Home
  By Author [ A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z |  Other Symbols ]
  By Title [ A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z |  Other Symbols ]
  By Language
all Classics books content using ISYS

Download this book: [ ASCII ]

Look for this book on Amazon


We have new books nearly every day.
If you would like a news letter once a week or once a month
fill out this form and we will give you a summary of the books for that week or month by email.

´╗┐Title: The Boy Ranchers on Roaring River - or Diamond X and the Chinese Smugglers
Author: Baker, Willard F.
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "The Boy Ranchers on Roaring River - or Diamond X and the Chinese Smugglers" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



  [Transcriber's note: Extensive research found no evidence
  that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]



[Illustration: Cover art]



[Frontispiece: "AND WIN HE DID."   _Boy Ranchers on Roaring River._]



THE

BOY RANCHERS

ON ROARING RIVER


OR

_Diamond X and the Chinese Smugglers_


By

WILLARD F. BAKER



Author of

  "The Boy Ranchers,"
  "The Boy Ranchers in Camp,"
  "The Boy Ranchers at Spur Creek,"
  "The Boy Ranchers in the Desert," 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 Diamond X after Cattle Rustlers

THE BOY RANCHERS AMONG THE INDIANS
  Or Diamond X Trailing the Yaquis

THE BOY RANCHERS AT SPUR CREEK
  Or Diamond X Fighting the Sheep Herders

THE BOY RANCHERS IN THE DESERT
  Or Diamond X and the Lost Mine

THE BOY RANCHERS ON ROARING RIVER
  Or Diamond X and the Chinese Smugglers


CUPPLES & LEON COMPANY, New York



COPYRIGHT, 1926, BY

CUPPLES & LEON COMPANY

THE BOY RANCHERS ON ROARING RIVER

Printed in U. S. A.



CONTENTS


CHAPTER

     I  A DANGEROUS MISSION
    II  A STRANGE DISAPPEARANCE
   III  A SUSPICIOUS VISITOR
    IV  THE HIDDEN GUNMAN
     V  ARRIVAL AT THE RANCH
    VI  THE THREAT
   VII  A SHEEPLESS SHEEP RANCH
  VIII  CYCLONE
    IX  DELTON RETURNS
     X  BUD FINDS A NOTE
    XI  JOE HAWKINS'S VISIT
   XII  THE STORY OF SMUGGLING
  XIII  TRAPPED
   XIV  TO-MORROW NIGHT
    XV  BILLEE DOBB'S STORY
   XVI  BUD'S ESCAPE
  XVII  A NIGHT OF WAITING
 XVIII  SMUGGLING OPERATIONS
   XIX  THE CHASE
    XX  DOWN AND OUT
   XXI  CLOSING IN
  XXII  FLYING BULLETS
 XXIII  A RING OF FIRE
  XXIV  THE RATTLING BUCKBOARD
   XXV  YELLIN' KID FINDS HIS BRONC



THE BOY RANCHERS ON ROARING RIVER


CHAPTER I

A DANGEROUS MISSION

"Hold up there, you pint o' peanuts!  Hold up, I say!  Well, for the
love of spread eagle!  I suppose you boys are lookin' for a job; eh?"

The speaker, a typical, raw-boned cowboy, looked down from his pony at
three boys seated on a bench at the side of the cook-house.

"Whether we are or not, we've got it, Kid," answered one of the seated
trio, a well set-up youth with light hair.  "And the funny part of it
is, we don't know what the job is."

"Huh!  Got a job and you don't know what it is?  Well, Nort, guess I'll
have to look into this," and the cowboy whom Nort addressed as
"Kid"--or, to give him his full nick-name, "Yellin' Kid"--swung lightly
from his saddle.  "Hold up there, you pony, you!" this as the Kid's
mount started to prance about wildly.  "Just got this here dust-raiser,
and she ain't used to my ways yet," he chuckled.  "Hy' ya', Dick, and
Bud!  How's the boy, Nort?  By golly, ranchin' is sure doin' you
fellers good!  You-all got some powerful grip!"

The three boys, Nort and Dick Shannon, and their cousin Bud Merkel,
grinned widely.  They were all of the same mold--clean-cut,
straight-shooting lads, their faces bronzed from the prairie sun, and
their eyes as clear as the blue sky above them.

"Yes, Kid, ranching has done us good--in more ways than one.  In fact
it's done us up brown."  And Bud laughed a little ruefully.

"What's the matter?  Rustlers, or disease?" The Kid's face expressed
instant concern as he mentioned these two nightmares of the rancher's
life.

"No, not either--but something almost as bad.  You tell him, Nort,"
suggested Bud.

"You started it--you might as well finish out, Bud.  You know as much
about it as I do."

"Aw, get Dick to.  He hasn't said a word yet."

"Well, for Pete's sake, _somebody_ tell me before I drop dead from
excitement!" burst out Yellin' Kid.

"All right--I'll tell you, Kid," Dick started.  "Last week we were to
deliver a herd of longhorns to J. K. Jackson, over to Double-O ranch.
Sold 'em at a good fat price, too, that would have put us on our feet
for the rest of the year.  Well, we sent four of our men to ride 'em
in.  I went along with 'em.  We started about sun-up, calculatin' to
reach the Double-O before night, and everything was lovely.  'Long
about noon we reached the gorge near Galgo.  I suggested we ride the
cattle as far from the gorge as we could get, 'cause I know how easy a
herd of long-horns are started.  But no, nothin' would do Sam Holiday
but going as near to the big cut as possible, to save time.  Sam's our
new foreman, you know, and I didn't want to assert myself over him.  So
we drove 'em close to the edge.  I told Sam once or twice to keep
away--but oh, no! everything would be all right, and we'd have the
cattle in by five o'clock.  Well, we had 'em in by five o'clock all
right.  But not at the Double-O!

"Just as we were passing the deepest part of the cut we heard a most
awful Bang! and I knew in a minute what it was.  Stump-blasting.  Yes,
I knew what it was--but the cattle didn't.  And nobody had time to tell
them, either.  The steers on the extreme right made a sudden lunge--and
in three minutes it was all over.  Nothin' left but an old cow who
broke her leg in the first rush.  And the rest--every blessed one of
'em--two hundred feet down, lyin' dead or dyin' in the bottom of the
gorge!"

The Kid was the first to break in on the morose stillness Dick's speech
had invoked.

"Well now, say, boys, that's right sorrowful--yes, sir, that's what I
call right sorrowful!  I sure am sorry for you-all!  A whole herd of
cattle gone to the dogs!  Well, well--that's sad.  Say, is there
anything I can do to--you know, sort of help out--like, well, maybe----"

"No thanks, Kid," spoke up Dick quickly.  His glance told the Kid that
he realized what the half-spoken offer meant.  In the west one man
understands his friend more by feeling than by words.  "Real good of
you to offer, though.  No, I guess we'll make out all right.  Can't
have easy riding all the time.  I imagine Mr. Merkel has something for
us to do.  He sent for us to come over to his ranch.  So here we are.
That was the job I told you about."

"A blind job, hey?  Well, I guess it's O. K. or the boss wouldn't be
mixed up in it.  Anyway, here's your chance to find out.  Here comes
Mr. Merkel now."

A tall, pleasant-faced man, hair slightly grayed at the temples, strode
out of the ranchhouse toward the four waiting cowboys.  His resemblance
to Bud--especially around the eyes--was easily noticeable.

"Hello, Nort and Dick!  How are you, son?  Say, boy, you're getting
hard as a rock!  What have you men been feeding Bud--leather?  He sure
looks, as though it was coming through!"  The kindly eyes of the older
man lighted with pride as he grasped the hand of his son.

"No, Dad--I guess hard luck toughened me up," said Bud, but his smile
belied the meaning of his words.

"Yes, I heard about your accident, boys--and that's partly why I sent
for you.  I thought you might have time to do a little business for me."

"Well, I guess I'll step along, Mr. Merkel," the Kid said, as he
realized he might be intruding on a private conversation.  "I got that
fence fixed up all right."

"Did you?  Good!  No, Kid, you stay right here.  You're in on this too.
Where's Billee Dobb?  I want him to hear what I have to say."

"He's 'round back, boss.  I'll get him."

"Bring him in the house, Kid.  My room.  Come on, boys--we'll get
settled inside and wait for the Kid and Billee."

As the boys followed Mr. Merkel each one wondered what it was all
about.  Dick voiced the thought of all as he whispered:

"Say, what's up?  You know, Bud?"

"Nope!  I'm as much in the dark as you are.  Dad never said anything to
me.  We'll soon know, though."

By this time they had reached the ranchhouse.  As soon as the Kid
arrived with Old Billee Dobb--a grizzled product of ranching who had
been with the Diamond X from its start--Mr. Merkel motioned them to be
seated and began:

"I reckon the first thing you men want to know is the reason for this
gathering.  Well, it's nothing very mysterious.  I bought a sheep ranch
out near Roaring River, and I want you five to take hold of it for me.
Now--just a minute.  I know what you're going to say, Kid--that sheep
nursing is no job for a cowman.  But you haven't heard the rest of it.
There's been some very funny things happening out near that ranch.
I've had a letter from the government official over at Candelaria
asking whether I intend to manage those sheep, myself, and if I do
would I let him know before I take charge.  Now, I'm not going to say
just what is the trouble, as I'm not actually sure myself.  But I have
a hunch.  And that's the reason I want you five--men I can trust--to
take charge there.  Will you?"

His listeners looked at each other.  In the eyes of each--with the
possible exception of Old Billee Dobb--the light of adventure was
shining.  Whatever scruples the Kid had about "sheep nursing" had
vanished with the word "trouble."  And he was the first to speak:

"Sure we will!  What do you say, boys?  Do we go out?  How about it,
Dick and Nort?  What do you say, Bud?  Billee here is just achin' for
the experience!"  And the Kid laughed, for Billee Dobb's tendency to
pretend displeasure at every change of conditions was well known.

"Yes I am--not!  Like as not we'll all get shot full of holes.  But if
you fellers want to go--guess I'll have to trail along to take care of
you-all!"

"Listen to him--Just try to hold him back if there's any shootin' goin'
on!"

"Then I take it you'll go?" Mr. Merkel asked.

"Yes, Dad--I'm sure we'll all be glad to take charge out there for
you," answered Bud.  "I don't suppose you could tell us any more about
this government business now?"

"I'm afraid not, son--I want to be sure of my ground before I make any
statements.  Well, I guess that's settled.  You'll leave to-morrow."

Since this was the last night the Kid and Old Billee were to spend on
the Diamond X, it seemed fitting to the rest of the boys that there
should be some sort of an entertainment.  An entertainment to a cowboy
means principally music--so after supper the boys gathered around a
roaring log fire and sang themselves hoarse.  After Slim Degnan, the
foreman, and Fat Milton, his chubby assistant, had rendered their duet,
and Snake Purdee had given his famous imitation of a prima donna
singing "Bury Me Not," Bud, with Nort and Dick, decided to take a
stroll about the place to see if anything had changed.  Their own
particular ranch was several miles removed from Diamond X, owned by Mr.
Merkel.

"See your Dad got a new building up," observed Dick, as they came to a
newly-painted shack, clearly visible in the bright moonlight.

"So he has.  Looks like a new bunk house.  Perhaps he----"

"Listen!  There's somebody inside!  No one is supposed to be in there
at night.  It isn't open yet."  This from Nort, in a low tone.

"Let's find out who it is," Bud whispered.

Silently three boys crept toward the door.  Two voices could be plainly
heard, and as they came closer they could distinguish words.  One voice
was that of a foreigner--evidently a Mexican.  The other spoke with a
typical cowboy accent.

"You have got the money ready--yes?" the boys heard the Mexican say.

"Sure--as soon as you deliver the Chinks you get the money.  But no
double-crossin'--remember that!" and the speaker emphasized his
statement by clicking his revolver ominously.

"Don' you worry--you get the Chinks all right.  Shuss--there's someone
outside!"

The boys knew they had been discovered, and made a sudden rush for the
door of the shack, to see the two men who were inside.  But the Mexican
and his companion were too quick for them.  They ran through a back
door, and all the three boys could see of them was two dark forms
disappearing in the bushes.

"They beat us to it," Dick said in a disappointed voice.  "But if ever
I hear that Mexican accent again I'll sure remember it!"

"Me too!" asserted Bud, positively, if not grammatically.  "No use
hanging around here any longer.  We've got to get started early in the
morning, and it might be a good idea to get in a little bunk-fatigue.
Let's hit the hay, boys!"  And wondering and speculating on the meaning
of what they had seen and heard, the three went to bed.

The next day dawned clear and cool, and the boys arose with the sun.
On their way down to breakfast they met the Yellin' Kid.  He was
evidently the bearer of startling tidings, as his face was more flushed
than usual, and his eyes were shining with excitement.

"Heard the news?" he burst out.  Then, without waiting for an answer,
he went on:

"The marshal at Roaring River has been shot by a gang of Chink
smugglers!  They captured one, but the rest got away with an auto load
of Chinks!  Roaring River, boys--that's where we're going!"

Chink smugglers!  That conversation in the new bunk house last
night--in a flash it all came back to the boys.

"Say, Dick, I'll bet that's what we heard the Mex talking about!" cried
Bud.



CHAPTER II

A STRANGE DISAPPEARANCE

Yellin' Kid looked at Bud in surprise.

"You heard someone talkin' about this here shootin', Bud?" he asked.

"Not exactly about the shooting of the marshal, but last night Nort and
Dick and myself were wandering down by the new shack that Dad put up,
and inside two men were talking--one of them was a Mexican.  We heard
this Mex say something about getting some money for the delivery of
Chinks.  That sure means smuggling, doesn't it?"

"That's what it means all right.  Couldn't you see who the two men
were?" the Kid wanted to know.

"We tried to, but they got away," said Dick.  "We went in the front
door and they ran out the back."

"Aw say, do you know what I think, fellows?  I'll bet what we heard was
just some rancher asking a friend to send him a Chinese cook,"
suggested Nort, with a faint grin.

"Cook, hey?  Why did they sneak in a deserted bunk house to talk about
a cook?  And how about that remark of 'double crossin'?' And what did
they run for?  Why?" demanded Dick.

"Oh, all right--all right!" cried Nort, who was now grinning widely.
"Have it your own way, Dick.  It was probably a great Mexican plot to
send a million Chinese to this country and form an army to capture
Texas.  And after they captured Texas they'd set up a kingdom and the
king would have Snake Purdee sing 'Bury Me Not' for him every morning
before breakfast."

"You can jolly all you like, Nort--just the same, I'm willing to lay
odds that we see some excitement when we reach Roaring River.  Let's
go, boys--that bacon will be frozen by the time we get to breakfast."
And Dick led the way toward the dining room.

Although they were cautioned several times by "Ma" Merkel to eat more
slowly, the boys hurried through the meal.  Each of them was "rarin' to
go," as Kid expressed it, and lingering over the ordinary occupation of
eating seemed a waste of time.  Within an hour the five--Bud Merkel,
Nort and Dick Shannon, Yellin' Kid and Old Billee Dobb--were standing
by their ponies, ready to spring to the saddles and be off.

There was a sudden cloud of dust as the five urged their mounts into a
gallop.  With one last yell to those watching, they streaked across the
ground in a typical "cowboy start."  Within two minutes they were lost
to view behind a ridge.

Now for a moment let us leave them while we learn something of their
earlier adventures.  The three boys, Bud Merkel, and his eastern
cousins Nort and Dick Shannon, were introduced to you in the first book
of this series, called "The Boy Ranchers; or Solving the Mystery at
Diamond X."  In that book was related how Nort and Dick Shannon went on
their vacations to the Diamond X ranch, owned by Mr. Merkel, Bud's
father.  While there they were confronted with a strange situation,
regarding the searchings of a college scientist, Dr. Hendryx Wright,
who was discovered digging near the Diamond X holdings.  At first it
was thought that he was looking for a lost gold mine, but later
developments brought to light the fact that his purpose was to unearth
the bones of a prehistoric monster for his college museum.

The adventures of the boys while on the ranch were also concerned with
Del Pinzo, a villainous half-breed, who nearly succeeded in bringing
the career of all to a sudden close.  After successfully overcoming all
their difficulties, Nort and Dick decided to form a partnership with
their cousin Bud, and they located on a ranch in "Happy Valley" which
Bud's father bought for them.

In the several volumes following was related how the boy ranchers went
to camp, and how they took the trail, and the exciting times they had
in rounding up a band of Yaqui Indians who had escaped from their
reservation and were raising havoc with the neighboring territory.
Following this the boys went to Spur Creek, where they had many
startling adventures among the sheep herders.  The book immediately
preceding this present one is called "The Boy Ranchers in the Desert,"
and tells of the difficulties they had in their search for some lost
gold.

After the first wild dash, the five travelers pulled their ponies into
that long loping stride which carries the cowboy for days and days over
many miles.  Bud and Dick were in the lead, with Nort and Kid and Old
Billee Dobb following close behind.

"Say, Kid," Bud called back, after a while, "what would you do if you
saw a smuggler come along now with a herd of Chinks with him?"

"Tell you what I'd do, Bud," Yellin' Kid replied, "I'd stop the Chinks
and find out what happened to a shirt I sent out to be washed the last
time I was in Dallas!"

"You mean that shirt with the yellow dots on, Kid?" Dick asked with a
grin.  "If that's the one, I can tell you what became of it.  They
thought it was an oil painting that got in the wash by mistake, and
they had it framed and hung up in the picture gallery!"

"Never you mind about the color of that shirt, Dick--it was a shrinking
violet compared with the vest you bought over to Alamito.  Purple and
green--wow!  First time I saw it it was three o'clock in the afternoon,
and I had to look at a watch to make sure it wasn't morning.  Thought
the sun was comin' up."

"Got you that time, Dick!" Nort laughed.  "That's one you owe him.
Say, is that a new pony you're ridin', Kid?"

"Yep!  What do you think of her?"

"Looks good.  How far can she go on a gallon?"

"Twice as far as yours can--and twice as fast!"

"Think so?  Try it--see that bush up ahead?  Race you to there!"

"Right!  Let's go!"

"Hey, hey!  Wait a minute, you fellows!  We're not goin' on a picnic,
you know.  We've got a good long ride before us.  Take it easy."  This
from Billee.

"What's the matter, Billee?  Gettin' old?" asked Bud mischievously.

"Old?  Who, me?  Say, young feller, I can give you a head start half
way to that bush and still beat you there!"

"How about me?  If there's a race, I'm in it too!" cried Dick.

"All right.  Tell you what--we'll start from here, and the last man
there has to kiss a sheep!"

"Right!  All set?  Ready--go!"

"Ye-e-e-ow!"

"Yip-yip-yip-yipee-ee!"

"Ride 'em cowboy!"

"Leggo that leather!"

"Gangway--gangway!"

The five riders flashed over the ground almost on a line.  Kid's mount
was running easily, head well up.  Dick pulled a little ahead.  Nort
just touched his pony with the spurs, and in a moment he was even with
Dick.  There was a sudden rush behind them--and Old Billee Dobb, hat
fanning his pony's withers, hair streaming in the wind, streaked to the
front!

"Look at the old boy go!"

"Stay at it, Billee--stay at it!"

"Two bits he wins!"

And win he did.  He reached the bush a full length ahead of the others,
who were laughing so hard they could hardly stay on their horses.  The
spectacle of the gaunt, elderly man sitting straight up in the saddle,
teeth clenched and bowed legs wrapped around his pony, was too much for
them.  They leaned on their pommels weakly and roared with laughter.

"Attaboy, Billee!"

"Golly--did you see the old boy streak it out!"

"Oh, cracky! hold me up, somebody, or I'll fall off!"

"Now--who's gettin'--old!" panted Billee.  "Beat me, hey?  Not in--a
million years!"

"What do you say, boys--we give Billee a salute!"

Four guns flashed out of the holsters and were raised aloft.

"Bang!"

They roared as one.

"Sure sounds like a celebration," chuckled Nort as he blew the few
remaining grains of burnt powder from his smoking barrel, and replaced
the gun.  "Billee, accept my congratulations!"

"Granted, youngster--if that's what I'm supposed to say," Billee
retorted, his eyes twinkling.  "And just remember--a man's not old out
here until he can't ride no more."

"You look as though you might be good for several hundred years yet, if
that's the case," laughed Dick.  "Anyway, you sure showed me a few
things.  Say, that race made me pretty thirsty.  Is there a water hole
near here, Kid, or shall I use my canteen?"

"Save it--I think I can find water for you.  Guess the ponies could use
a little too.  Let's see now--'pears to me there should be a water hole
right over here to the left.  You boys stay here while I go look.  Be
back in a jiffy."

Leaving the four on the trail, Yellin' Kid rode swiftly away to the
left.  Water holes are few and far between in that section, and a
cowboy who rides a country a great deal knows the location of every
single one.  Often that knowledge means the saving of a human life.

The Kid had been gone ten minutes when Bud said:

"Thought Yellin' Kid said he'd be right back?  I guess he's all right
though.  He knows the country about here pretty well, doesn't he,
Billee?"

"Like the palm of his hand, Bud--like the palm of his hand!  But maybe
his pony broke his leg in a prairie dog hole--seein' as how it's a new
pony, he might do that.  Tell you--I'll just have a look.  You fellows
wait here for me."

The three boys watched Billee ride off in the direction the Kid had
taken.  It was a deserted, lonesome place.

Fifteen minutes later Billee rode back--alone.

"The Kid show up yet?" he asked as he pulled up.

"No--couldn't you find him?" Dick asked, a look of anxiety on his face.

"Nope!  Neither hide nor hair!  Something sure must have happened.  The
Kid isn't one to go wanderin' off and get lost.  I'm afraid he's in
trouble, boys!"



CHAPTER III

A SUSPICIOUS VISITOR

The three looked at each other in alarm.

"Golly, I never thought anything could happen to the Kid," Bud said
slowly.  "He was brought up in this country, and always said he could
find his way about blindfolded."

"Perhaps the water hole was farther away than he thought," suggested
Nort hopefully.  "It's easy for any man to go astray on a matter of
distance, you know."

"Well, maybe--but I doubt it.  What I think happened is that his pony
stumbled into a hole and lamed hisself.  Well--we'll have to go looking
for him, that's all.  Nort, you and Dick branch out here to the right.
Bud, you take the left trail.  I'll try straight ahead.  Now remember
your trails, boys--we don't want no more accidents to happen.  We'll
all meet here in one hour.  If anything happens, fire three shots.  Git
along there!"  And Billee Dobb, together with the rest set out to find
Yellin' Kid who was so mysteriously and unaccountably lost.

Nort, who was riding with Dick, was the first to pick up a possible
clew.

"Looks as though someone passed here in a hurry," he said as he pointed
to a newly beaten path through some heavy brush.  "Now if I was just
going along easy like I'd have ridden 'round that bush.  The pony that
went through there got a few scratches."

"Wonder if it could have been the Kid?" Nort mused.  "Though why he
should be in such an all-fired hurry I can't understand.  Unless he was
chasing someone."

"Or being chased," Dick added.

"Perhaps he met a smuggler, Dick."

"Smuggler--'way up here?  Not a chance!  Say, Nort, you've got
smugglers on the brain.  You seem to think they ride around with big
signs pinned on them--'I am a smuggler--shoot me.'  Suppose the Kid did
meet a smuggler--how'd he know him from any other man?"

"That's right--guess he wouldn't," admitted Nort, a trifle
shamefacedly.  "But you know what he told us about that marshal being
shot."

"Oh, yes, but marshals get shot nearly every day, somewhere--and maybe
it wasn't a Chink smuggler that shot him after all--maybe it was just
an ordinary gang of rustlers."

"Well, you can say what you like, Dick, but I'll lay odds we see some
excitement when we reach Roaring River."

"We'll see some excitement sooner than that, if we don't find the Kid.
See here--if he made this trail, he was going fast--and in this
direction.  Let's get on our way."

"Better go back, do you think?" Nort asked as he looked up toward the
sun.  "We've been gone at least an hour, and Billee said to return
within that time."

"Yes," Dick responded, a little sadly, for he and Yellin' Kid were
close friends.  "I sure hope the Kid's all right.  Perhaps some of the
others picked him up."

"Perhaps.  Let's hope so.  At any rate, we haven't had much
success--and I doubt even that the torn brush we saw was done by the
Kid."

"Can't tell, he may have ridden through there and then taken a sudden
turn to the right or left.  Or back again, for that matter.  Well,
let's get started."

As the two arrived at the agreed meeting place there was no need to ask
the others if they had had any luck.  The Kid was nowhere in sight.

"We saw a trail through some bushes that might have been made by the
Kid, Billee," said Nort to the old rancher.

"Yes, and it might have been made by any number of other things, too,"
Billee declared, in a despondent tone.  "Not that I am sure it _wasn't_
the Kid's trail.  It _might_ have been--but that doesn't help us much.
No, I guess the only thing for us to do is to go right on lookin'--and
hopin' he's O.K."

It was almost dusk when the four gathered together again.  The Kid was
still missing, and anxiety was written on the faces of all as they
prepared to camp for the night.  Each man carried a blanket with him,
and also a small snack of food and a canteen of water.  As darkness
settled down a fire was started, and huddled in their blankets the boy
ranchers prepared to make the best of it.

The silence of the night hung close over the four blanketed figures.
The firelight threw weird shadows about them, but above the stars shone
calmly on, quietly reassuring.  A light breeze rustled softly through
the mesquite bushes.  Now and then a coyote yowled in the distance.

Suddenly Bud jerked upright.  He nudged Dick, who was lying beside him.

"Dick!" he whispered, so as not to disturb the others, "do you hear
anything?"

"Eh?  What?  What's that?  You speak to me?" Dick muttered sleepily.

"Listen!  Can't you hear a noise like a horse walking?"

Dick sat up, now wide awake.

"Say, I believe I do!  Wait a minute--" and he tossed some wood on the
fire--"let's have a look!"

"Kid?" Bud called hopefully.

The approaching pony gave a sudden leap forward.

"Yea boy!" yelled its rider.  "Home again!"

"It is the Kid!" Dick cried exultingly.

"Nort!  Billee!  The Kid's back!"

In a moment Yellin' Kid was surrounded by the four who shot questions
at him as fast as they could talk.

"Where in the name of the spread eagle have you been?"

"What happened?"

"Did you get lost?"

"Are you all right?"

"Hey, hey!  Not so fast!  Gimme time!  Wait 'til I get down off this
here pony.  Oh, baby--that feels good."  And the Kid stretched long and
high.  "What a ride!  Say--got anything to eat?"

"Sure!  Sink your teeth in this," Billee said, handing him a cold beef
sandwich from his kit.  "And here's some water.  Are you all right,
Kid?"

"Me?  Sure!  Except tired and hungry.  Been ridin' most of the day an'
night.  S'pose you-all would like to know what it's all about, hey?"

"Well, if you haven't anything to do at present, you might let us in on
the secret.  We looked all over Texas for you," Dick said, grinning,
happy now, that their lost comrade had returned.

"Just a second while I put this little paint pony of mine over with the
others.  Old boy--you sure had some journey to-day!" and the Kid rubbed
the horse's nose.  "Stood up well, too.  To-morrow I'll give you a big
feed--what you need now is rest--like me.  Well, boys, guess I'll turn
in."

"You'll what?"

"You will not--not until we hear what happened!"

"He'll turn in--well for the love of Pete!"

"All right boys--all right!" the Kid laughed.  "Seems you want to hear
something about my trip, hey?  Well, to start from the beginning, the
day dawned clear an' bright.  The wind was ticklin' my ears as I
rode----"

"Cut it out!"

"Let's have the story, you locoed dust-raiser!"

"All right, we'll cut the kiddin'.  Tell you what really happened.  I
found the water hole where I thought it would be, and I found something
else, too.  There was a horse standin' near it, and by the side of the
horse was a Chink--on his hands an' knees, crawlin' around on the
ground.  Thinks I, here's a crazy man.  So I rides up slow, and when I
got up close I asks he Chink what he's lookin' for.  He don't pay no
attention to me whatever.  I gets off my horse and says it again.  Then
the crazy Chink looks up at me and says "Chock Gee."  That's all.  Just
"Chock Gee."  Me, not knowin' Chinese, I can't tell what he's after.
But I see it won't do no good to insist on knowin' so I starts to help
him up, thinking maybe he's hurt.  Soon as I touched him, what does the
crazy Chink do but jump like a cat for his saddle, give my paint a
terrible crack with his quirt, and set off like a scared rabbit, my
pony after him, leavin' me stranded, high an' dry!"

The Kid looked at his eager listeners and grinned.

"That new pony of mine--she's sure got some speed.  She was out of
sight in two seconds.  An' then, boys--I had to depend on the ole legs!
So I went huntin' for her.  Caught her about four miles from where her
an' me parted company.  Then I went huntin' for you-all, but you was
nowheres to be found.  And from then 'til now, I was ridin' around,
lookin' for you."

"And the Chink--what happened to him?"

"Blessed if I know!  But if I ever see him again I'll give him
something to remember me by."

"So that's where you were all that time!  We thought you'd been blown
to Dallas on a cyclone.  Anyway, we're glad you're back.  Reckon you
could stand a little sleep, eh?" Bud said.

