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Title: The Boy Ranchers - or Solving the Mystery at Diamond X
Author: Baker, Willard F.
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.

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[Frontispiece: missing from book]



THE

BOY RANCHERS


OR

_Solving the Mystery at Diamond X_



By

WILLARD F. BAKER


Author of "The Boy Ranchers in Camp,"
"The Boy Ranchers on the Trail," etc.



_ILLUSTRATED_



NEW YORK

CUPPLES & LEON COMPANY



THE BOY RANCHERS SERIES

By WILLARD F. BAKER

12mo. Cloth. Frontispiece


THE BOY RANCHERS
  or Solving the Mystery at Diamond X

THE BOY RANCHERS IN CAMP
  or The Water Fight at Diamond X

THE BOY RANCHERS ON THE TRAIL
  or The Diamond X After Cattle Rustlers

_Other Volumes in Preparation_

CUPPLES & LEON COMPANY, New York



COPYRIGHT, 1921, BY

COPPLES & LEON COMPANY

THE BOY RANCHERS



Printed in U. S. A.



CONTENTS

CHAPTER

     I  "SOME RIDIN'!"
    II  A CALL FOB HELP
   III  A MYSTERIOUS SEARCH
    IV  SUSPICIONS
     V  HITTING THE TRAIL
    VI  THE RUSTLERS
   VII  A CRY IN THE NIGHT
  VIII  "THE PROFESSOR'"
    IX  "WHAT DOES IT MEAN?"
     X  DEL PINZO
    XI  BAD BUSINESS
   XII  RIDING HERD
  XIII  THE ATTEMPT FOILED
   XIV  THE STAMPEDE
    XV  LOST
   XVI  THE VISION
  XVII  THE NIGHT CAMP
 XVIII  QUEER OPERATIONS
   XIX  PRISONERS
    XX  THE DIAMOND X BRAND
   XXI  THE ESCAPE
  XXII  BACK TO THE RANCH
 XXIII  CLOSING IN
  XXIV  THE FIGHT
   XXV  THE TRICERATOPS



THE BOY RANCHERS


CHAPTER I

"SOME RIDIN'!"

Two riders slumped comfortably in their saddles as the ponies slowly
ambled along.  The sun was hot, and the dust stifling, a cloud of it
forming a floating screen about the horsemen and progressing with them
down the trail.

One of the riders, a tall, lanky and weather-beaten cowboy, taking a
long breath, raised his voice in what he doubtless intended to be a
song.

It was, however, more a cry of anguish as he bellowed forth:

  "Leave me alone with a rope an' a saddle,
  Fold my spurs under my haid!
  Give me a can of them sweet, yaller peaches,
  'Cause why?  My true-love is daid!"


"Bad as all that; is it, Slim?" asked the other, who, now that he had
partly emerged from the cloud of dust, could be seen as a lad of about
sixteen.  He, like the other, older rider, was attired cowboy fashion.

"Eh?  What's that, Bud?" inquired the lanky one, seeming to arouse as
if from a day dream.  "See suthin'?"

"Nope.  I was just sort of remarking about that sad song, and----"

"Oh, shucks!  _That_ wa'n't sad!" declared Slim Degnan, foreman of the
Diamond X ranch.  "Guess I wa'n't really payin' much attention to what
I was singin', but if you want a real sad lament----"

"No, I don't!" laughed Bud Merkel, whose father was the owner of
Diamond X ranch.  "Not that I blame you for feeling sort of down and
out," he added.

"Oh, I don't feel _bad_, Bud!" came the hasty rejoinder.  "We did have
more'n a ride than I figgered on, but I don't aim to put up no kick.
It's all in the day's work.  You don't seem to mind it."

"I should say not!  We had a bully time.  I'd spend another night out
in the open if we had to.  I like it!"

"Yes, you seem to take to it like a duck does to water," added Slim.
"But it's a shame to mention ducks in the same chapter with this
atmosphere!  Zow hippy!  But it's hot an' dusty an' thirsty!  Come
along there, you old hunk of jerked beef!" he added to his pony, giving
a gentle reminder with the spurs and pulling on the reins.  The pony
made a feeble attempt to increase its gait, but it was no more than an
attempt.

The animal that was ridden by Bud--a pinto--started to follow the
example of the other.

"Regular mud-turtle gallop," commented the foreman.

"They'll go faster when they top the rise, and see the corral,"
commented Bud.

"An' smell water!  That's what I want, a long, sizzling, sozzling drink
of water!" cried Slim, whose name fitted him better than did his
clothes.  Then he broke forth again with:

"Oh, leave me alone with a rope an' a saddle----"

Slowly the riders plodded along.  The sun seemed to grow more hot and
the dust more thick.  As they approached a hill, beyond which lay the
corral and ranch buildings of Diamond X, Bud drew rein, thus halting
his pony.

"Let's give 'em a breather before we hit the hill," he suggested to the
foreman.

"I'm agreeable, son," was the foreman's easy comment as he slung one
leg over the saddle and sat sideways.

Slim Degnan and Bud had ridden off to look for a break in one of the
many long lines of wire fences that kept the stock of Diamond X
somewhat within bounds, and it had taken longer to locate and repair
the break than they had counted on.

They had been obliged to remain out all night--not that this was
unusual, only they had not exactly prepared for it--and, in
consequence, did not have all the ordinary comforts.  But, as Bud had
said, he had not minded it.  However, the ponies were rather used up,
and the riders in the same condition, and it was with equal feelings of
relief that they came within sight of the last hill that lay between
them and the ranch.

"Well, might as well mosey along," spoke Slim, at length.  "Sooner we
get some water inside us, an' th' ponies, th' better we'll all be."

"I reckon," agreed Bud.  "But I don't believe Zip Foster could have
done the job any quicker than we did."

"Who?" queried Slim, with a quizzical look at his companion.

"Zip Foster," answered Bud.

"Never heard of him.  What outfit does he ride for?" asked the foreman,
but he saved Bud the embarrassment of answer by suddenly rising in his
saddle and looking off in the distance.

Bud had his own reasons for not answering that seemingly natural
question, and he was glad of the diversion, though he was not at once
aware of what had caused it.  But he followed the direction of the
foreman's gaze, and, like him, saw arising in the still air, about two
miles away, a thin thread of smoke--a mere wisp, as though it had
dangled down from some fleecy cloud.  But the smoke was ascending and
was not the beginning of a fog descending.

"Can't be any of our boys," murmured Slim.  "They aren't out on
round-up yet.  An' it's too early for grub."

"Indians?" questioned Bud.  Sometimes the bucks from a neighboring
reservation felt the call of the wild, and slipped out to have a
forbidden feast on some cattleman's stock, only to be brought up with a
round turn by the government soldiers.

"Don't think so," remarked Slim.  "They don't have much chance t'
practice their wiles, but, with all that, they know enough not t' make
a fire that smokes.  Must be some strangers.  If it's any of them
ornery sheep men," he exclaimed, "I'd feel like----"

"They wouldn't dare!" exclaimed Bud, for being the son of a
cattle-ranchman he had come to dislike and despise the sheep herders,
whose flocks ate so closely as to ruin the feeding range for steers.
The sheep would crop grass down to the very roots, setting back its
growth for many months.

"No, I don't reckon it would be sheepers," murmured Slim.  "Wa'al,
mebby they know at the ranch.  We'll be headin' home now, I guess.
Come on there, you old tumble-bug!" he called to his horse, and then he
raised his voice and roared:

  "Leave me alone with a rope an' a saddle,
  Fold my spurs under my haid!
  Give me a can of them sweet, yaller peaches,
  'Cause why?  My true-love is daid!"


Slim's horse started off on a lope, freshened by the rest, and Bud's
followed.  They topped the rise, and, then as the animals came within
sight and smell of their stables, and caught the whiff of ever-welcome
water, they dashed down the slope toward the green valley in which
nestled the corral and buildings of Diamond X ranch.

"If I wasn't so doggoned tired," said Slim to Bud as they prepared to
pull up on reaching the corral, "I'd ride over after supper, and see
what that smoke was.  I don't perzactly like it."

"Maybe I'll go," offered Bud.  "If it _should_ happen to be sheepers,
dad'll want to know it."

"He shore will, son.  But--Zow hippy!  What's going on here?" cried
Slim.  He pointed toward the corral of the ranch--a fenced-off field
where the cowboys kept their string of ponies when the animals were not
in use.  Here, too, spare animals were held against the time of need.

Just now a crowd of cowboys surrounded this corral.  Some were perched
on the rails of the fence, and others leaned over.  Some were swinging
their hats as though in encouragement, and one was rapidly emptying his
gun on the defenseless air, which was further torn and shattered by
wild yells.

As the two wayfarers neared the corral, there dashed from among the
cattle punchers surrounding it an exceedingly fat cowboy, whose face,
wreathed in smiles, was also wet with perspiration.  He swung his hat
around in a circle and yelled shrilly:

"Some ridin', boys!  Some ridin'!  Go to it!"

"What's the matter, Babe?" asked Slim, of his assistant who had thus
given vent to his feelings.

"Go look!  It's so good I don't want to spoil it!" laughed the fat one.
"Two tenderfoots--Oh, my--Hole me up, somebody!" he begged.  "Some
ridin'!"

Bud had a glimpse, in the corral, of a youth about his own age, flying
rapidly around the enclosure on the back of a bucking bronco.  The lad
was holding on with both arms around the horn of the saddle.

"Get him off!" cried Bud in a high pitched voice, as he recognized the
pony to which the strange lad was clinging.  "Tartar will kill him!
Get him off!"



CHAPTER II

A CALL FOR HELP

Without waiting for his pony to come to a stop, Bud fairly flung
himself out of the saddle, and with his rope, or lariat, coiled on his
arm he ran toward the corral.

"What's matter?" demanded Babe Milton, the assistant foreman, pausing
in his repeated exclamations of:

"Some ridin'!  Some ridin'!"

"Don't you fellows know any better than to let a tenderfoot ride
Tartar?" cried Bud.  "That horse is next door to an outlaw, and you
wouldn't get on him yourself, Babe!"

"You said an earful!" came the quick response.  "I wouldn't!"

"Then how'd you come to let this fellow on?  Who is he, anyhow?" cried
Bud, as he slipped through a hunch of cowboys who opened to let him
pass.

"Fresh tenderfoot," some one said.

"He would ride!" added another.

"Says he's your cousin," added a third ranch hand.

"My _cousin_!" cried Bud.  Then he did not stop to do any more talking.
He leaped the fence of the corral, and, as he did so he became aware of
another stranger--a tenderfoot like the lad on Tartar--standing within
the fenced-off place.  This lad, who bore all the marks of a
newly-arrived Easterner, was rather short and stout--not to say fat.
He stood beside an ancient and venerable cow pony, which was never
ridden when there was anything else in the corral to throw a saddle on.
And this lad was gazing with fear-widened eyes at the figure of the
other lad.

"Get off, Nort!  Get off!" cried this stout lad.

"Don't tell him to do that!" ordered Bud sharply.  "He'll break his
neck sure!  Stick, and I'll rope Tartar!" he shouted, trying to make
his voice heard above the thunder of the feet of the half-maddened
horse, and the now somewhat subdued shouts of the cowboys.

Bud Merkel knew his business.  He had not lived all his sixteen years
on his father's ranch not to learn how to throw a skillful rope, and he
now took his position just within the corral, and at a place where he
could intercept the dashing outlaw, Tartar, as the animal came around
again with the flapping lad clinging to his back.

"Can you manage, Bud?" called Slim, from his cross seat in his saddle,
where he was looking on.

"I'll get him!" was the grim answer.

Many thoughts were shooting through the mind of Bud Merkel, not the
least of which was the remark of Babe Milton to the effect that the lad
on Tartar was Bud's cousin.

"Then the other must be, too," thought Bud as he swung his rope and
directed a quick glance at the fat lad now hugging the inner rails of
the corral fence.  "But how'd they get here, and what made him try that
outlaw?"

However, this was no time to spend in asking oneself questions.  There
was need of action, and it came a moment later.

Hissing and swishing through the air, the coils of Bud's lariat fell
around the neck of the plunging, rearing, running Tartar.  In another
instant Bud had taken a turn or two around a post, and, by carefully
applying a snubbing pressure, the pony was brought to a stop.

"Get down--quick!" ordered Bud when the horse was quiet enough to
permit of this.  And as the other lad obeyed, and shook himself
together, limping over toward Bud the latter asked: "Are you hurt?"

"Not a bit," was the laughing answer.  "I could 'a' stuck on.  He
couldn't throw me."

"Don't you fool yourself!" exclaimed Bud, while some of the cowboys
went into the corral and loosened his lariat from the neck of the now
subdued animal.  Tartar, once the offending stranger was no longer on
his back, seemed normal.  "Don't you fool yourself!  You couldn't have
stayed on a second longer."

"Betcher I could!" came the quick response.  "If you'll rope him
again----"

"Cut it out, Nort!" came from the fat lad, who looked enough like the
daring rider to be his brother, as, indeed, he was.

"Oh, let me alone, Dick!" snapped the other.  "I can ride!"

"Some ridin'!  Oh, boy, some ridin'!" murmured the fat assistant
foreman of Diamond X, while his companions grinned.

"You may know how to ride an ordinary horse," admitted Bud with a
smile, as he coiled the rope which one of the men handed to him.  "But
Tartar isn't a regular pony.  He's an outlaw, and even Del Pinzo won't
take a chance on him.  I don't see how they come to let you," he added,
gazing somewhat reproachfully at the assembled cowboys.

They had begun to slink away, for they recognized the pseudo-authority
held by the son of the ranch owner.  Still they could justify their
action, somewhat.

"He _wanted_ to ride," declared Babe Milton.  "Would have it so, and we
roped Tartar for him.  I told him your pa wouldn't like it if he was
here, but----"

"I reckon you thought you'd see some fun," said Bud, half smiling, for
though he realized that the strange lad had been in some danger, he
also realized that the cowboys, fond as they were of fun and practical
jokes, would not have allowed the matter to go too far.

"It's up to me!" declared the slim lad, trying to brush some of the
dust and horse hair from his clothes.  "'Tisn't their fault at all."

"Good kid," murmured some of the cowboys, glad to be thus vindicated.

"I told him to keep off," said the fat lad, following Bud and the
daring rider from the corral.  "I told him to pick a quiet horse, but
he said he wanted a bucker."

"He shore got it," chuckled Slim Degnan, as he ambled along.  "He shore
did!"

"Well, I'm glad you're not hurt," exclaimed Bud.  "I guess you're my
cousins; aren't you?" he asked, holding out his brown, muscular hand to
grasp the rather thinner and whiter palm of the lad who had been on
Tartar.

"Yes, I'm Nort," was the response.  "This is Dick, my brother.  We're
going to stay all summer--if you'll keep us," he added, with a
whimsical smile.  "And after this I'll let you pick my horses for me."

"It'll be safer, until you learn to ride," said Bud.  "I mean learn to
ride western cow ponies," he added quickly, for he did not want to
assume this other lad could not ride.

"I guess I don't know so much as I thought I did," confessed Nort.
"Though I did ride a lot at the Academy."

"Well, come on to the house," invited Bud.  "Dad's away, but mother's
there.  Have you met her?"

"No," answered Nort.  "We just got here.  You see we came ahead of
time.  Happened to meet one of your wagons over at the depot, and rode
out here in it.  I sort of lost my head when I struck the ranch and
wanted a ride right off the bat.  I had it, too!" he added with a smile.

"Dad said something about you moseying out this way before snow flew,"
spoke Bud, as he walked with his cousins toward the main ranch house,
which stood in the midst of a number of low red buildings, itself of
the same structure and color.  "But I didn't expect you so soon, or I'd
'a' been over to the station."

"It was all right--we didn't want any fussing," said Nort.  "And, as I
say, we started sooner than we expected.  Didn't even write."

"No, I guess you didn't," admitted Bud.  "Dad sort of mentioned, casual
like, that you'd be along sooner or later, but he didn't get any word
from you recently."

"Well, we're here, anyhow," spoke Dick, the fat youth, with a sigh of
evident relief, as he looked back toward the corral.

"I just got in myself," said Bud.  "Been away two days mending fence.
Had to sleep out one night, and we weren't exactly prepared for it.
But I'm mighty glad you've come!  We can have some corking times.  I'll
get you ponies that'll be--er--better to ride than Tartar," he said,
substituting the word "better" for that of "safer" which, at first, he
had intended to use.

"That's good!" exclaimed Dick.  "I don't claim to be any rider, though
I can stick to the saddle once I land there," and he shot a side glance
at his more impulsive brother.

"Oh, I could 'a' stuck if there'd been a _saddle_," declared Nort.
"That was the trouble.  I'll ride Tartar yet!" he cried.

"Better go slow," advised Bud.  "But there's mother in the door now,
and I can smell grub.  She'll be surprised to see you."

"Who's that girl?" asked Dick, as he noticed one standing beside the
stout, motherly-looking woman in the doorway of the ranch house.

"That's my sister Nell," remarked Bud.

"Nell!  Say, she has grown!" cried Nort.  "I didn't know she was that
big!"

"Oh, this is a good country for growing up in!" laughed Bud.  "Here's
Nort and Dick, Mother!" he called.

"Well, land sakes!  I never expected to see _you_ two!" cried Mrs.
Merkel, hastily wiping off her mouth with the corner of her apron,
preparatory to kissing her nephews.  "Land!  But you've grown!"

"Not any more than Nell!" declared Dick, as he kissed his aunt and girl
cousin, an example gladly followed by Nort.  For once the fat lad had
beaten his slim brother to it.

"Why didn't you write?  We didn't know you were coming for a month yet!
Where's your trunks?  How'd you get here?  Come in and wash up and
we'll have supper!"

All this Mrs. Merkel showered on the two "tenderfeet" in a breath, at
the same time fairly "shooing" them into the house as a motherly hen
might direct her chickens toward the feeding coop.

"Oh, we just pulled up stakes and lit out," laughed Nort.  "We got
tired of the East.  Oh, but it's great here!" he exclaimed, as he
looked back before entering the house, and saw, through the clear air,
the wonderful blue sky, and, in the distance, a range of mountains.
"It's just what I dreamed it would be," he softly murmured.

"Glad you like it!  We'll have some swell times!" voiced Bud.  "But you
want to get those duds off," he added, as he glanced at his cousin's
clothes.

"We sure do!" declared Nick.  "We've got outfits in our trunks.
They're in the wagon.  Maybe they aren't just the proper clothes for a
ranch, but they're old things----"

"The older the better!" interrupted Bud, and he was about to follow his
cousins inside when Nell exclaimed:

"Some one is coming!  Look!"

They all turned to observe a solitary horseman riding at top speed for
the group of ranch buildings.  He came from the direction where Bud and
the foreman had seen the slim wisp of smoke about an hour before, and
as he rode, the man shouted above the thundering thuds of his horse's
hoofs:

"Help!  Help!  Can't you send help!"



CHAPTER III

A MYSTERIOUS SEARCH

Nort and Dick Shannon, Bud's "city cousins," seemed to realize, as did
the young rancher, his mother and sister, that something was wrong.
Prepared as Nort and Dick were for strange and sensational happenings
in the west, they sensed that this was out of the ordinary.

The solitary rider had also attracted the attention of the cowboys who,
the excitement at the corral being over, had turned toward their bunk
house to prepare for the evening meal.  Slim Degnan, the foreman, Babe,
his assistant, and one or two others started forward as if to intercept
the horseman.  But a cowboy on foot is like a sailor off the deck--out
of his element.  They wore high-heeled shoes--boots made especially for
the use of spurs, and they were not capable of rapid progress except on
their steeds.

The lone rider was past them in a flash, turning into the lane that led
toward the ranch house, where Bud and the others could not be seen,
having turned at the call for help.

"What's the matter of him--locoed?" asked Babe.

"Looks that way," murmured Slim.  "But Ma Merkel will know how to
handle him, and Bud has his gun.  Still, I don't know but we'd better
mosey up that way, so as to sort of back the boy up, as long as his
dad's away."

"My idea coincides," murmured Babe.  "We'll prospect along up there,"
he called to the other cowboys, some of whom seemed to show a desire to
rush to a possible rescue.  "It'll be all right."

By the time the foreman and his assistant had reached the porch on
which stood the two tenderfeet eastern lads, with Bud, his mother and
sister, the lone horseman had dismounted, not with any degree of skill,
however, but slipping off as though greatly fatigued, or rendered limp
from fright.

"Can you send help to him?" he gasped, pointing back in the direction
whence he had come.  "If you don't they may kill him!  Oh, such men!
Such men!"

"Kill who?  What's the matter?  What sort of help do you need?" asked
Bud quickly, while Nort and Dick looked at the excited man.  He bore
none of the marks of the west.  His garb was of the East as his riding
had been, though he sat a fairly good saddle, or he never could have
ridden at the speed he did.  But he had a good horse.  Even Dick and
Nort knew enough about animals to tell that.  The pony, his sides
heaving and his nostrils distended, gave this not altogether mute
evidence of his race against time.

"It's Professor Wright," came the panting answer.  "He's off
there--with his prospecting party.  I'm his assistant!"

"I thought he looked like a professor," murmured Dick to Nort.

"Keep still!" sharply commanded Nort.

"I am Professor J. Elwell Blair," went on the still greatly excited
rider, "an assistant to Professor Wright.  We are camped about three
miles from here, over there," and he waved his hand toward where Bud
and Slim, on their homeward ride, had seen the wisp of smoke.  "Some
Mexicans threaten to attack us," went on the man who called himself
Professor Blair.  "In fact they had already started when Professor
Wright bade me ride for help.  We knew there was a ranch over in this
direction.  Can you send us help?" he asked anxiously.

"Sure!" exclaimed Bud.

"Oh, if your father were only here!" murmured Mrs. Merkel.

"Our boys are enough!" declared Nell, with sparkling eyes.  "I wish I
might go!" she added.  "Can't I?"

"No indeed!" declared her mother.  "The idea!  You must take Slim with
you!" she called after Bud, for he was already half way down the lane
leading to the corral, calling on Professor Blair to follow, and
shouting to Nort and Dick:

"Come on, if you want to see some lively doings!" Bud invited.

"We sure do!" yelled Nort.

"Hadn't we better change our clothes?" asked the slower Dick.

"Change nothin'!" cried Nort.  "Leave your coat off if you want to!
I'm going to shed mine!" and shed it he did, dropping it on the ground
as he leaped forward.

"What is it, Bud?" asked Slim Degnan, as he and Babe, on their way to
the house, met the fleeing young rancher, who had even distanced
Professor Blair, though the latter had again mounted his tired horse.

"Don't know--exactly," came the answer.  "He's a stranger," and he
jerked his thumb over his shoulder back toward the professor.  "He and
a party are camped over in the hills--where we saw the smoke a while
back," he explained further.  "He says a bunch of Greasers are trying
to do up his boss.  Wants help!"

"Wa'al, he come to th' right place," remarked Babe Milton briefly, as,
with more speed than you would have believed he possessed, he ran
toward the corral.

Already several cowboys, sensing that something was wrong, had begun to
catch and saddle enough ponies to provide mounts for Bud, the foreman
and his fat helper.

"Give my cousins Baldy and Gimp!" cried Bud to one of the cowboys who
were in the corral.  "You can ride those, even if you haven't got your
old clothes on," he added.

"Lively now!" cried the foreman, assuming, as was his right, command of
the little cavalcade.  In less time than it takes to tell it, they were
riding along the trail, directed by Professor Blair, whose horse
seemed, somehow, to have recovered its wind sufficiently to keep pace
with the fresher steeds.

"Are you all right, fellows?" Bud called back to his cousins, as he,
himself, spurred ahead alongside Slim and Babe.  Nort and Dick formed
the rear guard with the professor.

"Sure!" declared Nort.  "Oh, boy!  A fight the first day we get here,
Dick!" he yelled to his brother.

"Don't be too sure," called hack Bud.  "These Greasers may hit the
trail as soon as we head into sight."

"Greasers are Mexicans, aren't they?" asked Dick.

"Yes," answered Professor Blair, who rode between the two easterners.
"We had to engage some, and I believe a few Indians, also, in our
prospecting work.  Our own men are all right, but we were attacked by
some strange Mexicans and Indians--or we were about to be attacked,
when I rode off for help."

"What started the row?" asked Bud.

The question seemed to embarrass Professor Blair.

"The Mexicans seem to think we have something of value, or at least
know where valuables may be," he answered.  "I believe they think we
are after desert gold, and though we have found some----"

"You have found _gold_!" cried Bud.

"No!  No!  It is a false rumor!" hastily declared the professor.  "But
Professor Wright has been obliged to keep secret the object of his
search, and perhaps the mystery surrounding it has been misconstrued by
the ignorant men.  They declare we are after gold, but it is something
far more valuable, though I am not allowed to disclose what----"

He was interrupted by the sound of distant shooting, followed by faint
yells.  Bud Merkel clapped spurs to his horse and shot forward, while
Professor Blair excitedly exclaimed:

"Oh, they are killing him!  They are killing him!"



CHAPTER IV

SUSPICIONS

With distinct feelings of joy, and no alarm whatever, Nort and Dick
watched the hands of Slim and Babe slide toward their holsters, where
nestled their .45 guns.  Bud had taken his off, on reaching the house,
and his two "city" cousins found themselves wishing that they wore
those ugly but effective weapons.

It was not that Bud was a "gun man," nor was either the ranch foreman
or his fat assistant.  But as the classical saying has it:

"You don't always need a gun out West, but when you do need it you need
it mighty bad, and mighty sudden!"

The guns, by which are meant revolvers of heavy calibre, were used for
many other purposes than shooting at human beings.  They were almost a
necessity for a lone rider to signal for help, or indicate the need of
certain action, and more than one cowboy owed his life to his gun,
either in turning aside a stampede of steers, or against some human or
animal enemy.

It had been the hope of Norton, and Richard Shannon, as soon they
learned they were to spend some time at their uncle's ranch, to "pack a
gun," but their advent and arrival had been so sudden, and their time
so crowded since reaching Diamond X, that they had to dispense with
these luxuries, or necessities, according to the way you regard them.

But the two eastern lads grinned happily at one another as they
galloped along, and saw the foreman and his fat helper with their heavy
weapons out of their holsters.

"Left mine home!" muttered Bud, as his hand, too, instinctively sought
the leather sheath.  Professor Blair, as he had called himself, did not
seemed to be armed.

"They shore is some row going on!" exclaimed Slim, as he clapped spurs
to his already well-doing horse, and shot ahead of the others.  "How
many in your bunch?" he called to the professor.

"There are four of us--Professor Wright, myself and two helpers, Edward
Newton and Silas Thorpe," was the answer.  "But the other day we
engaged some Mexicans and burros, so our party is now about eight."

"And how many are trying to rush you?" asked the foreman, slightly
checking his horse to accommodate its pace to the slower gait of the
professor's animal.

"I don't know.  There seemed about a dozen who were threatening
Professor Wright when he told me to go for help."

"Not such bad odds," murmured Bud.

"Is it a real fight?" asked Nort, his eyes sparkling.

"Sounds like it," commented the western ranch lad.  "But we'll have to
lay low.  No guns," he added regretfully.

Dick turned to look back toward the ranch buildings, now out of sight
owing to the uneven nature of the country.  He might have been
calculating whether it would be possible to go back and get weapons.

But he said nothing on this score, though he did let out an exclamation:

"There's another bunch coming along the path."

"Don't say _path_--it's a _trail_," corrected Bud with a smile.  "And
that's some of our bunch," he added.  "Cowboys from Diamond X.  Guess
mother sent them after us, thinking we'd tackled too big a job alone."

