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´╗┐Title: The Boy Ranchers on the Trail; Or, The Diamond X After Cattle Rustlers
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 the Trail; Or, The Diamond X After Cattle Rustlers" ***

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



Aldarondo, Charles Franks and the Online Distributed


THE BOY RANCHERS ON THE TRAIL

OR

_The Diamond X After Cattle Rustlers_

By WILLARD F. BAKER



CONTENTS

     I THE ROUND-UP

    II A CURIOUS INSTRUMENT

   III STARTLING NEWS

    IV THE SCRATCHED SAFE

     V THE BROKEN BOTTLE

    VI MISSING STEERS

   VII FOUR EYES

  VIII THROWING THE ROPE

    IX THE FIRE

     X SERIOUS QUESTIONS

    XI THE WATCH TOWER

   XII IN SPITE OF ALL

  XIII THE SIGNAL

   XIV FOUR EYES-NO EYES

    XV A BIG RAID

   XVI ON THE TRAIL

  XVII WILD COUNTRY

 XVIII THE BOILING SPRING

   XIX IN A MAZE

    XX A SURPRISE

   XXI IN PURSUIT

  XXII BUD'S DISCOVERY

 XXIII THE FIGHT

  XXIV A DESPERATE CHANCE

   XXV LIEUTENANT WAYNE



THE BOY RANCHERS ON THE TRAIL



CHAPTER I

THE ROUND-UP


"Come on, Nort! It's your turn to cut out the next one!"

"S'pose I make a mux of it, Bud!"

"Shucks! You won't do that! You've roped a calf before!"

"Yes, but not at a big round-up like this. If I make a fizzle the
fellows will give me the laugh!"

"What if they do? Everybody knows you haven't been at it long,
and you've got to make a start. Besides, anybody's likely to make
a mistake. That's why they put rubbers on the ends of pencils.
Ride in now and snake out the next one, Nort!"

"All right, Bud! Here goes!"

Blaze, the pony Nort Shannon was riding toward the bunch of
cattle gathered at Diamond X ranch for the big, spring round-up,
leaped forward at the sound of his master's voice, and in
response to the little jerk of the reins and the clap of heels
against his sides. Into the herd of milling, turning and twisting
cattle the intelligent animal made his way, needing hardly any
guidance from Nort. The lad, by a mere touch, corrected the
course of Blaze slightly, and in a moment he was heading for a
calf which bawled loudly.

"Get him, Nort!" cried a voice from among the cowboys looking on.

"Don't get me fussed, Dick!" Nort shouted back to his brother,
who sat astride his pony near Bud Merkle. "It'll be your turn
next!"

Into the herd he wormed his way on Blaze, dodging here and there,
but with his eyes ever on the calf he hoped to cut out so it
could be branded. Nort leaned forward in his saddle, and then his
cousin and brother, eagerly watching from outside the herd, saw
the boy rancher's hand shoot up.

Through the air the rope went, turning, twisting, writhing and
uncoiling like a snake. In an instant it had flipped around the
hind legs of a calf.

"Good!" yelled Dick.

"Even Babe couldn't 'a' done better!" complimented Bud,
enthusiastically.

"'Tisn't over yet!" gasped Nort, for he had hard work ahead of
him, and the dust raised by thousands of hoofs was choking. "Wait
'till I get it to the branding corral!"

He leaned over in his other stirrup, causing the lariat to pull
taut and, the next instant the calf flopped on its side.

"Snake him out, Blaze!" cried Nort to his pony, and the animal
turned and dragged the prostrate calf along over the ground, an
operation not as cruel as it sounds as the surface was inches
thick in soft dust, like flour.

"That's the boy, Nort!" called his cousin Bud. "I knew you could
do it! Now then, Dick! Let's see how you'll make out!"

"I can't throw a rope as good as Nort," answered the stouter lad,
as he urged his pony, Blackie, into the herd. "But here goes!"

Meanwhile Nort had dragged the calf he had cut out to the corral
where the branding was going on. Two cowboys, stationed there for
the purpose, leaped forward and threw the calf over on its side,
for it had managed to struggle to its feet when Nort ceased
dragging it. One man twisted a front leg of the struggling
creature back in a hammerlock and knelt on its neck. The other
took hold of the upper hind leg, and with this hold prevented the
calf from sprawling along on the ground.

"Sit on him!" called Mr. Merkel, owner of Diamond X and other
ranches. He was superintending the round-up of his herds and
those entrusted to Bud, Nort and Dick in the first business
venture of the boy ranchers. "Sit on him!" yelled Bud's father.

Accordingly the men sat on the calf, thus, with the holds they
had secured, keeping it under restraint with the least possible
pain to the small creature.

"Branding iron!" sang out Slim Degnan, foreman of the ranch.

A little blaze was flickering on the ground, not far from where
the calf Nort had cut out was thrown and held. In a moment the
fire-tender had seized the branding iron, and, a second or two
later, it was being pressed on the calf's flank.

The creature bawled loudly, and kicked out, thereby nearly
throwing off the men who were sitting on it. But the branding was
all over in a moment, and the men leaped up, releasing the
animal.

The calf stood, dazed for the time being, after it had scrambled
to its feet, and then trotted out of the corral, lashing its side
with its little tail. Plainly branded on it now, never to be
completely effaced, was the mark of the ownership of Mr. Merkel--an
X inside a diamond.

"Next!" called the branders:

"Here comes Dick!" shouted Bud, as Nort rode up beside him. "And
he got his calf!"

"Good!" exclaimed the brother. "I guess we're learning the business!"

"Surest thing you know!" asserted the son of the owner of Diamond
X. "I told you it wasn't so hard, and you've done the same thing
before."

"But not at such a big round-up," remarked Nort, as he prepared
to ride in again and cut out another calf.

"Yes, it is big," admitted Bud, as he made ready for his share in
the affair--his task being the same as that of his cousins--to
cut out the calves for branding purposes. "It sure is a big
round-up."

It had been in progress for days. Twice a year on the big,
western ranches, the cattle are driven in from the outlying
ranges, to be tallied, inspected, marked and shipped away. The
spring and fall round-ups are always busy seasons at any ranch.

During the times between round-ups the new calves attained their
growth, but they needed to have branded into their hides the
marks of their owners. Then, too, some yearlings escaped branding
at times, either by remaining out of sight at the round-up, or in
the attending confusion.

Unbranded calves who had partly attained their growth, were
termed "mavericks," and when the herds of different owners
mingled, there was, usually, a division of the mavericks, since
it could not be accurately told who owned them.

The title maverick was derived from a stock man of that name,
whose practice was to claim _all_ unbranded calves in a
herd. His cowboys would ride about, cutting out the unmarked
animals, with the cool statement:

"That's a maverick," meaning that it belonged to their "boss."

And so the name has commonly become associated with any
half-grown, unbranded calf.

Mr. Merkel was the owner of several ranches, Square M, Triangle B
and Diamond X, not to mention Diamond X Second, or Flume Valley,
of which his son Bud, and the latter's cousins, Norton and
Richard Shannon, were the nominal proprietors.

The cattle from Flume Valley, or "Happy Valley" as Bud called it
after the mystery of the underground water was solved, were in
the round-up with the others from his father's ranches.

For days preceding the lively doings I have just described, the
cowboys, called in from distant ranges, had driven the cattle
toward the central assembling point--the corrals at Diamond X.

Slowly the longhorns, the shorthorns and cattle with no horns at
all, had been "hazed" in from their feeding grounds toward
Diamond X. The cow punchers had galloped hard all day, and they
had ridden herd at night, to keep the animals from straying. At
night this was not so hard, for the animals were glad to rest
during the darkness.

But during the day there was always some steer--often more than
one--that wanted to run away from the herd. As this might start a
stampede it was necessary to drive the "striker" back, and this
was, often enough, a difficult task.

Bud, Nort and Dick had borne their share of this difficult round-up
task, and now, when the thousand or more of steers, calves and
mavericks had been gathered at Diamond X, the work of tallying
them, branding those that were without marks and shipping away
the best was well under way.

In and out of the herd rode the boy ranchers, doing their best
alongside of more seasoned "punchers." Calves were cut out,
thrown and branded, to be quickly released and again mingle with
the herd.

  "Oh, I'm Captain Jinks,
   Of the Horse Marines!"

One of the cowboys, wiping the dust and sweat from his face, with
his big, red silk handkerchief, or, rather, neckerchief, started
this song. It was taken up by half a score of loud voices.

"Yi-yippy!" came in stentorian tones from Yellin' Kid. "This is
the life!"

But as, just then, his pony slipped and he missed the throw he
made for a calf, it is doubtful if Yellin' Kid felt as gay as he
sounded.

"Hot work; eh, boys?" asked Mr. Merkel, when Dick, Nort and Bud
rode past to get drinks of water.

"But it's great, all the same!" answered Dick, with shining
eyes--eyes that gleamed amid a face dark with the tan of the
western sun and grimy with the dust of the western plains.

"Glad you like it!" commented the proprietor of Diamond X as he
kept on with his tallying. "How they coming, Slim?" he asked his
foreman.

"Couldn't be better! Old Buck Tooth is doing a heap sight more
than I ever dreamed a Zuni could."

"Bud said that his old Indian helper was up to snuff!" commented
Mr. Merkel. "I'm glad to know it. Heard anything from Double Z?"
he asked, and there was an anxious note in his voice.

"No, Hank and his gang seem to have quieted down after what I
told 'em!"

"Well, I hope he doesn't make trouble for Bud and the boys.
They're going back to Happy Valley to-night."

"So I understand. Oh, shucks! Don't worry about Hank! He's all
talk--he and that blustery foreman of his, Ike Johnson!"

There had been a dispute between the cowboys of Diamond X and
those of Double Z, a ranch owned by the notorious Hank Fisher, a
few days before the round-up, the subject of dispute being the
ownership of certain mavericks. It had ended with the triumph of
Slim Degnan, foreman of Mr. Merkel's holdings.

And so the round-up went on, the heat, the dust, the noise and
confusion increasing as calf after calf, maverick after maverick,
was branded, and the steers to be shipped were cut out, to be
hazed over to the railroad stock yards.

And yet, with all the seeming confusion, there was order and
system in the work.

"Well, I guess this is the last," remarked Mr. Merkel to his son,
as Bud, with his cousins, rode slowly up to the ranch house, when
the final calf had been cut out and the tally made. "You boys
going back after grub?"

"Yep," answered Bud, but there was no enthusiasm in his voice.
He, like his cousins, was too tired. For the day had been a
grueling one, with the heat and hard work.

"You sure did make out a whole lot better than I ever thought you
would," said Mr. Merkel, as he rode along with his son and
nephew's. "Putting water into that valley made a big difference."

"I should say so!" exclaimed Bud. "Our stock will lay over
anything you will ship from any of your three ranches, Dad!"

"I wouldn't wonder but what you are right, Bud! Well, let's wash
up and eat."

One by one the cowboys drifted in, some singing ranch songs in
spite of their weariness. Bud and his cousins were through with
their meal first, and, having persuaded his sister, Nell, to pack
a basket of doughnuts, pie and cheese for him, Bud signalled to
his cousins to join him out at the pony corral.

"Let's get an early start back to Happy Valley," he urged. "It's
a long enough ride, anyhow."

"You said it!" commented Nort.

"Well, there's one thing we don't have to worry about, and that
is not finding any water running into the reservoir," added Dick,
as he slipped in through the gate and caught one of his ponies--not
Blackie, who was tired out from the round-up. Each cow puncher,
including the boy ranchers, had several animals in his "string."

"No, I guess, since we solved the mystery of the water supply,
we'll have no more trouble," agreed Bud.

The boy ranchers rode over the trail to their own camp--it was
actually a camp, for permanent ranch buildings had not yet been
erected in Happy Valley, though some were projected. Tents formed
the abiding place of our heroes, and as they were only there
during the summer months the canvas shelters served very well,
indeed.

The moon rose, shining down from a starlit sky, as the rough but
faithful and sturdy cow ponies ambled along. Now the boy ranchers
would be down in some swale, or valley, and again topping one of
the foothills which led to Buffalo Ridge or Snake Mountain,
between which elevations lay Happy Valley, where the cattle of
Diamond X Second were quartered.

"There she is--the old camp," murmured Dick, as they started down
the slope which led to the collection of tents erected against
the earthen and stone bank of the reservoir.

"And maybe I won't hit the hay!" exclaimed Bud, with a yawn. "We
don't have to get up to-morrow until we're ready."

"Oh, boy!" cried Nort in delight.

They rode forward, and were almost at their camp when Bud, who
had trotted ahead, pulled his pony to a sudden stop and cried
out:

"Hold on there! Who are you and where are you going?"

At the same moment his cousins saw the moon gleaming on the .45
gun which Bud drew from his holster.



CHAPTER II

A CURIOUS INSTRUMENT


"What's the matter, Bud?" asked Dick, as he urged his animal
forward in a jump, until he was beside his cousin.

"Some one's up there around the tunnel entrance," responded Bud
Merkel. "I saw 'em dodge back out of the light." Then, raising
his voice, he cried: "Come on, now! None of your tricks! I've got
you covered!"

"I don't see any one," spoke Nort.

"They're there, all right," asserted Bud. "Come on, fellows," he
exclaimed, "we'll have to look into this. There was trouble
enough with getting water to stay in Happy Valley, without
letting some Greaser in to queer the works again! Come on!"

He and his cousins rode their horses up the rather steep and
winding trail that led from the bottom of the reservoir to the
top, where a big iron pipe, sticking out under the mountain like
the head of some great serpent, brought from the distant Pocut
River a stream, without which it would have been impossible to
raise cattle in the valley the boy ranchers claimed as particularly
their own.

"Who you reckon it is?" asked Nort, as his pony scrambled up
between the animals of Dick and Bud.

"Oh, some prowler that may have been rustling our grub while we
were over at the round-up," was the answer.

"They couldn't get any cattle, for there aren't any to get,"
observed Dick. This was true, as all the animals had been driven
from Happy Valley over to Diamond X. Later such as were not
shipped away, and many of the calves and mavericks would be
returned to fatten up and grow in readiness for the spring
tallying.

"I don't just like this!" murmured Bud, as he again urged his
pony forward. "Have your guns ready, fellows!"

And while they are thus riding toward the place where a strange
tunnel pierced Snake Mountain, I shall take this opportunity to
present, more formally than I have yet had a chance to do, my new
readers to the boy ranchers. For that is what Bud Merkel, and
Nort and Dick Shannon called themselves, being that, in fact.

Bud was a western lad, the son of Henry Merkel, who had been a
ranchman all his mature years. He lived at Diamond X ranch, with
his wife and daughter Nell. Some time before this present story
opens Bud's cousins from the east had come to spend the summer
with him, while their father and his wife made a trip to South
America.

Nort and Dick, though "tenderfeet" at the beginning, had quickly
fallen into the ways of the west, and in the first volume of this
series, "The Boy Ranchers," I was privileged to tell you how they
helped solve a mystery that revolved around Diamond X.

This mystery had to do with two college professors, and a
strange, ancient animal. But it would not be fair to my new
readers to disclose, here, all the secrets of that book.

So successful was the first summer which Nort and Dick spent at
their uncle's ranch, that they were allowed to repeat it the
following season. But this time there was a change. As related in
the second volume, "The Boy Ranchers in Camp," Mr. Merkel had, by
utilizing an ancient underground water-course beneath Snake
Mountain, and by making a dam in Pocut River, brought water to a
distant valley he owned.

This valley was originally called Buffalo Wallow, the source of
the name being obvious. But once water was brought through the
underground course, and piped to a reservoir, whence it could be
distributed to drinking troughs for the cattle, and also used to
irrigate the land, it enabled a fine crop of fodder to be grown.
With the bringing of the water to Buffalo Wallow, or Flume
Valley, as Bud called the place, it was possible to do what had
never been done before--raise cattle there. Bud's father let him
take this valley ranch as his own, and Nort and Dick were boy
partners associated with their western cousin, Mr. Shannon
putting up part of the needed capital to make the start for his
sons.

All would have gone well except for the mysterious stoppage of
the flow of water, which stoppage, if continued, would mean
disaster.

How the water fight at Diamond X Second (as the valley ranch was
sometimes called) ended, and how the strange mystery was solved,
is the story in the second volume, and I absolutely refuse to go
into more details about it here. It would not be playing the game
square.

At any rate the water was finally turned back into the
underground tunnel, and then, in order to better guard this vital
necessity, Mr. Merkel had the entrance to the tunnel boarded
up--egress being possible only when heavy doors, at either end, were
unlocked.

I might say that while the tunnel was the old water-course of a
vanished river, the shaft under the mountain appeared, in.
ancient times, to have been used by the Aztecs, or some Mexican
tribes, for hiding their store of gold away from the Spaniards.
There were secret passages and rooms in the tunnel, to say
nothing of hidden water gates.

Who had constructed these, and what actual use had been made of
them was, of course, lost in the dim and ancient past. But that
it was the Aztecs, or some allied race, was the statement of
learned men who examined the tunnel.

After the water fight at Diamond X Second had terminated in favor
of the boy ranchers, and great copper levers that operated the
hidden water gates had been removed, the tunnel was boarded up,
and was now seldom entered.

But now, as Bud and his cousins rode back from the big round-up,
and the western lad had, as he thought, seen some one sneaking
about the forbidden gate, there was a feeling of apprehension in
the hearts of himself and cousins.

They had now reached the top level of the reservoir which held a
storage supply of water. The reservoir was a great semi-circular
bank of earth and atones, wide enough on top for two to ride
abreast.

"I don't see any one," remarked Nort, straining his eyes to
pierce the gloom and shadows into which the face of the tunnel
and the locked gate were thrown by the moonlight and clouds.

"Nor I," added Dick.

"Well, I saw some one!" insisted Bud. "It was a man, as sure as
snakes, and he seemed to be trying to open the big gate."

This gate was made of heavy bolted planks and was set on hinges
in a jamb of other planks and boards that closed the reservoir
end of the tunnel water-course. A similar barrier and big door
was at the Pocut River end.

"Well, if he was here, he seems to be gone," observed Nort "Maybe
it was a sheep herder, Bud."

"Well, if any of that gentry think they can drive their flock
over here, and water their woolies at my expense, they're
mistaken," declared Bud with emphasis. "Sheep men have to be, I
reckon, but they're out of place in a cow country. Hello, there!"
he called, loudly. "Come on out and show yourself!"

But there was no answer, and the only sound, aside from the
creaking of the damp saddle leathers, was the splashing of water
as it flowed from the big pipe and into the reservoir.

"Guess he lit out," observed Bud, thrusting his gun back into the
holster.

"Or else you didn't see him," chuckled Nort. "Maybe your eyes are
full of dust, same as mine are, from that round-up."

"Oh, I saw somebody all right!" declared Bud. "Might 'a' been one
of Buck Tooth's Indian friends making a call, but--"

He suddenly ceased speaking and leaned over in his saddle to gaze
earnestly at something on the ground. It was something that
glittered and shone in the mystic moonlight as Nort and Dick
could see. "What's that?" inquired the latter.

In answer Bud slipped from his saddle and picked up the object
which the moonlight had revealed.

"What in the world is this?" asked the boy rancher, as he held up
a curious instrument. "Is this the start of another mystery!"



CHAPTER III

STARTLING NEWS


Leaping from their saddles, Nort and Dick hurried to the side of
their cousin, chum and partner in the ranch venture. Eagerly they
looked over his shoulder while he examined the strange object he
had picked up, almost at the very door leading into the
mysterious tunnel.

The instrument--for such it seemed to be--consisted of a shiny,
nickeled part, which was what had reflected the moonlight, thus
attracting Bud's attention to it. In addition there were two
flexible tubes, of soft rubber, joining into one where they met
the shiny metal.

The two tubes each terminated in hard rubber ends, pierced with a
tiny hole, and on the end of the single tube was a bright metal
disk. The whole formed a strange object, picked up as it was from
the ground, and especially when the boy ranchers feared they had
some cause for alarm.

"What in the world is it?" asked Bud, as he dangled it in front
of his cousins. "I never saw anything like it before. Wait! I
have it! Yellin' Kid said he was going to send to Kansas City for
a flute he could play on. This must be part of it! He dropped it
here; though that couldn't 'a' been him sneaking around the
tunnel. But this is Yellin' Kid's musical instrument all right!
Oh, won't I rag him, though! I wonder which end you blow in?"

"That isn't a musical instrument!" declared Nort, taking it from
Bud's hand.

"Not What is it then?" asked the western ranch lad.

"It's a stethoscope," declared Nort.

"Whew! x I didn't know Yellin' Kid could play one of
_them_!" exclaimed Bud. "He must be more musical than any of
us thought!"

"'Tisn't musical, I tell you!" cried Nort, half laughing. "This
is a _stethoscope_--it's what a doctor listens to your lungs
or heart with when you're sick."