"You bet.  I'll sling my blanket down by you, Dick, and we'll get
started for Roarin' River as early as possible.  It's still a good ways
ahead.  Good night, boys!"

"Hey, you men!"

From the darkness came a sudden voice.  All five turned swiftly, five
hands reaching for revolvers together.  Into the firelight rode a tall
horseman.

"Hey, boys!" he called again.  "Any of you see a Chink wanderin' around
here?"



CHAPTER IV

THE HIDDEN GUNMAN

"Who wants to know?" the Kid asked, staring hard at the mounted
visitor, his hand firm on the butt of his gun.

"Now, boys, take it easy--take it easy!  I've got good reason's for
wantin' to know, which same I'll explain if you give me a chance.  If
you don't mind I think I'll park here for the time bein'."  And he
dismounted and came closer.

By the light of the fire the ranchers saw a tall, rangy cowboy of about
forty.  Two deep-set eyes above a hooked nose gave him a hardened,
desert look which his manner emphasized.  He was, evidently, one to
whom life had proved anything but a pink tea party.  Yet, withal, he
had something about him which seemed to inspire trust.

"Well, stranger, you're welcome, but we haven't much to offer," Bud
said.  "We weren't expecting to camp to-night, and we're somewhat shy
on provisions.  But I guess we can rustle up something for you."

"No need of that--no need of that at all," the stranger heartily
assured them.  "All I want is a little information.  Guess I'd better
introduce myself first.  I'm Joe Hawkins, special deputy over at
Roaring River."

The others exchanged glances in the dim light of the fire as the
visitor continued:

"Here's my badge.  Don't know whether you heard about the trouble we
had, but if you didn't, I'll tell you.  Roaring River is right on the
Mexican border, you know, and there's been a lot of Chink smugglin'
goin' on, with Roaring River as the key to the whole smugglin'
situation, so to speak.  We don't know who's the boss of these
smugglers, but we'd give a lot to find out.  Two thousand dollars, to
be exact.

"Well, anyway, two days ago we had a tip that a car-load of Chinese was
about to be rushed over the border just outside of town limits.  So we
got all set.  Sheriff Townley and me and three other deputies hid in
the bushes where we thought the car was goin' to pass.  But we lost out.

"The car came by all right--and we hopped into the roadway to stop
them.  They never stopped a-tall.  Goin' like a crazy steer they flew
by on two wheels, lettin' ride with every gun they had.  Got poor
Townley good.  We buried him yesterday.  So--now you know what it's all
about."

"And the car--did you see it again?" Dick; asked excitedly.

"No--but last night a Chink came to town and got oiled-up on pulque,
and said a few things more than he meant to.  When I jumped him he lit
out for the open spaces.  This morning I thought I'd take a look
around, and see if I could spot him.  Sure enough I did, but the old
yellow-skin got away before I could reach him.  I don't suppose you
boys saw anything of him?"

"Well now, that's mighty strange," drawled the Kid.  "It so happens
that I _did_ see your man--at least I'll take odds that he was the one
you're after.  This afternoon I was trapin' around for that water hole
over yonder about three miles--you know the one," and the Kid told of
his adventure with the "crazy Chink."

"That's him, for all the money in the world!" the deputy exclaimed.
"Lookin' for a 'chock gee' was he?  I'll chock gee him if I catch him."

"Say, what's all this about a 'chock gee'?" Nort wanted to know.

"Well, it's a government immigration office paper every Chink in this
country is supposed to have, showin' they're here legitimately.  Those
that haven't got 'em try to get one from another Chink, and there's
unlawful trading goin' on all the time."

"Like a passport, eh?" Billee Dobb suggested.

"Something like that.  Where you men bound for--if you don't mind me
askin'?"

"To a ranch just outside of Roaring River," spoke up Bud.  "My father,
over at Diamond X, bought it, and we're going to take charge."

"Your father Mr. Merkel?" Joe Hawkins asked suddenly, with new interest.

"Yes--do you know him?"

"Not exactly.  But I know of him.  When I heard that the Shootin' Star
was changin' hands I wrote to Mack Caffery, the boy on the job over at
Candelaria, askin' him to get in touch with the new owner.  That's how
I got the name Merkel.  Did your dad hear from him, do you know?"

"Yes, he did.  So that's what Dad meant when he said there might be
trouble, eh?  Well--we're ready for whatever comes.  What do you say,
boys?"

"Right!" the others chorused.

"Say, mister, what was that there you said about two thousand dollars?"
Billee Dobb broke in.

"There's two thousand dollars' reward, offered by the government, for
the capture, dead or alive, of the head of the Chink smugglers," the
deputy said impressively.

"Two thousand bucks!  Say, boys, with that you could buy yourself a new
herd of cattle, to make up somewhat for the bunch you lost!" cried
Yellin' Kid.

"We sure could--and then some," Bud agreed.  "But I guess there's not
much chance of us collecting the reward.  We'll be busy enough at the
ranch without trying to round up any smugglers.  Say, Mr.--what did you
say your name was?"

"Hawkins--Joe Hawkins."

"Well, how about bunking with us to-night?  We can all start out in the
morning together, and perhaps we'll come across your Chinese friend.
It's pretty late now, and you can't make Roaring River 'til long after
daylight."

"Well, now, men, that's right kind of you to suggest that--but I don't
want to butt in.  I can just----"

"You're not butting in at all!" insisted Bud.  "We'll be glad to have
you.  Got a blanket?"

"Oh, I got a blanket, thanks.  Thought I might need it on this Chink
hunt of mine.  Well, since you boys don't mind, I'll put up my pony and
flop down here by the fire.  Feels good at a time like this.
Good-night, all!"

The remainder of the night was uneventful.  The six slept soundly,
tired out as they were, and with the morning they all awoke refreshed
and eager to be on the way.  After a meager breakfast they set out for
the water hole the Kid knew of, as they wanted to let their steeds
drink before starting for the Shooting Star, which was the name of
their new ranch.  Joe Hawkins went with them.

"What time do you calculate we'll hit the ranch, Kid?" Bud asked.

"Be there in about three hours, Bud.  It isn't so far from the water
hole.  Why?  You anxious to begin sheep herdin'?"

"Not exactly," Bud laughed.  "But I do want to see what the place looks
like.  Hope we don't have to do much repairing."

"No, the Shooting Star is in pretty fair shape," Joe Hawkins said.
"Your father got a good buy--if you can get hold of it all right."

"What do you mean, get hold of it all right?" asked Bud curiously.

"Well, the feller that's got it now isn't exactly a pleasant customer.
There's something queer about him--we've been watchin' the Shooting
Star for over a month now.  I couldn't say for sure that there's
anything wrong--but it looks suspicious.  That's the reason I wanted to
have the government official find out who the new owner was going to
be.  I'm right glad I met up with you boys.  You may be able to help me
out some time."

"And collect that reward," Billee Dobb put in.  His mind seemed set on
the two thousand dollars the deputy had spoken of.

"You might," admitted Hawkins.  "It's waiting for the person who brings
in the head of the smuggling system."

"Well, we'll do our best," the Kid said, with a side glance at Bud.

"Say, Kid, we're not down here to capture smugglers!" cried Bud.
"We've got to take charge of the Shooting Star.  Of course, if we _do_
happen to run across----"

"I knew that would get a rise out of you!" laughed the Kid.  "Catch Bud
duckin' any excitement!  Why, even Billee here wants to trail the
smugglers--don't you, Billee?"

"Never you mind!" came back the old rancher.  "Want another race?"

"'At-ta-boy, Billee!" Nort yelled.  "Guess that'll hold him!  You
didn't know Billee Dobb was a champion racer, did you?" Nort said to
Hawkins.

"I didn't, no," responded the deputy with a smile.  "But I believe it.
Takes old birds like us to show these youngsters up, eh, Billee?"

"Sure does!"

"Well, here we are," declared the Kid, as they came in sight of the
water hole.  "Right down there is where I saw the Chink on his hands
and knees.  Hey, take it easy there!"  This to his pony, who strained
toward the water.  "I know you're thirsty, but so are the others.
Easy--easy!"  The Kid dismounted and led the panting horse toward the
water.  Leaning over he filled his hat, and held it to the mouth of his
pony.  "Start in on that.  Slow!  Or you don't get any.  'At-ta-boy.
Here's another hatful for you.  Feel as though you can control yourself
now?  All right--go to it!"  By this time the intelligent animal got
the idea, and drank in small mouthfuls.  The other ponies, restrained
by their masters from drinking too fast, did the same.

"So it was here that you saw the Chink, eh!" asked Joe Hawkins.

"Yep--right in this spot.  He was leanin' over here by this little
bush, lookin' for--" the Kid stopped suddenly and picked up something
from the ground.  It was a folded paper.  The Kid looked it over
swiftly.

"Lookin' for--_this_!" he exclaimed, holding it out.

"What is it?"

"Let's have a look!"

The deputy walked over to the Kid.

"Mind if I see it?" he said quietly.

Without a word the Kid handed it over.  He recognized the fact that it
was the deputy's right to demand it.

"That's what the Chink was looking for," Hawkins declared after a
moment.  "See here!  This paper----"

"Bang!  Bang!"

"Duck!" cried the Kid.  His hand reached for his gun as he hit the
ground.

"Bang!"

Billee's hat went sailing from his head.

"He means business!" Dick yelled.  "Down, everybody!"



CHAPTER V

ARRIVAL AT THE RANCH

Another report rang out, and a bullet went singing overhead.  By this
time guns were out ready for action.  From behind a small knoll, about
one hundred and fifty yards away, hazy smoke could be seen arising.

"Dick, you stay here and keep me covered," said the Kid in a low voice.
The boys were all hugging the ground in the shelter of the brush.  "I'm
goin' to sneak around an' see if I can't connect with the onery skunk
that's doin' the shootin'."

"Take it easy, Kid," Dick cautioned.  "You can't tell how many men
there are over there."

"Right!  Now you pass the word to the others to keep that hill peppered
with lead.  As soon as you see a sign of life, let ride.  If you can
keep whoever's doin' all this out of sight, I'll have a chance.  So
long!"

Yellin' Kid had started.  With a simple "so long" he was off on a
mission which might--and very likely would--end in his death.  Men who
spend their lives on the prairies have no time for heroics.  They do
their job--and say nothing.

Slowly the Kid crept forward.  The hidden gunman seemed to be
withholding his fire.  In the brush by the water hole lay the five
watching men--Billee Dobb and Joe Hawkins with long-barreled Colts
ready for action, Dick, Nort and Bud squinting along the barrels of
their shorter guns.  Closer, closer, the Kid crawled.  Seventy-five
yards!  Seventy!  Now, Kid--now----

"Well, by the ghost of my aunt Lizzie's cat!"

The Kid was standing upright, his mouth open, his gun hanging loosely
by his side.

Not a soul was in sight!

A quick look about verified this.  The country beyond the knoll was
perfectly flat, and for over five hundred yards was bare of even the
smallest bush.  Whoever the mysterious shooter was, he had, apparently,
vanished into thin air.

"Hey, you guys, come over here!" yelled the Kid.  "We been blazed at by
a ghost!"

One by one the men by the water hole got to their feet.

Dick was the first to reach the Kid's side.

"He's right, boys!" called back Dick, as he saw the empty space behind
the little hill.  "Nobody here.  But let's have a look at the ground.
We can tell if it's been disturbed, anyway."

A careful search revealed not only the traces of someone having lain
down on the loose earth, but also two empty shells.

"That makes me feel a little better!" cried the Kid as he saw this.  "I
don't hanker to be shot at by someone I can't see.  Now the thing to do
is to find out what happened to our late playmate."

"He's gone, ain't he?" asked Billee Dobb incredulously, as he came
shuffling along.  Off his horse Billee was a bit awkward.

"You don't say!  Well, now, I never noticed that!  Say, Billee, you a
de-tect-a-tive by any chance?"

"Go on, laugh, Kid!  You spent enough time sneakin' up on a whole lot
of nothin', didn't ye?"

"What do you think about this, Mr. Hawkins?" Bud asked of the deputy,
who was looking around quietly.

"Not much, youngster, not much!  Seems mighty funny to me.  Doesn't
hardly appear likely that a man could get away in this flat country
without us seeing him.  But that's what happened all right.  Never knew
a cowpuncher to have that much sneakin' ability in him."

"Maybe it wasn't a cowboy," Nort suggested.  "Maybe it was a--Chink."

"Never knew a Chink to use a forty-four in my life," the Kid declared.
"These here shells come from a gun big enough to knock a Chinee clean
off his slippers.  Nope, this here job was done by a puncher--or--" and
he stopped a moment--"or a Greaser."

"A Mexican!" cried Bud.  "Say, Dick, remember the conversation we heard
in Dad's new bunk house?  Maybe it was the same Mex that did the
shooting!"

"What's this all about, boys?" asked Joe Hawkins.  "Anything I ought to
know?"

"It might help you," offered Dick.  "It was two nights ago."  And he
told of hearing the voices in the shack.

"Well, I don't know.  I don't mind telling you that the crowd we're
after for the smugglin' is Mexican--at least we're pretty sure they
are.  Think you'd recognize the voices if you heard them again?"

"Certain sure I could tell that Greaser's tones in a million," Dick
declared.  "I'll never forget him."

After another survey of the terrain, it was decided to start for the
Shooting Star ranch.  Joe Hawkins said he would ride to Roaring River
with them and make his report, and see if anything had developed in
town.  So, filling their canteens, the six set off.

On the way the Kid offered a tale of a tarantula fight.  These bouts
were carefully arranged by the cowboys, the scene being set in a deep
washbowl.  Two females were the combatants, and the one who first
amputated all the legs of the other was declared the winner.
Occasionally a particularly vicious spider would forsake his natural
enemy and leap high at one of the spectators, inflicting a painful,
though not necessarily dangerous, bite.  Hence these contests were not
without excitement.

"I used to have a pet tarantula I called Jenny," told Yellin' Kid.
"She was absolutely the meanest critter I ever see!  She could just
about straddle a saucer, that's how big she was.  Had a coat of hair
like a grizzly.  She won five fights for me, and I was all set to match
her against a spider some puncher brought all the way from Oklahoma,
when she took a sudden likin' to Jeff Peters, and her ca-reer was
brought to a sudden close.  I cried fer near a week--but Jeff, he was
more sore than what I was.  She got him good before he killed her!"
And the Kid chuckled rememberingly.

By this time the riders had come in sight of Roaring River.  They had
all been through the town, if it might be so dignified by a name, and
of course Joe Hawkins lived there, so it was no new sight to them.  But
it was a change from the surroundings the Boy Ranchers had been used
to, and when they remembered that it was here all the smuggling was
going on, all were conscious of a feeling of excitement.  They decided
to feed-up in town before going to the ranch, which lay about three
miles out.

They headed for "Herb's Eating Place," the one and only restaurant with
tables.  The meals they ordered would have done justice to a hungry
bear.

"We have arrived!" cried Bud, when he swallowed sufficiently to allow
himself to talk.  "After a long and hazardous journey through the
bad-lands of Texas, we finally came to this little gem, nestling among
the hills, resplendent in----"

"Roas' biff, roas' pork, and lem'," Nort finished.  "How do you get
that way?  Food always do that to you?  Look at the Kid here.  Not
saying a word."

"Good reason for that," laughed Bud.  "He couldn't talk if he wanted
to.  Hey, Kid, they serve supper here, you know."

"Yea?  But I'm takin' no chances!  This place may not be here to-night.
Wow!  What a meal!  Help me up, boys!  Help me up!"  And the Kid
struggled slowly to his feet.  "Guess that'll hold me for a while," he
sighed.

"How about some more pie, Kid?" asked Dick with a grin on his face.

"Pie?  More pie?  Well, now--what kind is there left?"

"Apple, and apple, and--apple."

"Huh!  Don't like them.  Guess I'll take apple.  Yes, a small piece of
apple would just about finish me off."

Billee Dobb put down his fork and gazed up at the Kid.

"Did I understand you to relate that you was goin' to eat some more
pie?" he asked carefully.

"You did--why?"

The veteran rancher arose and, walking over to another table, he seized
a bunch of artificial flowers that were set in a vase.  Carrying them
over to the Kid, he held them reverently out before him.

"My little offering," he murmured, "to one who will be with us no
longer."

The diners in the restaurant, all of whom were observing the scene, let
out a roar of laughter.  It was so ludicrous to see the old puncher
indulge in a joke that it seemed twice as funny as if anyone else had
done it.  Billee Dobb certainly scored heavily.

As the ranchers were leaving the restaurant they passed a Mexican who
was coming in.  Dick looked sharply at him.  Something about the shape
of his back seemed vaguely familiar, and the boy was about to say
something when Joe Hawkins, who was the last out, exclaimed:

"Did you see that Greaser just going in Herb's?  One of the worst men
in town.  I'm telling you because he works on the next place to yours.
If I were you I'd leave him entirely alone.  Not that you'll have
trouble with him--but forewarned, you know.  Well, boys here's where I
leave you.  Got to get back to the office, and see how things are.  I
reckon I'll see you right soon, as you're so close, and anything I can
do for you, let me know ime-jit!  Think I'll take a run out to your
place within the next week, and see how you make out.  Well, _adios_,
boys.  Good luck!"

With a wave of his hand he was off.  The boys were sorry to see him
leave, for he was very pleasant company.

"I have an idea he'll be a good friend," declared Nort as they rode
toward the ranch.  "And if anything turns up, we may need a couple of
such friends."

"He's regular, all right," the Kid agreed.  "Looks as though he could
handle himself in a fight, too.  Doesn't talk much, but when he
does--he says something.  Yep, he suits me to a T."

"Good thing we met him," Dick said.  "Well, boys, here we are!"

In front lay the ranch.  As the five drew closer, they could see that
the houses were well built.  It was indeed in good shape.

"Say, here comes somebody that's sure in a hurry," Billee Dobb said
suddenly.  "Wonder what he wants?"

Riding toward them, dust raising under his bronco's feet, came a lone
horseman.



CHAPTER VI

THE THREAT

Pulling their ponies to a halt, the five gazed curiously at the
approaching rider.  As he drew closer, they noticed he carried a
sawed-off "scatter-gun," otherwise a shotgun.  This in itself was
strange.  No true Westerner ever sports one of these, and they are
looked upon with derision by the regular "gun-totin'" cowboy.  A
long-barreled Colt is the puncher's favorite weapon.

The stranger reined up sharply as he came within talking distance and
looked piercingly at the ranchers as he called out:

"Anything I can do for you?"

"Well, I don' know," answered the Kid slowly.  "You might, and then
again you might not.  What happens to be your special line?"

The stranger scowled.

"That's my business.  What I'm aimin' to find out is, what's yours?"

"This is the Shooting Star, isn't it?" broke in Bud.

"It is."

"Well, we're the new owners.  My name is Bud Merkel--my father just
bought this ranch, and we came over to take possession.  This is Dick
Shannon, and his brother Nort.  Billee Dobb and Yellin' Kid on my
right.  Will that do you?  Now how about tellin' us who you are?"

"Me?  Oh, Jim'll do, I guess.  I happen to be the boss hand on this
here sheep ranch.  So you're the new owners, hey?  Wonder what old 'J.
D.' will have to say to that.  You got papers, I suppose?"

"Certainly.  Here is the bill of sale, and----"

"Take it easy, Bud, take it easy," Billie Dobb cautioned in a low tone
of voice.  "I don't exactly care for this feller's looks."

"Who's 'J. D.'--the one tendin' the ranch now?" asked the Kid.

"Yea--only he's not exactly tendin' it.  He's here, and something tells
me he's goin' to stay here--new owners or not.  'J. D.' don't care much
about owners.  What he's interested in is keepin' what he's got.  And
as far as I can see, he's still got the Shootin' Star."

"I don't like to dispute your word," Nort said hotly, "but we might
have something to say about that ourselves.  Come on, boys, let's ride
in."

"Just a minute--just a minute!  Where you-all countin' on headin' for?"
sneered the lone horseman.

"The ranch house, of course!"

"Now just you let me give you-all a little piece of advice.  I won't
charge nothin' for it, and it _might_ be useful.  If I was you boys,
I'd turn _right_ around and ride the other way.  Tell you what you do,
youngster--" this to Bud--"you tell your father you couldn't find the
ranch."

There was a moment's ominous silence.  The Kid was the first to speak.

"Well, now, stranger, that's kind of you.  Yes, sir, I think that's
right kind of you to take an interest in us like that," he drawled.
"But you know how it is.  We sort of want to find out things for
ourselves.  So if you don't mind--" his tone changed suddenly.  "We'll
be gettin' along to the ranch.  Out of the way, puncher!  Let's go,
boys!"

The stranger's eyes narrowed.  He half raised his rifle, then
apparently thinking better of it, let it drop again.  As the five moved
forward he rode slowly along in the rear.

They reached the corral at the side of the house, and Bud and Dick
dismounted.  Nort, Billee, and the Kid stayed on their ponies.  Walking
to the door of the house, Bud knocked boldly.  There was no answer.  He
knocked again, this time a little harder.  Still no result.

"Wonder if there's anyone around?" asked Dick.  "Suppose we take a look
at the side."

"Here's someone," Bud declared as there was a sound of a key grating in
a lock.  "They certainly keep things tight down here."

The door opened slowly.  In its frame stood a man of slight build, and,
by cowboy standards, dressed effeminately.  He wore a "boiled" collar,
small black string tie, low cut vest and gray trousers.  His long black
hair, with a slight shine on it, was brushed straight back.

"What'll you have, gents?" he asked.  "Lookin' for me?"

"We're looking for the man in charge of the ranch," Dick said slowly.
"If you can qualify, then I guess it's you we want to see."

"Right!  And what can I do for you?"

"This will tell you," spoke Bud, handing him a copy of the bill of sale
for the ranch.  "We're the new owners.  You rent the place, don't you?
I believe the deed says your term was up last month.  Sorry to have to
put you out, but business is business.  Can you get ready to shift by
to-morrow morning, do you think?  We'll make out down in town for
to-night."

The man in the doorway didn't answer.  He read over the paper Bud had
handed him and then looked up.  His expression was anything but
friendly.

"And I'm supposed to beat it out of here, hey?" he asked coldly.

"Afraid so," answered Bud.

The man suddenly stepped to one side.

"Come in a minute, boys," he suggested.  It was evident that his manner
had undergone a change.  He seemed more friendly.

"You just get in?" he asked.

"Yes--we were delayed on the way, or we would have gotten here sooner."

"Sit down, boys."

As the slightly-built man was drawing up chairs Bud cast a quick glance
at Dick.  "Watch out"! his look signaled.  But there seemed no need for
suspicion.  "J. D.," as they had heard him called, appeared harmless.

"I take it you boys are sensible?" he began when they were seated.

"Hope so," Dick answered with a slight grin.  "We've never been in any
asylum that I know of."

"Check!  Now I'd like to talk business with you.  First of all, could
you use one thousand dollars?"

At this surprising query Dick and Bud started.  One thousand dollars!
It represented a small fortune.  Bud thought of the herd of cattle they
had just lost and was about to reply affirmatively, when he felt,
rather than saw, a cautioning look come into Dick's eyes.

"That's a lot of money," declared Dick, before Bud could speak.  "We
could certainly use it, but you know it pays to be careful how one
earns it.  Robbery is a bit out of our line."

"Oh, it's nothing like that--nothing like that at all," the other
assured them quickly.  "This thousand that I speak of can be yours for
just doing me a favor."

"Sounds like a high price to pay for a favor," Dick said.  "But let's
hear the proposition."

"Sure!  It's simply this: you boys let me stay on at the ranch here,
for, say, six more months, and as rental I'll pay you one grand."

"But certainly this place can't be worth that much to you," broke in
Bud thoughtlessly.  It was a very unwise remark, for it was obvious
that this excessive figure was offered for something more than the mere
use of the ranch.  "J. D." had made the mistake of going too high in
his offer, and it instantly awoke suspicion in the minds of Dick and
Bud.  But now that Bud had blurted out this suspicion, the possibility
of being able to secretly find out why they had been offered a thousand
for the place disappeared.  The cards were on the table.

"As to that, I'm the best judge," "J. D." said sharply.  "If you want
to accept, say so.  If you don't--well----."

"Can we have until to-morrow to think it over?" asked Dick.

"Nope--sorry, but I have to have your answer now.  All you have to do
is to sign the present owner's name to a renewal clause--and since he's
your father, he won't object to that," said the man, turning to Bud.

Evidently he was anxious to get things settled as soon as
possible--perhaps before the boys had a chance to investigate.

Dick looked at Bud, and saw that he had permission to take things into
his own hands.  Dick arose.

"Well, sir, we can't do it, and that's that.  We were sent out here to
take charge of this ranch, and we're going to do it, unless Mr. Merkel
tells us to do otherwise.  You must get in touch with him if you want a
renewal of your lease.  And until that time we must take control here.
We are sorry, but we must ask you to make ready to leave by to-morrow
morning."

The man seated opposite did not move.

"Is that your last word?" he asked, slowly.

"Yes, it is.  If we can offer you any assistance in getting ready we'll
be glad to do it."

The man made no response.  He arose suddenly, walked over to the door
and flung it open.  Then he turned to the two boys and with a sneer
upon his face, said:

"Very well!  You've had your say, and now I'll make my little speech.
You guys come over here and think all you have to do is to tell me to
move out, and you move in.  I don't know who you are--never saw you
before.  For that matter I don't want to know.  You show me some kind
of a paper that you may have written yourselves, and expect me to
accept it as a bill of sale.  Well, that's out.  I don't go.

"And another thing!  I don' know how many men you brought with you, but
I've got twelve here that will stick close to me.  So don't start
anything.  Good-day, gents!"

It was a moment before Bud and Dick realized the import of what had
just been said.  Then, tight-lipped, they started for the door.
Neither said a word as they passed out, and behind them the door
slammed shut.

As they approached the three waiting by the corral they must have shown
by their expressions that things had not gone well, for Nort said:

"What's the trouble, Dick?"

"Let's ride around a bit," spoke the Kid quickly.  The rider with the
saw-off shot-gun was still within hearing.  "Great weather we're
havin', ain't it?  Though it might rain soon," and he looked over to
where the other sat with one leg resting against his saddle horn.

"Not so good, hey?" this cowboy called over.  "Come see us again, when
you can stay longer," and he chuckled at his joke.

"We will," answered Nort grimly.  "In fact, we intend to----"

"Now do you know, I think it looks a mite like rain myself,"
interrupted Billee Dobb in a musing tone of voice.  "Them clouds over
there are pretty heavy.  You say you want to ride around a bit, Kid?"

"Yea.  Just a little.  Let's go, men."



CHAPTER VII

A SHEEPLESS SHEEP RANCH

With as few words as possible Bud told the Kid of their talk with "J.
D."  Riding slowly along, the Kid made no comment for several minutes.
Finally Dick burst out:

"For Pete's sake, Kid, let's hear you say something!  Don't you think
it's mighty queer behavior for a tenant of a sheep ranch?  The way I
understand the facts, he hired the place to raise sheep on, about
thirteen months ago.  Now when his year is up he refuses to get off.
There are plenty of other farms further back from the border he could
get.  I don't think your father bought the sheep with this ranch, did
he, Bud?"

"I believe he contracted with the owner that one thousand heads of
woolies were to be sent to him within a month of taking possession.
This tenant, whoever he is, will walk his sheep when he goes, of
course.  I thought it was unusual to hire a ranch to raise sheep on for
only one year, but Dad said the sheep get some sort of a disease if
they're not walked frequently, and I guess this fellow sort of figured
on trying it out for a year before settling down to a permanent place.
The owner of the ranch lives up north somewhere, and Dad simply bought
him out.  Why Dad wanted to go in for woolies I don't know, but he must
have had his reasons."

"Then we won't have to start sheep nursin' right away," Nort said.

"We'll have to get this 'J. D.' out before we can do anything,"
declared Bud.  "What do you think about it, Kid?  I don't want to run
to Dad at the first sign of trouble, but it looks as though we had a
job on our hands before we really begin herding."

Yellin' Kid pushed his sombrero to the back of his head and looked up.

"Well, boys, I'll tell you," he said slowly.  "While Bud and Dick were
inside gassin' I took a good look around.  And I'll tell you a funny
thing; I didn't see no sign of sheep ever being on this here ranch at
all.  No feedin' troughs, no hurdles, no nothin'.  Billee, how about
it?  Did this look like a sheep ranch to you?"

"Not any," the veteran puncher answered laconically.  "Of course I'm no
sheep expert, but I can tell a sheep ranch when I see one.  Usually
they have a feedin' ground around somewhere, for the woolies to feed in
durin' the winter.  And they have troughs to put the fodder in when
they can't get to the range to graze, for sheep are dam perticular what
they eat off of.  Maybe it was away 'round the back somewhere, but I
couldn't spot it."

"That's what I thought," went on the Kid.  "Of course he may have sold
all the sheep a while back, and cleared his truck away at the same
time, but it don't hardly seem likely he could get rid of all traces.
Where ever sheep go, you can usually tell they been there."  He paused
reflectively and added:

"Sort of queer that deputy we met didn't say something about there
bein' no sheep here.  Did you tell him we was expectin' to find a sheep
ranch?"

"Now that you mention it, I don't believe I did," Bud answered.  "I
said we were going to take charge of a ranch.  He probably thought we
were bringing the cattle over later."

