climbed a convenient tree.

"We sure are dubs!" he cried.

"Why?  Is the moon up?" asked the two chums eagerly..

"No, the moon isn't up.  I don't need it.  The stars are bright
enough.  We've been sitting here fretting all this while within a
hundred yards of the prairie!"



CHAPTER XVIII

A MYSTERIOUS CALL

Horace and Larry having picked up their rifles, the three boys
resumed their way, Larry leading slowly, taking care to make his
steps of as nearly equal length as possible, and in due time they
came onto the prairie.

"My, but this stretch of level does look good," declared Tom, and
his companions expressed their hearty agreement as they hastened
toward the spot where they left their ponies.

Finding them without difficulty, the lads broke out the food and
ate ravenously,

"Hey, go easy on the grub," cautioned Larry as he noted the amount
his companions were eating.  "This is all we have to last us until
we meet the others--or get back to the ranch," he added as the
thought recurred to him that luck would play a large part in the
success of their search for the pursuing party.

"You can go easy if you like.  So long as there's anything to eat,
I am going to eat," returned his brother.  "Don't worry.  We won't
starve.  If worse comes to worse, I can get you some deer meat,
provided you'll lend me your rifle."

"Or I can get you some mountain lion meat," added Horace.

"I notice neither of you mention bear meat," chuckled the elder of
the chums.

"Because it doesn't agree with us," returned Tom, and at this
allusion to their recent adventure they all laughed merrily.

In delight at the extrication from their dilemma the boys chatted
and joked as they repacked the saddle bags, unhobbled their ponies
and prepared to resume riding.

"There's only one thing that could, add to my happiness," remarked
Larry as he swung onto Lightning's back.

"What's that?" Inquired his companions.

"About a gallon of drinking water."

"I'm some thirsty, too," said Horace, "but I don't know of a place
where there is any water."

"Then we'll leave it to the horses," asserted Tom.  "Mr. Wilder
told me they would always locate water if there was any about.
From the way Blackhawk acts, I think he scents some."

"Scents water!" sneered Horace.

"Just you wait and see," retorted the younger of the comrades, and
giving free rein to his pony, he let him nose along through the
grass for some distance when the animal turned abruptly and entered
the woods, stopping beside a brook.

"You'd better appoint me guide and captain of this company," smiled
the boy as they dismounted and drank greedily of the cool water.

"You'd be a fine captain without a gun," retorted Larry, and in
high spirits they remounted.

For a time the boys had the moon for company, but toward, midnight
clouds gathered in the sky and a chilly wind began to blow.

"How about pitching camp pretty soon?" suggested Larry.

"Wait till we get to Elkhorn River," answered Horace".

"How far is that?  I didn't suppose there was such a thing in these
plains."

"Oh, I should say it was fifteen miles from here," returned the
young rancher.  "It isn't much of a river, but it's better than
none."

"Wouldn't ride fifteen--Hello! What's that glow in the sky right
next the mountains?" exclaimed Tom, pointing to where a faint glare
was visible against the dark background of trees.

"It's a fire," asserted Horace, "a camp fire.  You can tell by the
steadiness of the light."

Excitedly they speculated as to whose it could be.

"If it's raiders, we want to know it.  Perhaps we can round up some
of them," declared Horace.

And urging their ponies into a gallop, the boys rode forward.

When they were near enough to distinguish the flames they
dismounted, hobbled their horses in the underbrush and approached
on foot.

No sign of man or beast could they see, and their curiosity was
further aroused.

"Stoop down so your heads are In the grass," admonished Horace.
"It may be they have seen us and are hiding among the trees.  Don't
make any noise and stick close together."

Crouching low, the trio advanced stealthily.  Nearer and nearer
they drew, yet no sound could they hear.  Consumed with curiosity,
Horace suddenly stood up, determined to learn if any one were
sleeping beside the fire.

Yet no sooner had he risen than a command rang out:

"Throw up your hands!"

The two brothers, ignorant of their companion's action, gasped at
the words.  But Horace let out a whoop of joy.

"Hooray!  It's father and the boys," he cried so loud that
instantly a dozen figures bounded from about the fire.

"Well, if it ain't them kids!" ejaculated Pete, who had been on
guard.  "It's lucky you recognized my voice, Horace."

By this time Tom and Larry had straightened up and all three were
hastening toward the camp fire, thinking only of their good fortune
in finding their friends.

"Horace, what does this mean?" demanded his father sternly.  "I
told you to stay at home, and yet we haven't been gone but
twenty-four hours and you come tagging along."

But the severity of his father did not dismay the young rancher.
Looking straight at him, the boy hastily told of the ride to the
pool and the discovery that more cattle had been driven away.

The information excited the cowboys greatly, and emphatic were
their opinions of the daring of the thieves in making another raid
and within a few hours after the men pursuing them had set out.

"They probably were watching us all the time," asserted the owner
of the Three Stars.

"Probably," agreed Mr. Wilder.  "But what have you boys been doing
since you learned of the raid?  You could almost walk your ponies
from the pool to here in all this time."

Before any of them could reply, however, a long, low wail rang out.
Surprised, the men glanced at one another,

"That sounds like a coyote, but it ain't," asserted Pete.

Again the cry broke on the air and was repeated twice.

"Why, it's the very same sound we heard in the mountains!"
exclaimed Larry.  And his companions confirmed him.

"The same cry you heard in the mountains?" repeated Mr. Wilder.

"Yes, sir," and in a few words the elder of the brothers related
their adventures.

"Then it's a signal," declared Pete.  "You boys have been followed.
It's a mighty good thing we were camping here."

"Those cries came from the plains.  Mebbe it's the thieves going
for more cattle," declared Sandy.

"We'll find out what it is.  Everybody to horse!" commanded Mr.
Wilder.  "Pete, three or four of you go with Horace and the Aldens
to get their ponies.  We'll ride up and join you."