"And it does sound like a lively fracas," observed Babe Milton, wiping
his wet and glistening face with the big handkerchief that adorned his
neck, and the neck of every cowboy that Nort and Dick had so far
observed since coming to the "cow country."

These sometimes gaudy handkerchiefs were not mere ornaments.  They
served the same purpose to which Babe was then devoting his, and as the
eastern lads learned later, the silk or cotton squares formed very
effective protection to nose and mouth while riding range in the thick,
heavy dust stirred up by the feet of thousands of cattle.  So, like the
"chaps," the high-heeled boots, the handkerchiefs and the guns, each
part of the equipment of a cowboy, has its use.

"Hi!  They's some shootin'!" cried Slim, as he spurred forward again,
having learned what he wished of the professor.

"Oh, don't let them kill him!" begged the scientist.  "It is all a
mistake--thinking we are after gold--but they'll make any excuse to try
to rob us and get the secret."

"What secret?" asked Bud, but just then a renewed outburst of shots,
punctured by shrill yells, told of the need of action as against words.

"They'll kill him!  They'll kill him!" moaned Professor Blair.

"'Tain't all one sided!" declared Slim Degnan to Bud, Nort and Dick, as
the three boys managed to get their ponies on a line with the sturdy
beast of the foreman.  "There's two sets of shootin' goin' on there!"

The sound of fighting, and yells, whether of defiance or fear,
increased in volume now, and came from a little glade at the base of
the wooded foothills, which formed a sort of stepping stone to the grim
mountains behind them, along the base of which flowed a river.  These
hills, or part of them, marked one of the limits of Diamond X ranch,
though at another point the holdings of Bud's father extended well to
the summit of one of the mountains.

Urging on their horses by heels and voices, the little party swept into
the glade, following a path, or "trail," as it should be called.  This
trail had been worn by countless cattle going to the river to drink,
and the feet of the ponies now clattered along it.

A moment later, swinging around a little clump of trees, greasewoods
and sagebush, Bud and his cousins saw a sight which thrilled them
through and though, though perhaps Bud was more accustomed to such
stirring scenes than were the city lads.

In the midst of an encampment of tents, several men were kneeling down,
using packs and baggage as a barricade.  They were firing over this
line of defense at objects unseen, but which, as the white puffs of
smoke showed every now and then, were easily guessed to be humans, with
more or less sinister motives.

There was a regular fusillade, as the party of cowboys approached, and
in addition a series of sharp and wild yells which, now that the scene
was reached, could be heard as arising from the underbrush outside the
camp.

The attackers of Professor Wright, for he later proved to be the owner
of the camp, were using their voices as well as their weapons to
intimidate the defenders.

"Greasers and some Indians!" cried Slim, as he swept on along the
trail.  "Come on, boys!" he yelled and instantly his gun was in action,
as was that of Babe Milton.

"Oh, why didn't I bring mine?" mourned Bud.

"Tough luck!" exclaimed Nort.

The advent of the rescue party had an instant effect.  No sooner had
Slim and Babe begun firing than there was silence on the part of the
attackers.  A few scattering shots were fired, one or two more wild
yells smote the air and then there was more silence.

"That settles 'em," grimly observed Slim, as he began to reload his
weapon, an example followed by Babe.  At the same time those in the
little camp, who had had their backs turned toward the rescue party,
swung about with evident signs of relief on their faces.

A tall, slim man, with prematurely gray hair, stepped forward, resting
the butt of his rifle on the ground as he surveyed the newcomers.  Then
his eyes sought those of Professor Blair.

"I see that you found help," he remarked quietly.  "And just in time,
too.  They were about to rush us, I fear."

"I'm glad we came in time," the other scientist remarked.  "I don't
know your names, gentlemen," he went on, turning to Bud and the others,
"but this is my chief, Professor Hendryx Wright."

"I shall take some other occasion to thank you," spoke Professor
Wright, with a smile that included all the rescuers from Slim to Dick.
"But just now one of my men, possibly two, need attention from a
doctor.  They have been shot."

"Better let me have a look at 'em," suggested Slim.  "I'm not a doctor,
but that brand isn't plenty out here.  If they're too bad, we can take
your men to the ranch.  Where are they?"

Professor Wright waved his hand toward one of the tents, and while Slim
dismounted to make his way there, Bud and his cousins had time to look
about them.

In addition to four white men, which included the two professors, and
two who were apparently assistants, there were several Mexicans or
half-breeds.  These were all armed and had, in common with their white
employers, been firing at the attacking party.  Of the latter no
glimpse had been had.  They seemed to have vanished into the forest
with the approach of the rescuers.

"Do you have things like this happen every day, Bud?" asked Nort, with
sparkling eyes, as the foreman disappeared into the tent where the
wounded men lay.

"No, indeed.  This is as much a surprise to me as it is to you fellows.
I didn't even know this camp was here."

"What do you reckon it is?" asked Dick.

"Give it up," answered Bud.  "I reckon even Zip Foster couldn't make
anything of this."

"Who's Zip Foster?" asked Nort.

"That's what a lot of us would give a deal to know, son," chuckled
Babe, who was rapidly making a survey of the camp.  "He's a secret
friend of Bud's, an'----"

"Oh, cut it out!" exclaimed Bud, and even his tan did not altogether
hide the blood that surged into his face.

While the two professors were conversing together in low tones, and
their helpers, including two white men (evidently the Ed Newton and
Silas Thorp spoken of by Professor Blair) were putting to rights the
somewhat disrupted camp, Slim, the foreman, came from the tent.

"They're not much hurt," he declared.  "Only flesh wounds, but they
ought to be treated with some dope I've got at the ranch house.  They
can ride over, and I'll fix 'em up as best I can," he offered.

"You are very kind," murmured Professor Wright.  "But it might be
dangerous for them to do so."

"Dangerous!" exclaimed Slim.

"Yes, I mean it might inflame their wounds."

"Oh!  Yes, it might," agreed the foreman after a moment of thought.
"Wa'al, I can send one of the boys back for the medicine.  Here they
come now," he added, as, with whoops of delight at the prospect of a
fight, a troop of other cowboys from the Diamond X ranch rode up.  As
Bud had surmised, his mother had sent them after the advance party.

"What's the row?" cried "Yellin' Kid" Watson, as he unlimbered his gun.
It needed but one utterance of his to establish his nickname.  He
shouted almost every word he used.

"All over," said Slim, succinctly.  "Don't know just what it's about,
but it's all over."

The newcomers rode their horses into the camp, and Yellin' Kid, whose
animal was a bit restive, nearly brought down one of the small tents.
As it swayed, a flap opening because of the breaking of one of the
ropes, Professor Wright sprang forward with a sharp cry.

"Don't go in there!  No one must enter that tent!" sharply commanded
the scientist.

"I wasn't aimin' to," remarked Yellin' Kid somewhat tartly and in
rather grieved tones.  "Come out of that, you soap footer!" he cried to
his steed.  "What do you mean, slippin' all over creation?"

He backed his animal away, but Professor Wright, summoning to his side
Professor Blair, quickly fastened the tent shut again, paying no heed
during this operation, to the cowboys.

"Seems mighty much afraid we'll see something we hadn't a right to,"
commented Bud to his cousins.

"Yes, he does act queer," agreed Dick.

"Suspicious, I call it!" whispered Nort.  He was impulsive, and much
more prone, than was his brother, to ascribe motives to others.
"Maybe, after all, they have gold in there!" he said.



CHAPTER V

HITTING THE TRAIL

Bud Merkel shook his head as Nort Shannon offered this possible
explanation of the action of Professor Wright.

"Never's been any gold found in these regions all the years I've lived
here," he said.

"There's always a first time," countered Nort, while the cowboys gazed
about them, talking in low voices.

"It must be something else," said Bud.  "This is a prospecting bunch,
it's easy to see that, but they're not after gold.  These two
professors are from some eastern college, I take it," he went on.
"They may be after specimens of plants, or stones.  Using their
vacation this way.  I've heard of it being done."

"That's right!" chimed in Dick.  "Two of the professors from our
Academy spent all one summer in the Adirondacks, getting material for a
new geology book they were writing.  Maybe that's what these professors
are doing," he suggested.

"Then why are they keeping so blamed secret about it for?" asked Nort,
impulsively.  "There's no crime in getting rock specimens, or in making
up a new geology, only I wouldn't want to do it," he finished with a
grin.  "I get enough of study all winter.  We came out here to have
fun!"

"And we've started in right!" declared his brother.  "Fun and
excitement."

"I reckon we'll have to let these fellows have their way," murmured
Bud.  "They aren't on our ranch, and this is a free country.  They may
have permission from the Double Z people to look for specimens here."

"Is this Double Z land?" asked Dick.

"Right about here is," answered Bud.  "Our line runs over there, and
back where we came from," and he motioned toward the ranch buildings.
"Better be hitting the home trail too, soon," he commented.  "It'll be
dark in no time, and I'm as hungry as they make 'em!"

"You said something then!" declared Babe.  "I don't see that we can do
anything more here--they don't appear to want us overly much," he added.

Perhaps Professor Wright was aware that a little feeling had arisen
over his hasty warning to Yellin' Kid, for he hastened toward the
foreman and said:

"I shall be most grateful to you if you will send over something for
the two wounded men.  I don't like to let them go to your place, hurt
as they are, and I don't like to deplete my force.  Those rascals may
return."

"That's right," agreed Slim.  "Wa'al, I reckon we can accommodate you.
I'll send one of the boys back with a bottle of antiseptic stuff right
after grub.  Wash out the wounds, pour some of this stuff on and bind
'em up.  The men'll be all right.  Greasers don't mind a little thing
like a bullet through the arm or leg.  You know 'em?"

"No, I only hired them three days ago to help with our camp outfit.
Some of my men deserted, and I have reason to believe it was some of
them who led the attack on us."

"Any special reason why they should shoot you up?" asked Slim.  "That
is if it isn't askin' a personal question," he added, mindful of the
reception accorded Yellin' Kid.

"It is all due to a foolish mistake," said Professor Wright, with a
quick glance at his assistant, Professor Blair.  "We are here on a
scientific mission, as perhaps Professor Blair told you, and a few of
the deluded men I engaged to help me make some excavations imagine I am
after gold.  That is far from the truth, for----"

"It is far more valuable than gold!" exclaimed Professor Blair.

"Eh--well, yes, in a way," said the chief, as Bud caught a look of
warning flashed at the man who had ridden for help.  "But that is
neither here nor there," went on Professor Wright.  "The point of the
matter is that I had to discharge the leader of my uneducated helpers
because he persisted in trying to find out what we were after.  He took
some of the men with him, necessitating the hiring of others.  Then the
climax came this afternoon, when, unexpectedly, we were attacked.  In
my wanderings I had seen your ranch buildings, and I ventured to hope
you would send us help when I dispatched my assistant to you."

"Wa'al, we did what we could," said Slim.  "Of course you know your own
business best, but I wouldn't take any chances with Greasers.  They may
come back, if you have any valuables here."

"We have," said Professor Wright, with a glance at the tent, the flaps
of which he had tightly closed.  "But I do not fancy they will again
attack us soon.  We wounded some of them before you came, and we shall
now be on our guard.  If I can have the antiseptics for those two men,
I shall be grateful."

"I'll send 'em over later," promised Slim, and then he called to the
cowboys: "Don't 'pear to be much further need of us, boys.  Let's mosey
back!"

And while the cavalcade was on the trail leading to Diamond X ranch,
Bud's cousins had a chance to tell him how it was they had come West so
unexpectedly.

They had long been promised by their parents that they might spend a
summer in the great open, but, for one reason or another, the visit had
been postponed from time to time.

But about a week back Mr. Shannon found that his business called him to
South America.  He decided to take his wife with him, and this would
break up their home for the time being.

"So he decided to let us hit the train for here," explained Nort, whose
name, as you may have guessed, was Norton.  "We didn't take time to
write--just packed up and came on," he added.

"We did telegraph," said Dick.  "But we knew we could find you, whether
you met us or not, Bud."

"I never got your message, and I don't believe dad did, either,"
remarked the young rancher.  "But he may have for all that.  He's been
terrible busy lately, arranging for a big shipment of steers, and our
telephone has been out of order, so maybe they tried to 'phone the
message to us and could not raise us, and it got laid aside.  But I'm
sure glad you're here now."

"So are we!" exclaimed Dick.

"Do you mean to say you have a telephone?" asked Nort, with something
of disappointment in his voice.

"Of course!" laughed Bud.  "This is a big ranch, and we couldn't get
along without a 'phone.  We're hooked up with other ranches, and we
have a private line of our own from one ranch to the other.  We're on
the long distance, too.  Oh, we couldn't manage without the wire."

"It doesn't seem like the wild west, if you have a _'phone_,"
complained Nort.

"Oh, you will find it wild enough!" declared Bud.  "Didn't you get your
fill on Tartar, and haven't you seen a real man-fight first crack out
of the box?"

"Yes, I had all I wanted on Tartar," confessed Nort with a smile.  "I
hope your dad won't think I was too fresh, getting on one of his horses
without having permission," he said.

"Tartar was the one who was fresh," laughed Bud.  "But the boys
shouldn't have allowed you on him."

"That was my fault," confessed impulsive Nort.  "As I told you, Dick
and I arrived at the station without being expected by you, as it now
turns out.  We scouted around, and found one of your wagon outfits
there, and of course the driver was decent enough to bring us in.

"I saw that corral full of ponies first shot, and as I can ride--a
little----" he quickly qualified his statement, "I just hopped aboard
the liveliest pinto in the pack."

"You sure did pick a lively one!" chuckled Bud.  "I don't see how you
stayed on as long as you did.  Tartar is next door to an outlaw.  He's
a bucker and a roller, and they do say he killed a man once.  I don't
see why dad keeps him.  There aren't two men around here who can ride
him."

"Well, I'm not going to qualify," declared Nort.  "But, as I said, when
Dick and I arrived we didn't stop to do any thinking.  We hit the
corral, and though some of the men did warn me, I was foolish enough to
try and stick on that wild colt.  You came along just in time."

"Yes, there might have been trouble," agreed Bud.  "You'll have all the
riding you want if you stick around here.  We don't know what walking
means on Diamond X, though dad does talk of getting a flivver.  I wish
he would."

"There's lots of level country around here," observed Dick.

"Plenty, and the other kind too," added Bud nodding toward the hills at
their backs.  "Well, we sure will have good times."

"We want work, too," declared Nort.  "We want to learn to be ranchers."

"You'll have that chance, too," declared his western cousin.  "But now
let's lope along a little faster.  If we don't get to the table the
same time as the boys there won't be a smell left.  Supper's going to
be late to-night."

For a time the pace forbade conversation.  The only sounds were the
beating of hoofs on the ground, the clatter of buckles and the squeak
of damp leather.  Then the cowboys, and the young ranchers, trotted
down the slope that led to the corral, and Nort and Dick had a glimpse,
in the doorway of the ranch house, of their aunt.

A quick survey of the party told Mrs. Merkel that there had been no
casualties, and, with a satisfied sigh, she went back in the house, and
began to put the supper on the table, with the assistance of Nell and
two women workers.

"The boys'll eat us out of house and home to-night," she remarked to
Nell.

"It's lucky we have plenty," commented Bud's pretty sister.

And plenty there was, as Dick and Nort amply testified to a little
later, as they drew chairs to a long table at which they sat with the
ranch hands, who had made hasty toilets after their fast ride.

For a time there was heard only the rattle of table utensils, but, with
the sharp edge of appetites dulled, talk and joking retort ran about
the board.  Bud took his part, but the two easterners were silent,
preferring to listen and learn.  And they picked up many a gem of slang
from the repartee that flashed forth.

"Any of you boys ever see that outfit before?" asked Bud's mother, when
an account of the professor's camp had been given.

No one had, but "Snake" Purdee, so called because of his deadly fear of
rattlers that were occasionally met with, remarked, after disposing of
a mouthful of biscuit:

"Some of the Double Z boys was tellin' me of a locoed tenderfoot who
was grubbin' for diamonds, or suthin' like that, an' I reckon this is
him."

"Shouldn't wonder," commented Mrs. Merkel.  "You say you're going to
send over some liniment?" she asked the foreman.

"I was aimin' to do it," he answered.  "That is if you----"

"Oh, of course!" interrupted Mrs. Merkel.  "One of the boys can ride
over this evening.  I don't want anybody to suffer when I can help."

Nort nudged Bud under the table.

"Can't we go, too?" asked the city lad.

Bud hesitated a moment and then answered:

"Why, yes, I reckon so."  To his mother he said: "I'll ride over, too,
with Nort and Dick."

"Will it be safe?" asked Mrs. Merkel, with a quick look at the foreman.
"I wish Mr. Merkel would come."

"Oh, it'll be _safe_ enough," the foreman answered.  "Those Greasers
won't come back, especially after dark.  They'll lay low.  I'll send
Babe over with the boys."

"Oh, joy!" murmured Nort, and the eyes of Dick sparkled.  This was
living life as they had dreamed it--a night ride to a camp that had
been attacked by savage men!

"Get on some other clothes," suggested Bud to his cousins, as they left
the table.  "You'll spoil those in no time, on a horse."

"All right," agreed Dick, and soon he and his brother had made the
change.  If not exactly attired as were the cowboys, their outfits were
sufficiently practical for the time being.

"Can't we have guns?" asked Nort, while some of the ranch hands were
saddling ponies for the little party that was to take the antiseptics
to the wounded men.

"Know how to shoot?" asked Babe, who felt his responsibility at taking
two tenderfeet on the trail at night.

"A little," admitted Nort, and Dick nodded in agreement.

"Wa'al, I don't reckon you'll have any use for 'em," said the assistant
foreman, "but it's just as well to pack 'em.  I'll get you a couple
guns," and he started toward the bunk house while Bud and his cousins
mounted their ponies and prepared to take the trail.

"They'll do," Babe said to Bud in a low voice, after passing to Dick
and Nort the guns.  "Lots to learn, but they've got the grit, and they
ain't too much set up.  They'll do."

Then they hit the trail.



CHAPTER VI

THE RUSTLERS

Diamond X ranch was one of the largest in that part of the country.
Mr. Merkel's holdings were in one of our western states, not far from
the Mexican border, which fact was not altogether pleasing to him.  It
made it too easy for cattle thieves to operate, and more than once
Diamond X had suffered from depredations of the "rustlers," as they
were called, doubtless from the fact that they "rustled" or "hustled"
cattle that were not their own, off lawful ranges.

But it was all part of the day's work, and Mr. Merkel's ranches were
too valuable to be disposed of easily, even though their proximity to
Mexico, the home of lawless "Greasers" and half breeds, was too close
for ease of mind.

Diamond X, like many other western ranches, took its name from the
brand used to mark the cattle that fed on its succulent grass and drank
its abundant water.  The brand was a diamond with the letter X in the
centre, a mark easily recognized, even at a distance.  Other marks were
used on other and adjoining ranches, Mr. Merkel owning two others, one
of which went by the name Square M, from the fact that the
distinguishing brand was a square with the letter M inside.  The
other's mark was a triangle with a B in it, that ranch being known
among the cowboys as the Triangle B.

Double Z was a ranch adjoining that of the Diamond X on the north, Hank
Fisher being the proprietor, while to the west was the Circle T ranch,
its cattle being marked with a large circle, in which the letter T
appeared, it being owned by Thomas Ogden, a friend of Mr. Merkel.

"Gosh!  But your father has a lot of cows!" exclaimed Nort, as he and
his brother rode along through the early evening, beside Bud.  "Must be
a million of 'em," added the city youth as, from a rise, he caught a
glimpse of many herds, some restrained from wandering by fenced ranges,
and others being slowly driven along by cowboys, who waved to Babe,
Bud, and the city lads.

"Not quite a million!" laughed Bud.  "And we don't call 'em _cows_,
though some of 'em are, of course.  They're cattle, or steers.  Mother
keeps a cow or two for the sake of the milk, and of course our men are
called cowboys, or punchers, and this is cow country.  But we don't
speak of 'em as herds of cows."

"Glad you told me," murmured Nort.  "I'm going to be a ranchman some
day, and I want to learn all I can."

"Same here!" commented his brother.

It was a wondrously beautiful night, calm and clear, with the stars
shining overhead more brightly than Nort and Dick had ever before seen
them.  It is the clearness of the atmosphere in the West that renders
objects so plain at a distance, that brings out the beauty of the stars
and which also enables such wonderful moving pictures to be made.  In
the East the day is rare when there is not some haze.  It is just the
reverse in the West.

Through the silent night rode the boy ranchers, for Nort and Dick were
beginning to think of themselves in that class.  The cousins rode
together, with Babe in the rear, lugging the bottles of antiseptics
that were destined for the injured men.

"What are those cowboys riding around the cattle for?" asked Nort, as
they turned aside from a large herd restlessly moving amid a constant
dull rumble.

"They're driving 'em over to the railroad, to be shipped," explained
Bud.  "That's what dad raises cattle for--ships 'em away for beef.
This bunch has been fattened up on a range we keep specially for that.
This is a good time to sell now, prices are high, so we're disposing of
as many as we can.

"The cowboys will drive 'em to the railroad, taking their time, so as
not to run all the fat off the steers.  The heavier they are the more
money we get for 'em.  I guess they won't go much farther to-night,
though," he added, with a look back at the herd they had passed.  "This
is the first day they've been driven, and we always go a bit slow at
first."

"Say, but it's great!  Wonderful!" exclaimed Nort, half rising in his
stirrups and breathing deep of the pure, keen air, for it was now
chilly.

"You said an earful!" commented his brother.  "I wouldn't have missed
this for anything!"

"Glad you like it," murmured Bud.

"What's that--a wolf?  A prairie wolf?" asked Nort, suddenly as a sort
of whine broke the silence of the night, punctuated otherwise only by
the soft footfalls of the horses.

"Wolf?  No!" chuckled Bud.  "Don't let Babe hear you say that.  It's
him--singing!  Lots of the men do it."

As Bud's whisper died away, the assistant foreman let his voice soar
from a whine into a more or less of a roar, as he intoned:

  "Oh, sing to me not of the joys of a city
  Where innocent cowboys are left in a trance.
  Give me a hoss, an' some room to do ridin',
  When I am daid bring me back to the ranch!"


"Does he get that way often?" asked Dick in a whisper, as the cowboy
began on the second verse of what promised to be a lengthy song.

"More or less!" answered Bud.  "The cowboys sing a lot, and some
haven't half bad voices.  The songs, too, are corkers, some of 'em.
They sing 'cause it's lonesome ridin' line, and then, too, it seems to
sort of soothe the cattle.  Dad has told us, lots of times, where a
stampede has been stopped just by the bunch singing songs."

"Good idea," commented Nort.  "Oh, but this is the life for me!" he
chanted.

"Only this ride isn't lasting long enough," said Dick.  "That's the
camp, down in there; isn't it?" he asked his cousin, pointing ahead
toward where, in the light of the newly risen moon, could be observed
some white objects.

"Those are the professors' tents," declared Bud.  "We got here sooner
than I expected.  Talking to you chaps made the time pass quickly."

"What do you think of those fellows, anyhow?" asked Nort, in a low
voice of his cousin.  It was evident he referred to the two scientists
who had been attacked that afternoon.

"I don't know what to think," admitted Bud, frankly.  "I never heard of
anything in this part of the country, more valuable than gold, that was
worth prospecting after.  There hasn't even any gold been found, as far
as I know, though there were rumors that once a prospector made a lucky
strike about ten miles from here.  But these men do seem to have
something they're afraid will be taken from them."

"Well, it needn't worry us," commented Dick.  "We're going to be cow
punchers--not miners."

"You said it!" declared Nort.

By this time they were within the range of several fires gleaming in
the midst of the camp of the scientists, and a moment later Professor
Blair emerged from the tent that had been so jealously guarded during
the day.

"Oh, it's you; is it?" he asked as he recognized the boys and Babe.
"It is very kind of you, to take this trouble."

"'Sall right," remarked the assistant foreman, as he handed over the
bottles of medicine.  "Tell th' boss to use it just as it is--don't
need any dilutin' with water."

"Oh, you mean Professor Wright," said the other, so translating the
cowboy's use of the word "boss."

"Yep," answered Babe.  "Tell the boss to use it straight."

"Well, he isn't here just now," said the other.  "The men who were shot
seem to be doing well, however.  I'll attend to them myself.  Thank you
again."

His voice was cultured and his manner pleasant.  But it was evident
that he invited no confidences.

Little could be made out, even in the moonlight and the gleam of the
fire, save the usual scattered camp outfits, and the white tents.

The boy ranchers and Babe had done what they set out to do--deliver the
medicine, and no incident had marked their trip, unless the singing of
the assistant foreman can be called such.

"Some of us'll ride over to-morrow," promised Babe, as he and the boys
turned to take the trail back to the ranch.

"Thank you, but we may not be here," remarked Professor Blair.  "We may
move on.  But thank you, just the same."

"Don't mention it," begged Babe, slightly sarcastic of the other's
cultured accent and words.  "We aim to please, an' be neighborly."

"Of which you have given ample evidence," was the rejoinder.

"Guess that'll hold him for a while," murmured Bud to his cousins.

"Good-nights" were called and the outfit from Diamond X ranch was on
its way again.  Nort and Dick were eagerly questioning Bud about
western matters, learning to their delight that there would be chances
to go hunting and fishing after the big round-up, and Babe was
beginning on about the forty-seventh verse of his favorite song, when
Bud suddenly stopped in the midst of telling some incident, and gazed
intently across the rolling range.

"What's the matter?" asked Dick in a whisper, for the silence of the
night, and the strangeness of their surroundings, seemed to call for
whispers.

"I thought I saw cattle moving," said Bud.  "Yes, I do!" he went on,
quickly.  "Look, Babe!"

Babe broke off his song at a point where a dying cowboy was begging to
be "toted back to the chuck house," and looked to where the boy rancher
pointed.

"That's it, shore as rattlers!" the assistant foreman said.  "It's
about time they tried suthin' like this!  Got your guns, boys?"

"What for?" asked Nort, a thrill of excitement leaping through his
veins.  "What is there to shoot?"

"Rustlers!" said Bud, grimly.  "Somebody--Greasers, likely--are trying
to run off some of our fat steers!  Come on, we'll ride 'em down!"  He
clapped spurs to his horse, an example followed by Nort and Dick, but,
quick as they were, Babe had shot ahead of them, and in the moonlight
the city lads caught the gleam of his gun as he pulled it from the
holster.



CHAPTER VII

A CRY IN THE NIGHT

Needless to say that Nort and Dick were thrilled through and through.
Having lived in a city nearly all of their lives, though with the usual
city lad's dreamings of adventures in the open, of camps, of desperate
measures against desperate men, they had never hoped for this.

"Crickity!  Think of it!" hoarsely whispered Nort to his brother as
they galloped along side by side.  "We haven't been here a day yet, and
we're run into cattle rustlers!"

"Great!" commented Dick.  "Oh, boy!"

"We haven't run into 'em yet, that's the trouble," spoke Bud grimly, as
his pony worked in between the two brothers.  "But we will in a little
while--Babe'll fix 'em."

"Can't we take a hand?" asked Nort eagerly, as his hand sought the
weapon at his side.

"We may have to," Bud admitted, "but dad doesn't think I'm old enough,
yet, to mix up in a man-sized fight.  Maybe he's right, but he always
tells me to hold back until I'm needed."

"We can take a hand _then_, can't we?" asked Nort eagerly.

"Sure thing!" exclaimed Bud.  "But there may not be any need of a
scrap.  These rustlers know they're caught now, and they may run for
it.  They can't get away with the steers, anyhow, without a fight.  Of
course if they get Babe covered--and us--they'll make their getaway,
but he may bluff 'em off."