"He never listened to mine!" boasted Bud, "at least not since I
can remember, for I've never been sick."

"Well, I have," admitted Nort, "and so has Dick. You remember Dr.
Thompson using one of these, don't you?" he asked his stout
brother.

"Sure I do! And there's some other name for it besides plain
stethoscope," declared Dick. "It's a long word--bi--di--"

"Binaural stethoscope! That's it!" broke in Nort. "I remember,
now. I thought I'd never be able to say those words, but they
come back to me now. Binaural stethoscope."

"'Tisn't good to eat, or shoot with, is it!" asked Bud, as he
again took the instrument and turned it over and over in his
hands.

"Eat! Shoot!" laughed Nort. "No, I tell you it's to listen to
your heart beats, or lungs. Binaural means, simply, that it's
fixed so you can listen with both ears at the same time. And
stethoscope comes from two Greek words, stethos, the breast, and
skopen, to view. It means, literally, to view inside the chest,
but of course the doctors who use the stethoscope don't really do
that. They only listen through the ear pieces--these," and he
held up the two rubber tubes ending in hard nipples, pierced with
small holes.

"What's the other end for!" asked Bud, indicating the shiny disk
of metal that dangled from the single tube.

"That's the part the doctor holds on your chest or over your
heart," Dick answered. "Sometimes the doctor puts it to your back
to listen to your breathing from that side."

"Well, who in the world would have a--a binaural stethoscope out
here!" asked Bud. "Yon reckon Doc. Tunison dropped it!" he went
on, referring to the local veterinarian. "Shucks no! Cow doctors
don't use 'em, not that I ever heard of," declared Nort. "Though
Doc. Tunison is up to date."

"He sure was in discovering that it was germs which caused the
epidemic outbreak in our stock last year," remarked Bud.

"Yes, we got out of that mighty lucky," chimed in Dick. "What's
become of Pocut Pete?" he asked, referring to a scoundrel of a
cowboy.

"Oh, Del Pinzo and Hank Fisher had pull enough to get him out of
jail, after he'd served only part of his term for infecting our
stock," said Bud. He had reference to something which is
explained in the volume immediately preceding this. Del Pinzo was
a notorious Mexican half-breed who, more than once, had made
trouble for the boy ranchers. Hank Fisher was the owner of Double
Z ranch, adjoining that of Square M, one of Mr. Merkel's, and
also adjoining Happy Valley. Pocut Pete was believed to be a tool
of these two unscrupulous men, and Del Pinzo had at his command
Several Greasers who slipped back and forth over the Mexican
border, not far from which were located the holdings of Mr.
Merkel and the boy ranchers.

"Well, this is a stethoscope all right," went on Nort, as Bud
turned toward his pony, with the evident intention of mounting.

"And I'd give a lot to know what it's doing here, and who dropped
it," spoke Bud. "Let's look around a little more. I'm not at all
satisfied with this. I sure saw, some one here, and this proves
it," and he stuffed the doctor's instrument into his pocket.

"It doesn't prove that the man you saw--or thought you just
saw--sneaking around here dropped it," spoke Nort. "We've been away
for a week, and it may have been dropped any day within that
time."

"Yes," agreed Bud. "But who was monkeying around here as we rode
back to camp? That's what I want to know!"

However, search as the boy ranchers did, they found no midnight
visitor. All was quiet at their camp, save for the distant howl
of a coyote, and the splash of the water into the reservoir. All
the stock had been driven away from Happy Valley to the big
round-up at Diamond X, but soon the fertile glade would again be
dotted with hungry cattle.

"Well, I reckon we'll have to give up," said Bud, when a thorough
search had been made, and no one discovered.

"The tunnel door doesn't show any signs of an attempt having been
made to bust it; does it?" asked Dick.

"Not as far as I can see, in this light," Bud replied. "We'll
take a stroll up here in the morning," he went on as he thrust
the stethoscope into his pocket. "Now for a little grub, and then
to hit the hay. Oh, boy! But I to tired!"

So were the others, and after rummaging among their camp stores,
and eating some crackers and canned peaches, the boys, having
picketed their horses, turned in, rolled up in their blankets,
and were asleep almost as soon as their heads were on the
pillows, which were, as a matter of fact, stuffed with hay.

An examination, next morning, disclosed nothing more in the
neighborhood of the tunnel entrance than their own and, their
ponies' feet marks, until Bud, with an exclamation, pointed to
several cigarette stubs on the ground, and a number of half-burned
matches.

"Some one was here last night--or yesterday!" he declared. "And
they stood in this one spot for some time--either resting or
spying."

"What would they be spying on!" asked Dick.

"Search me!" frankly admitted Bud. "But since we had that water
fight I'm suspicious of everything. Those cigarette stubs are
fresh, and were dropped last night, or yesterday. None of us use
'em, and though some of our cow punchers do they haven't been
here lately enough to have left this fresh evidence. The stubs
are new ones."

"Well, maybe there was some one here last night," said Dick.

"I'm positive of it!" declared Bud. "Let's take another look at
the big door lock."

Even a close inspection, however, failed to disclose any signs of
the great portal, or its heavy padlock having been tampered with.
Nor were there any marks tending to show where an effort had been
made to force boards off the frame in which the door was set.

"Well, we'll just have to wait," said Bud, as he turned to go
back down to the tents. "Hello," he suddenly added, as he gazed
off up the valley. "Here comes somebody, riding like all
possessed, too!"

The boy ranchers watched the approach of the solitary horseman,
and, as he drew nearer Bud exclaimed:

"It's Buck Tooth!"

It was, in fact, that same Zuni Indian, who had been engaged as a
sort of camp cook and ranch hand by Bud's father, later being
transferred to Bud's service. Buck Tooth was devoted to the boy
ranchers.

"What's matter, Buck! What for you ride so _pronto_
fashion!" asked Bud as the Indian, a superb horseman, drew rein
close to the boy ranchers. "You race, maybe, Buck Tooth!"

"Yep--race tell you bad news!" half-grunted the Zuni.

"Bad news!" faltered Bud. "Is it my mother--dad---"

"Them all well," said Buck Tooth. "But got bad news all same. You
see anybody out here?" and he slipped from his saddle to rest his
almost winded steed.



CHAPTER IV

THE SCRATCHED SAFE


Eagerly the boy ranchers gathered about Buck Tooth. The Indian,
as if rather ashamed of the hurry and emotion that had possessed
him, grew quieter as he threw the reins down over his pony's
head, as an intimation to the animal not to stray. Then the Zuni
turned toward Bud and his cousins.

"This is the second time you gave me bad news, Buck," remarked
the western lad. "Remember?"

"How?" asked the Indian sharply.

"I say this is the second time you've brought news of something
bad. You were the first to tell me about the water stopping in
the reservoir. And from then on we had some rousing times; didn't
we, fellows?" asked Bud, turning to his chums.

"That's right!" assented Nort.

"But what's going on now?" Dick wanted to know.

"You said it!" exclaimed Bud. "I should let Buck Tooth tell it,
instead of keeping him gassing away about the past. What's the
row, Buck?"

"Robbers!" was the Indian's answer.

"Robbers? At Diamond X?" cried Bud.

"Did they get anything?" Dick wanted to know.

"Anybody hurt?" asked Nort.

"Get some money--nobody hurt only Babe--him get broken leg,"
half-grunted the Indian.

"Babe has a broken leg in a fight with robbers?" gasped Bud.
"Shoot it along a little faster, Buck! I'm sorry I didn't let you
ride harder at first. How much did they get? Was it rustlers, and
I'll bet a cookie with a raisin in that Del Pinzo and his gang
had a hand in the fracas! Did Babe shoot any of 'em?"

"Babe him try--but too fat," said the Indian, with as near to a
chuckle as ever he achieved, "Fall down--bust leg. Your
_padre_ no can tell how much money gone, but big iron box
not opened."

"Oh, they didn't get to the safe, then!" exclaimed Bud with
relief in his voice. For he knew, at this season of the spring
round-up, that many thousands of dollars, from the sale of
cattle, were often kept in his father's safe. "But go ahead,
Buck! Tell us more about it. Step on her! Give her the gas! Open
the throttle!"

"Hu?" grunted the Zuni, questioningly. "I step on somet'ing?"
"You're only mixing him up!" declared Nort "Let him take his own
time, Bud."

"If I do he'll be until noon giving us the facts. And if the
robbers looted dad's office, even if they didn't get the safe
open, they may have lit out with a tidy sum, and we ought to take
the trail after 'em. That's what Buck came here for, likely! To
get us on the chase from this end. Go ahead! Shoot!" he
requested, meaning a verbal fire, not actual.

Whether Buck Tooth would have succeeded, under these confusing
directions, in making a quick, dear statement of the matter is a
question that was not settled. For, just as the Indian was about
to resume, Dick looked off toward the distant hills, which lined
the trail between Diamond X proper, and Happy Valley, and the lad
exclaimed:

"Here comes one of the robbers now, riding like Sam Hill!"

Bud and Nort leaped to the side of their partner, their hands on
their weapons, but, after a glimpse of the approaching horseman,
having shaded his eyes with his hands, Bud cried:

"That isn't a robber! It's Yellin' Kid. I know his riding. I
reckon he's come to give us the straight of it!"

Which proved to be the case.

"Buck outrode me," admitted Yellin' Kid as he drew rein, and his
voice was not as loud as usual. "We started at th' same time,
shortly after midnight when th' break was made, but that Indian's
cayuse shore can step some! An' Buck can ride--let me tell you!"

"You shot a ringer that time!" asserted Bud. "But what happened!
And is Babe badly hurt!"

"No! He just twisted his ankle gettin' out of his bunk in a hurry
t' take a pot shot at th' bunch that tried to hold us up. Doc.
Tunison says he'll be all right in a week."

"But Tunison is a horse doctor!" objected Bud, for Babe, the fat
assistant foreman of Diamond X, was a prime favorite with him and
his cousins.

"Yes, shore he is! Why not? A horse doctor for a cow puncher!"
chuckled Yellin' Kid. "But here's the yarn."

Thereupon, having turned his pony out to graze with the Indian's,
Yellin' Kid told the boys what had happened.

"We started some of the cattle from th' round-up brandin' over to
th' railroad," the cowboy stated, "an' followin' th' usual
preliminaries we all settled down for th' night, after you
fellows rode off. An' let me tell you I was glad t' hit my bunk!

"Well, some time near midnight we, out in th' bunkhouse, was
roused up by shootin' from your father's bungalow, Bud. Course
that couldn't mean but one thing, an' we all got our guns an'
rushed out, natcherally. But all we saw was a bunch ridin' off in
th' darkness, your father firin' at 'em, Bud.

"Come t' find out, your mother had been woke up by a noise in th'
office where th' safe was. She called your father an' he took a
look, with his gun, of course. He saw a man in a mask tryin' t'
open th' strong box, and your dad gave th' usual countersign.

"But th' burglar wheeled, an' popped one at your dad, not hittin'
him I'm glad t' say, an' out th' winder he jumped, th' burglar, I
mean. Then the rest of th' gang, which was waitin', rode off,
shootin' some, as your dad was doin'.

"Come t' find out, they'd got a few hundred dollars from the desk
where your dad left th' cash, Bud, but th' main part was in th'
safe, an' _that_ they couldn't get open. Course soon as we
knowed what was up we organized a posse, an' started off--all but
Babe. He fell--or rolled--out of his bunk an' twisted his leg,
somehow.

"Anyhow, Buck an' I was told off t' ride this way, partly t' let
you fellers know what had happened, an' partly t' see if there
was any trace of th' skunks what robbed your dad down here in
Happy Valley. How about it? Seen anybody?"

"Well, yes, we did see some one sneaking around here when we
arrived last evening," Bud answered. "But that was long before
the robbery."

"And tell him what we found!" urged Dick

"Oh, yes, a stethoscope," went on Bud. "But that has nothing to
do with the matter. Maybe some doctor, or medical student, is out
here for his health, and dropped it as he rode over our place."

"What's a slitherscope!" asked Yellin' Kid. "Anything like a
Triceratops?"

"No!" laughed Nort. "We'll show you. But say, what can we do
toward getting these robbers?"

"We've got t' trail 'em," spoke the older cowboy, as he turned to
go to the tents with the boy ranchers, Buck Tooth following with
the two half-winded ponies. "Soon as I get my breath----"

"That's right!" interrupted Bud. "Come on up and sit down. I'll
make you some coffee. I forgot you'd ridden all night."

"Half of it, anyhow," asserted Yellin' Kid. "An' I rode hard! But
so did Buck Tooth, only you'd hardly know it. He sure can make
his cayuse cover th' ground!"

Indeed the Indian showed little signs of the hard riding he had
accomplished between midnight and dawn. And when he and Yellin'
Kid were having a belated morning cup of coffee further details
of the story were told.

Who the robbers were, and how many there were in the gang that
attempted to force the safe at Diamond X, were matters left to
further enlightenment. Mr. Merkel had only seen one in his
office, bending over the safe, and this one had fled at the
command of "hands up!" Then the others had raced away, amid a
fusillade of shots which they returned.

It was so dark--the moon of the early night having been clouded
over--that the direction taken by the robbers had not been
ascertained.

"They probably scattered," declared Yellin' Kid. "It would be th'
safest way--for them! But there's a chance some might 'a' come
this way, so your dad wanted you t' be on the watch."

"We will!" declared Bud. "And when some of the boys come back on
the job here, and we get our allotment of cattle so things settle
down to normal, I'm going back to the ranch and have a talk with
dad."

"'Twouldn't be a bad idea," agreed Yellin' Kid. "But where's that
mouth organ you said you found?"

"A stethoscope," laughed Bud. "Here it is," and he exhibited the
medical instrument.

"Hum!" mused the cowboy. "It might be a burglar tool for all I'd
know the difference. But now, if it's agreeable t' you fellers,
let's have a look around. Maybe some of them burglars got a chunk
of lead in him and he's hidin' out around here."

However, a search in the vicinity of Happy Valley camp disclosed
nothing, and then Bud and his cousins set about getting back into
the routine that had been interrupted by the round-up.

"The first thing we've got to do," Bud declared, "is to mend that
break in the telephone line. If that had been working last night
you could have called us up, Kid, instead of you and Buck having
to ride out here."

"Yes, we wished th' line was working" admitted the cowboy. "But
it wouldn't have been of much use, it seems. Them burglars didn't
come out this way. However, it's just as well t' have it fixed."

There was a system of telephones connecting Bud's camp with his
father's main ranch and also the two branch ones, and the system
was likewise hooked-up with the long distance. But a recent wind,
just before the round-up, had blown down some poles in Happy
Valley, putting Bud's line out of commission. This was why he and
his chums could not be reached by wire from Diamond X.

The poles were set up in the next few days, when some cowboys
arrived to again take up their duties with Bud, Nort and Dick;
for the cattle not sold were again sent back to the valley range
to fatten for the fall, and they needed to be looked after.

Meanwhile, a search of the surrounding country had failed to
disclose any trace of the robbers, and their identity remained
hidden. They had gotten away with about $500, missing a much
larger sum in the safe. The authorities were notified, and a
posse scoured the region, but fruitlessly.

"Let's have a look at the safe they tried to open, Dad," begged
Bud, when he and his cousins had ridden over to pay a week-end
visit to the home ranch. "Did they try to drill it for an
explosive?"

"I don't believe so, son. In fact, I haven't looked at the safe
very closely, except to notice that it was all right. And I took
the money out of it over to the bank next day."

Bud and his cousins looked at the strong box in which Mr. Merkel
kept his money and valuable papers. It was a large, old-fashioned
safe, proof from any fire that might visit the ranch, and beyond
the ability of ordinary burglars to open, without the use of
explosives or special tools.

And as Bud leaned over to look at the heavy door he saw something
that caused him to ask:

"Were these here before the attempted robbery, Dad?"

"What there, Bud?"

"These scratches on the front of the door. It does look as if
they tried to drill the safe!"

Bud pointed to several parallel marks on the steel door. The
scratches were deep in the paint, and seemed to radiate toward
the shiny nickel dial of the combination. "Scratches!" repeated
Mr. Merkel, coming over to look. "No, I never noticed them
before. Why, she is clawed up some," he admitted. "But I can't
say that they haven't been there since I got the safe, which was
just before the round-up. Yes, she sure is clawed up some," and
he spoke as if some mountain lion had done the damage to his
strong box.

But here Bud's sister, Nell, took a hand in the proceedings.

"Those scratches are new ones--they were made by the burglar,"
declared the girl, whom Nort and Dick thought the prettiest they
had ever seen. "I know, for I dusted your office, Dad, the day
the round-up ended, and the door was as shiny then as a new
penny."

"Then the burglar did it," decided Bud. "And it shows we have to
deal with a regular gang of safe robbers, instead of just
ordinary cattle rustlers!"



CHAPTER V

THE BROKEN BOTTLE


Bud's opinion, expressed with such conviction, coupled with the
fact that Nell, his sister, was sure the safe had not been
scratched the day before the robbery, made it look as though men
practiced in the evil art of burglary had been at work.

"When I saw the fellow, bending over my safe," said Mr. Merkel,
"it appeared to me he was only trying to work the combination. I
have a hard job, myself, remembering how to do it, account of the
safe being a new one. And I was so surprised, at first, that I
just stood there, like a locoed steer, watching him. Then I let
out a yell, told him to throw his hands up, and things began to
happen."

"But, instead of just trying to open your safe, by working the
combination, same as I've heard of burglars doing by filing down
their fingers with sandpaper to make 'em sensitive, he was
getting ready to blow it open," declared Bud.

"Does look so. She sure is clawed!" commented Mr. Merkel again.

"Mercy! It's a wonder we weren't all blown up in our sleep!"
exclaimed Bud's mother. "You boys'll stay to dinner," she added,
as if glad to change the subject.

"We aimed to," said Bud with a grin at his cousins. "We manage
pretty well most times, with what we cook, and what Buck Tooth
hands out in the grub line. But we sure do like a home-feed once
in a while."

"Or twice!" added Nort, while Dick nodded his agreement.

But though it was evident that some professional burglar had
endeavored to open the Merkel safe, that was all the conclusion
which could be arrived at. No additional clues were found and,
for a time, matters settled down into the ordinary run at Diamond
X.

Summer was coming, with its heat, and Bud was glad there would be
no interruption in the water supply that flowed into Happy Valley
from the Pocut River, coming through the ancient underground
passage.

"For we'll need plenty of water in hot weather," he told Jus
cousins.

At Diamond X Second, as the outfit of the boy ranchers was often
called, was now a goodly herd of animals eating the rich, Johnson
grass and other fodder, getting fattened in readiness for sale in
the fall, when there would be another round-up.

Besides Bud, Nort and Dick, there was now, at the camp in the
valley, Buck Tooth the Zuni Indian, Yellin' Kid and Snake Purdee,
two efficient and veteran cow punchers who had been transferred
from Diamond X First, meaning by that the main ranch.

While Bud was a true son of the west, and while Nort and Dick
had, some time ago, passed out of the tenderfoot class, still Mr.
Merkel felt that his son and his nephews needed the aid and
guidance of cattlemen older than themselves. So the "outfit," as
the aggregation at a ranch is called, was quite a happy family.

"If we could only catch those burglars, and get back your dad's
money, I'd feel better, though," declared Snake Purdee, as he
rode in from the Diamond X ranch one day, to announce, among
other news items, that Babe, the fat assistant foreman, was able
to be about again.

"Yes," agreed Bud. "It isn't so much the money loss, as it is the
knowledge that such a bunch of men is loose in a neighborhood.
Del Pinzo and that Hank Fisher bunch are bad enough, but I don't
believe they had a hand in this."

"I wouldn't put it past them!" stated Yellin' Kid in his usual,
loud tones. "Th' skunks!"

"But dad said he didn't recognize the fellow he surprised at his
safe," spoke Bud. "Of course he didn't have much chance. But if
it had been Del Pinzo--"

"Don't worry!" broke in Snake Purdee. "That Greaser wouldn't do a
job like that himself; or Hank Fisher, either. They'd get some
one else to take the risk. However, what's th' use gassin' about
it? I guess the money's gone for good. But I'm glad they didn't
get th' safe open!"

"So'm I," chimed in Bud. "Some of our cash would have vanished
then." For he and his cousins had a share in the money received
from the sale of steers at round-up time.

So, following the robbery at Diamond X, matters quieted down. Bud
still kept the stethoscope, and word of the finding of the
strange instrument traveled to other ranches. It was called by
such a variety of names (the cowboys having twisted the original
and proper one) until the boy ranchers had difficulty, at times,
in understanding the reference when they were asked about it.

But no one claimed it, and no trace was found of the person who,
it was presumed, had dropped it the night our heroes saw some one
disappear near the boarded-up entrance to the ancient tunnel.