CHAPTER XIX

A TERRIBLE PLOT

Quickly the men ran to the woods where they had concealed their
ponies, unhobbled, saddled and mounted them, riding along till they
came to where Pete and the boys were.

"Which way shall we go?" inquired Sandy when all were In their
saddles.  "That cry came from straight ahead of us on the plains,
according to my judgment."

Pete and the other cowboys agreed with him, and, trusting to their
sense of direction, the owner of the Half-Moon said:

"Then we'll ride due east.  Spread out abreast.  The more ground we
can cover the better."

"But don't get too far apart," interposed the rancher from the
Three Stars.  "Keep close enough together so you can see the man on
your right."

Rapidly were these commands given, and within fifteen minutes after
the mysterious calls had startled them the twenty-three horsemen
were advancing over the prairie, eyes and ears alert for sound or
sight of the men who had uttered the signals, the two Eastern boys
and Horace riding between Mr. Wilder and Pete at the southern end
of the line.

But for once Sandy's ears had played him false.  Ignorant of the
psychological fact that only when a man's head is turned can he
correctly judge the direction of sound, it being impossible to
distinguish between a sound coming from directly in front or
behind, the foreman of the Three Stars Ranch had been deceived
because he had been looking straight ahead out into the prairie.
And instead of riding toward the men who had roused them by their
cries, each bound of the horses was carrying them farther away.

When Larry and his companions had met the bear, the four raiders
with the cattle Jeffreys had seen were only about two miles in
advance of them.  As the boys had thought, the reverberations of
the shots had reached the ears of the men at the rear of the cattle
and they had uttered the wail as a signal to those ahead, jumping
to the conclusion that they were being followed.

Making use of their knowledge of the mountains, the raiders had
hurriedly driven the cattle into the forest, where they would be
out of sight and so could not give warning of the whereabouts of
the thieves, and had then hidden themselves behind some rocks along
the trail.  From their ambuscade they would be able to shoot down
their pursuers or capture them as they felt inclined.

But as the reader knows, the boys doubled on their trail and so
divided the trap.

After waiting till dark without any sign of pursuers, the raiders
grew fearsome.

"We've got to find out for sure whether it's somebody on our trail
or just some one that is hunting," declared one of them, who, if
the two brothers could have seen him, they would have recognized as
Gus Megget.

"Considering we've waited more than two hours and no one has showed
up, I say we ought to push onto the Lode, Gus," asserted another.

"How can we drive cattle over this trail in the dark?" growled the
chief of the raiders.  "You ought to have more sense, seeing the
trouble we've had to get them as far as this in the daylight."

"So long as we can't drive, we might just as well go back and find
out who's been shooting."

Realizing that it was futile to urge their leader to change his
mind, the other raiders sullenly acquiesced, and, emerging from
their places of concealment, went into the woods to get their
horses and were soon riding stealthily back over the trail.

Though they dared not refuse to go, the men, however, were not
backward in expressing their disapproval of the move, declaring
that they were tempting disaster by returning when they had made so
successful a start.

But Megget paid no attention to their grumblings and soon his
companions lapsed into silence.

Fate, however, which had saved the two brothers and the young
rancher from stumbling into the ambush, was still favoring them.

For when the raiders reached the edge of the prairie Megget ordered
a halt that they might eat, and when again they resumed their ride
the boys were far on their way toward the spot where they met their
friends.

Not long did it take their pursuers to discover the place where the
three had eaten and then to find the direction in which they had
departed.

"What's the use of following any farther, Gus?" demanded one of
them.  "So long as they have ridden to the south, and there are
only three of them, anyhow, we are in no danger."

But with a blind obstinacy the leader of the cattle thieves
persisted in continuing the pursuit, and set the pace at a fast
gallop.

In due course of time, as the boys before them, they discovered the
glare from the camp fire.

"We'll ride into the mountains, dismount and then find out who it
is that has the fire," declared Megget.

"You're playing with trouble, Gus," protested his companions.
"From what I know of Wilder, he won't let a bunch of his cattle be
lifted without doing something.  That may be his fire."

"All the more reason why we should go to it--to make sure," snapped
the leader of the raiders.  "Wilder is a fool or he wouldn't leave
his herd unguarded at the Witches' Pool."

"You'll find he's smarter than you think.  I'll bet all my share of
these raids will come to that the only reason the herd was alone
was because his whole outfit is on the trail from the bottoms,"
asserted another.

"Well, the boys can take care of 'em if they are.  I said I was
going to find out who built that fire, and I'm going to."  And
without more ado, the leader of the raiders dashed into the woods.

Riding cautiously among the trees until he thought he was about
back of the fire Megget gave the word to dismount.

A short distance to the south and above them was a ledge from which
they would be able to command a view of the camp fire, and rapidly
the raiders made their way to It.

What they saw when they reached the top and gazed down caused them
to exclaim in amazement.

The cowboys were saddling their ponies, and instead of the three
men they had expected to discover, Megget and his companions saw a
dozen.

"That's the Half-Moon bunch!" declared one of them.

"There are too many of them," asserted another.  "We're in a pretty
mess now.  Those three men we followed have evidently informed them
of finding our trail and they are starting to pick it up."

"Don't you worry about that," growled Megget.  And before his
companions were aware what he intended to do, he uttered the calls
that caused the ranch owners and cowboys to start out into the
prairie.

Eagerly the raiders watched them disappear and Megget chuckled:

"I thought I could fool 'em.  It's easy when you are above any
one."  And then he added: "You'll wish you had never started after
me, Wilder!"

Wondering at their leader's meaning, his fellows had no chance to
ask, however, for even as he spoke Megget was descending from the
ledge.

Arriving at the camp fire, he glanced about for a few moments, then
sent his men for the horses.