"What does it all mean, anyhow?" asked Dick, as the assistant foreman
spurred off through the night, following the trail of the now running
steers.  If there were rustlers driving the cattle away the men
themselves gave no sign, but remained hidden.

"It means cattle rustlers--that's all," explained Bud, as he led the
way for his cousins to follow, since the young representative of the
Diamond X ranch knew the trail.  "Rustlers are just men who take other
folk's cattle, drive 'em off, change the brands and sell 'em wherever
they can.  Sometimes they get away with it and sometimes they don't!"

"And are they running off your dad's cattle now?" asked Nort.

"Looks that way," admitted Bud, "though I haven't seen any of the men
doing it.  You know some of our cowboys drove in a bunch of fat steers
from one of dad's distant ranches the other day.  They're being taken
over to the railroad to be shipped.  Not the station where you fellows
came in, but another, about two days' trip from here.  It's a bunch of
these cattle that's being hazed away from us, I reckon."

"I didn't know they hazed steers, like they do college Freshmen,"
ventured Dick.

"Hazing cattle means to sort of work 'em along easy like--drive 'em
where you want to go," explained Bud.  "We have to do a lot of hazing
when we have the round-up--that's when the cattle owners send their
cowboys to collect the animals that have been feeding on the open range
during the year.  Each man separates into a bunch the cattle with his
brands, and also the little calves, or the mavericks, and hazes them
toward his corrals."

"What's mavericks?" asked Nort.  He could not forbear the question,
even though considerable excitement seemed just in the offing.  He
wanted to learn all he could about ranch life.

"A maverick gets its name from an old Texas ranchman named Sam
Maverick," answered Bud.  "He didn't brand his cattle, and one day,
during a stampede, his steers mixed in with a lot more that were
branded.  He and his men cut them out and hazed over to his range all
cattle that weren't branded.  Every cow, calf or steer that didn't have
a brand on was called one of Maverick's, and so we call, now, any
unbranded animal a 'maverick.'  Anybody who finds it can brand it and
claim it as his, though; in some places all the mavericks are bunched
together and divided.  But say, I wonder what Babe's doing, anyhow?  I
haven't heard a shot, and he must be up to that bunch of rustlers now,
if that's what they were."

"What else could they be?" asked Nort.

"I don't know," Bud replied.  "Anyhow, here's some of the cattle.  Look
out you don't run into 'em!" he called sharply, as he pulled in his
pony.

He spoke just in time to warn Nort and Dick, for, in another instant,
they found themselves among the tail-enders of a bunch of cattle that
had run from them at first.

No men were in sight--not even Babe--and there was a haze of clouds
over the moon now, and a sort of fog close to the ground, that
prevented clear vision.

"Are these your cattle?" asked Dick.

"Tell you in a minute," responded the young cattleman.  He rode up
alongside one of the animals and focused on its rump the gleam from an
electric flash light.  Bud carried one of these mighty handy pocket
articles, which are much more effective than matches for making
observations at night.  In the bright gleam of the little light the boy
ranchers saw, plainly branded in the hide of the animal, a large
diamond, with the letter X in the centre.

"Dad's stock--all of 'em, I reckon!" exclaimed Bud, as he flashed his
torch on others in the bunch, revealing more of the Diamond X brand.

"But where are the rustlers?" asked Nort, in a tense whisper, and his
hand sought the holster where his newly-acquired weapon rested.

"I don't know," began Bud.  "They may have ridden off, or it may be
that----"

He stopped suddenly and listened.  Dick and Nort heard, as did Bud, the
rapid approach of a horseman.  In an instant Bud had switched off his
pocket electric light, and then in the half hazy light of the partly
obscured moon he and his cousins peered forward.  Nort and Dick had
drawn their guns, an example set them by Bud.

"Don't do any shooting until you hear me," ordered Bud.  "There may be
no need of it!"

The rider, unseen as yet, was coming nearer and nearer, the thud of his
horse's feet pounding hard on the turf.  He seemed to be approaching
from the direction in which Babe had disappeared.

In another instant the rider was pulling his horse to a quick stop
beside Bud's animal, and when a beam of misty moonlight flashed out
from beneath a cloud it was seen that the assistant foreman of Diamond
X ranch had returned.

"Oh!" exclaimed Nort, and there was almost a note of disappointment in
his voice because the rider did not develop into a cattle rustler.

"Did you see any of 'em?" asked Bud eagerly.

"Not a hair," answered Babe Milton, who proved that he could be active
enough when occasion called for it, in spite of his size and weight.
"But I heard some one riding off down the gully, and if it was any of
our boys, or any of the fellows around here, they wouldn't have run.
Besides, these steers belong to the bunch Happy Day is hazin' over to
the railroad.  They didn't get cut out by themselves."

"Not much," agreed Bud, while Nort and Dick listened eagerly.

"So I'm going on a little farther," said Babe.  "You fellows stay here,
and if I don't get back in an hour--well, you'll know something
happened."

"Can't we come?" asked Dick, eagerly.

"You'd better stay here," advised Babe.  "Somebody'll have to ride herd
on these steers, and I can deal with those rascals better'n you
boys--though I may need your help later.  Anyhow, Bud, you stay here,
and herd 'em in till I get back--if I do."

"And if you don't?" asked Bud.  There was a world of meaning in those
few words, for cattle rustlers were desperate men.

"If I don't, ride back to the ranch an' tell the boss," spoke Babe
simply, as if it was all in the day's work--or night's.

"All right," agreed Bud.  He realized that though he was the son of the
owner of Diamond X ranch, in this case the word of Babe exceeded even
his heritage.

Turning his horse quickly, after a brief examination of his saddle
girths, Babe spurred away into the haze of the cloudy moonlight,
leaving the boy ranchers to guard the cattle.  The animals, after their
run, were content to remain quiet now, moving about a bit uneasily, and
rumbling as if in protest now and then.  They were all full-grown
beasts, ready for the market, and valuable.

"S'pose he'll get any of 'em?" whispered Nort.

"Can't say," answered Bud, briefly.  "Babe generally does get what he
goes after, though."  This was significant.

In silence, broken only by the occasional lowing of the cattle, the boy
ranchers waited--waited for they knew not what.  And then, as suddenly
as an explosion, came a cry in the night--and such a cry!

An unearthly noise of long drawn out howling notes, mingled with roars,
the crescendo effect ending in a peal of weird yells that were like the
cries of a laughing hyena, mingled with the sardonic wails of a baboon.



CHAPTER VIII

"THE PROFESSOR!"

Loud and long drawn out was that weird cry of the night.  It sent
shivers down the spines of Nort and Dick, and they both confessed,
afterward, that if they had not been wearing the heavy range hats,
supplied them by Bud, that their hair would surely have risen and stood
up straight.

Then, as suddenly as it had come to them out of the half darkness, the
fiendish noise ceased, dying away in what seemed to be sobbing, insane
laughter.  With a swallow or two, to wet his parched lips and
fear-dried throat, Dick asked in a whisper:

"What--what was that?"

Like an echo came his brother's question:

"Was somebody killed?"

Bud's hearty laugh relieved the tension.

"It was only a coyote," said the boy from the ranch.

"A _coyote_!" repeated Nort and Dick in unison.

"Yes; you'll see plenty of 'em, and you must have heard of 'em.  Little
animals, sort of half wolf, half dog.  They hang about for something to
eat, and they sure can howl!"

"_Howl!_" exclaimed Nort.  "If that's a _howl_ I want to know it!  Of
all the infernal noises----"

"You said it!" exclaimed his brother.  "Was that his death cry, Bud?
Did Babe shoot one?"

"No, of course not.  It isn't as easy to shoot one of the pesky coyotes
as you'd think, and it isn't much use.  They don't do any particular
harm around here.  Besides, you didn't hear any shooting; did you?"

Dick was forced to admit that he had not, and he reproved himself for
not using his faculties to better advantage.  He was beginning to
realize that if he was to be a westerner, an outdoor lad and a rancher,
he must learn to observe, something that Bud had already acquired in
large measure.

"Do they always howl that way?" asked Nort, as he shoved back into his
holster the gun he had half drawn again.

"Not always--lots of times it's worse!" chuckled Bud.

"_Worse!_" cried Dick.  "I don't see how it could be.  What do they do
it for?" he asked, as, once again, that strange cry welled forth on the
night.

"Oh, just to keep each other company, I reckon," answered Bud.  "Same
as dogs bark.  This may be a lone coyote calling to his mate; or he may
be summoning the pack to feed on a dead calf, or something like that.
I reckon they always howl pretty free on moonlight nights.  We're used
to 'em."

"Don't believe I'd get used to that if I lived here a hundred years,"
commented Dick, as, for the third time, the cry rose and fell, even
louder and more horrible than before.

"The cattle don't mind 'em," said Bud.  "In fact it seems to sort of
soothe 'em.  Look, some of the steers are lying down."

This was so.  In the clearer moonlight which prevailed for a few
moments, the lads from the city saw numbers of the bunch of cattle
resting easily on the grass.  They were either tired out from the rapid
pace at which they had been driven, or had concluded that they were to
stay there for the night.

"Come on," suggested Bud, a moment later, as he urged his horse
forward.  "Hit it up!"

"Where?" asked Dick.

"We'll ride herd for a few minutes, to make sure none of 'em stray off.
I can't see just how many there are in this bunch, the light is so
uncertain."

Nort and Dick followed their cousin, slowly circling the bunch of
cattle on which an attempt had been made to drive off.  There were
about fifty, as Bud roughly estimated, when he and his cousins had
completed the circuit, thus "riding herd," as it is called, to
distinguish it from "riding line," when the cowboys move slowly up and
down along the line of fences that enclose the more modern ranches.

Diamond X ranch consisted of both sorts.  Mr. Merkel owned a number of
large expanses of land, completely fenced in, and on these grazed
thousands of cattle.

He also took advantage of the open range, letting some of his animals
mingle on those vast expanses in common with steers and cows from other
ranches.  Some of the open range was richer in grass than the fenced-in
portions, but there was a certain amount of additional work attached to
the use of the open range.  It meant round-ups twice a year, and the
branding of cattle which were claimed as the property of the different
owners.

In places where there were no fences to keep the animals from straying
it was often necessary to "ride herd."  That is, the cowboys, night and
day, rode slowly around the bunch of steers, keeping them from straying
or stampeding.  At times they were "hazed," or driven to other feeding
places, or to water, until such time as they were collected and driven
to the railroad to be shipped.

Where stout wire fences held the cattle within bounds the work of the
cowboys was easier, but even here "riding line" was necessary, as one
could never tell when a break might be made in the fence, or when
rustlers might cut the wire, to enable them to drive off a choice herd,
or part of it.

So the boy ranchers rode herd, in a fashion, the two city lads gazing
off through the half darkness, across the rolling prairies where, for
all they knew, Babe might be trailing the rustlers or engaged in a
desperate fight with them.

"Though I reckon he didn't come up to 'em," ventured Bud, after a wait
of half an hour, during which no sign or sound had come from the
assistant foreman.

"Will he come back here?' asked Nort.

"Sure--if he can," answered Bud, significantly.

"How long'll we wait?" asked Dick.

"Can't say--exactly," answered Bud.  "But say, I forgot about you
fellows," he went on, quickly.  "You've traveled all day, and must be
tired.  It isn't far back to the ranch, and I can start you on the
plain trail.  I don't mind staying here alone--I've done it before."

"Go back?  I guess not!" exclaimed Nort.

"Forget it!" advised Dick.  "This is just what we want!"

"Well, if you like it," began Bud, "I s'pose----"

"Like it?" cried the two city lads in unison.  "It's just what we came
out for," added Nort.

"Well, morning'll come, sooner or later, though I expect Babe'll be
back long before then," Bud went on.  "Those rustlers have probably
given him the slip, and----"

"Hark!" suddenly whispered Nort.  "I hear some one coming."

The noise of an approaching horse could be made out.  It was
approaching slowly, seeming to stumble now and then.  There was an
uneasy movement among the cattle, and the boys peered eagerly forward,
their hands on the butts of their guns in the holsters.

"Is it Babe?" whispered Dick.

"I don't know," answered Bud.  "Doesn't ride like him, but----"

A moment later, from out of the shadow cast by the cattle, a solitary
horseman rode, almost stumbling along.  At first he could not clearly
be made out but suddenly the haze cleared from the moon, and with
startled eyes the boys recognized the rider.

"The professor!" gasped Bud, and Nort and Dick knew the horseman for
the scientist from the mysterious camp they had recently
left--Professor Hendryx Wright!



CHAPTER IX

"WHAT DOES IT MEAN?"

Mutual recognition, followed by half suppressed and surprised
exclamations, followed the advent of Professor Wright on the scene.  He
had been pursuing his way, whether peaceful or otherwise the boy
ranchers could not determine, until he unexpectedly stumbled on Bud,
Nort and Dick riding herd--said herd being the bunch of Diamond X
cattle some one had tried to haze away.

"Oh!" murmured Professor Wright, as the growing illumination, caused by
the moon coming out more clearly, revealed him to the boys and them to
him.  "Were you--er--looking for me?" he asked in his usual cultured
tones.

"Not exactly," replied Bud.  "We were just over to your camp, to leave
the stuff for the men, and you weren't there."

"No, I had to leave," said the professor, smoothly.  "I am going back
now.  I am sorry I missed you."

"You didn't!" Bud said grimly to himself.  And then the scientist
seemed to realize this for he added:

"I mean I am sorry I was not there to thank you.  It was very kind of
you to help the men.  I'm sorry this trouble occurred."

"Oh, we're always glad to help," spoke Bud.  "Out west you never know
when you're going to need help yourself, so it's always a good plan to
have a balance in your favor."

"Yes, I should say that was so," spoke the professor thoughtfully.
"You found everything all right, at my camp?" he asked, rather than
stated.

"All right--yes," answered Bud.  "We left the stuff with Professor
Blair.  He said you were out."

"Yes, I had to make a little trip.  But aren't you off your road?" he
asked the boys.  "I mean doesn't your ranch lie over there?" and he
pointed in the proper direction.

"It does," assented Bud.  "But we've got to look out for these cattle."

"Oh, I see.  You are 'riding herd,' as I believe it is called."

"In a way--yes," spoke Bud and then he went on boldly: "Some rustlers
tried to haze this bunch over the river, but we caught 'em!"

"Caught them?" repeated the professor quickly.

"Well, our assistant foreman is after 'em now," Bud explained.  "We're
waiting here for him to come back.  We thought you were Babe as you
came along, but as soon as I heard your horse I knew it couldn't be
him.  He doesn't ride--er--just that way."

"I realize that I shall never become a horseman," said the professor
dryly, and with a little half smile, visible in the moonlight.  "But I
can ride enough for my purpose."

Bud, as well as Nort and Dick, found themselves wondering just what the
professor's "purpose" was.  However he did not seem inclined to
disclose it, for he pulled up his horse, which was idly cropping the
grass, and said:

"Well, I must be going.  Thank you, again, for your kindness.  I hope
we may meet again.  Good-night!"

He urged his animal onward, and a moment later was lost in the
darkness, as a thicker cloud than any that had yet obscured it, covered
the moon.

For several seconds the three boy ranchers remained, looking off in the
gloom which had swallowed up the mysterious scientist.  For that he was
mysterious none of the lads could deny.

"Wonder where he had been?" mused Bud in a low voice, for in that
silent, dark open place voices carried almost as clearly as across
water, and he was cautious.

"Search me!" declared Nort.

"Guess he didn't expect to see us," added Dick.

"Say!" suddenly exclaimed Nort, urging his horse against Bud's in his
eagerness and excitement, "maybe he was one of the cattle rustlers,
Bud!  He circled around and rode back after he found he couldn't get
away with the steers, and that Babe was on his trail.  That's what it
is!"

"No," spoke Bud, quietly.  "There's something queer about that
man--Professor Wright as he calls himself--but he isn't the kind that
rustles cattle.  Cattle thieves don't make a permanent camp.  They're
wanderers--mostly Greasers, Indians and half breeds, with a bad white
man mixing in--and they don't stay long in one place."

"Don't you think he had anything to do with trying to drive off your
cattle?" asked Nort.

"Well, you can't be altogether sure of anything in this world," half
drawled Bud, "but it doesn't seem reasonable."

"But he came from the direction to where those men ran that were
driving away the cattle," said Dick.  "Wonder if he met Babe?"

"You can ask him," said Bud.  "Here comes Babe now."

The two other lads were not aware of the approach of the assistant
foreman of Diamond X, but Bud's quick ears had caught the faint sound
of the horse's feet approaching, and in another moment Babe rode up
from a little clump of greasewood shrubs, which growth, to the eastern
lads, had resembled sumac at first.

"Find 'em, Babe?" asked Bud in a low voice.

"Nope!  They razzled off 'fore I could get up to 'em.  All right here?"
he asked, though a look convinced him there had been no serious
trouble, at least.

"All serene," answered Bud.  "Did you meet the professor?" he inquired.

"The professor?"  Babe's tone of voice, indicating surprise, was answer
enough.  But Bud went into particulars, telling how the scientist had
ridden up on them a little while before.

"No, he didn't come nigh me!" declared Babe.  "Mighty funny, too," he
went on.

"Could he be one of the rustlers?" asked Nort, eagerly.

"Oh, he _could_, I reckon," admitted Babe.  "But it doesn't seem
reasonable.  Guess he wouldn't head back this way if he'd tried to run
off some Diamond X stock.  I'd like to know where those fellows slipped
to," he said, musingly.

"Well, they didn't get anything, anyhow," declared Nort.

"Not much, that's a fact, son," drawled Babe, as he eased himself down
off his pony, for he wanted to stretch his legs.  "Course I don't know
how many there ought to be in this bunch," and he looked over the small
herd that had now settled quietly for the night.  "But they didn't get
away with much.  You fellows might as well ride on back, and send out
some of the boys," he added.  "Your ma'll be wondering about you, Bud."

"Yes, I reckon she will, 'specially as I have some tenderfeet with me,"
and he laughed good-naturedly.

"Don't go back on our account!" exclaimed Nort.  "We can camp out here
all right."

"It'll be pretty dry camping," chuckled Babe, "an' there's no need of
it.  Slim will be wanting to know how we made out, and he may get a
report on the rustlers, not knowing that we headed 'em off.  So it's
just as well for you lads to go back.  You can send out some of the
night men, and I'll follow you as soon as I'm relieved," he added.

This seemed the best plan and back toward the ranch headquarters rode
Bud, Dick and Nort, leaving Babe in charge of the small herd, a task
easy to fulfill now, as the animals were quiet.

The weird howls of the coyotes followed the lads almost to the ranch
houses, and the advent of the three, with the story they told, created
no little excitement.  Cattle rustling was not common enough to be a
regular part of the day's work.

"Zing zowie!" exclaimed Slim Degnan as he heard the particulars.  "You
fellows landed feet first right into some doin's!" he added, looking at
Nort and Dick.

"We sure did!" exclaimed the city lads, much pleased in spite of being
weary.

A little later, while Bud and his cousins were eating what might be
called a midnight lunch that Mrs. Merkel set out for them in the cozy
living-room of the ranch house, two cowboys rode off to relieve Babe.

"And now it's time for you tenderfeet to turn in," said Mrs. Merkel to
Nort and Dick.  "I told your mother I'd look after you as I would Bud,
if she'd let you come out, and, now you're here, I'm going to keep my
word.  Turn in, all three of you!"

And, for once in their lives, the boys were glad to go to bed without
arguing, for the tenderfeet, at least, were dog tired.

No further trace of the cattle rustlers was discovered, if indeed there
had been any.  All the evidence there was lay in the sight Bud and the
others had caught of a stray bunch of steers being hazed over toward
the river, across which lay open range.  The cowboys who relieved Babe
reported nothing out of the ordinary as having happened during their
night vigil.

Mr. Merkel came home that day, the second of the eastern boys' stay at
Diamond X ranch, and the cattleman warmly welcomed his nephews.

"We'll fit you out to be regular ranchers!" he declared, and in less
than a week Nort and Dick felt that they were, indeed, on their way to
this enviable goal.

They were provided with sheepskin chaps, such as Bud and the other
cowboys wore--chaps being in the nature of overalls, and affording much
needed protection to the legs when riding amid a bunch of milling
steers.

The eastern lads were given complete outfits, from the rather awkward
high-heeled boots to the broad-brimmed range hats, and they wore their
handkerchiefs, or "neckerchiefs," most proudly.

These neckerchiefs were more than ornaments.  In the choking dust,
often strongly alkali, the squares, pulled up over nose and mouth, gave
needed relief and protection.

"Suppose we ride over and see if there's been any more trouble at the
professor's camp?" suggested Nort to Bud one day.

"Good idea!" declared Dick.

"All right, if you want to," assented Bud.  "Dad was sort of mentioning
that he'd like to hear how the shot men were getting on.  We can make
it easy before supper."

Together the boy ranchers trotted over the gently rolling land toward
the foothills, in the midst of which the camp lay.  As they drew near
Bud scanned the horizon for a sign of smoke, such as he and Slim had
observed once before.  But there was no trace.

"Shouldn't wonder but what they'd vamoosed," he said.

"Lit out, you mean?" asked Nort.

"Yeppie!  There doesn't seem to be any signs of life."

And as they rode into the site of the camp the reason for this became
plain.  The camp was deserted.  The tents were down, and all that
remained were emptied tin cans, broken boxes and the cold ashes of the
fires.  But over on the side of the hill, where there was an
outcropping of red sandstone, curious marks showed.  They were the
marks of digging and excavating on rather a large scale, and as Bud
caught sight of these mute evidences of operations he uttered a low
whistle of surprise.

"What does it mean?" asked Nort.



CHAPTER X

DEL PINZO

Characteristic it was of Bud Merkel not to answer at once the sharp and
excited question of his cousin.  Living all his life in the West, as he
had done, and most of it having been spent on his father's ranches, Bud
had unconsciously acquired the valuable habit of observation--and quiet
observation at that.  He wanted to look about and notice the "sign"
before he gave his opinion.  In this he was like the Indians, whence,
doubtless, our own plainsmen developed the habit of looking twice
before they spoke once.

I don't mean to say that Bud was not a regular fellow, or that he was
not at times almost as impulsive as Nort.  He was like the majority of
boys, but on this occasion, when it appeared that something unusual was
afoot, Bud held back his opinion for a moment.

"Well, what do you think of it?" asked Nort again, as eagerly as
before.  "Doesn't this look like they'd been digging for gold?"

"I should say it did!" cried Dick, no less eager, now, than his
brother.  "Those professors saying they weren't after the yellow boys
was all bunk and bluff!  They did it to throw us off the track, so we
wouldn't try to have a hand in it.  They've been mining here, Bud, as
sure as guns!"

Bud slowly shook his head.

"Why not?" asked Nort, seeing his cousin's denial of the theory that
fitted in so well with his own ideas.

"Well, they don't mine this way--that is, I've never seen any done in
this fashion, and I've been in several mining localities," spoke Bud.
"This looks more like they'd been prospecting for water, digging here,
there and everywhere.  But there wasn't any need of that, for here's a
good spring of water, and the river isn't so far away.  This is a good
watered country, and that's what makes it so valuable for
cattle--you've got to have grass and water and we've got that on
Diamond X."

"But what do you s'pose this all means?" asked Nort again, as he
slipped from his saddle, and, by pulling the reins forward, over his
pony's head, thus gave that animal the universal sign of the plains
that it was not to wander.

"I don't know," Bud was frank to say, as he shook his head.  "They sure
have been tearing up the ground," he added, as he noticed on the side
hill, where there was an outcropping of red sandstone, that many
excavations had been made.

"If it isn't gold maybe it's silver," suggested Dick, willing to accept
a theory of less valuable metal.  "Or diamonds!" and his eyes gleamed
as he overmatched his brother's guess.

"Nothing doin!" laughed Bud.  "Of course there are silver mines not far
from here, down Mexico way, and diamonds have been found in the United
States, but not around this locality."

"Well, what's your theory?" asked Nort of the more experienced boy
rancher.  "Here we've been gassing along, saying what we thought, and
we don't know any of the ins and outs of the matter.  You're right on
the ground, and you've lived here all your life, so you ought to have
some idea of what it all means."

"But I don't!" exclaimed Bud.  "Wish I did," he added, as he joined his
cousins on foot, walking about the debris of the camp, while the ponies
sniffed, here and there, sometimes finding a choice morsel which they
daintily lipped before eating.

"You'd say they were hunting for something, wouldn't you?" asked Nort.

"Yes, I'd go that far," admitted Bud.

"And they didn't find it," put in Dick.

"What makes you think so?" asked the young rancher quickly.

"Well, there isn't any hole, or any excavation, where they could have
taken out a treasure chest, or bags of hidden gold; not to say mined
gold," went on Dick.  "In all the stories of recovered treasure I ever
read, they always left a hole where they took out the stuff.  There
isn't any hole like that here, though there's enough to show that
plenty of digging went on."

"I don't believe they've been after any gold, or anything like that,"
declared Bud.  "That professor man said so, but----"

"But was he telling the truth?" asked Nort.  "That's what we got to
figure on."

"I s'pose," agreed Bud.  "And from what I know of the country and
sizing up this outfit, I'd say he was--they aren't after gold."

"What then?" asked Dick.  "A man--two men like Professor Blair and
Professor Wright don't hire an outfit such as they had, and prospect
for nothing!"

"You are right," quietly agreed Bud.  "They're after something, but I
reckon it's something we don't know anything about."

"Maybe they were trying to run off some of your cattle, or some steers
from the Circle T," suggested Nort.  "Cattle rustlers; eh, Bud?"

"If they're cattle rustlers they're a new kind," said the ranch boy.
"But of course it's possible.  It may be they've gone into cattle
rustling on a new scale, to throw everybody off the track, and finding
out we were on to their curves, or maybe on account of having a fight
among themselves, they couldn't turn the trick."

"That's right!" exclaimed Nort, in his impulsive way.  "Maybe instead
of being attacked by Greasers and Indians, who thought they could get
some gold, the professor's bunch had a fight among themselves, and
that's how those two men got hurt."

"It's possible," admitted Bud.  "But, as Zip Foster would say, I don't
believe that's the right of it either."

"Would Zip Foster know what all this meant?" asked Dick, waving his
hand toward the deserted camp.

"Maybe," murmured Bud, turning quickly aside.  "But there's no use
staying here any longer.  We can't learn anything here.  Might as well
get back to the ranch.  If you fellows are ever going to learn to throw
a rope, you've got to do some practicing."

"What's the matter with doing it here?" asked Dick.  "We've got ropes
with us."

To each saddle was looped the cowboy's most dependable friend aside
from his horse and his gun--the ever-present lariat.  Bud was an
accomplished swinger of the rope, and Dick and Nort had been practicing
hard since coming to Diamond X.

"Yes, we can try a few throws here," said Bud, as he walked toward his
horse.  "I'll sit up here and watch you two," he went on, as he leaped
to his saddle, and pulled up his pony which had, as was usual, started
off the moment he felt a weight on his back.  "I can see you better up
here," Bud went on.  "Try it standing first.  Tackle some of those
stumps, and for cat's sake remember to keep your palms up when you
shoot the rope out.  You'll never be accurate until you do."

The brothers tried, one after the other, and Bud encouraged them by
saying that they were improving.

"Now you show us," begged Nort, when his arm began to ache, for
throwing a long coiled rope is no easy task.

"All right," agreed Bud.  "But I'll try it from the saddle.  It comes
more natural to me that way, and nine times out of ten you do all your
roping from the saddle.  Of course this isn't regular, for you don't
generally rope standing objects," he went on.  "Sock isn't used to
that, and he expects a pull on the rope after I fling it.  But I'll try
for that stump you fellows have been mistreating," and Bud laughed.