"Probably.  So your friend in the house told you he'd give one thousand
bucks if you'd let him stay, did he?"

"Yep.  That made me suspicious right away, and I foolishly spoke up and
told him as much.  Then he said it was his affair if he wanted to pay
that much to stay on.  I knew that Dad wouldn't want me to allow him to
do that without his permission, so I refused--asked him if I could let
him know later.  But no, that wouldn't do.  He wanted me to sign an
extension right away.  Then when I told him I couldn't do that, he
threatened to stay anyway, and practically dared us to put him off."

"He did, hey?  That sort of puts it up to us, don't it?"

"You know what I think would be a good idee?" Billee Dobb broke in.
"We ought to go down and have a talk with Joe Hawkins.  Tell him what
we found, and ask him if he's got any advice he'd like to dish up.
Seemed to me he was a pretty reliable feller."

"Not bad--not bad," said Yellin' Kid approvingly.  "He said he'd be
glad to help us any time.  Not that we're goin' to need any help
gettin' this dude off," he added quickly.  "But it might be a good idea
to have the law on our side."

"We can see him and get him to sign a dispossess notice," Nort
suggested.  "I don't know whether he knows what that is, but it's just
a paper saying we have a right to put out whoever is on the land."

"We'll do that, Nort," agreed Dick.  "Then we can start right.  Let's
get on, fellows.  It's getting late, and we want to catch Hawkins
before he leaves for home."

Spurring their broncoes to a faster pace, the five made their way
toward the town.  The suggestion that they were to confer with the
friendly deputy seemed a wise one, not because they were afraid to
tackle the job of removing "J. D." alone, but because they wanted to
know just how things stood.  Perhaps by inquiry they could gain some
clew as to why the tenant refused to vacate.  If he sincerely wanted an
extension of his lease to legitimately conduct the business of
ranching, he was going about it in a queer way.

As the riders reached the town, they stopped a cow puncher and asked
where they could find Joe Hawkins.

"Right down the street a ways," they were told.  "Can't miss it.  Jail,
court house and sheriff's office all in one.  Some shootin' been goin'
on?"

"Not that we know of," Dick laughed.

"Though there might be soon," said Bud impetuously.

"How's that?  You figgerin' on pluggin' someone, youngster?" the cowboy
inquired with a grin.

"Not hardly," the Kid spoke quickly.  "We just want to see Hawkins
about some land.  Thanks for the info."

Their friend looked back at Bud and grinned again as he rode away.

"Evidently thinks you're an amateur bad man," said Billee Dobb.
"You'll have a reputation in this town before you know it, Bud."

By this time they had reached the sheriff's office.  All dismounted and
went in.

They found Hawkins seated in a chair talking to another man who was
leaning against the side wall gazing out of the window.  The deputy
sprang to his feet as he saw the boys, the light of welcome in his eyes.

"Come in, boys, come in.  Jerry, I'd like you to meet some new friends
of mine.  This here is Bud Merkel.  Over here is--er----"

"My cousins, Nort and Dick Shannon," finished Bud.  "And Billee Dobb
and Yellin' Kid--if he ever had another name I've forgotten it, and I
guess he has too."

The deputy's friend laughed and Joe said:

"This is Jerry Adler, boys.  Say, I thought you fellers were headed for
the Shootin' Star?"

"We were," Bud answered, "but something happened that we want to ask
you about."

"Guess I'll be goin'," said Jerry Adler.  "I'll drop in to-morrow about
that matter, Joe.  No hurry, you know."

"All right, Jerry.  Glad to see you any time.  Now, boys," and he
turned to the five standing near him, "what can I do for you?  Or is it
just a friendly visit?  If it is, I'm right glad you stopped in.  Now
that you're here, you must come over to my place for supper.  Got the
best cook you ever saw."

"Thanks, Mr. Hawkins," responded Bud.  "We may take advantage of that
later.  But just now we want to ask your advice."

"Go right to it, Bud.  If I can help you I'll sure do it!"

"When we went over to the Shooting Star," Bud began, "we expected to
find a sheep ranch.  Instead we find a place that could be used for
sheep, but certainly isn't now.  We went in and showed our credentials,
and asked the occupant, who was called 'J. D.,' I think, if he could
move out by to-morrow, so we could get ready to move in.

"Whoever this 'J. D.' is, he isn't a cow puncher, nor a herder either.
He's dressed like a Chicago dude," stated Bud.

The deputy nodded understandingly.  Evidently he was not surprised at
Bud's description of the Shooting Star and its tenant.

"Well, as I say, we asked him to leave.  He not only refused, but
threatened trouble if we tried to put him out.  Said he had twelve men
who'd help him, too.  So we thought, if you'd give us a dispossess
notice, we could go up there with authority and if he still turned
ugly--well--we could do as we thought fit."

"I see.  He told you he wouldn't leave?"

"Yes."

"He has no right to stay there, has he?"

"None at all.  He rented the ranch from the man who formerly owned it,
but his lease was up a month ago.  Dad bought the place free and clear.
We were to manage it for him, and take charge of the sheep when they
came in.  I believe they are to be driven over in about two weeks."

"In about two weeks?  Well, boys, I can't exactly say I'm surprised at
your story.  I don't mind sayin' we've been puzzled at the actions of
this 'J. D.'--James Delton, I think his name is--for some time now.
When he first came he did have some sheep--not many, and he sold them a
month after he took the ranch.  Since then it's been empty, though, as
he says, he's got a number of hands on the place.  They keep it in good
shape, as you may have noticed.  But what his business is nobody seems
to know.  Of course out here a man doesn't go pryin' into other
people's affairs unless he's fairly certain there's something wrong.
I'll go to Shooting Star with you!"

Taking his belt and pistol holster from a hanger, the deputy led the
way from the office.  Mounted once more, the party swung away toward
the Shooting Star ranch.  Nort looked over at the Kid.

"Why that smile, Kid?" he asked.

"Was I smilin'?  I didn't know it.  Say, Nort, looks as though we might
hand ourselves somethin' of a time before we finish with this 'J. D.'
feller."

"And you're kind of hopin' we do, hey Kid?  The last time I saw you
smile like that was just before we had that fight with the Del Pinzo
gang.  Hope you don't expect another ruckus out here, as bad as that
one."

"And if we did, I suppose you'd run away and hide your head," laughed
the Kid derisively.  "Yes you would not!  You'd be in the thick of it
with the rest of us."

"Perhaps," admitted Nort with a grin.  "However, I really don't think
we'll have any trouble.  From Bud's description of Delton he's sort of
a weak-kneed type.  We'll just have to tell him what's what, and I'm
sure he'll back down."

"Can't tell," the Kid averred.  "Those Dudes have sometimes got a mean
lot of fight in them."

Up ahead Joe Hawkins and Bud were talking in low tones.  Finally Bud
turned about and called to the rest:

"Close up a minute, fellows.  Mr. Hawkins has something to say before
we reach the ranch."

"It's just this," began the deputy, when they had gathered around him.
"The way I figure, there's no sense of us all going in to see Delton.
If we call on him like a delegation, he'll get het up, and be more
disagreeable than if we went about this thing quietly.  Now Bud and I
will go in.  You four stay around the corral, and Kid and Billee, while
you're waiting, you might take a ride around and size up the place.
See if you can discover traces of sheep bein' here in the last six
months, and whatever else you can find out.  All right, boys, here we
are.  Remember what I told you, Kid.  Let's go, Bud!"

The two dismounted.  Turning their horses over to Nort, they walked
toward the ranch house.  The deputy stepped to the door and knocked.

"He took quite a while to answer when we were here before," Bud
suggested.  "Better knock again."

The deputy did so.

"'Pears like he don't care for no visitors.  Wonder if we can see
anything by lookin' in the window?"

"I'll have a try," volunteered Bud.  Stepping to the side of the house
he peered in the casement.

"Too dark," he reported.  "Can't see a thing!"

"Must be somebody around," Hawkins declared, as he knocked again, this
time more loudly.

Within all was quiet.

"Funny," he commented.  Then suddenly he turned the doorknob.  The door
swung open.  After a quick glance the deputy walked in.

"Not a soul in sight!" he called after a minute.  "The place is sure
deserted.  Not only have they got no sheep on this place, but even the
men are gone now!"



CHAPTER VIII

CYCLONE

Following the deputy into the house, Bud looked about.  The place
_felt_ vacant.  It had an atmosphere of emptiness.  The furniture in
the rooms had a tossed-about appearance, as though the occupants had
made a hurried exit.  A cheap vase lay on the floor by the mantel,
broken.  Rugs were kicked up.

"Well, what do you think of that?" Bud said slowly.  "They're gone!
Vamoosed!  And quick, too.  Must have done some tall hustlin' to get
out in that short time.  Wonder what the idea was?  Do you think Delton
might be around back, or somewhere outside?"

"Better look, anyway."  Hawkins stepped to the doorway and suddenly let
out a yell.

"Yo-o-o-o, Kid!  Over here!"

"Yo-o!" came the answer.  "Right there!" and Yellin' Kid, together with
Billee Dobb, rode to the ranch house.

"What'll you have!" the Kid called as he came up.

"Take a ride around the place and see if you can locate someone; will
you?  The house is empty."

"Right!  Billee, you ride to the left and I'll go this way.  Back in
two shakes."

"Mighty queer where everyone has disappeared to," Hawkins commented.
"When you were here before, Bud, did they look as though they were
getting ready to light out?"

"Nope--just the opposite.  As I told you, Delton insisted that he was
going to stay.  I can't imagine what scared them off.  Unless Delton
decided discretion was the better part of valor.  It certainly doesn't
seem logical that they'd make tracks like this, after what Delton said."

"Here comes the Kid.  Got someone with him; hasn't he?" asked Bud.

"He sure has--a Mex, I'd say."

"The lone survivor!" the Kid yelled as he rode toward them.  "Bud,
recognize him?" and he pushed the Mexican, whom he held by the collar,
forward.

"Why, he's the fellow we saw in the restaurant!  Remember, Mr. Hawkins?
The one you pointed out; isn't he?"

"You mean Pete Alvido?  Come 'ere, son--let's have a look at you."  The
deputy peered closely.  "Nope!  Sure looks like Pete, but it isn't.
'Nough like him to be his brother, though.  Hey, Mex, what's your name?
What are you doin' around here?"

The Mexican didn't answer.  He simply shrugged his shoulders, and stood
silent, his face expressionless.

"Speak up, boy!  What's your name?"

Still no reply.

"Lost your tongue, Mex?" the Kid broke in.  "Take my advice, and answer
when you're spoken to."  The Kid touched his gun suggestively.  Not
that he would have thought of enforcing his half-uttered threat, but he
simply wanted to show the Mexican they meant business.

At this the man gesticulated toward his throat, and a guttural sound
came from his lips.

"Why the pore cuss means he's dumb!" exclaimed Billee Dobb, who had
ridden in.  "Can't speak!  Hey you!  No spik?  No _habla_?"

The Mexican shook his head forcibly.

"A dumb Greaser!" cried the Kid.  "Well, he's not much of a find.  He's
the only one left of this outfit, though.  Hey, Mex!  Where's the boss?
Gone?"

With a widespread gesture of his arms the man indicated his lack of
knowledge of the subject.  At least he seemed to understand a little
English.

"Can't get much out of him," Hawkins commented.  "Well, boys, seems
like you'll have no more trouble takin' possession of the Shootin'
Star.  It's yours.  Say--" and he turned to their captive.  "What's
your job?  Vaquero?  Herder?  Cook?"  At the last word the Mexican
nodded vigorously.  "You're in luck, boys.  Here's a cook all ready for
you.  Got any food inside?  Eats?" the deputy asked the Mexican.  He
was answered with another affirmative shake of the head.

"Now you're all fixed up for the night.  Might as well call in the
other two.  What's their name again?  Shannon, isn't it?  Kid, you give
'em a yell.  You seem to be able to do that particularly well."

Nort and Dick came riding over in response to the Kid's summons.

"Who's this you got, Kid?" asked Nort.  "Some friend of yours?  Why,
he's the Mexican we saw in Herb's!"

"No he isn't--that's what I thought too," Bud said.  "Mr. Hawkins says
it's another--though it sure looks like him.  This one's dumb."

"What do you mean--stupid?"

"No--can't talk.  At least he says he can't--I mean he wants us to
understand that he can't."  Bud corrected himself.

"I've got to be getting back," interrupted the deputy.  "I suppose you
men will settle here, now that you've got a cook and food.  That is, if
he'll cook for you and you want to take a chance that he won't poison
you.  Hey, you--cook for _hombres_?"

Again that vigorous nod.

"Seems agreeable enough.  Now if you want anything, you know where to
reach me.  If it's at night, you'll find me down the street 'bout half
a mile from the office, on the same side.  Anyone will tell you where
Joe Hawkins's place is.  So long, boys.  Again, good luck."

"Good-bye, Mr. Hawkins.  We're much obliged to you for riding over with
us."

"Glad to do it, Bud.  Any time at all.  Git along there, bronc.
_Adios_!"

"So-long!"

"'Bye!"

"At last we're here," Nort declared.  "No trace of anyone around; hey
Bud?  Wonder what became of them.  I wouldn't mind seeing our little
friend with the sawed-off shot-gun again."

"Let's not look for trouble," Dick suggested.  "I think what happened
was that this fellow you call 'J. D.' decided to take the opportunity
to get out without trouble.  I don't believe we'll see him again."

"Maybe not.  We've got enough to worry about without him.  Kid, suppose
you take charge of getting things ready for the night.  Those sheep
won't be here for a week or so, and in the meantime we can fix things
up a bit.  To-morrow I'll go scouting around for a good sheepman.
There ought to be plenty in town.  All right, Kid, we're under your
orders."

"Check!  Nort, you take the horses to the corral and see that they get
fed.  I guess you'll find some feed around somewhere--there's a barn
down there a piece--look there.  Dick, you go see what sort of sleepin'
quarters they got here.  It might be well for us to stay here in the
house for the night.  We can settle on a bunk house later.  The rest of
you can make yourselves generally useful.  I'll go 'tend to the eats.
Mex, we need food!  Where's the kitchen?"

Apparently understanding, the Mexican led the way toward the rear,
followed by the Kid.  The lay-out of the place was a great deal like
that of the ordinary cattle ranch.  Indeed, if one were not wholly
familiar with the types of dwellings which dot the Texas border, he
would be hard put to show the difference between a cattle and a sheep
ranch.  The corral of the cattle ranch would be built of stronger
boards, and on the sheep ranch, or "farm," there would be huge vats for
"dipping" the sheep, to cure them of any disease they might have
contracted.

But except for these minor differences the two ranches are much the
same.  Of course the personnel of the sheep ranch would not be as
extensive as that of the cattle ranch--one herder being able to
adequately care for two thousand head of sheep.  In shearing time the
ranch hands are increased, to take care of this added labor.

So it is not strange to find five hands prepared to take over the
management of a whole sheep ranch.  Naturally it would be necessary to
hire some "sheep man" to handle the technical part of the venture, for
sheep are delicate creatures, and a green manager could easily lose his
whole herd in short order.

It was now five o'clock.  With a fire roaring in the kitchen and the
ranchers hurrying here and there about the place, it seemed home-like
and cheerful.

"Be all set in half an hour," the Kid called to Bud as he stepped out
in the yard for a moment.  "Found plenty of bacon and beans, and enough
other stuff to make a pretty fair meal.  Reckon you-all can eat, if
you're anything like me.  What do you think of the place, Bud?"

"Pretty fair, Kid, pretty fair.  Looks as though we may be able to make
something of it.  I've been thinking of buying a radio outfit to keep
us company on long winter evenings.  You know we bring in the sheep
then, and we'll have to stick close to home to take care of them."

"A wireless!  A sparkin' outfit!  What are you goin' to do, Bud, put
them woolies to sleep with music?"

"Hardly that," Bud laughed.  "You'll be glad we got it when you hear
some of the big fights being reported, just as though you were at the
ringside.  But apart from that, what do you make of this situation,
Kid?"

"You mean comin' back here an' not findin' anybody?  Gee, I don't know,
Bud!  Might be any one of several reasons why this 'J. D.' bird skipped
out.  'Course I didn't actually see him, but something tells me he
couldn't stand a close look-in to his ways and means of business.

"'Course I shouldn't run down a guy that I never saw.  But there's been
a lot of funny work goin' on in these parts, and if anyone wanted to be
crooked, this is the best place in the world for it.  You know this
ranch property is right on the border line between Mexico and U. S."

"Say, Kid, look how dark it's getting all of a sudden," Bud interrupted
as he looked up into the sky and tested with his hand the direction of
the slight breeze blowing.  "Wind's in the east.  Rain, I guess.
Getting hotter, too.  Why yes, Kid, I guess you're right about this
ranch being a good place to pull shady work.  But I don't believe we'll
have any trouble."

The Kid whirled around.  The next moment he was on his way inside.

"Get the others together!" he yelled.  "There's a cyclone comin'!"

Bud scarcely heard him.  He stood still, fascinated by the tremendous
spectacle.



CHAPTER IX

DELTON RETURNS

Cyclones are somewhat rare visitors on the prairies, but when they do
come they make up for lost time.  Bud, though he had lived the greater
part of his life on the range, had never seen one.  Now he stood with
his face to the east, drinking in the awesome sight.

The eastern sky was covered with a blanket of black, ominous-looking
clouds, which quickly expanded and filled the whole heavens with their
darkness.  The breeze had died away and a deathlike stillness hung in
the air.  Nature seemed to be hesitating, gathering up her forces for a
tremendous onslaught.  Suddenly the black clouds in the east were
tinted to a coppery color, which slowly turned to a dark green.  And
still Bud stood, oblivious to all else save the grandeur of the scene
before him.

Within the ranch house the men were scurrying about, shutting windows,
glancing out now and then to see the progress of the approaching storm.

Billee Dobb ran to where the Kid was struggling with one of the sashes.

"How about the horses!" he yelled.  Though there wasn't a sound
without, by a curious phenomena the men talked in shouts, as though
they were trying to make themselves heard above a roaring.

"Isn't Nort out there?" the Kid answered, also loudly.  "Better make
certain, Billee!  They'll be killed sure if the funnel takes them
sideways!"

"If the funnel hits us we won't care whether we ever saw a bronc or
not!" answered the veteran rancher.  "We'll all be usin' wings then,
not ponies.  I'll take a look outside."

"Take Dick with you!  I'm finished here.  We've only got about six
minutes before she hits.  What a fine welcome this is!  We no sooner
get settled, after havin' a time doin' that, when we're all set to get
blown away."

The Kid was hurrying to the back of the house.  He hesitated as he
reached the kitchen, and looked in.

"By the ghost of my aunt Lizzie's cat!" he cried as he saw through the
doorway.  "If that crazy Mex ain't still fryin' bacon just as calm as
if he was on Fifth Avenoo!  Hey, you locoed Greaser, big wind comin'!"
He gesticulated vigorously.  "Whosh-whosh!  Whee!  Zip-zip-bang!  All
over!  Savvy?"  He stopped his dramatic explanation of the oncoming
cyclone to see if the Mexican understood.  To his surprise the cook
nodded several times and pointed toward the sky, turning his other arm
windmill fashion.  His lips gave forth a whistling sound.  After this
demonstration he motioned to his bacon, rubbed his stomach, shrugged
his shoulders, and went on with his cooking.  No words could have said
plainer:

"Sure!  I know.  Cyclone coming.  What of it?  Can't stop it now.  Must
eat.  Might as well stay here and cook.  Hey?"

"Well, if you're not a cool customer!" the Kid cried, shoving his hands
deep into his pockets and tilting back on his heels.  "Cook!  Go ahead
an' cook!  You might just as well say hello to St. Peter with a fryin'
pan in your hand as not.  How does she look, Nort?" he asked as the boy
rancher came in the door.

"Not so good!  Where's Bud?"

"Bud?  I thought he was with you.  Maybe he's helping with the
broncoes.  I'll take a squint here in back--" as the Kid stepped into
the yard he saw Bud--standing silent, widened eyes staring at the sky.
The Kid started back in surprise.

"Another guy that's gone locoed!  First the cook, and then you!  Hey,
Nort, take a look at Bud.  He's in a trance or something!  Wake up,
time to get up!"

"Wonderful!" murmured Bud, without turning his head.  "Isn't that
wonderful, Kid?  See those colors!  The most marvelous thing I ever
saw.  If I could only paint that!  It would be a sensation!"

"Sensation ain't all you'll be if you don't start movin' quick!" the
Kid declared.  "Nort, take Bud with you and see if everything is all O.
K.  We've got about three minutes before the show starts.  I think
we'll be able to tell if the funnel is goin' to hit us, and if it does,
we've got to let things ride and head for the cellar."

He stopped suddenly.  The five leaned forward, tense, still.

A low moaning filled the air.  First like the drone of a huge
bumble-bee, it gradually increased in intensity.  The ranchers strained
their eyes toward the east, where the copper tint had merged to a
sickly green.  A light breeze sprang up, hot, suffocating.

"Here she comes, boys!  Heads up!  Get ready to make a dive for the
cellar!"

All looked around to make sure that the door of the cyclone cellar--a
dugout ten feet from the house--was within easy reach.  They moved a
bit closer.

Then it happened.  From out of the greenish clouds tore a huge black
funnel, tip down, capped with a wreath of lightning.  With a roar it
beat its way across the prairie.  As it rushed along it took with it
all movable things.  Lined with brushes, trees and dust, it seemed to
head straight for the ranch.

The five waited no longer.  With a leap they reached the cyclone
cellar.  The Kid was the last in, and just before he disappeared below
ground he looked again at the roaring funnel of wind.  It was almost
upon them.  In another moment, unless a near-miracle occurred, there
would be nothing left of the Shooting Star but a few timbers.  The
ranch lay directly in the path.

Cyclones are freaks of nature.  Even as the Kid watched, hoping that
the terrible funnel might be diverted, nature gave a demonstration of
one of its most startling feats.  The funnel lifted.

Within three hundred yards of the ranch the tip raised above the
ground.  As though a giant hand had pulled it up into the heavens, the
whirling, twisting cyclone merged into the blackness overhead.  A
tremendous pressure beat against the Kid's body.  The air about was
tingling with electricity.  And there, directly above the Kid's head,
sailed the terrible funnel, Its tip held harmlessly aloft from contact
with the ground, thundering and screaming in disappointed rage.  For
several seconds the "twister" remained suspended.  Then two hundred
yards past the ranch it dipped to earth again, and went smashing along
on its mission of destruction and death.

The ranch was saved.

The Kid silently led the way out of the cellar.  As the five stood once
more above ground, they looked about at the surroundings.  Off in the
distance the cyclone could be seen whirling along, gradually growing
smaller and smaller as it departed.  As they watched the terror
disappear, a prayer of thankfulness was in the heart of each.  It was
indeed a near-miracle that had saved the ranch from complete
annihilation.

Bud was the first to speak.  His utterance was not exactly fraught with
elegancy, but it expressed the feelings of all.

"Whew!" he said with a long, drawn-out sigh.

"And then some!" cried Dick.  "What a show that was!"

"Boy!" Billee Dobb breathed.  "I'm sure glad we got missed!  When I saw
that ole baby comin', I says 'raise yore sights, buster, raise yore
sights!  You got the wrong range!'  An' blamed if she didn't raise,
too!"

A laugh started--the kind that relieves the soul after a tense and
dangerous moment.  Bud broke out in a loud guffaw.  Then the Kid let
loose--and for two minutes the air re-echoed with the shouts of glee of
the five ranchers.  Nothing really to laugh at; this laughter was not
exactly in appreciation of Billee's remark.  It was more in the nature
of a celebration.

"Whusch!" cried Bud weakly, when he could get his breath.  "You crazy
coot!  So you're the one that lifted the cyclone, hey?  Well, you sure
did a good job of it!"

The ranchers made their way over to where the horses had been tied.

"O. K.!" Dick yelled as he came up.  "They're all there.  Not a hair on
'em touched.  Bet they thought it was the end of the world, though!"

"Sure!" assented Nort.

"Now, now, old hoss!" Dick said soothingly as he stroked the nose of
his pony.  "Scared, eh?  Well, I don't blame you a bit.  Look at this
one shake!  Take it easy, boy--it's all over.  Easy, there!  Feel
better now?  That's the stuff--walk around a bit.  Do you good.
Steady!  Steady!"

The horses were quickly calmed.  Assured by the presence of their
masters that they were safe, they soon stopped quivering, and breathed
easier.  A good horse trusts implicitly in his rider.

"I'll take 'em over nearer the house," declared the Kid.  "They'll feel
better when they get movin'.  By the way--wonder what happened to our
cook?  Last time I saw him he was fryin' bacon.  Take a run to the
kitchen, Dick, and look, will you?"

"Sure.  Say, there's one shack down," Dick said as he pointed to the
wreck of a small building.

"Probably was a bunk house.  We won't need one of those for a while,
anyway.  Well, will you look at that roof!"  The Kid indicated another
out-house.  Its roof was turned directly around, so that the back was
where the front should be.  Not a board on it was broken.

"Looks like a crazy-house down at Coney Island!" laughed Nort.  "Dick,
I thought you were going to see about eats?  I'm starved."

Dick walked toward the kitchen.  Before he got there the aroma of
cooking bacon told the waiting cowboys that the Mexican was still on
the job.

"Must have the whole place full of food by this time," Bud commented.
"Think I'll take another look around, Kid.  Billee, you want to come
along?  I just want to make sure we haven't missed anything."

The two set off on a tour of inspection.  It was growing dark now, and
it would soon be too late to repair that night anything that was
damaged.

"Guess we haven't lost much," Bud said to the veteran rancher.  "We're
pretty lucky, eh, Billee?"

"Sure are!  We'll just look around the corner of this building,
however, and then go back.  I'm sort of hungry myself."

"Me too.  Hope that Mex has--"  Bud broke off suddenly.  He peered hard
at the earth in the shadow of the shack.  Then he walked swiftly over.

On the ground lay the body of a man, face down.  Bud grasped him gently
by the arm and turned him over.  On his forehead was a long cut, from
which blood was flowing.  Bud looked sharply at his face, then started
back in surprise.

"Well, I'll be jiggered!" he said slowly.  "It's Delton!"



CHAPTER X

BUD FINDS A NOTE

Billee Dobb approached deliberately and gazed long and earnestly into
the face of the recumbent man.

"So that's Delton, is it?" he said.  "He sure took a funny way to come
back.  Wonder if he's--" the rancher stooped swiftly and laid his hand
on the breast of the man.  "Nope!  Still living.  We'd better get him
to the house soon as possible.  Grab hold there, Bud."

Lifting him as gently as they could, so they might not cause the blood
to flow more strongly, they carried the injured man toward the ranch
house.  They laid him on the couch in the living-room, which was known
as the "parlor," and generally reserved for funerals.

"I'll get some water and bandages--if I can find any," said Bud when he
had disposed of his burden.

"That white shirt of the Kid's will do," Billee suggested as Bud made
for the door.  "He's got it rolled up in his saddle pack."

The man on the couch seemed to be breathing more strongly now.  The
blood from the cut had partly clotted, and the flow was greatly
diminished.  But a glance at his face showed that he was in a very weak
condition.

"Must have been lyin' out there quite a spell," Billee commented, as
Bud returned with the shirt and a basin of water.  The news of the
unconscious visitor had traveled fast, for Dick, Nort and the Kid
followed Bud into the room.

"Who is he?" asked the Kid as he bent over.  "Little feller, ain't he?"

"Recognize him, Dick?" Bud said, kneeling down by the man's side and
dipping one end of the shirt in his basin.

"No, can't say that I--yes I do, too!  It's the fellow that was here
when we came--the one who offered us the thousand!  It's 'J. D.'!"

"Right.  We found him lying over by a shack, dead to the world.  Billee
and I carried him in here.  Seems to have a nasty cut, but I don't
believe it's dangerous.  Way he talked to me here awhile ago, he's too
ornery to die."

"Must have been caught in the big wind," Nort said.  "Hit by a board,
probably."

"So that's Delton, hey?" Yellin' Kid drawled.  "Well, mister, I'm
pleased to make your acquaintance.  You don't look pertikerly dangerous
to me.  But you can't tell about these quiet ones.  Liable to fly up
any minute.  Don't wash that blood off, Bud!  Leave it lay.  Have him
bleedin' again if you don't watch out.  Nort, mosey out an' see if that
dumb Mex has got the coffee ready.  Bring in some, will you?  Leave the
'Canned cow' out of it.  When this boy wakes up he wants something
strong."

The man's eyes opened for a minute, then closed again.  The dusk
outside was settling rapidly now, and the room was growing darker.
Dick ran to the kitchen and returned with a lighted candle, which he
held close to the head of the recumbent figure.  By this time their
visitor had regained consciousness, and was staring wide-eyed at the
group surrounding the couch--three men leaning expectantly over his
body, while a fourth held a lighted candle aloft like a weird statue.
Little wonder that a man awaking to such surroundings would be somewhat
bewildered.

"How do you feel, mister?" Yellin' Kid asked solicitously when he saw
that Delton was conscious.