As soon as he was sure he was alone, the leader of the raiders
walked out on the plains, paused, wet his finger in his mouth, then
raised his hand above his head.

"Great!  I'm sure playing in luck," he muttered to himself.  "The
wind is blowing from the west--straight out across the plains."
And chuckling grimly, the cattle thief returned to the fire to
await the horses.

Mounting quickly when they arrived, Megget gave a curt order for
his own men to follow and galloped in the same direction the ranch
owners and cowboys had taken.

At the end of a quarter of a mile he drew rein and again went
through the performance of wetting his finger and raising it above
his head, murmuring more to himself than his pals:

"I didn't know but that the hills might have changed the direction
of the wind.

"Here, you," he added, turning to his men, "two of you ride a mile
up and Squinty and I'll ride south.  When I give the call, fire the
grass and then ride for the trail and drive the cattle to the mine.
I'll cut across and warn Vasquez and the others."



CHAPTER XX

THE PRAIRIE FIRE

As his men heard the words and realized their significance, they
glanced at their leader and then at one another.

Yet none of them moved.

"Are you deaf?" roared Megget.  "Do as I say--and lively.  Squinty,
come with me."  And clapping spurs to his pony, he dashed southward.

Fearing to disobey, the two raiders delegated to ride to the north
started.  But as soon as they were out of earshot one of them said:

"Megget can fire the prairie if he wants to, I won't.  I'm none too
stuck on cattle raiding, anyhow, but when it comes to starting a
fire that will probably wipe out the Half-Moon outfit and perhaps
even the herd, Bobby Lawrence balks!"

"Showing the white feather, eh?" snarled his companion.  "I warned
Gus you wasn't any good, but he wouldn't believe me.  You'll do
what he says, though, as long as you're with Red Ike!"

Red Ike was a giant in strength, the bully of the gang, and
Lawrence had seen too much of him to care to risk an encounter with
him, so with a growl he said:

"All right.  Lead the way."

"Not much.  I'll ride beside you, so you won't come any tricks."

But though Lawrence had appeared to yield, it was only as a matter
of policy, and his determination not to fire the prairie was as
firm as before.  Yet how he could prevent it, he was at a loss to
determine until suddenly he remembered that Red Ike had asked him
for a match that afternoon.

As the thought flashed through his mind that his companion had no
means for carrying out Megget's instructions Lawrence put his hand
to his belt, where he carried his tobacco outfit, and quickly
unloosening it, let it fall into the grass.

None too soon was his action, for even as he opened his hand to let
go of the pouch that held his pipe, tobacco and cigarette papers
Red Ike snapped:

"I reckon we've gone a mile." And as he turned to look back the
signal sounded, and in a trice he saw the flames, set by his
leader, leap in the air.

"Quick, Gus has touched off!" he cried, then added as he felt in
vain for any matches, "Gimme some of your fire-sticks, mine are all
gone."

Suppressing the smile that came to his face at the words, for
Lawrence bad feared his companion might have obtained a supply from
one of the others, he replied:

"Can't.  I haven't any."

"What?" roared Red Ike.  "You can't come any such game on me.  You
had plenty this afternoon.  Hand 'em over--and be lively!"

As he spoke the bully edged his pony closer to the other.

Lawrence, however, only repeated his statement calmly.

"You won't gimme them, eh? Then I'll take 'em myself."  And like a
flash his powerful fist shot out, striking his companion under the
right side of his jaw with such terrific force that it lifted him
from the saddle.

Springing to the ground, Red Ike roughly searched the motionless
body, and when he found that the tobacco pouch was indeed gone he
realized the trick that Lawrence had played.

For a moment the baffled raider glowered upon the man who had
outwitted him.  Then his attention was distracted by the sound of
hoof beats and, turning, he beheld the two horses racing toward the
hills, having taken fright at the flames leaping over the plains.
And never thinking of the man he had unhorsed, Red Ike dashed after
them.

Advancing cautiously, the ranch owners and their men were beginning
to wonder if they could have mistaken the direction of the signals
when they heard the call again.

"That's back of us," declared Pete.

Instantly the others turned in their saddles, and as they did so
the flames bounded into the air.

"They fooled us good and plenty!" growled Nails, while all the boys
glared at the foreman of the Three Stars Ranch.

"They did," asserted Mr. Wilder grimly, "but it's no use talking
about it now.  We've got all we can do to get away from the fire."

In terror the boy chums watched the flames spread as if by magic
till in a few minutes a towering wall of fire was racing toward
them.

"Shall we start a back fire?" asked Bill.

"No use," returned several of the cowboys, "the wind's in the wrong
direction."

"Then we've got to ride for it," asserted Snider.

Well did the cowboys realize the danger, and with might and main
they urged their ponies, each one bent only on saving himself.

For a time the two brothers and Horace kept pace with them, but
they were not skilled in the fine art of getting the most out of
their ponies when the animals began to tire, and it was not long
before they found themselves dropping behind.

"Wait for us!" shouted Horace as he noticed the distance that
separated them constantly increasing.

For a moment it seemed to the terrified lads that their cry had not
been heard, yet just when they began to despair three horses
dropped behind, and as the boys came up with them they recognized
the two ranch owners and Pete.

"Take Horace, Pete; Snider, Tom; I'll take Larry," commanded Mr.
Wilder, and each of the men leaped their horses to seize the bridle
of the boy indicated.

Not more than two miles behind them was the terrible wall of fire.
In front of it coyotes and all other animals of the plains were In
full flight, their cries of fear or pain as they fell victims to
the all-devouring flames now and then rising above the sullen roar.

"Oh, it's gaining! it's gaining!" wailed Horace.

"Don't look behind.  Keep your eyes in front and _ride_!" commanded
his father.

Sparks borne by the wind began to fall all about, now and then
starting blazes which the cowboys put out by beating with their
blankets where they could, yet none checked his speed.  To the hot
air was added smoke, and men and horses were breathing with
difficulty, gasping and coughing.