He rode Sock, his pinto pony, off a little way, coiling his rope in
readiness as he did so.  Then, wheeling quickly, and with a wild,
inspiring "Yip-yippi!" the young rancher came riding fast toward a low,
broad stump the two other lads had, more or less successfully, been
trying to rope.

His right hand shot out, palm up, his cousins noticed, and the rope
went twisting and turning through the air, lengthening out like a long,
thin snake, and almost hissing like one.  Instinctively, as though
roping a steer, Bud prepared himself for the pull that always followed.

Sock, the intelligent pony, braced his feet to hold back as soon as he
sensed that Bud had thrown the rope.  For Sock had been taught that he
must always do this when a steer was being roped, and though he could
distinguish between a stump and an animal, Bud's action seemed to call
for co-operation on Sock's part.

The coils of the lariat whirled through the air, and, just as they were
about to settle over the stump, there was a sudden movement in a
leaf-filled hole beside the remains of what had once been a big tree.

Up out of this burrow, or hole, where he had been lying asleep among
dried leaves and grass that concealed him from the boys, rose a human
figure.  He was so close to the stump and he rose up in such a manner
leaning slightly over, as if dazed from too sudden awakening from a
sound slumber, that he received the noose of Bud's rope fairly about
his shoulders!

So suddenly did the man appear, popping out of the hole beside the
stump like a Jack in the Box, that Sock was startled, and pranced back,
exactly as he would have done in order to drag a refractory steer off
its feet.  And this was just what took place with the man.

The noose tightened about his middle and he was dragged over the flat
top of the stump, yelling and shouting in protest.

Nort and Dick did not know what to think--whether it was an accident,
or a bit of play arranged for their benefit by their cousin.  But a
look at Bud's face was enough to convince them that he was as much
surprised as were they.

There was a series of shrill yells of protest from the roped
man--shrill language which Nort and Dick recognized as Mexican-Spanish,
and then, as Bud stopped his pony, and the rope loosened, the man stood
up.  He scowled at the boys--a menacing figure of a Greaser, dirty and
unkempt.

"Del Pinzo!" gasped Bud, as he recognized the fellow.  "Del Pinzo!  I
didn't know you were near that stump!"

The man's answer was a deeper scowl, and his hand went toward the
holster at his hip--a holster that Nort and Dick noted with relief was
empty.  For Del Pinzo's gun had fallen out as he was dragged by Bud's
lasso from the hole beside the stump where he had been hiding.



CHAPTER XI

BAD BUSINESS

"My mistake, Del Pinzo!  My mistake!" exclaimed Bud, smiling as
good-naturedly as possible under the circumstances.  The young rancher
leaped from Sock (so called because he had one white foot that looked
exactly as if he had on a sock) and approached the Mexican, who had
begun to loosen the lariat from around his body.

"I sure didn't know you were there, Del Pinzo," went on Bud,
soothingly.  "I was just showing these tenderfeet how to throw a rope,
_pronto_,--when up you sprout, and get the benefit of it.  Hope I
didn't ruffle you any?" asked Bud.

"Hum!  Too much _pronto_!" muttered the man, but his face lost some of
its scowl as he realized it had been an accident.

"What's _pronto_?" whispered Dick to Nort, noting that his brother had
half drawn his gun, though there was no need of this action.

"Means quick," translated Bud, who overheard the question.  "I was a
little too quick with my rope.  But I didn't know anybody was behind
that stump."

"Nor I," said Dick, while Bud began gathering in the length of his
lariat.

"I--sleep!" said the Mexican; with some of the gutturalness of the
Indian.  "No got a right to sleep?" he asked, half sarcastically, as he
recovered his gun from where it had slipped from its holster.

"Sure you got a right to sleep," admitted Bud cheerfully.  "This isn't
Diamond X land, nor yet Double Z," he added, with a quick glance
around.  "Not that you wouldn't have a right to take a snooze if it
_was_ Diamond X," Bud went on.  "Well, I reckon we'll mosey along," he
said slowly, making a sign to Dick and Nort to mount their ponies.
"Got to get back to the ranch."

"Um!" was all the remark Del Pinzo made as he brushed himself off.
Bather a useless proceeding it would appear, for he was always dirty
and unkempt to the last degree.

"Who is he?" asked Dick of Bud as the three boy ranchers rode along the
homeward trail, now out of earshot of the man Bud had so
unceremoniously roped.

"Oh, he's a sort of Mexican half breed," was the answer.  "Not very
safe to have on the range during round-up."

"Why not?" asked Nort, as he turned to catch a last glimpse of the
Mexican slinking off amid the foothills.

"Well, he and his kind don't stop to look at the brand on a steer if
they happen to feel hungry," explained Bud.  "They'll cut one out of
the herd, or appropriate a maverick, or an unbranded calf, and feast up
on it.  They'll skin it, salt down the hide after they blur the brand,
and get away with it."

"What's blurring a brand?" asked Dick.

"Putting a hot iron on it over the brand that's already there,"
explained Bud.  "Some brands can be changed from one to another without
much trouble, but when this can't be done a cattle thief will simply
make a botch of the brand, and it's a pretty slick ranchman who will
swear, out of hundreds of steers and calves, that any particular one is
his, if he can't make out the brand or earmarks clearly."

"Earmarks?" questioned Nort.

"Sometimes we clip a piece out of a calf's ear," explained Bud, "as
well as branding 'em.  Each ranchman has his own particular earmark for
his cattle.  But either may be botched or blurred by a thief if he's
cute enough."

"And does this Del Pinzo do that?" asked Nort, a little thrilled at
having been in such close association with a cattle thief.

"I wouldn't put it past him, and the gang he hangs out with," Bud
answered.  "Maybe that's what he was up to when I roped him."

"Where does he hang out?" asked Dick.

"He's supposed to work on the Double Z ranch--Hank Fisher's place," was
the reply.  "And Hank doesn't bear any too good a reputation around
here."

"Maybe he was one of the men the professors hired, and who afterward
turned against them," suggested Dick.

"Maybe," assented Bud.  "I'd like to know what that camp meant," he
murmured as he rode on with his cousins.

"If they aren't after gold, they're after something, and they're making
a secret of it," declared Nort.  "And meeting Professor Wright the
night an attempt was made to steal some of your cattle, Bud, makes it
look as if the whole outfit might be trying to rustle off stock."

"Yes, it might, and again it might not," said the western lad.  "I'd
hate to think two decent-looking men, like Professor Blair and
Professor Wright, would be cattle thieves.  But you never can tell.
Their learned appearance may be all bluff.  I'd sooner think it was Del
Pinzo and his gang.  But he may be working with the professors.
Anyhow, they haven't got away with anything yet, and they won't if
dad's boys keep their eyes open.  Only I would like to solve the
mystery of that camp," and he looked back toward the deserted one,
where some strange excavations had been made.

"Maybe we can trail 'em and find where they've gone," suggested Dick.

"Oh, we could find 'em if we wanted to," said Bud.  "An outfit like
that can't travel along in a ranch country and not leave a trail like
an old buffalo wallow.  But will it be worth while--that's the
question?  We'll soon be busy with the round-up at Diamond X, and no
time for trailing mysteries."

"Well, the round-up won't last forever," said Nort, "and when it's over
we can see what all this means.  It'll be a pack of fun!"

"It sure will!" agreed his brother, "and we can stay here till snow
flies."

"And then you'll want to hit the trail for home," laughed Bud.  "Though
we don't get as severe storms as they do farther north, nor do they
come so early.  But it's bad enough, sometimes."

"What's that?" suddenly asked Dick, rising in his stirrups and pointing
to two or three figures of horsemen, down in a little swale, or valley.
They were evidently engaged in some lively occupation, for they were
riding rapidly to and fro, and from a fire, about which knelt three
figures, a curl of smoke arose.

"They're stealing some of your cattle now!" cried Nort.  "Come on!
We'll capture 'em!"

He spurred his horse forward, an act instinctively followed by his
brother.  Bud, too, rode after them at a fast pace, but there was a
smile on his countenance.

"Keep your shirts on, fellows!" he advised.  "That's only some of the
Diamond X outfit branding stray calves they come across.  But it'll
give you a chance to see how it's done."

Riding rapidly across the open plains, where, here and there as they
topped little hills the boys could see cattle grazing, the boy ranchers
approached the group in the swale.  After a quick inspection of the
oncomers, the cowboys about the fire went on with what they were doing.

Two of them held down on the ground a struggling calf, while the
cow-mother of the little beast, lowing and shaking her head, endeavored
to break past two other cowboys who were heading her away from the
scene of the branding operations.

For that is what was going on.  Some of the Diamond X cowboys had come
upon an unbranded calf with its mother as they rode across the
prairies.  As they were on their employer's land they knew the unmarked
animal must belong to him, and it ought to be at once permanently
identified as Mr. Merkel's property.

It was the work of but a moment for one of the cowboys to lasso the
little bawling creature, and drag it to where he wanted it.

While some of the cowboys held the calf, not taking the time to "hog
tie" the creature, others headed off the frantic cow-mother.  Then a
fire was made of greasewood twigs, and the branding iron, which one of
the cowboys carried at his saddle, was put in the flames to heat.  When
hot enough it was pressed on the flank of the calf, burning into the
hair and slightly into the hide, the diamond with the X in the
centre--the mark of Bud's father's cattle.

As the men released the calf, it staggered to its feet, uttered a
feeble bawl or two, and ran to its mother, who at once began to lick
with her tongue the branded place.

"Where you headin', Bud?" asked Yellin' Kid Watson, one of the cowboys
who had been engaged in the impromptu branding operations.

"Headin' home," answered the rancher's son.

"Then you haven't heard the news?" asked Snake Purdee.

"What news?" asked Bud, while Nort and Dick listened eagerly.

"Bad business," went on Yellin' Kid.  "A lot of your dad's choice stock
was run off from the far range a while ago.  Tar Blake just rode in and
give notice.  Bad business!"

"I should say so!" agreed Bud.  "Who did it; Greasers or some of that
outfit?" and he motioned back to the camp he and his cousins had just
left.



CHAPTER XII

RIDING HERD

Yellin' Kid, Snake and the other cowboys stamped out the brands of the
grease-wood fire, coiled their lariats and mounted their ponies before
anyone answered Bud's question.  He did not repeat it, knowing the
character of the men to whom he was speaking.  Then, as Old Billie
Dobb, who might have been a foreman a dozen times over if he had only
proved more reliable, spoke up and said:

"We don't know who did it, Bud; an' your paw don't neither!  Tar just
rid in with th' news, as we rid out to do some fence mendin'.  We
wanted to stop an' hear th' particulars, but your paw said for us to
mosey over this way, an' we done so.  He said if we seen you boys to
send you home."

"We're heading that way," Bud answered.  "We were just over to the camp
where they had trouble the other night, but they've vamoosed."

"Can't see what they ever come here for," spoke Yellin' Kid.  "An' it
wouldn't s'prise me a bit if them fellers proved to be the cattle
rustlers."

"Nor me," declared Nort, impulsively, thus drawing attention to himself.

"Well, you know all we do, Bud," spoke Billie Dobb.  "Maybe your paw'll
have more news by th' time you get there.  Tell him you met us an' that
we'll be back as soon as we find th' break an' fix it.  It's a big
bust, the report has it, an' he don't want th' cattle to stampede out."

"All right, we're going," declared Bud.  "Come on, fellows," he called
to his cousins, and they galloped away toward the ranch headquarters,
while the cowboys rode on their way, Yellin' Kid singing at the top of
his voice.  The boy ranchers passed the newly branded calf, its mother
still licking the burned place, but the little creature did not seem
much to mind what had happened, for it was eating grass.

"Who broke the fence?" asked Nort, as he and Dick rode along on either
side of Bud, whose horsemanship they were trying to imitate.

"Hard to say," was the answer.  "Sometimes it's Greasers, and again
Indians, who hope to get a few cattle in the confusion if a herd gets
out.  Then again something may have frightened the cattle themselves,
and in a rush they may have broken through.  Generally it's the cattle
themselves, and then we have to rush a bunch of cowboys to mend the
break, some of 'em stringing new wire while others keep the steers,
cows and calves from coming out on the open range."

"Say, there's been a lot of excitement since we came here!" declared
Nort, his eyes shining in delight at the prospect of more.

"Oh, there's always more or less going on like this," said Bud.  "If it
isn't one thing it's another, though I must say we haven't had anything
like those queer professors in some time."

"I'd like to know what their game really is," remarked Dick.

"So would I!" exclaimed his more impulsive brother.  "And I'd like to
catch 'em at it when I had my gun loaded," and he tapped significantly
the .45 on his hip.

"Don't be too fast with gun play," advised Bud calmly.  "You'll find,
if you ever become a rancher, that you'll use more powder on coyotes,
rattlers and in driving cattle the way you want 'em to go, than you
will on humans.  There isn't so much shooting out here as the writers
of some books would make out."

"Well, if there's only a little, I'll be satisfied," said Nort.

They reached the headquarters of Diamond X ranch without mishap, save
that Dick's pony stepped into a prairie dog's hole, and threw his rider
over his head.  But Dick was rather stout, and cushioned with flesh as
he was, a severe shaking-up was all the harm he suffered.

"They're nasty things at night--prairie dogs' burrows," said Bud.  "But
mostly a pony can see 'em in time to side-step.  Yours just
didn't--that's all."

"Yes, he--didn't!" laughed Dick, as he climbed back into the saddle.

There was enough excitement at Diamond X ranch to please even excitable
Nort.  As the other cowboys had said, one of Mr. Merkel's men from a
distant ranch--Square M, to be exact--had ridden in to report that
during the early morning hours several head of choice steers, that were
being gotten ready for a rising market, had been driven off by
rustlers.  Leaving his companions in charge of the remaining cattle,
Tar Blake--who got his name from his very black whiskers--had ridden to
headquarters to give the alarm.

"Well, we'll see if we can trail these scoundrels!" declared Mr.
Merkel, as Bud and his cousins rode up.

"Can't we go, dad?" asked Bud, as eagerly as Nort would have spoken.
"Maybe it's the bunch from the queer professors' camp.  Let us trail
along!"

"Nope!" was the short answer from Mr. Merkel.  "I've got other plans
for you," he added quickly, and in a tone that took the sting out of
his refusal.  "You'll have plenty of excitement," he went on, "so don't
look so down in the mouth, son.  Get something to eat, and then pack
your outfit for a few days.  You've got to ride herd, while I pull in
as many men as I can spare to trail these rustlers."

"What herd, dad?" asked Bud.  "Over by Square M?" and he named the
ranch where the thieving had taken place that morning.

"No, I want you to help haze that bunch from Triangle B over to the
railroad yard.  They've been showing signs of uneasiness, and I don't
want 'em to bolt when they're on the last stretch.  You'll find 'em
over by the bend.  Ride there, and tell Charlie Smith and Hen Wagner to
come in.  You'll relieve them.  Dirk Blanchard will be with you, and so
will Chot Ramsey, and you three ought to be able to bed 'em down
to-night.  Drive 'em along easy.  Dirk knows how to do it, and there's
plenty of water along the way.  Don't hurry 'em; if you do they'll work
off all their fat, and beef is too high now to waste it by running it
off the hoof.  Mosey along now!" and the ranchman turned from Bud to
give other orders.

Nort and Dick, with one accord, started forward, but their cousin
anticipated their appeal.

"Can't Nort and Dick come with me, dad?" asked Bud.

"Sure thing--if they want to," answered Mr. Merkel.

"As if we wouldn't want to!" murmured Nort.  "Oh, boy!"

"Say!  It'll be great--riding herd!" exclaimed Dick.

Several hours later found the boy ranchers within sight of the four
hundred or more steers and cows they were to guard, and gradually head
over to the railroad stock yards, whence they would be shipped to a
distant city, there to be sold to the profit of Mr. Merkel.

"Whoop-ee!" came a distant hail from one of the cowboys left to guard
the Triangle B cattle.

"Zip-sippy!" yelled Bud in answer, and a little later he was
introducing his cousins to the cowboys.

"Oh, boy!  Rustlers!" cried Charlie Smith, when informed that he and
Hen Wagner were to form part of the pursuing posse.

"Just my rotten luck, I have to stay here!" complained Dirk, while
Chot, to voice his disapproval of having to remain behind, slapped his
pony with his hat and rode off over the prairie, only to return as fast
as he went.  It was his way of letting off steam.

The two cowboys, who were to join the bunch from Diamond X ranch,
departed in haste, and then Bud and his cousins made preparations for
spending several nights and days in the open, riding herd and hazing
the cattle to their destination.

It was the season of warm nights, as well as days, though there was a
certain coolness after dark.  No tents were set up.  Each man, or boy,
was provided with a canvas tarpaulin, which was all the protection
needed.  The prairie itself would be their beds, their saddles their
pillows and the grass a combination mattress and spring.  They had
packed enough food with them, and, if needed, a calf could be killed
and eaten.  There were water holes in plenty--in fact, they could live
off the land.

Over a fire of greasewood, while the hobbled ponies rolled on the
ground, the bacon was soon sizzling and the coffee brewing.

"Gosh, but I'm hungry!" cried Nort.

"You said something!" declared his brother, while Bud and the others
smiled at the fresh enthusiasm of the easterners.

There was really not much to do after darkness had settled down, for
the cattle were comparatively quiet, and after a full day of eating the
sweet grass, having drunk their fill of water, they were content to lie
under the silent stars.

But in order that none of the steers might start to stray away, and
start a stampede, also in order that no thieves might sneak up in the
darkness and "cut out" choice cattle, by this very operation also
starting a panic, it was necessary to "ride herd."

That is, the cowboys, of whom Nort and Dick now counted themselves two,
took turns in slowly riding around the bunched cattle during the night
hours.  As the early hours were always the ones when it was most likely
trouble would happen, the two veteran cowboys volunteered for this
service, leaving Bud and his cousins to make their beds, such as they
were, near the little fire.  The boy ranchers would relieve the others
after midnight.

So, wrapped in their tarpaulins, their heads resting on their saddles,
and their feet to the fire, the three boys looked up at the silent
stars.  They talked in low voices at first, for the voice of man is
soothing to cattle.  Now and then some cow lowed, or a steer snorted or
bellowed.  But, in the main, the animals were silent.  And to this
state Bud and his cousins soon came, for they were tired with their
rather long ride late that afternoon.

"I wonder if any rustlers will come here?" spoke Dick to his brother,
when Bud's regular breathing told that he had fallen asleep.

"Don't know--wish they would," Nort answered, half drowsily.

"Well, I'm ready for 'em," murmured Dick, as he felt of his gun where
it lay in its holster at his side, though he had loosened his belt to
lie down.

The night became more silent and colder.  The two other cowboys were on
the far side of the herd now, working around in opposite circles,
meeting and passing one another.  It would soon be time for them to
turn in, and Bud and his cousins to turn out.

Nort was turning over to get into a more comfortable position, when he
heard something hiss through the air with a swishing sound.  For an
instant he thought of rattlesnakes, but almost at once it was borne to
his mind that he had heard this sound before--the swish of a lariat
through the air.

He sat up quickly, straining his eyes in the direction of the sound.
Just then a piece of the greasewood burned up brightly, and revealed to
Nort this sight.

From somewhere in the darkness, beyond the circle of light, a lariat
had coiled in among the lads.  And as Nort looked, the coils settled
over the head of his brother Dick.  Before Nort could cry a warning, or
scramble from under his tarpaulin, the rope tightened and Dick was
pulled from his resting place near the fire out into the darkness, his
frightened yells awakening the echoes, and startling the cattle into
uneasy action.



CHAPTER XIII

THE ATTEMPT FOILED

It was only a moment that surprise held Nort motionless, sitting up
there by the small fire of greasewood twigs, with the bunch of cattle
moving uneasily in the darkness.  Then, with a yell that had in it both
warning and encouragement, Nort scrambled to his feet and made a grab
for Dick, who was being dragged off in the loop of a lariat, the other
end being manipulated by some one unseen.

"Hold it, Dick!  Hold it!" cried Nort, as, many a time he had thus
shouted encouragement to his brother on the football field.  "Hold it!"

But Dick was unable to do this.  Taken at a disadvantage, awakened from
a half-sleep as he was, and dragged from a fairly comfortable bed, he
was puzzled and confused, not to say frightened.

But he was capable of yelling, and this he did to the best of his
ability.

"Here!  Quit that!  Let up!  What you doing?" shouted Dick, for, as he
said afterward, he thought it was one of the cowboys playing a trick on
him, hazing a tenderfoot, perhaps, though Dick proudly imagined that he
was fast graduating from that class.

The yells of the two brothers naturally awakened Bud who, being more
used to sleeping in the open than were his cousins, had almost at once
gone soundly to sleep.  But it did not take the young rancher long to
rouse himself.

"What's the matter?  What's going on?" shouted Bud, and Nort had a
glimpse of his cousin with his gun in his hand.  This reminded Nort
that he had left his weapon under his tarpaulin, and he made a dash to
get it, mentally blaming himself for not proving more true to his idea
of the traditions of the West, and having his revolver always with him.

With a quick motion of his foot, Bud shoved some unburned sticks of
greasewood into the blaze.  They flared up, and the young ranchman
wheeled quickly, and tried to pierce the gloom into which Dick had been
dragged.

But that lad had not been idle during this strenuous time.  He had felt
the lariat tightening about the upper part of his body, and he had let
out a frightened yell.  But he had done more than yell.  He had grasped
the rope with both hands, in a quick, upward motion, and had succeeded
in slipping it off, over his head, a task he would have been unable to
perform had his enemy had daylight in his favor.  But, as it was, Dick
succeeded in escaping the noose.

"Who is it?  Who did that?" yelled Dick, as he managed to get to his
feet, and staggered back toward his tarpaulin, evidently with the
intention of seeking his gun.

But there came no answer out of the gloom.

Bud and Nort hurried over to Dick, who was rather dazed and ruffled up
from the experience he had undergone.

"Hurt?" asked Nort, quickly.

"Not to speak of," answered Dick.  "Was that one of the boys?" he
asked, turning to Bud.

"One of our cowboys?  No, they don't do such things," was the answer.
"It must have been----"

He was interrupted by the rapid thuds of hoofs and, an instant later,
there dashed into the circle of light Dirk and Chot, two of the men who
had been left when the others rode away to get on the trail of the
rustlers.

"What's the matter?" exclaimed Dirk, reining in his pony so suddenly
that the animal slid with his forefeet almost in the embers of the fire.

"Somebody tried to rope Dick," answered Bud.  "I didn't see it, but I
had a glimpse of him being dragged off on the end of a lariat."

"I saw it come shooting in from out there," and Nort waved his hand
toward the darkness.

"I _felt_ it!" grimly declared Dick.  "I just managed to slip it off in
time."

"You were lucky," commented Chot.  "Let's see who it was," he added.
"Couldn't have been any of our lads," he said in a low voice.  "I've
known 'em to do such tricks, but not at a time like this.  Might have
been some fresh puncher from Double Z, but if it was----"

"Come on!" interrupted Dirk, satisfied from a glance that no harm had
befallen Dick.  Dirk wheeled his horse and rode off into the darkness,
in the direction where the end of the lariat had disappeared, when the
unseen thrower had pulled it to him after Dick's escape.

The two cowboys, who had been on the far side of the herd, had ridden
hurriedly in on hearing the cries of the startled boys.  And now they
rushed off in the darkness, trying to find out who it was that had
displayed such evil intentions.

For it was a desperate thing to do.  A little higher up and the rope
would have encircled Dick's neck, and it would have taken only a short
time of pulling him across the ground to have choked him.  He, himself,
did not realize his danger until later.

For a few moments, after the arrival of Dirk and Chot from the far side
of the resting herd, and their subsequent dash off into the darkness,
Bud, Nort and Dick did nothing.  They stood there around the greasewood
fire, trying to understand clearly what had happened.

Then, from the herd of cattle came unmistakable signs of some
disturbance.  There were snorts and bellows, the mooing of cows and the
stamping of hoofs.  At the same time, from the far side, whence Dirk
and Chot had ridden in, there came the murmur of voices.

"Rustlers!" cried Bud, understanding at once what it all meant now.
"Dirk!  Chot!  Come on back!  The rustlers are here!  It's a trick!
Come on back!"

"Rustlers!" exclaimed Nort.

"Yes!" shouted Bud.  "That's their game!  They tried to scare us so
they could work in from the other side, and run off a bunch of steers.
Dirk!  Chot!" he cried again, making a megaphone of his hands, and
sending his cry out into the night.

"Whoo-oop!" came faintly back to the boys, and then the thud of rapidly
moving hoofs mingled with the movement of the cattle.  For the steers
and cows that were being hazed to the railroad yard were now in motion.

"Put some more wood on!" cried Bud.  "If they stampede this way it may
hold 'em back!"

"Will they stampede?" asked Dick.

"No telling.  Somebody's in among 'em, over on that side, trying to cut
out a bunch.  We've got to held 'em in if we can!  Get on your ponies!"

It was the work of but a few seconds to do this.  The ponies had been
staked out not far from the fire, which was now burning brightly from
the amount of greasewood piled on it.  Bud was first in the saddle, but
his cousins were not far behind him.

And, as they mounted, and started to ride around the herd, to hold the
now frightened and uneasy animals in check, Dirk and Chot galloped in
out of the distant darkness.

"What's the matter?" shouted Dirk.

"Rustlers!" yelled Bud.  "They tried that lasso stunt to draw you in
from the far side, and now they're over there trying to cut out some
steers."

"Well, I guess we'll have something to say about that!" grimly observed
Chot.  "Come on!"

Clapping spurs to his pony, he and Dirk began the work of milling the
cattle--that is, getting them to move around in a circle rather than
dash off in a straight line stampede.  This turning of the herd, into a
circular instead of a straight movement, is the only way to save the
lives of the animals, or prevent them from being driven off by thieves.

Dick and Nort had been on Diamond X ranch long enough to understand
what was being attempted, and they joined with Bud in the work.  As
Chot and Dirk rode back to take the stations they had left, firing
their guns and shouting to turn the leaders, Bud and his cousins did
the same in their locality.

As yet they had caught no sight of the rustlers, but it was very
evident that these unscrupulous men were at work, trying to drive off
some of the valuable animals, all fattened and ready for market.
Confused shouts came from the direction where Chot and Dirk had ridden.

"Lively, boys!  Lively!" cried Bud to the two easterners, and he fired
his gun in the air as he rode toward the cattle that seemed inclined to
dash past the circle of firelight.

Following their cousin, Dick and Nort dashed in, also firing, and the
five cowboys--for Dick and Nort were now entitled to be called
that--finally succeeded in milling the cattle, and preventing the
stampede.

But it was hard work and it was nearly morning before the steers were
quieted down after the excitement.  The attempt of the rustlers had
been foiled, for that time at least.



CHAPTER XIV

THE STAMPEDE

"Well, what do you make of it?" asked Bud of Dirk and Chot, when all
five had the first moment of respite from the strenuous work of
quieting the excited cattle.  They had met near the fire, which was
only glowing dully, now that its flame was not needed to head off the
steers.

"Don't just know what to say," answered the older cowboy.  "It all came
so sudden."

"There must be two bands of rustlers around here," observed Chot.
"That is, unless those your dad is after, Bud, gave him the slip and
tried to operate here."

"Maybe there's only one gang, divided up for the night," suggested Nort.

"Well, of course it's only guesswork," stated Bud, "but I think this
was an altogether different gang trying to put one over on us.  And
another thing--it was a Greaser who roped Dick."

"A Greaser!" cried Chot.  "What makes you think so?"

"I had a glimpse of the noose," said Bud.  "It wasn't tied the way any
cow puncher ties his.  It was a Greaser or I'll never speak to Zip
Foster again!"

"Oh, you and your Zip Foster!" scoffed Chot.  "But it may be that it
was a sneakin' Mex trying his hand with the rope.  You didn't see him,
did you?" and he turned to Dick.