"Come on, let's try a bit of shooting!" proposed Nort one
evening, when grub had been served at the camp, and he and his
brother were left with Buck Tooth. Snake and Yellin' Kid had
ridden off on an all-night tour of duty, to a distant part of
the ranch. A choice bunch of steers had started to wander farther
off than Bud thought it was wise to let them. They were,
evidently, in search of another variety of fodder, but that could
not save them from some passing band of Greasers, or other cattle
thieves.

"Haze 'em back this way," Bud had requested his two cowboys.
"They'll be safer over here."

So Yellin' Kid and Snake had ridden away as the early evening
shadows were falling and, to pass the time until the hour for
seeking their bunks, the boy ranchers sought some amusement.
Shooting at a mark was one form, and Nort and Dick were
endeavoring to become as expert as their western cousin in the
use of the .45.

"Shooting suits me," agreed Bud. "I'll soon have to cut down my
handicap if you fellows keep on the way you're going," for in the
tests of skill Bud had always discounted his own ability in order
to be fair.

"Well, don't scale it down too much," begged Dick. "Nort hasn't
got me skinned, but I'm not up to you."

"Well, let's see how you'll do," suggested Bud.

As a mark a bottle was stuck on a stick which was thrust into the
ground at the foot of the sloping bank which enclosed the
reservoir. Shooting against this earthen bank insured that no
wild bullets would injure any one.

"You go first, Bud," suggested Dick. "We want to get a line on
you."

Accordingly Bud walked to the marked-off place, drew his heavy
revolver, raised it and brought it down on the mark--the bottle
on the stick. There was a sharp crack, followed instantly by the
tinkle of glass, and that bottle was no more.

"Busted it clean!" cried Nort. "I wish I could do that!"

Another flask was provided, and Nort shot at this. His aim was
fairly good, but he was allowed to go five feet nearer than Bud
had stood, that distance being the western lad's handicap. But
Nort only chipped away part of the bottom of the bottle with his
first shot, and it took three to shatter it completely.

"Watch me do better than that!" cried Dick, as he took his place
where his brother had stood, and raised his gun. "I'll crack it
first shot!"

His weapon was still in the air, and he had not brought it to a
level with the bottle when there sounded, from somewhere out in
the valley back of where the boy ranchers stood, the sound of a
shot.

The bullet zipped viciously over their heads, and, as they
instinctively ducked, they heard the crash of the broken bottle.



CHAPTER VI

MISSING STEERS


Like a flash Bud, who had been standing beside Nort, to watch
the effect of Dick's try, turned and faced outward to view the
darkening valley, whence had come the sound of that shot. Nort
turned also, but Dick seemed to think one of his companions had
played a trick on him.

"That isn't fair!" cried the stout lad. "What'd you want to go
and bust that bottle for, Nort?"

"I didn't do it!" asserted his brother.

"Nor I," added Bud in a low voice. "The shot came from out
there," and he indicated the long and fertile valley, over which
the purple evening shadows were falling. "Duck, fellows!" he
suddenly cried, and he pulled Nort beside him in the grass.

Dick, who caught the words of warning, and saw what his cousin
had done, also dropped down, so that, a second or two after the
firing of the strange shot that had shattered the bottle, only
the heads of the boy ranchers showed above the grass, and then
only slightly. "What's the idea?" asked Dick, as silence followed
the measure of safety.

"Whoever it was that fired might shoot again," replied End.

"Who was it?" asked Nort.

"That's what we've got to find out," answered Bud in a low voice.

"Could it have been either Snake or Yellin' Kid, riding back and
breaking that bottle over our heads, to show what good shots they
were?" asked Dick.

"No, I hardly think so," replied his cousin. "They're both good
shots, all right, and they could have broken that flask from the
distance it was broken. But they wouldn't throw a scare into us
this way. Besides, they haven't any time to fool around. They
have an all-night ride ahead of them."

"What makes you think the bottle was busted from some distance,
Bud!" Dick wanted to know.

"The way the bullet sounded," was the answer. "It was almost
spent when it got here, but it had force enough to break the
glass, and would have damaged us if it hit us. I thought whoever
played that fool trick might try another shot, so I yanked you
down, Nort."

"Glad you did! I might not have thought of it. But whoever it was
doesn't seem to be going to shoot again."

"No," agreed Bud, after a little period of silence, during which
no other menacing crack of a weapon was heard. "But we'll wait a
little longer."

Through the fast-gathering darkness the boys looked out from
their semi-hiding places across the valley. No wisp of smoke, and
no movement of horse or rider was to be observed. And silence
once more settled down on Happy Valley--not quite so happy as it
had been. For, following the clearing-up of the mystery of the
water supply, new and sinister events seemed pending for the boy
ranchers.

But, as yet, there were only straws, showing which way the evil
wind was blowing.

"Could it have been a chance shot?" asked Dick, raising himself a
little to get a better look.

"That bullet was aimed straight for the bottle, over our heads,"
declared Bud. "It was no chance shot."

"One of ours couldn't have glanced, could it?" Dick wanted to
know.

"Surely not!" affirmed Bud. "Why, no one had shot for some time.
I'd just put the new bottle on the stick for you."

"Yes, and I was just going to shoot, when somebody took the
bullet out of my gun, so to speak," went on Dick, grimly jesting.

"Do you think they were shooting at--us?" asked Nort,
hesitatingly.

Bud did not answer for the moment, and when he did it was to say,
as he suddenly arose:

"If they did I'm going to give 'em another chance. And I'm going
to do some shooting on my own account!" He had his gun in his
hand, for he had so held it since he had shattered the first
bottle, and now it was grasped in readiness for instant action.

"We're with you!" cried Nort and Dick, as they emerged from their
recumbent positions in the grass, and hastened to the side of
their cousin.

But though they looked across the valley, now half shrouded in
gloom, and up and down, as far as they could see, no one was in
sight. Here and there were small herds of their cattle. Back at
the camp tents Buck Tooth was performing his evening duties, or
"chores," as Bud called them. The Indian paid no attention to the
shooting, for he knew the boys had gone to practice, and he could
not be expected to realize that one of the shots was, possibly, a
hostile one.

I use the word "possibly" with reason, for, as yet, there was
nothing to show that it was not either an accident, or had not
been fired by some passing cowboy who, from a distance, seeing
the bottle on a stick, could not resist a chance to "take a
crack" at it. And yet this last theory would seem to be a poor
one. For if the shot had been a joke the one who had fired it
would, in all reason, it appeared, have shown himself soon after.

"No one seems to show up," remarked Nort at length, in a low
voice.

"Then we'd better look for 'em before it gets too dark," declared
Bud. "Come on! Let's get our horses."

"Isn't it taking a chance, riding out to look for some one who
may have fired at us purposely?" asked Dick.

"Yes," agreed Bud, after a moment's thought, "but life out west
is all more or less of a chance and risk. You take a risk, every
time you ride at more than a foot-pace, of your pony stepping
into some prairie dog's hole and not only laming himself, but
killing you. But you don't stop riding on that account."

"No," agreed Nort.

"And we take a chance every time we ride herd," went on Bud. "The
steers may stampede, and before we can get 'em to milling, they
may rush over us. But I notice neither of you ever back out of
that job; do you?"

"No," agreed Nort, adding: "Well, then, I reckon going after this
unknown shooter isn't taking such a long chance."

"I'm with you!" exclaimed Dick.

Briefly telling Buck Tooth what had happened, the boy ranchers
rode off at a fast pace, to take advantage of what little light
of day remained. They headed, as nearly as they could ascertain
it, in the direction whence the single shot had come. But it is
hardly needless to say they found no one, and no sign that could
be construed into a tangible clue.

"We'll tell Snake and Yellin' Kid about it when they come back,"
decided Bud, as he and his cousins returned to camp when darkness
had completely fallen. For it was useless, after that, to search
for the perpetrator of the joke.

Or was it a joke?

That is what the boy ranchers asked themselves more than once.

Contrary to their half-formed expectations, the night passed
quietly. There was no disturbance among the cattle, and no
midnight visitors invaded the camp. But, for all this, the slumbers
of our heroes were not easy. Perhaps they had premonitions of
coming disaster.

For disaster came, with the return, early on the morning of the
next day, of Snake and Yellin' Kid.

"They're after you, Bud!" shouted the cowboy with the loud voice.
"They're after you!"

"Who?" asked Bud, as he and his cousins came out to meet the
cowboys.

"Rustlers!" was the grim answer. "There's a lot of your steers
missin' from that far herd! Rustlers, Bud! Rustlers!"



CHAPTER VII

FOUR EYES


For a moment Bud Merkel seemed unable to comprehend the bad news
thus brought to him by his cowboy helpers and friends. Nort and
Dick, also, were shocked by the intelligence. But Bud quickly
recovered. Perhaps it was because of his heritage of the west--the
ability to face danger and disaster with grim courage, part
of his father's stock in trade.

"Rustlers, eh?" repeated Bud, and his voice was steadier than
Yellin' Kid or Snake Purdee expected to find it. "Did they get
many?"

"Quite a bunch," answered Yellin' Bad. "We rounded up as many as
we could, and--"

"You mean you rounded up the _rustlers_?" asked Nort,
eagerly.

"No, what was left of the steers," answered Snake. "Guess we
wouldn't be back here alone--that is, just us two, if we'd had a
run-in with the rascals. We didn't see 'em, but we did find
traces of 'em. What are you going to do, Bud? Get on their
trail?"

"Let's talk it over, first," suggested the boy rancher, and he looked
at Nort and Dick, for they were partners with him on this venture of
trying to raise cattle in Happy Valley--which would have been
almost a desert save for the water that came through the strange
mountain tunnel.

"Tell us about it," urged Dick.

"Well, there isn't so much to tell," replied Yellin' Kid, his
voice a bit lower, now that there was serious business afoot.
"Snake an' I started there, to haze back th' steers as you; told
us, Bud. But when we'd rounded up th' herd, drivin' 'em in from
where a lot of 'em had strayed, we saw, right away, that th'
count was short. First we thought a bunch was hidin' out on us,
but we made a pretty good search an' then we got th' evidence."

"The evidence?" exclaimed Nort.

"Yes, we saw where the rustlers had been at work. They must 'a'
been there a day before we arrived. They probably cut out a good
bunch of cattle an' drove 'em off. But they didn't drive 'em
all."

"What makes you think so?" asked Bud. "Do you mean that we have a
few left?" and he laughed uneasily.

"Oh, there's more'n a _few_," said Snake. "But by evidence
Kid means we saw where they'd been blurrin' the brand--the
Diamond X brand!"

"Oh, they're doing that; are they?" asked Bud, sharply.

"Yes, we found th' ashes of two or three brandin' fires," went on
Yellin' Kid, "an' we picked up th' broken handle of a brandin'
iron. No marks on it, like there was on the other," he said,
referring to the time one of the irons from Double Z had been
found on the range of the boy ranchers. "But we brought it along,
anyhow," and he exhibited a broken and charred piece of wood.

"But we found more than that," he continued. "We found one steer
they'd killed, for beef likely, after they'd blurred th' brand.
There wasn't much left. What th' rustlers didn't take th'
buzzards did. But there was enough of th' hide left to show what
work they were up to--blurring th' brand."

This, as you have learned from the previous books of this series,
consists in burning some other mark over the legitimate brand on
cattle, so that the original one can not be made out. Then the
animal may be claimed by whoever has it. Blurring a brand, that
is, making it illegible, or changing one brand into another, are
two of the methods used by unscrupulous men to steal cattle.

The boy ranchers well understood what was meant by the news
brought them by the two cowboys. The next thing to decide on was
what course to pursue. "Did they leave any trail?" asked Bud.

"Well, we didn't stop t' hunt for it, as long as it wasn't a
plain one," Snake answered. "Likely we could 'a' picked it up.
But as long as there had been a raid we decided th' best thing t'
do was t' save th' rest of th' cattle, an' then come an' tell
you, Bud."

"How many cattle do you think they took?" asked Nort.

"Oh, I should say fifty," answered Yellin Kid, "includin' th' one
they killed for beef. Probably they blurred th' brands on th'
others an' drove 'em off--an' I shouldn't be a bit s'prised," he
went on, "but what we'd find most of your cattle, Bud, walkin'
around on Double Z."

"Hank Fisher; eh?" exclaimed Dick.

"Yes, an' that slick Mexican half-breed of his, Del Pinzo!"
declared Snake. "Anyhow, they got away with a bunch of your
steers, Bud, an' now what are we goin' t' do? Are we goin' t' sit
back an' let 'em laugh at us?"

"Not much!" declared the boy rancher. "But let's get this
straight. I wonder why they didn't drive off the whole herd while
they were at it?"

"Probably it was too big a contract for 'em," remarked Yellin'
Kid. "An' then, too, they might not 'a' had men enough, or th'
cattle may 'a' stampeded."

"An' maybe they was scared off," added Snake.

"Yes," agreed his partner on the ride from which they had just
returned, "that may have been so. Somethin' may have scared th'
rustlers. But if I get a chance at 'em, I'll throw a bigger scare
int' 'em!" and he significantly tapped the grim .45 at his hip.

"Any trace of which way they went?" asked Bud.

"There is--up to a certain point," admitted Snake.

"What do you mean?" the boy rancher asked.

"Well, I mean we could trace the cattle down the valley up to
that low place between the hills-a sort of pass. And then all
trace of 'em was lost."

"Lost!" repeated Nort.

"Yes, sir, lost!" declared Snake. "You couldn't see any more
signs of 'em than if they'd been lifted up in one of them flying
machines and histed up over the mountain! That's th' funny part
of this raid."

"There have been some other queer things around here," said Dick.
"There was that bottle last night."

"What was that?" asked Snake, quickly.

"There was some promiscuous shooting around here last night,"
said Bud. "I'll tell you about it as soon as we get the straight
of this rustler business. Maybe there's some connection. But I
wonder----"

He was interrupted by a voice singing, and the song was one of
the usual cowboy refrains, though the voice was rather better
than usual.

At first the boy ranchers thought it might be Old Billee Dobb
who, with Buck Tooth, had been out to a distant part of the
valley to see if he could get on the track of a mountain lion which
had been killing cattle. But a glance showed the approaching
singer, who was also a rider, to be a stranger. He sat astride a big,
black horse, much larger than the ordinary cow pony, and as he
approached the camp the sun glinted in curious fashion on his face.

"Four eyes!" exclaimed Snake, meaning, thereby, that the stranger
wore glasses. The rising sun had reflected on their lens. On came
"Four Eyes," singing as he advanced, until, when he came within
hailing distance, he drew rein, saluted the assembled company
with a half-military gesture and called out:

"Any chance of a job here?"



CHAPTER VIII

THROWING THE ROPE


Silence followed this greeting and question, and then the two boy
ranchers, and their cowboy friends, waited for Bud to speak, he
being, in a sense, the head of the new organization. Though Dick
and Nort held equal shares, purchased for them by their father,
the two lads who had lived so long in the east deferred to the
boy of the west in this matter, thinking, naturally, that he
would better be able to handle it.

"Looking for a place?" asked Bud, genially enough, as he surveyed
the newcomer, from the top of his broad-brimmed range hat to the
pawing hoofs of his black steed, for the horse was impatiently
digging in the dirt.

"Yep!" was the answer. "I'm looking for a place." The voice was
pleasant, and there was none of that clipping off of the final
"g" in his words, so common a practice among most of the cowboys.
Perhaps they didn't have time to use the proper endings. "I'm
dead anxious to ride for some outfit," went on "Four Eyes," as he
had been dubbed and as he came to be called, as long as he
remained with Diamond X Second. "Your father sent me over here,"
he added.

"My father!" exclaimed Bud. "Do you know him? I don't know you!"
he added quickly, for he sensed that the stranger, in some
manner, had managed to pick him from all the others as the son of
the proprietor of Diamond X.

"I don't claim to know your father, only having met him once,
when I rode up, yesterday, to ask for a job," went on Four Eyes.
"I slept out last night--back there," he added with a wave of 'is
quirt in the direction of Diamond X. "Had supper with the boys at
your father's ranch, and he told me you might be needing some
one. If you don't----" He paused suggestively, evidently ready to
ride on and try his luck elsewhere if there was no chance in the
valley.

"I may need some one," Bud said. In fact, he was in need of an
additional hand, and since this latest action on the part of
rustlers he wanted help more than ever, for he was about to put
into execution a plan for getting on the trail of these
marauders. "But how'd you know who I was?" he asked, anxious to
ascertain how the stranger had picked him out, as distinguished
from Nort or Dick.

"Oh, your father looks like you," was the easy answer, given with
a laugh, in which Snake, Yellin' Kid and the boy ranchers joined.
"When he said he didn't need any riders, adding that perhaps you
might, I decided to take a chance."

"All right. I can use another hand--or, rather, _we_ can,"
and Bud waved his hand toward his cousins. "You can turn your
pony into the corral," he added, "and we'll give you something to
eat--unless you've had breakfast?" he questioned.

"Not so much but what I can eat more. Thanks! My name's Henry
Mellon. I've ridden some for Curly Q and Long L if you want any
references."

"I reckon my dad sized you up all right," spoke Bud.

"I reckon he did!" laughed Henry Mellon, or Four Eyes, as I shall
call him, following the custom of the others on the ranch. "I
wouldn't want to try to put anything over on him."

"It isn't exactly healthy," agreed Bud, for his father bore an
enviable reputation for finding out the truth about matters in
that "cow country."

"Ever ride for Double Z?" asked Yellin' Kid, and the loud tone's
of his voice appeared to startle the newcomer.

"Why, no," was the answer. "I can't say that I have. One of Mr.
Merkel's ranches?" he asked.

"No. It's Hank Fisher's place," spoke Snake. "Glad to meet up
with you," he added, riding forward and extending his hand.
"That's quite a hoss you got there. Beckon he can go some!"

"Well, he doesn't take dust from many," was the cautious
admission, as the new cowboy shook hands all around. "He'll be
glad of a rest, though, for I've ridden hard lately. I suppose I
can use another?" he asked Bud.

"Sure," was the answer. "Snake here, or Yellin' Kid, will show
you which ones you can add to your string. See you later,
fellows," Bud called to his cowboy helpers, as he motioned to
Nort and Dick to follow him to their own private tent.

"What do you think of it, Bud?" asked Nort, when they were alone,
and the new cowboy was being made to feel at home by Snake,
Yellin' Kid, and Old Billee, who had by this time ridden in. The
smell of cooking arose from the tent that Buck Tooth had turned
into a kitchen.

"You mean him?" and Bud nodded toward where the cowboys were
congregated in friendly talk.

"No, I mean about the rustlers."

"Oh, they're bad! No question about it--they're _bad!_"
declared Bud. "As soon as we get a chance we'll ride over and
take a look at the place. It doesn't seem reasonable that they
can drive a bunch of cattle off down the valley, and then have
all traces of 'em disappear as if they'd gone up in an airship."

"That's right!" chimed in Dick. "Do you s'pose this Four Eyes saw
the rustlers?"

"He didn't come from that direction," declared the western lad.

"He _says_ he didn't," spoke Nort. And when Nort accented
that one word Bud looked at his cousin quickly.

"Don't you believe what he says?" Bud asked.

"All the same I'd call up your father," went on Nort.

Bud hesitated a moment and then said:

"I will! No use taking chances. He may be all right, but it won't
do any harm to know it. I like his looks, though we don't often
get a cowboy with glasses. I'll call dad!"

Which he did, on the telephone, learning from his father that Mr.
Merkel knew nothing about the stranger, though he "sized him up,"
as being all right.

But Mr. Merkel had done more than this. He had called, on the
telephone, or had been in communication, otherwise, with the late
employers of Henry Mellon, and the cowboy was well spoken of. He
was a reliable hand, it was said.

"So we don't have to worry about _him_," Bud told his
cousins. "But we do have to take some action about these
rustlers! Hang 'em! I wish they were all bottled up in the
tunnel!"

"That's right!" chimed in Dick.

"Are we going on their trail?" asked Nort.

"If we can pick it up," agreed Bud. "Anyhow, we'll take a ride
over that way. What with cattle missing, and queer shots being
fired behind your back, we're likely to be in for as lively a
time as when we had the water fight!"

"Or locating a Triceratops!" added Nort with a laugh.

After breakfast, and the finishing of the usual "chores" about
camp, the boy ranchers prepared to ride over and look at the
place where the raid had been made. "What cattle had not been
taken--and it was only a small part of the herd that had been
driven off--were now nearer the camp headquarters, having been
hazed over by Snake and Yellin' Kid. Mr. Merkel had been told of
the theft, and had advised prompt action on the part of his son
and nephews.

"Four Eyes seems to be making himself right at home," remarked
Dick, as the three boys started toward the corral, intending to
saddle their ponies and ride over to the scene of the
cattle-rustling operations.

"Yes," agreed Bud.

Henry Mellon was in the midst of Old Billee, Buck Tooth, Snake
and Yellin' Kid, and, as the boy ranchers watched, they saw N
Four Eyes twirling his lariat above his head.