"Not so--good," was the jerky answer.  "Stomach--sick--head feels--"

"Swally this," urged Billee holding to his lips the steaming coffee
Nort had brought from the kitchen.  "Sure it's hot!  Don't want cold
sody, do ya?  'At's-a-boy--drink 'er down!  Better now?"

"Yea," the man answered in a weak voice.  "What happened?  Woolworth
tower fall on me?  Wow!  What a head!  Seems to me I remember takin' a
subway train at Times Square--or was that last year?  Can't just think
straight now----"

"New York," whispered Bud to Dick.  "Thought he didn't look like a
westerner!"

"Just you lay quiet," advised Yellin' Kid.  "Won't do you a bit of good
to talk now.  Got lots of time to do that.  You stay here to-night,
an'----"

"I remember now!  That storm!  I was riding over toward the Shootin'
Star ranch, when the sky got black, and that dumb-bell horse of mine
started to act up.  The next minute I got hit by a ton of bricks."

He was silent a moment, thinking.

"Say--" he suddenly propped himself up on one elbow and glanced around.
"I know where I am!  Yes.  And I know you--and you!" pointing at Bud
and Dick.  "You're the two galoots that--oh!" he finished weakly, and
sank back.  He closed his eyes again.  It was not evident to the
watchers whether he had really fainted, or whether he realized he was
talking too much.

At all events it was useless to expect him to say more.  At Bud's
suggestion he was carried upstairs, and after his heavier clothing had
been removed he was laid in one of the beds.  He seemed to be resting
easily, and if his sleepy attitude was simulated at first, it certainly
was not now, as his regular breathing and relaxed condition indicated.

"Better let him sleep," Dick said in a low voice.  "He'll be all right
when he wakes up.  The bleeding from his head has stopped, and if he
had anything else the matter he would have told us.  I think we'd all
better eat.  Let's get out of here, anyway--we'll disturb him if we
talk much."

"Eat!" exclaimed the Kid when they had all left the room wherein Delton
lay.  "Let's see now--have I heard that word before, or did I dream it?
Believe me, when I sit down to this chow nothin' is goin' to drag me
away--fire, wind or flood!  Seems like that Mex cook of ours is a
hoodoo.  Every time we start to eat something happens."

"Guess we'll go through with it all right this time," Dick remarked
with a laugh.  "Here we are, boys.  Set!  And go to it!  Enough bacon
here for an army.  Kid, go easy on that bread!  You want to choke?"

The five were seated around a table in the rear of the house.  In the
middle of the table was a huge plate of bacon, and next to this was a
mess of beans, steaming hot.  Bread, butter, coffee and condensed milk
or "Canned cow" completed the repast.

"Wonder where the Mex got all this food?" Nort asked as he reached for
the bread.  "Real good, anyhow.  Guess we'd better keep the Greaser, if
he'll stay."

"Keep him 'til we get settled," added Dick.  "I don't exactly like his
looks.  He's too much like the Mex that Joe Hawkins pointed out--the
one he said to watch out for--remember?--to suit me."

"Don't be tryin' to find trouble, Dick," advised Bud.  "That Mex is
just as good as the next one.  But it is funny why he should be
lingering around here when all the rest lit out.  And to have this food
all ready for us.  Well----"

"Got a few suspicions up your own sleeve, eh?" laughed Dick.

"Boys," Billee said slowly, "I want to tell you something.  You
remember what your Dad said about smugglin', Bud?"

At the word the men at the table gave a slight start.

"Yes, smugglin'.  You'd forgot all about it, hadn't ye?  Well, I ain't.
While we were in Hawkins's office I noticed a bill-head on his desk.  I
took it.  Here it is."

He passed over the paper to the Kid.  The others got up and leaned over
the Kid's shoulder, reading it.

"Two thousand dollars' reward," said the Kid haltingly, "for the a-rest
and con-viction of--the person whose picture is below, and who is known
in New York as Dapper Dan Craven.  He is wanted for smuggling Chinese.
Escaped custody at----"

He stopped.  His eyes sought the picture.

"By the ghost of my aunt Lizzy's cat!" he exclaimed.  "If it ain't our
friend Delton!"

Bud reached over and slowly took the paper from the Kid's nerveless
hand.

"Delton!" he cried, as he saw the picture.  "Just as sure as I'm
living, that's who it is!"

"But why didn't Hawkins arrest him, then?" Nort asked in a puzzled tone
of voice.  "He knew where he was.  He could have come out any time and
put the bracelets on him and he'd have his man."

"Now, boys, if you'll give me a little time, I'll--" started Billee
Dobb in a calm voice.

"Go ahead!"

"We're listenin'!"

"Well, in the first place, I don't think Joe Hawkins ever saw this
Delton.  You know what a hard job we had gettin' to the ranch--I bet if
we had had Hawkins with us we would have had to fight our way in.
That's what that guard was out for--the one that tried to stop us.  He
knew we weren't deputies, so he let us go through.

"Also, that bill was just printed and sent to Hawkins.  Perhaps he
didn't have time to look at it.  And say--that accounts for Delton's
quick get-away, too.  One of his men rode in an' told him that there
was a price on him, and he got, fast.  He must have made this ranch his
headquarters.  No wonder he didn't have no sheep around!  Boys, we can
expect some right excitin' things to happen, in the next few weeks!"

Silence followed Billee's long speech.  The veteran rancher had thrown
a veritable bombshell into camp.  Delton--the man lying asleep
upstairs--the head of the smugglers!  Two thousand dollars' reward!
Why, all they had to do was to tie him up and carry him to town--over
to the deputy's house.  Capturing the smuggling king the first night at
the Shooting Star!  It seemed too good to be true.

"There's a catch in it somewhere," commented Dick.  "No man with a
reward like that on his head is going to dump himself into our hands."

"Why not?  It wasn't his fault.  He came sneakin' around the place to
spy on us and got caught by the cyclone.  Then a board or something hit
him on the head and he fell where we found him.  Nothing strange about
that!  We got him and got him good!  Wow, what can't we do with two
thousand dollars!"

"There's one thing we forgot, boys," the Kid broke in.

"And what's that?"

"We're downstairs, an' Delton is upstairs."

"That's soon fixed!" Bud cried, as he sprang for the steps.  "Let's go,
boys!"

"Take it easy!" cautioned the Kid quickly.  "What's the use of scarin'
him?  We'll just go up there and truss him up while he's asleep.  Won't
hurt him.  That cut on the head was all that ailed him.  Now, take your
time!"

The ranchers moved quietly toward the room in which they had left
Delton.  As he reached the door, Bud opened it slowly and peered in.
Not a sound.  Then he stuck his head in a bit further.  Still no
action.  In the darkness he could see the outline of the bed but
faintly.

Softly he turned the covers down.  Farther--farther!  Then he let out a
yell.

"Hey, come here!  Quick!"

"What's the trouble?" The Kid called as he entered the room.

"He's gone!  He beat it!  Look!"

In the bed, molded into the shape of a man, were two pillows.  Delton
had escaped, leaving the pillows in such a way as to make it appear
that he was still in the bed.

"Here's a note!" Bud cried.  "He left it on one of the pillows.  Let's
have that candle, Dick."

By the flickering spluttering light of the candle Bud read aloud:


"Sorry I got to go so sudden, but this bed is too hard.  I wouldn't
sleep well.  If you guys want a little advice, you'll move along out of
this section.  It ain't healthy.  A word to the wise.  J. D."



CHAPTER XI

JOE HAWKINS'S VISIT

"Can you beat that!" Nort ejaculated when Bud finished reading.
"Nerve--that Delton certainly has his share of it!"

The feeling which the note aroused was not just one of disappointment.
The Kid seemed highly amused at the turn events had taken.  Billee Dobb
assumed an "I-told-you-so" expression which sat comically on his
grizzled features.  The rest looked slightly bewildered.

"Got away, didn't he?" Dick asked in a flat tone of voice.  "Through
the window, I guess.  Yep.  Slid down the rain water leader.  Well----"

"An' he took with him your wireless and your new bunch of cattle," the
Kid remarked sardonically.  "Never count the chickens before they
scratch.  Mr. Delton is a slicker article than we figgered on."

"Let's see the note a minute, Bud," Nort said.  "Huh--'bed too
hard--couldn't sleep!' Wise sort of a bird; isn't he?  Say, he must
have written this as soon as we left the room."

"Why?"

"Because if he waited too long he couldn't have seen to write--too
dark.  That means he's far away by this time.  He probably----"

"The horses!  Ten to one he grabbed one of them an' beat it!" Yellin'
Kid cried.

Without further parley the boys and men filed from the room and made
for the corral.  The horses had been tied to a pole nearest the house,
and they were not long in reaching them.  They could be easily seen in
the moonlight which now flooded the prairie.

"Mine's there!" Bud yelled as he came within view of the animals.
"Guess you're wrong, Kid.  Seems like there's--no there isn't, either!
Only four!  Whose mount is missing?"

"You might know it," the Kid said disgustedly.  "The coot took
mine--out of all that bunch to pick from, he had to rustle my new
bronc!  By golly, if ever I set eyes on you again, you old----"

"Take it easy!" laughed Bud.  "Could be a lot worse.  He might have
turned the rest of 'em loose, too."

"No use beefin' about it," said Billee Dobb.  "All over now.  He's
gone--an' so's the Kid's bronc.  Talk about it in the morning.  Me, I'm
tired!"

The night passed uneventfully.  At sun-up the Kid appeared at the door
of Bud's room and grinned in at him.

"Ready for work?" he cried.

"You mean trailin' your horse, Kid?" Bud asked mischievously.

The grin left Yellin' Kid's face and his eyes flashed.

"No," he said shortly.  "I'll leave that for later.  When I got some
time on my hands that I want to use up in enjoyment.  Then I'll go
after your friend Delton."

"He's no friend of mine," retorted Bud.  "But let's not chop about it
until after breakfast, anyway.  Think that Mexican cook is on the job?"

"Heard him movin' around a while ago, Bud.  Let's go down an' see.
Billee is downstairs, and I guess Nort an' Dick are too."

When they reached the dining room they found the others waiting for
them.

"Sleep good, boys?" Dick asked.

"Sure did.  Felt like I'd never wake up.  Say, steak this morning!"
Nort cried as he saw the table loaded with food.  "We got _some_ cook
here!"

"Don't it strike you all kind 'a funny that the Mex has got so much
stuff on hand?" Billee Dobb wanted to know.  "Course it _might_ be that
this Delton feller had just stocked up before we came.  Hey, Mex!" he
yelled into the kitchen.  "_Aqui_!  _Pronto_!"

The Mexican strolled calmly to where the five sat waiting.

"Where you get all this?" Billee pointed to the plates of meat.

The Mexican shrugged his shoulders and motioned toward the kitchen.

"Boss leave it here?"

Another shrug.

"Now listen, Mex.  You know what I mean.  You nod or shake your head
when I ask you questions."  Yellin' Kid walked over and stood before
the Mexican.

"First, did you work for this guy Delton?"

A nod.

"Then when he beat it, you stayed here, hey?"

A nod.

"Why?"

"He can't answer that with his head, Kid," Nort broke in.

"I know it, but maybe he can tell us by motions.  Hey?  Why you no go
with Delton?"

The Mexican pointed toward himself, then to the kitchen.  His hands
simulated the job of peeling potatoes.  Then he flung both arms wide,
and moved his head in a semi-circle, eyes opened as though he were
looking for something.

"So he went when you were in the kitchen, hey, an' didn't say nothin'
about it.  Well, that sounds logical."

"Kid, for Pete's sake, let's eat!" Bud interrupted.  "You did
fine--give you a badge as a special detective.  All right, Mex,
outside.  Gee, you certainly are curious, Kid!"

"I just want to know a few things, that's all," Yellin' Kid protested.
"I don't want to get poisoned.  Can't tell who that Mex is--for all we
know he may be one of Delton's men left here to watch us."

"Say, I was thinking the same thing," Dick put in.  "But his graphic
explanation as to why he's here seems to be at least plausible.  If, as
Billee suggested, Delton cut out when he found there was a price on his
head it doesn't seem reasonable that he'd bother taking the cook along.
How about it, Billee?"

"Ain't makin' no statements," the veteran rancher replied slowly.
"Want to think things out a few minutes first."

"Billee's going to solve the great mystery for us!" Nort laughed.
"Never you mind, ole horse, you knew your stuff when you grabbed that
bill-head from Hawkins's office.  The trouble with us was, we were too
slow."

The conversation hit on the topics of the night before as the ranchers
made a healthy breakfast.  When they had satisfied their hunger Bud
leaned back in his chair and said:

"Well, what's on the program this morning, Kid?  Beckon you better take
charge for a while.  Then Dick can be head boss, and so on--'til we get
the sheep in.  O. K.?"

"All right with me, Bud," the Kid agreed.  "One of us wants to take a
ride into town and see about gettin' hold of a sheep-man.  I got to get
me a pony, too."

"I'll go," offered Nort.  "Think I'll look up Hawkins.  He might like
to know what happened."

The five walked slowly into the yard.  The meal seemed to change their
ideas, and set them quietly to thinking.  Bud was leaning against the
side of the ranch house.  The Kid strolled over to the corral and
looked longingly at the four horses tethered there.  Billee Dobb was
seated on the steps smoking his pipe, when he noticed a cloud of dust
in the distance.

"Rider," he said, more to himself than to the others.  "Got a hunch who
it is."

The dust cloud grew quickly nearer, and from it emerged the figure of a
man on horseback.

"Someone coming," Dick called.

"Who is it?" Bud asked.  From where he stood he was unable to see.

"Don't know yet.  Looks familiar, though.  Here he comes."

"It's Joe Hawkins!" exclaimed Bud, as the horseman rode into view.
"Hi, Joe--Mr. Hawkins, I mean."

"Joe'll do, son," the deputy said with a smile as he dismounted.
"Looks like you was havin' a convention here."

"Just thinking things over," the Kid, who had walked up, explained.
"Glad you came, Mr. Hawkins."

"Thought that was you," Billee Dobb said, rising to his feet and
removing the pipe from his mouth.  "Seen you way off, and says to
myself, bet that's Joe Hawkins."

"You got good eyes," laughed the deputy.

"Oh, it wasn't exactly my eyes.  I had a hunch."

"Billee Dobb is our official detective," Bud said with a grin.  "Tell
him about the hand-bill you copped, Billee."

Explanations were in order, and with continuous interruptions the
deputy finally heard the story of the cyclone and what followed.  He
questioned the boys as to the appearance and talk of Delton, and at
last confessed that he must be the man wanted.

"Though I didn't think they knew just who he was," Hawkins added.  "All
I knew was that the reward of two thousand was for the head of the
smuggling system.  So they got him spotted, have they?  That means we
won't have to work in the dark.  It's a wonder the central office
wouldn't give a man the whole story when they're about it, instead of
lettin' it trickle through.  Well, boys, it's time you knew what this
smuggling is all about, hey?"



CHAPTER XII

THE STORY OF SMUGGLING

"Between this country and Mexico," began the deputy, "there's a strip
of land called the border--on one side U. S., and on the other
Greaser-land.  You know all about that.  Across this border run several
roads--passages into and from Mexico.  And each of these roads is
patroled by United States officers.

"These men are placed there for a purpose, and one purpose among others
is to prevent the illegal sending into the States of Chinamen.  You see
only so many foreigners from each nation are allowed to settle in the
United States each year, and once that quota is reached, no more will
be admitted.  Naturally there are always men who want to come to the
"Land of Plenty" and make their fortunes, but unless these men are
within the quota for that year, they are forbidden to enter.  All
Chinese are forbidden entry and have been for several years.

"But there are ways and means of getting around that situation.
Suppose a Chinaman wants to become rich.  The first thing he thinks
about is America.  All he has to do in America, he thinks, is to bend
over and pick up the gold pieces that are lying in heaps all over the
streets.

"So the Chinaman makes up his mind to come to America.  He goes to Foy
Lee, a slick friend of his, to find out about it.  Foy Lee says 'Good
thing you see me.  Sure.  I fix you up.  Easy.  You want go America?
All light.  Can do.  You got fifteen hundred dollah?'  Now where would
a poor Chink get fifteen hundred dollars?  He tells Foy Lee there ain't
that much money in the world.  So Foy Lee starts thinkin'.  He rubs the
top of his head, blinks his eyes, and grunts twice.  Then he says, 'you
still want go America?'  'Sure!' our Chink answers.  'All light,' says
Foy Lee.  'You come with me.'  The rascal knows all the time what to
do, only he wants to make it seem hard, so he can get his little rake
off.

"Foy Lee takes his friend to an office over on a side street in some
Chinese city.  There he meets a man who guarantees him passage to U. S.
if the Chink will just sign the paper.  That's all--no money nor
nuthin'--only sign the paper an' he gets to America.  What is the
paper?  Oh, just a promise that the Chink will pay the company that's
sending him all his future wages--less enough for food--until fifteen
hundred dollars have been paid.  Just a mere matter of slavery, that's
what it amounts to.

"But the Chink signs.  What's fifteen hundred in the land of 'plenty
dollah?'  Now our Chink is put on a vessel bound for Mexico.  There he
is met by an agent of the same company that put him on board in China.

"This agent takes him to a town, near the border--say Presidio, or some
such place.  Then the real fun begins.  The company notifies their man
at headquarters that the Chink has arrived and is ready to be shipped
across the border.  Headquarters looks up the Chink's bond that he
signed in China, and which has been received through the mail, and
sends back word that everything is O. K., that the Chink, with several
others, is to be handed to a smuggler at a certain spot, to be smuggled
over the border.  And when the Chink is so delivered the company's part
ends.

"After this the Chink's fate is in the hands of the smugglers, and if
they get caught, and the poor coot is sent back to China again by the
emigration authorities, he's still got to pay that fifteen hundred,
although all he got for his money was a long ride and hard treatment.

"The border runners take their consignment of Chinese and either pack
them in the back of an auto or wagon, or arrange to smuggle them across
some other way.  If they're lucky, they get through.  If not they get
hauled up by the border officers, and the runners get jail and the
Chinks are sent back to their native land.  And even if they do get
through the lines the Chinks' troubles aren't over, for at any time
they're liable to be pulled in for not having what they call a 'chock
gee,' which is a government paper signifying they are here lawfully and
not by smuggling.  I told you about that before.

"And that's how the game works.  These smugglers get hold of a ranch
near the border so they can hide their Chinks when they get them
across, until the time is set to turn them loose.  'Course I can't say
that's what this place has been used for.  But it would be great for
it."

The narrator paused and the Boy Ranchers drew long breaths of
excitement.

"Well, boys, what do you think about it?"

The tall deputy looked from one to the other.  He was prepared for a
deluge of questions, and they came.

"Can't the Chinese counterfeit this 'chock gee'?"

"Who gets the fifteen hundred dollars?"

"Has that smuggling been going on here--near the Shooting Star?"

"Cease firing!" the deputy laughed.  "I'll answer Bud's question first.
Yes, it _has_ been going on here--right past Roaring River.  That's how
our marshal got shot up--tryin' to stop a load of Chinks from gettin'
through.

"That fifteen hundred, Dick, is divided between the men who actually do
the running, and the company that ships the Chinks to Mexico.  The
smugglers get about five hundred a head for every man they get in.  The
'chock gee' is often counterfeited, but not very successfully.  It's
printed like a government bank bill, and is just as hard to fake."

For some time the discussion about smuggling went on.  The deputy told
of the different tricks resorted to by the border runners in getting
their human cargo safely into the United States, and to what lengths
they will go to prevent capture.  Boats are also used to transport the
Chinese to the American seacoast, Hawkins said, and if, by chance, the
runners were caught with a load of prospective undesirable Americans
they got out of the difficulty by the simple expedient of dumping the
Chinese into the sea.

Another method of transportation was for the smugglers to put off in a
small craft from a Mexican port, with a cargo of barrels and Chinese.
When the boat neared the United States coast the Chinese would be
nailed in the barrels and thrown overboard, to trust to the mercies of
Fate to bring them ashore.  Often the wind blows in an offshore
direction, which spells death to the floating Chinese; weeks later they
are found dead, when the barrels pile up on some distant coast.

This system of sneaking Chinese into this country was well established,
said Hawkins, and the smugglers make use of scouts in small cars before
they attempt to bring a load of Chinese across the line.  These scouts
ride swiftly along the route of the proposed entry, and locate,
definitely, the position of each border patrol, so that when the run is
actually made the driver of the car filled with Chinese knows the spots
to avoid.

Of course the Boy Ranchers were chiefly interested in the part their
new Shooting Star property might have played in this game of smuggling.

"And the fellow that lived here is the local head of that system!" Bud
exclaimed.  "Say, we let a rare bird go when he escaped."

"We've still got a chance to get him," Dick declared.  "He must be
around somewhere.  That note--you saw the note we found, didn't you,
Mr. Hawkins?--well, that indicated we might look for another visit from
the coot.  The Kid will be glad to see him, eh, Kid?"

"An' I don't mean maybe!" Yellin' Kid exploded.  "Stealin' the best
bronc I ever had--just when I was gettin' him broken in proper--an' me
away out here in the wilderness with nothin' to ride----"

"I'll get you a pony," the deputy offered.  "There's one I know of
that's a beaut--fast and strong.  Friend of mine wants to sell her."

"I'd be sure grateful if you'd do that, mister.  It sort of hits me
hard, losin' a good bronc like that."

"It wasn't your fault, Kid," Bud hastened to say.  "And Dad will insist
on buying you another.  So if Mr. Hawkins knows of one that will suit
you, take it.  You'll fix him up with a horse then, Mr. Hawkins?"

"Depend on it," the tall deputy declared.  "Now to business.  I've told
you boys all I knew about the way smuggling is being done around here,
but I didn't do it just to be interestin'.  I want you-all to help me."

"Sure!"

"That's what we're here for!"

"No, we're not, Kid," Bud corrected.  "We're here to herd sheep.  But
we'll certainly help Mr. Hawkins all we can."

"Here's the dope, boys," and the deputy leaned closer.  "This Delton
may or may not have been doin' business here at the ranch.  If he has
been, an' I'm goin' to figger that way, his friends still expect him to
be here.  He left in too much of a hurry to send out word.  An' here's
where you-all come in.

"I want you to pretend the ranch hasn't changed hands.  Just lay low
for a while, not travelin' 'round much, an' we'll see what happens.  I
don't mind tellin' you we got another tip, that some Chinks were goin'
to be rushed across within the next few days.  Can't say just when, but
soon now.  It's a big load this time, an' if things work the way I
think they will, they'll try to land them at this ranch."

"You mean they'll think Delton is still here?" Nort inquired excitedly.

"Yes.  Of course I may be wrong--that may not be the plans at all.  But
I've got pretty good reasons for thinkin' I'm right.  We sort of
suspected that the Shootin' Star was bein' used for illegal purposes,
but we never had a chance to prove it.  The place was too well guarded,
and without a warrant you can't go on another's property.  I knew we'd
not find anything if we did search the place, for the Chinks are only
landed at night, and shipped away the next morning; scattered all over
the country.  They all look so much alike it's hard to tell 'em apart."

"So you never really saw Delton?" asked Nort.

"Nope--never have.  He never came to town--whatever stuff he wanted he
sent his men in for."

"Told you!" Billee Dobb cried.  "I knew he never saw the geezer!  Just
like I said--nobody was allowed in here with a badge on."

"Right again," the Kid said with a grin.  "Billee's the only one of
this gang that seems to know his stuff."

"Well, that's the plan, boys," stated Mr. Hawkins.  "Are you with me?"

"You bet!"

"Bring on the smugglers!"

"Kid, here's your chance to find out what became of your shirt!"

"Wait!" the deputy held up his hand.  "We can't go into this thing like
that, boys!  It's too dangerous.  Enough men have been killed now by
the smugglers, and I don't want to add to the list.  I thought a long
time before I came over this morning, and I finally decided I'd take a
chance on you.  When I met you first I knew you were dependable men.
Remember--this is no joke!  We've got to be ready to take what comes!"

The faces of the boys sobered in an instant.

"I guess you'll find you weren't far wrong," Bud said quietly.  "We've
been in a few tight squeezes before--I suppose you heard of Del Pinzo?"

"Certainly.  He was captured and jailed a while ago.  Don't know
whether he got out since or not."

"Well, we are the ones who put him there," Bud went on in a quiet tone.

"No!  Why say,--I remember you now!  I saw you bring him in!  Well,
well!  So that's the way of things!  Boys, I'm sure glad I met you!
Between us we ought to make a go of this.  So you captured Del Pinzo!
Now here's another job for you.  What do you think of this idea?"

The boys leaned close as they prepared to hear the deputy's plan.



CHAPTER XIII

TRAPPED

For some minutes the boys listened to the details of the deputy's
scheme.  It involved danger, there was no doubt of that, but it also
gave a chance for success.  If luck held in their favor--and Kid said
after the run of misfortune they had met with it was time for a change
of weather--they might hope for a rich prize--possibly Delton
himself--though this last did not seem likely.  The whole success of
the plan depended on fooling the smugglers into thinking the ranch was
still held by Delton.

"And there we are," finished Hawkins.  "Any questions, boys?  You-all
know what to do?"

"All set!" Yellin' Kid answered.  "Now that's over with, guess I'll
mosey down to town."

"Rather you stayed around, Kid, if you don't mind," said the deputy.
"Anything particular you wanted?"

"Well, just to see about that bronc you mentioned.  And we got to get
hold of a sheepman soon."

"I'll fix that up for you," Hawkins offered.  "Dick, how about you
riding back with me?"

"Glad to, Mr. Hawkins.  Anybody want anything?"

"Better find out about food," suggested Nort.  "And we could all stand
a clean shirt or two.  Before you go, Dick, we all better take
inventory.  Didn't bring much, you know.  What do you say, boys?  Speak
up, and Dick can collect your stuff while he's in town."

"Where's that Mex?" the Kid asked.  "Wait a minute while I head for the
kitchen."

He bounded up the steps and flung open the door.  To his surprise a
figure stumbled away and ran back.  But Yellin' Kid was faster, and in
a moment he had collared the man.  It was the Mexican cook.

"Hey, what the mischief you doin' here?  Huh?  Listening weren't you?"

The Mexican shook his head.

"What, then?  If you weren't listenin' what were you doin'?"

The cook pointed toward the kitchen and then to his mouth.  He spread
both hands, palms upward.

"No more grub?  Oh, I see.  An' you was comin' to tell us?"

"What's the matter, Kid?" the deputy called.  "Who you talking to?"

The Kid dragged the Mexican out into the yard.

"This bird," he said.  "Cook.  The one we found here.  He was hidin'
behind the door--wants me to believe he came out to tell us there was
no more eats.  Why you run, hey?  What's the idea of that?"  He
tightened his grip on the Mexican's collar.

"Oh, let the poor Greaser alone, Kid," Bud objected.  "He's all right.
Just scared, that's all.  The way you jerked open the door was enough
to scare anyone."

"Yea?  Maybe.  Anyway, I don't like this coot's looks.  Back you go,
Mex.  Next time don't be snoopin' around like that.  We'll get your
stuff for you."  He released his grasp, and the Mexican slunk back into
the house.

"Funny gink," commented Billee Dobb in a drawling tone of voice, as he
stared at the door through which the cook had disappeared.  "Queerest
Mex I ever saw."

"The old detective still on the job," the Kid laughed and grinned.
"Well, Mr. Hawkins wants to get started.  Guess you can order a whole
stock of food, Dick.  The store got a buckboard, deputy?"

"Believe it has."

"Then you can tell 'em what you want and they'll cart it over.  Flour,
bacon, bakin' powder, canned tomatoes, some yellow clings--don't forget
them, Dick--and whatever else you can think of.  Shirts can wait.  All
right, boys.  Stay here, Dick, I'll bring your bronc."

"The Kid wants to handle a pony again," Nort said, when the Kid had
left.  "He hated to lose that one of his."

"Mighty fond of it," declared Bud.  "While you're gone, Dick, I think
I'll take a look around and see what I can find."

"Wouldn't go too far," Hawkins cautioned.  "Here's your bronc, Dick.
Let's be on our way.  See you fellers later.  So long."

The two--Dick and the deputy--rode toward the town.  Billee Dobb
resumed the smoking of his pipe.  The effect of the exciting plan they
had just heard seemed to have departed with the deputy, for the minds
of those at the ranch turned again to the business of sheep farming.
Billee spoke of "washes," and "dips," and of buying a few "hurdles."
These terms were Greek to the boys, being experienced as they were only
in cattle and not sheep raising, but Billee explained to them some of
the peculiarities of the "woolies."  He in a varied career had seen
most of the life of the range, and it was no surprise to the boys to
find he had once herded sheep.

As the morning wore on, the ranchers busied themselves in the doing of
many tasks about the place.  The Kid made a thorough inspection of the
roofs and sides of the several shacks, to check up on the repairing
needed.  Nort investigated the state of their living quarters--the bunk
and cook house.  Bud decided to ride a bit through the surrounding
country, to observe the extent of their range, and to see to the fences.

Bud was not exactly "fence riding."  This means following the fence
until a break is seen, repairing it, and going on to the next break.
It is difficult and tiresome work, no task to occupy an idle morning
with.  As Bud rode along, his mind was busy with the thoughts of all
that had happened in the short time the boys had been on the Shooting
Star.  The plan that the deputy had outlined for the capture of the
smugglers called for work, and it had only a fair chance of success.
Nevertheless there seemed no other way to achieve results, and the
advantages of the control of the Shooting Star had to be realized early
in the game.