"No.  The first I knew I was being snaked off, and I was mighty scared."

"Naturally," said Dirk dryly.  He wanted to let the tenderfoot know
that it was not considered unmanly to show signs of fear under the
circumstances.

"Did you get a look at 'em, Chot?" asked Bud, turning to the cowboys.
"I mean when you rode out there just before they tried to stampede us."

"Didn't see hide nor hair of 'em," was the answer.

"Well, they didn't get away with what they started after," declared
Dirk.  "And now, since it's so near morning, there isn't much use
turning in until we have something to eat."

"I'll make coffee and sizzle some bacon," offered Bud, for he realized
that he and his cousins had had some rest during the fore part of the
night, while the cowboys were riding herd before the disturbance
happened.

"And can't we circle around the cattle?" asked Nort.

"We could keep 'em quiet while you ate," suggested Dick.

"They seem to be fairly quiet now," remarked Dirk, "but it wouldn't do
any harm to circle around 'em.  If you have trouble, though," he added
quickly, "fire your guns."

"We will!" exclaimed Nort, as he and Dick sprang for their horses.  The
boy ranchers were eager thus to take their first tour of duty alone,
and they were much disappointed when nothing happened.  The steers were
quiet, after their tiresome racing around in a circle.  But that was
better than having them stampede, with the possible killing of many.

Slowly the light grew in the east, turning from pale gray to rose
tints, and then the sun came up, making the dew-laden grass sparkle
brightly.  The cattle, many of which had been lying down, got up, rear
ends first, which is what always distinguishes the manner of a "cow
critter" arising from that of a horse.

Across the range blew wisps of smoke from the greasewood camp fire, and
then came the smell of bacon and coffee, than which there is no aroma
more to be desired in the world.

"Um!" murmured Nort, sniffing the air.

"Isn't that great?" cried his brother.

"It will be, if we can get some," said Nort, chuckling.

But he need not have worried, for, a few minutes later, there floated
to the ears of the boy ranchers the call of Bud:

"Come an' get it!"

The cattle, around which they had been slowly riding, needed no
attention now, and in a short time the five cowboys--for Nort and Dick
could truly be called by this name now--were eating an early breakfast.

"One good thing came out of this fracas, anyhow," observed Chot, as he
passed his plate for more flapjacks and bacon, and replenished his tin
cup with coffee.

"What's that?" asked Dick, feeling his neck where the rough rope had
broken the skin slightly.

"Well, we'll get an early start," answered the cowboy, "and that's a
lot when you're hazing steers to the railroad.  Every pound counts for
the boss, and you can easily run off a thousand dollars by driving 'em
along during the heat of the day.  We can let 'em rest at noon if we
start now."

"That's the idea," said Bud.

A little later, the remains of the camp fire having been carefully
stamped out, to prevent dry grass from catching, packs were slung up
behind the saddles--said packs consisting of sleeping canvas, a few
utensils and grub--and the start was made.

The cattle were gradually headed in the direction it was desired that
they should take--the shortest route to the railroad.  Nort rode up
ahead with Chot, while Dick, Bud and Dirk kept to the rear to haze
along the stragglers.

There was not much trouble.  The cattle had been watered and fed, and
were in prime condition.  At noon a halt was made to save the animals
during the excessive heat, but toward evening they started off once
more, and traveled until darkness fell.  Camp was made again out in the
open.

During the day no signs were seen of any rustlers, or other suspicious
characters, and at night the young ranchers and the older cowboys took
turns riding herd and standing guard.

But nothing of moment occurred, the only sounds, aside from those made
by the cattle themselves, being the unearthly yells and howls of the
coyotes.

In less than three days the bunch of cattle was safely delivered at the
yards, where the responsibility of Bud and his companions ended, the
buyer taking charge of them for shipment.

"Did you get the rustlers, Dad?" asked Bud as he and his cousins, with
Dirk and Chot, rode up to the ranch buildings after their successful
trip.

"No," answered Mr. Merkel, who was out waiting for his son and the
others.  "They got clean away."

"Did you see who they were?" asked Dirk.

"Well, I have my suspicions," answered the ranchman.  "And I'm not
through yet.  How'd you make out, boys?"

They told him of the night scare and Dick's narrow escape, and the eyes
of Bud's father glinted in anger.

"Up to tricks like that, are they?" he exclaimed.  "Well, I'd like to
catch 'em at it!"

"Do you know what I think?" exclaimed Bud with energy.

"Well, son, I can't say I do," spoke his father.  "You generally skip
around so like a Jack rabbit, it's hard telling where you are.  But
shoot!  What's your trouble?"

"My trouble is," said Bud slowly, "that I don't know enough about those
professors and their gang!"

"The professors!" exclaimed Nort and Dick.

"That's what I said," went on Bud.  "I think their pretended search for
something is only a bluff.  They're high-grade cattle rustlers, that's
what I think!"

No one said anything for a few moments, and then Mr. Merkel remarked:

"Well, maybe you're right, Bud.  Stranger things have happened.  It
might pay us to trail these fellows.  Certainly there was something
queer about them."

"Mighty queer," agreed Bud.  "I began to suspect them after they tried
to lasso Dick."

"Do you think one of those men--Professor Wright or Professor
Blair--tried to snake me off?" asked Dick.

"Well, no, not one of them, personally," admitted Bud.  "They couldn't
throw a rope over a molasses barrel.  But they set some one up to it,
I'll say!"

"Maybe," spoke Mr. Merkel musingly.  "We'll have a look at their trail,
if we can pick it up.  But we've got a lot else to do first."

Indeed Diamond X ranch was a busy place in those days.  Dick and Nort
could not have come at a better time, and they were such apt pupils
that they soon acquired many of the ways of the cowboys, who were
willing and anxious to teach them.  In a comparatively short time the
two "tenderfeet" were no longer called that.  They could shoot fairly
well, though they were not "quick on the draw," and they were becoming
more and more expert with the rope every day.

It was about two weeks after their experience with the unknown user of
the lariat that Bud and his cousins were sent to ride herd at the
Square M ranch, which was one of Mr. Merkel's holdings.  He was
planning to get a bunch of steers there ready for shipment, and a buyer
was to come and look them over when they had been headed in from the
open range to a large corral.  Bud and his cousins were to help drive
the animals in.

Square M ranch, so called because the brand was the letter M in a
square, was a good two days' ride from Diamond X.  But the boys had a
fine time going, and found plenty to do when they arrived.  Gradually
the cattle were gathered up, and worked toward the corral.

They were within a day's ride of this haven, when, one afternoon, as
Bud, Dick and Nort were moving on ahead of the bunch, which was driven
by several cowboys, Bud looked back and let out a yell.

"What's the matter?" cried Nort.

"Stampede!" was the answer, "Oh, boy!  Now look out for trouble!"



CHAPTER XV

LOST

Nort and Dick had heard and read so much about a cattle stampede, and
heard such a calamity discussed at the ranch house so often, that they
rather welcomed, than otherwise, the announcement that one was being
staged near them.  This was before they realized the full import of it,
and saw the danger.

It was like a prairie fire--they had not realized it could be so
terrible and menacing until they actually saw it.  And see it they did.

There was needed but a quick backward glance to show that a great fear,
or rage, which is almost the same, had entered into the three hundred
steers (more or less) that were being driven onward.

At one moment the cattle had been progressing in what might be termed
orderly fashion.  Now and then a steer would try to break out of the
line of march, only to be quickly hazed in again by one of the cowboys,
or one of the trio of boy ranchers.  But now the whole herd had
suddenly been galvanized into action, and that action took the form of
running forward at top speed.

It would not have been so bad, perhaps, if the stampede had started
from in front.  If the forward ranks of cattle had begun to race
onward, those behind would simply have followed, and there would
gradually have been a slackening up.  Of course then there would have
been some danger, for the front steers might have slowed down first,
while those at the rear still came on, trampling under their sharp
hoofs those who were unlucky enough to fall.

But, as it happened, the fright had first seized on the rear bunches of
cattle and these had started to run, charging in upon those in front of
them, who, in turn, were hurled forward until now, a few seconds after
Bud had shouted the alarm, the whole herd was in wild motion.

"Come on!" yelled Bud.  "Ride for it!  Oh, zowie, boy!  Ride for it!
Ride like Zip Foster would!" and with voice, reins and spurs he urged
his pony forward.

"What do you aim to do?" shouted Dick in his cousin's ear as the two
thudded along side by side.

"We've got to get far enough ahead so we can try to turn 'em!" yelled
Bud.  "It's our only chance.  Ride straight ahead!"

Nort spurred up alongside of his cousin and brother, and, as he did so
he yelled:

"What you s'pose started 'em off, Bud?"

"Haven't any time to do any s'posin' now!" was the grim answer.  "Ride
on and say your prayers that your pony doesn't step in a prairie dog's
hole.  If he does--and you fall--good night!"

The recent tenderfeet knew, without being told, what was meant.  To go
down before a herd of wild cattle, infuriated because they were
frightened, would mean sure death and in horrible form.

As Nort looked back, to see what distance lay between himself and
comrades, and the foremost of the herd, he saw several figures on
horseback at one side of the running animals.  At first he imagined
these were Diamond X cowboys who had been in the rear of the steers,
and he thought they had ridden up to help the boy ranchers turn the
stampeded animals.  But another look showed him the men who had been in
the rear still in those positions, though they were spurring forward at
top speed.

"Look, Bud!" cried Nort.  He pointed to the four figures--there were no
more than that--at the left of the galloping herd.

"Rustlers--Greasers!" shouted Bud.  "They started this stampede!"

"What for?" Dick wanted to know.  "They can't hope to run off any under
our eyes, can they?"

"They're doing it to get fresh meat!" declared Bud, who never ceased,
all this while, to urge his pony forward, an example followed by his
cousins with their horses.  "They think some steer, or maybe half a
dozen, will fall and be trampled to death.  Then they'll have all the
beef they can eat--for nothing.  They started this stampede, or I'll
never speak to Zip Foster again."

By this time, knowing Bud as they did, Nort and Dick had ceased to ask
about the mysterious Zip Foster.  But Nort could not forego the
question:

"How'd they do it?"

"Do what?" grunted Bud, as he skillfully turned his pony away from a
prairie dog's hole.

"Start this stampede."

"Hanged if I know.  They might have been lying in wait for us to come
along--hidden out on the range, and they may have all jumped up with
whoops, waving their hats, and setting the steers off that way, when we
didn't happen to be looking.  But that's where the disturbance came
from all right!"

With snorts, bellows and heavy breathing the steers came on.  Some were
old Texas longhorns, but many of the cattle on the Diamond X ranch, and
the adjacent possessions of Mr. Merkel, had been dehorned.  It was
found that more animals could be packed in a car when they had no
interfering horns, and the practice is becoming general of taking the
horns off western stock.

But even though some were without horns, this herd was sufficiently
dangerous.  The first thought of Bud and his cousins was to put all the
distance possible between them and the foremost of the steers.  This
they had now done.  And it was becoming evident that unless some of the
leaders tripped and went down, there was to be no disastrous piling up
of animals one on the other.  The leaders ran well, and the others
followed.

The rustlers, if such they were, seemed to realize that their desperate
plan had failed, for, so far, not a beef had fallen.  And the Greasers,
off to one side, dared not try to cut out, and run off, any animals.
To have ventured into the midst of that charging herd would have been
madness.

"Come on!  Let's see if we can turn 'em!" urged Bud, drawing his gun,
an example followed by Nort and Dick.  Led by the son of the owner of
Diamond X, the boy ranchers charged down on the oncoming herd, from
which they had just ridden away.  But now they had the advantage.  They
stood a better chance.  If they could turn the leaders, sending them in
a circle, the other animals would follow, and soon the whole bunch
would be "milling," which is the most desired way to stop a stampede.

"Come on!  Come a ridin'!  Whoop-ee!" shrilly cried Bud, yelling,
waving his hat in one hand and firing in the air with his gun.  Nort
and Dick did likewise.  Straight at the cattle they rode.

It was a desperate chance, but one that had to be taken.  Bud knew, if
the others did not, that about a mile beyond lay a gully, led up to by
a cliff, and if the steers and cows reached this, the leaders unable to
stop, while the rear ranks pushed on, there would be a mass of
piled-up, dead cattle to tell the story.

"We've got to stop 'em!" shouted Bud.

And stop them, or, rather, turn them, the boy ranchers did.  Just when
it seemed that the wild animals would rush over, and trample down the
three lads, the foremost of the steers turned at a sharp angle, their
hoofs skidding in the soil, and swung around.

"Now we've got 'em!" cried Bud.  "Make 'em mill!  Make 'em mill!"

And this is what the cattle did.  Around and around they ran, in a big,
dusty circle, while the other Diamond X cowboys rode up.

"That was touch and go," said one of the older riders, when the herd
was comparatively quiet.  "What started 'em off, Bud?"

"Didn't you see that bunch of Greasers?" asked the rancher's son.

The cowboys had not, it developed, and now, when the three boys tried
to point out the rascals the quartette was not in sight.  However,
something else took the attention of Bud and the older cowboys.  This
something was a small bunch of steers, galloping off by themselves, but
not being hazed by any riders.

"We can't lose them!" shouted Bud.  "They belong to dad!  Got to get
'em back!"

"We'll go after 'em," offered Nort and Dick.  "We can bring 'em back."

"Yes, I reckon you can, while we ride herd on these," said Bud.  "I
don't want to take any more chances with 'em.  Haze the outlaws back
this way, fellows!"

Eager to have this responsibility, and to do something "on their own,"
Dick and his brother spurred away.  And before they realized it, Nort
and Dick found themselves down in a depression, whence they could catch
sight neither of the small knot of cattle they had started out to haze
back, nor the main herd.

"Say, where are we?" asked Dick, slowing up his pony, and looking about
him.  He and Nort were down in a green valley, with hills all around,
but no sign of life--animal or human.  "Where are we?"

Nort paused a moment before replying.  Then, as he drew rein and
listened, he said:

"Lost, I reckon!"



CHAPTER XVI

THE VISION

Though Nort spoke with an appearance of calmness, there was something
in his voice that made Dick catch his breath.  It was not that the
younger lad was exactly afraid, but he was on the verge of becoming so.

"Lost, eh?" repeated Dick.  Then, as he saw a half smile on Nort's
face, and looked about on what was really a beautiful scene, his little
worry seemed to vanish as mists roll away in the sun.  "Well, if we're
lost it isn't such a bad place to be in, and I reckon we can easily
find our way back.  'Tisn't like being lost in the woods, as we once
were."

"No," agreed Nort, "it isn't."  They had gone camping once, with their
father, and had wandered off in a forest, being "lost" all night,
though, as it developed later, not far from their own folks.

"And I don't see why we can't easily ride back the way we came," went
on Dick.

"We can, if we find the way," agreed Nort.  "But I seem all turned
around.  And I don't like to go back without those cattle.  We offered
to ride off after 'em and bring 'em back, and we ought to do it."

"But where are they?" asked Dick, "and where's the main herd?  That
isn't so small that you could hide it in one of these valleys!"

They were, as I have said, in the midst of a rolling country, where
swales or valleys were interspersed with hills.  One moment they had
held in view the small bunch of steers that had wandered away from the
main herd, but, in another instant, there was no sign of them.

"Listen, and see if you can hear anything," suggested Nort.

Quietly the boy ranchers sat on their horses; the only sounds being the
creaking of the damp saddle and stirrup leathers as the animals moved
slightly.  But there was no sound of lowing cows or snorting steers,
and there came to the ears of Nort and Dick no distant shouts of Bud
and the cowboys, though the main herd, with the men in charge, could
not have been more than two miles away.  But, for all that, our heroes
were as completely isolated as though a hundred miles distant from
civilization.

"I can't understand it!" murmured Dick.

"Nor I," said Nort, "It's just as if those cattle had dropped out of
sight in a hole in the ground.  Maybe they did, Dick."

"What do you mean?" asked his brother.

"I mean maybe those mysterious professors have been digging big mining
holes around here, and that bunch of steers we were chasing just
naturally slipped into one.  We'd better look out, or we'll drop out of
sight ourselves!"

Though he spoke half jokingly, there was some seriousness in Nort's
voice, and Dick realized it.

"Those professors sure are queer, with their digging operations," Dick
agreed.  "I'd like to know what they are after, and why they're hanging
around Diamond X."

"Well, I'd like to know that, too," said Nort, "but first of all I'd
like to know our way out of this place.  There must be some way out, as
we didn't have any trouble finding a way in."

"Of course we can get out," Dick answered.  "There aren't any trees to
amount to anything, and we aren't fenced in.  We can ride in any
direction we like, and I say let's ride somewhere."

"I'm with you," spoke his brother.  "But the only trouble is we might
be riding farther and farther away from Bud and the rest of the
fellows.  Why not try to locate that bunch of cattle we're after?
They'll be heading directly away from the main herd, I take it, and if
we locate them all we'll have to do will be to drive them right about
face, and we'll get back where we belong."

"All right, let's find the steers," assented Dick.

They started their ponies, which, doubtless, had been glad of the
little breathing spell.  But it was one thing to say find the missing
steers, and another to do it.  One swale seemed to so melt in with an
adjoining one, and one hill to merge with its mate, that they all
looked alike to the boys, who, as it developed afterward, kept working
their way farther and farther off from their friends.

"Hang those steers!  Where are they, anyhow?" exclaimed Nort after half
an hour of search, during which no signs had been seen.

"Let's try over this way," suggested Dick, turning to the left.

Though it might seem that in a fairly open country, composed of hills
and vales, it would be hard to hide a bunch of cattle, still Nort and
Dick, to their chagrin, did not find it difficult.  They were
completely baffled, and the longer they searched the more puzzled they
were.

"Well, there's one thing about it," remarked Dick, when they drew rein,
"we shan't starve right away, and if we have to stay out all night we
have the same accommodations we have had before," and he tapped the
tarpaulin which formed part of his saddle pack.

"Oh, yes, we can camp out if we have to," agreed Nort, "and I shan't
mind that.  But it's our failure to do the first job we tackled 'on our
own' that gets my goat.  Bud will sure think we're tenderfeet for fair!"

"Yes, that is bad," agreed Dick.  "But it can't be helped.  I never did
see anything like the sudden way those cattle disappeared, and how we
got lost."

For that they were now completely lost, amid the low hills, was an
accepted fact to the boys.  They had ridden here and there, until, in
mercy to their ponies, they pulled reins.  Yet they had gotten no
farther on their way, nor had they seen sign of the cattle.  It was
growing late, too, and they realized that soon they must find a camping
place for the night, unless they located the homeward trail.

Of course to Bud, or any of the older cowboys of Diamond X ranch, the
problem that puzzled Nort and Dick would have been easy to solve.
Knowing the country as they did, the cowboys could easily have sensed
which way to ride, even though the bunch of cattle might have eluded
them.

But the two easterners did not even know which way to head to get back
to their friends.  They were completely lost and turned about, and
their situation was growing more desperate.

I say "desperate," yet that word is used only in a comparative sense.
They were in no immediate danger, for they were in the clean, open
country, and not in a tangled forest or jungle.  There were no wild
beasts near, only peaceful cows and steers.  They had coverings for the
night, and greasewood shrubs, as well as a tree here and there amid the
foothills, offered fuel for a fire.  They had a small amount of "grub"
with them, and they had passed several springs of water, so they would
not thirst, and they had the means of making coffee, though no milk was
at hand.  So, all in all, their situation was not at all "desperate,"
though it was perhaps annoying.

"Let's fire our guns!" exclaimed Nort suddenly.  "We forgot all about
them.  Bud told us they were mainly used for signaling out here, and we
might let him and the rest know where we are by firing a few shots."

"Sure!  Go to it!" agreed Dick.  "But don't fire too many cartridges,"
he added.

"Why not?"

"Well, there's no telling when we may want the shells, and we haven't
any too many."

"That's so," agreed Nort.  "Well, we'll each fire two, at intervals."

This they did, but such echoes were aroused amid the hills by the
reverberations of the reports that the lads doubted whether Bud and the
other cowboys could accurately determine whence the sound of the firing
came.

"We've done our best," said Nort, after the fourth shot had gone
echoing among the hills.  "Now let's ride on a little, and if we don't
get out, or find those cattle, we'll pick a good place to camp for the
night."

This struck Dick as being the best thing to do and they urged their
tired ponies forward.  Dick was casting his looks about, seeking for a
suitable place to make the night camp, when he was attracted by a shout
from Nort, who was off to one side.

"Did you find 'em?" cried Dick, eagerly.  "The cattle or our cowboys?"

"No, but look!" yelled Nort.  "We're coming to a city!"

He pointed toward the east and there, on the far side of a green
valley, amid green hills, was the vision of a small city, on the banks
of a good-sized river.  As the boys watched they saw a steamer come up
to a dock and stop, though the scene was too far away to give them more
details.

"Now we're all right!" yelled Dick.

But, even as he spoke the vision faded from the eyes of the startled
boys.  It melted from sight as do some moving pictures, when the "fade
out" is used.  It was as though a veil of mist came between the vision
and the boys, or as if some giant hand had wiped it from a great slate
with a damp sponge.



CHAPTER XVII

THE NIGHT CAMP

"Well, what do you know about that?" exclaimed Nort, as he turned to
look at his brother, when the vision of the city on the river bank had
disappeared.

"Were we dreaming, or did we really see something?" asked Dick, passing
his hand over his eyes in dazed fashion.

"We saw something all right," asserted Nort, "and I'm wondering if I
saw the same thing you did--a city--the steamer and----"

"I saw it, too," declared Dick, interrupting his brother's recital.
"But where did it go?  A fog must have rolled up between us and it.
But now we know which way to ride.  I don't know what town that was,
but they can tell us how to get back to Diamond X ranch."

"It's queer," murmured Nort, as Dick urged his horse in the direction
of the vision they had just beheld.

"What's queer?" asked Dick.

"Seeing that town," his brother went on.  "Bud never said anything
about the ranch being so near a place where they had a river steamer.
There isn't a boat of that size on the river around here."

"No," assented Dick.  "This must be farther down.  Anyhow, let's hit
the trail for there.  We aren't lost any more, I reckon."

"Doesn't seem," murmured Nort.  But, even as the two brothers urged
their tired, broncos forward, another strange thing happened.  In the
very same place where they had seen the vision of the town and the
steamer, only to witness it vanish, there appeared in sharp detail a
large ranch, with its corrals, its bunk house and main buildings.

"There!  Look!" cried Dick.  "There's Diamond X!"

Nort shaded his eyes with his hands, and peered long and earnestly.

"Diamond X!" he murmured.  "That isn't our ranch!  Our bunk house isn't
so near the corral, and, besides----"

Then, even as he spoke, this vision vanished as had the other, being
wiped out of sight; fading slowly as if some unseen operator in a movie
booth had cut off his light.

The brothers turned and stared at one another.  Suddenly the truth
dawned upon them.

"A _mirage_!" exclaimed Nort.

"That's what!" assented Dick.  "Two mirages!  We saw one after the
other, a city and a ranch in the same place!"

And that is what the visions had been--mirages, those strange phenomena
of the west--of desert places--natural occurrences in localities where
the air is abnormally clear, and where conditions combine to transpose
distant scenes.

Of course the explanation is simple enough.  Of the mirage the
dictionary says it is "an optical illusion arising from an unequal
refraction in the lower strata of the atmosphere, causing images of
remote objects to be seen double, distorted or inverted as if reflected
in a mirror, or to appear as if suspended in the air."

The word comes from a Latin one, meaning "to look at," and that is
about all you can do to a mirage--look at it.  It is as unsubstantial
as the air in which it is formed.

There are many varieties of mirages seen in the West, and if the boys
had seen a double one, or had the vision of the city and ranch been
inverted, they might have sooner guessed the secret of it.  But the
particular mirages they had viewed had, through some trick of air
refraction, been imposed on their eyesight rightside up, and
wonderfully clear.

I do not suppose all the stories that have been written of mirages are
true, but it is certain that many strange tricks have been played on
the eyesight of observers by these phenomena, and more than one
luckless prospector, or cattleman, has followed these visions, only to
be tantalized in the end by finding, just as Nort and Dick did, that
they merely vanished, dissolving into nothing.

Telling of their experiences afterward, Nort and Dick declared that
when they had visualized the steamer moving up to her dock, they had
actually seen figures disembarking.

"That _couldn't_ be!" declared Bud.  "Your eyes must have been blinking
and you _thought_ you saw figures.  I've been fooled by mirages myself,
but though you might make out something as large as a steamer moving, I
never yet saw one of these visions clear enough so that you could make
out people moving about.  You can see a town, or a ranch, sometimes
right side up, and sometimes upside down, but you can't make out
people.  I won't say that it is impossible, but I've never seen it, nor
heard of anyone who has," the boy rancher concluded.

"Well, it was wonderful enough as it was," declared Nort, and even
those who have seen many mirages will agree with this, I think.

"Well, that sure was queer!" exclaimed Nort, rubbing his eyes again.
"And to think we might have ridden off, and tried to get to that ranch,
or city."

"I thought sure it was Diamond X," declared Dick.

"Well, I knew it wasn't, as soon as I saw how the buildings were
located.  But I thought it was some ranch.  Bud told me about these
mirages, though I never thought they were as plain as that."

"They sure do fool you!" laughed Dick.  "And now, before we get led
astray by any more, let's get settled for the night.  It looks as if
we'd have to stay here."

"Yes, it does," agreed Nort.  He looked in the direction where the
strange images had appeared in the air, seemingly suspended between the
heaven and the earth.  There were no more of the visions, the declining
sun doubtless being in such a position as no longer to produce the
necessary refraction, or bending of the light rays.

"Here's water," spoke Nort, pointing to a spring bubbling out of the
side of the hill.  "We'll make a fire, and cook what we have."

"But not all of it," stipulated Dick.  "We've got to save some for
to-morrow.  No telling how long we may be out on our own."

"That's right," agreed Nort.  "Though when our bacon and flour give out
we can get one of those fellows--maybe," and he pointed to a big jack
rabbit, almost as large as a dog, loping away.

"Yes, Bud says they're good eating," assented Dick.  "The only thing
is, can we knock one over with our guns?"

"I'm not much of a shot, yet, but then a fellow ought to hit one of
those jacks--when he isn't running," qualified Nort, for the speed of
these rabbits of the plains is almost beyond belief.  Indeed they put
the speediest horse on his mettle, and a greyhound, or a similar breed
of dog, is the only canine that can compete with them.

"Yes, no use shooting when they start racing," agreed Dick.

The lads slipped from their ponies, taking off the saddles which,
later, they would use as pillows.  And immediately the cow horses were
relieved of their back burdens, they started to roll.  This is the
ideal recreation for the steeds of ranch or plain, for they get little
of the rubbing down or care bestowed on other horses.  Their daily roll
in the grass and dust keeps their coat in good condition.

The ponies were pegged out by means of the lariats, which allowed them
to graze or roll as they pleased.  They were tied near a water hole,
formed below the spring, so the animals had the three most desirable
requisites--food, water and a place to disport themselves.

Nort and Dick proceeded to make their camp.  It was a simple operation.
All they had to do was to gather some greasewood for the fire, and
start to cook.  Later they would roll in their tarpaulins, with their
heads on the saddles, and get what rest they could.

Fortunately the two boys had with them some cooking utensils, and also
some bacon and flour with a supply of coffee.  The flour was of the
"prepared" variety.  Mixing it with water gave them batter for
flapjacks, which were baked in the same skillet in which the bacon had
first been fried.  Water for the coffee was at hand, and they had sugar
for that beverage, though no milk, which might seem strange so near a
ranch on which were many cattle.  But ranches are for the raising of
beef, and are not dairies, so milkless coffee was no hardship to the
boys, though at Diamond X milk was plentiful enough.