"If you've got handkerchiefs, jam them in your mouths!" cried
Snider.

Nearer, ever nearer drew the wall of flame.  It seemed to the chums
that they must be breathing fire, so did the air burn their mouths.

Time and again they swayed in their saddles and would have fallen
had it not been for the men beside them, who had let go the bridles
to steady the boys, at the same time rowelling their own mounts.

Just when it seemed to the boys that the shirts on their backs
would burst into flames a shout went up from in front:

"The river! The river!"

"One more spurt, everybody!"

Gamely men, boys and horses responded.

"Right over the bank!  Don't stop!" bellowed Pete.

Ignorant of the height, caring little, eager only to gain the
water, the boys felt their horses leap through the air and the next
minute were sputtering and gasping as they sank below the surface
of the river.



CHAPTER XXI

A RIDE FOR LIFE

Quickly the horses swam for the shore, and as the Elkhorn was only
deep for a few rods, it was not many minutes before the cowboys
were shaking and removing their wet garments.  But the boys were
oblivious of their condition.

In open-mouthed wonder they stared at the spectacle presented by
the flames from whose devouring fury they had so narrowly escaped.

The wall of fire had in reality been farther away than it had
seemed.  For several minutes it advanced, the tongues of flames
towering in the air.  A moment the livid wall paused as it reached
the brink of the river, while jets of fire reached out as though
striving to clutch the men who had escaped.  Then seemingly bent on
overtaking them, the flames leaped over the edge, devouring the
brush and grass to the water's edge, where, loath to admit defeat,
the flames flickered uncertainly and then died away, leaving
nothing but a pall of smoke to mark their course of destruction.

"They came mighty near getting us that time," exclaimed Pete,
looking back over the still glowing plains.

"Too near," assented Mr. Wilder.  "But Megget's men will suffer for
this trick, never fear."

"They'll sure be surprised when they see us," chimed in the owner
of the Three Stars.

"That's just it," returned Mr. Wilder.  "Of course, they think we
have perished in the flames, and when they see us riding in on them
they will be so scared it will take all the fight out of them."

None the worse for their experience, the cowboys were eager to be
under way again that they might exact satisfaction upon the raiders
for their unwilling flight.   But Mr. Wilder curbed their
impatience by saying:

"It's all right to want to get on the trail again, but if we should
start now, while the plains are still hot, we run the risk of
crippling some of our ponies.  We'll eat breakfast here and then in
an hour I guess we can start.  What do you think, Jim?"

"It will be all right to take grub and we can tell about the ground
when we've eaten."

Fate, however, was still on the side of the ranchers, for while
they were at their meal it began to rain.

With a shout the cowboys greeted the first drops, but their masters
grew serious.

"This rain will make it mighty hard to pick up the trail," observed
the owner of the Three Stars.

"But we won't need to search for it," interposed Tom.

At his words all eyes were turned upon him, and Mr. Wilder voiced
their sentiments by asking:

"Why?"

"Because I know the very place where Horace and Larry and I rode
into the mountains.  I thought I might want to remember it, so I
broke off some branches and cut a half moon in one of the trees
with my jackknife."

"That's all right, but why should we follow that trail?" demanded
Bill.  "The men who set the fire were all of--how far, Horace, from
Tom's trail?" and he looked at his brother.

"A good twenty miles."

"Why should we ride twenty miles when we can start right in at the
hills back where the fire started?" continued Bill.

Some of the cowboys laughed at this seeming evidence of Tom's lack
of understanding of the situation, but the younger of the chums had
his good reasons, as he quickly proved by replying:

"Because that is where they drove fifty cattle in.  Mr. Jeffreys
said it was a short cut.  Besides, it stands to reason the men
wouldn't have gone that way unless the trail led to the mine where
they could join the rest of the gang.  I may be from the East," and
he glanced at the boys who had laughed at him, "but I'm not so much
of a tenderfoot as not to know four men aren't going on a pleasure
trip with a herd of fifty steers."

"I reckon the kid is right," said the owner of the Half-Moon after
the merriment this jibe evoked had subsided.  "Even if the
'rustlers' didn't know we had started when they lifted the cattle
from the pool, they'd know something was up when all the boys were
away and that we could follow the trail to the mountains.
Consequently, they being only four, would take the shortest route
to join the main body."

"That argument would have been all right before the fire, Jim, but
things are different now," rejoined Bill.

"Certain.  But the difference is the raiders will take more time in
driving the cattle in the thought that there's no one to pursue 'em
till the fact of the prairie fire reaches Tolopah."

"And then that bow-legged sheriff will set out," grunted Skinny.
"He couldn't catch a prairie dog.  There's only one man I'd like to
see on the job besides the bunch we've got here."

"Name him," cried several of the cowboys.

"Shorty Jenks."

"Why, that's our friend!" exclaimed Tom and Larry.

"I don't know about his being a friend of yours, but there's
nothing on two or four legs he's afraid of.  And he's great on
tricks.  He'd think up a scheme in no time to land Megget."

"I think Tom's idea is the right one," said Mr. Wilder.  "By riding
that trail we can reach the Lost Lode probably in a few hours,
while it might take days to find where the gang that set fire rode
into the hills.  This rain has cooled off the ground, so we can
start right away."

No direct command to pack the food and saddle up did the cowboys
need and as day dawned they again entered the Elkhorn River.

Tom had been provided with an extra rifle Mr. Wilder had been
carrying and great care did he and the other lads take to keep
their arms and ammunition from getting wet a second time.

Arrived at the top of the bank from which they had leaped to
safety, the party beheld a long stretch of blackened ground.  As
far as they could see, it stretched away to the north and in width
it was about four miles.

"Why didn't it burn everything, instead of cutting a sort of path?"
asked Larry after a survey of the scene.