"I'd like to run across Delton," thought Bud, feeling unconsciously for
his gun.  His hand encountered no holster, and he suddenly realized
that he had not bothered to arm himself before starting out.

"Just as well that I don't see Delton," he said to himself a trifle
ruefully.  "Wouldn't do me a lot of good to meet him when I haven't a
ghost of a show of bringing him in.  Yet I might take a chance on him
if I saw him first."  The pony he was riding stepped carefully so as to
avoid prairie dog holes, which would throw him and his rider if he
stepped in one suddenly.

"Might be a good idea to turn around," thought Bud aloud.  "Don't want
to leave the work of the ranch to Nort and the Kid and Billee, though
there isn't an awful lot to do yet.  When those sheep come in we'll
have our hands full.  Oh, well, guess I'll ride a bit farther.  See how
much more work this fence needs."

He was riding slowly now, looking carefully about him.  The country
appeared vaguely familiar.  Certain bushes looked as though he had seen
them before--there was a small tree that he had certainly passed some
time before.  The cowboy's sight is so trained by years on the prairie
that even the shape of a bush will be remembered subconsciously.  There
is so much land in the west that it is necessary to have some means to
guide oneself about, else a rider could very easily get lost along a
trail that should be familiar.

"Seems to me I've been here before," Bud said.  "Let's see now--that
bush.  Know I saw that sometime.  That little hill there--why--I'll bet
that is--" he spurred his mount to a faster gait and made for a small
knoll that rose in front of him.  As he reached it he gave a yell.

"I know now!  This is where we got in that fight with the hidden
gunman!  And over there ought to be--sure enough!  The water hole!  I
didn't think we were so near it.  I must have come further than I
thought.  Well--might as well take a look around.  Right here is where
the bird that did all the shooting must have lain.  Come here, bronc!"

The boy dismounted and slipped his horse's bridle rein on his wrist.
Then he threw himself down on the sand in the position their antagonist
might have taken when he fired at them.

"Here I am with a view of the water hole, and in a good place to shoot
from without being shot.  Now I want to get away quick.  What do I do?
If I roll to the left, I expose myself to fire.  If I roll to the
right, I--" there was a little clump of mesquite by his right elbow.
Bud pulled himself toward this.  "That would afford protection, but
once I get in here how can I get out?  Now--"  The boy was rolling to
the center.

With a "Hold it, bronc!" he released the reins and his hand slid off
the clump.  Suddenly a queer thing happened.  Bud felt the ground below
him give way, and the next moment he found himself in a hole just large
enough to admit his body, and about four feet deep.  Above him the
bushes had closed again, effectively screening him from the view of
anyone above ground.  He had accidentally solved the mystery of the
gunman's strange disappearance.

For a few seconds Bud lay still, so sudden was the shock of the fall.
He was not really stunned, however, and as soon as he recovered from
his surprise he struggled to his feet and parted the brush above him.
His horse was near by, moving slowly and cropping grass.

Then he saw how easily it would be to escape observation by falling
into the small pit.  The bush was certainly not large enough to conceal
a man, and for this reason no one would imagine it could serve to
screen a hole.  It afforded a perfect hiding place.  On either side was
flat prairie, and no one would suspect the presence of a hidden person
in that country.

"So that's how it all happened!"  Bud gave a low whistle.  "No wonder
we missed the fellow.  Say, this is one bird of a hiding place!  All a
man has to do is to roll in it, like I did.  Anyone who can tell this
hole is here without being in it is a better detective than I am.

"But what a crazy spot for a hiding place!  Surely whoever dug it
didn't know he'd use it to fire on us and then escape.  Must have been
some other reason for making it, and then it came in handy when whoever
shot at us wanted to get away.  He must have just lain quiet while we
looked around, then, when we left, he just came out and walked away.
Clever, all right.  Now who'd think of a stunt like that?"

He looked more closely at the hole.  It was well walled up, and had
evidently been dug some time ago.  By parting the bushes and kneeling
on a mound of earth at the bottom, a perfect sight of the surrounding
territory could be obtained.  A gun could be poked through the bush and
all the ground, except a very small part directly in front of the hill,
would be covered.  The person who dug it evidently had in mind the
advantages of firing from a hidden spot.

"Well, no use in staying in here any longer.  Hope that fool bronc of
mine is still there.  Don't want to lose her like the Kid did his.
Won't the rest be surprised when I tell them about this!  The Kid will
want to come right out and see it, and try it out.  And Billee Dobb
will say 'I thought there was sumpin' like this!'  Gosh, this thing is
pretty deep."  Bud put both hands on the sides and pulled himself
toward the top.

He threw one leg over the edge and was just about to spring out when
that unconscious something which often warns us of the presence of
another caused him to look up.  What he saw almost caused him to fall
back into the pit again.

Looking down at him was a man.  In his hand he held a gun, the muzzle
pointed at Bud's head.  And as the boy saw the man's face he uttered a
cry.

"Delton!"

"The same!  I see you decided to visit us.  Well, buddy, you're in for
a good long visit!"  Delton's lips curled in a sardonic smile.



CHAPTER XIV

TO-MORROW NIGHT

Back of Delton Bud saw another man--and after a moment he recognized
him as the cowboy with the saw-off shot-gun who had warned them away
from the Shooting Star.

"Up out of that!" Delton commanded.  "Keep your hands high.  Don't try
no funny work or you'll be eatin' breakfast with St. Peter."

Discretion was easily the better part of valor, and, realizing this,
Bud made no hostile motion.  He climbed meekly out of the pit.

"What do you think of our little hide-an'-seek hole, Merkel?  Or
perhaps you had some experience with it before.  Hey?"

"So you're the one who shot at us!" Bud cried hotly.  "Well, let me
tell you that it was a coward's trick.  If you----"

"Say, buddy, I want to tell _you_ something.  The less you talk the
better it will be for you."  Delton's eyes held a dangerous glint.  "I
don't know what you're talking about.  No--never mind!  Don't answer
me.  Sam--" this to the puncher who stood behind Delton--"if this bird
says another word shut him up--quick!"  Sam nodded and stepped a little
forward.

"Turn around," Delton ordered shortly.  As Bud turned he felt his arms
grabbed and forced back until his wrists were held firmly together.  A
neckerchief was wound around his wrists and tied tightly.  Then Delton
"frisked" him, or searched him, for weapons.  Finding none he forced
Bud at the point of his gun to walk ahead some fifteen yards, where the
ponies stood--Bud's and the two others.

"Upstairs, Merkel."  Delton motioned toward Bud's pony.  "You're goin'
for a little ride with us.  Step on it, now."

With some difficulty Bud succeeded in mounting his bronco.  The little
pony was trembling, as though it realized something of what was going
on.

"Well, sonny, how does it feel to be talked to and not be able to talk
back?  Something like that Mexican cook of yours, hey?"

"The Mexican cook!"  Bud turned swiftly in his saddle.

"So he's one of your men too!  I thought--" he began hotly.

"You thought nothin'!" the one called Sam interrupted in a rough voice.
"You heard what the boss said.  If you want to enjoy good health a
while longer, keep your mouth shut!"

There was nothing for it but to obey.  It would do no good to persist
in questioning his captors, and not only would he learn nothing, but
the questions would only serve to antagonize them more.

The three rode along silently.  Now and then Bud would shift in the
saddle, for it is no easy thing to ride a long ways on a nervous pony
with one's hands tied behind.  Finally they seemed to reach their
destination--the house Bud had seen in the distance.  It was a
ramshackle affair, with the roof partly torn away and no vestige of
paint.  Evidently it had once been used for a farm house, for about it
were several other shacks, probably to store grain in.

Delton dismounted and held the bridle of Bud's pony.

"Your new home," he said, with a grin.  "Come right in.  Sorry we can't
fix you up better, but you see all the servants are away."

The lad hesitated a moment.

"Off you come!"  Delton seized Bud by the belt and pulled.  The boy
tumbled off his pony and hit the ground.

"That wasn't--necessary!" the boy panted, as he lay there with most of
the breath knocked out of him.  Luckily he had fallen on his side, and
not on his face, which would have meant a real injury, his hands tied
as they were.

"Maybe not, but I figger it'll do you good.  Give you an appetite for
dinner," and Delton laughed harshly.  "Where I come from we treat 'em
worse than that."

"Aw, let him alone," Sam growled.  "No use hurtin' the kid!  That won't
help us any.  If we get caught it won't be so good havin' a lot of
enemies."

"Who said we were goin' to get caught?" Delton walked over to where Sam
sat on his pony.  "Sam, I haven't liked your actions lately.  Now you
yell about getting caught.  You know what happened to that last bird
who arranged for me to meet up with the cops?"

"Yea, I know."  Sam moved uneasily in his saddle.  He did not meet
Delton's eyes.  "You don't think I'd tell on you, do ya--an' get twenty
years myself?  Ain't likely.  Anyway----"

"All right!  Pipe down.  Get this kid inside.  I want to see if Slim
got back yet."

"Come on, kid.  Here, I'll help you up.  Hurt yourself?"  Sam had
dismounted and assisted Bud to his feet.

"No, I didn't.  Thanks.  What was his idea in pulling me off like that?
If ever I get him I'll remember it."

"Oh, he always pulls stunts like that.  Wants everybody to know he's a
hard guy.  Comes from New York, and thinks he can put it all over the
West.  One thing I will say for him, he sure can shoot.  That's enough,
now."

Sam's tone changed, and a warning light came into his eyes.

"I ain't paid to talk to you.  Let's go," he growled.

He led Bud up the steps and into the house.  The shades were pulled
down tight, and the gloom made it very difficult for Bud to see much.
He noticed some sort of a hat-tree in the hall, and as they walked
toward the back he saw the doors of several rooms which opened off the
lower hall.  Into one of these Sam led his captive.

"Here's where you stay," he said.  "No use tryin' to get out, for the
windows are barred.  And that door is oak.  Here--" and Sam struggled
with the knot which bound Bud's wrists behind his back.  "Make you feel
a little comfortable, anyhow.  You can't do much without a gun.
There's water in that pitcher.  I'll try to sneak you in some bread
about noon."

Without another word Sam stepped out of the room and closed the door.
Bud heard a key grate in the lock, and then a bolt shot home.

"Taking no chances," he thought.  "My, it feels good to get my arms
free!"  He stretched lustily.  "Wonder where on earth I am?  Let's take
a look at those windows.  Bars, hey?"  He pulled the shade aside.
Surely enough on the outside were several iron bars, making the room a
veritable jail.  "They sure got me penned up here proper!  Now why did
they go to all this trouble?  Just because I found that pit by the
water hole?

"That doesn't seem reasonable.  Must want me for something besides
that.  Guess I'll know soon enough.  In the meantime I'll take a look
around.  Water!  That's right--I am thirsty.  Funny how you forget that
when you're excited."  Bud was talking to himself now.  There are
people who seem to be able to puzzle things out better if the problem
is put into words than if they just revolve it over in their minds.
Bud was one of these, and as he investigated his prison he kept talking
in a low tone to himself.

With the shades up he was able to get a better view of the room.  It
was small, and had only that one window in it.  The furniture consisted
of a chair and a table.  The floor was bare.  The walls were painted a
dull gray.  Bud pushed experimentally against one of the sides, but to
no purpose.  It was as solid as iron.

There was one more thing to be tried, that was the door.  Bud was
reconciled to spending at least the morning within the room, and it
made very little difference to him whether the door was of oak, as
"Sam" had said, or some softer wood.  However, he thought, he might as
well take a crack at it.  Try anything once, he reasoned.

He walked over and turned the knob softly.  It refused to budge an
inch.  Then Bud applied more pressure.  This time it turned slowly.
Hope rang in Bud's heart as he felt the latch click back, then as he
remembered hearing the door bolted his heart sank again.  Still he
turned the knob as far as it would go, and pushed.  The door opened
about half an inch.

Then it stuck.  Bud's hand dropped from the knob, and he ran his
fingers along the crack.  Half way up they encountered cold metal--a
chain which allowed the door to open only a little, then held.  Bud
seemed as securely fastened as though he had been unable to budge the
door at all.  Then he thought it was possible the bolt worked on a
slide, and if he could reach through the crack and ease it out of the
slide, he would be free.

"A knife would do the trick," he thought.  "Nothing like that around
here.  I wonder if my belt buckle would do?"  He tried forcing it
through the crack.  "Nope.  Not long enough.  Isn't there something
about the room I could use?  Chair--that's no good.  Neither is the
table.  Water pitcher--can't see what good that is.  Porcelain, I
guess."  He ran his hand over the pitcher.

"Yep.  Well, that doesn't seem to help.  Unless--" he hesitated.  A
thought struck him.  "If I could break it and use a piece of it like a
knife I'll bet I could scrape that bolt over!  But how can I break it
without making a racket and bringing Delton and his gang rushing in?"
Bud thought a moment.  Then he snapped his fingers softly, and his eyes
lit up.  "I've got it!" he whispered.

Taking off his vest and shirt he wrapped the pitcher well in them,
after pouring out the water.  Then he tapped it gently against the
window-sill.  It made almost no noise, so he hit it harder.  After a
few tries he felt it break.  As he unwrapped his bundle of shattered
porcelain he saw he had, luckily, broken a piece just the size he
wanted.  He replaced his shirt and vest and with the piece of pitcher
in his hand he made once more for the door, this time with a real hope
of escaping.

"Just the right length!" Bud exalted as he slid the narrow knife-like
porcelain through the crack in the door and against the bolt.  Then he
started to coax the bolt from its slide.  Softly, softly he scraped
against the iron, and to his delight felt it move ever so little.  He
could not open the door to its full extent in his endeavor to slip the
bolt, for this would tighten the chain and hold the metal piece more
firmly in its slide.  He had to work with his left hand holding the
door at the proper angle and his right hand using the piece of the
water pitcher.

It was tiresome work.  Several times Bud halted as he heard footsteps
in the hall outside, but they went on their way without stopping.  The
porcelain was rapidly wearing down.  Its edge had already become
dulled, and no longer offered the purchase on the iron that it did at
first.  But finally Bud succeeded--the bolt slid back.

Cautiously he tried the door.  It opened!  In obedience to Bud's push,
the door swung wide.  For a moment the lad stood still, listening
intently.  The low murmur of voices came to his ears.

"Down the hall," he thought.  "Must be in that large room I passed
coming in."

He stepped gently forward.  A board creaked under his foot, and froze
him into instant stillness.  The murmur of voices droned on, and once
more Bud moved forward.  Down the hall he tip-toed.  Nearer and nearer
to the room wherein the men were talking he came.  Now he was directly
opposite.  The door was tightly closed, but he could make out the
conversation distinctly.

"A cinch!" he heard someone say.  "There's nothing to it!  Even if Jake
doesn't know about the Shooting Star, he can run the bunch through all
right.  And the sooner the better."

"You know when the run is planned for?" someone asked.

"Sure!  And I think we'll be lucky on the weather.  Looks like rain to
me."

"Well, I hope so.  It's all set for to-morrow night, then?"

"Check!  All set.  To-morrow night it is."

Outside Bud was listening intently, his heart thumping in his breast.



CHAPTER XV

BILLEE DOBB'S STORY

Back at the Shooting Star ranch the three others, Nort, Billee Dobb and
Yellin' Kid, were occupying themselves with the business of the day.
The Kid having reported on the condition of the "shacks," Nort decided
that a new bunk house would be necessary before the shearing season to
accommodate the extra men.  He and Yellin' Kid, together with Billee
Dobb, then lazed about the place, awaiting the return of Dick and Bud.
It was eleven o'clock before Dick came riding into the yard.

"Bring any grub back with you?"

"No.  The store said the buckboard would be right over, almost as soon
as I got here.  Is the kitchen all cleaned out?"

"Pretty near, I guess.  That's what the Mex meant when I caught him at
the door.  Gee, I wish----"

He was interrupted by a rattling and creaking, and the sound of horses
beating a fast tattoo on the hard earth.  Above this bedlam arose the
sound of a voice in loud and vigorous denunciation.

"Here she comes!" Nort cried.  "The food!  Say, that team must have
been stepping right along.  Got here almost as soon as you did, Dick."

With a final roar and crash of wooden timbers, and a last invocation
to: "Hold up there, you two wildcats, or I'll bust you wide open," the
cart drew up to the ranch house door.

From its swaying side the driver, a grinning youth in a blue shirt and
red bandanna 'kerchief about his neck, climbed down.

"Get here in time?" he called.  "Sure had these here babies rollin'
right along."  Then without even a halt for breath he went on: "What do
you think of this here team?  Best pair of ponies in the state!  Lean
down, baby, 'til I smooth those ears of yours.  Down, I say!  Why, you
spavin-boned piece of horse meat!  Come down here or I'll chew you up!
Throw your head back at me, will you?  Of all the knock-kneed,
wall-eyed chunks of locoed craziness, you're the worst.  Pete, you
pink-headed, glandered cayuse, drop that neck or I'll skin you alive.
That's the stuff!  Best little pair of broncoes in the state, boys!"

"You sure got some vocabulary!" laughed Dick.  "Think a lot of your
team, don't you--sometimes!  Yes, you got here in plenty of time."

"Bring them yellow clings?" the Kid asked, anxiously.

"Yep!  Two dozen cans of the best yellow cling peaches.  An' flour,
bacon, an' all the rest.  Help me unload, boys."

With five pairs of willing hands on the job, the wagon was quickly
relieved of its load.  The food was carried into the kitchen, and left
there for the cook with an admonition to: "Get busy, Mex.  We're
starved!"

"Thanks for bringing the stuff over so promptly," Dick said to the
youthful driver.  "You must have hit only the high spots to get here so
quick."

"Should say I did!  One time we left the ground and stayed up while a
coyote ran under the whole length of the wagon.  Can't beat this here
team of mine for speed.  Well, guess I'll be gettin' back.  All set,
ponies?  Don't strain yourselves, now.  Got plenty of time.  Just go
along nice an' easy.  Yes, sir, boys, I love these animals like
brothers!

"Get along there, Pete.  Get along, I say.  Pete, you lop-eared
wangdoddle!  Quit draggin' that other bronc around!  Hear me?  Dodgast
your hide, I'll blow your fool head right off your worthless carcass if
you don't quit that.  You will, will you?  How do you like the feel of
that?  Now we're off!  At-a-baby, get goin'!  So long, boys!  You,
Pete!  Gosh darn your senseless hide, I'll--" the rest was lost.

"He loves 'em like brothers!" shouted the Kid, holding his sides with
laughter.  "Oh, boy!  'Take your time, ponies!'  Sure, they'll take
their time!  Bet he's half way to Roarin' River by now.  Wow, what a
driver!  Ho-ho--I haven't had a laugh like this in years!  'Don't
strain yourselves!'  Oh, baby!"

A cloud of dust marked the disappearance of the grinning youth with the
"best pair of ponies in the state."  He left behind him an appreciative
audience.

"Hope that Mex gets a wiggle on," Nort said when the laughter had
quieted down.  "He ought to be able to rustle a pretty fair meal with
all that junk."

"And in the meantime we might as well sit," Yellin' Kid suggested.
"Look over the landscape."

The punchers made their way to the corral.  Without explaining, each
knew the Kid's suggestion to "sit an' look over the landscape" meant a
view from the top rail of the corral, which was several feet high.
This is the cowboy's favorite resting place while waiting for "chuck."
They will sit there and survey a perfectly familiar scene until called
off by the cook's horn or the cry to "come an' git it."

"Bud ought to be back for grub," said Dick as he swung his leg over the
top rail.

"Ought to," Nort agreed.  "Said he wasn't going far."

"That might mean anything out here," Billee Dobb broke in, "from a
two-mile jaunt to a ride of twenty mile or more.  Bud's O. K. though.
If he don't show up fer his meals he's got a good reason."

"You're probably right," Dick said, "but with all this trouble around
here I don't like to see anyone stay away too long.  If he doesn't come
in before afternoon we'll have to take a ride around and see if we
can't spot him."

"No use crossing bridges before we come to them," Nort declared.
"After all this talk Bud will probably come riding in with a bear cub
he chased.  Bud's funny that way.  Anything that's a bit out of the
ordinary, and Bud will go miles out of his way to see it.  Remember how
he stared at that cyclone coming until he forgot where he was?"

"I don't think he's so funny," the Kid declared in a thoughtful tone.
"Just doesn't like to miss any of the show, that's all.  Me, I'm like
that sometimes.  A pretty sunset gets me here somehow," and the Kid
placed his hand on his stomach in a general way.

"Have you tried eating raw onions?" Nort asked in a solicitous voice.
"They say they're awful good."

"Aw, you guys make me sick," said Yellin' Kid disgustedly.  "Just as
soon as a feller gets--well--poetical like--you hop all over him."

"Ex-cuse me, Kid!  I didn't know you were getting poetical.  Why, if I
had known that I wouldn't have said a word.  I thought you were telling
us about your indigestion."

"Go ahead--go ahead!  I'll get you sometime, Nort.  Billee, do you
think it's nice to run me around like that?"

"Do you good," Billee said with a grin.  "When I was young an' worked
out with a bunch from Two-bar Cross--the roughest outfit you'd ever
laid eyes on--I wasn't let to open my mouth without someone hoppin'
down my throat.  That was a gang, let me tell you!"

"They were the old-fashioned punchers, weren't they?" Dick asked,
winking at the Kid.  "The kind that used a buck-strap and ate his
coffee out of a frying-pan."

"Buck-strap!  Buck--say, boy, if any man on that there Two-bar Cross
outfit ever heard you speak of a buck-strap they wouldn't know what you
was talkin' about.  No, sir!  Those boys were rough customers."

A buck-strap is a leather thong fastened to the saddle in such a way
that if the pony suddenly bucks, its rider can hold himself on by
inserting his hand within this thong and pulling hard.  The user of one
of these contraptions is never proud of it, needless to say.

"You used to work a lot in the summer, didn't you, Billee?" the Kid
asked with a concealed grin.

"Yes, and in the winter, too.  Mostly in the winter.  I remember one
time----"

"Now he's off," the Kid whispered in an aside to Dick.  "This'll be
good."

"I remember once when I was ridin' for the Two-bar Cross bunch an' we
had four thousand head of cattle on the range.  'Long about December,
when the first snow starts, me an' Joe Heldig was sent out to see how
the bunch was makin' out, and if they needed anything, one of us was to
ride back an' tell the rest while the other watched.  Well, we set out
about seven o'clock one morning to see if we could spot the herd.

"It was clear an' cold when we started.  Not a cloud in the sky.
Thinks I, we're pretty lucky, havin' such fine weather; that late in
the season, too.  Joe Heldig, he don't say nothin'.  We took with us
our blankets, some sour-dough, coffee an' bacon, an' that fryin'-pan
you was talking about, Dick.  We rode along easy like, not worryin' nor
nothin', an' talkin' about the best way to skin a steer, an' whether
it's best to split two pair on the draw to try for a flush.  That used
to be a trick of Joe's.

"Around about noon it started to get warmer, an' off in the east a few
white clouds showed up.  Me, I don't worry none, but I see Joe lookin'
kind of anxious now an' then.

"We found the bunch at three o'clock, not as far out as we figgered
they'd be.  Seemed pretty contented an' easy.  Had a good grazin' spot,
too.  An' just as we was about to call it a day I felt something wet
drop on my nose.  Then another.  Joe looked at me an' I looked at him.
Snow!  Know what that means on the range?

"Well, there was nothin' for it but to stick around an' see how bad it
was goin' to be.  By five o'clock we knew.  The flakes was comin' down
so thick you couldn't see, and a wind had sprung up.  An' Joe an' me
had a bunch of cattle on our hands.  I told Joe one of us better try to
make the ranch and bring back enough men to get the cattle to a
sheltered spot, so they wouldn't die.  I knew we couldn't move them
alone, and where they were grazin' it was all open.  So Joe started.
He knew the general direction, an' what would be sure suicide for
anyone else was just a chance for Joe, havin' lived for twenty years
right in that section.

"I could easy keep track of the cows by their moanin'.  It was real
cold now, an' the poor bunch of beeves stood in the snow with their
heads held low, with icicles hanging from their eyes, groanin'
something pitiful.  They never moved.  Just stood there while the snow
drifted up around their haunches.  What I was afraid of was a drift.
Not a drift of snow, but a drift of cattle.

"I knew those steers would only stay still a certain length of time,
then one of them would start movin' leaward, with the whole bunch
followin'.  And they'd march that way into the snow, until every
blessed one of them dropped, and died where it fell.  First the little
calves.  Then the mothers, who'd stick by their babies until they died,
too.  Then the cows of the herd who weren't so strong.  An' last, some
big, proud long-horn would drop in his tracks an' die.  An' there
wouldn't be nothin' left of the herd except dots in the snow along the
path.  That's what we call a drift.

"I knew if they ever started driftin' I couldn't save them.  I could
try to turn them by rushin' my bronc into them, but it wouldn't do no
good.  It needs at least six men to do that job.  An' even then, if
they once get well started, I don't think they'd turn aside fer
_nothin'_.  So I just sat on my pony an' waited.  The snow kept gettin'
higher, and the wind colder an' colder.  The cows were moanin' heavy
now.  I saw 'em shift once or twice, an' my heart went in my throat,
but they settled down once more to just breathin' hard.  How I did hope
that Joe made the ranch.  I sort of felt that if help didn't come soon
the drift would start.  It takes so long for a cow to get the idea she
wants to move, and when she gets the notion into her head, her legs
start goin' themselves, an' keep goin' until something bigger and
stronger than she is stops her.  I knew that the only thing would stop
this bunch, once they started, would be death.

"All of a sudden the moanin' of the cattle grew louder.  I rode up
close to them an' saw what the reason was, and it made me catch my
breath.  A big cow was steppin' slowly out, head low, right into the
gale.  The drift had started.

"I rode hard at the brute that was leadin'.  She never paid no
attention to me whatever.  Then I drew my gun and shot her, but the cow
behind kept right on goin'.  An' back of her the rest started movin'.
Unless something happened quick the show was over.

"Then I heard what I'd been hopin' an' prayin' for--a yell!  Through
the screamin' of the wind I could hear Joe's voice whoopin' it up, an'
believe me, it was the most welcome sound I'd ever heard.  The next
minute the whole gang from the ranch, in a flyin' wedge, rode right
into that bunch of long-horns, and split them wide open!

"That saved them.  They was scared out of the drift, an' we soon drove
them down behind a hill, where the wind wouldn't get at them, and they
could reach the grass through the snow.  Joe had made it just in time,
though how he found the ranch in that storm is still a mystery, even to
him."

The boys on the rail sat silent for a moment.  Then out from the
kitchen of the ranch house there came the blast of a horn.

"Grub!" Yellin' Kid shouted.  "Let's eat, boys!"



CHAPTER XVI

BUD'S ESCAPE

Bud stood listening, with bated breath, to the conversation on the
other side of the closed door.  He heard the words "to-morrow night"
and "all set" repeated several times.  With his ears strained he leaned
forward until his shoulder was almost touching the door.  If they would
only talk just a little bit louder----

Suddenly Bud lost his balance.  He had been so tense that he had not
realized how precarious his position was, the smallest noise being sure
to alarm the occupants of the room.  Now his foot slipped, and, with a
crash, he went headlong against the door!

There was a quick scraping of chairs within, and voices raised in
excited outcry.  Bud recoiled from the fall as fast as he might, and,
springing down the hall, he made for the front door.  By this time the
plotters had emerged from the room and had seen Bud in his wild sprint
for safety.

"Grab him!" someone shouted.  "Get him, Jack!  He's been listening!
Jump on his neck!"

"Jump on him yourself!  What's the matter, are you tied to the floor?"

"Never mind those wise-cracks!" came Delton's voice.  "Out that door
quick, and nab him!"

Bud had reached the porch, and looked desperately about him.  Where
were the horses?  A sudden neigh answered his thought, and he dashed
around to the side of the house.  The ponies were tethered to a rail
not one hundred yards away.  Luckily Bud's horse was among them.

"All you've got, bronc!  We're holding our own, anyway.  Gee!"  A
report sounded behind him and he heard the whine of a bullet.  "They
mean business, all right!  On your way, pony!"

The feet of his mount scarcely seemed to touch the ground, so fast did
he travel.  On and on they flew, keeping their distance and even
gaining.

"Stick to it, old boy!" Bud exhorted his bronco.  "We're as good as
they are, any day!  Can't last forever!  Wow!"  Another bullet sang
through the air.  "That was a close one.  If I had a gun you wouldn't
be so free with your lead.  All I've got to depend on is what's under
me.  But you'll do, old boy, you'll do!  Step on it!"

Across the open prairie flew the chase, Bud in the lead about five
hundred yards.  His pony was tiring now, the breath was coming in short
gasps.  Bud consoled himself with the thought that his followers'
mounts were probably in worse case.

"Just a little more, bronc!" he coaxed.  "Soon be home!
At-a-baby--yo-yo-yo!"  He kept in cadence with his pony's gallop, and
it seemed to him that she responded with a further burst of speed.  He
looked back again.  Certainly he was increasing the distance between
himself and his pursuers!  They appeared a greater distance from him
than when they had started.  Now the country they were passing through
assumed a familiar aspect, but Bud was too excited to notice it until
he reached the water hole.