The smell of the burning greasewood, the aroma of the bacon and coffee,
not to mention that of the flapjacks, added zest to the appetites of
the boys, if zest were needed, and soon they were eagerly eating.

Then, as night settled down they gathered a quantity of wood for the
fire, looked to the fastenings of their ponies and stretched out under
the light of the bright stars.  They were--except for their
ponies--alone amid the foothills, how far from Diamond X ranch they
could only guess.



CHAPTER XVIII

QUEER OPERATIONS

"Feel sleepy?" asked Nort of Dick when they had stretched out under
their canvas blankets, which might keep off the dew, but which were not
very comfortable.

"Not specially," answered Dick.  "I'm thinking too much of all that's
happened lately."

"So 'm I.  But I'm not worried because we're here; are you?"

"Not a bit of it!  This is only fun!  We wanted to see real western
life and we're seeing it," Dick went on.  "This is what we came out
here for.  It isn't like anything else we ever did, and it only makes
me all the more want to be a rancher."

"You said it.  Only there are one or two things I'd like to know more
about."

"Such as what, for instance?" asked the younger lad.

"Well, I'd like to know who it was that tried to snake you away with a
lasso.  I'd like to do the same to him.  And I'd like to know more
about those two strange professors, and what they're after."

"I'm with you there," spoke Dick, as he raised on one elbow to look
toward where he had tethered his horse, the animal seeming to be
suddenly excited about something.

"Only a coyote," remarked Nort, as he caught sight of a slinking figure
under the light of the stars.  The boys had become used to these
creatures which acted as scavengers of the plains.

"I wonder if, after all, those professors can be hunting gold?" mused
Dick, when his horse had quieted down and resumed grazing.

"According to what Bud says there isn't any gold here and never has
been," declared Nort.  "But there is a mystery about them and I'd give
a lot to solve it.  You see we tenderfeet don't count for much out on a
ranch--that is, yet.  We don't know much about roping or shooting or
riding herd.  Of course we're learning, and Bud and the others are as
nice about it as they can be, but I can see they don't think overly
much about our abilities; and I don't blame them.

"But if we could solve this mystery about those professors, and maybe
connect 'em up with some of the cattle rustling, why it would show Bud
we easterners amounted to something after all.  I sure would like to
get on the track of this mystery!"

The time was to come, and soon, when Nort and Dick vividly recalled
these words.

"Well, we're here--not that we know where it is--but we're here, and
not in such bad shape," spoke Dick.  "We're lost, but I reckon Bud will
find us in the morning, or we'll come across the cattle we're looking
for, or else Diamond X ranch.

"I hope so," mused Nort.  "I'd like to show these cowboys that we can
pull off a trick or two ourselves."

"Well, I'm with you," and Dick's voice took on a drowsy note.  In spite
of the fact that he had said he was thinking of many things, the riding
of the day soon began to tell on both lads.

"What's that?" suddenly called Dick to Nort, when they had, perhaps,
been sleeping two or three hours.  A wild, weird cry had echoed out in
the silent night.

"Coyote," was the answer, sleepily given.

"Howlin' in a new way," murmured Dick.

Indeed, accustomed as the boys were becoming to the voices of these
animals, part fox, part dog and part wolf, there were always new
elements seeming to enter into their cries.

Again the strange call was repeated, to be answered by the mate of the
coyote farther off, and then came a perfect chorus of wild yells.  The
horses snorted, as if in contempt and the boys covered themselves with
their tarpaulins and tried to slumber.  But it was some little time
before the echoes died away and quiet reigned.

Nort and Dick did not awaken again that night, but their eyes opened
when the sun shone on them, and, rather lame and stiff, they arose to
get a frugal breakfast.

Their first look was to their horses, for to be without a mount in the
vast distances of the West is almost a tragedy.  But Blaze and Blackie,
the two favorite steeds of Nort and Dick, were safely tethered.

Cowboys, on range or ranch, usually have a "string" of ponies, or
broncos.  This is needful, as there is such hard riding necessary at
times (particularly at the round-up) that one horse could not stand the
pace.  So at the beginning of work several horses are assigned to each
cow-puncher.  Of course he may own a horse of his own, and usually
does, in fact, and this horse is his favorite.  But he has several
others to pick from.

When Nort and Dick declared that they were going to be regular
ranchers, or cowboys as a start, they were given a string of horses to
pick from.  But of these Blaze, so called from a white streak down his
head, was the favorite of Nort.  Blackie was Dick's choice, and the
selection of the name was due to the color of the horse, it being
almost perfect black.

Blaze and Blackie were safe at the ends of their tether ropes--the
lariats the boys carried coiled on their saddle horns during the day.

Breakfast over--and it was not a very substantial meal--the boys
saddled their steeds and then looked at one another.

"What are we going to do?" asked Dick.

"Hit the trail--for somewhere," answered Nort.

"The trouble is there doesn't seem to be any trail to hit," spoke Dick,
rather grimly.  "It would be easy, if there was only a cow path, to
ride along it until we came to some place.  But here, as soon as we
ride out of one swale we're in another, and we don't get a sight of Bud
or the cattle we set out to haze back."

"I wonder what he thinks of us?" mused Nort.

"Oh, he must have sized up the situation, and so knows what has
happened to us," declared Dick.  "He's probably out now, with some of
the cowboys, looking for us."

"I hope they bring something to eat," spoke Nort.  "We'll be on mighty
short rations at noon, unless we can eat grass, the way the ponies do."

"Or knock over a jack," added Dick.  "They seem to be plentiful."

As he spoke, one of the long-legged and longer-eared rabbits shot past,
having paused to look at the strangers, who, doubtless in his mind,
were usurping his land.

"Tell you what we ought to do," suggested Nort as they mounted, having
made fast their packs and trampled out the fire.

"What?" asked Dick.

"We ought to ride to the top of the highest hill, and take a look.
That ought to show something besides a mirage.  I s'pose, if we had our
wits about us, we'd know whether we ought to ride north, south, east or
west," Nort went on.  "But, as it is, I don't know which way Diamond X
lies."

They urged Blaze and Blackie up the slope of what they judged to be the
highest hill in their vicinity.  And as they gained the summit, and
looked down into a valley on the other side, they saw something that
caused them to both exclaim in surprise.

"Look!" cried Nort.  "There's some of our bunch!"  He pointed to men
and horses in a camp, of which white tents formed a part.

"That isn't our crowd!" exclaimed Dick.  "That's the outfit of the two
professors, and they're up to some mighty queer doings!"

"Digging for gold!" declared Nort.

But, as he spoke, there was a loud report down near the valley camp.
Men were seen running, as if from danger, and as the boys looked they
saw a cloud of smoke roll up, and part of a side hill slide down.



CHAPTER XIX

PRISONERS

"Would you look at that!" shouted Nort, pointing down into the valley.
"They must be under bombardment!  It's a battle, Dick!"

"Nonsense!" cried the younger lad, not as impulsive as his brother.
"They're blasting; that's what they're doing!  Trying to locate a
pocket of gold, I reckon.  But now we're all right, Nort.  They'll tell
us how to get back to Diamond X, even if they can't put us on the trail
of the cattle we so stupidly missed."

"Well, maybe they can, and then again, maybe they can't," said Nort
slowly.

"What do you mean?" asked Dick.

"Well, they may be able to tell us the way to Diamond X, but maybe they
won't want to tell us where the missing cattle are."

"You mean they may have taken 'em _themselves_?" asked Dick, and there
was surprise in his voice.

"It's possible," declared Nort.  "But we can't find out much by staying
up here.  Let's ride down and see what's going on.  I reckon it's as
you say--they have been blasting."

At first no one paid any attention to the approach of Dick and Nort.
The men who had run away as the blast let loose, now hurried back to
peer into the excavation made by the explosion.  And among those who
thus eagerly sought to see the inner secrets of the earth, our heroes
recognized Professors Blair and Wright.  These two scientists were
foremost among the men standing on the edge of the hole that had been
torn in the earth.

"No success!" Dick and Nort heard Professor Wright say as he turned
aside from the hole.  "We must try lower down."

"Higher up, I should say," spoke Professor Blair.

"Oh, no.  You must remember that the deposits are weighty, and would be
brought lower and lower each year by gravity, as well as by the sliding
action of the hill under the influence of erosion."

"Yes, you are correct, Professor," admitted Mr. Blair, and then the two
turned and beheld Dick and Nort at hand.

Surprise, and no very pleased surprise at that, was manifest on the
faces of the two scientists as they viewed the boys.  Grouped around
the professors were several Mexicans, or Greasers, a Chinese, evidently
the cook of the "outfit," and a number of workmen, unmistakably
American.  These last looked at the boys with scowling faces, though
the two professors tried to force smiles to their lips.

"Oh, you are from Circle T ranch, are you not?" asked Professor Blair
of Dick and Nort.  "You are the boys who were so kind as to bring the
antiseptics for the wounded men, who, thanks to that treatment, are now
doing well."

"Glad to hear it," said Nort.  "Only we're not from Circle T.  We hail
from Diamond X."

"Strange names," murmured Professor Wright.  "I don't see how you
remember them, though I do recall, now, that Diamond X is the proper
term.  We--er--I hardly expected to see you again," he said, haltingly.

"Nor we you," spoke Nort, who seemed to be doing the talking for his
brother and himself.  "We started after some cattle, but they got away
from us and we lost ourselves.  You haven't seen them; have you?  A
bunch of steers with the Square M brand on."

"And if you've seen anything of Diamond X ranch itself, up among these
hills, I wish you'd tell us how to get to it," added Dick, with a
whimsical smile.

"Cattle!  Of why should we know of your cattle!" exclaimed a harsh
voice behind the boys, and Dick and Nort, turning in their saddles, saw
fairly glaring at them Del Pinzo, the unprepossessing Mexican half
breed.

"Do you think we have your steers--that we are _rustlers_?" demanded
Del Pinzo fiercely.

"No," said Nort, seeing into what error he might be drawn.  "I was only
asking."

"Well, we haven't seen any of your cattle!" declared the Mexican, or
half breed, to give his correct title.  "And we don't want you around
here when we're----"

"Just a moment, Del Pinzo," interposed Professor Wright, and Dick
noticed a peculiar look pass between the two scientists.  "You must
excuse the zeal of one of our helpers," went on Mr. Wright.  "He is
doubtless afraid that you might get hurt in a blast."

"Yes!  Yes!  Blasts are dangerous!" said the half breed quickly, and it
seemed as if he spoke in answer to a signal given by one of the
scientists.  "We are going to set off another."

"It is just some research work we are undertaking," said Professor
Blair, as he saw Nort and Dick looking around.  "We have absented
ourselves from our college to do some investigating, and it is
necessary to blast, in some cases, to get at the lower deposits."

Both Dick and Nort said to each other, afterwards, that they did not
believe these statements.

"Perhaps you boys had better come down to the tents," suggested
Professor Wright.  "As Del Pinzo says, blasts are dangerous, and the
men are going to set off another.  Come to the tents," and with a wave
of his hand he indicated the camp site, a level place amid the little
and big hills all about.

"Thanks," murmured Nort.  "But are you going to be able to direct us
how to find Diamond X ranch?"

"Doubtless some of our men can tell you," said Mr. Wright.  "Have you
eaten?" he asked.

"We had a little," Dick replied.  "But----"

"You can eat more, I have no doubt!" laughed Professor Blair, but his
merriment seemed to be forced.  "Well, fortunately our larder is well
stocked.  Come down and have something.  How are all your friends?"

"Well, as far as we know, not having seen them since yesterday,"
answered Dick.  "You see we're not regular ranchers or cowboys yet,
we're just learning."

"One need not be told _that_!" sneered Del Pinzo, who had followed our
heroes and the two professors down the slope.

Professor Blair turned and looked sharply at the half breed.  Then the
scientist, speaking, said:

"Del Pinzo, perhaps you had better return and watch that the next blast
harms no one.  We would not want an accident."

The half breed hesitated for a moment, and then murmured:

"_Si, senor!_" ("Yes, sir!")

He turned back up the hill, Dick and Nort continued down it toward the
tents.

"Picket your horses and come in," invited Professor Wright, as he held
open the flap of what was, evidently, the private dining tent of
himself and his college companion.  "I'll have Sing Wah fix you up a
little feed."

"This is mighty kind of you," murmured Dick, as he and his brother sat
at the folding camp table and ate hungrily.

"And now all we want is to be put on the trail to Diamond X," said
Nort, as they finished.  "We'll let the cattle go, for the time being."

He rose to leave the tent, followed by his brother, but, as the boys
neared the flap a man, who, they remembered, had been called Silas
Thorp, interposed his ugly bulk in front of them.

"Don't be in a hurry to leave, boys," he sneered.

"Why not?" hotly demanded Nort.

"Because we'd like to keep you here a while," Thorp went on.  "I guess
the professors would like to have you accept their hospitality a little
longer."

"Is this true?" cried Nort.  "Are we prisoners?"

"Well, that is rather a harsh word to use," said Professor Wright.
"But we feel we must detain you--at least for a while!"



CHAPTER XX

THE DIAMOND X BRAND

Nort and Dick admitted to one another, afterward, that at first they
believed the two professors to be joking.  They imagined that the
cultured scientists were merely indulging in a bit of fun, from much of
which they were necessarily barred while in the class room.  But a
sharp look at the faces of the men who were at the head of an
expedition, conducting a mysterious search, showed the boys that
earnestness was the keynote.

"You--you're going to keep us here?" questioned Dick.

"For a while, yes," said Professor Wright, and there was more snap and
decision in his voice than before.

"It is much your own fault," added Professor Blair.

"_Our_ fault!" spluttered Nort, his temper rapidly rising.  "Why, what
have we done except to help you when you needed it?  And now all we ask
is that you put us in the way of getting back to Diamond X."

"That is just it," said Professor Wright.  "We don't want you to go
back to Diamond X at once."

"Why not?" hotly demanded Nort.  "What right have you got to hold us
here?  You can't!  We'll get away in spite of you!" and his hand, half
unconsciously, perhaps, moved toward his holster.  But he was surprised
to find his wrist seized in a firm grip, while he was violently swung
around, his weapon being removed by some one who had come silently up
behind him.  And this some one was Del Pinzo, into whose sneering,
crafty, swarthy face Nort angrily gazed.

Before he could say anything, Nort saw Silas Thorp slip up to Dick, and
take that lad's weapon out of the holster.  Dick had no time to draw
it, even if such had been his intention, which, the lad said later, it
was not.

"What do you mean?  What's this game anyhow?  What right have you to
keep us prisoners here and take our guns?" shouted Nort.  He took a
step toward Del Pinzo, but there was something so sinister in the
attitude of the half breed, albeit he did not menace the boy with the
weapon, that Nort shrank back.

"I think you had better submit quietly," said Professor Blair.  "We
intend absolutely no violence, or ill-treatment of you, unless you make
that necessary.  We admit that perhaps we are acting illegally, and in
an unusual manner, but, in a way, you brought this on yourselves, boys.
You will not be detained long.  In fact, if our plans work out right,
you may depart for your ranch this evening."

"Acting illegally!" spluttered Nort.  "I should say you _were_!  We'll
have you arrested for this, you--you--big----"

Then Nort stopped, for he realized that, though he might apply some
well-deserved slang names to the two professors, neither of them was
"big."  They were small men--at least in stature.

"But you haven't any right to hold us here prisoners!" declared Dick,
feeling that he must back up his brother in a firm protest.  "We
haven't done anything to you."

"Except to turn up where you aren't wanted!" broke in Silas Thorp.  "If
you'd minded your own business, and stayed away--let us alone--we
wouldn't have to do this!"

In surprise at such a statement, Nort and Dick looked at the two
professors.

Mr. Wright, with a wave of his hand toward his helper, to enjoin
silence, made this statement:

"Mr. Thorp has put the matter rather crudely, perhaps, but that is the
state of the case.  Without going into details, boys, we are in this
part of the country on a secret mission.  We have almost accomplished
what we are after, and, on the verge of the discovery, we do not wish
to be balked.  You happen to have stumbled upon us just when we are
about to complete a wearisome search, which at least promises to be
successful.

"We have enemies who would be glad to frustrate our schemes, and it is
to prevent these enemies from obtaining knowledge of our movements, of
our location, and the location of that which we are seeking, that we
are forced to detain you.  We hope soon to end our mission, and, once
we have gained possession of what we are after, we shall be most happy
to restore you to liberty."

He took breath after this somewhat lengthy address, and Nort and Dick
looked at one another, more puzzled than before.  What did it all mean?
What was the queer secret of the professors, a secret that, somehow,
seemed to involve Diamond X?

"Do you mean that you're keeping us here because you're afraid we'll
tell something about you?" burst out Nort.

"Yes," answered Professor Blair.  "We simply must keep our secret safe,
now that we are on the verge of discovery."

"But we wouldn't tell!" declared Nort.  "In fact we don't know anything
about you--except that we've seen you once or twice.  We don't know
what your secret is--that is, we can only _guess_ at it."

"That's just it!" interrupted Professor Wright.  "You are the sort of
lads who would make a correct guess, and then, when word of it got out,
we would lose the fruits of many weary years of research."

"But we wouldn't tell anyone!" promised Dick.  "All we know about it is
that you're supposed to be prospecting for gold.  There isn't any great
crime, or secret, in that, unless you're trying to get gold off land
that doesn't belong to you."

"No, it isn't gold, nor anything like gold," spoke Professor Wright, in
rather dreamy tones.  "It is much more valuable than gold.  I never
would have endured the hardships I have for mere gold."

"Nor I," said his partner, and then, for the first time the same
thought came to Nort and Dick--that these men might be lunatics,
obsessed with a strange idea, and that they were searching for
something that might be likened to a fading mirage.

The boy ranchers looked at one another.  If this was the explanation
their position might be more dangerous than appeared.  To be held
captives by men who were mentally irresponsible, aided by an
unscrupulous gang, of which Del Pinzo was a fair specimen, was not at
all a reassuring thought.  But Nort and Dick were not the ones to give
up easily.

"Just what are you going to do?" asked Nort, when it was evident that,
unarmed as they were, resistance was out of the question for the time
being.

"Simply hold you here for a few days--not more than a week at most,"
answered Professor Blair.

"Suppose we don't stay?" asked Nort, sharply.

"Well, if you refuse to promise not to try to escape, we shall be
forced to detain you as best we can," was the calm reply.  "But we have
no wish to use violence, and I think you will agree to submit quietly.
Be our guests, so to speak."

"What if our friends come to rescue us?" asked Dick.

"Well, we have thought of that," spoke Professor Wright.  "If they come
we shall have to do our best to--er--persuade them to go away
again--that is unless we can bring our task to an end sooner than we
expect, and that is possible.  If we can bring that about--make the
discovery we hope for--you will be at liberty to depart at that moment.
Otherwise you must stay here!"

"Well, we won't promise not to try to escape," declared Nort, hotly.
"We'll do our best, not only to get away, but to bring the police down
on you, or bring whatever authority they have out here.  If you're
going to act this way we'll be justified in doing our worst!"

"Naturally," agreed Professor Wright, smoothly.  "Now that we have been
made aware of your intentions we shall act accordingly.  We shall be
obliged to keep you under guard, but I assure you that if you do not
act roughly neither will our guards.  I am sorry you would not agree to
our plan, and see matters in our light.  It would have been so much
more comfortable.  And when we have explained, as we hope to do soon,
you would appreciate our attitude."

"Well, all I can say now is that we _don't_ appreciate it!" snapped
Nort, "and we'll leave at the first opportunity!"

"Then we'll see that you get no opportunities!" sneered Silas.  "Let's
take 'em out, Del!"

As it was evident that the two professors meant what they said, and
that the boys would be roughly handled if they did not submit quietly,
they followed their captors out of the dining tent, in answer to
signals from Silas and the half breed that this was what was wanted.

"Here's going to be your stopping place," said Silas, with another
sneer, as he stopped in front of a small tent.  "And let me tell you it
will be best for you to take it easy.  You may get into trouble if you
try to leave!"

To this Nort and Dick answered nothing.  They were too angry to know
what to say, but that they intended to submit quietly to this indignity
was not in their natures.  They cast quick glances about the camp
before entering the tent, the flap of which Del Pinzo pulled back.  The
tent contained two cots and some small packing boxes for tables and
chairs.

"All right!" said Nort, as he sized up the situation, and glanced back
at the men who were his own and his brother's guards for the time
being.  "You can do your best to keep us here, and we'll do our best to
get away.  It'll be a fifty-fifty proposition!"

Nort was startled by an exclamation from Dick.  The latter was gazing
at some commotion on the far side of the camp.  Looking out from the
opened tent Nort saw being driven, along the bank of a small brook that
ran through the swale, several big steers.  They were being hazed along
by Greasers on horses, and as the cattle splashed into the water,
stopping to drink thirstily, the boy ranchers caught sight of the
brands on their flanks.

It was the mark of the Diamond X ranch!



CHAPTER XXI

THE ESCAPE

"Get inside, you fellows, now!" roughly commanded Silas Thorp.  "If
you're going to act nasty we can do the same.  You can make it easy or
hard for yourselves, just as you choose."

"We'll make it hard for you, before we finish!" threatened Nort.

At the sight of the steers bearing the Diamond X brand, Del Pinzo had
stepped out of the tent, but his place as guard, if such he might be
called, was taken by another Greaser, even less prepossessing in
appearance, and apparently of less intelligence, but with as evil
intentions.  He scowled at the boys, and squatted down at the entrance
to the canvas shelter.

"Here's where you're going to stay, though you can have the freedom of
the camp if you promise not to try to leave," said Silas.

"We won't promise!" declared Nort.

"Not on your life!" added Dick, warmly.

"Then stay here, and there'll be trouble if you try to leave,"
threatened the man, who seemed to be a dried-up specimen of a museum
attendant, which character, so Nort said afterward, he forcibly called
to mind.

He spoke something, evidently in Spanish, or the Mexican variety of
that language, to the fellow who had replaced Del Pinzo, and the man,
who was making himself comfortable at the entrance of the tent,
murmured:

"_Si, senor_!"

"Which means he'll do as he was told," spoke Nort to Dick in a low
voice as Silas passed out.  "Stick us with his knife or jab the
business end of his gun in the small of our backs."

"We mustn't give him the chance," spoke Dick.

"I should say not!  We'll get away before he knows it."

The brothers spoke together in low tones, but loudly enough for the
guard to hear.  However he showed no interest in what they said, from
which they concluded he either understood no English, or pretended not
to.

"But we won't take a chance," decided Nort.  "We won't discuss anything
we don't want him to overhear.  It's likely they thought they could
fool us by putting in a man we would evidently think couldn't
understand our talk."

"I get you," said Dick, briefly.  "But what do you think of those
cattle?" and he nodded toward where could be heard the noise made by
camp attendants driving the Diamond X steers whither they were wanted
to go.

"Just what I've been thinking all along," declared Nort.  "This outfit
is a bunch of high-class cattle thieves!"

He shot the words out forcibly, and looked keenly at the Greaser guard
to see if they made any impression on him.  However, the Mexican was
either a perfect actor, or he did not understand what was said, for he
gave no sign, and appeared to be in a brown study as he sat hunched up
on the ground at the flap of the tent.

"Wonder what's going on?" mused Dick, as the noise increased, the
shouts of men mingling with the snorting and bellowing of cattle.  "I'm
going to take a look."

He stepped forward to part the flaps of the tent, they having fallen
together, but as he did so the Greaser ripped out something fiercely in
his own tongue, and his hand went toward a sheathed knife at his belt.

"Oh, keep your shirt on!" burst out Dick.  "I'm not going to run
away--not just now," he added as a qualifying phrase.

Whether the man understood the words, or guessed that Dick had no
intention of escaping, was not made clear, but he offered no further
objection to the act of the boys in pulling aside the flaps of the tent
and looking out.

They saw that the cattle which had been taken from the Diamond X
ranch--stolen as Dick and Nort believed--were being driven into a
small, and evidently hastily-constructed corral, where they could get
to the stream to drink.

"They've got a regular system," remarked Nort, as he saw the cattle
being quieted down, once they were inside the improvised pen.

"Making a business of it," agreed Dick.  "But you wouldn't think such
men as these two professors would frame it up to be cattle rustlers;
would you?"

"That isn't all they are," said Nort.  "That digging and blasting means
something!"

He pointed to where, on the side hill at the scene of the first
explosion, the two scientists were evidently directing operations
looking to another blast.  Professor Wright and his aide seemed to pay
no attention to the cattle that had been brought in.

"This is a queer sort of game," said Dick to his brother, as they went
back in the tent and sat down on boxes at the heads of their cots.  "I
can't see to the bottom of it."

"Nor I, except that these fellows are doing something they don't want
known.  Rustling cattle isn't all of it, by any means, but if the other
isn't digging for gold, or something valuable, I give up."

"But if they were after gold, why would they deny it?" asked Dick.

"You've got me!" admitted Nort.  "It sure is queer.  But I wonder if
they're going to starve us; and what's become of our ponies?"

The last question was answered first, for Dick pointed to where, off to
one side, Blaze and Blackie were contentedly grazing, being pegged out,
as were a number of other horses.

And, an hour or so later, came the answer to the other question, for a
man, who evidently acted as camp cook, came to the tent with a pot of
coffee, some tin cups, and the head of a barrel used as a tray, on
which was piled some food.

Had the viands been most uninviting, Dick and Nort would have eagerly
welcomed them, for the boys were hungry.  But, as a matter of fact, the
food was clean, and well cooked.  The two professors, whatever might be
their game, evidently insisted on adequate culinary operations.

"Sail in!" exclaimed Nort, as he smelled the appetizing odor of the hot
coffee, and what appeared to be some Mexican dish, cooked with plenty
of beans, and more red peppers than the boys cared for.

But, as I have said, they were hungry, and this is the best sauce in
the world.  None of the condiments so freely used by the Mexicans was
needed, and soon there was silence in the prisoners' tent, broken only
by the clatter of knives and forks on the tin camp dishes.

Once or twice the Greaser guard looked at the boys in what Dick and
Nort both agreed, later, was a hungry style.  The pot of coffee was
much more than the boys needed, though they ate up all the food.  And
it was while feeling in his pockets for a toothpick that Nort's fingers
touched something which played a very prominent part in subsequent
events.

Slowly Nort drew forth a small bottle, and held it up so Dick could see
it, but so that it was concealed from the Greaser at the tent entrance.
And then Dick noted that Nort held up a four ounce flask of paregoric.
Nort had been suffering from toothache the past few days, though for
some reason it had not bothered him since he and Dick had become
"lost."  Perhaps the excitement following that incident quieted the
nerves.  At any rate Nort carried the bottle of paregoric with him, for
one of the cowboys had recommended that this household mixture of
opium, rubbed on the gums, would give relief.

Nort found that it did, and since then he had carried the bottle with
him, pending the time he expected to visit a dentist.  He now held this
phial of paregoric up so Dick could see, at the same time pointing
first to the Greaser and then to the coffee pot.

"Now?" asked Dick, in reply to Nort's obvious statement that he
intended to administer some of the soporific to their guard.

"To-night," was Nort's answer, and then he put the bottle back in his
pocket.

Dick's eyes lighted up.  He knew the effect of a large dose of
paregoric, comparatively harmless as it is in small quantities, or as
Nort used it.

Now a way seemed opened for the boys.  If only they could command the
other elements necessary for success.

Nort made sure of one, by pouring out a cup of coffee, liberally
sweetening it with sugar from the barrel head tray, and setting the
beverage to one side on the ground under his cot.