"That's one of the things you can't explain," replied the owner of
the Three Stars.  "It just don't, that's all.  Of course, the wind
has to be right--that is, stay in the same direction as when the
fire was started.  And when it does you can count on the fire's
following pretty close to its lines.  You see this one was set in a
sort of semi-circle, with the ends burning toward one another.  If
you want a fire to spread, start it fan-shaped."

"There's one way the fire helped us," said Horace.  "We can travel
faster than we could through the grass, and it doesn't tire the
horses so."

"Just another proof it's an ill wind that doesn't do somebody
good," quoted Mr. Wilder, smiling.

"Maybe, but I'd rather go without the wind than have another
experience like last night's," returned the owner of the Three
Stars.



CHAPTER XXII

LAWRENCE'S PLAN

Realizing that they would be able to advance but slowly along the
trail, giving their ponies a chance to rest, the men were riding a
stiff lope.

At first Mr. Wilder had insisted that the three youngest boys
return to the ranch as soon as Tom had showed them the trail, but
they had pleaded so hard, asserting they were entitled to accompany
the pursuers because of their discovery of the trail, that he had
finally consented, making the condition, however, that when they
entered the hills the boys must ride next the rear, where in case
of attack, they would not be in the brunt of it.

Larry was following the edge of grass as they drew near the place
where the fire had been started.  As his eyes roved over the
billowy plains, they suddenly were attracted by a peculiar furrow
that seemed to run through the grass like a channel.

For the moment he was tempted to call the attention of the others
to it, and then, fearing their ridicule, decided to find out what
it was first.

Accordingly he reined his pony to one side and was approaching the
furrow when he was startled to hear a cry of delight:

"I've got it!  I've got it!"

Hastily unslinging his rifle, the elder of the chums pointed it in
the direction whence the unexpected voice had come and shouted:

"You there, in the grass!  Stand up before I count five or I'll----"

But Larry had no occasion to complete his command.

Unconscious that there was another soul within miles of him, the
person addressed raised his head cautiously to see who had accosted
him.

"Stand up straight, I said!" ordered the boy.

As the fellow obeyed, Mr. Wilder, Pete and the others, who had been
almost as surprised at hearing Larry's words as the prisoner
himself, dashed up, quickly followed by the cowboys.

Intuitively each man felt they had captured one of the raiders, and
without waiting for instructions, closed in on him in a circle,
completely cutting off any chance for escape.

"Who are you and what are you doing, sneaking along in the grass ?"
demanded Mr. Wilder sternly.

"I'm Bobby Lawrence, and I was hunting for my tobacco pouch,"
returned the fellow, undaunted by the angry faces gazing at him.

"That's the name of one of Megget's right-hand men," declared
Nails.  "I found that out at Tolopah."

With no gentle hands half a dozen of the cowboys searched Lawrence,
taking from him his pistols and a long knife.

When their prisoner was harmless Mr. Wilder resumed his questions.

"Who set the fire last night?"

"If I play fair with you, will you treat me square?" demanded
Lawrence.

"That depends," temporized the ranch owner.  "You belong to the
gang that has been raiding my herds and last night tried to destroy
us by fire.  You can't expect much leniency from us under the
circumstances.  Still, if you give us any assistance in founding up
Megget, we'll not forget it."

"Well, I'll do all I can, honest I will, Mr. Wilder."

"Don't trust him, Wilder," interposed the owner of the Three Stars,
"When a man is so willing to turn on his pals, there's something
wrong."

"See here, Jim Snider, you keep out of this.  I'm talking to Mr.
Wilder, not to you.  He's square.  If it was only you, all your
ponies couldn't drag a word out of me!" snapped Lawrence.

This retort angered the owner of the Three Stars, but before he
could say anything the proprietor of the Half-Moon exclaimed:

"If you can give me any reason why I should believe you, Lawrence,
do so."

"That's easy," returned the captive, and without wasting words, he
related the incidents of the pursuit of the three boys, Megget's
signals, the order to set the fire and his own action that alone
had saved the herd at the pool from destruction.

In silence, now looking at one another in amazement and then at the
speaker, the cowboys listened.

"That's a likely story, throwing your tobacco away," sneered Snider.

"I believe it," announced Larry calmly.  "The only way I knew it
was a man I'd discovered was because I heard him say twice I've
found it.'"

This confirmation of his words from the very one who had captured
him gave Lawrence heart, and quick to see the advantage it gave
him, he pressed it, saying:

"There, you see, I'm telling you straight.  And everything else
I've said is just as true."

"Why didn't you strike for the hills when you recovered your
senses?" asked Mr. Wilder.  "You would have been safe there, both
from Megget and from us."

"Because I wanted my tobacco."

Whatever doubt was in the mind of the Half-Moon owner as to whether
or not Lawrence had been telling the truth was dispelled by this
answer.

Indeed even the owner of the Three Stars was convinced by the
answer, and after a whispered consultation with Mr. Wilder, the
latter announced:

"I have this proposition to make you, Lawrence.  Your act in
refusing to obey Megget, which beyond doubt has saved my cattle at
the pool, shows you are not thoroughly bad.  Therefore, if you will
lead us by the shortest trail to the headquarters at the Lost Lode
and help us round up Megget and his gang, I will give you a job on
my ranch."

For a moment Lawrence gazed at the ranchman as though unable to
believe his ears, but the kindly light in Mr. Wilder's eyes
reassured him and he replied:

"Will I?  Say, Bobby Lawrence knows a white man when he meets one.
Give me a horse and I'll have you at the Lost Lode before dark
to-night!"



CHAPTER XXIII

IN THE MOUNTAINS

Openly the owner of the Three Stars objected to the proposition of
providing the erstwhile raider with a pony.