"Luck!" he exulted.  "I headed in the right direction.  Don't think
I'll be followed much beyond this.  Let's see--"  He turned in his
saddle.  To his surprise there was no one in sight.

"Made it!  Bronc, old boy, I offer you my sincere thanks!  No, don't
slow down just yet.  A little more--"  He kept up his fast pace until
he was well beyond the water hole, then, with a final look behind him,
he pulled down to a walk.

"Guess we're O.K. now.  What a chase!  Say, bronc, it's too bad we
didn't have a movie camera somewhere around.  Hero being chased by the
villains.  Bang--bang--another Indian bit the dust!  Anyway, I'm glad
we're out of _that_ mess.  What was the idea of the whole thing, anyhow?

"Don't see what they wanted with me.  And 'to-morrow night'!  Evidently
they figure on some sort of dirty work.  Now that they know I've heard
part of their plans they may not pull anything."

Off in the distance Bud could now see the buildings of Shooting Star.
As he rode up, the Kid was nailing a board to the lower part of the
ranch house, and had his back to Bud.  He turned swiftly as he heard
the hoof-beats of Bud's horse.

"Come in--come in!" he called.  "Have a good trip?  How are all the
babies--and Aunt Sarah?  You must be plumb worn out, ridin' all the way
from Arken-saw on a hot day like this."

"Quit your kidding," Bud answered with a smile.  "When I tell you what
did happen you'll think I have a good right to be worn out.  First,
though, is there any chuck left?"

"What--they didn't even feed you?  Well now, I thought you'd had a
chicken dinner.  Sure, Bud, come on in, an' we'll get Mex on the job."

The best they could do in the culinary line on short notice was beans,
but Bud filled up mightily on them.  When the edge had been taken off
his hunger he asked the Kid:

"Where's the rest of the bunch?"

"Town, most of 'em.  Billee Dobb is at the back fixin' his saddle.
Nort and Dick went on into town again after a load of grub came, to see
if they could pick up that sheep-man Hawkins told us about, and to grab
me off a pony.  Where were you, Bud?"

"Therein lies a tale," answered Bud, "and I don't mean maybe.  Listen,
Kid, and try to control your well-known faculties for humor 'til I get
this off my chest."

In as few sentences as possible, Bud related to Yellin' Kid the events
of the morning.  Contrary to his expectations, his story was taken as
it was told, seriously.

"Delton, hey?  Didn't see my missin' bronc around, I suppose?"

"No, I didn't, Kid.  Saw enough besides that.  Well, what's the dope?
What do you think about it all?"

"I think you were pretty lucky, for one thing," declared the Kid.
"Another thing I think is that the plan they set for to-morrow
night--whatever it is, will be carried out."

"What makes you think that?"

"Didn't you say you heard someone talk about 'even if Jake doesn't know
about the Shooting Star'?"

"Yes--I did hear that."

"Well, that means they're going to take a chance on going through with
their plan, because they can't get word to the other side that this
place has changed hands.  An' they won't stop because they caught you
listenin'."

"Say, you might be right at that, Kid.  That's going some, though, to
push things like that, when they know their plan has been overheard.
Of course I didn't actually hear it all, but I heard enough to know it
has something to do with this ranch.  And the time is to-morrow night."

"That will hurry up the deputy's idea, won't it?  If things break
right, we might have a chance to collect that reward."

"Let's not think about that now.  What we have to do is to get hold of
the rest and tell them what happened, and ask Mr. Hawkins if this will
change his plan.  He's in town, isn't he?"

"Should be.  Dick'll know--he rode in with him."

"Say, Kid, before I forget it--I heard something that didn't sound so
good about that Mexican cook of ours.  Delton let slip the hint that he
was one of his men--didn't exactly say that, but he led me to believe
he was."

"Did, hey?  Well, I've been kind of suspicious of that Greaser ever
since we found him here alone, when the rest had beat it.  Don't seem
reasonable that one man would stay at a ranch that has been cleaned
out, unless he had some business there.  Delton's idea may have been to
let him stay and spy on us.  Think we ought to kick him out?"

"That means we've got to find another cook.  No, I think it will be all
right to let him stay if we watch him carefully.  He sure is one peach
of a cook--I'll say that for him--and I don't think he'd deliberately
try to poison us."

"Oh, I'm not afraid of that.  Of course we could make him taste each
dish he cooks for us, like they do in stories, but he'd sure suspect
something then.  I believe in keeping a secret to yourself."

"You mean not letting him know we suspect him?"

"Yep!  That's it.  We can watch him if he doesn't know he's bein'
watched, but as soon as he knows we got something on him, we're
through."

"You're right about that, Kid.  Say, where did you say the others were?"

"In town.  Ought to be back soon, though.  Billee Dobb is around some
place in back.  Want to see him?"

"No, I'll wait till Nort and Dick get here and spill it all at once.
Let's go out."

The two arose and walked toward the yard.  As they passed through the
door the Kid looked sharply about him, but the Mexican cook was nowhere
in sight.  His lesson had been learned when the Kid had caught him
listening before.

They hadn't long to wait before they heard the approach of two riders.
Dick and Nort had returned.

"Something happened," Nort exclaimed after he had dismounted.

"How do you know?" Bud asked with wide-open eyes.

"I mean to us.  Why, did something happen to you, too?"

"I'll tell you about it in a minute.  Let's hear your story first."

"Not much of a story," Dick said.  "We saw Delton."

"You did!  Where?"

"You remember that water hole the Kid found the Chinaman at?"

"Yes--go ahead!"

"Well, Nort and I decided to take another look at it on our second trip
back from town, so we rode over.  It isn't so far from here.  And as we
reached it--only about an hour ago--we saw a group of men talking.  We
rode up easy, but they heard us and beat it.  We saw one of them,
though.  It was Delton."

"And do you know what he was doing there?" Bud asked with a quizzical
smile.

"What?"

"Chasing me!  I found the water hole, too, and something else and this
Delton dragged me for miles and locked me in a room.  Then I got out
and his gang followed me to the water hole, where I lost them."

"Hey, take it easy!  Start from the beginning.  Let's hear it, Bud."

Nort and Dick listened eagerly as Bud once again told the tale of his
capture.



CHAPTER XVII

A NIGHT OF WAITING

"The old rascal!" Nort exclaimed after Bud had finished.  "So that's
what they were doing at the water hole?  If we had known that we would
have taken a chance and rushed them."

"Just as well you didn't," Bud declared.  "Wouldn't have gained
anything by it.  And anyway, we don't want to upset their plans for
to-morrow night.  The Kid, here, thinks they'll go through with the
idea."

"Don't be too sure," warned Dick.  "It may never come off, since they
know Bud overheard them planning."

"Yes, but don't you see they can't get word to the others in time?" the
Kid insisted.  "They can't call it off.  The other end of the smuggling
line has already made plans that they can't break, so this end has to
go through with their scheme.  At least that's the way I look at it."

"Seems reasonable," Dick agreed.  "But just the same I think it's
better to be prepared."

"Naturally.  What did you find out about the sheep-man, Dick?"

The latter spoke of one tentatively engaged and told the Kid his new
horse would be sent over in a day or so.

The remainder of the day went quickly.  When evening came the boys were
excitedly making plans for the following night.  After "chuck" they
gathered around the table in the sitting room and discussed ways and
means.  The Kid was in favor of drastic action.

"No, we've got to go slowly," Dick cautioned.  "This isn't strictly our
affair, you know.  The government is interested in it.  And it's
anything but a joking matter.  The other adventures we had--at Spur
Creek and in the desert--were our own concern entirely.  This is
different.  Hawkins hasn't said so, but I think it means a lot to him
if we aid in capturing the smugglers."

"Thought you were out here to herd sheep?" Billee Dobb put in.

"We were--at first.  But there's no use trying to dodge the issue--from
now on until this business is finished, we have one job on hand--to
help stop Chink smuggling.  The sheep can wait."

"That's the stuff!" Yellin' Kid burst out.  "I was waitin' to hear you
say that, Dick.  Might as well look things in the face!  We've gotten
too deep into this to drag freight now!"

"You're right, Kid," approved Bud.  "And truth to tell, I'm not a bit
sorry.  I don't care for Delton a-tall.  We'll go through with this,
and finish it up right."

"And get my ole bronc back," the Kid said loudly.

"We might do that, too," Dick laughed.  "Well, let's hit the hay.
Plenty to do to-morrow."

The night passed quietly.  The punchers were up with the sun, all eager
for the task on hand.  Directly breakfast was over, Dick and Bud rode
to town in order to see Hawkins.  All thought it best that the deputy
should learn, as soon as possible, of the new development, for he might
want to change his plans in accordance.  The boys found him in his
office.

"Come in, boys!" he invited when Dick and Bud stood in the doorway.
"How's everything?  Any more cyclones?"

"Not yet," answered Bud with a laugh.  "The weather is quiet, but
that's the only thing that is."

"What do you mean?" the deputy asked quickly.

Without any preliminaries Bud told the story of his capture and escape.
The deputy listened carefully, now and then asking a question.  When
Bud had finished he sat silent for a moment, drumming his desk with his
fingers.  Suddenly he brought his fist down with a bang and looked up.

"That settles it!" he cried in a decided tone of voice.  "Delton is
finished!  From now on we go after him tooth and nail!  And I want you
boys to know something.  I can rely on you, of course, to keep it a
secret."  Strangely the deputy's western accent seemed to leave him,
and he assumed a more cultured tone of voice.  He held a shiny piece of
metal out toward Bud.  "I'm from Washington--Secret Service--here's my
badge."

Bud took it silently.  It was, indeed, the badge of a federal official.

"I took this job as an ordinary deputy to disarm suspicion," Hawkins
went on.  "I knew if I came to Roaring River as a stranger I'd be
investigated, and perhaps have to give myself away.  So I just got
myself appointed a deputy, and then I could work openly.  No one would
suspect a western deputy of being a federal man--there's too many of
them.  Now you know why I'm so interested in this smuggling.  We've
simply _got_ to stop it--somehow!  Even the Chinese who are in this
country legitimately don't like to see their countrymen come in by the
back door.  And what good are immigration laws if we can't enforce
them?  I'm just telling you this to impress upon you the seriousness of
the project."

"It is certainly no joking matter," Bud agreed, handing back the badge.
"So you're a federal man!  I should think if you wanted to trace the
smugglers secretly you'd take another position than deputy."

"You'll see how it will work out," Hawkins said.  "It's sometimes best
to seem almost what you are, to avoid seeming what you really are.
Figure that one out.  What I mean is, if I openly assume the aspect of
a man of the law, no one will look further than that.  Understand?"

"I do," responded Dick.  "And now let's decide on our plan of action.
Do you think what happened to Bud will change any of the details, Mr.
Hawkins?"

"Don't see why it should.  In fact I think it makes our scheme all the
more advisable.  Personally, I believe the run will go through
to-night.  There's no doubt but that's what you heard referred to, Bud,
for I had a tip concerning the same thing.  They will depend on the
element of surprise and the superiority in number to succeed.  We'll
have our hands full, at any rate."

"Somehow this doesn't seem real," mused Bud.  "Here we are planning to
capture a gang of smugglers who _know_ we're after them, yet they go
right ahead and play into our hands."

"My dear boy," said Hawkins grimly, "you don't quite understand.
Delton is far from playing into our hands.  In fact, if truth be told,
our chances are rather slim that we'll ever see Delton.  He's no baby.
But I think we've got him beaten in one way--the gang across the border
doesn't know what we know.  Now here's the situation."  Dick and Bud
came closer.  "A shipload of Chinks have just landed in Mexico.  Never
mind how I know, but I do.  These Chinese have got to be smuggled over
the border within three days, to make room for another bunch.  All
right.  This gang in Mexico corresponded with Delton last week, telling
him that he was to receive the Chinks on a certain night.

"There's one thing we want to make sure of--and that is to avoid
frightening them off.  Has there been much action around your ranch?"

"None at all.  We've kept things pretty quiet."

"That's good.  Tell you--I think it would be best if you fellows would
stay as close to the ranch house as possible, until this thing is over.
You see the smugglers might send out a one man auto patrol, some time
to-day or this evening, to look over the lay of the land, and if he
sees anything suspicious the chances are that he'll choose another
route to ship the Chinks over the border by.  But I don't think they'll
go far from Roaring River.  They got away with it so easy last time,
that they'll probably try it again.  Well--" Hawkins tightened his lips
grimly--"they won't work it twice."

"Any more instructions?" Dick asked.

"No--I'll be over to the Shooting Star sometime this afternoon.  May
bring a friend with me--Larry O'Connor--one sweet shot with a revolver.
That is if I think we need him."

"Well, we've got five men all told," Dick declared.  "And all of us are
fairly used to handling guns.  Target practice at tin cans keeps your
eye in, and we do lots of that."

"Good idea, if you can afford the money for ammunition.  Never know
when you'll need to rely on a well-placed shot."

"Are you just going to ride over to the ranch openly?" Bud asked.
"Won't someone see you?"

"Even if they do, they won't suspect anything.  But to make sure I'll
wait until after dark.  Guess that would be best.  No attempt will be
made until well on into the night, and we'll have plenty of time to get
set for them."

"Then we'll see you to-night?" inquired Dick as he arose.

"Sure thing!  Oh, by the way--keep an eye on that Mex cook of yours,
will you?  I want him where I can grab him quick if I need him."

"We will.  Good-bye until to-night, Mr. Hawkins."

"So-long, boys."

Bud and Dick rode back to the Shooting Star.  As soon as possible they
told the others of their talk with Hawkins, and of his being a secret
service official.  Billee Dobb said he "opined as much long ago."

The day dragged on.  The boys were all slightly nervous, though they
wouldn't admit it.  Several times one would catch the other fingering
his gun unconsciously.  But evening finally came, and while they were
eating supper Joe Hawkins arrived.  He was alone.

"Thought you were going to bring someone with you?" Bud said when the
greetings were over.

"Decided it wasn't necessary.  We've got plenty here.  Now, boys, are
you all set?"

"All set!" the Kid said loudly.  "Bring 'em on!"

"They'll come without us bringing them," Hawkins declared a trifle
grimly.  "Turn that lamp low, Dick, and let's get out of here."

"What about the Mex?" inquired the Kid.

"Bring him along," the agent declared.  "Want him where I can keep an
eye on him."

In spite of his wordless protests, the cook was dragged out of the
kitchen and made to accompany the punchers to a place near the side of
the house.  And there the six men watched, each with his hand on his
gun and with ears strained for the sound of a car.  There was a road
which ran past the ranch and into the town.  It was over this road that
the watching men expected the smugglers to come.

And now all settled down to a night of waiting.



CHAPTER XVIII

SMUGGLING OPERATIONS

Hardly a breath of wind stirred.  The sky had become partly clouded,
blotting out the moon.  Now and then a horse whinnied, softly, as
though frightened.  The waiting men moved about uneasily, talking in
whispers.  Nine o'clock passed.  Then ten came.  The air grew chill and
damp, and the clouds overhead gathered more thickly.

"Gonna rain," said the Kid in a low voice.  "We sure are favorites with
the weather man."

"May hold off," Bud observed softly.  He moved over to where Hawkins
was standing, eyes peering down the road.  "What do you think of it?"
he asked the agent.

"Not much," was the quiet answer.  "Looks like rain.  That means we'll
have a hard job to see them when they do come."

"Hey, the Mex wants to go back," the Kid said, lowering his voice.
"He's cold, I guess."

"You tell him to stay where he is, or he'll be colder yet," Hawkins
said in a grim voice.  "We can't afford to take any chances now.  Bring
that Mex over here.  I want to talk to him."

"What's that?" Dick suddenly asked.

They all listened tensely.  In the distance they could hear a low
rumble.

"Thunder," Nort said.  "First night storm we've had in a long while."

"Where's that Mexican?" inquired Hawkins again.  "Bring him here, Kid."

Yellin' Kid led the cook to where Hawkins was intently watching the
road.  The agent turned to the Mexican and stared hard at him.

"You know Jose Salvo?" he asked suddenly.

The Mexican nodded vigorously.  Then he pointed to himself and held up
two fingers.

"His brother?  Well, what do you know about that!" plainly the secret
service agent was surprised.  "No wonder you look like him!  Bud, you
remember that Mexican we saw in the restaurant the first day you hit
town?  The one I told you to watch out for?  Well, this bird is his
brother!"

"I thought it was the same one, when we first saw him!  His brother,
eh?  And what's he doin' at this ranch?"

The Mexican apparently heard the question, and endeavored to answer it.
In the gloom they could see his arms and hands motioning forcibly, but
none of them were able to understand the message.

"Better wait," suggested Billee Dobb.  "The poor critter is almost
scared out of his wits.  He may have a bad brother, but I think he's O.
K. himself.  I'll watch him for you.  Over here, Mex!" he ordered
sharply.

The cook walked slowly over to Billee, and squatted down beside him.
He looked up at the old rancher as a calf might look for protection to
a cow.

"I'll depend on you to see that he doesn't pull any funny work,"
Hawkins said to Billee.  "When the show starts we'll have our hands
full, and we don't want any slip-ups."

Yet they could not afford to give up now.  If things worked out as the
agent had hoped, they might succeed in arresting Delton and his gang.

"And that reward will come in right handy," Billee Dobb said.

"Will we really get a reward if we capture these smugglers?" Nort asked
Hawkins.

"You certainly will!  And the government will be glad to pay it, too."

"I don't care so much about the reward as I do about getting Delton,"
declared Bud, as he remembered how he was mistreated at the hands of
the smuggler.

"An' I'd like to get my bronc back," Yellin' Kid asserted, as he moved
his arms briskly about to warm himself.

The night wore on, minutes seeming like hours.  Billee Dobb stood
motionless, leaning against the side of the ranch house, and at his
feet sat the Mexican, seemingly oblivious of the cold.  Hawkins moved
slowly about, glancing every now and then down the road.  The others
stood about, talking in low tones.  The storm seemed to have been blown
aside, as the rumble of thunder no longer reached the ears of the
waiting men.  Still the moon was covered with clouds, making the night
almost pitch-black.  A soft glow from the low-turned lamp within the
ranch house was the only illumination.

"Say, I'm goin' to take a walk around to the corral," exclaimed the Kid
suddenly.  "This waitin' is gettin' me woozy.  Just want to see if the
ponies are all right."

"Watch your step," Bud cautioned.  "It's pretty dark.  And don't make
too much noise."

"I ain't goin' on any picnic," Yellin' Kid answered.  "Be back soon."

He left the protection of the house and in a moment was lost sight of
in the darkness.  It wasn't far to the corral, and as he approached the
horses stirred uneasily.

"All right there, ponies," the Kid called softly.  At the sound of a
familiar voice the restless moving stopped, and the animals suffered
the Kid to walk in among them.

"Lonesome, hey?" he said in a low tone.  "So am I.  Don't like this
hangin' around nohow!  Wish we'd have some action."  He stroked the
nose of one of the steeds.  The horse whinnied softly in response.
"Wish I had my own cayuse here," the Kid mused.  "Hated to lose her.
Best bronc I ever had.  Golly, it's dark!"

As though to dispute him the moon suddenly slid from behind the clouds.
The Kid looked about him--at the ranch house, standing gaunt and
silent, and at the little group of men waiting motionless--and at the
moonlit road, stretching far out over the prairie.  There'd be no
smugglers to-night.  Why, you could see for miles down that road, now.
Not a thing in--what was that?  The Kid stared harder.  There, about a
mile away, lurching from side to side?  It must be--a car!  Coming
fast, too!

For a moment the Kid stood quietly.  Then with a leap he made for the
ranch house.  As he reached the men the moon disappeared again, and the
scene was blotted out.

"Hey!" he called in a repressed yell.  "They're comin'!"

"What!"  The group turned like a flash, as one man.  "Who's coming?
Where?"

"Down the road!  An automobile!"

Excitement spread like a wave.

"Easy!" Hawkins cautioned.  "Not so much noise!  What did you see, Kid?"

"Saw an auto comin' down the road like a locoed steer!  Just when the
moon came out then, I happened to be lookin' that way, and I saw----"

"Listen!"  Bud held up his hand, forgetting that they couldn't see him
in the darkness that had now settled down again.  "Don't you hear
something?"

Through the air came the sounds of a car--the throttle wide open.

"Can't see it, but I can hear it!" Hawkins exclaimed.  "Must be driving
without lights.  They sure are coming!  All set, you men?"

"One of us better get the ponies ready, in case we miss them!" the Kid
declared.  "Billee, will you do that?"

"Suppose so," the rancher grumbled.  "I allers seem t' miss the
fightin'!"

"You'll get plenty of that," asserted Hawkins.  "But let's not waste
time talking.  They'll be here in two minutes.  Listen, you fellows,
and listen good!  Billee, you get the horses ready for a quick start.
Nort, you and the Kid get around to the other side of the house, fast.
Dick, Bud and I will stay here.

"Now here's what's going to happen--the car will pull up right here,
and the Chinks will be unloaded.  We take them--don't forget, we're
Delton's men.  As soon as they hand the Chinks over to us we cover the
men in the car, and get them.  Then when Delton comes we get him,
too--if we can.  He should be here now--must have been a slip-up in the
time.  All the better for us.  Quick--do you understand?"

The roar of the approaching car could be heard plainly now.  There was
not much time left.

"You want Nort an' me to watch the road in the other direction?" asked
the Kid.

"Yes--and we'll be here when they unload the Chinks.  All right now?"

"All set!  Let's go, Nort!"

Yellin' Kid and Nort ran swiftly to the other side of the ranch house,
in which position they would be hidden from sight of the road until
they chose to show themselves.  Billee Dobb went around to the corral.

The oncoming car was plunging along the road, and would reach the
Shooting Star ranch in another minute.  It couldn't be seen, due to the
blackness of the night--the clouds seemed to have thickened in the last
few minutes--but the noise was sufficient indication of its approach.
The six men awaited its arrival with breathless excitement.  If the
plan only worked!  Delton would surely show up sooner or later, he
couldn't risk too long a delay--and the capture would be complete.  The
boys felt their hearts beating fast as the moment approached.  Guns
were out now, and ready for action.

Suddenly another sound came to the ears of the waiting ones--the sound
of rapid hoof-beats.  Those on the farther side of the house from.
where the car was coming peered down the road in the direction of town.
They held their breaths.

"Hear it?" the Kid asked excitedly of Nort.

"Horses! and coming this way!  It must be Delton--he timed it
perfectly--he'll arrive just as the car does!  Kid, we've got more than
our hands full this time!"

"Shall we tell the others?"

"No time--we've got to try and head them off, until Hawkins stops the
car, gets the Chinks and covers the smugglers!  Come on, Kid!"

The two, with guns drawn, ran down the road in the direction of the
approaching horsemen.  It was a foolhardy thing to do, for they had no
means of telling how many of Delton's gang were coming.  Louder and
louder sounded the gallop of the ponies, and nearer came the smugglers'
car.  The night was still pitch-black.  The moon was as if it had never
shone.  In the distance thunder muttered, but the boys were too excited
to notice it.  Overhead the clouds were growing heavier.

"Here they come, Kid!  Stop them!"

Nort threw himself in front of one of the ponies just as the group of
horsemen were about to dash through.  Yellin' Kid jumped to Nort's
side, gun drawn.

"Hold up there!" he yelled.  "Stick 'em up!  High!"

There was a vivid flash of lightning.  In the glare the two challengers
saw that Delton was directly in front of them, and behind him were four
others.  Delton reached for his gun.  Then the heavens opened with a
crash of thunder and the rain poured down in a deluge.



CHAPTER XIX

THE CHASE

Through the darkness came many and varied sounds.  The thunder rolled
long and continuously.  The angry voices of men rose loud and hoarse.
Along the drenched road came the smugglers' car, its exhaust roaring.
And over all the rain came down in torrents.

"Out of the way there, you!" came a voice.  "We ain't got no time for
foolin'!"

"Stick to it, Nort!" the Kid yelled.  "Don't let them through!"

The two boys were standing in the middle of the road, guns out,
determined to prevent Delton and his men from closing in on Hawkins,
who was grimly awaiting the smuggling car.  If they could be held off
until the auto pulled in and stopped, the party at the other side of
the ranch house might succeed in capturing the Chink runners.

There was a sudden shot.

"Hurt, Nort?" the Kid called anxiously.

"Nope!  Missed!  Put those guns up, you!  We've got you covered!  Climb
down off those horses quick, or we'll fill you full of holes!"

There was a desperate ring in the boy rancher's voice, and Delton must
have recognized this, for he yelled something to the men back of him
and they all halted.  The thunder was less frequent now, although the
rain had not let up.  The boys standing in the road were soaked to the
skin.  Still they remained firmly in their place, listening to the roar
of the approaching car, and hoping they could hold Delton until it
reached the ranch.  By the sound it was almost to the Shooting Star
ranch now.  In another moment----

"Hey, you guys, what's the idea?" through the night came a questioning
voice.  "Don't you know it's rainin' here?  How about lettin' us in the
ranch to get dry?"

"You stay where you are!" the Kid yelled.  "You'll have plenty o' time
to get dry all right!"

"Kid--here's the car!  Watch out now!"  Nort was at the Kid's side, but
facing the other way.  "Can you see anything--any of Delton's bunch?"

"Nope--only hear that guy that was talking!  Can you?"

"No but--what's that?"

From the other side of the house came three shots in rapid succession.
Then someone yelled.  The next moment Dick came splashing around to
where the Kid and Nort were waiting.

"They--they fooled us!" Dick panted.  "Delton and three others got to
the car before we did and warned the smugglers!  They all got away!"

"Delton!" the Kid exclaimed.  "Why, we had him here----"

"Yes you did!" came a mocking voice.  "You big cheese--all you had was
a good talk!  So long!"  There was the splashing noise of a horse
rapidly departing for parts unknown.

"Can--you--beat--that!" Nort ejaculated.  "Fooled!  Taken in like
suckers!  While we stood here talking----"

"Yes, and while we're standing here talking now, the smugglers are
getting farther and farther away!  Come on!  We've got to chase them!"
Dick turned and made for the corral.

"Chase an auto on a horse?" the Kid yelled.  "What's the sense of that?"

"They can't go fast in this wet--and we can spot them by the noise.
Hurry up!"

"But I ain't got no pony!" wailed the Kid.  "Wish I had my bronc!  What
am I supposed to do; stay here?"

"No--one of Delton's bunch lost his seat and we've got his animal--use
that.  He got away in the auto.  But for the love of Pete, hurry up!"

The rain had abated a little when the boys reached the corral.  Billee
Dobb was waiting with the ponies untied and ready.  It was but the work
of a moment to mount and lead the other horses over to where Hawkins
and Bud were standing.

"Where's my new bronc?" the Kid asked as he came up.

"Here--this do you?"  Bud was holding a little black pony.

"Sure--as long as it's got legs!"  The Kid swung himself upon the
horse's back.  "Right!  Let's go!"

"We've no time to lose, men!" Hawkins called out.  "We messed that up
proper!  This Delton is more clever than I thought he was."

All were mounted now and ready to take up the chase.  The Kid was
letting his pony walk about, and the rest were awaiting Hawkins's word
to start.

The six riders set out into the night.  Hawkins said the car had taken
a route at right angles and to the left of the road, and all went in
that direction.  They pushed their ponies as fast as they dared over
the soaked prairie, hoping to catch sight of the car before they had
ridden too far.  It was obvious that no auto could make great speed
over the rough surface of the plains, and to add to this rain must
certainly slow them up still more.  So the punchers had a fairly good
chance of overtaking them.  Delton would probably be acting as convoy
to the car, and if they were able to take that, they would capture him
also.  With these thoughts in mind the ranchers beat along through the
rain, which was not now so heavy.

"What happened?" asked Billee Dobb.

"Just this," Bud answered.  "Mr. Hawkins and I were waiting for the car
to reach us.  We couldn't hear what was happening on the other side of
the house, and Mr. Hawkins and I were all set to grab the gang in it,
when four men came riding by like mad and reached the car before we
did.  They yelled something, and in a second the car was off the road
and away, the horsemen after it.  But one of the riders fell, and
didn't wait to get on his horse again--just hopped on the running board
of the car."

"What were those cracks we heard?"

"I took a couple of pot-shots at the tires, but I don't think I hit
anything.  Too dark.  And it was raining cats and dogs, you know."

"Don't I know it!  Nort an' me sure had our hands full.  Five men to
stop!  We figured if we could hold them until you had the fellows in
the car covered, we could capture them too.  Say, see any Chinks in the
car?"

"Didn't see anything!  The car turned off before we could get close
enough to see in it."

"Too bad we couldn't work it, boys," Hawkins ruefully said.  "We've
still got a chance to nab them, though.  They can't get far over this
ground with a car."

"They can lead us a merry chase," Dick asserted.  "Wonder what time it
is?"

"One o'clock," Bud suggested.  "Not much more, anyway.  Think they came
over this way, Mr. Hawkins?"

"Yes--I do.  Know where we are?"

"Comin' to the water hole, I think," answered Yellin' Kid.

"Say, maybe they're going to try and make for the place where they held
me!" Bud exclaimed.  "That's over this way somewhere."