The camp cook came to carry away what the boys had left--which was not
much--and if he missed one cup he said nothing about it.  Perhaps this
was because, just then, some of the cattle tried to break out of the
corral, and there was a shout raised for help--to which the cook
responded.  But the Greaser guard did not leave his place.  Evidently
his orders were imperative.

"When are you going to try it?" whispered Dick to Nort, as the shadows
began to lengthen, and night settled down on the camp.

"Not until after dark--say about ten," replied Nort in a low voice.
"It will take about two hours for him to fall asleep, and then we can
get out, get aboard our ponies and trust to luck."

"If he only goes to sleep," sighed Dick.

"I'll give half the bottle full," whispered Nort.

The Greaser paid no attention to their talk, but sat immobile at the
tent flaps.  During the time the boys had been held prisoners no one
had come to their canvas shelter save the cook, who brought them a
plentiful supper, and also another barrel-head tray for the guard.  The
day had passed with several blasts having been set off, though the
effect of them, and the object, was concealed from the boy ranchers.

In accordance with their plan, Nort and Dick dawdled over their night
meal, having consumed only part of it when the cook, at about eight
o'clock, came to remove the dishes.

"Git 'em mornin'," he said, as he turned to go out, evidently meaning
that he was going to turn in, and the boys could keep what they had
until the next day.  This exactly suited them, and just before they
were ready to lie down, pretending to be sleepy, Nort produced the cup
of coffee he had saved out.  Quickly he emptied into it half of the
bottle of paregoric, and, stirring it to mix the opium concoction well
with the beverage, offered it to the Greaser.

If the latter had suspicions he made no show of them, but, with a grunt
accepted the unexpected refreshment, and drained the coffee at one tilt
of his head.  Then he passed the empty cup back to Nort, and proceeded
to smoke another cigarette, an occupation that had been pretty much his
whole task that day.

"Well, I'm going to turn in," said Nort in a loud voice, pretending to
yawn.

"Same here," remarked Dick.  Without undressing, they stretched out on
the cots, not being afraid of soiling white sheets with their big
boots, for there were no sheets to soil.  Blankets alone formed the
coverings, and these the boys drew over them.

There was no lantern in the tent, but the moon sent a stream of light
in a little later, and by its gleam, in less than an hour after the
dose had been administered, Nort and Dick saw the Greaser's head bent
forward, while he had slumped down in a heap at the foot of the front
tent pole.

Nort coughed loudly, two or three times, but the guard did not stir.

"Dead to the world!" whispered Dick gleefully.  "We could walk all over
him."  He arose from the cot slowly, to silence as much as possible the
rattle and squeak, and started for the front of the tent.

"The back way!" whispered Nort.  "We'll cut the canvas!  If we go out
in front some one may see us.  The back way!"

Dick comprehended, and turned around, picking up his range hat, an
example followed by Nort.  The latter had opened his pocket knife,
which contained a large, keen blade, and, a moment later, a
right-angled cut was made in the back wall of the canvas house.

Before emerging, Nort looked carefully through the opening he had made.
The moon gave good light, but, fortunately, the tent was in the shadow
of some trees and the way of escape seemed clear.

"Come on!" whispered Nort to his brother.  They paused a moment,
listening to the heavy breathing of the opium-stupefied Greaser and
then stepped out of the opening.

An instant later they stood beneath the starry canopy of the sky,
having accomplished the first part of their escape from the camp of
mystery.



CHAPTER XXII

BACK TO THE RANCH

Perhaps, after all, it was due to the peculiar natures of the two
professors that Nort and Dick were enabled to make their escape as
easily as the lads did.  Primarily Professor Wright and Professor Blair
were scientists, whatever else our heroes accused them of in their own
minds.  And though the men surrounding the mysterious prospectors might
be scoundrels, in a sense, they did not have orders to be extra
vigilant after Dick and Nort had been placed in the tent; so no general
guard was kept over the camp.

Thus it was, that as soon as the lads stepped out of the cut tent, they
found no one to oppose their progress.  Too much dependence had been
placed on the Greaser guard.  Who would have supposed that Nort carried
a bottle of paregoric?

Or, granting that it was known he had it, would you have imagined that
he would use it as he did?  The whole affair was so ridiculously simple
that perhaps this offered a reason for its success.

For it did succeed.

Stepping softly over the rough ground back of the tent, the boys made
their way some little distance from it before they hardly dared breathe
freely.  Then as they were aware of the silence of the night, wrapping
everything in its somber robe, slashed here and there with insertions
of gleaming moonbeams, their hearts beat higher with hope.

They looked toward the other tents where, doubtless, the professors and
their helpers were sleeping.  Then Nort and Dick caught the snorting of
the cattle in the improvised corral--Diamond X cattle unlawfully taken.

"Wish we could let 'em out--stampede 'em," whispered Nort.

"Don't think of it!" cautioned Dick to his more impulsive brother.  "If
we can get our horses away without raising a racket we'll be mighty
lucky."

The boys had, earlier in the evening, noted where Blaze and Blackie
were tethered, and now they paused long enough to get their bearings,
and then made off in the direction of their ponies.  They dared not
stop to look for their saddles or bridles.  If they got away at all
they must ride bareback, and with only the loop of a lariat around the
necks of their steeds.

Fortunately Blackie and Blaze were gentle ponies--not too gentle--but,
in comparison with a bucking bronco, they were as carriage horses to a
racer.  The boys knew they could manage their mounts once they were on
their backs.

Step by step, moving cautiously, hardly daring to breathe, Dick and
Nort made their way to the ponies.

"Take it easy at first," cautioned Nort to Dick, as he slid his hand
along the lariat, intending to follow it up until he reached the peg,
which he could pull out.

"Which way you going to ride?" asked Dick.

"North," was the answer, for Nort had sensed that point of the compass.
"After we get some distance away we can figure out which trail we ought
to take."

"Anything to get away," murmured Dick.

Working quickly and silently, the boy ranchers soon released their
ponies from the tethering ropes and managed to mount them, though it
was not easy, owing to the lack of stirrups.  But eventually they were
on the backs of their mounts, and, looping a bight of the rope around
the heads of Blaze and Blackie, made a sort of bridle.

Luckily the animals were not hard to guide, and a little later Dick and
Nort were urging them along on the grass-covered ground, which provided
so soft a cushion for their feet that scarcely a sound resulted.

"I think we're going to make it!" whispered Dick to Nort as they moved
along, the horses climbing up out of the swale in which the mysterious
camp was located.  The moonlight gleamed down on the white tents,
including the one from which the boys had cut their way.

"Don't be too sure--don't crow--we're not out on the open range yet,"
cautioned Nort, this time less inclined to haste than was Dick.

But their departure did not seem to be noticed.  Any noise the horses
made must have been covered by the lowing, snorting and occasional
bellowing of the cattle in the corral.

And so it came about that Dick and Nort, by the exercise of their wits,
with which our American youth are so richly endowed, had outwitted
their enemies.  Though why they should have been detained as prisoners
they could not fathom.

"Guess we can take it a little faster now, can't we?" asked Dick, as
they came to a fairly level, open place.  The mysterious camp was now
out of sight, though not out of mind.

"Yes, we can chance it, though without a saddle and bridle we are
taking a chance."

The boys were never so glad as now that they knew fairly well how to
ride, and that their steeds were not like many of the wilder western
horses.  Blaze and Blackie seemed to know that their young masters were
at a disadvantage, and they trotted along as though under full guidance.

"I wonder what it all means--back there?" voiced Dick, as he rode along
beside his brother.  Nort did not have to ask what Dick referred to--it
was the mystery camp.

"I don't know," Nort answered.  "But I'm sure of one thing.  As soon as
we can get back to Diamond X we'll organize a raid on that outfit.
It's the headquarters of the rustlers--or one gang of 'em--I'm
positive."

"Looks so," agreed Dick.

They rode on at good speed now, though they were totally at a loss to
know whether or not they were proceeding in the right direction to
bring them to Diamond X ranch.  Nort found himself regretting the
capture of his gun, when Dick, who was a little ahead, suddenly pulled
up his horse, as best he could with the improvised reins, and called:

"Hark!"

Nort stopped and listened.  To the ears of the boy ranchers was borne
the unmistakable sound of galloping horses.

"If they're coming after us!" said Dick sharply, "I'm going to----"

"It can't be that bunch," interrupted Nort, evidently referring to the
professor's camp.  "They're behind us.  This sound comes from in front."

"Maybe it's Bud looking for us!" exclaimed Dick, and before his brother
could comment, they both saw riding toward them in the moonlight, up
from a little valley, several cowboys.  The form of more than one was
familiar to Dick and Nort, but as they saw their cousin in the front
rank they cried out:

"Bud!"

"There they are!" yelled Bud in answer, and a moment later our heroes
were among their friends.

"Where have you been?  What happened?  Are you hurt?"

These were only a few questions fired at the escaped prisoners, and as
they managed to tell their story there were ominous growls and comments
from the cowboys with Bud.

"The scoundrels!  Rustling our cattle!" cried Bud.  "We'll fix 'em!"

"They're doing something else besides rustling your cattle," declared
Nort.  "Let's go back to Diamond X and organize a crowd to raid this
camp!  We haven't enough men here, and Dick and I haven't any guns," he
added.

"All right," assented Bud, after a moment's thought.  "We can do better
in daylight, anyhow.  Back to the ranch it is!"

And as the rescue squad turned to go back Nort and Dick rode with them,
their thoughts busy with many topics.



CHAPTER XXIII

CLOSING IN

"Now let's have the whole yarn," urged Bud Merkel.

The rescue party of cowboys had returned to Diamond X ranch, after
meeting Nort and Dick who were riding their saddleless horses on their
way of escape from the mysterious camp.

Thereupon the two brothers told everything that had happened since they
rode off together two days before, to haze back the bunch of wild
steers.

"Hum!  That's quite a yarn," commented Bud's father who, with Slim
Degnan, Babe Milton and several of the cowboys, had listened to the
lads' story.

"Did they harm you at all?" asked motherly Mrs. Merkel.

"No, they were very polite about it," answered Nort.  "But of course we
weren't going to stay with them on that account."

"I should say not!" chuckled Bud.  "So you put paregoric in the
Greaser's coffee!  That was rich!  Even Zip Poster couldn't have done
better!"

"Oh, Zip!  He'd 'a' drugged the whole camp, and brought 'em away one at
a time on his shoulder," said Slim, with a wink at the others.

"Hum!  You know a lot--don't you?" murmured Bud, but it was easy to see
he did not like any fun poked at Zip Foster, a very mysterious
personage, it appeared.

"How'd you come to find us?" asked Nort, when his own tale, and that of
his brother, had been sufficiently told.

"Well, it was mainly luck, in a way," Bud answered.  "After you two
rode off that time, we didn't pay much attention to you for a while, as
we had our hands full with the cattle.  Then we didn't worry, even when
it began to get dark, for we figured that the steers had given you more
of a run than usual.  We didn't worry, for I told dad that you were
getting to be real ranchers."

Nort and Dick smiled proudly at this tribute.

"But," resumed Bud, "when you fellows didn't come back in the early
hours of the morning, we did begin to get a little leery.  And then we
started off to look for you as soon as it was light.  We needn't say we
didn't find you.  But we kept on hunting, and we were just about to
give up again, and ride off in another direction, when we saw you
heading for us."

"That camp of the professors' is pretty well hidden," spoke Nort.  "I
wonder if we can find it again?"

"Bet your boots!" cried Bud.  "I could find it in the dark, but we
won't wait until then to close in on the rustlers!"

"That's what they are!" cried Nort "They're cattle rustlers, and
something else!  Why, they had the nerve to drive some of our Diamond X
branded cattle right in under our noses, and they never even
apologized!"

"Such fellows don't generally beg your pardon," commented Mr. Merkel,
dryly.  "But have you any idea what their game is, boys?" he asked the
two brothers.

"They're digging, blasting and excavating for something that's hidden
in the ground," answered Nort.  "Whether it's gold or diamonds I don't
know."

"I don't see how it can be either," said Bud, with a shake of his head.
"Nothing like that has ever been found around here."

"There's always a first time," said Mrs. Merkel, with a smile.  "And
wouldn't it be wonderful if there should be a diamond mine on our
ranch?  I'd rather it would be diamonds than gold," she went on, "as it
doesn't take so many diamonds to amount to a fortune."

"Well, all I've got to say is that if those rascals rustle off enough
of my steers they'll be making a fortune that I ought to have,"
commented the head of Diamond X ranch.  "I think it's time we closed in
on 'em, boys!" he added sharply.  "Up to now we didn't have any direct
evidence.  But if Nort and Dick saw some of our cattle driven into
their camp, and held there, that's proof enough of what they are."

"That's what I say!" cried Bud.  "Let's get after the rustlers, Del
Pinzo and the rest!  I always did suspect that slick Greaser, and now
we've got the goods on him.  Shouldn't wonder but what that Double Z
outfit was mixed up in this, too."

"Don't go jumping too fast," counseled his father.  "Zip Foster
wouldn't like it!"

"Oh--er--well, you'll see if I'm not right!" said Bud, somewhat
confused.

It was planned, in the light of what Nort and Bud had seen and heard,
to close in and raid the mysterious camp of the professors' the next
day.  This talk had taken place during the night and early morning
hours, following the meeting of the refugees with the rescue party.

"Maybe we ought to close in on 'em this morning," suggested Bud, as the
conference broke up, when the first streaks of dawn were coming in the
ranch house windows.

"No," decided his father.  "Nort and Dick want to get a little sleep,
and we want them with us when we close in.  Then, too, I want to
circulate the word around a bit, and have some deputies from the
sheriff's office on hand to see that everything is done regular.  Of
course I'd have a right to go in there, right off the reel, and take my
cattle.  But I'd rather do it regular."

So it was planned.  Nort and Dick, indeed, were glad to get some sleep
and rest, for they had had a hard time during the last two days.  But
they were hardy, healthy lads, and their life almost continually in the
open since coming to Diamond X ranch had made them able to endure
hardships they could not, otherwise, have stood.  So, after a short
rest and sleep, they were as eager as Bud and the cowboys to start on a
raid.

Meanwhile Mr. Merkel had not been idle.  He had sent word of what had
happened to several adjoining ranches, being careful, however, not to
let news of what was afoot trickle through to Hank Fisher, owner of the
Double Z.  As a matter of fact, while there was no evidence to directly
connect Hank with the mysterious operations at the professors' camp,
this man was believed to have been involved in more than one cattle
rustling operation.

It was hinted that he branded more mavericks than were rightfully his,
and on several occasions cattle with "blurred brands" had been found on
his ranch.  But he always managed to explain matters, though his
association with Del Pinzo, who gave it out that he was officially
attached to Double Z, did not raise the value of Hank Fisher's
reputation.  So it was thought best not to include him or his cowboys
in the raid.

But others from adjoining' ranches assembled at Diamond X on the
morning selected for the start, and by this time saddles and bridles
had been provided for Blaze and Blackie, and Nort and Dick sported new
guns in their holsters.

"Now do be careful, won't you?" pleaded Mrs. Merkel, as the cavalcade
started off, with none of the usual whooping and yelling that marked
many cowboy affairs.  This was thought too serious to be decorated with
horse play.

"We'll be careful," promised her husband.  "But I don't imagine
there'll be any serious trouble.  We'll surround the place and if those
fellows have any sense they'll give up and take what's coming to them."

"Look out for the boys!" she said in a lower voice, nodding toward her
own son, and Nort and Dick.

"I will," promised Mr. Merkel.  "But from what I've seen," he added,
with a twinkle in his eyes, "they're middlin' well able to look after
themselves.  Paregoric for that Greaser!  That's pretty good!" and he
chuckled as he rode off with the others.

The plans had been carefully made and each cowboy knew what he was to
do.  The idea was to surround the camp, if possible without arousing
the suspicions of the inmates, and then make a sudden rush on it from
all sides.  This would be comparatively easy to do, since the camp was
in the valley, with hills all around it.  It was simple enough to
follow the trail to the point where Nort and Dick had been met with as
they were escaping.  And when this point was reached, it was left to
the two young ranchers themselves to say which way to go, since the
camp was not in sight, nor were there any known trails leading to it.

"Well, as near as I can tell this is the way we came," said Nort, after
studying over the matter a bit, and consulting with Dick.

"All right," decided Mr. Merkel.  "You lead a party that way, and I'll
take Dick, and bear off more to the south.  It may be you haven't just
hit it, and this will give us two shots at it.  We'll keep within sight
of one another as long as we can, and the first one who sights the
right trail, leading in, will build a fire and send up smoke puffs."

This much settled, two parties rode off, Nort leading one and Dick the
other.

They were closing in on the mysterious camp.



CHAPTER XXIV

THE FIGHT

The boy ranchers, meaning this time Nort and Dick, as distinguished
from Bud, felt that they were on their mettle--that they were being put
to a severe test.  They had ridden out from the mysterious camp of the
professors, and now they were to ride back to it, leading the raiding
party.  True, they had come out at night, and under the stress of
excitement, so that it was not easy to determine the trail back.

But as the boys rode alone, each at the head of a cavalcade that was
beginning to diverge, they felt the full measure of responsibility.
One of them must make good--must pick up the obscure trail leading to
the rendezvous of the cattle rustlers.

It was Dick who proved the lucky one this time.  The party led by Nort
was out of sight among the many hills and swales, when Dick, riding
past a water hole, stopped suddenly.

"The trail goes in that way," he said.  "I'm sure of it.  Blackie
stopped here when we were riding out, to get a drink."

"Are you sure he stopped here?" asked Babe, who was with Dick's party.

"Positive!  He stopped in such a hurry that I slid off and fell, and
this excited him so I had quite a job holding him."

In an instant one of the cowboys was out of his saddle and looking
carefully at the ground.

"The kid's right!" he exclaimed.  "There's been some sort of a fracas
here."

In that country, where rains were infrequent, and travel light, marks
remained for a long time on the dry ground.

"I'm sure it was here," declared Dick, "and we came out that way."  He
pointed toward some distant hills.

"Well, we'll take a chance on it," said Babe.  "Light a fire, fellows."

In a few minutes a column of smoke was ascending, and two of the
cowboys, holding a blanket over it, moved the cloth to one side at
intervals, so that puffs of the dark vapor arose and floated upward.

"That'll call 'em," observed Babe, who sat on his horse directing
operations, at the same time scanning the horizon for answering signals
from Nort's party.

"Won't the rustlers see these and skip out?" asked Dick, as the smoke
puffs went up thick and fast.

"Don't believe so," spoke Babe.  "If they do see 'em they'll only think
they're camp fires, or round-up blazes."

"We'll do the rounding-up," grimly commented Snake Purdee.  "But of
course these fellows may be on the lookout.  Can't hardly expect much
else after they come to know that their prisoners have skipped, and the
Greaser has gone back to his baby days, eating paregoric!  Oh, my
spurs!  That was slick!"

"There they are!" suddenly cried Dick, as he descried other smoke
signals going up, about three miles away.  And in a short time there
rode up to the waiting ones the members of the other party.

"Dick says this is the trail in," remarked Babe, detailing our hero's
reasons for his statement.

"Yes, he's right," assented Nort.  "We did come this way."

"All right then!  Go to it, boys!" commanded Mr. Merkel, and the party
rode off.

As they advanced, the configuration of the ground became more and more
familiar to the two boys.  They passed places which they had ridden
over in approaching the half-hidden valley, before they fairly stumbled
on it and were captured.

"I reckon we're getting warm," decided Mr. Merkel, after several hours
of cautious riding.  "Some of you fellows better take it on foot for
half a mile or so, and see what you can locate.  We'll wait for you
here."

Two cowboys, leaving their horses rather reluctantly, formed an advance
scouting party, and the others waited down in a little swale.  In less
than half an hour the two scouts had returned, and their manner showed
suppressed excitement.

"We located 'em," said one.  "They're in the next valley.'

"What are they doing?" asked Bud.

"We didn't stop to see that," was the answer.  "As soon as we saw the
white tents we came back."

"All right," said Mr. Merkel grimly, "now we've got 'em!  Spread out,
boys, and don't do any shooting unless it's absolutely necessary.  We
just want to capture the rascals.  But be sure your guns are in working
order."

Most of the cowboys knew this without looking, but Bud, Nort and Dick
made a careful inspection of their weapons.

Proceeding cautiously, the cavalcade approached.  Some had been sent on
in advance, to circle about and approach the valley from the far side,
thus enabling it to be surrounded.

Two shots, fired at a brief interval, was to be a signal from the
advance party, led by Slim, that they were in place, and ready to
attack.

"There!  One shot!" suddenly cried Bud, as a sharp report cut the air.

It was followed, almost immediately, by another.

"Come on, boys!" cried Mr. Merkel, and there was a general leaping to
saddles.  Bud and his cousins were not a bit behind the cowboys and a
little later, amid shouts, the two parties rode at a fast clip down the
slopes toward the mysterious camp.

"Look!  There are your cattle!" cried Nort to Mr. Merkel, as several
steers were seen, standing in a bunch near some queer piece of
apparatus that looked like a derrick.

"That's right!" shouted the cattleman, for he had caught sight of the
animals bearing the Diamond X brand.  "But what in the name of sour
dough biscuits are they doing?" he asked.  "If these are rustlers
they're the queerest ones I ever saw!"

"Well, they're rustlers all right!" yelled several of the cowboys.
"Come on, fellows!  Let's get at 'em!"

"Right you are, Buddy!" rang out savage, exultant yells on all sides.
The cowboys wished for nothing better than to come to hand grips with
lawless men who stole the fruit of others' labor.  "Treat 'em rough!"

"Sit tight and ride hard!" called Bud to Nort and Dick.  "There's going
to be some hot work!" and he spoke to his pony, which leaped forward as
if he, too, wanted to get into the fight.

"Will we need our guns?" asked Dick.

"Better have 'em handy!" advised Nort, as his hand went to the leather
holster at his hip.

"Look at 'em!" shouted Bud.  "They're going to fight us all right!"

Indeed, it did appear that the party in the camp established by the
professors, taken by surprise as they were, meant to resist to the
utmost.  Men could be seen running back to the tents, whence some
reappeared with guns or big .45s.  Others, including the two professors
themselves, remained at the scene where some of the Diamond X cattle
were attached by ropes to the apparatus that looked like the derrick.

"Are they trying to brand your cattle over again, Bud?" asked Dick as
he and his cousin rode alongside of the young rancher.

"I don't know," was the answer.  "If they are, they're going about it
in a new way.  I wonder what they are up to, anyhow?"

Well might he ask that, for as the raiding party made its rush into the
valley several men near the professors, were urging forward the steers
that were harnessed, or yoked together in some manner, to cause them to
act as a lifting force.  By means of ropes rigged over the derrick-like
structure, something heavy was being hoisted from a great hole in the
ground.

The steers, unused to this work, for which gentle oxen might have been
admirably fitted, were acting wildly, and the Greasers, and other
campers, were having their hands full.  This with the shouts of the
attacking party, the thud of the feet of many galloping horses and the
firing of shots into the air by the wildly enthusiastic cowboys from
Diamond X, made the place one of great confusion.

"Rout 'em out, boys!"

"Haze 'em into the brook!"

"Cut out our cattle!"

"Rope 'em an' hog-tie 'em!"

These were only a few of the many directions that were yelled at the
tops of voices as the boy ranchers and their friends swept onward down
the valley, converging on the band of men they believed to be cattle
rustlers, if not something worse.

"Hands up, there!"

"Drop those guns!"

These commands came sternly from Mr. Merkel, Babe and Slim, while Dick
and Nort, riding beside Bud, felt a wild thrill as they realized that
they were to have a part in this strenuous fight.  To possible danger
they gave not a thought.

But if the attacking party thought everything was to be easy, it was
not long before this idea vanished.  After the first surprise, the
Greasers, and other rough characters in the camp of the professors,
regained their nerve, and prepared to fight.  There were shouts in
hissing Spanish, and Del Pinzo was observed to be rallying his
followers.

Bud and his cousins had a glimpse of this wily Mexican leaping on his
horse, and, surrounded by a number of evil-looking men, riding straight
for the invaders.

"They're coming!" cried Nort.

"I see 'em!" muttered Dick.

"Keep together!" advised Bud in a wild cry.  "Stay with me, and we'll
ride right through 'em!"

Several weapons popped, and two or three saddles were emptied, one on
the side of the Diamond X forces.  Nort and Dick heard bullets
whistling in the air over their heads, and though they may have ducked,
instinctively, they did not after the first two or three of these
nerve-racking experiences.

"Come on!  Come on!" yelled Bud to his cousins, as they saw Del Pinzo
and his gang of Greasers spurring toward them.

Nort and Dick touched their horses lightly, and the spirited ponies
sprang forward.  Dick had a glimpse of the two professors, and one or
two other men, standing by the derrick structure as though dazed at the
sudden turn in affairs.  Some of the helpers were endeavoring to quiet
the harnessed cattle.

"Ride 'em down, boys!  Ride 'em down!" yelled Mr. Merkel.

"You said it!" shouted Slim Degnan, and Babe added his voice to the
din, the while starting one of the verses of his cowboys' song.

"Crack!"

That was a gun going off close to the ear of Dick.  He leaned over
slightly in his saddle, fearing he had been hit.  But in another
instant he realized that Bud had fired, with a pistol held so close to
the eastern lad's ear as nearly to deafen him.

"Well, I got him, anyhow!" yelled Bud, and Dick saw a man who had been
riding at Del Pinzo's side drop his gun and clasp his right hand in his
left.  "That's what I wanted to do--disarm him.  No need to shoot to
kill!" Bud went on.

Dick saw a Mexican riding straight at him, and the boy endeavored to
bring his weapon to bear as Bud had done.  But just as the boy rancher
was going to pull the trigger something else happened.  He felt himself
flying over the head of his pony, and the next moment came heavily to
the ground, while blackness closed his eyes.  Dick was out of the fight.

The battle between the cowboys and the Greasers now waged hotly.  Guns
cracked on both sides and more than one saddle was emptied.  This
before the two forces actually came together.  And come together they
did, with the thud of horses and men meeting, as when two rival
football elevens clash on the gridiron.  Only this was more desperate.

Nort had a glimpse of Dick being unhorsed and left behind in a silent,
huddled heap on the ground.  A wave of sorrow, and then a wild feeling
of revenge, swept through Nort's heart.  He sent his pony ahead with a
rush, endeavoring to wheel him to attack the man at whom Dick had been
riding when unseated.

"Look out!" Bud yelled.

Nort turned in time to see Del Pinzo himself bearing down on him
astride of a powerful black horse.  The Greaser was yelling and waving
his gun, from the muzzle of which smoke floated.

"I'll get him!" yelled Nort, savagely.  He swerved his own weapon,
bringing it to bear on the evilly smiling Mexican, and Nort's own face
lit up in a grim smile, for he thought to revenge Dick.

But the next instant he felt a burning, stinging pain across his
forehead and a second later his eyes saw nothing, while he was
conscious that they were filled with blood that streamed from his wound.

"I'm shot!" was the thought that flashed through Nort's mind.

He endeavored to pull up his pony, conscious that he was losing control
over the animal.  He wanted his eyes to see where he was heading.

By a great effort of will Nort caught up his gun in his bridle hand,
and with his right wiped away as much of the blood as he could from his
eyes.  A great emotion of thankfulness passed over him as he found that
he could still see, though dimly.

He caught sight of Del Pinzo still spurring toward him, but the next
moment a curious change took place.

"Let me have him!" Nort heard Bud yell, seemingly from a great
distance, though, in reality from a position directly behind him.  Then
as his vision dimmed again, Nort caught a fleeting sight of a lasso
whirling and writhing through the air toward the Greaser.

Del Pinzo tried in vain to dodge it, but his horse was traveling too
fast.  Then, as darkness again closed down on poor Nort he had a vision
of the Greaser, covered with blood, shouting and wildly jerking his
arms and legs, being pulled from the saddle to the ground, his gun
going off harmlessly as he was yanked along.