"What's he doing?" asked Dick.

"Oh, just showing 'em some fancy roping," Bud answered.

"Let's go over," suggested Nort. "I'd like to get on to a few
tricks, myself."

They found Four Eyes attempting some of the more difficult feats
of rope throwing. After twirling his lasso about his head, the
rope forming a perfect circle, he changed the direction from
horizontal to perpendicular, and nimbly leaped backward and
forward through the swiftly circling lariat.

Snake tried this, but his spurs caught and there was a queer
mix-up of man and rope. Snake could equal the newcomer's feat in
twirling the rope around his head horizontally, but failed, as
did Yellin' Kid, in the other trick.

"It's just a knack," said Four Eyes, modestly enough. "I had a
lot of spare time, and I practiced some of these fancy twists. I
can rope four horses at once."

"Yes you can--not!" challenged Snake.

"I'll prove it--of course they have to be going in the same
direction," stipulated the new cowboy.

"Even with that I doubt it," went on Snake. "I've heard of that,
but I never saw it done."

"If you fellows will ride past me I'll rope you all," and Four
Eyes indicated Snake, Yellin' Kid, Old Billee and Buck Tooth.
They mounted horses, and as Bud, Nort and Dick watched, the
newcomer prepared for the test.



CHAPTER IX

THE FIRE


"Say when!" called Snake to the spectacle-wearing cowboy, as the
reptile-fearing cow puncher and his companions prepared to let
themselves be roped by the new arrival--providing he could do it.

"I'll be ready in a moment," remarked Henry Mellon, and Bud and
his cousins could not but note how differently he spoke from the
average run of ranch hands.

"More like one of those college professors who were after the
ten-million-year-old Triceratops," remarked Nort, commenting on
the talk.

"Yes, he is a bit cultured in his speech," assented Bud. "Guess
he hasn't been out west long."

"Then how can he be such a wonderful roper?" Dick wanted to know,
for there was no doubt about the ability of Four Eyes, even if he
had not yet made good oh his boast of putting his lariat around
four galloping horses at once.

"Oh, well, it comes natural to some people," said Bud, "and then,
too, he may have been in Mexico. Some of the Greasers are pretty
slick with the horsehair. But let's watch."

By this time the four cow punchers, counting Buck Tooth as one,
for the Indian was a good herdsman, had lined themselves up about
a hundred feet from where Four Eyes sat on his horse--not the
same black one he had ridden in, but another, of Bud's stock,
that had been assigned him.

"Ready?" asked Yellin' Kid.

"All ready! Come a running!" shouted Four Eyes, and even here he
did not drop a "g."

In an instant the four horses were in motion, coming together, in
line, down the stretch which the newcomer faced. In another
moment Four Eyes had ridden across the path of the oncoming
steeds, and on the ground he spread out his lasso in a great
loop, leaning over in his saddle to do this. He retained hold of
the rope end that was fastened to his saddle, and then, having
spread the net, as it were, he pulled up on the opposite side of
the course down which the four were now thundering in a cloud of
dust.

"Can he do it?" asked Nort.

"He can that way--yes," Bud said. "It's a trick! I thought he was
going to make a throw."

"It's a good trick, though, if he does it," declared Dick.

In another instant all four horses ridden by the cowboys and the
Indian were within the spread-out loop of Four Eyes as it lay on
the ground. And then something happened.

With a mere twist of his wrist, as it seemed, Henry Mellon
snapped the outspread rope upward and, reining back his horse, he
suddenly pulled the lasso taut.

It was completely around the sixteen legs of the four horses,
holding them together, the rope itself being half way down from
the shoulder of each animal.

"He did it! By the great rattler and all the little rattlers, he
did it!" shouted Yellin' Kid, as he pulled his horse to a stop,
an example followed by the others. For though they might all
(save one, perhaps) have pulled out of the encircling rope, there
possibly would have been an accident. One, or more, of the horses
would have stumbled, or been pulled to the ground. And there was
no need of that in what was only a friendly contest.

"You did it!" declared Yellin' Kid, as Four Eyes loosed his rope
and it fell to the ground, the riders guiding their horses out of
the loop. "You shore did it!"

"But it was a trick!" declared Old Billee. "'Tw'an't straight
ropin'!"

"Yes, it's a trick, but not every one can do it," said the new
cowboy.

"Betcher I can!" declared Snake.

He tried--more than once, but failed. It was not as easy as it
looked, in spite of the fact that it was a trick.

"No one can throw, with any accuracy, a loop big enough to take
in four horses on the run," declared Four Eyes when it had been
demonstrated that he alone, of all the "bunch" at the Happy
Valley ranch, could do what he had done. "At least if they can,
I've never seen it. Two, maybe, or three, but not four. Putting
your rope on the ground, and snapping it up as the horses get in
it, is the only way I know."

"I wish you'd show me," spoke Nort.

"I will," promised Four Eyes. "You don't often have need for a
trick like it, but it may come in useful some day."

Then he showed the boys the knack of it, though it was evident
they were not going to master the "how" in a hurry.

Other feats in roping were indulged in by the cowboys, but none
was as expert as Four Eyes. He seemed to possess uncanny skill
with the lariat, though some of his tricks could be duplicated by
Snake, Yellin' Kid and even by the boy ranchers.

But life on a western ranch is not all fun and jollity, though as
much of this as possible is indulged in to make up for the
strenuous times that are ever present. So, after the roping
exhibition was over, and the newcomer had been assigned certain
duties, Bud, Nort and Dick rode down the valley, intending to
look over the place where the steers had been stolen, and the
carcass of one left as a grim reminder of the raid.

Otherwise all in Happy Valley was peaceful. The water was running
into the reservoir, through the pipes that connected with the
mysterious underground course, once utilized, it was thought, by
the ancient Aztecs.

Here and there, feeding on the rich bunch and Johnson grass, were
the cattle in which the boy ranchers were so vitally interested.
The most distant herd had been driven in by Snake and Yellin'
Kid--the herd on which the raid had been made. Like black specks
on the green floor of the valley were the cattle, dotted here and
there.

"If we have luck this season we ought to round up a good bunch
this fall," observed Bud, as he rode with his cousins.

"Yes," agreed Nort. "The water can't be shut off now, and we have
nothing to worry about."

"Except rustlers," put in Dick.

"And the fellow who broke the bottle for us," added Bud. "I'd
like to know who he was."

"It was a bit queer," Nort admitted. "But I believe it was some
passing cow puncher playing a joke on us. This cattle stealing is
no joke, though, and it's got to stop!"

"You let loose an earful that time," spoke Bud, in picturesque,
western slang. "We'll have to let the bottle-breaker wait for a
spell, until we size up this rustler question. We may have to get
up a sheriff's posse and clean out the rascals."

"If we can find 'em," grimly added Dick.

It was some distance to the place where Yellin' Kid and Snake
Purdee had seen evidences of the raid, and it was long past noon
when the boys reached it. They had stopped for "grub" on the way,
having carried with them some food. Water they could get from one
of the several concrete troughs that had been installed, the
fluid coming through pipes from the reservoir.

"Here's where they killed the steer, or yearling," Bud said,
pointing to a heap of bones.

It was all that remained from the feast of the buzzards.

"And here's where they started to drive off the cattle,
evidently," added Nort, pointing to where a plain trail, made by
the feet of many animals, led away from the ground that was more
generally trampled by a large herd.

"Let's follow it," urged Dick. "We want to see when it gets to
the disappearing point."

"That's right!" chimed in Bud.

They urged their ponies slowly along the trail left by the
rustlers. It seemed to go down the valley to the place where the
hills lowered on either side to form a sort of pass. It was in
this pass that the two cowboys said the trail was lost.

"We've got some distance to go, yet," observed Bud, as they
paused to look and make sure they had not lost the trail.

"And, after all, maybe we'll only find the same thing Snake and
Kid did--nothing!" said Nort.

"Well," began Bud, "we've got to get to the bottom of this, and
if we don't in one way we will----"

He was interrupted by a shout from Dick.

"Look!" cried the stout lad. "There's a fire! The grass is on
fire, Bud!"

The western lad gave a quick look in the direction Dick
indicated. It was off to the right from the trail they had been
following.

"It is a fire--regular prairie fire," Bud murmured.

"Could any of the reservation Indians be on the rampage and have
set it?" asked Nort.

"I don't know! We've got to find out about it!" shouted Bud.
"Come on, fellows!" And, wheeling his horse, he abandoned the
trail of the rustlers, and galloped toward the fire, followed by
Nort and Dick.



CHAPTER X

SERIOUS QUESTIONS


Some time before the boy ranchers reached the scene of the grass
fire toward which they were riding, they caught the smell of the
burning fodder. That it was only grass which was aflame they had
known before this, for that was all there was to ignite in that
section of the valley. There were no buildings as yet, tents
taking their place. Though Bud and his father planned to erect
substantial structures if this year was successful.

"A lot of good fodder going up in smoke, Bud!" yelled Nort, as he
rode beside his cousin.

"If it isn't any worse than that we're lucky," was the answer.

"How do you mean?" asked Dick.

"I mean if we don't lose any cattle. The grass isn't any good
after it dries up on the ground, the way this has. But if the
fire starts a stampede of cattle--that will mean a loss."

"Do you think that's what the game is?" asked Nort, encouraging
his pony, Blaze, by patting the animal's neck.

"I can't see what else it is, unless the fire started when some
one threw down a burning match or cigarette, and most cow
punchers aren't that careless. Our fellows wouldn't do it, and I
don't believe any other ranchers around here would, except on
purpose."

"You mean the Double Z bunch?" asked Dick.

"Sort of heading that way," replied Bud, significantly.

Together the boy ranchers rode on toward the fire, silently for a
time, the only sounds being the thud of their ponies' feet and
the creak of saddle leathers and stirrups. The smell of the
burning grass was more pronounced now, and the pall of black
smoke was rolling upward in a larger cloud.

"It's a big fire!" exclaimed Nort. "How can we stop it, Bud?"

"It will soon burn out," the western lad replied. "I happen to
know where this grass is. It's a place where we couldn't very
well bring water to, and if it doesn't rain much, as it hasn't
lately, the fodder gets as dry as tinder. There's a sort of
swale, or valley, filled with this dry grass and it's just
naturally burning itself off."

"Then no very great harm will be done; will there?" asked Dick.

"Not much, unless the cattle get frightened and start to
stampede. That's what I'm afraid of, and why I'm riding over
there. We can't hope to put out the fire." Owing to the fact that
the grass was so dry that no cattle would feed on it, there were
no steers in the immediate vicinity of the blaze Had the fodder
been cut it would have made excellent hay, but it would need to
be cut green to bring this about. As it was, the tall grass had
just naturally dried up as it attained its growth.

"It doesn't take even as much as a blaze like this to start a
stampede," said Bud, as he and his cousins rode nearer to the
burning grass, They could feel the heat of it, now. "It's queer
how frightened animals are of fire," went on the rancher's son.
"There must have been some wonderful sights out here, years ago,
when there were millions of buffalo, and when there were prairie
fires, miles in width, driving them before it."

"I should say so!" chimed in Nort. "I've read some of those
stories in Cooper's books. He's great; isn't he!"

"You delivered the goods that time!" remarked Bud.

"I wish the west was like that now," voiced Dick. "With Indians
and buffalo all over."

"There are a few Indians left yet," said Bud. "They're mostly on
reservations, except when they make a break, ride off and act up
bad. I guess we stock raisers are better off without the wild
Indians.

"As for the buffalo, they were mighty valuable, and if we could
raise them as well as cattle, we'd make a lot of money. The
government is trying to get several herds started, but it's no
easy task. Why, there are almost as many buffalo in New York city
as there is out west now."

"Where!" asked Nort, not thinking for the moment.

"In Bronx Park," answered Bud. "I haven't seen 'em but I've read
about 'em."

"Oh, yes. So have I," agreed Nort. "I forgot about them. Whew!
It's getting hot," he added, as a shift in the wind brought into
their faces a wave of heated and smoke-filled air.

"We'd better not keep on any nearer," decided Bud. "Let's ride
around to the other side, and see what we can see."

Accordingly they turned to the right, as the fire seemed less
fierce on that quarter, and continued on. They had been riding
over a stretch of the valley carpeted with rich, dark green and
fairly damp grass. Bud and his cousins knew that when the fire
reached this stretch it would die out for lack of fuel.

In fact the blaze, as they could see, was confined to an area
about a mile square, but of irregular shape. So far none of the
cattle in sight had shown more than momentary fear of the blaze.
They had run some distance from it and then stopped, sometimes
going on with their eating, and again pausing to look with
fear-widened eyes at the sight of the leaping tongues of fire.

"But we can't tell what's going on behind that smoke screen,"
declared Bud. "Some rustlers may have started it to hide their
work."

"Any of your men over in that direction?" asked Dick.

"They aren't supposed to be," Bud replied. "Of course some of 'em
may have ridden over when they saw the smoke, same as we did. But
I don't see how any of 'em could have reached here as soon as we
did."

Together they rode on, circling to the right to get around the
edge of the fire.

"She's dying out," observed Dick.

"Yes, it can't burn much longer," admitted Bud. "And no great
damage done, either, unless we find something we haven't yet
seen."

But when they had completed the circuit around the edge of the
blazing grass, and could ride across the fire-blackened area, and
behind what was still a thick screen of smoke, they saw something
which caused them great surprise.

This was not the sight of a bunch of stampeding cattle, though it
was what Bud and his cousins folly; expected to encounter. There
were some cattle on this side of the fire, but they had run far
enough away to be out of danger, and beyond where they could be
frightened into a frenzied rush.

"Look!" exclaimed Nort, pointing.

"Four Eyes!" exclaimed Dick.

"By the great horned toad and Zip Foster--yes!" agreed Bud, and
his cousins knew he must be stirred to unusual depths of feeling
to use this name. Zip Foster had not been mentioned in several
weeks. The mysterious personage, on whom Bud called in times of
great excitement, was almost a stranger, of late, in Happy
Valley. In fact Dick and Nort never could get Bud to talk about
Zip. But that is a story which will be told in its proper place,
and due season.

"It _is_ Four Eyes!" went on Bud, as he and his cousins
recognized in the form of a distant rider that of Henry Mellon,
the new cowboy. "And what he's doing here is more than I can
imagine. I'm going to find out, though!"

The spectacled cow puncher was riding swiftly along, on a course
that ran parallel to the direction of the fire. He was on the
edge of the burned area, and galloping-away from the boys. But he
was not beyond seeing or hailing distance.

"Hello there!" shouted Bud, dropping his reins and making a
megaphone of his hands.

Four Eyes heard the call--there was no doubt of that, for he
turned in his saddle and looked back. Then he must have seen the
boys, for he waved his hat at them. Next he pointed ahead, as if
to indicate that he was in pursuit of some one, and kept on,
never slacking his pace.

"Come on!" shouted the impulsive Nort. "Let's catch up to him!"

He was about to spur his pony forward, but Bud caught the bridle.

"No use," said the western lad. "He's too far ahead, and our
horses are too played out If he comes back well hear about it. If
he doesn't--"

"Why, don't you think he'll come back!" interrupted Pick.

"It wouldn't surprise me if he didn't," Bud answered. "There are
some queer things going on around here, and he may be one of 'em.
Though I haven't any reason to suspect him--yet!" he quickly
added.

"What are we going to do!" asked Dick, as he saw his cousin
slacking his pony's pace. "Shall we go on to the end of the
rustler's trail, or follow Four Eyes."

"Neither one," answered Bud. "At least not just yet," he added,
as he saw Nort and Dick look at him curiously. "Let Four Eyes go,
for the time being. He may have seen some cowboys he'd like to
interview about this fire, and be after them. Or he may not. As
for getting on the trail of the rustlers, we'd have to ride back
quite a distance to do that, and it would be dark when we picked
it up again. Too late to do anything."

"Are we going back to camp?" asked Dick.

"No, let's stay right here. We've got grub, and water isn't so
far off. We'll just camp out for the night."

"Suits me," assented Dick.

"Same here," agreed Nort.

It was something the boys had often done. They carried blankets
and tarpaulins on their saddles, ready for this emergency, and
they "packed" sufficient rations for several substantial, if not
elaborate, meals. They had a coffee pot, a frying pan, bacon and
prepared flour, and flapjacks were within their range of
abilities as cooks.

Pausing to note that the fire was rapidly dying out, that there
was no cattle stampede in their vicinity, and noting that Four
Eyes was now almost out of sight, the boy ranchers rode on to the
nearest water-hole, and there prepared to spend the night, though
it was still several hours until darkness should fall. But the
horses were tired, for they had been run hard after the fire, and
the boys decided to rest them. The lads, themselves, were fresh
enough to have kept on, had there been occasion for it.

"Well, I'm glad this was no worse," observed Bud, as they sat
down, having picketed their steeds, and looked at the receding
pall of smoke. "I only hope the fellows at camp won't be
worried."

"I guess they know we can take care of ourselves--at least we
have so far," spoke Nort.

"Yes," agreed Bud. "You fellows have done pretty well since you
came out here--you aren't tenderfeet any longer, not by all the
shots that ever broke bottles."

"Say, what do you think of that, anyhow?" asked Dick, as he
chewed reflectively on a bit of grass.

"I don't know what to think," asserted Bud. "There are a lot of
serious questions we have to settle if we're going to keep on
with this ranch."

"Why, we are going to keep on, aren't we?" asked Nort.

"I should say so!" cried Bud. "We're going to stick here,
rustlers or not! And those are the only fellows I'm worrying
about," and he tossed a lump of dirt in the fire which Dick was
starting.

"Are there always rustlers to worry about on a ranch?" asked
Nort.

"More or less," answered his cousin. "Especially when you have a
place so near Double Z. I don't accuse Hank Fisher of being a
rustler, exactly," he went on, "though I think Del Pinzo is.
That's been proved, but it didn't do much good, for he broke jail
and they can't seem to land him."

"What makes Hank Fisher and that Double Z bunch so sore at you?"
asked Dick.

"I guess it's because we're beating them at the cattle game,"
answered Bud. "And because dad dammed the Pocut River and took
some water for this valley. As if that hurt Hank!" he added. "But
he makes that an excuse. However, I'll fight him to the finish!"

"And we're with you!" added Dick and Nort.

After supper they sat around the fire, talking of various
matters. But ever and again the question troubled them of whether
or not they could get on the trail of the rustlers. And, too,
they wondered what could be the object of Four Eyes.

Night settled down, quiet save for the occasional snorting of the
ponies. The boys wrapped themselves in their blankets and crawled
between their tarpaulins with their feet to the smouldering fire.
They talked until drowsiness stole over them and then, having
decided to maintain no watch, they all three slumbered.

What time it was that Bud awakened he did not know. But awaken he
did, and suddenly.

And the cause of his awakening was the sound of a horse rapidly
ridden, and, evidently, approaching the place where he and his
cousins had camped for the night.

"Who's there?" cried Bud suddenly, and without preface. Under the
blanket his hand sought his weapon.

"Who's there!"



CHAPTER XI

THE WATCH TOWER


Quickly the galloping hoofbeats came to a pause. With a motion of
his foot, as he sat up amid his blanket and tarpaulin, Bud kicked
into the fire a stick of greasewood which flared up, revealing a
rider on a panting horse standing over the boy ranchers, all
three of whom were now awake.

"Four Eyes!" cried Bud, for the flaring fire had revealed that
cowboy. He had accepted his nickname in perfect grace.

"That's who," was the good-natured answer. "I saw the fire as I
was riding back, and I thought you'd be here."

"Where were you riding _to_?" asked Bud, pointedly, his
fingers releasing their grip on the .45 under the blanket. "I
thought you were with Old Billee."

"I was supposed to be," answered Four Eyes, "until my horse got
out of the corral and Billee said I could trail him. That's what
I was doing when I saw you behind the fire. I knew it was almost
burned out, so I didn't stop, or come back to explain."

"Yes, the fire didn't amount to much, though how it was started
is another question," said Bud. "You say your black horse got
out?"

"Yes, jumped the corral fence. He's a bad one at that."

"You didn't get him back," observed Nort, for he and Dick, as
well as Bud, had noticed that the new cow puncher bestrode one of
the extra ponies kept at the camp corral for use in relieving the
regular animals.

"No, he got clean away," and Henry Mellon did not seem to worry
much about it. "All I have to say," he went on, "is that some one
will get a mighty good mount, outside of his habit of jumping out
of corrals."

"You may get him back--if whoever picks him up knows where he
belongs," said Bud. For in that cow country it was still regarded
as a great crime to steal a horse, or keep one known to belong to
some one else.

"Oh, I'll prospect a bit farther for him tomorrow, maybe," said
Four Eyes. "I didn't want to ride too far this evening, so I
turned back. Did you get on any trail of the rustlers?" he asked,
for he had been aware of the object of the boys' ride.

"We switched off to come over to the fire," said Bud. "Did you
notice anything about it?"