"Can you find it again?" the agent asked, an anxious note in his voice.

"Think so."

"Then if we don't make out to-night we can have a try at that in the
morning."

"How far do you want to go?" Bud asked Hawkins.

"Let's see now.  I have an idea, and I want to see what you fellows
think about it.  First, though, are you sure that you can find that
ranch where they held you, Bud?"

"Can in daylight.  Maybe not at night."

"If you started from the water hole do you think you could spot it at
night?"

"Might.  I could try it, anyway."

"Hold up a minute, then."

The six riders drew rein, and waited for the agent's next words.

"It's not much use trailing them much farther.  What I think they did,
is to make for that ranch house where Bud was, and stay there.  Now
here's the point.  Even if we did come upon them now, we'd have a hard
job taking them.  I think this is a better plan.  Listen, now."

The boys drew closer around Hawkins.

"This idea I have calls for two men to stay up all night.  Who'll do
it?"

"Me!"

"Let me in on that!"

"What is it--keeping guard?"

"Yes, Nort, that's exactly what it is--keeping guard.  Now here's the
dope.  We followed that bunch pretty far.  There's no doubt but that
they headed for that house, and intend to unload their Chinks there.
Now if we can only keep them in that house until morning, we can get
the whole gang--including the Chinks--like rats in a trap.  Now do you
see what I mean?"

"You mean you want some of us to watch the place and do a little
shootin' so that they won't come out?"

"That's it exactly, Kid!  If two men can get close to the house, and
keep firing at intervals, they'll think that we've got them cold, and
will stay there long enough to allow us to get them by morning."

"What's the matter with all of us going up there now?"

"Wouldn't do any good, and besides, someone has got to be at your
ranch.  And some of us have got to get a little sleep.  We may have to
do some more riding to-morrow."

"Well, if you think that's best, I'll do it, for one," spoke Dick.

"And I'll go with you!" Bud exclaimed.  "I owe Delton quite a good deal
for the way he hauled me off my horse!"

"All set for this new plan then?" asked Billee.

"Yes, I think that would be best," Hawkins said slowly.  "Bud, you know
something about the lay-out of the place.  We'll ride part of the way
with you, in case anything happens.  Then when we get near it, you'll
have to go on alone.  You and Dick can decide on a plan of action.  We
will ride back, and return before dawn.  This time we won't fail!"

"You'll ride with us to the place now, you mean?"

"Almost to it.  Then I'll know the way to find it again.  Come on,
let's get started!"

The moon was now struggling to shine through the clouds as the six took
up the ride again.  Bud was in the lead.  They had ridden for ten
minutes when, suddenly, Bud uttered an exclamation, and pulled up his
horse.

"Look there!" he cried, pointing.

Ahead loomed a dark mass.  The boys rode up to it.  As they approached
slowly the moon finally came out fully, and before them they, saw the
wreck of an automobile.



CHAPTER XX

DOWN AND OUT

"It's a car!" Dick cried.  "Must be the smugglers' machine, and they
wrecked it and got away!  Now we know they're at that ranch!"

"Wonder what happened to the Chinks?" the Kid said as he examined the
wreck more closely.  The mass of twisted metal lay still in the
moonlight like some once-living thing that had met its sudden doom.

"Probably dragged them along too," Hawkins suggested.  "Yep, I think
this is the smugglers' car, all right.  Looks like the one we had a
short glimpse of, just before it turned off.  And, if that's the case,
our plan may succeed.  Having a harbor close at hand, it's natural for
them to make for it.  Now it's up to us to see that they stay there
until we capture them."

"That's our job, and we'll do it too," Bud said in a determined tone of
voice.  "Might as well get going.  The longer we stay here, the more
time we give Delton."

"True enough," commented Dick.  "I wonder if anyone was hurt when this
car crashed?"

"Doubt it," Hawkins said.  "Those boys are too lucky!  If they weren't
they never would have gotten away with the stunt they pulled to-night.
Imagine riding right into our hands and getting away from us!  Every
time I think of it I feel like kicking myself around the block."

"It wasn't any more your fault than the fault of the rest of us," Nort
declared.  "They were too many, and too clever.  Let's forget it and go
after them again, and this time we'll win.  What do you say, boys?"

"Sure will!"

"No more foolin' around for us!"

"Well, on our way," Bud called.  He took one more look at the auto
lying on its side in a small depression, and spurred his horse onward.
The rest followed quickly.  The night was well spent, now, and but
little time remained to reach the ranch and post the guard.  However,
it was not far now, and by dint of hard riding, following directions
from Bud, they reached the vicinity of the ranch house in half an hour.
They halted well away from the house itself.

"Take it easy now," Hawkins cautioned.  "We don't want to make too much
noise.  Bud, have you and Dick decided what you're to do?"

"Practically--he is going to take one side, and I'm to take the other,
and if we see anyone come out we'll fire over their heads.  That'll
keep 'em in all right, for they can't see us in the dark.  No one likes
to be fired on by someone he can't see--as we all found out.  Now it's
time to give them some of their own medicine."

"Yes sir!" exclaimed the Kid.  "I wish I could stay with you, Dick, and
have a crack at them myself."

"You come along with us, Kid.  We'll be back before dawn, and you'll
see plenty of action then.  Now is there anything you boys want before
we leave?" asked the secret service man.

"Might bring back a snack for us," Bud suggested.  "It's cold and
hungry work waiting in the dark.  Not that we mind it," he added
quickly, "as long as it helps capture Delton.  And if you can make it,
Mr. Hawkins, please get back as soon as you can.  They may try to make
a rush for it."

"We will--we'll be back as soon as we get things right at the ranch and
maybe snatch an hour's rest.  Depends on how much time we have.  But
we'll surely be back before it's light."

This conversation was being carried on near a small group of trees,
just out of sight of the old farm or ranch house.  Now Hawkins and the
rest turned their ponies toward home.  Dick and Bud, of course, were
due to remain and watch Delton's retreat.

"Now we're on our own," Bud said as he listened to the hoof-beats of
the horses gradually dying away.  "Let's get up to where we can see the
house."

"What about the broncs?  Think we better leave them?"

"Well, what do you think?  We want them near us so we can get going
quick if we have to.  Suppose we tie them as close to the house as we
can without being seen?"

"That's a good idea.  Well, there's the place.  Somebody's sure in it.
All lit up!"

The boys stood and looked at the old farm house which loomed in the
moonlight before them.  It was certainly inhabited, for several lights
were glowing on the ground floor, and every now and then a figure would
pass in front of the lamps, casting a shadow plainly visible from the
outside.

"Got a lot of nerve, walking around like that in front of lamps," Bud
commented.  "Easy to take a pot-shot at them."

"Guess they don't figure us as the kind for that sort of thing," Dick
responded.  "And we're not, either--though it would serve them right if
someone did let ride at the window."

The two boys now took up their positions agreed upon--Dick around to
the left, and Bud to the right.  They were thus separated from each
other by about three hundred yards.

"Mustn't start thinking foolish things!" Dick exclaimed to himself.
"Got enough on my mind now."  He shook his head as though to rid it of
fancies which hung around it.  The boy was certainly not of a morbid
type, and it was the most natural thing in the world for him to be a
bit uneasy, considering his situation.  Yet he would not even admit to
himself that he was anything but wholly composed.

"Wonder how Bud is making out?" he thought.  "Perhaps I'd better sneak
over and see.  But no, there's no sense in that."  Thus did he dismiss
the craving for company.  "Besides, I've got my job cut out for me
here."

He looked more intently at the house, seeking to concentrate his
attention on the everyday affairs of life.  Smuggling.  The reward if
they caught Delton.  What they could do with it.  A new herd of cows.
The Kid's bronc--whether he would see it again.  How Delton timed the
arrival at the Shooting Star ranch just when the smuggling car got
there.  The getaway.  How it did rain!

Still, in spite of himself, that uneasy feeling was stealing over the
boy.  Surely there was no one around but Bud, away over on the other
side.  Of course it was night, but there was plenty of moonlight, and
there was not much chance of Delton's men prowling about.  Perhaps it
was because there were trees back of him that Dick felt restless.
Might be better to move more out in the open.

The boy arose, then suddenly froze into stillness.  That peculiar
feeling that there was someone behind him became stronger.

It seemed as though a pair of eyes were boring into his back.  He
listened intently.  Suddenly he heard a voice.

"Hey, Dick!"

The boy turned swiftly, hand on his every nerve a quiver!

"It's me, Dick!  Billee Dobb!"

What a relief!  The boy now recognized the old rancher's voice, and the
next moment Billee appeared, walking as noiselessly as possible.

"What on earth are you doing here, Billee?"

"I decided to come back.  Didn't want to miss all the fun."

"Yes, but you weren't supposed to, were you?"

"I told Hawkins, an' he said go ahead.  So here I am."

"So I see."  Dick could now afford to laugh at his foolish fears.  "But
let me tell you, you gave me a thrill for a moment.  Now that you're
here, what are you going to do?"

"Watch with you.  That's what I came back for."

"Nice of you to do it, Billee.  What time is it, do you know?"

"'Bout two.  Lots of time yet."

The rancher was observing the activity within the old house.  Nothing
could be seen but the passing and re-passing of the figures in front of
the windows, but for some reason it appeared that more persons were
moving about.

"Looks as though something was goin' to happen," Billee commented in a
low voice.

"Think so?  Well, we've just got to wait, that's all."

The time passed slowly.  Billee and Dick were observing the situation
within the house as best they might, without necessarily exposing
themselves.

"Say, Dick," said the veteran rancher after an hour that seemed like a
year, "I'm goin' to investigate."

"What do you mean?"

"I'm a-goin' up and have a look inside an' see what's happenin'."

"I don't know, Billee--they might spot you and let ride with some lead."

"Don't worry about that, Dick.  They'll never know I'm there.  Now you
wait here an' I'll be right back."

"Well, for the love of Pete, be careful!  We don't want anything to go
wrong."

"Nothin's goin' wrong.  Now you wait."

Billee Dobb moved softly in the direction of the ranch house, walking
so easily it seemed as though he were stepping on wool.  Unlike most
other punchers, who spend most of their time on horseback, Billee was
exceptionally surefooted.  Much tramping about the country did that for
him, and there were some who said he had been active in Indian warfare,
long ago.  He would be the first to deny this, however, as it would add
too much to his age.

So while Dick waited impatiently, the rancher went toward the house,
shoulders low, making himself as inconspicuous as possible.  The
distance between the house and where Dick was waiting was not far, but
it was all open, and with the moon lighting up the scene almost like
day, a person crossing might be easily seen.

Nearer and nearer Billee crept.  Dick could see him picking his way
like a dancer, so that he might step on no branch or twig which would
break and give him away.  Now he was almost at the side of the house.
Dick saw him lean forward and cautiously peer in the window.

Then it happened.  Dick saw a flash of fire from within the room, and
the roar of a gun awakened the stillness of the night.  Billee
staggered back.  He fell to the ground, but was up in a moment, and ran
swaying toward Dick.  The door of the house flew open, and a man with a
gun in his hand burst out on the porch.  Like a flash Dick had his gun
out and fired.  The man ducked back as the bullet struck the side of
the house with a resounding "ping!"

With a supreme effort Billee reached the shelter of the trees.  Dick
ran to him.  The old man's face was twisted with pain, and he sank to
the earth.

"Dick--Dick--" he gasped, "they got me!  They got me!  I'm
down--and--out!"



CHAPTER XXI

CLOSING IN

Nort, Mr. Hawkins and Yellin' Kid rode as fast as they might toward the
Shooting Star.  It was their intention to reach the ranch and return as
soon as possible, after having taken a bite to eat.  The idea of
resting was given up as the hours flew by.  It seemed no time at all
before the stars grew dull, and the gray fingers of dawn spread out in
the east.

"Have to hurry," Hawkins commented as he fumbled around in the dark
kitchen of the ranch.  "Where in thunder is that lamp?  Haven't you got
one out here?"

"Sure--I think so," Nort answered.  "Have to hunt for it, though.  I'm
not so certain of my ground here.  It's all new to me, you know.

"Well, it's not in the corner, that's sure.  Let's have another match,
Kid.  Ah, here we are!"  The soft illumination of an oil lamp flooded
the room.  "Got any non-exploding sand in this machine, Nort?"

"What's that?"

"It's something the gold-brick artists used to sell to farmer's wives
to keep lamps from exploding.  Nothing hut plain, ordinary sand, but
the directions that came with it said to always keep the lamp clean,
not to put too much oil in it, trim the wick, and so forth.  Then put
the sand in and the lamp would never explode.  Of course it wouldn't,
if the directions were followed.  But the sand didn't help any.  It was
the cleaning that did the trick.  Yet the buyer bought peace of mind
and security for ten cents, so the game wasn't so bad as it sounds."

"Pretty good!" the Kid laughed.  "Never heard of that trick before, but
a feller was out here last year sellin' an electric belt, guaranteed to
take off ten pounds.  All you had to do was to live on bread an' water
for five days an' run two miles every morning, wearin' the electric
belt.  Didn't do no business here, though, 'cause most of the boys
wanted to put on weight, not lose it."

"Some graft," Hawkins declared.  "Well, that's neither here nor there.
Find that bread and meat, Nort?"

"Yep.  Got it all fixed up.  Say, by the way, I wonder where that Mex
cook of ours went?"

"That's so too!" exclaimed Hawkins, as they hurriedly ate a lunch.
"Forgot all about him in the excitement.  No use looking for him now, I
suppose.  He may turn up."

"Then again he may not," the Kid spoke grimly.  "We're well rid of him,
I think.  Don't like them Greasers nohow, and this one was no prize
beauty.  Didn't Bud say he was one of Delton's men?"

"Said he might be.  He's not so bad, Kid.  He may be dumb, but I don't
think he'd pull anything really raw."

"You seem right interested in him, Nort."

"No, it isn't that, but I just don't like to see you get him wrong.
Well, never mind.  Let it ride.  How about starting back, Mr. Hawkins?"

"Right.  Blow out that lamp, Kid, and let's be on our way."

The three made their way toward the door, moving by sense of touch.  As
they reached their ponies, tied up near the house, the moon was a pale
disc hanging on the edge of the horizon.  The chill wind of dawn
stirred restlessly, and the men shivered slightly.  Though their wet
clothes had nearly dried, they were still a bit damp, and not conducive
to comfort on the open prairie.

"Just about make it if we step along," Nort said, looking up at the
dimming stars.

"Takes a long while to get light out here," Yellin' Kid asserted.
"We'll get there before dawn.  But let's go.  I'm frozen."

The three threw their mounts into a gallop and set out once more for
Delton's ranch.

"I had an idea that Billee Dobb wanted to stay with Bud," Nort said as
they sped along.  "The old boy hates to miss any action."

"Well, I thought as long as he really wanted to go back, he might as
well go," Hawkins declared.  "He might be of some help, after all.
Never can tell what will happen when you're trailing a gang like
Delton's."

"You mean pretty rough, hey?"

"Sure!  They have to be, to get along in their business.  It's no
child's play, smuggling Chinese.  And it's no picnic capturing them,
either."

Over the darkened range the three rode, like avenging angels.  No time
now for hesitating, and seeking a sure footing for the horses.  They
must take their chance.  And if one spilled--well--it was all in the
game.  They must reach Bud and Dick before dawn.  To Nort, sticking
tight to his galloping pony, it seemed to have been a waste of time to
ride all the way back to the Shooting Star.  But on second thought he
realized that it was necessary for them to have food, for they might be
gone some time.  A man can neither fight nor ride well on an empty
stomach.

"Nearly there!" commented the Kid.  No one was wasting words now.
Breath was too precious.  The only sounds heard were the even beats of
the ponies' feet on the earth, and the creaking of the saddles.
Hawkins was riding well, the Kid saw, even though he did come from the
east.  To the cowboy all places not west are "east," and so it was that
the Kid looked upon Washington.

"Make it?" Nort called to the Kid.

"Sure!  Coming to the water hole now."

The Kid's thoughts were racing along, keeping pace with the horses'
flying feet.  As is the case when one is engaged in work of a
monotonous nature, such as riding, one's thoughts seem to whirl about
in a circle, the same subjects recurring with regularity.  The Kid was
thinking about his lost bronco.  Then Delton.  Then the reward.  Then
back to the bronco again.  And all the while the miles were
disappearing behind him.

Suddenly the Kid pulled his mount to a stop.

"Wait!" he cautioned.  "Isn't that where we left Bud, just ahead?"

A group of trees rose in front.  They had a familiar aspect.

"Sure looks like it!" Hawkins agreed.

"Let's take it easy.  Kid, you lead, and go slow."

The three walked their horses toward the trees.  As they came nearer,
they made certain that they had reached their destination.  And just in
time.  The sky was graying rapidly.

"You two wait here, and hold my new bronc," Yellin' Kid directed
softly, "an' I'll go around on foot.  See how the land lays.  All
right, Mr. Hawkins?"

"All right, Kid.  Go ahead.  Then come back and tell us."

The Kid dismounted and handed his bridle rein to Nort.  Then he walked
carefully into the trees, and disappeared from view.

"See some action soon," Hawkins declared.  He and Nort were waiting on
their horses about three hundred yards from where the Kid had
disappeared into the trees.  "The old ranch house is right back there.
And this time I want to make sure of getting the whole gang."

"Don't you think they figured we followed them, and are all set for us?"

"Maybe.  Can't help that.  But I'm not so sure, Nort--you know they had
to get those Chinks to a place of safety.  Couldn't let them wander
around loose.  And this was the only place they could go to.  They had
no choice.  And whether they figured we'd follow or not, they had to
dig in here."

"They sure got away neat before," Nort said, as he thought of the
escape.  "And if they hadn't wrecked their auto we'd probably never
have seen them again.  Now we've got a chance."

"Yes, and a little more than a chance.  Wonder what's keeping the Kid.
Told him to come right back."

"And here he comes--runnin'!" exclaimed Nort suddenly, as a figure
burst into sight.  "Something must be the matter!"

They spurred their horses toward the Kid, and met him half way.

"What is it?" Hawkins asked sharply.

"Billee Dobb!" Yellin' Kid panted.  "He's--"  It was an ominous pause.

"Not so loud!  Easy!"

"It's Billee!" the Kid exclaimed in a lower voice.  "They shot him!"

"Shot him!  Is he dead?"

"Not yet.  Looks pretty bad.  Bleedin' hard.  By golly, let's go after
those yellow sneaks, an' get 'em!"

"Shot Billee Dobb," Nort said slowly, as though he couldn't believe it.
"Poor old Billee!  Well--" he looked up sharply.  "Let's go!"

The boy's lips were closed grimly.  In his eyes shone a wild light.
Whatever quarter would have been extended to the smugglers before, they
could expect none now.  The chase had turned--had changed into a
personal venture.  They had been seeking the capture of the smugglers
because it had been their duty.  Now----

"Men," Hawkins spoke in a low voice, clipping his words, "let's get
started.  We got work to do!"

There was not another word spoken.  Belts were tightened, and guns
loosened in their holsters.  Dawn was just breaking.  The three men
closed in on the ranch house in silence.



CHAPTER XXII

FLYING BULLETS

Finally Nort spoke.

"What about Billee?" he asked.

"Dick's taking care of him as best he can.  Poor old geezer--" the Kid
bit his lip sharply.  "He told me--he was sorry it happened, 'cause now
he'll miss the fun."

"How did he look, Kid?  I mean----"

"Can't tell, Nort.  He's hit pretty bad.  Course we don't know for
sure--he's pretty old, you know----"

"But tough as a board," Hawkins broke in.  "I know his kind.  Don't
worry boys.  I'm sure he'll pull through O. K.  Kid, is Bud coming with
us?"

"Said he'd be right here.  Want to wait he comes, before going closer?"

There was a halt in the determined march toward the ranch house.  There
seemed to be but little formal plan in the boys' attack; simply to "get
those guys an' get 'em good," as the Kid expressed it.  But now that
the first shock of learning of Billee's wound had passed, all realized
how hopeless it would be to simply go up and take Delton.  Some sort of
a scheme of attack was necessary if anything was to be accomplished.

"Here's Bud now," Hawkins said as the boy rancher rode toward them.
There was a sober look on his face.

"How goes it?" the Kid asked, anxiously.

"Pretty fair.  He's got a chance, I think.  Bleeding's stopped.  Dick's
got him covered up with a saddle blanket over there a ways.  If I get a
crack at Delton----"

"How'd it happen, Bud?" asked Hawkins quickly.  It was evident that he
wanted the boys to control themselves.  It was dangerous work they were
about to start, and thought must be clear and quick, unimpeded by
external circumstance.

"From what I gather from Dick, Billee sneaked up to take a look in one
of the windows, and someone snipped him.  He just made the shelter of
the trees and fell unconscious."

"Well, men, that means we have an additional reason for taking Delton."
Mr. Hawkins looked about him to be sure all were listening.  In the
east the red rim of the morning sun was bulging over the horizon.  The
time for action had come.

"Nort, come over here a minute, will you?  Hold my bridle rein while I
see if I've got that paper with me."

The boy, wondering a little, seized the rein while Hawkins went through
his pockets.  The agent's eyes were riveted on Nort's hand.  It was as
steady as a rock.

"Never mind--guess I won't need it.  All right."  Hawkins took the
reins from the boy, satisfied by his little ruse that Nort was not
affected by his lack of sleep.  The business before them called for a
firm hand and nerve.

Hawkins was speaking in a low voice.

"Can you men all hear what I'm saying?  If not, get closer.  Now
listen.  We've got to figure this thing out, or fail again.  And if we
don't take Delton this time, I'm afraid we never will.  At least that's
the way it seems to me.  Here's what I thought.  We'll ask him to
surrender and come with us peaceably.  We are bound to do that.  They
know by this time that we are on their heels, and can cause trouble for
them if they attempt an escape now.  I believe they'll bide their time,
and make a rush for it.  That's what we have to be ready for.  I'm
going up there with a flag of truce, and demand that they give in to
the law."

The agent dismounted and, drawing his gun, he tied to the barrel of it
a white handkerchief.

"You mean to say you're goin' to walk right up there in broad daylight,
after what they did to Billee?" Yellin' Kid asked in a tone of surprise.

"I am.  It's my duty.  Besides, it's safe enough.  No one but a fool
would shoot a man bearing a white flag, when they're in Delton's
position.  It'll go hard enough with them as it is.  I have an idea
they might agree to come peaceably.

"Well I haven't," the Kid said grimly.  "The only way we'll get those
skunks out of their hole is to pull them out!"

Hawkins shrugged his shoulders and prepared to set out.  They all
walked to the edge of the trees, and just as the sun burst forth in all
its glory Hawkins started across the open space toward the ranch house.

The boys watched him with anxious eyes.  Would he cross safely, or
would he be shot down like a dog?  There was no sign from the ranch
house.  All activity had ceased as though the occupants had been frozen
into stillness.  Nearer and nearer walked the agent, head up, the gun
with the handkerchief tied on it held in front of him.  Still there was
no sign of life inside the house.  When the agent reached within ten
feet of the place, the boys saw him stop and look closely at the quiet
house.

"Hey, you!" he yelled.

"Nervy guy," the Kid commented, "He might easily get creased, standin'
there yellin'.  Me, I wouldn't put it past that bunch!"

Suddenly a window flew up and a head poked out.  It was a stranger,
none of the boys ever having seen the fellow before.

"What do you want?" the man demanded in a truculent tone.

"I call upon you to surrender, in the name of the law!" said Hawkins.

"You what?"  Without waiting for an answer, the head drew in but the
window remained open.  In a moment the head reappeared.

"What are you talking about?  Why should we surrender?"

"You're under arrest for smuggling, and for assault and battery with
intent to kill!"

"You don't say!"  The head popped in.  Then in a moment----

"Who are you--John Law?"

"I happen to be a federal agent.  But I'm not here to give you my
history.  Do you surrender?"  The boys could hear the sting in the
agent's words.

"Wait a minute."  Once more the head disappeared.  This time it stayed
back for some minutes.  The watching boys were moving uneasily.
Finally another came to the window--it was Delton.  The agent gave no
sign that he knew him.

"Want to speak to me?" asked Delton, an imperious note in his voice.

"Makes no difference who I speak to.  I want to know if you'll
surrender, and give yourselves over to the law."

"What for?"

"You know well enough!  Smuggling, and shooting!"

"It was that bird's own fault that he got shot.  What's he want to come
sneaking around for?  Serves him right!  As for smuggling, who said we
were smugglers?"

"Never mind about that."  The agent was speaking quickly now.  "I ask
you once more, do you surrender?"

Unwittingly Hawkins lowered his gun on which was the flag of truce.
There was a sudden report, and a spurt of dust arose at the agent's
feet.

"There's our answer!" Delton yelled, and slammed down the window.

Hawkins wasted no time in returning to the waiting boys.

"That's that," he said grimly, and he removed the handkerchief from his
gun.  "We got to go after them.  Kid, where's Billee Dobb resting?"

"Over there behind that bend.  Want me to go over and see how he's
makin' out?"

"Yes.  In the meantime, where's that meat and bread you brought, Nort?
Everybody grab some.  Got water over there for Billee, Kid?"

"Yep; Dick's got a canteen full, and he's got Billee's shoulder tied up
with his shirt.  We can't do anything more for him 'til we get home."

"I hate to think of Billee lying out there hurt," Bud said a trifle
sadly.  "Think we all better go over and see him?"

"No, I don't," Hawkins said decidedly.  "The Kid knows what he's
talking about, and if he says we can't do anything more for Billee,
there's no use tracking over there and getting him excited.  Here, now,
everybody get some of the food Nort brought."

"Not so hungry," Bud said, looking longingly toward the window where
they had last seen Delton.

"Eat anyway, Bud.  You'll need it.  And stop worrying about Billee.
I'm sure he'll make out all right."

On his way to the injured man the Kid brought some of the bread and
meat for Dick.  The others, though they protested they weren't hungry,
ate as much as Nort carried.  All felt better after this refreshment.

Within five minutes the Kid was back.

"Better!" he called as he came up.  "Dick says he's getting along O. K.
Took some of the food and wanted to know if he could be shifted to
where he could see the fireworks.  He's quiet now, though.  Dick's
afraid he'll start a hemorrhage if he moves around much."

"He might, too," Bud agreed.  "It's best to keep him as quiet as
possible.  Well--when do we start?"

Hawkins had been standing by the side of his pony.  Now he mounted and
faced the house.

"We start now!" he said.  "First we have to decide how to close in.  I
think Nort and I had better come in from the left.  Kid, you and Bud
get around to the extreme right.  In that way we can cover the whole
ground.  Nort and I will start first, and try to make the door.

"When I shoot, you start, Kid.  If we can get into the house, the rest
is easy.  I know that bunch.  Fine when they're on top, but as soon as
anyone gets under their guard, they welch.  That's the reason I think
we can make it.  But listen--" and the agent's voice dropped.  "This is
a mighty risky business.  I don't want anyone to get in this against
his will.  No telling what may happen.  Are you boys willing to take a
chance?"

Bud was the first to speak.

"Mr. Hawkins," he said, "I think I know the others well enough to speak
for them.  When we started this thing, we did so because it was our
duty, and, I might as well admit it, because of the excitement.  Since
then something has happened.  Billee Dobb was shot.  Are you answered?"

"I am," said the agent, with an understanding look.  "All set then,
boys.  Around that way, Bud.  Wait for three shots, then close
in--fast.  Let's go!"

Bud and Yellin' Kid started for the right of the house.  The moment had
come.  Before many more minutes passed, the plan would have either
succeeded, or there would be fewer men able to walk around the ranch
house.  Hawkins and Nort drew their guns, and headed their ponies to
the left, throwing them into a gallop.  They crouched low in the
saddles.  What was in their minds as they made ready for that desperate
charge?  Fear?  Hardly that.  A turmoil of excitement, probably.

As they dashed out into the open Nort gave a quick glance toward the
window.  He could see nothing save darkness within.  It took but a few
seconds for them to reach the side of the house.  Hawkins looked over
at Nort.  The boy nodded.  Now!

They raced madly toward the house.  Bang!  A shot rang out, and a puff
of smoke came from one of the windows.  Nort's hat went sailing away as
though it were on a string.  Bang!  Nort saw the agent's pony falter,
then recover and go dashing on.  Now they were almost to the house.  It
had seemed as though one of them surely would be hit, for they were
speeding across perfectly open territory and the occupants of the house
were firing rapidly.

But, somehow, luck was with them.  They reached the porch safely.  And
just as Hawkins was about to give the signal for Bud and the Kid to
attack, he saw something that stayed his hand.

From the rear of the house a volume of black smoke was pouring.



CHAPTER XXIII

A RING OF FIRE

"Wait, Nort!" Hawkins yelled.  "Stick close to the house!  Get in
close!  Not the front--this way!  This way!"

He pulled his horse over to one side and held him as near the side wall
of the ranch house as he could get.  Nort followed him, also hugging
the wall.  In that way they were protected from the bullets of Delton's
men.

"See what happened?" the agent exclaimed.  "The place is on fire!  Now
they've got to get out, and they'll run right into our hands.  How I
hope the Kid has sense enough to stay away and nab them when they come
out!"

The smoke was billowing out in huge clouds, now.  It was a frame house,
and a firetrap if there ever was one.  Now the flames licked through,
and the boards started to burn as though they had been soaked with
gasoline.