"Bud got him!" was the thought that flashed through Nort's mind, and
then all became black, and he felt some one helping him down out of his
saddle.

"Where's Dick?  I'm not much hurt!" Nort heard himself murmuring,
though, to tell the truth, he did not know for certain whether he was
mortally wounded or not.  "Look after Dick!  Are they beating us?" he
asked, though he could not see to whom he was talking.

"Dick's all right," answered a voice that Nort recognized as that of
Babe.  "It's you we're worried about."

"Nothing much the matter with me," spoke Nort, as his hand again went
to his head.  Then he found that a bullet had creased its way across
his forehead, cutting a long gash, but making a wound that was only
superficial, though it bled profusely.

"Are we getting licked?" demanded Nort anxiously, as more shots
resounded in the valley, and he could hear the yells of cowboys, the
clashing of bodies one against the other and the lowing of the cattle.

"No, we've got 'em on the run!" exulted Babe.  "Come on, till I lead
you to water, and you can wash off that blood.  You look bad that way,
even if you aren't hurt much!"

"Are you sure Dick's all right?" Nort asked.

"Sure!  His horse stumbled and threw him.  He's limping over this way
now."

"Good!" murmured Nort, and his heart felt better.

But the fighting was not over yet.  Driven partly from the valley at
the first rush of the boy ranchers and their friends from Diamond X,
the Greasers and Mexican cowboys returned with a rush.  This took place
when Nort was trying to rid himself of some of the blood that had
flowed freely from the gash on his head.

"There goes Yellin' Kid!" cried Babe, as he darted away from Nort's
side.

"Killed?" asked the boy, who could not see just then, as some water got
in his eyes.

"Killed?  Shucks, no!" yelled Babe exultantly.  "He rode into one
Greaser and knocked him seven ways from Sunday, and roped another,
yankin' him out of the saddle!  Oh, boy!" and with a yell Babe ran to
join in the fray.

Nort cleared his face of blood and water long enough to see Snake
Purdee keel over out of his saddle as a bullet struck him, though it
afterward developed that the cowboy was not badly hurt.

Slim was slightly wounded, and Mr. Merkel had a narrow escape.  But
though the Diamond X bunch took hard knocks they gave harder ones.  Nor
did the professors escape scathless, for Mr. Wright was grazed by a
spent bullet, and his helper was horned by one of the wild steers.

"There they go!  We've made 'em run for cover!" shrilly cried Yellin'
Kid as he spurred after the last of the lawless men.  "Yip!  Yippy!
There they go!"

And go the rascals did--that is, those who were not wounded or captured.



CHAPTER XXV

THE TRICERATOPS

Diamond X cowboys were in complete possession of the mysterious camp of
the two professors.  The fight had been won by the Merkel forces, and
at no very great sacrifices on their part.  One or two of the cowboys
had been wounded, but not seriously, though two horses had been killed,
and also one steer.  On the other hand, the enemy, as represented by
the Greasers and some cowboys who were in the pay of the two
professors, were in need of hospital treatment in several cases; one
serious.  But they had brought the trouble on themselves by their
lawless acts.

Babe helped Nort tie a bandage around the bullet-cut on his forehead,
and then, with his eyes cleared of the blood, Nort was able to see that
victory had come to Diamond X.

Bud's quick act, in lassoing Del Pinzo, just as the latter was about to
ride down Nort, had been one of the turning points in the fight.  When
the Greasers saw their leader pulled from his saddle they turned and
would have fled, but for the cowboys who surrounded them, compelling
them to surrender with the grim words:

"Hands up!"

Nort saw Del Pinzo, and several of the others, being roped and tied on
ponies, and then his attention was attracted to Dick, who came limping
up with a rueful face.

"Hurt?" asked Nort of his brother.

"No, but wasn't it rotten that my horse had to stumble just as I was
going to pot one of 'em?"

"Yes, but _you_ might have been potted instead!  We're well out of it,
I think."

"They got you, though!" said Dick, a bit anxiously.

"Only a scratch," Nort answered, though his whole face was beginning to
feel stiff from the effects of the bullet wound.

"Well, we seem to have made a clean sweep," remarked Mr. Merkel as he
rode up, with Bud and some of the cowboys, to where Nort and Dick
stood.  "You boys all right?" he asked quickly.

"Sure!" exclaimed Nort.  "But have you found out what it's all about?"

"We're going to," said Bud's father, grimly.  "The two professors, as
they call themselves, didn't take any part in the fight.  They're over
near that hole in the ground, with some of my steers yoked up to that
derrick.  I'm going to find out what it means.  Keep those fellows well
tied, boys!" he commanded his cowboys who had charge of Del Pinzo and
his followers.

"Don't worry," drawled Babe, as he rolled a cigarette.  "We've hog-tied
'em!"

Indeed, it did seem impossible for Del Pinzo or any of the Greasers to
get loose, but their bonds were looked to again, while some of the
cowboys busied themselves with the wounded.  Then Mr. Merkel, followed
by his foreman and the boy ranchers, approached the little knoll on
which stood the two professors and the uneasy cattle.  The animals had
been prevented from stampeding during the fight because of the ropes
that bound them to the derrick.

Riding up to the scientists, who seemed dazed by what had taken place,
Mr. Merkel sternly demanded:

"What does this mean?"

He pointed to the harnessed cattle--his own Diamond X steers, which
were now more quiet.

"I might ask you the same," retorted Professor Wright, and there was
considerable excitement in his voice and manner.  "By what authority do
you ride into our camp, attacking our men, and interfering with our
work which we have permission from the United States government to
carry out?"

"I don't know anything about _that_," said Mr. Merkel, "but I do know
that you have some of my cattle, and even the permission of the
government doesn't cover the rustling of animals from the Diamond X
ranch."

"_Cattle rustling?_" murmured Professor Blair.

"Your cattle?" added Professor Wright, falteringly.

"Yes!" was the snapped-out answer.  "Those are my steers you have
hitched to that derrick.

"Oh--those!" exclaimed Professor Blair, with an air of relief.  "We
merely borrowed them.  They will be returned to you soon."

"But what are you after, anyhow?" burst out Bud, unable longer to
restrain his curiosity.  "What are you pulling out of that hole?"

The two professors turned toward it as the boy rancher pointed, and
Nort and Dick, forgetting the pain of their wounds and bruises,
followed their gaze to the excavation.

"We are pulling out ten million years," answered Professor Wright,
slowly, in rather solemn tones.  "Ten million years!  We are pulling
out a creature that walked the earth ten million years ago!"

There was a gasp from the listening cowboys, and Babe murmured:

"His brain sure is cracked!"

"Ten million years!" murmured Mr. Merkel.  "But what has that to do
with rustling Diamond X cattle?"

Before anyone could answer, there was some movement at the far end of
the valley camp, and into it came rushing several more steers bearing
the Merkel brand.  They were being driven by several Mexican Greasers,
who seemed very much surprised at the scene that met their gaze.  In
vain did Del Pinzo attempt to signal them to retreat.

It was too late.  On they came, and with yells the Diamond X cowboys
rushed for these latest arrivals.

"More rustling!" cried Bud.  "We've caught 'em right at their game!"

"Go get 'em, boys!" commanded his father.

And in a few minutes, after the exchange of a few shots, the other
Mexicans were captured, with the exception of one or two at the rear of
the bunch of steers.  They managed to ride off in the confusion.

"Oh, boy!" murmured Bud, as he threw his hat up in the air.  "This is
great!  Even Zip Foster couldn't beat this!"

"He'll not get the chance, I guess!" murmured Nort, laughing.

"Looks like we'd corraled the whole bunch," said Slim.  "Now let's take
a look at this ten million year old creature the professors seem to
have bagged."

The prisoners were now secured and the boy ranchers, with Bud's father
and his cowboys, drew near the great hole in the ground--the hole over
which leaned an improvised derrick.  From this derrick ran a long rope,
rigged over pulleys, and it was to the pulling end of this cable that
the Diamond X steers were hitched.  The lifting end of the rope
extended down into the excavation.

"Just what sort of game is going on here?" demanded Mr. Merkel, and But
knew when his father spoke in this tone that there was likely to be
trouble for some one.  "What does it all mean?"

"The explanation is a long one," began Professor Wright, "but----"

"It doesn't take very long to size up that you've been rustling our
cattle!" said Slim, sharply.

"Rustling!" murmured the professor.  "Rustling?  Oh, I see, a western
term for borrowing."

"_Borrowing_!  Oh, Zip Foster!" murmured Bud, but his father motioned
for him to remain quiet.

But Professor Wright had caught Bud's remark, and it seemed to give a
new light to the scientist.  He stepped forward, having seen to it that
the rope, by which something, "ten million years old," was being
hoisted from the earth, was made fast.  The steers, which had been
straining to lift the weight, were now comparatively quiet, and the
second bunch, driven in by Del Pinzo's men, were cropping grass near
the stream.

"There seems to have been some mistake," said Professor Wright.  "We
intended to pay you for the use of your cattle, Mr. Merkel, as I
understand your name to be.  And, now that we have almost accomplished
our search, we shall have no further need of your beasts.  I don't know
why my helper sent after more, for those we have are amply able to lift
out the fossils.  We shall be through with your animals in a few hours,
and will then pay anything in reason for their borrowed use."

A light seemed also to break over Bud's father, and the boy ranchers
looked at one another with a new understanding.

"Do you mean to say," began the owner of the Diamond X ranch, "that you
only wanted to use my cattle as you might use oxen--as draft animals?"

"Of course," said Professor Blair.  "That is all we wanted them for.
Did you think we intended to _keep_ them?"

"Well--er--you'll excuse me saying so, but we certainly _did_!"
declared Bud's father.  "Rustling, we call it here, and it means
driving off another man's branded stock.  It isn't all clear to me yet.
What are you after, anyhow?  What's down in that hole, and what is it
that is ten million years old?"

"A Triceratops," answered Professor Wright.  "We have been on the track
of one for a long time, and now we have found it.  Almost the only
complete remains of the most perfect Triceratops it has ever been the
fortune of anyone to discover!  If you will only have a little
patience, and grant us the use of your steers a short time longer,
until we hoist from its ancient bed the remains, you may soon look upon
one of nature's wonders--a Triceratops!"

"Triceratops!" murmured Babe Milton.  "Is that one of them slidin'
_horns_ you blow your lungs out on?"

"You're thinkin' of a trombone," said Snake Purdee, laughing.

"Or a saxophone," said Bud.

"No," said Dick, "I remember now.  A Triceratops is one of the ancient
Dinosaurs, or lizard animals, that roamed the earth millions of years
ago.  We studied a little about them in the Academy."

"You are right, young man, a Triceratops is one of the most wonderful
of Dinosaurs," said Professor Wright.  "For many years I have been
seeking a perfect specimen, and now I have found it.  In a little while
you may gaze upon its skeleton remains, or at least most of them.  Have
I your permission to continue the use of your cattle as a hoisting
medium?" he asked Mr. Merkel.

"Shucks!  Yes!" exclaimed the ranchman.  "I don't know what you're
driving at, except that it's something scientific, but you're more than
welcome, and I'm sorry there was all this fuss over it.  If we had only
known what you were after we could have helped."

"I did not dare let the object of my expedition become known, until I
was sure of success," said Professor Wright.  "A rival college has sent
some of its scientists into this same field, and only by strategy have
we been able to elude them and reach our wonderful success."

"Oh, so that's what all the secret was about!" exclaimed the ranchman.
"Well, was he in the secret, too?" he asked, pointing to the bound and
scowling Del Pinzo.

"He knew we were after something of this sort; yes," answered the
scientist, "but he has no comprehension, of course, of what a
Triceratops is.  I believe he told his Mexican and Indian helpers, who
assisted us from time to time, that we were after _gold_."

"Oh, so that's how that rumor got abroad," murmured Mr. Merkel.

"Did you send Del Pinzo's men off to get more of our cattle just now?"
asked Slim, pointing to the second batch of Diamond X steers.

"No, and we never sent him, or them, to any special place to get
animals to use on our pulley ropes," said Professor Wright.  "We left
that to him, merely stipulating that he was to hire animals, and we
would pay for their use."

"Then I see his game!" cried the foreman of the ranch.  "He took this
chance to rustle some cattle on his own account, thinking you wouldn't
know the difference, and that you'd be blamed for it.  You slick
Greaser!" he cried, shaking his fist at Del Pinzo.  "This makes it all
clear, now!"

"We certainly never intended to do more than hire a few of your
powerful steers, to use as oxen," said Professor Wright.  "But I can
see, now, that we should have made this clear from the first, and not
have left it to one who, evidently, does not bear a good reputation
with you."

"You got off an earfull that time," commented Babe Milton, dryly.

"But why were my two nephews held as prisoners in your camp?" asked Mr.
Merkel.  "There doesn't seem to have been any excuse for that."

"Only our zeal to avoid discovery, and to keep our plans secret from a
rival college expedition," said Professor Wright.  "For this I must
apologize to the boys.  They stumbled in on our camp just when we had
located the bones of the Triceratops, and we feared they had come from
our rivals.  I offered them all the freedom possible, if they would
give me their parole, but they saw fit not to, and I thought the end
justified the means.

"I see, now, that I made a mistake in trying to keep the boys
prisoners, though it would have been only for a short time.  But they
got away."

"They sure did--with _paregoric_!" chuckled Bud.

"Well, no great harm was done," said Professor Wright.  "And now that
explanations have been made, and the guilty caught," and he looked at
Del Pinzo, "we will proceed to lift out the Triceratops."

"Ten million years old!" murmured Slim.  "Whew!"

"And perhaps older," said Professor Blair.

"Get ready, men!" he called to those in charge of the harnessed steers.

Then began a strange scene.  The powerful animals from Diamond X ranch,
acting for the time being as beasts of burden, leaned forward in the
improvised yokes.  There was the creaking of pulleys, the straining of
ropes and the squeak of wood under pressure.

Then from the great hole that had been dug, and blasted, in the earth,
there arose a mass of bones, imbedded in rock--part of the skeleton of
an ancient and prehistoric Triceratops.

This fragment of an animal--one of the Dinosaurs that roamed the
western part of America from ten to twenty-five million years
ago--before the Rocky Mountains were even formed--this fragment gave
little idea of the weird beast itself.

I have not time, or space, to tell you more about it than can be
sketched in a few words.  But those of you who have seen the
restoration of these monsters, in museums, will bear me out when I say
that they must have been among the wonders of the ancient world.

The Triceratops resembled a rhinoceros as much as anything else, but
was much larger.  He had comparatively short legs, a short heavy tail
and, doubtless, a very thick skin.

His skull was his most remarkable feature.  On top were three horns,
the one directly over the end of his snout being short, the middle one
long and the rear slightly shorter.  Back of the last horn extended a
huge, bony plate, not unlike the back shield on the helmet of a
fireman, and over each eye was another protective plate of bone,
doubtless intended, as was the rear one, to guard vital organs.

The Triceratops was the largest animal of his kind, more than
twenty-five feet long, and while he may not have matched the
Brontosaurus, or Thunder Lizard, which was from forty to sixty feet
long, from ten to fourteen feet high, with thigh bones measuring six
feet in length (the largest single bones known to science)--while, I
say, the Triceratops may not have been a match for the Thunder Lizard,
he was a Dinosaur to be reckoned with.

And as the remains of this prehistoric monster, that had lived, walked,
eaten and fought on earth from ten to twenty-five million years ago,
rose out of the pit, even the workaday cowboys could not repress a
cheer.

"That's the idea, boys!" cried Professor Wright, who was quite a
different person, now that his work was crowned with success.  "I feel
like cheering also!  This is the culmination of my life's ambition, and
that of my helper, Professor Blair!"

When the wounded had been cared for and the prisoners had been sent to
the nearest jail, the remains of the skeleton of the Triceratops, part
of the bones imbedded in rock, were carefully hoisted out and laid to
one side.  When I tell you that the skull, alone, of one of these
monsters, imbedded in rock, weighed, when boxed for shipment to a
museum, over three tons, you may form some idea of the magnitude of
this sort of relic collecting, and understand why many powerful steers
were needed, with tackle, to raise specimens out of a deep pit.

That the boy ranchers were intensely interested in the remaining work
of restoring to science the lost Triceratops, goes without saying.
When it was made plain that the two professors and their men were not
cattle rustlers, Mr. Merkel gave them every assistance in his power,
assigning some of his cowboys to help with the labor of excavating the
remaining bones, not all of which could be found.

For it is rare that a complete skeleton of these monster Dinosaurs is
recovered.  While our western states, in certain places, are rich in
fossil remains, there is very seldom a complete skeleton unearthed.  At
best there are but a few bones, or the impressions of bones, in the
sandstone rocks or shale.  But from these bones, from the impressions
of those that have been eaten by time, and by their knowledge of what
sort of anatomy was needed to keep these wonderful creatures on earth,
it is possible for scientists to almost completely and perfectly
restore them, in some medium like papier-maché.

"We shall be the envy of all our colleagues!" declared Professor
Wright, as the work progressed from day to day, the boy ranchers
becoming eager helpers.  Professor Wright and Professor Blair labored
with their men, and as hard.

There was one exception to this--Silas Thorp.  He of the sour face and
hangdog manner, it was discovered, had acted with Del Pinzo in stealing
cattle, intending to sell them for their own profit, after they had
"borrowed" the animals from Diamond X ranch, letting the two professors
think the steers had legitimately been "hired."

Silas made his escape during the fight, but Del Pinzo and most of his
men were captured.  Not all of the professors' employees were
confederates of the Greasers, Del Pinzo and Silas Thorp.  Some were as
ignorant as the scientists themselves that anything wrong was going on.
These men were soon freed, and helped in the work of excavating the
Triceratops.

There really were some cattle rustlers engaged in operations around
Diamond Z ranch when Nort and Dick happened to come on their visit.
This fact was discovered later when some of the cattlemen organized a
posse, and after a fight, in which several on both sides were slain,
arrested a notorious gang.

It was Del Pinzo who had tried to rope Dick that night, hoping, it was
surmised, that in the confusion, he might be able to steal some steers.

But the mission of the professor, that same night, was perfectly
legitimate.  He had heard that some rival scientists were "on his
trail," and he rode off alone to see if this might be true.  He found
nothing, however, but his suspicions were ever on the alert.  As a
matter of fact he learned, later, that his rivals had never been near
him.  But he took all precautions, some needless, as it afterward
developed.

That some of the Double Z outfit, and perhaps even the owner of that
ranch, Hank Fisher himself, were involved in cattle rustling, was
suspected, but not proved--at least for some time.

With the discovery that the professors were really scientists, and not
cattle rustlers, all suspicion of them vanished.  They had come west to
hunt for the fossil relics and bones of the Triceratops.  The reason
they headed for Diamond X ranch was because, some time previous,
another scientist, connected with the same college to which Professor
Wright and Professor Blair were attached, had been given, by a Mexican
guide, a bone from that strange monster--the Triceratops.

By dint of much questioning this professor learned that the bone had
been found on land near Diamond X ranch.  Professors Blair and Wright
secured government permission to prospect on unclaimed land, and thus
began a search for the complete skeleton, a search that ended so
dramatically.

The two professors had hired an outfit, and planned to spend the entire
summer looking for the remains of the prehistoric monster Dinosaur.
Their actions were misunderstood by some of the Mexicans and Indians
they hired, these ignorant men thinking gold was the object of the
search.  Hence the attack on the camp at the time Bud and his friends
warded it off.

On the occasion when Ridin' Kid rode his horse against the tent, which
seemed to conceal something valuable, there was, inside the canvas
shelter, some bones that, later, proved to be part of the very skeleton
which Bud, Nort and Dick helped to raise from its ten-million-year-old
bed.  The professors were afraid there would be a premature discovery
of what, to them, were valuable relics, so guarded the tent jealously.

But eventually the bones and fossils were hoisted out of the hole,
which had to be blasted larger to enable this work to go on, and the
scientists departed for the East and their colleges, parting on the
best of terms with the Diamond X outfit.

"Saddle up, boys!" called Mr. Merkel to Bud, Nort and Dick one day,
about a month after the fight in the valley camp.

"What for--have we got to quiet a stampede?" asked Dick, who had
recovered from his injuries, as had Nort.

"No, we've got to ride in to town, to give evidence against Del Pinzo
and his gang," answered Bud's father.  "Their trial comes off to-day.
They've been in jail ever since we roped 'em!"

"More excitement!" yelled Bud as he raced for the corral to saddle his
pony, an example followed by Nort and Dick.

The boy ranchers, with some of the older men, rode off over the
prairies to the distant seat of the local government, where the trial
of the cattle rustlers was to be held.

And, as they rode into the small town, a typical western ranch
settlement, they became aware of something exciting that was going on.

Through the main street rode a number of cowboys, with drawn guns in
their hands.  Several of these horsemen knew the Diamond X outfit, and
when one man clattered past on his horse Mr. Merkel cried:

"What's up?"

"Jail delivery!" was the answer.  "Those cattle rustlers broke out just
now!  We're after 'em!  Come on!"

"Not Del Pinzo and his gang!" cried Bud.

"You said it!" shouted the man--a deputy sheriff.  "A lot of Greasers
rode in just now, started shootin' up promiscus like, and in the
excitement Del Pinzo and his crowd managed to get out of the calaboose!
We got to get a new one, I reckon!  But come on!  We may land 'em yet!"

"Oh, Zip Foster!" yelled Bud, as he urged his horse forward.

"More exciting fun!" commented Nort.  "Got your gun, Dick?"

"Sure!" was the answer.

Through the main street of the town rode the boy ranchers, following
the trail of the posse of officers and men who were trailing the
escaped prisoners.

As they turned into a cross thoroughfare the sound of rapid firing came
to the ears of Bud and his cousins.

"Watch your step!" counseled Mr. Merkel.  "Wait a minute!"

But the boys did not wait.  On they rushed, only to come into action at
the tail end of the fight.  Some cowboys and members of the sheriff's
hastily organized posse were shooting at some Greasers who had turned
to make a stand.  But the Mexicans saw that they were outnumbered, and
fled off in disorder, firing and being fired at.

However, there were no casualties, and when one of the deputies
explained that this "bunch" was not Del Pinzo and the escaping men, but
some others, Bud and his friends rode back.

"They tried to draw us off the trail of that slick Greaser," explained
one of the deputies.

"Can't we join the posse?" asked Nort of Mr. Merkel.

The ranchman shook his head.

"There's enough after 'em without you," he said.  "And as long as Del
Pinzo has taken matters into his own hands, and succeeded in postponing
his trial, we might as well get back to Diamond X."

Bud, Nort and Dick rather regretted this, but when they learned, later,
that the sheriff and his men rode hard all night after the prisoners,
only to lose them among the hills near the Mexican border, our heroes
decided it was just as well they had not gone.

"So Del Pinzo got away after all, did he?" asked Babe, when the boy
ranchers rode back to put their ponies in the corral.  "That Greaser
sure is a bad one!  He'll make trouble yet!"

And Del Pinzo did.  He was of a vindictive nature, and he associated
much of his trouble with Diamond X ranch.  So, naturally, he watched
his chance to be revenged on those connected with it, including Nort
and Dick.

But for the details of this I must refer you to the succeeding volume
of this series.

"Well, fellows, are you satisfied with what you saw and what you did,
for a start?" asked Bud of his cousins, two or three days after the
escape of Del Pinzo.

"We sure have had some summer!" exclaimed Nort.

"Never one like it!" agreed Dick.  "It's a shame to have to go back to
school!"

"Well, you wouldn't like it out here in winter as much as you have this
summer," spoke Bud.  "It's pretty fierce, sometimes.  But can't you
come out next year?"

"You said it!" cried Nort.  "From now on we're going to be ranchers in
the summer, and students in the winter.  And the summer can't come any
too soon for me!"

"Well, just at present, grub can't come any too soon for me!" laughed
Bud, as he urged his pony onward.  The boys had been out on a last
ride, mending a broken fence.  For, by this time, Nort and Bud were
almost as expert cowboys as was their western cousin.

"I made a pie for you!" called Nell, Bud's pretty sister, as they rode
up to the corral, and turned their horses in.  "I hope you'll like it!"

"Couldn't help it!" said Nort, gallantly.  "Pie!  Yum!  Yum!  Where
have I heard that word before?"

"It does seem to savor of happy days," remarked Dick.

"Oh, cut out the poetry!" advised Bud with a laugh.  "Let's figure how
long it will be before you can come back."

For Nort and Dick did come back to Diamond X ranch.  Their further
doings will be told of in the next volume of this series to be called
"Boy Ranchers in Camp, or the Diamond X Fight for Water."  In that you
may learn what Bud, Dick and Nort did, and more about mysterious Zip
Foster and the wily Del Pinzo.

As Bud, Nort and Dick entered the house, escorted by the smiling Nell,
who was well pleased at the tribute to her pie-making, there was a
rattle of hoofs, and a bunch of the cowboys clattered in, having been
out riding herd.

"Grub ready?" cried Babe, as he slumped off his weary pony--Babe was
heavy enough to make almost any pony weary.

"Come on!" cried Mother Merkel.

"Don't tell them about the pie!" whispered Nort to Nell.

"Oh, there's enough for all of them--mother and the women baked a lot,
but I made one specially for you boys," Nell answered.

And what the boy ranchers said I leave you to guess.

Up the lane leading from the corral to the house came the hungry cow
punchers, to wash the dust and grime from hands and faces, and then to
eat with appetites that even a Triceratops might envy.  And as they
splashed at the washing bench, Slim raised his voice in what,
doubtless, he intended for song and warbled:

  "Leave me alone with a rope an' tobaccy,
  Then let the rattlers sting!
  Give me a sweet, juicy apple to chaw on,
  Then when I'm sad I will sing."


There was a rattle of tin wash-basins, the swish of water as it was
heaved at the singer, and then a howl of dismay from Slim.

"Take that soap out o' my mouth!" he bawled, and amid a chorus of
laughter he ran around the corner of the porch, to escape the
attentions of his jolly friends.

"Come on to grub!" sang out Bud, and no second invitation was needed.
And while the boy ranchers are thus insured of at least temporary
happiness, we will say, with the Spaniards:

"_Adios!_"



THE END



THE BOYS OUTING LIBRARY


THE SADDLE BOYS SERIES

By Capt. James Carson

  The Saddle Boys of the Rockies
  The Saddle Boys in the Grand Canyon
  The Saddle Boys on the Plains
  The Saddle Boys at Circle Ranch
  The Saddle Boys on Mexican Trails


THE DAVE DASHAWAY SERIES

by Roy Rockwood

  Dave Dashaway the Young Aviator
  Dave Dashaway and His Hydroplane
  Dave Dashaway and His Giant Airship
  Dave Dashaway Around the World
  Dave Dashaway: Air Champion


THE SPEEDWELL BOYS SERIES

by Roy Rockwood

  The Speedwell Boys on Motorcycles
  The Speedwell Boys and Their Racing Auto
  The Speedwell Boys and Their Power Launch
  The Speedwell Boys in a Submarine
  The Speedwell Boys and Their Ice Racer


THE TOM FAIRFIELD SERIES

by Allen Chapman

  Tom Fairfield's School Days
  Tom Fairfield at Sea
  Tom Fairfield in Camp
  Tom Fairfield's Pluck and Luck
  Tom Fairfield's Hunting Trip


THE FRED FENTON ATHLETIC SERIES

by Allen Chapman

  Fred Fenton the Pitcher
  Fred Fenton in the Line
  Fred Fenton on the Crew
  Fred Fenton on the Track
  Fred Fenton: Marathon Runner


CUPPLES & LEON COMPANY, Publishers, New York





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