"It was burning pretty good when I struck here, from over at your
camp," was the answer. "I saw that it wasn't likely to do much
damage, so I didn't ride back to tell Billee and the others."

"Did you see any one suspicious?" Bud went on, getting up and
putting more wood on the fire.

"No, I didn't," answered Four Eyes, quietly. "Of course anyone
would have had time to start the fire, and get well away before I
arrived on the scene--judging by the way it was burning," he
said. "Though I can't see what object anyone could have, and I'm
inclined to think a passing cow puncher--not one of your crowd
but some one else--may have flipped a cigarette butt into the
grass where it smouldered for some time."

"That may have happened," Bud admitted. "As for an object, if the
fire had stampeded the cattle it would have given some bunch of
Greasers or rustlers a chance to get away with a few steers."

"Oh, yes, of course," agreed Four Eyes. "Well, I didn't see
anybody. Guess I may as well turn in here. No use riding back to
the camp to-night. It'll soon be morning."

"That's right, turn in," invited Bud. His suspicions had
vanished.

"There's some cold coffee if you want it," added Nort.

"Guess I'll put it on to heat," said Henry Mellon. "It's a bit
chilly."

"What time is it?" asked Dick, as the cowboy stirred up the
embers and set the blackened coffee pot on over some stones that
had been made into a rude fireplace.

"Two o'clock," announced Four Eyes, with a glance at his watch.

The boy ranchers watched him idly as he made and drank the
coffee, munching some hard crackers he carried in one of his
pockets. Then, rolling up in their blankets, the quartette went
to sleep.

Morning came, in due course, without any untoward incidents
having occurred. The boys looked across the fire-swept area to
where, beyond it, many cattle could be observed grazing. There
was no further vestige of fire. The heavy dew had extinguished
the last, smouldering spark.

"Well, I'm going back to the camp," announced Four Byes, as they
got the simple breakfast. And how appetizing was that aroma of
sizzling bacon and strong coffee! "Want me to tell 'em anything
for you!" he asked Bud.

"Tell 'em about the fire," was the request. "And say we're going
on the trail of the rustlers. We'll be back to-day, though,
around night, for we haven't grub enough to carry us farther."

"What you going to do about your horse?" asked Dick.

"What can I do?" asked Henry Mellon, in turn. "I can't spend all
my time hunting him, when I've got to ride herd."

"We'll be on the lookout," Nort said.

"Hope you have luck," commented the strange cowboy, as he took
off his glasses and wiped them on his silk neckerchief. "I'm lost
without Cinder, though this pony isn't so bad," and he patted the
neck of the animal he was riding.

A little later the boy ranchers were taking a short cut across
the fire-blackened strip, to get on the trail of the men who had
driven off their cattle, while Four Eyes turned the head of his
pony toward camp.

"Well, it looks as if this was where the trail ended," announced
Bud, several hours later.

"Mighty funny, to come to an end so suddenly," commented Dick.

The three boys had reached one end of the many small valleys into
which the larger vale was divided. They had been following the
trail of the cattle that had been driven off--it was plain enough
until they reached a rocky and shale-covered defile between two
small hills. Then, for some reason or other, all "sign" came to
an abrupt end. There were no further marks of hoofs in the earth,
and none of the ordinary marks to indicate that cattle and horses
had been beyond a certain point.

"It's just as Snake said," observed Dick. "They must have driven
the animals here and then lifted them over the hill in an
aeroplane."

"They couldn't!" declared Nort.

"I know they couldn't. But how else do you account for it?" asked
his brother.

"They may have driven 'em through the pass, and then scattered
dirt and stones over the trail to hide it," suggested Bud.

"Let's look a little farther then," remarked Dick.

They did, but without discovering any clues. It was as though the
rustlers had driven the cattle to the bottom of a rocky and
bush-covered slope, and then as if the side of the hill had suddenly
opened, providing a way through.

"Like some old fairy yarn!" declared Bud. "This gets me!"

"If we could only have gotten on the trail of the rascals sooner,
Bud, we might have learned the secret," spoke Nort. "We ought to
keep better watch!"

"How could we?" asked Bud. "We shoot off on the trail, now, as
soon as we hear of anything."

"Yes, but we ought to get on the jump quicker," insisted his
cousin. "If we had an airship, for instance!" and he laughed at
the impracticability of his remark.

"You can see pretty nearly the whole of the valley from the top
of Snake Mountain," spoke Dick, when he and Bud had joined in the
laugh at Nort's airship idea. "If one of us could be up there--"

"We'd have to be there all the while!" interrupted Bud. "There's
no telling when the rustlers will come. Talk about being on the
watch! It's all right to say so, but how you going to work it?"

Dick suddenly uttered an exclamation.

"What's the matter?" his brother wanted to know. "See a snake?"

"No, but I've got the idea! A watch tower! Why not build one at
our camp--or up on the side of the hill back of the reservoir? We
could make it of logs--high enough to give us a good view. It
wouldn't be much of a trick to climb up in the watch tower three
or four times a day and survey the place. A watch tower is the
thing, Bud!"



CHAPTER XII

IN SPITE OF ALL


Nort and Bud stared at Dick for several seconds without making
any remark. They were sitting on their ponies, completely baffled
by the manner in which the trail of the rustlers had suddenly
"petered out." And they had been about to turn and go back to
camp when Dick made his enthusiastic remark.

"A watch tower?" repeated Bud.

"Sure!" declared his cousin. "We used to build 'em when I
belonged to the Boy Scouts. Remember, Nort?"

"Sure! It begins to come back to me. We used to bind saplings
together and make quite a high perch. The idea was that you might
be able to see your way if you got lost," he explained to Bud.

"Not a bad idea, either," commented the western lad. "I begin to
see your drift, as the wind said to the snowstorm. You mean to
build a sort of high platform up by the reservoir, Dick?"

"Yes, a watch tower of logs, strong enough to hold one or two
fellows. You could make ladders so's we could reach the top
platform, or we could scramble up if we left hand and foot holds
where we lopped the branches off saplings."

"That's right!" cried Bud, now almost as enthusiastic as was his
cousin. "And with a good pair of glasses, or a telescope such as
dad has at the ranch, we could see all over the valley."

"Let's make it!" cried Nort, and the matter was settled as
quickly as that.

Something of the excitement that had moved them must have been
visible on the faces of the boys when they returned to camp, for
Old Billee, greeting them in the absence of the other cowboys,
asked:

"Did you land 'em, Bud?"

"Who; the rustlers? No. Couldn't see where they'd vanished to any
more than, as one of the boys said, as if an airship had been
used. But we got an idea, Billee."

"They're valuable--sometimes," agreed the veteran cow puncher
cautiously.

"We hope this one is going to be!" frankly laughed Bud. "We're
going to build a watch tower, and take turns staying up in it
with a telescope. We can see almost the whole valley if we get
high enough, and as there aren't many patches of woodland where
the rascals can hide, we hope to spot the rustlers as soon as
they begin their tricks."

"Well, you may do it," and again the cowboy was very cautious. "I
never heard of cattle rustlers bein' caught that way, but when
other means fail, try suthin' diffrunt! We'll tackle th' tower!"

And as the other cowboys, even Four Eyes, pronounced the scheme
worth trying, it was put into operation. Mr. Merkel, to whom Bud
communicated his idea over the telephone, rather laughed at it.

"How about nights?" asked the ranchman. "No matter how high you
are up after dark you can't see any better."

"But most of the raids of the rustlers have been in daylight,"
declared Bud.

"It's about fifty-fifty," his father told him. "However, it won't
do any harm to try it. Only don't fall off that watch tower of
yours. I'll come out and look at it when you get it done."

The boy ranchers and their cow punchers started work the next
day. Dick and Nort remembered, in a dim way, how, as Boy Scouts,
they had helped erect towers, hastily constructed of saplings.
Their recalled knowledge, together with the natural adaptability
and skill of the cowboys, finally succeeded in there being
evolved, and erected, on the aide of the valley rather a
pretentious tower. "It must look like an oil well derrick from a
distance," observed Nort, when it was al most completed.

"What do we care how it looks, if it does the trick?" retorted
Bud. "From that perch, and with this telescope dad let me take, I
can tell the color of a cow clear to the end of our valley."

There was no question but what the watch tower did provide an
excellent vantage point. From its top platform, reached by rude
ladders, any unusual movement in the entire valley could be seen
during the day.

It was planned that the boys--and by this I mean the hired
cowboys also--should take turns in being on watch in the tower
during certain periods each day. A schedule was drawn up by Bud
and his cousins, and put into operation as soon as the tower was
completed.

"And now we'll catch the rustlers at work!" boasted Bud.

But alas for their hopes! In spite of all their precautions, and
setting at naught the hard work of constructing the tower, there
was another raid on the cattle in Happy Valley, about a week
after the wooden perch had been set up.

It was not a disastrous raid, and only a half score of steers
were driven off from one of the more distant herds. But the raid
took place, and at night. It was discovered one morning, just as
Bud was going up into the tower, where a seat and sheltered place
had been built.

"They fooled us, Bud," said Old Billee, riding in from a distant
part of the valley.

"Fooled us? How?"

"They let us watch by day, an' they come an' robbed by night!
Another bunch of steers gone!"

"Well--by Zip Foster!" cried Bud, slamming his hat down on the
ground. "I'm getting tired of this!"



CHAPTER XIII

THE SIGNAL


"What's the matter?" cried Dick, hastening from the tent where he
had been making a new loop on his lariat, in preparation for
practicing some of the stunts worked by Four Eyes.

"Have you discovered something from the tower?" asked Nort.

"Yes, I've discovered that the tower isn't any good!" exclaimed
Bud with emphasis. "Oh, it isn't your fault, Dick," he went on,
as he saw that his cousin looked a bit crestfallen. "The tower is
all right."

"Then you saw some rustlers from it?" asked Nort.

"No, that's the trouble," said Bud, ruefully. "We didn't see them
but they were here all right--last night. Tell us about it,
Billee," he requested.

"Well, there isn't an awful lot to tell," said the veteran cow
puncher. "I was just prospectin' around, over on that new growth
of Johnson grass, like you told me to, an' I saw where a steer
had been killed, an' they had eat most of it, too, by th' signs."

"You mean the rustlers?" asked Nort.

"Rustlers, Greasers, Del Pinzo's bunch--anything you like t' call
'em," asserted Billee. "Somebody, that hadn't any right t' do it,
druv off our cattle!"

"And I say it's about time it was stopped!" declared Bud with as
great positiveness as before. This time he picked up the hat he
had dashed to the ground and dusted it off. "I'm going to do
something desperate!" he declared.

"What, son?" asked Old Billee mildly. "They's allers been
rustlers in this cow country, an' they'll allers be some, I
reckon. Course if you can git 'em in th' _act_, they's nothin' t' do
but shoot 'em up. But when you can't git 'em--"

"That's what I'm going to do!" declared Bud. "I'm going to get on
the trail of these rustlers and clean 'em out! Tell us more about
it, Billee. No use getting up in the watch tower now," he added,
gloomily enough. "We've got other work cut out for us. Go ahead,
Billee! Shoot!"

"Let me give you a word of advice first, Buddy boy," spoke the
veteran cowboy as he slowly got off his pony, an act of grace for
which the animal was, doubtless, duly thankful. Billee was no
featherweight, though he was as active as need be, in spite of
his bulk.

"What's the advice?" asked Bud good-naturedly. His first hot
anger was beginning to cool.

"Well, my advice is to leave these rustler alone," said Old
Billee. "They's allers been rustlers here an' they'll allers be
here. Every cow country has 'em. They're like th' old pirates
that used t' hold up th' ships. Taking tribute, so t' speak."

"But our country didn't pay that tribute long!" exclaimed Dick,
remembering the brilliant exploits of Decatur against the
corsains of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli. "'Millions for defense,
but not a cent for tribute'!" quoted Dick in a ringing voice.

"That's what I say!" chimed in Nort.

"Well, it _is_ tribute, in a way," admitted Old Billee. "I
was going t' say if you'd let th' rustlers make off with a few
steers now an' then it would save trouble. They're used t' takin'
a few. But if you fight 'em then they'll make a big raid with a
big gang, an' mebby, take all you got, Bud!"

"I'd like to see 'em try it!" cried the western lad. "And I won't
sit by and have my cattle stolen; will we, fellows?" he appealed
to his cousins.

"Not on your life!" declared Nort and Dick.

"Well, I shore do like t' hear you talk that-a-way," said Old
Billee. "I didn't think you'd do it. Course it ain't no fun t'
sit still an' let these onery Greasers walk off with your cattle.
But, as I say, it's sometimes easier'n 'tis t' fight 'em. Lots of
th' ranchmen do pay tribute in a way. Your father was one of th'
fust t' fight 'em, Bud, but even he has sorter give up now, an'
he don't raise no terrible row when a few of his steers get hazed
off."

"Well, dad has more, and losing a few doesn't put a crimp in
him," said Bud. "It's different with us, and I'm not going to
stand it. Zip Foster wouldn't and I'm not going to!" and again he
dashed his hat on the ground, thereby startling Billee's horse.

"Say, why don't you get Zip Foster over to help chase the
rustlers?" asked Dick, slyly nudging Nort. They had long been
trying to get Bud to a "show down" on the identity of this
mysterious personage.

"Oh, I reckon we can do it ourselves," and Bud seemed to regret
mentioning the name of his favorite.

"Just what are you aimin' t' do, son?" asked Billee, as Snake and
Yellin' Kid rode up, ready for their day's work out on the range
among the cattle.

"I don't exactly know, but it's going to be something and
something hard!" asserted Bud. "Are there any clues over there,
Billee, to give us a lead?"

"Not many, Bud. Just th' usual. They come onto a few scattered
steers, killed one roasted what they wanted of it, slipped off
the hide an' left th' rest t' th' buzzards. Then they druv off
th' remainder. I didn't foller th' trail, for I could see they
was half a dozen rustlers in th' bunch, an' it ain't exactly
healthy for one man t' trail a crowd like that even if he was a
two-gun man, which I don't lay no claim t' bein' no how,"
concluded the veteran modestly. They all knew he would be brave
enough in an even fight. But they all recognized the fact that it
would have been foolish for him, alone, to have attempted to
trail a gang of desperate men.

"Well, I'm going to see what we can do," Bud declared. "If you've
sized up all there was to see over there, Billee," and he nodded
in the direction of the latest raid on Diamond X Second, "there's
no use in me going over. I think I'll go have a talk with dad,"
he concluded. "I want action!"

"So do we!" added Dick.

"Then come along!" invited his cousin.

A little later the boy ranchers were riding out of the valley, on
their way to the main ranch of Diamond X. They would not be back
until late that night, or, possibly, until the following morning,
for Bud wanted to have a good, long talk with his father, and
decide on some plan of action, that would drive out the rustlers
and keep them away.

As Old Billee had said, probably an older and more experienced
rancher would have put up with a few losses for the sake of peace
and quietness. But Bud, like most lads of his age, was impulsive.
And, as he had said, the loss of even a few steers meant possible
failure to him and his cousins, just starting in the ranch
business as they were.

"Was that a black one?" suddenly asked Bud, as Nort's horse shied
at something.

"A black what!" Nort wanted to know.

"A black jack rabbit that ran across the trail in front of you
just now," Bud resumed. "If it was, it will bring bad luck, as
Old Billee would say," and he laughed.

"No, it was a sort of gray one, part white," Nort answered, for
it was one of those immense hares that had leaped across the
trail, almost under the feet of his pony.

"That means we'll have part bad luck and part good," declared
Dick.

And some hours later, when they had reached Bud's home, and Nell
was serving peach pie and glasses of milk to the boy ranchers,
Nort paused long enough in his eating to remark:

"_This_ is the good luck, Bud."

"You declaimed something that time!" agreed his brother.

Mr. Merkel listened to what Bud and his cousins told them of the
raids on Happy Valley.

"Well, you haven't suffered any more than the average ranchman,
just starting in," said Bud's father. "The rustlers always seem
to pick on a newcomer."

"Well, they'll find I'm a sort of prickly pear to pick on!"
asserted Bud. "Dad, can't we clean out these rascals?"

"Well, it's your ranch, Bud! You can do anything you like, within
reason, but I wouldn't like to see you take any foolish risks."

"There's got to be some risks," declared Bud. "I'm not looking to
get out of 'em. But don't you think it would be a good thing if
we could get rid of this Del Pinzo gang for good?"

"Sure, Bud. I'll give you all the help I can, and I'll spare you
one or two more men if you need 'em--for a time, that is, as
we're pretty busy here."

"All right. When we're ready I'll call on you," said Bud, as
though he had great plans in preparation. As a matter of fact, as
he admitted later, he really did not know what he was going to
do, but he was not going to admit that to his father. In other
words he was "putting up a bluff," and I have some reason for
suspecting that Mr. Merkel knew this. However he gave no sign. In
spite of the pie, cake and other good things set out by Nell and
Mrs. Merkel, Bud and his chums decided to ride back to their camp
that night. It was dark at the start, but the moon would be up
later, and the trail was well known.

The boy ranchers rode leisurely along, for there was no special
hurry in getting back. It might reasonably be supposed that the
rustlers would not again make a raid within a few days at least.
And Old Billee, Yellin' Kid, Snake Purdee and Four Eyes, to say
nothing of Buck Tooth, were well able to look after matters in
Happy Valley.

And thus proceeding at a foot pace, it was well after midnight
when the boys started down the last slope that led into the
valley proper. In daylight it would have been possible, from this
part of the trail, to have observed the tents and the reservoir.
But now all was shrouded in darkness.

No, not altogether darkness, for as the boys rode forward there
suddenly glimmered in the gloom a light, high up in the air. At
first Bud thought it was a star, but a moment later as it moved
from side to side, and then up and down, he exclaimed:

"Look, fellows! A signal!"

"Signal!" repeated Dick.

"Yes. Over at our camp! See! There's a light on our watch tower."

"Maybe there's been another raid!" said Nort.

"Or going to be one!" spoke Bud, grimly.



CHAPTER XIV

FOUR EYES--NO EYES


Thudding along, their ponies seemingly as eager to reach the
ranch camp as were the boys themselves, Bud, Nort and Dick raced
toward the mysterious light. For that it was mysterious they all
agreed, and that it was flashing from the top of the watch tower
they had built to spy for rustlers was another conclusion.

"Do you s'pose it can be Old Billee, or Yellin' Kid signalling to
us?" asked Nort, as he galloped between Bud and Dick.

"They wouldn't know we were coming," Bud answered. "I said we
might not be back until to-morrow."

"That's so. But who do you think is signalling?" asked Dick.

"And who are they signalling to?" Nort wanted to know. "That's
what we've got to find out," spoke Bud, grimly. "And it's what
we're going to find out in a short time! Come on, Sock!" he
called to his pony. "This is only exercise for you!"

Indeed the animals had not been hard pressed, and this burst of
speed was rather a relief than anything else. Together the boy
ranchers hastened toward their camp.

For some time the lantern--it was evidently that and not a
torch--was waved to and fro, parallel to the horizon, and again up
and down. It was so evidently a signal, or a series of them, that the
boys no longer questioned this theory.

But who the signaller was, and to whom he was flashing his
message in the dark night--those were other questions. And they
were questions that needed answering.

"It must be one of our men," remarked Bud. "No one else could get
into camp and climb the tower without a row being raised."

"How do you know there hasn't been a row?" asked Dick.

"What do you mean?" countered Bud.

"I mean there may have been a fight," Dick went on. "Maybe the
rustlers have surprised our camp, put Yellin' Kid and the rest of
our bunch out of business and are signalling to the main crowd to
come up and drive off the cattle. I might as well say that as
think it," he added. "And that's what I've been thinking the last
few minutes."

This dire suggestion struck Bud and Nort silent for a moment. And
then, more because he did not want to believe it, than because he
did not believe it possible, Bud exclaimed: "I don't believe any
such thing!"

"I don't want to believe it!" said Nort. "But of course there may
have been a fight."

"If there was, there's a lot of dead Greasers and rustlers
scattered around, you can depend on that!" declared Bud, grimly.

"Yes, I reckon Old Billee, Snake and the rest would give a good
account of themselves," asserted Dick.

"And they wouldn't be taken by surprise, either," added Nort.

"Not likely," affirmed his cousin.

Again they directed their gaze toward the flashing signal on the
tower. Once more they saw it slowly raised and lowered, and then
swept from side to side.

"Are they spelling out a message in Morse or Continental code?"
asked Bud.

"It does look like the Morse," said Nort. "We learned that when
we were Boy Scouts. I can make out some letters, but they don't
spell anything that has any sense to it."

"Maybe it's in Spanish," suggested Bud, who was not familiar with
the method of spelling words by flags or lanterns. "There's a lot
of Greasers around here who don't know anything but Spanish."

"That's so," agreed Nort. "I didn't think of that. I'll try and
catch what the next word is, and maybe you'll know it, Bud," for
the western lad understood some of the language of Mexico.