"If we're going to trust Lawrence to lead us to the mine, we can
certainly trust him with a horse," declared Mr. Wilder.  "Horace,
climb up behind Tom and let Lawrence have your mount."

Quickly the change was made, and again the party advanced.

"To think we were within two miles of meeting Megget again,"
exclaimed Tom as they rode along.  "I'm afraid we would not have
got away from him so well this time."

As he heard the remark, Lawrence turned and looked the boy over
from head to foot, finally saying with a smile:

"So you are the lad Gus ran foul of up in Oklahoma?"

"Yes, but my brother was with me."

"Which is he?"

"The one who found you."

At this information Lawrence threw back his head and laughed
heartily.  "My, but that is a good one," he ejaculated when he had
recovered from his merriment.  "You tenderfeet make a monkey of Gus
and then capture one of his men.  I'll let Gus know it was you who
found me, if I never speak again.  It will make him more angry than
anything else could."

To their surprise, the ranchers learned that the Lost Lode was only
about five miles from the plains and that it was at the foot of one
of the mountains, instead of high up in them, with a splendid
valley where the cattle could graze close beside it.

"Why, I've ridden through that place at least twice," asserted Pete
as he recognized Lawrence's description of the spot, "but never a
sign of cattle or mine have I seen."

"You noticed there was heavy woods on both sides, didn't you?"
returned the former raider, smiling.

"Yes."

"Well, that explains why you didn't learn anything, though of
course it might be that no cattle were in the valley when you
struck it."

This explanation only served to arouse the curiosity of the hearers
the more.

"The woods are the thing," he continued.  "Every time any one comes
along, we drive the cattle into them and no one would think to look
for the entrance to a mine among the trees."

"But how does it happen you have never been taken by surprise?"
queried Mr. Wilder.

"Because when we had steers in the valley we always kept a lookout.
There's a cliff just above the mine from which a man can see the
trail for at least two miles."

"Then won't some one discover us?" asked Bill.

"Not if we hurry.  Every man jack of Megget's gang is out on this
raid.  All we need to do is to get there first."

"How about that fellow who was with you?" Bill inquired.  "Won't he
be on the lookout?"

"Who, Red Ike?  Not much.  He'll be too anxious to tell Gus about
me.  He knows his chief was going to cut across to join Vasquez and
the others, and he'll follow.  They'll be so tickled at the thought
you all were lost in the fire they won't hurry much.  Still, if
we're going to round them up, we must get there before dark
to-night.  There's a spot just before you enter the valley where we
can lie in wait and get them all."

"No, that won't do," declared Mr. Wilder.  "I want to capture them
without resorting to firearms, if possible.  While, of course, if
it should be necessary, I would sanction shooting, I much prefer to
take the men prisoners and turn them over to the sheriff and the
law."

At first Lawrence could scarcely believe his ears.  His creed had
been force, supported by quick use of weapons, not law, and it
seemed incredible to him that a man who had suffered from the raids
of the cattle thieves should not take justice in his own hands when
opportunity presented.  But he suddenly realized that he was
dealing with a new kind of man that he had never been brought in
contact with, an honorable man, and his admiration for the owner of
the Half-Moon increased a hundredfold.

Some time, however, was required to reconcile himself to his new
scheme of life, but of a sudden he burst into a roar of merriment.

"We'll do it, and without a shot.  Say, Mr. Wilder, it will break
Gus' heart to think he was caught without any gun play."

"That's just it.  Most of the power men like Megget have is because
of the fear the very mention of their names inspires.

"But I don't mean to preach a sermon.  What I want to know is, How
do you propose to capture Megget without trouble?"

"Wait till they are asleep.  They'll have a celebration when they
reach the mine and afterward we can hog-tie them and they will
never know it."

Without vouchsafing any comment, the owner of the Half-Moon reined
away from the strange guide, and, as Snider joined him, discussed
the situation thoroughly.

The questioning of Lawrence, however, did not cease when the
ranchmen left him.  The four boys had listened eagerly, and when
the opportunity presented deluged him with inquiries.

"Are there really ghosts in the Lost Lode?" queried Horace.

"None but very live ones," grinned the former raider.  "Vasquez
started that story to keep people from coming into the valley.
Many a time we've chased men in the night when they came near."

The chums, however were more interested in learning whether or not
there was rich ore in the mine.

"Probably there is," explained Lawrence, "but it would require a
lot of drilling and sinking of shafts.  What silver could be got
out, Vasquez has taken.  He was planning to use the money from the
cattle captured in the raid to buy machinery and begin work."

Disappointed to think they would not be able to pick up chunks of
the ore, the comrades lapsed into silence till Tom suddenly
bethought him of the men he had seen crossing the cliff on the
night of their hunting trip, and he lost no time in asking if they
were some of Megget's gang.

"Must have been Gus and the boys who were with him up in Oklahoma,"
declared the guide.  "There's a trail from that direction to the
mine.  Now you mention it, I remember he spoke of having seen a
party of horsemen.  It's a good thing for you he didn't know who it
was.  If he had, he was so angry at your outwitting him that he
would surely have made trouble."

Further questioning, however, was prevented by the arrival of the
troop at the trail.

"There are my marks," exclaimed the younger of the chums, pointing
to the branches he had broken.  But no one paid him heed, for with
the arrival at the hills the serious work began and the ranchmen
were busy issuing instructions.



CHAPTER XXIV

CAPTURING THE CATTLE THIEVES

As they wound in and out among the hills and rocks, now ascending,
now going down steep pitches, the silence of their surroundings and
the realization that they were bent on a dangerous mission sobered
the boys and few words did they speak.

Once or twice the line halted as the leaders heard some sound that
roused their suspicions, and several times Sandy and Nails dropped
back.  But nothing untoward occurred, and late in the afternoon
they descended into the valley that was the headquarters of the
raiders.

"We're in time; there's no one here," announced Lawrence after an
examination of the ground for fresh horse or cattle tracks.