"Can you sneak around the corner and signal to Bud?" suggested Hawkins.
"Tell him to stay back.  Wonder how in thunder this fire ever got
going?"

Nort walked his mount toward the front, still keeping as close to the
side of the house as possible.  All gun-fire from within the burning
place had now ceased, but the boy was taking no chances.  There were
but two windows on that side of the house, and their rooms were not
occupied, so that as long as the ranchers kept hugging the wall they
could not be shot at.  The firing as they approached had evidently been
done from an angle.

Hawkins's horse was prancing wildly about.  His eyes were focused upon
the tongues of flame that spurted out of the rear of the building.

"They can't stay in there much longer!" Hawkins yelled.  "How about
their ponies?  Know where they keep them?"

"Easy to find out.  Let's do it--quick.  We ought to get around to
where the Kid and Bud are and join forces.  Ready?"

Hawkins nodded, and once more the two flashed across the open ground,
this time away from the danger zone.  But there was no need for such
haste, for not a shot followed them.

"The horses!" Nort yelled as he rode up.  "Get them, Bud, and Delton
won't have a dog's chance!"

"Got 'em!" Bud answered.  "Soon as we saw the fire I went to where they
had them tethered and led 'em over here.  There they are, by that tree.
Say, I wonder who started this thing?"

"What makes you think someone started it?" Hawkins asked, looking at
him closely.

"Well, I figure it couldn't set itself--and it's not likely an accident
would happen."

"Can't tell--like as not a lamp turned over.  Wow, look at that roof
go!  Where can those birds be keeping themselves?  What chance have
they got now?"

"Probably trying to put it out from inside.  Foolish thing to do, but
they know as soon as they come out they're finished.  I wouldn't
deliberately set the place on fire, but it sure solved our problem for
us."

As the fire raged more fiercely, the ranchers looked at each other.
What had happened to Delton?  Could it be that he determined to stick
it out until the last moment, and risk a horrible death?  Surely he
must realize that in peaceful surrender lay his only hope.

Suddenly Bud uttered a cry.

"Here comes someone!  Out of the cellar!  Look!"  Running toward them
was a bedraggled figure.  Clothes torn, face blackened with smoke, it
presented a truly pitiful picture.  As it ran it waved its arms wildly.
Something in the appearance, or possibly its gesture, caused Bud to
exclaim:

"Say, he looks familiar!  Kid, Nort--know who that is?"

The boys looked curiously at the wretched man.  Now he was almost upon
them, and they could see his eyes glaring wildly.  He reached them and
fell to the ground, exhausted.  Bud dismounted quickly and bent over
him.

"Get up!" he commanded.  "Let's have a look at you!"  The man dragged
himself to his feet.  At a sight of his face, blackened as it was by
the smoke, all started back.

"Well, what do you know about that!" the Kid cried.  "It's our Mexican
cook!"

"What are you doing here?" Nort asked sharply.  "You with Delton?  Hey?
Tell the truth now or I'll hit you!"

"He can't talk!" Bud protested.  "Give him a chance.  He's all in.
Come here, Mex."  The boy held out his arm and the Mexican seized it
and steadied himself.  "Were you with Delton?" Bud asked.

The Mexican shook his head negatively.  Then he pointed to the burning
building and waved his arms wildly.

"Steady up!" Bud commanded.  "Take it easy!"

The man took a deep breath and regained control of himself.  But his
gestures were still inexplainable.  After a minute of vain
gesticulating the Kid suddenly exclaimed:

"I think I get it!  Mex, listen here: Did you set that fire?"

A vigorous nod of the head.  The boys looked at each other in surprise.

"What for?"

The Mexican pointed to himself, then held up two fingers.  Then he
pointed to the house, and shook his fist.

"Be means his brother!" the Kid said.  "What about him, Mex?  Did
Delton get hold of him?"

Another nod, and more furious gestures.

"I see!" cried the Kid.  "He means Delton put his brother up to some
dirty work.  That right, Mex?"

Eagerly the man signified yes.

"And he did this to get back at him.  But where is Delton, Mex?  Why
doesn't he come out?  He'll be burned to death in there!"

The fire had eaten its way through to the front of the house and now
the whole upper story was ablaze.  It seemed impossible that any living
creature could withstand those flames.

"Where's Delton, Mex?" the Kid persisted.

The cook pointed to the house then to the ground.

"The cellar!" Bud cried.  "He means they're hiding in the cellar!
That's the reason they can stay in there so long.  We should have
thought of that before."

"They'll soon be out," spoke Hawkins a trifle grimly.  "The fire is
reaching the lower story.  We may expect a rush any minute now."

The men were standing in a group at the edge of the trees.  With the
house directly in front of them, and the country about perfectly flat,
there was no chance of anyone escaping unseen.  The flames mounted
higher.  There was a certain amount of awe in the faces of all as they
thought of the tortures a person would endure if he were trapped in
that furnace.  And for all they knew, men might be burning to death in
front of them!  It was a harrowing situation.  Even though they had
shot Billee Dobb, it was an inhuman thing to wish, or even think, of
them being caught in a burning building.

If they would only come out, even though they came shooting!  Bud saw a
huge tongue of flame shoot out of the roof.

"I can't stand this any longer!" he shouted.  "Those men must be
burning to death!  I can't stay here and watch that.  I'm going to----"

"But what can you do?" Nort asked.  "They want to stay there until
they're good and ready to leave.  I don't see how we can help them.
Certainly I don't want to see anyone burned to death, but I don't think
we can do anything, except go in and get them, which we can't do; and
if they won't come out, they won't."

"Perhaps they're trapped!"

"You'd know it if they were.  They'd yell or something.  No matter how
much they want to escape, they won't risk getting burned.  No man
would."

"Then why don't they come out?" Bud persisted.

"Ask me something easier!  Maybe the Mex can tell us something about
it.  Hey, Mex!  Why they no come out?"

But this time the cook shrugged his shoulders and spread his hands wide
in a gesture expressing ignorance.  They could get no information there.

"I'm going to ride over and see!" Bud exclaimed, a ring of
determination in his voice.

"Well, if you want to--then I'll go with you.  Kind of wonder where
they are myself."  This from Nort.

They had to force their horses to head toward the fire.  The sparks
were flying high, and the heat could be plainly felt even at the
distance the boys stood.  But finally Bud and Nort got the ponies
started.

The animals approached the fire with mincing steps.  The boys had to
force them continually onward, for no beast will go toward fire
willingly.  A few more steps and Nort said:

"Say, Bud, there's not much point in this.  The broncs will never go
near enough for us to see anything.  What say we get off and walk?  I
don't think there's much chance of Delton shooting at us.  If we really
want to find out anything we better get off these horses."

"Guess that's right," agreed Bud as his mount reared high.  "Fast,
though--snap to it, Nort!"

The boys turned their ponies away from the fire and rode swiftly back.
They dismounted and without hesitation, ran again to the burning house.
They made for the side, from where the Mexican cook had staggered out.

"There ought to be an entrance to the cellar about here," Bud panted as
he ran on.  "The Mex said they were down there!"

As they neared the building they saw that this was so.  A small door
indicated the way to the cellar.  The heat was tremendous, and Nort
wondered if their errand hadn't been in vain.  It didn't seem possible
that there living creatures were voluntarily remaining within.

Just as Nort was about to tell Bud his thought, a figure emerged and
staggered toward them.  It was the man who had protested at Delton's
treatment of Bud when the boy had been taken, bound, to this very
house.  The man was in sad case.  His breath was coming in sobs, and he
maintained an upright position only by a supreme effort.  One side of
his face was badly burned.

"Help--" he gasped.  "Help--men in there----"

"What is it?  Speak quick!" Bud commanded.  "Can't they get out?  Are
they in danger?'

"Trapped!  Delton--in there--can't move--hit on the head----"

The next moment the man collapsed at their feet, unconscious.



CHAPTER XXIV

THE RATTLING BUCKBOARD

"Quick, Nort!  Pull him back out of the heat and call the others!
We've got to save those men!"

"What's the matter?" Dick cried as he came up.  "Aren't they out of
that furnace yet?"

"No--they're trapped inside!  We've got to get them out!  Billee
Dobb--is--is he dead?"

"No--he's better!  He insisted on my coming over when he saw the smoke.
Thought I might be needed.  No time for talk now--we've got to get
busy!"

"It's sure death to enter that!" Hawkins cried as another huge tongue
of flame shot heavenward, sending the boys reeling back.  "You'll only
throw your lives away!"

"I can't help it--we must do something!  We can't see them burned to
death!"

At that moment Bud felt a tug at his sleeve.  He jerked around.  At his
elbow was the Mexican cook.  He motioned to himself, then toward the
cellar.  Then he leaped forward.

"Follow him!" Bud cried.  "He knows how to get in safely!"

With a rush the others were on the heels of the Mexican.

"Someone has got to stay here--help them out if we do get them!"
exclaimed Hawkins.  "Nort--you and Dick wait!"

Bud was directly behind the Mexican.  He saw the man disappear down
into the smoke, and taking a full breath, the boy followed.  He found
himself below ground, and for a moment hesitated to get his bearings.
The air was choking, but the heat was not intolerable.  The fire had
not quite reached the lower floor.

There was no time to be lost, for any minute the building might
collapse and bury them.  Bud plunged on.  He could see faintly now, and
he caught a glimpse of a figure in front of him, beckoning.

"Go--ahead!" the boy gasped.  "Coming!"

A few steps further and he stumbled against a door.  At his side was
the Mexican, pointing.  Bud pushed frantically, but the door refused to
budge.  Then he found the reason.  It was bolted.

"You--you locked them in!  You inhuman----"

He saw the Mexican shrug his shoulders.  Even in the burning building
the Latin's philosophical mind did not desert him.

Bud struggled with the bolt.  It stuck.  He strove with all his
strength--and the door flew open.  The boy stumbled in.  His foot
struck a body stretched upon the floor.

He reached down and lifted the unconscious man to his shoulder.  Behind
him he heard a voice.  It was that of Yellin' Kid.

"Give him here!"  The Kid seized the limp form and passed it to someone
at his side.  "We'll get 'em out like a bucket-brigade!  Pass 'em to
me, Bud!"

Through the smoke Bud groped his way.  His hand encountered another
body.  In a moment he lifted the man and passed him to the Kid.  His
head felt as if it were bursting, but on he struggled, seeking, hands
outstretched.  He passed another body out to the Kid.  Another.  Then
he heard a moan and turned toward it.  A man lay against the wall.  His
hands moved feebly, and even in the smoke and gloom Bud, could see
blood streaming from a cut on his head.  The boy bent over and grasped
the man's arm.  His face was within an inch of the other's.

"Delton!"

The boy's cry was involuntary.  Here, under his very hands, was the man
who was the cause of their misfortunes--who had committed crimes, no
telling how many, and who had perhaps shot one of their comrades.  And
yet Bud was risking his life to save this creature.  Was it fair to
ask----?

A low moan came from the wretched figure.  Bud looked for a long moment
at the blood-stained face.  Then with a sudden heave he lifted him and
staggered to the door.

"I'll take him!" he gasped to the Kid, who had reached for the burden.
"See if there are any more!"

He heard Yellin' Kid smashing against the walls in an effort to locate
other senseless figures.  Then he followed Bud.

"Can't find any more.  Ask the Mex how many----"

The cook heard the inquiry and flung his arms wide, indicating that the
rest had made their escape.  The Kid, gasping, plunged out into the
open.

As he gulped in great mouthfuls of the welcome fresh air the Kid heard
a sudden crash.  He turned quickly.  A shower of sparks and flames shot
into the air, like the eruption of a volcano.  There was another roar,
and the next moment the building was in ruins.  The walls had
collapsed, and nothing remained of the structure but a pile of embers.
With horror written on his face, the Kid looked wildly about him.

"Bud!" he almost screamed.  "Bud--is he in there?  Get him out--get
him----"

"All right, Kid--all right--" said a voice by his side.  It was Bud.
The Kid stared at him for a long minute, with a suspicious moisture in
his eyes.  Then he laid his hand on Bud's shoulder.

"Thought--you were--" he said in a husky voice.  And he did a strange
yet a boyish thing.  He withdrew his hand from Bud's shoulder and
planted it hard under the other's ribs.

"Baby!" he exclaimed.  "We sure did clean up that place!  Threw them
out like bags of corn.  Anybody hurt bad?"

The two, their faces blackened and with clothes torn, walked toward the
group of men gathered about the injured.  They saw the forms stretched
on the ground, and for a moment feared that their rescue work had been
in vain.

The boy ranchers looked at the figure upon the ground.  The man groaned
and opened his eyes.  He stared straight into the eyes of Bud.  For a
moment hostility glared out at the boy, then Delton half closed his
eyes as though he were trying to think.  The men gathered about were
quiet, watching their prisoner.  He wet his lips with his tongue.

"Thanks," he murmured, and held out his hand with a feeble gesture.
Bud reached down and grasped it with a smile.

"Don't mention it," the boy said quickly.  Then he straightened up and
looked over to Mr. Hawkins.  "Say, are you thinking the same thing I
am?" he asked the agent.

"You mean, where are the Chinks?  You bet I'm wondering that!  Wait, I
believe I can find out.  Hey, Mex!"  The agent called to the cook who
was standing on the edge of the group.  "Come here!  You know him?"

He pointed to a man seated on the ground, leaning against a tree, with
one of his sleeves burned entirely away.  The arm was scorched.  But
with his other hand the man was calmly holding a cigarette.

The Mexican cook looked at him and then nodded briefly.

"He's your brother, isn't he?"

Another careless nod.

"Then you ask him what became of the Chinks!"

"Why don't you ask him yourself?" Dick wanted to know.

"Tried it--won't answer.  I think his brother can make him talk."

This proved to be correct.  The cook bent over his brother and made a
few rapid motions with his fingers.  The seated man muttered something.
Again the cook's fingers moved.  This time his brother answered more at
length, and the cook walked in the direction of a small shed, motioning
to the others to follow.  Nort and Mr. Hawkins trailed along behind.
When they reached the shack the cook pointed to it.

"In there?" the agent asked doubtfully.  It didn't seen large enough to
hold more than two men.  It had probably been used to shelter a calf
when the place had been run by a farmer.

The Mexican nodded.  Hawkins stepped to the small door and jerked it
open.  A bundled-up mass of humanity almost tumbled into his arms, and
when they untangled themselves, there were not two Chinese, but five!

"How in thunderation did you all ever get in there?" Nort inquired
wonderingly.  "Hey, you!  Quiet down!  We're not going to hurt you.
What do you think this is, a circus?  Gee!  They were like sardines!"

The Chinese were as excited as rabbits, and chattered away in evident
fear.  None of them spoke English, and it was some time before they
could be made to understand that no harm was intended them.

As the agent returned to the little group of wounded and others, he saw
them centered about something and all talking at once.  He quickened
his pace and in a moment saw the cause of the commotion.

"Billee Dobb!" he exclaimed.  "Golly, I'm glad to see you moving again!
How did you get over here?"

"Dick and Yellin' Kid carried me," the veteran rancher answered with a
smile.  "Like a silly baby!  They jest lifted me up an' brung me along.
Said I had to see the last act, anyway."

"How are you feeling?" Hawkins asked anxiously.  "I wanted to go to you
soon as I heard about it, but I couldn't, Billee."

"Sure, I know you couldn't.  I was all right.  Dick stayed by me until
I had to threaten him with a six-gun to get him to help you people.
Why, I'm feelin' O. K. now.  Jest got me in the shoulder.  Laid me out
for a spell--I ain't as young as I was--why, I remember the time when I
got an arrow full in the side--didn't phase me none--went right on and
got the guy that shot it--I was a man in them days--I remember----"

"Now, Billee, take it easy," Bud said gently.  "Tell us all about it
later.  You got lots of time.  Thirsty?"

"A leettle," the rancher replied with a sigh.  Bud leaned over and held
his canteen to the other's lips.  Billee took a long drink and sighed
again.  "Tired," he said weakly.  "Want to sleep."

He lay back on the blanket.  Bud drew the edges over him and motioned
the others away.  "Let him sleep.  Best thing in the world for him.
We'll take him back later.  I don't want to move him until that wound
gets good and quiet."

"What about these others?" Nort inquired.  "We want to get them out of
the way.  There are five men who can't walk.  Then there's two more who
managed to get out without being burned.  They're here too.  We've got
to get them all back some way.  Can't walk them, and we haven't enough
horses.  What do you think, Mr. Hawkins?"

"Let me see," the agent said.  "It is a problem, Nort.  Bud, have you a
suggestion?  The sooner we can get the bunch to town the quicker we'll
get something hot to eat.  And a little sleep wouldn't harm us any.
Think of anything, Bud?"

"Well, if--"  The boy stopped and listened intently.  In the distance
he heard the sounds of horses.  Then as they approached nearer the
creaking noise of a wagon traveling fast came to him.  The next moment
all heard a voice yelling:

"Get along there, boys!  Watch it--watch it!  Pete, you spavin-back
cayuse, come out of that!  Quit side-steppin'!  At a baby--now yore
goin'!  Out of that hole!  Out of it!  Pete!  Pete!  You dog-eared
knock-kneed bleary-eyed paint, if you don't swing wide I'll skin you
alive!  You, Pete!"

A rattling buckboard popped into view like the presiding genius of a
jack-in-the-box.

"It's our friend from town--from the store!" Nort exclaimed.

"Yes, and look who's with him!" Bud yelled.  "It's Dad!  Yea, Dad!
Golly, I'm glad you came!  You're just in time!"



CHAPTER XXV

YELLIN' KID FINDS HIS BRONC

The wagon came to a sudden stop, and Mr. Merkel jumped out.

"Hello, son!  Howdy, boys!  Say--what happened here?  Bud--how did you
get burned?  You hurt?"  There was a note of anxiety in the father's
voice.

"Not a bit, Dad!  Just blackened up a little.  Had a fire, and we had
to pull some men out.  Look at that!"

The boy pointed to the mass of embers that was once a house.  The fire
had died down until now there was only glowing bits of wood left.  It
had started quickly and ended as suddenly.

"Anybody seriously burned?"  Mr. Merkel looked at his son keenly, as
though to satisfy himself that he was uninjured.  The father's glance
evidently convinced him that Bud was all right, for he turned quickly
and said to the others:

"Where's Billee Dobb?  I don't see him."

"Billee is the one who is really hurt, Uncle," Nort answered.  "He's
got a piece of lead in his shoulder.  He's asleep now--be all right
later, I think."

"Shot!  The rascals!  They'll suffer for that!  You want to get Billee
to a doctor as soon as possible, before infection sets in.  We'll bring
him back in the wagon."

"How did you happen to come here, Dad?" Bud asked curiously.  "I didn't
think you knew where we were."

"I didn't, exactly.  I have a confession to make, Bud.  You weren't
sent out here to herd sheep.  You were sent to do just what you did--to
capture the smugglers."

"But--but why didn't you tell us?"

"I couldn't, Bud.  I gave my word to the government that I'd not let on
the reason I was sending you out here.  You see, no one could tell just
what would happen.  If you knew that you were sent to go after
smugglers, and you went after the wrong gang, things would be in a
pretty mess.  So they concluded that it was best to leave you in the
dark.  I'll admit I favored telling you, boys, but as it turned out,
the other way may have been best.  Even as it was, I let slip something
about it.  And when you weren't at the ranch I figured you might be in
this direction.  I sort of suspected this place.  Well, all's well that
ends well.  Now what, boys?"

"If we can get that wild buckboard man to drive slowly, we have a load
of passengers to take back.  Oh, say, Dad, do you know Mr. Hawkins?  I
don't know whether you--"  Bud paused suggestively.

"Yes, indeed," Mr. Merkel said with a smile.  "We're old friends.  He
came to me long ago and arranged most of this scheme.  Sorry we had to
do it, boys--but the government seems to know its business!"

"I'm glad you look at it in that light, Mr. Merkel," the agent said as
he shook hands.  "We have to be very, very careful--and a slip that may
seem trivial to others may mean success or failure to us.  But let me
say that these boys have more than come up to expectations.  I have
never seen a better----"

"Hey, hey, take it easy!" the Kid laughed.  "It might go to our heads.
But one thing, Mr. Hawkins.  It's about----"

"I know--the reward!  And you get it, too, boys.  As soon as we get to
town I'll give you a check that's in my office safe.  You have
certainly earned it."

"Now we can get a new bunch of longhorns!" shouted Dick gleefully.
"Great stuff!  That's worth going without a night's sleep for!"

"And the radio," Nort broke in.  "We get that, too!"

"You and your sparkin' outfit," Yellin' Kid scoffed.  "You want music
with your grub, I guess!"

"Say, Mr. Hawkins, what's the penalty for smuggling in this state?" Bud
inquired.  "I just wondered----"

"Ten years," the agent answered briefly.  "Delton's due for quite a
long stretch.  He'll have time to think over his errors."

"Ten years," Bud said musingly.  "Ten years in jail!  Mr. Hawkins, if
we testified that Delton wasn't so bad as he's supposed to be, and
that----"

The boy stopped.  Hawkins looked at him long and hard.  Then he walked
over and held out his hand.

"Son," he said simply, "that's the whitest thing I've ever seen a man
do.  I'll try to fix it up for you.  We'll do what we can to lighten
his sentence."

"Thanks," Bud said gratefully.

"Well, when do we start?" Mr. Merkel asked.  "If you men are hungry,
we'd better get going.  Did I understand you to say we'd have a load
going back, Bud?"

"And then some!  Now let's see how we can arrange this.  Billee Dobb
goes back in the buckboard.  And so do the others who are badly hurt.
How many do you think can ride, Kid?  You know we've got their horses
at the back, and some can come along on them."

"Figure Delton and two of those other guys should go in the wagon.  The
rest can fork the broncs.  They're able.  Well, let's get those fellers
that are going along with this wild man in the wagon.  Think you can
take it easy a short spell?" Yellin' Kid asked the grinning driver.

"Sure!  Like an am-bu-lance.  They'll never know they're ridin'."

"All right.  Now about these Chinks.  Guess they'll have to get along
on the ponies."

"But maybe they can't ride," Nort suggested.

"Maybe they can't--but they're gonna take a lesson right now!  Their
first an' last.  Let's get hold of Billee an' lift him in the wagon.
Still asleep?"

"Yep.  Easy now.  That does it----"

As they raised the form of the old rancher he stirred uneasily.  Then
he opened his eyes.

"Boss!" he exclaimed.  "What do you think of me bein' carried around
this way.  Wait a minute, boys, I can walk.  I want to----"

"You're to lay right still," admonished Yellin' Kid.  "Think we want
you bleedin' all over the landscape?  Now go slow, an' Mr. Merkel will
shake hands with you when we get you in the wagon."

"How are you, Billee?" the cattle owner asked warmly.  "Heard you had
an accident!  Well, we'll feed you up good for a couple of days and
you'll soon be on horseback again."

"Sure will!  Can't say I like this lyin' down idea.  But the boys won't
let me get up."

The buckboard carrying Billee and the other injured men went first, and
the rest of the procession followed, with Mr. Hawkins and Dick in the
extreme rear, to see that everything went well.  And thus they started
for town.

They had scarcely gotten under way when all heard the sound of a horse
behind them.  They turned and saw a riderless pony galloping toward
them.

"What the mischief--" Bud cried out as he saw the horse nearing them.
"He wants to visit!  Look--his halter has been broken.  Must be a
runaway.  I wonder----"

"Runaway nothin'!" yelled the Kid.  "He's comin' home!  That's my
bronc!"

The horse made straight for Yellin' Kid.

"Look at that--knows me!  Well!  Well!  Well!  Come home to papa!  My
bronc, sure as you're a foot high!  See that spot above his eye?  I'd
know it in a million!  Come here, baby--where you been?  Huh?  I been
lookin' all over for you."

There was a sudden exclamation from one of the smugglers who was riding
in front of the Kid.

"Got away!" the man muttered.  "Thought I tied her----"

"So-o-o you're the coot that had her, hey?  An' you tied her up tight,
hey?  So she couldn't get loose?  Well, let me tell you that this
little paint can bust _any_ halter, if she wants to.  Can't you, baby?
By golly, I----"

"Sing it, Kid, sing it!" Dick laughed.  "Do you tuck her in bed at
night, too?"

"Well, she's the best bronc I ever had!" the Kid said definitely.  "An'
I'm goin' to ride her in.  Dick, hang on to this pony, will you?  Lead
her in for me.  Well!"  As he got into the saddle of his own mount.
"Here we are again, baby!  Now I won't need that other horse that you
were goin' to get me, Mr. Hawkins.  'Scuse me a minute, boys----"

He threw the bronc into a gallop and tore across the plain.  Then he
wheeled and came rushing back.

"He's happy," Nort said with a grin.  "Never expected to see his bronc
again, and she runs right into his hands.  Hey, you--where did you keep
her?"

"Around the side," the man who had spoken before answered with a scowl.
"Thought I might need her in a hurry.  His horse, was it?  Well, he was
ridin' mine.  A fair exchange is no robbery.  Now he's got her back
he's got no kick comin'."

"Hasn't, hey?  Don't know about that.  If he finds any marks on her----"

"She wasn't touched," the man said quickly.  "Fast enough without that."

"Lucky for you," Nort commented, meaningly.

After his mad dash the Kid returned in easier fashion.  And so the
strange procession wended its way back to Roaring River.  It took them
rather a long time to get there, as the buckboard had to be driven
slowly on account of the injured.  True to his promise, the young "wild
man" held his verbally much-abused horses down to a walk.

The smugglers were removed to jail, with the assurance from the warden
that those who were injured would be treated by a local doctor.  The
Chinese were also jailed, to be held for the federal officers.
Deportment, first back to Mexico, and, eventually, back to China was
their portion.  They seemed to realize it, for they were a sad and
silent bunch.

Billee Dobb was given a room to himself in the ranch house where he
could rest and get well, and then the others washed up and "filled up,"
as Nort expressed it.

"Now comes the reward," said Mr. Hawkins, and he arranged to have it
paid to the Boy Ranchers, with Yellin' Kid and Billee Dobb sharing in
it.  There was an additional reward for capturing the smuggled Chinese
as well as the smugglers, so there was a fund large enough for all to
share.

"Let's go up and see Billee now," proposed Bud, when they had eaten and
quieted down.

They found the old rancher restlessly picking at the coverlet of his
bed, his weather-tanned face in strange contrast to the white pillow
cases.  As the boys and Mr. Merkel entered, Billee grinned.

"Fust time I ever been t' bed by daylight in seventeen years," he said.
"Don't know what to do with myself.  Now if Snake Purdee was only here,
he could----"

"An' here I am!" exclaimed a voice outside the door.  "Hello, Billee!
Heard you was receivin' callers an' I came right over.  What'll you
have--a song?  All right, boys--come on in!  Billee wants us to sing
for him!"

Into the room shuffled Billee's companions of Diamond X: Slim Degnan,
Fat Milton, and the rest.

"Hello, Billee!"

"Howdy, you old de-teck-a-tive you!"

"How's it feel to be a hero?"

"Now boys--are you ready?  Ta da--let's go!"

They all joined in the song.  And as Billee Dobb "smiled a smile" that
reached to the corners of the room, the notes of "Bury Me Not On the
Lone Prairie, With Variations," filled the house and flowed over into
the outer air.  And Billee Dobb just lay there, smiling and smiling.

As for the Boy Ranchers--they were happy, too.  They had done a good
job.  They had covered themselves with glory.

"And maybe there are other jobs ahead," remarked Bud.



THE END





*** End of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "The Boy Ranchers on Roaring River - or Diamond X and the Chinese Smugglers" ***

Doctrine Publishing Corporation provides digitized public domain materials.
Public domain books belong to the public and we are merely their custodians.
This effort is time consuming and expensive, so in order to keep providing
this resource, we have taken steps to prevent abuse by commercial parties,
including placing technical restrictions on automated querying.

We also ask that you:

+ Make non-commercial use of the files We designed Doctrine Publishing
Corporation's ISYS search for use by individuals, and we request that you
use these files for personal, non-commercial purposes.

+ Refrain from automated querying Do not send automated queries of any sort
to Doctrine Publishing's system: If you are conducting research on machine
translation, optical character recognition or other areas where access to a
large amount of text is helpful, please contact us. We encourage the use of
public domain materials for these purposes and may be able to help.

+ Keep it legal -  Whatever your use, remember that you are responsible for
ensuring that what you are doing is legal. Do not assume that just because
we believe a book is in the public domain for users in the United States,
that the work is also in the public domain for users in other countries.
Whether a book is still in copyright varies from country to country, and we
can't offer guidance on whether any specific use of any specific book is
allowed. Please do not assume that a book's appearance in Doctrine Publishing
ISYS search  means it can be used in any manner anywhere in the world.
Copyright infringement liability can be quite severe.

About ISYS® Search Software
Established in 1988, ISYS Search Software is a global supplier of enterprise
search solutions for business and government.  The company's award-winning
software suite offers a broad range of search, navigation and discovery
solutions for desktop search, intranet search, SharePoint search and embedded
search applications.  ISYS has been deployed by thousands of organizations
operating in a variety of industries, including government, legal, law
enforcement, financial services, healthcare and recruitment.



Home