But just when Nort was directing his attention to the signal
flashes Dick, who had ridden on a little ahead, suddenly called:

"Is that a fire?"

They looked to where he pointed and, for a moment, thought it was
another blaze in the dried grass. For the eastern skyline that
had been only dimly seen was now outlined in a red flare.

"It is a fire!" asserted Nort.

"It's the moon rising!" said Bud.

And so it proved. The moon was coming up, big, round and red,
and, when below the horizon, cast a reflection not unlike a fire.
The boys laughed with relieved spirits as they rode on. But when
Nort next directed his attention to the flashing lantern it was
no longer signalling. In the direction of the watch tower there
was only blackness, for the moon's rays had not yet reached it.

"Looks as if they'd quit," said Dick.

"Maybe they thought the moonlight would give 'em away," suggested
Nort.

"We'll soon know about it," declared Bud, with grim meaning.

They were now within a short distance of the tents, gleaming
white in the moonbeams. From one of the larger canvas shelters
shone a ruddy light, showing dark figures within. And then was
borne to the ears of the boys the sound of laughter.

"That doesn't seem to indicate a raid or fight," spoke Nort.

"You can't be sure," Bud remarked. "We'd better be careful. Let's
dismount and go on foot."

They left their ponies, throwing the reins over the heads of the
animals, and cautiously approached the tents of the cow punchers
on foot. This tent was, practically, the "bunk house," the
assembling place of the men after their hours of work. But before
the boys reached this their approach was evidently heard. For a
figure came to the flap and a challenging voice called:

"Who's there?"

"Old Billee!" cried Bud, as he and his chums recognized the
tones, and with the recognition came a sense of relief.

"Oh, you're back; are you, Bud?" asked the veteran cowboy. "I
thought I heard some one."

"Who's up on the watch tower with a lantern?" called Bud, once it
was certain that no disaster had occurred.

"Watch tower?" repeated Yellin' Kid, coming to the flap to stand
beside Old Billee.

"Lantern?" added Snake.

"Somebody's signalling," went on Bud.

"You'd better come out and we'll have a look. Are you all here?"

"All of us," answered Old Billee. "Come on, Four Eyes!" he cried.
"Tumble out of your bunk. There's somethin' doin'!"

"Four Eyes must have gone to bed early," said Bud to his cousins
as they stood outside the tent. For Billee's call indicated that
the spectacled cowboy had retired.

"Hi! Four Eyes!" shouted Yellin' Kid, in a voice that would have
awakened the proverbial Seven Sleepers. "Turn out!"

There was a moment's pause, during which Buck Tooth came up to
the bunk tent from his own special nook for sleeping. And then,
the voice of Snake Purdee announced:

"Four Eyes isn't here!"

"Isn't here!" repeated Billee. "Why, I saw him turn in a while
ago, when we started t' play cards."

"He isn't here now," declared Snake. "His bunk is empty, and he
didn't go out the front way, I'll wager on that. There's
something queer going on all right!"



CHAPTER XV

A BIG RAID


Into the bunk tent of the older cowboys crowded the young ranch
lads. Doubt, suspicion and wonder mingled in their minds, and
foremost of all were two outstanding matters--the mysterious
signalling light, and the disappearance of Four Eyes--if, indeed,
that individual had really taken himself off.

"Are you sure he was here?" asked Bud, when, after the first
break of surprise, questions were in order.

"Sure," replied Yellin' Kid. "We all come in here, after th'
chores was done, t' have a friendly game of cards an' smoke. We
didn't look for you back until late, if at all."

"And was Four Eyes with you then?" asked Nort.

"You couldn't exactly say he was _with_ us," replied Snake.
"An' yet he wasn't _away_ from us. He pretended he didn't
want t' play cards, an' he said he was so doggoned tired an'
sleepy that he was goin' t' turn in. I told him that bein' in th'
same tent with a whisperin' infant like Yellin' Kid, wasn't
perzactly healthy for sleep, but Four Eyes said he didn't mind.
So he turned int' his bunk, an' pulled th' covers tip over his
head, though I don't see how he stood it, for it isn't winter,
not by a long shot, an' this place was full of smoke. Anyhow he
done it, an' t' keep th' light out of his eyes, so he said, he
pulled a chair up in front of his bunk like you see it now, an'
stuck his coat over it."

Snake pointed to a chair, now twisted awry from in front of the
cot that the missing cowboy had occupied. His coat, draped over
the back, effectually screened him from observation when lying on
the bed.

"He did that so's he could slip out an' get away!" spoke Yellin'
Kid, justifying the sarcastic name of "whispering infant," that
Snake had bestowed on him.

"But how did he get out?" asked Dick.

"And what for?" Bud wanted to know,

"He got out this way!" said Old Billee quietly, as he leaned over
the cot and pushed with his hand against the side of the tent. A
right-angled opening was disclosed, cut with a sharp knife. The
loose point was at the bottom, and once Four Eyes had slipped
out, the cut flap hung down in place, not disclosing, in the dim
light, that the canvas had been cut.

"He got out that way," went on Old Billee, "because th' tent
sides, bein' fast t' th' board floor, wouldn't let him crawl out
very easy. He's a slick one, Four Eyes is!"

"But why should he slip out this way? Did he do anything? And who
was doing that signalling?" exclaimed Bud.

"I reckon you'll find, son, that the signallin' an' th' vamoosin'
of our late friend Four Eyes had some connection," spoke Old
Billee. "We, bein' intent on our game of cards, didn't know
nothin' at all 'bout it till you fellows rode up. Now it's about
time we got int' action!"

"You win!" declared Yellin' Kid loudly. "There's suthin' queer
prospectin' around these diggings an' I'd like t' know what it
is!"

"I guess we all would," spoke Bud. "And we'd better start right
in to find out about it. Come on, boys," he called to his
cousins, but the older cow punchers took the invitation to
themselves also, and soon, with lanterns and flashlights (which
handy little contrivances the boy ranchers nearly always carried)
they began the search.

First they made sure that Four Eyes was playing no trick on them
by hiding under one of the cots in the bunk tent. Though, as Bud
pointed out, it would pass the bounds of fun to have cut the
canvas shelter as it was cut.

But no trace of Four Eyes was to be found.

"He's gone, hide, hair, horns, brand an' everythin'!" was the way
Old Billee expressed it.

"How about his horse?" asked Nort.

"He didn't get his black one back," remarked Snake. "But he may
have sort of helped himself to one of yours, Bud."

This was found to be the case when the corral was visited. It
could hardly have been expected, in that country of great
distances, that the missing cowboy would not take a horse.

"And now let's have a look at the tower," suggested Bud, when a
rapid survey, under the fitful moonlight, had been made in the
vicinity of the camp, and no trace of the missing man discovered.
"Some one was signalling from up there, and it must have been
Four Eyes."

"It _could_ have been some one else," suggested Dick, not
because he believed that, but because he wanted to sift all the
evidence and get to the bottom of matters.

"Yes, it may have been a wandering cowboy, Greaser or some
Indian, far from his native reservation," Bud admitted. "But I'm
saying it was Four Eyes, though why he did it I can't imagine."

Nor could any of the others. Or, if they had a theory, they did
not give voice to it, though, afterward, one and all said they
had associated the missing cowboy with the rustlers.

But a search on and near the hastily-built watch tower disclosed
nothing. On the top platform, whence, doubtless, the signalling
lantern had been waved, no light was found. There were burned
matches and cigarette stubs, to be sure, but these were as much
the discarded property of Yellin' Kid or Snake, as of Four Eyes,
for they all had taken turns doing sentry duty, and, as it was
lonesome up on the high perch, smoking was indulged in.

"Well, he's away, and that's all there is to it," said Bud, when
the search was over. "Now all we've got to do is to wait for
something to happen."

"Do you think something will happen?" asked Nort.

"Well, things have been happening ever since we came out here,"
observed Dick. "First it was the finding of the Triceratops. Then
it was the water fight in the mysterious tunnel, and now it's the
rustlers after our cattle. Isn't that enough to happen?"

"Oh, yes," admitted Nort. "But I thought Bud meant something
special was about due."

"It wouldn't surprise me if it did happen," declared the western
lad. "But I wasn't thinking of anything out of the usual. Only
the combination--Four Eyes missing and us seeing the light makes
me suspicious. So I'm ready for anything."

"And I'm ready for my bunk!" declared Dick, with a yawn. "It's
most morning! Let's turn in!"

They did, but none of the boy ranchers rested well, for they were
too worried.

What did it all mean? And what events portended? These were
questions they wished soon would be answered.

The morning did not bring the return of Four Eyes, nor in the
better light were any more clues discovered at the Watch Tower.
Looking from its height, over the peaceful valley, the boy
ranchers saw nothing evil, and there was no hint of coming
disaster other than in the suspicions engendered by the recent
strange happenings.

"Do you suppose that signalling could have meant an Indian
uprising?" asked Nort.

"Cracky! If it does we'll have to fight 'em, won't we?" asked
Dick, with sparkling eyes.

"I don't imagine the Indians around here have any notion of
rising," said Bud. "They have done such things, years ago, but I
doubt if they have enough spirit left for it now. They are too
well satisfied with their lot. But of course it's possible,
though Buck Tooth says he doesn't look for anything of the sort.
But then he's been with white men so long he isn't really much of
an Indian any more."

"Well, if there's any Indian fighting to be done I want to do my
share!" declared Dick, and his brother nodded in confirmation.

But as several days passed, and nothing more happened than the
usual hard work on the ranch, the apprehensions of the boys began
to disappear. They made inquiries about Four Eyes, but no one on
the neighboring ranches had seen him. Mr. Merkel expressed
himself as greatly disappointed in the character of the cowboy he
had sent to his son.

"Maybe you got off lucky, with only a cut tent," the ranchman
observed. "But better be on your guard, son."

"We will, Dad," replied the western lad.

It was about a week after the signal lights had been observed,
the disappearance of Four Eyes coinciding, that, as Bud and his
cousins were eating "grub" in camp one noon, they heard shots
fired off to the north, and in the direction of the trail between
Happy Valley and Diamond X ranch.

"What's that?" asked Nort, starting from his seat.

"Stampede, maybe," suggested Dick, for the boys knew that the
older cowboys were in that direction, rounding up a small herd
which had been purchased and that was to be shipped east.
 Bud hurried to the entrance of the tent and what he saw caused
him to cry:

"Come on, boys! It's the rustlers again! They're making a raid!
Get your guns!"

In less time than you would have deemed possible, unless you had
seen it, the boy ranchers were in the saddle, and were galloping
toward the scene of the shooting. The sounds were more plain,
now, and as they straightened out on the trail they could see
where a fight was in progress.



CHAPTER XVI

ON THE TRAIL


Yellin' kid, Old Billee and Snake Purdee were standing off the
attacks of more than double their number. This was the spectacle
that greeted Bud, Nort and Dick as they swept up the trail and
toward the sound and sight of the firing. For now they could see
the little puffs of smoke which preceded the discharges of the
guns. Light, traveling faster than sound, brought to the eyes of
the boys the puffs of burned gunpowder before the report echoed.

"This is the meaning of that night-signalling!" cried Nort, as he
galloped beside his cousin.

"Looks so," was the answer. "They're getting bold and desperate
to try to rustle our stock in the day time."

"You said it!" exclaimed Dick, as he looked to make sure he had a
good supply of cartridges.

As the boy ranchers drew nearer the scene of the conflict they
could observe that the herd, which their cowboys had been driving
in, was now in confusion. And no wonder, with more than half a
score of wildly-excited men riding among them, shouting and
firing heavy revolvers.

For distant shouts borne to the ears of our heroes told of the
excitement under way. As nearly as Bud, Nort and Dick could tell
from their vantage point, eight or ten Mexicans, Greasers or
other undesirable characters, had swept down from the north on
Old Billee, Snake and Yellin' Kid as the latter were hazing the
cattle along to the trail which led to the distant railroad
station. Naturally the cowboys of Happy Valley had turned on
their attackers and the fight resulted.

It was evidently the intention of the rustlers (for of their
character there was little doubt) to drive off as many of the
Diamond X Second stock as possible. And if they had to kill or
maim the watchers it meant little to them.

But, so far, none seemed to have been seriously hurt, for no
horses were running around with empty saddles, and no bodies were
prostrate on the ground. I think, if the truth were known, that
the first shooting on both sides was so wild that no one thought
to take accurate aim, which is difficult on the back of a rushing
cow pony, and with a heavy .45 gun.

It was, essentially, a running fight and Bud, Dick and Nort were
urging their ponies forward as rapidly as possible to get their
share of it. However, they were not destined to come to close
grips with the enemy. For as they drew nearer to the scene of
conflict, their guns out, and eager in their own hearts for
action, yelling encouragement to their comrades, the boy ranchers
saw their foes suddenly swing away.

This sudden giving up on the part of the rustlers was due either
to a signal from one of their number that the raid was a failure,
or else they saw reinforcements, in the persons of the boys, and
had no desire for a more nearly even battle.

At any rate, with wild yells, the rustlers pulled up their
ponies, and turned off down the trail, riding at break-neck
speed. Yellin' Kid and Snake, with shouts of defiance, swept
after them, and might have caught them except for what happened
to Old Billee. The veteran suddenly reeled in his saddle, and
would have fallen, except that, as he lagged behind his two
companions, Bud rushed up to him and held him in place.

"Are you hit, Billee?" Bud cried.

"Only just a scratch, but it seems like it took th' tucker out o'
me mighty suddin," gasped the old man. "Beckon I'd better get
down. I'd 'a' fallen if you hadn't rid up, Bud."

"That's what I thought when I saw you reel."

By the time Bud, with his cousins, was helping Old Billee to the
ground, Yellin' Kid and Snake turned and saw what had happened.
They then gave up all thoughts of pursuing the retreating
rustlers and came riding back, winded and excited, but none the
worse for their encounter with the rascals.

"Did they get you, Billee?" asked Snake, a gleam in his eyes that
portended no good to the perpetrators of the deed if he ever
caught them.

"Only a scratch," said the old cowboy, but rather faintly. He put
his hand to his side, and quickly opening his garments, as he sat
on the ground, his friends saw that the wound was more than that.

However, the bullet had glanced off the ribs, and aside from
having lost considerable blood, which accounted for his weakness,
Old Billee was little the worse off.

"I think we got one of 'em," announced Snake. "I saw him holdin'
pretty desprit like t' his saddle."

"What started it? Who were they?" asked Bud, as the last of the
raiders swept out of sight amid the rolling hills of the valley.

"Oh, some of Del Pinzo's gang, you can make sure of that," said
Yellin' Kid. "They just rid down on us an' started t' fire. We
saw what their game was all right, an' come back at 'em. They
didn't get one steer, Bud!" he added, proudly enough.

"That's good," said the boy rancher.

"But they did an awful lot of shootin'," added Snake. "I thought
sure we'd all be hit, but Old Billee was th' only one what got
it. I never heard so much Fourth of July since I was a kid."

"It was a lot of shooting, according to the results," spoke Bud,
as he watched Snake bandaging Billee's wound, for the cowboys
carried a primitive first-aid kit. "I wonder if that meant
anything?"

"What do you mean?" asked Nort.

But Bud did not answer.

Making sure that none of the cattle had been hit, and managing,
after rather strenuous work, in quieting the herd, the boy
ranchers and their friends started back toward camp, Old Billee
taking it as easily as possible, for his side was getting stiff
and painful.

While they were yet some distance away from the white tents that
corresponded to the usual ranch buildings, Bud and his companions
saw riding toward them a solitary figure.

"It's Buck Tooth," declared Dick.

"And if he doesn't bear evil tidings I miss my guess," murmured
Bud.

Evil tidings they were, in very truth. For as the Zuni came near
enough he was seen to be much excited. Drawing rein, he made a
sweeping, comprehensive gesture with one hand, toward the south
end of the valley, and exclaimed: "All gone!"

"What's all gone?" asked Bud, a great fear clutching at his
heart.

"Cattle!" answered the Indian. "Rustlers drive 'em all 'way,
while you shootin' off there!" and he pointed toward the scene of
the recent conflict.

For an instant Bud said nothing. Then, with trembling lips, which
alone betrayed his feeling, he remarked:

"That was it! They divided their gang and started a fake fight up
at one end, to draw us there, while they worked against our big
herd at the other end. It was a slick piece of work. No wonder
they shot more than they hit. They wanted to keep us away from
the south of the valley."

"I guess you've struck it, Bud," said Snake, grimly. "They sure
fooled us, an' I never smelled a rat! Whew!"

Bud, with lips that were firmer now, touched spurs to his pony
and hastened toward the tents and corral.

"What you aimin' to do?" called Yellin' Kid after him.

"I'm going to get on the trail of those rustlers," grimly
announced Bud Merkel, "and I'm not coming back until I land 'em!
Come on, fellows," he called to his cousins. "Let's pack up for a
long hike on the trail!"



CHAPTER XVII

WILD COUNTRY


Following after Bud, his cousins and the older cowboys swept
along toward the home camp--to the tents which served the
purposes of ranch buildings. Yellin' Kid trotted beside Old
Billee, who, however, now that his bullet-scarred side had been
bandaged, rode with more ease.

"What you goin' t' stop for?" asked Snake, when he saw Bud
turning in toward the corral where spare ponies were kept.
"Aren't you going after the rustlers?"

"Yes, when we get packed up for a long ride!" Bud answered
grimly. "What's the good of riding over just to look at the place
where they drove off our cattle? I can see that any time. What I
want to do is to get on their trail."

"And not give up until we land 'em!" added Nort.

"That's talking!" cried his brother. "Did you see any of 'em,
Buck Tooth?" he asked the Indian, beside whom he was riding.

"Me see too many," was the grim answer, which explained why the
Zuni had probably not gone in pursuit. "They ride like what you
call--jack-rabbits."

"They can't keep that pace up long," declared Bud, as he slipped
from the saddle, having turned his horse into the corral. "They
can start the steers off with a hip-hurrah, but they'll have to
slow down if they don't want to kill 'em, and that wouldn't pay.
They'd get some fresh beef and the hides, but they'd waste more
than they'd get out of it."

"What do you imagine they really plan to do, and who are they?"
asked Dick, as he and his brother followed Bud to their own
special tent.

"I can only guess who they are, and your guess is as good as
mine," the western lad answered.

"Then I'll say Del Pinzo and the Hank Fisher gang," ventured
Nort.

"And I'll agree," replied Bud. "They have two motives, now, for
working against us. One because we've beaten 'em in two innings--the
time of the Triceratops and in the underground river game.
But getting our cattle--or the cattle of any other rancher--is
reward enough in itself at the price beef is selling for now.
They want to make a lot of money, and ruin us because we've come
to Happy Valley. But they'll find that we can bat a little, too,"
added Bud, carrying out the simile of a baseball game. "And it's
going to be our turn at the plate mighty soon!"

"The sooner the better," declared Nort, and his brother nodded in
agreement.

When Old Billee's wound had been further attended to, with the
more adequate remedies kept in camp, there was a gathering of the
"clan," so to speak, in the tent where the boys and their cowboy
helpers usually ate.

"Then you aren't going to chase over to where they drove off your
cattle right away; is that it, Bud?" asked Snake.

"I don't see any use," said the young western ranch lad. "All
we'd see would be the marks of the trail, and they'll stay for
some time, if it doesn't rain, which isn't likely. What I want to
do is to pack enough grub--and other things," he added significantly
with a motion toward his .45, "for a long trip. We've got to get at the
bottom of how they drive off our cattle, and manage to get them out
of the valley without leaving a trace.

"That's the puzzle we have to solve, as we found out about the
hidden water. Up to now the raids of Del Pinzo and his crowd--assuming
that they are the ones--have been small. They're the kind that's
always going on, and a lot of the cattlemen, and Dad among 'em, seem
to shut their eyes to the thefts. I'm not going to do that. But what
I started to say was that, up to now, the raids have been small ones.
Very likely they thought we wouldn't make much fuss over the steers
we lost.

"But this is a big raid, and the others were only leading up to
it. They played to get us out of the south end of the valley, and
away from our big herd so they could drive it off unmolested."

"And they sure did it," added Nort.

"But they haven't gotten clear away yet!" snapped out Bud. "We're
going to take after them! They can't go fast with a big bunch of
cattle, and we're bound to catch them sooner or later!"

"They'll probably put up a fight," observed Old Billee, who was
feeling much easier, now.

"That's what I'm counting on, and that's why I don't want any
slip-up!" exclaimed Bud. "I'm going to call on Dad for some
reinforcements."

"Oh, we can handle that Del Pinzo gang!" boasted Yellin' Kid.

"We could if they'd fight fair and even, maybe," assented Bud.
"But they'll be on the lookout for trouble, now, and they'll have
a big gang of Greasers with them. And while, ordinarily, one
cowboy is a match for half a dozen of the ornery Mexicans, you've
got to be on the watch for treachery. There's no use tackling
this thing unless we have a big enough crowd to meet the biggest
bunch Del Pinzo can muster."