Remembering their guide's statement about the cliff on which the
lookout was posted when the raiders were at the mine, die boys
sought it with their eyes.  But though they scanned both sides of
the mountains, all they could see was trees.

Horace was on the point of mentioning the fact when the word was
passed back to dismount, and, leading their horses, they were soon
within the protection of the woods.

"Any of the ponies likely to whinny?" asked Lawrence as they halted
in a glen.

"Yes, Blackhawk," answered Horace.  "It was he that gave warning of
Jeffreys' approach."

"Then we'll take them all pretty well up into the woods.  He won't
be able to scent when he's above where Megget and the others will
enter the valley."

"Which way will they come?" asked Mr. Wilder.

"The opposite end from the way we did," responded the former
raider.  "That's why I'm taking our ponies to a place on this side."

"Seems to me we're leaving too much to this fellow who's gone back
on his former pals," whispered the owner of the Three Stars to Mr.
Wilder.  "It's all right if he plays fair, but if he doesn't we'll
be in a pretty mess."

"I believe he is acting square with us.  Still it won't do to take
chances," returned the other ranchman, and calling to Lawrence, he
asked where the mine was.

"It's about two hundred yards to the right, Mr. Wilder.  I'll show
you when we get up on top of the cliff.  There's a big dead tree in
front of it, so you can't miss it, even in the night, for the bark
has been peeled off it by lightning and the wind, so that it stands
out like a white specter in the darkness."

Deeming it inadvisable to unsaddle the horses, in case they should
need them suddenly, the cowboys close-hobbled them on a plateau to
which Lawrence guided them and then followed him to the ledge.

No need was there for the tree that marked the mine to be pointed
out to them, for as the men looked down each one saw it.

To the east and to the west the ledge commanded a view of the
trails, and as they gazed along them, the owner of the Half-Moon
exclaimed:

"I don't wonder no one can surprise Megget with such a lookout.
Why, it's practically impossible to approach without being seen by
a man on guard."

"The only time is at night," returned Lawrence.  "And, thanks to
the loneliness of the place and the stories of ghosts, no one has
ever tried to pass through or even come in at night while I've been
with the gang."

"Don't start talking about ghosts or you'll get us all nervous,"
said Mr. Wilder, fearing the effect on his men.  "Now that we've
seen where the mine is, suppose you take us where you think we had
better wait till we make the round-up."

"That's right here," rejoined Lawrence.  "We can see Megget and the
others when they arrive by being here."

"True enough, but how about the guard they send up?"

"There won't be any to-night, don't worry about that.  They'll be
too busy celebrating your supposed loss in the fire last night."

This grim reminder of their escape caused all of the ranchers to
smile, and without further objection the men made themselves
comfortable while they waited the arrival of the raiders.

Huddled together, the boys sat where they could watch the trail.

Of a sudden Tom grabbed his brother by the arm and pointed to where
several specks were moving.

In silence they watched as more and more came into view, and then
Larry cried out:

"Here they come!"

Eager with excitement, the others crowded forward to catch a
glimpse of the men who had caused them so much trouble.

"Keep down!" snapped Lawrence.  "Vasquez has an eye like a hawk."

No second warning did the cowboys need, and dropping flat on their
stomachs, they watched the raiders draw nearer and nearer.

Because of the cattle, their approach was slow, and it was fully an
hour after the chums had sighted them before they reached the
valley.

"That's Vasquez and Gus in the lead," announced the man who had
forsaken his life of wrong-doing.  And as the other raiders rode
into sheltered grazing ground he mentioned them by name.

"There are only nineteen of them.  I thought Nails said there were
twenty," exclaimed Bill.

"So there were till Lawrence joined us," rejoined his father.
"Thank goodness, my short-horn Durhams are all right.  Now be
quiet.  It would be too bad to spoil everything when things are
going so well for us."

Instantly the men obeyed, sitting with eyes and ears alert for any
sight or sound that should proclaim the approach of a guard.

But twilight fell and none came, as Lawrence had predicted.

Sounds of revelry, broken now and then by the lowing of the cattle,
were constant.  In due time the moon rose and with its coming the
cowboys grew impatient.

The ranchmen, however, refused to move till no sound from the
raiders could be heard.

"It's midnight," announced Mr. Wilder, looking at his watch.  "They
must be asleep, by this time.  We'll chance it, anyhow.  Careful,
every one.  Come, Lawrence."

Overjoyed that the time for action had arrived, the boys followed
their guide, halting at the edge of the valley.

Ordering the others to wait, the owner of the Half-Moon and the
former raider glided noiselessly toward the mine.

All about were signs of the celebration in which the thieves had
indulged, and their loud snores told how sound asleep they were.

Confident the time was ripe for action, the two scouts returned to
their impatient fellows.

"Pete, Sandy, Nails, Skinny, Lawrence, you take the ropes and do
the hog-tying.  The rest of you have your rifles ready for use.
But don't shoot till I give the word," commanded Mr. Wilder.
Opening the ropes so they could use them rapidly, the men selected
for the binding of the raiders moved forward, closely followed by
the others, guns ready for action.

Signing to Sandy and Skinny to tie the men lying outside, Lawrence
led the others into the mine.

More like a cavern did it seem to them than anything else as they
cast a hurried glance about the rock-walled room which two
flickering torches lighted.

Sprawled upon the floor lay the raiders, and to them Pete and Nails
turned their attention, while Lawrence glided among them, peering
into their faces.

Watching for the slightest move, stood a dozen of the cowboys, with
Mr. Wilder and the four lads.

Of a sudden Lawrence stooped down, worked his hand rapidly, then
rose, a smile on his face, and continued his search till he found
another form, when he repeated the operation.

Gliding to the owner of the Half-Moon, he whispered:

"I've bound Megget and Vasquez.  If they wake up now it doesn't
matter."