"Well, there's some sense in that," admitted Snake. "I'm not
afraid of any bunch of rustlers that Hank Fisher can scare up,"
he went on, "but it isn't a man's personal feelings we got to
consider. It's for the good of this ranch. And, as Bud says, we
want to make a clean-up this inning."

"That's why I'm going to have help," Bud remarked, as he went to
call his father on the telephone.

Mr. Merkel whistled when he heard the disastrous news.

"I didn't think they'd go at it wholesale, that way, Bud," he
told his son over the wire. "But you've got the right idea. Go
after 'em and clean 'em up! When you take the trail don't turn
back until you've finished the job. I'll send you as many men as
I can spare, Slim Degnan with 'em!"

"Slim? That's good!" cried Bud. "Now we'll make a clean up. But
don't get worried, Dad, if you don't hear from us in several
days, or a couple of weeks. We'll probably be out of the reach of
a telephone."

"Yes, I realize that! Well, good luck to you. When you going to
start?"

"First thing in the morning. Old Billee was shot up a little, so
I'll leave him and Buck Tooth to look after what cattle we have
left. Can Slim and the others get here in time to start in the
morning?"

"They can if I send them over in the jitney which will be
quicker, and save them some hard riding. Have you got ponies
enough for them?"

"Yes, plenty. Get 'em over here in the gasolene gig and we'll do
the rest!" laughed Bud, though he was in anything but a laughing
mood, His mind was grimly set on getting back his cattle, and in
punishing the evil gang of rustlers that was dominating that
section of the "cow country," as ranch localities are sometimes
called.

Immediately on hanging up the receiver, Bud Merkel started in on
a busy time. Nor were his cousins less engaged. Once the boy
ranchers bad determined to "hit the trail," they planned to "do
the trick up brown," as Nort expressed it.

Bud proved himself to be well fitted for the task in hand, in
spite of his youth. But he had been well trained by his father,
and life on Diamond X had put him in trim for hard fighting. It
was not the first time he had had to do with cattle raids, though
it was his own first experience on a large scale, and he was
vitally interested. He followed the plans he had seen his father
put into operation more than once.

Saddles, girths and lariats were looked to, as were all the
various trappings of the ponies, without which the raid could not
be undertaken in that country of far distances. Then it was
necessary to pack sufficient "grub" to last for at least a week,
in case no provisions could be come upon.

As for shelter, each man, and by that term I also include the boy
ranchers, had a pair of blankets and a tarpaulin to spread under
him on the ground. The days were hot, but the nights were cool in
spite of camp fires.

Of course each one "packed a gun," some of the cowboys two, and
there was no lack of ammunition.

Old Billee felt badly at not being able to go. But his wound was
giving him more pain than he liked to admit, and after vainly
protesting that he simply must go, he agreed that perhaps it was
best for him to remain behind.

In the "jitney," as Mr. Merkel dubbed his auto, several cowboys
from Diamond X (including the veteran foreman Slim) reached Happy
Valley in due season. They were fitted out with ponies, and after
the situation had been talked over, and every precaution against
failure taken, they were ready to start early on the morning
following the big raid.

The outfit of the boy ranchers had been sadly depleted by the
descent of the unscrupulous gang, and what cattle remained had
been driven to the feeding grounds in the vicinity of the
reservoir, where Buck Tooth, Old Billee and one man from Diamond
X could watch over them.

"Are we all ready?" asked Bud, as he and his cousins, followed in
example by the older cowboys vaulted to saddles.

"I reckon so," announced Slim, as he slewed around his holster
with its newly-oiled .45.

"Let's go!" said Bud, briefly, and away they started.

They made trail, first, to the scene of the raid. As Bud and the
others had anticipated, there were plenty of signs showing where
the cattle had been driven off. A large herd was missing, and it
must have taken a number of rustlers to have rounded them up and
started them toward Double Z, or whatever place was to be used to
change, or blur the brands, so the cattle could be sold to some
innocent purchaser, perhaps. Though there were not wanting, in
that country, not-so-innocent-purchasers of rustled cattle.

"They'll have to keep near grass and water," said Slim, as he
rode along with Bud and his cousins. "So we'll do the same."

"Yes, they can't make a dry drive very far," Bud agreed. "They
followed this range, it seems."

On reaching the scene of the raid the trail led off to the left,
along a tow mountain range or wild and rugged peaks, some,
evidently, of volcanic origin. At the foot of this range was
grass in plenty, and, occasionally, a water hole, made possible
by the fact that End's father had brought the waters of the Pocut
River to the valley by means of the tunnel flume.

"The trail's plain enough for a blind man to follow," said
Yellin' Kid, who rode beside Snake.

"But it's going to get harder in a little while," spoke Snake.
"We're getting into wilder country, and rocks don't take much of
an impression. See, it's peterin' out now."

He pointed to the surface of the ground over which they were then
traveling. The grass and earth were more and more scanty, and in
some places there were patches of shale and rock, on which even
an iron-shod hoof would leave no mark.

"Yes, it's a wild country," agreed Bud. "I've never been over as
far as this, and I don't believe our cattle ever get here. There
isn't enough feed," he added, as he looked around.

The cavalcade was now in a sort of narrow gorge, or gully, with
rocky walls on either side, and only scant vegetation on the
bottom, where some bunch grass grew. The water seemed to have
disappeared.

"They can't drive cattle on a trail like this very far," said
Slim, looking about with critical eyes.

"And yet they did come in this gulch," said Bud, for the "signs"
were still plain.

"Oh, yes, they've been here," agreed Slim. "It sure is a queer
trail they picked. I don't see--"

He did not finish the sentence. Somewhere In that lonely and wild
section of Happy Valley a single shot rang out, making the echoes
vibrate loudly, and awakening a distant coyote, who sent up a
mournful howl.



CHAPTER XVIII

THE BOILING SPRING


"What's that?" asked Bud suddenly, his voice seeming almost as
loud as that of Yellin' Kid's. The horses had been reined to a
halt as soon as the shot sounded, and there was stillness which
made the boy rancher's exclamation appear more vociferous than
would otherwise have been the case. "What's that?" asked Bud
again.

"Some one fired," answered Nort.

"Brilliant!" chuckled Dick. "Bright answer!"

"Almost as bright as my question," conceded Bud, who was willing
to admit when he had "pulled a bloomer," as some Englishmen might
term it. "It was a shot, though," he added. "I wonder if we'll
hear any more?"

They all paused, in listening attitudes; the boy ranchers, the
cowboys associated with them in the Happy Valley venture and the
others sent with Slim to help run down the rustlers, on whose
trail they now were.

But no further firing followed in the three or four minutes they
waited there in that lonely gorge, the only sounds being those
caused by the restless movements of the steeds.

"I wonder if some one shot at us, or if that was a signal!"
remarked Nort, as Bud gave the sign to advance.

"I didn't hear any bullet singin' out this way," drawled Slim.
"Not that I'm hankerin' to," he quickly added.

"Then it might have been a signal," went on Nort.

"What makes you say that?" Bud questioned.

"Because it would seem that if the rustlers are ahead of us,
trying their best to get far enough away, or to get to some
secret hiding place, that they might leave some behind, on the
trail, to give warning when we show up," went on Nort.

"Yes, that might be so," slowly admitted Bud. "In fact I think it
was, probably, a signal, and it may have been given by the same
one who gave signals before."

"What do you mean?" asked Dick.

"I mean Four Eyes, and the lantern flashes we saw from the watch
tower that night we rode in," Bud answered. "I believe Four Eyes
was and still is, in with the rustlers, and that he gave a signal
to show that everything was ready for the raid."

"But the raid didn't take place until some time after we saw
those flashing lights," said Dick.

"It takes some time to get a cattle-rustling gang together,"
declared Bud. "I wish we could find Four Eyes."

His gaze roved the sides of the lonely gorge, and sought to
pierce the maze of the trail ahead. But as it wound in and out,
following the windings of the defile, he could not see far in
that direction.

"If it was Four Eyes, he played his game mighty slick!" declared
Yellin' Kid. "He fooled us all, includin' your paw, Bud!"

"Well, if we get on his trail, and can connect him with the
rustlers, which it won't be hard to do, I'm thinking, he won't
play any more tricks," declared the western lad vindictively and
with righteous anger. "But if that was a warning shot, and that's
what it seems it must have been, we'd better take some precautions
ourselves."

"Such as what-like?" asked Slim, willing to let Bud take the
lead, as the search for the rustlers was distinctly an affair of
the boy ranchers.

"We ought not to go ahead, all in a bunch," decided Bud. "We may
run into a bunch of Greasers at some turn of the trail, and if we
have scouts out we can handle the situation better."

"I was going to suggest it," said Slim, "but I thought you'd
think of it yourself, Bud, being as you're your paw's son."

Bud was pleased at the implied compliment, and, a little later,
as they advanced, they were divided into three small parties,
with rear and vanguard, to insure against a surprise in back,
which might easily happen.

And so they advanced through the defile, keeping watch on both
sides of the trail. There were still evidences that a herd of
cattle had been driven along the rocky defile, but because of the
rocky floor, if such it may be called, the signs were faint, and
only an experienced westerner could have picked them up. But the
boy ranchers were accompanied by experienced cow punchers, who
knew every trick of the trail.

Bud had insisted that it was one of his rights to ride in the
advance guard, with Yellin' Kid, and it was while they were
performing this duty, of watching for a surprise, that they saw,
just around the bend of the trail, some wisps of white vapor
floating up.

"There they are!" exclaimed Bud in a hoarse whisper, pointing.
"They've stopped there--or some of 'em have. Or maybe it's the
person who fired the warning shot."

"Might be," admitted Yellin' Kid, toning his voice down somewhat
to suit the occasion. "Better let me get off and crawl ahead,
Bud. I'm used to that. You hold the horses."

Bud realized the sense of this proposition, and he held the reins
of the Kid's horse, while that cow puncher slipped from the
saddle, and, on all fours, crept toward the wall of rock which
rose abruptly at a turn of the trail shutting off a view beyond.

Bud watched Yellin' Kid closely, the lad's hand on the butt of
his .45, and occasionally he glanced back to catch the first
glimpse of the main party, so he might warn them. He saw the
wisps of vapor rising and floating toward him.

"Not much smoke," mused Bud. "They're using very dry
wood--regular Indian trick. I wonder----"

A moment later he heard Yellin' Kid shout, and it was such a cry
as indicated pain. Yet Bud had heard no shot.

"I wonder if they knifed him?" was the thought that flashed into
Bud's brain. He cast caution to the winds and galloped forward,
making a great racket, and casting loose the reins of the Kid's
steed.

The sight that met Bud's eyes was enough to startle him, though
it was not what he expected to see.

For he beheld Yellin' Kid standing in front of a pillar of white
vapor, or, rather, the cowboy was dancing about, holding one hand
in the other, and using excited slang at a rate that soon would
exhaust his vocabulary, Bud thought.

But, more strange than anything else, was the fact that there was
no sign of a fire, to cause the white vapor, nor was there any
indication that anyone besides Yellin' Kid and Bud were in the
immediate neighborhood. No rustlers had started the blaze which
caused the white clouds to drift upward.

"What's the matter, Kid?" asked Bud, as he saw that something had
happened. "Where's the fire?"

"Under there!" and the cowboy pointed to the ground. "Keep away
from it. Don't go near that spring, an' whatever you do, don't
put your hand in. I did, an' I'm sorry for it!"

"Spring! Fire! What is it, anyhow!" asked Bud, as he slid from
the saddle and ran forward.

"It's a boilin' spring, that's what it is!" declared Yellin' Kid.
"Boilin' hot an' it near took th' skin from my hand! What you see
is steam--not smoke! Horned toads and hoop-skirts! It's as hot as
Buck Tooth's tea kettle! Look out for the boilin' spring!"



CHAPTER XIX

IN A MAZE


Bud stood in amazement looking at Kid and listening to what the
excited cowboy was saying. Then the gaze of the western boy
rancher turned toward a depression in the ground, whence arose
what he and Yellin' Kid had thought was smoke but which, in
reality, was steam from a hot spring.

"A boiler, eh?" repeated Bud. "First I ever knew we had any so
near Happy Valley."

"Me, either," went on Kid. "I suspicioned what it was when I got
close and couldn't smell any wood burnin'. Then I put my hand
out, but the steam fooled me. I didn't know the top of the water
was so close, an' I dipped right down into it. Whew! It was hot!"

"Did it scald you?" asked Bud.

"Pretty nigh it," answered the cowboy, exhibiting a very red
hand.

At this moment a noise behind the two attracted their attention.
They turned to see pointed at them the black openings of two .45
guns, and they had glimpses of eager eyes looking over the sights
of the weapons. "Don't shoot! I'll come down!" laughed Bud, in
imitation of what was the current saying concerning the famous
Davy Crockett.

"What is it?" asked Nort, owner of one of the menacing guns, as
he arose and slid his .45 into the holster.

"Did they get away?" Dick wanted to know, as he stood beside his
brother. The two boys had left the main body and worked their way
up to join the vanguard, in the persons of Bud and Kid.

"There wasn't anyone to get away," Bud answered grimly. "It was
only a boiling spring, and we took the steam of it for smoke."

"Boiling spring!" cried Nort. "I never saw one before."

"Me, either," added his brother, and together they looked at the
depression in the ground, filled with scalding hot water. At
times it bubbled up, like some great kettle over a fire, and then
the steam was as thick as the smoke at some camp fire when green
wood is used. Again the spring was comparatively quiet.

"I've seen 'em before," remarked Bud, "though I didn't know we
had any so near Happy Valley. There's lots of 'em out in the
Yellowstone Park region, and in other places, some not many miles
from here."

"Any volcanoes?" asked Nort.

"Or geysers?" Dick queried.

"Not that I know of," Bud answered. "You don't need volcanoes to
make boiling springs, though I suppose the hot water must be
boiled over some internal fire beneath the earth's surface. And
these same fires do, sometimes, make volcanoes.

"But I've never seen any volcanoes around here; have you,
fellows?" and he appealed to the cowboys.

"Not since I came up from Mexico," one answered. "I was close to
one there. And I've seen Old Faithful, and some of the other
geysers in the Yellowstone."

"They put soap in some to make 'em spout, don't they?" asked
Dick, who remembered to have read something to that effect.

"So I've heard," the cowboy said, "though it isn't supposed to be
done. It sort of wears out the geyser, I believe, though I don't
know much about such things. Anyhow, I don't know of any around
here, though I have seen a few boiling springs, farther to the
south."

"Yes, I have, too," Bud admitted. "Well, here's one, and she sure
is hot," he added, as a sudden activity on the part of the
phenomenon sent up another cloud of steam. "We could boil eggs
there if we had any."

"We brought some along," Dick said, "but they're hard-boiled
already. No use doing the job over. Say, but this is interesting!" he
added, as the spring suddenly spouted up a little way, almost like
a miniature geyser.

"It would be more interesting if we could get closer on the trail
of that gang of cattle thieves, and take away our steers," said
Bud. "I wonder if the poor animals hurried in here for water, and
couldn't drink it because it was hot?" He recalled days of
helping haze cattle on long trails, when the creatures were
tormented by thirst, and he knew how they suffered.

"There are a few signs that they've been in here," remarked Slim,
as the party was gathered around the boiling spring. "But they
aren't here now."

"Not much use in us staying here, either," commented Bud, as he
looked around on the bleak and cheerless prospect. Except for the
boiling spring there was no sign of natural life. All about were
great and small rocks, piles of shale and jagged stones, as
though the place had been swept by a prehistoric fire. They were
in one of the twists and turns of the rocky defile, and it was a
rocky pass, with no trees or grass growing except near the top,
and these appeared to be a sort of overgrowth from the grass and
foliage growing down above.

"No, they didn't stop here long," declared Yellin' Kid. "They
passed on, an' that's what we got to do."

"Might as well stay here and have grub, now we're dismounted,"
suggested Nort.

The idea was voted a good one, and was soon put into operation.
They ate and talked of what had passed and what lay before them.
Of the latter they could only conjecture, but it is safe to say
that not one of them in his wildest imagination ever conjectured
such an ending to their trailing as actually occurred.

"Well, let's get on," called Bud, when appetites had been
satisfied--that is all but those of the horses. There was no
grass for them, though they did manage to drink some of the water
from the boiling spring where it had collected in little pools,
and had cooled. But this would never have sufficed for hundreds
of cattle.

Once more they were on the way, and shortly afterward they left
the grim and rocky defile for a more fertile region, where there
was grass for the animals. But they were still down between a
range of high hills which towered on either side.

The trail twisted and turned, this way and that, winding back and
forth. But ever there was to be seen, here and there, signs that
the herd of cattle had been driven this way. Faint the signs
were, at times, and at last they disappeared altogether.

"Where have they gone?" asked Nort.

"Looks like they dropped down a hole, but there isn't any hole
here," said Yellin' Kid.

"Oh, we'll pick the trail up later on," suggested Bud.

But even as they started off once more Bud, who had just
consulted a compass he carried, uttered a cry of amazement.

"What's the matter?" asked Slim.

"We're going the wrong way," declared Bud. "We're heading north
instead of south. We're all turned around! Something's wrong!"



CHAPTER XX

A SURPRISE


Some of those in the rear, who had heard Bud's exclamation, but
who had not clearly heard what he said, came crowding up. Among
them was Snake Purdee, and his eyes sparkled with hidden emotion
as he inquired:

"Did you see any rattlers? This is just the place for 'em!"

"Yes, we came acrost a nest of baby ones what had lost their
mother, an' they're countin' on you t' bring 'em up on th'
bottle!" laughed Slim. The men, more or less, poked fun at Snake
because of his great fear of reptiles, and Slim could not forego
this chance.

But Snake understood the game, and realized that he had nothing
to fear. He shot a look at Slim, however, which indicated that
there would be an attempt, later, to get even.

"What's wrong?" asked Slim, for in his endeavor to play a joke on
Snake he had not paid much attention to what Bud was saying.

"We're all turned around," spoke the western lad. "All in a maze.
We started out, heading south, and we've kept, generally, to that
direction ever since. But now we're heading back north. Looks
like we'd lost the trail."

Slim and some of the more experienced cowboys studied the trail
for several minutes. Surely it did seem to "peter out," as
Yellin' Kid expressed it, though it had been fairly plain up to
this point.

"They couldn't get up on either side," declared Nort, looking at
the steep, rocky walls which hemmed the trailers in right and
left.

"And they haven't gone on ahead, for there isn't a sign," added
Dick, who had ridden up the defile for some little distance,
returning to make his report. "Nothing short of an air ship could
have lifted up a bunch of cattle from this gorge and set 'em down
farther on."

"Unless they went through a hole in one of the side walls,"
suggested Slim, "like that underground river you fellows
discovered in the tunnel."

"There are no side passages here," declared Bud. And he seemed to
hold the correct view of it, the others agreeing, after a careful
inspection of the rocky and shale-covered walls on either hand.
"It looks just as if they came up to this point and--vanished!"

"Pretty slick work--I'll give Del Pinzo credit for that," said
Slim, as if it were already established that the wily Greaser
halfbreed had made the descent on Happy Valley. "How he and his
bunch could haze cattle this far into a rocky pass, an' then make
'em disappear, gets me!"

"It shore do!" shouted Yellin' Kid.

"But that doesn't change the fact that we're all switched
around," declared Bud. "We're going north instead of south!"

"Not so hard to account for that," said Snake. "This vale just
naturally twists and turns like a windin' river. I wouldn't
wonder but what we'd been going north other times, only you never
noticed your compass, Bud."

"Well, maybe so," admitted the boy rancher, rather dubiously.
"But it looks as if we were back-trailing, instead of keeping on
after those rascals."

"We're keeping on all right!" asserted Slim. "By some hook or
crook they've fooled us, but we haven't passed 'em, that's
certain, and they must be somewhere up ahead. It would take Rocky
Mountain goats to scramble up there," he added, motioning toward
the steep walls of the gorge. "Some trick ponies might do it, but
no cattle ever could, unless they're like some of them Swiss
cheese brand I seen in pictures!"

"Then do you think we should keep on?" asked Dick.

"I shore do!" declared the foreman.

"Forward march!" cried Bud, with a little laugh. "We want to get
our cattle back, and catch the rustlers who took 'em!"

And so, though all signs of the trail seemed to have vanished,
they kept on. Night saw them in even a wilder region, though
there was a spring of water--not boiling this time--and some
grass for the animals. So it was decided to camp there and take
up the search in the morning.

They were in the enemy's country in every sense of the word, and
could afford to take no chances. So after a fire had been built,
and coffee made, bacon and flapjacks being the other items on the
bill of fare, the men and boys were told off into watches.