CHAPTER XXV

HOMEWARD

Having made fast the leaders, for he knew that with them rendered
powerless no effective opposition would be made by the others
should they be aroused, Lawrence returned to the task of
"hog-tying," and in a few minutes every cattle thief in the cave
had been securely bound.

"Well, it has been easier to round up Megget and his gang than I
ever imagined it could be, thanks to you, Lawrence," exclaimed Mr.
Wilder as they left the mine to join the others.

"It was no fun at all," protested Horace, and his opinion voiced
the sentiments of the cowboys.  "Can't we wake them up or do
something to let them know they've been captured?"

"You'd have some trouble in rousing them, son," replied his father.
"They've been drinking too heavily."

"That's what," agreed the former raider.  "You could ride over them
and they would not budge."

"It's the only time I ever knew the drinking of too much liquor to
do good," chuckled Mr. Wilder.  "That is, good to us.  I don't
suppose our prisoners will share our opinion, though, when they
awake."

When the raiders had been bound the owner of the Three Stars had
sent his men to bring down all the ponies, that the animals might
be relieved of their saddles and enjoy the tender grass in the
valley.  And no sooner had Blackhawk reached the open than he gave
an ear-splitting whinny which was answered by several of the
raiders' horses.

At the racket two or three of the thieves awoke and tried to get up.

For a moment the men blinked at the sight of the cowboys.  Then,
their senses returning, they discovered they were tied hand and
foot, and in a trice they were yelling like a band of Indians.

"Go it! Go it!" howled the cowboys.

The shouts roused the prisoners in the cave, and their yells of
rage added to the pandemonium.

"Come on in to see Megget," exclaimed Lawrence.  "I say, Mr.
Wilder, can't Larry and Tom go in first alone?  You promised, you
know."

Willing that his men should have their fun, the owner of the
Half-Moon laughingly consented.

And with the others following close, the brothers went into the
cave.

Entering thoroughly into the spirit of the occasion, Larry
approached the struggling chief.

"Why, how do you do again, Mr. Megget?" he exclaimed, bowing in
mock deference.  "What's the trouble?  You seem to be down and out.
Quite a difference from when you were teasing me at that station in
Oklahoma, eh?"

As Megget recognized the brothers his face grew terrible to see,
and, summoning all his strength, he leaped to his feet.

But Lawrence had tied his ankles so tight he could not keep his
balance, and the raider pitched forward while Mr. Wilder and the
others rushed in to make sure he did not harm the boys.

At the sight of the men he thought burned, the leader of the
raiders lay trembling like a leaf.

"You see you can't raid the Half-Moon herd with impunity,"
exclaimed Mr. Wilder sternly.  "Come on, boys, let's go outside.
These men are not pleasant companions."  And turning on his heel,
he led the way from the mine.

Appointing Pete, Sandy and two others to stand guard to make sure
none of the prisoners broke their bonds, Mr. Wilder ordered the
others to turn in.

Some time it took them to get to sleep, but when they did they
slept soundly, and it was broad daylight when they awoke.

After a hearty breakfast, they were discussing the best way to get
their prisoners to Tolopah when a body of horsemen galloped into
the valley.

For the moment the ranchmen and cowboys thought they were partners
of the raiders and quickly they sprang for their guns.  But the
next minute their alarm vanished.

"It's Shorty Jenks and the sheriff of Tolopah!" yelled Skinny.  And
such, indeed, it proved to be, together with a score of deputies.

Hearty were the greetings exchanged by the sheriffs and the ranch
owners, and the former were elated when they learned of the
successful round-up of the cattle thieves.

Deeming it unwise to start to drive out the cattle so late In the
day, they whiled away the time exploring the mine, where, to the
delight of the boys, they were able to dig out several small pieces
of almost pure silver ore.

Without adventure the day passed and at dawn the next morning the
start was made.

The prisoners, their legs tied together under their ponies and
guarded by the deputies, led the procession, followed by the
sheriffs, the ranch owners and the lads.  Behind them the cowboys
drove the cattle.

Able to travel faster than the steers, Mr. Wilder ordered his men
to drive to the pool, picking up the fifty head on the way, after
which he told them to come to the ranch for a jollification in
honor of the capture.

Reaching the plains In good season, the ranchmen and the boys
separated from the sheriffs and, urging their ponies, arrived at
the home in time for dinner.

As they rode into the yard Mrs. Wilder greeted all joyfully.  After
the flush of delight at their safe return she asked about the
raiders, clapping her hands at the information they had all been
captured and were on their way to Tolopah.

"And now for some fun," said Bill the next day.

With riding, hunting and fishing the chums passed many happy days.
At the trial of Megget and his pals in Tolopah Tom and Larry
attracted even more attention than the raiders, but they bore it
like sensible boys, making light of their experience at the
crossing and never referring to it when they could avoid so doing.

Upon the completion of the trial, with long sentences for the
cattle thieves, from which fate Mr. Wilder's influence saved
Lawrence, the brothers returned to the ranch.

Great favorites with all the cowboys, they learned many a trick of
roping steers and riding, and they were never so happy as when,
together with Bill and Horace, they were allowed to pass a few days
herding.

Upon the return from one of these trips Mr. Wilder handed Larry a
telegram.  Opening it, he read:

  "We arrived in New York this morning.
  Received fifty thousand dollars from Uncle
  Darwent.  We shall expect to meet you at
  the Hotel Boswell in Pittsburg Saturday.
    Love.        FATHER."

"It's a good thing we came back to the ranch today," exclaimed
Horace.  "To-morrow is Thursday, and you'll be obliged to start
then to reach Pittsburg on Saturday."

"Yes, I suppose it is," assented Larry.  "Still we've had such a
good time we hate to go home."

"And leave the life in the saddle for life in Ohio," added Tom.


THE END





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