Bud and Slim, Nort and Snake, and Dick and Yellin' Kid were
assigned to divide the night among them working as partners in
the order named. The others were to be allowed to roll up and get
what sleep they could, Bud and Slim taking the first watch.

That passed off uneventfully, as did the vigil of Nort and Snake,
nothing more important occurring than the distant howls of the
coyotes.

When it was the turn of Dick and Yellin' Kid they rolled out,
albeit sleepy and tired, to stand guard until morning, when the
trail would again be taken up.

"Zimmy! But it's chilly!" said Kid in a low voice, as lie tossed
some wood on the fire and wrapped his blanket more closely about
him.

"Yes, it always is just before sunrise," added Dick. "I wonder
what we'll find after daylight?"

"I hope we find that ornery bunch!" murmured Yellin' Kid, keeping
down his voice so as not to awaken the sleepers.

"So do I," said Dick.

Then they sat about the fire, occasionally strolling around the
improvised camp, to make sure that none of their enemies were
creeping up on them in the darkness.

The stars shone clear and bright in the sky above, and
occasionally a little wind swept up the dismal defile. Now and
then a loose stone rattled down the sides of shale and volcanic
rock, and at such times Dick, and even Yellin' Kid started, and
felt for their guns. But all the alarms were false ones.

That is, the watchers decided they were, for no sight was had of
anyone until Dick, after a stroll about the fire, suddenly
started back and whispered to Yellin' Kid:

"Isn't that a head looking up over that rock?"

The Kid glanced to where Dick directed his gaze, and, in an
instant, the cowboy had his weapon out and leveled. His finger
was even pressing the trigger when he laughed silently and thrust
the .45 back in its leather case. "Why didn't you shoot?" asked
Dick.

"It was an owl," answered Kid. "It was his ears you seen stickin'
up! Listen!"

And, a moment later, there was the mournful hooting of the
nocturnal bird, which had flown away, but on such downy-feathered
wings that it made no sound.

"An owl!" murmured Dick. Then he was glad he had not shot first,
as he had intended. He would only have awakened the others and
been laughed at for his pains. Sometimes, he reflected, it was
better to hold your fire, even in the west, that region of quick
action.

Soon there was a little grayish, pinkish light to be observed
over the edge of the eastern hill. It grew slowly, and daylight
came, though it was some time before the sun itself was seen, so
deep were the searchers down in the defile.

After breakfast they set out again, looking carefully for signs
of the rustlers, but they saw none, and at last they decided
that, in some mysterious manner, their quarry had given them the
slip.

"Though I don't see how they did it," declared Slim, somewhat
vexed that he and his men were not better able to pick up the
trail.

"There must be some side passage--like that!" suddenly declared
Yellin' Kid, leaping from his horse and then, as suddenly
disappearing from the sight of his companions. "Hey! What's the
idea! Where'd he go?" asked Snake.

"In this side passage," answered Yellin' Kid, as suddenly
reappearing. "Look, here's a crack, or fissure in the rock, I saw
it from where I sat on my pony. It goes off from th' main trail,
but I can't see where it leads."

They all dismounted and investigated. As the Kid had said, it was
a traverse defile, opening out of the main one and almost at
right angles. The opening was concealed behind a great pinnacle
of rock, so that the cleft was only visible from a certain point,
and it was at this point that the Kid saw it.

"Where does it go to?" asked Bud as they entered, single file. It
was only wide enough for that.

"We've got to follow and see!" said Slim.

"If there was a place like that, back where we discovered we were
in a maze, it would have been easy enough for the rustlers to
have driven the cattle through, one at a time," observed Nort.

"But there wasn't any such place!" declared Bud. "We made sure of
that. But where does this lead?"

That was what they all conjectured, and they were soon to learn.
As they rode along, the side cleft widened, until there was room
enough for three to ride abreast. And it was while thus
progressing that Dick, who was in the lead with Slim and Snake,
made a surprising discovery. He rode around a turn in the new
trail, and at the sight of something beyond, in the smaller,
rocky defile, he set up such a shout as brought all his
companions to his side.

"What is it?" shouted Bud.

"Look!" answered Dick, pointing. "Del Pinzo and big gang!"



CHAPTER XXI

IN PURSUIT


Two deep-throated shouts echoed amid the winding mazes of the
small canyon leading off from the main gulch that the boy
ranchers and their friends had been following. One shout followed
closely on that of Dick, announcing his amazing discovery. The
other came from the band of rascals whose hiding place had at
last been spied out, and by a mere chance at that.

One shout was that of joyful anticipation, and this came from
Bud, Dick, Nort and the friends from Diamond X. This shout had in
it an anticipation of righteous punishment to be inflicted on
those who had stolen the cattle.

The other shout was of baffled rage that their hiding place had
been discovered. This shout came from Del Pinzo and his gang.

For it was the lawless Mexican half-breed and his followers,
numbering in all more than two score, whom Dick had seen as he
made the turn in that winding and narrow gorge. At a place where
the rocky defile flared out, making a sort of amphitheatre there
were gathered about a spring of water, their horses tethered
where they could crop the scanty herbage, the crowd of which our
friends had long been in pursuit.

Following the two shouts--one of pleased discovery and the other
of baffled rage at being discovered--there was quick action.

"Here they are!" shouted Bud, as soon as he had joined Dick, and
had seen what the latter had fairly stumbled upon. "Here's the
Del Pinzo crowd!"

Up came riding Nort, Slim, Snake and the others.

"Oh, boy! We've got 'em just where we want 'em," was the
exclamation of Yellin' Kid. And I leave you to judge in what tone
he uttered the words.

"Unlimber, boys!" called Slim Degnan, grimly and significantly as
he whipped out his .45. "There's likely to be action!"

"Hold on! Wait a minute!" counseled Snake, as Bud and his cousins
were about to urge their horses forward. The cowboy reached out,
and his hand fell with a firm grip on the bridle of Bud's steed.

"What's the idea?" asked that boy rancher. "Now we've found the
rascals, can't we go in and clean 'em up?"

"That's natural Bud, most natural," conceded Snake. "But what's
th' use runnin' your head in a bee's nest if yon can git th'
honey some other way?"

"You mean it won't be safe to ride up to 'em and fight 'em?'?"
asked Nort.

"Somethin' like that, yes, son," answered the cowboy. "I think
Del Pinzo an' his crowd have been waitin' for just such a chance
as this. They'd ask nothin' better than t' have us rush 'em, an'
then they'd have a good excuse for sayin', afterward, that they
popped us off in self-defense."

"Snake's right!" declared Yellin' Kid, modulating his voice
somewhat. "We'd better play this hand cautious like."

Seeing that this was the sentiment of the more experienced men,
Bud and his cousins held back, and a moment later, urged by the
cowboys, the ranch lads had turned aside and the whole body of
pursuers had retreated to a position somewhat away from the turn
of the trail where Dick had looked through the defile and had
seen the rascals encamped.

"What's the next move?" asked Nort, as the party gathered
together, giving their horses a breathing spell, for which the
animals were, doubtless, very thankful.

"We'd better look for some shelter," advised Snake, "an' then see
what we can do toward learnin' th' intentions of this bunch of
bad actors."

"You mean sort of spy 'em out?" asked Dick.

"That's it," chimed in Yellin' Kid. "If this is goin' to be a
fight, an' it shore looks as if there was, we want to take all
th' advantage we can. They outnumber us two to one!"

This was true enough. The fleeting glimpse our friends had of the
outlaws, through the crack in the rocky wall, showed that there
were more than two score under the leadership of the unscrupulous
Del Pinzo.

Following the skilful advice of the cowboys, Bud and his cousins
took their places behind some sheltering rocks, leading their
horses in with them, for much depended on their mounts. Without
them it meant giving up the chase. And even if one pony was
killed or wounded, it meant that its owner would have to make his
way back on foot, which was neither pleasant nor safe.

"Get your guns ready," said Slim. "There's going to be action,
but not just yet. We want this to be a winnin' fight if we can
make it so."

Once within comparative shelter, and feeling somewhat calmer
after the first wild excitement, Bud, Nort and Dick looked to
their older companions for further advice.

"Somebody's got t' go back t' that crack, unbeknownst t' them
scoundrels, an' see what they're doin'," decided Slim.

"S'pose they're there yet?" asked Bud.

"Either that, or they've taken the alarm an' are on their way, or
they're doin' just what we are--gittin' ready for a fight," said
the foreman grimly. "An' what it is they're doin' we want t'
know. Snake, you're pretty good at Indian tactics. S'pose you
sneak up there an' take a look in."

"All right," was the ready answer.

Of course Bud, Nort and Dick, each and every one of them, wished
they had been selected for this duty. But while they were rapidly
learning the ways of the west, in dealing with desperate
characters, it was better at this time to have an experienced man
spy out the movements of Del Pinzo and his gang. This Snake set
out to do.

"An' while he's gone, th' rest of us want t' sort of make up our
minds what t' do," said Slim. "If that bunch is gettin' ready
t'rush us, same as we may be able to do on our own hook, we want
t' have some plan of action."

So a sort of council of war was held, during the absence of
Snake, who was soon lost to sight among the rocks, the cowboy
making his way in a crouching, crawling position that almost
resembled the reptiles he so feared and hated.

There was some low-voiced talk among the remaining cowboys, in
which talk Bud and his cousins had no part. For a moment the lads
feared there was some scheme afoot to put them in places of
safety, out of danger so to speak. And the boy ranchers weren't
going tamely to submit to this.

"I say, Slim," exclaimed Bud, with this fear in mind, "we are
going to do our share in this fighting, you know!"

"Shore I know it!" grunted the foreman. "You'll have all th'
scrappin' you want, if these fellows don't vamoose without firin'
a shot! We was just talkin' of the best place t' put you."

"Oh," murmured Bud, "all right."

After some little talk, and a survey of the ground to which the
pursuers had retreated in order to make a temporary stand, each
person's position was designated, and then guns were loosed in
holsters and the supply of cartridges was looked to.

"As soon as Snake comes back we'll know what t' do," Slim said.

"He ought to be along soon now," remarked Dick.

Hardly had he spoken than there was a noise among the loose rocks
and boulders some distance up the gulch--in the direction the
spying-out cowboy had taken.

"Here he comes!" exclaimed Bud, and his hand went to his gun, for
it was very possible that Snake would be pursued, and have to
retreat on the run.

However the alarm proved to be a false one, for, after waiting
some time, Snake not having appeared, it was surmised that some
rock had become loose and rolled down the steep side of the
gulch.

The waiters and watchers were just beginning to get a bit
worried, and Bud was on the point of suggesting that he be
allowed to go look for Snake, when the cowboy came back.

So quietly did he approach, and so unexpected was his appearance
that Nort and Dick, on whose side of the improvised "fort" Snake
first showed himself, were startled.

"If that had been any of the Del Pinzo crowd they'd have been on
top of us before we knew it," confessed Nort.

"Not much!" laughed Bud. "Slim has seen Snake coming along this
last three minutes; haven't you, Slim?"

"Yep! I noticed him, but I didn't say anythin'," acknowledged the
foreman. "I seen that he was alone. But what's the verdict,
Snake?" he asked, anxiously. "Are they gittin' ready t' come at
us here, or are they leavin'?"

"Neither one," was the answer, "but they're gettin' ready to do
suthin! They're all in a bunch in the middle of that place,
holdin' a confab, I reckon. It's hard to say what they are up to.
But I got a hunch that if we rushed 'em we could throw a scare
int' 'em, anyhow."

"Do you think they know we're here?" asked Bud.

"Oh, sure!" was the answer. "At least they saw us an' heard us
when we reached that crack. But of course they can only guess
what we're up to now, when we didn't rush 'em first shot. They
might have known, though, what our plans was, if I hadn't cracked
their spy on the head!" said Snake, calmly.

"You did what?" asked Slim.

"Just as I got t' th' place where I could look in," went on the
cowboy, "I saw one of them Greasers up t' the same trick I was
tryin' to pull off. He was sneakin' down this way, but I saw him
first. Caught a glimpse of his head around the edge of a rock; I
just reached out with my gun and tapped him on the noodle."

"Kill him?" asked Dick.

"No. Guess not. Just stretched him out so he can't go back an'
tell any tales for a time. Now the way I figger it is this:
They'll be waitin' for a report on what their spy sees, same as
you was waitin' for me t' come back. Only their spy won't show up
for a couple o' hours, an' that gives us a chance to act."

"What had we better do?" asked Yellin' Kid.

"Rush 'em!" instantly decided Snake. "Let's git t' that openin'
as quiet as we can, an' rush right for 'em! This rest has
freshened our horses, an' we're in better shape now."

"Not so much so, as far as horses go," dubiously declared Slim.
"They're pretty badly spent, and can't do much racin'. But I
guess maybe it is better for us t' get into action, instid of
waitin' for that bunch t' come here. As Snake says, they'll be
lookin' for their spy t' come back, an' maybe we can take 'em
unawares."

So, after some further talk, it was decided to mount again, ride
to the opening that led from the main trail into the hiding place
of the outlaws, and boldly attack them.

True, our friends were outnumbered, but they had right on their
side, and this sometimes makes a difference. Also they would have
a little advantage, they hoped, in making the attack somewhat
unexpectedly. For though Del Pinzo and his crowd knew the
ranchmen were in the neighborhood they would, as Snake believed,
await the return of the spy they had sent out, before doing
anything.

"An' that spy won't come t' his senses very soon," declared the
avenging cowboy. "When he does he'll have an awful headache!"

As quietly as possible they made their way to the opening. Slim,
as a sort of captain, was in advance of the others and looked in.
He came back to say:

"They're gettin' ready for suthin'! They're all standin' near
their horses, an' seem to be plannin' a move. Get ready t' rush
in when I give the word!"

There was a final look to arms and saddle leathers, and then the
foreman cried:

"Get into action!" at the same time spurring forward his pony, an
example followed by all the others as they rushed into the
defile.

And action there was, but not exactly of the kind the boy
ranchers and their friends anticipated. For Del Pinzo (easily
recognized among the lesser lights of rascaldom) with his
followers, after their first angry shouts, leaped for their
horses. And their agility in that respect spoke well for their
preparedness. In an instant, it seemed, every one of the two
score, and more, was in saddle, and headed out of the defile.
They were retreating--riding away from the following avengers,
and going, it seemed, further into the maze of winding clefts
amid the mountains.

To the credit of Del Pinzo--if credit it be and if he be entitled
to get credit--he rode at the rear, not starting his horse until
all his men had raced away ahead of him.

And then, as Bud, Dick and the others pressed into the defile
after them, the Greaser turned and fired once, but with such
quick action that eye could scarce follow the motion of his hand
and weapon.

There was a sharp crack and the hat of Yellin' Kid, who rode
immediately behind Bud, sailed off his head, at the same time
that a bullet zipped viciously over the pursuers.

"Close call that, Kid!" remarked Snake, leaning over as his horse
galloped forward, and picking up his friend's hat.

"Close nothin'!" snapped out Yellin' Kid. "That was fancy
shootin'! If Del Pinzo wanted to get me he could 'a' done it. He
can mark out th' pips on a ten spot card with his eyes shut,
almost! He shot my hat off just to show he wasn't aimin' t' spill
no innocent blood! But wait until I get him! I'll make him sweat
for that! A hole through brim an' crown! Why couldn't he be
decent about it an' make it one?" grumbled Yellin' Kid as Snake
handed him the hat.

"Never mind that!" shouted Slim Degnan. "If we're going t' get
them fellers we got t' ride!"

That was evident, for even as he spoke Del Pinzo, the last of the
outlaws, disappeared around a turn in the defile. He was "hazing"
his men along to some other hiding place, it appeared. And he and
his rascally followers seemed to know their ground, for they rode
at break-neck pace, without fear of what lay beyond and unseen.
It is likely they had traveled that route before.

Another advantage lay with the rustlers. Their horses were fresh,
for from the negligent attitudes assumed by the men when Dick had
discovered them, it was evident they had been at ease for some
time, whereas the pursuers had been on the trail a long time, and
the way had been rough and stony.

So it is nothing to the discredit of the boy ranchers that they
and their friends were distanced in the first wild rush following
the discovery and alarm.

"Come on!" cried Bud. "Come on!" and he and Dick for the moment
were in the lead, the canyon being wide enough, here, for several
to ride abreast. "We've got to get 'em!"

"And we won't stop until we do!" added his cousin.

But they reckoned not with the roughness of the way, the start
the rustlers had, their fresher horses and the fact that Del
Pinzo and his crowd were more familiar with the trail than were
the boy ranchers. So though our heroes rode on as fast as they
could go with comparative safety, they did not, for some time at
least, again come within sight of the enemy.

"Wait there! Hold on a little!" finally called Slim to Bud, Dick
and Nort, who, in their youthful and natural eagerness, had
forged to the front in a bunch. "Pull up! This isn't a hundred
yard dash! It's going to be a long race!"

Bud was beginning to believe this, and some of his first
exuberance was disappearing. He was getting more cool-headed.

"Let's take it a bit easy," he said to Nort and Dick. "I guess
we've got a long trail to follow."

"But we've got to get 'em!" declared Dick.

"You got rid of something that time!" commented his brother,
meaningly, if slangily. "We're going to make 'em give back our
cattle!"

"Say!" suddenly cried Bud. "That's the queer part of it! Where
are the steers?"

And for the first time it occurred to the minds of the boy
ranchers that of that quarry they had come most in search of they
had had not a glimpse. Not a steer was in sight!

Something of the amazement they felt must have been depicted on
their faces, for when Slim rode up to where the boy ranchers had
halted he asked:

"What's the matter?"

"Where are the cattle?" asked Bud, shouting almost as loudly as
Yellin' Kid would have done. "Did you notice they didn't have a
one with them, Slim?"

"Yes. Are you just waking up to that, Bud?"

"I reckon I am. But what does it mean?"

"It means that there's a deeper game being played than we have
any idea of, son. We've got to go some to get to the bottom!"



CHAPTER XXII

BUD'S DISCOVERY


Once it became evident that catching the rustlers was likely to
be the work of a long chase on the trail, the whole party of
pursuers came to a halt beside the boy ranchers. And after some
rapid talk of what might lay beyond their stopping place, in a
lonely, wild and desolate section of the defile, the conversation
switched to what had surprised Bud and his cousins--the absence
of the cattle.

"I s'posed they were driving the steers ahead of 'em all along,"
admitted North "They drove the animals off our ranch, and I
didn't think but what they were hazing 'em along to some place
where they could change or blur the brands, and then sell 'em."

"That's what I thought, too," acknowledged Dick.

"Well, I must say I didn't think much about it," confessed Bud.
"When I saw Del Pinzo and his gang in there all I wanted to do
was to come to hand-grips with 'em. I forgot all about the
cattle. But after we'd chased along a bit I did begin to wonder
where my animals were--_our_ animals, I should say," he
corrected himself with a glance at his cousins. However, they
understood.

"They must have gotten the cattle over to Double Z, or wherever
it is they dispose of 'em," suggested Dick.

"They couldn't--not in this short time," declared Slim. "We
followed 'em too close. Besides, there isn't a sign of any cattle
having been here, nor in that place where we surprised th' head
Greaser and his gang. Not a sign of cattle!"

He looked up and down the gorge, as did the other cowboys. But
not even the sharpest eye could detect the faintest "sign" of the
steers having been driven along the passage.

"They must have them hidden somewhere," said Dick. "We'd better
go back to the place where the sign petered out. There must be
some opening there out of the main canyon."

"If there is it's so well hid that it takes sharper eyes than
I've got to find it," declared Snake, and he was noted for his
far-seeing and clear vision.

"Go _back_!" exclaimed North impulsively. "We aren't going
back, are we, until we get Del Pinzo and his gang?"

"Shoot 'em up--that's what I advise!" cried Yellin' Kid. There
was a moment's pause, and Bud spoke.

"We're got two things to do," said the boy rancher. "One is to
get our cattle back, and the other is to nab the rustlers. But
it's more important to get the cattle, I think.

"If we don't do that our ranch experiment will be a failure," he
went on. "But, of course, for the sake of other ranchers, it
would be a mighty good thing if we could put Del Pinzo and his
rustler crowd out of business."

"Can't we do both?" asked Nort.

"That's what I was coming to," his cousin continued. "If we can
get on the trail of the hidden steers--for hidden they are, I'm
sure--we can haze them back to the valley. Then we can keep on
after this crowd," and he nodded toward the winding trail that
led down the narrow defile.

"Then you think we'd better go back!" asked Dick.

"Let's see what Slim says" answered Bud. Naturally he would turn
to his father's foreman for advice.

"Oh, you're leavin' it t' me, are you?" asked Slim, as he
finished rolling his cigarette, a feat he could accomplish with
one hand. Then he lighted it, took a satisfying puff and went on:
"If you ask my advice I'd say to go back an' see if you can't
locate the cattle. As Bud remarks, they're dollars an' cents. Th'
rustlers aren't, though it would be a mighty good stunt t' wipe
'em off th' face of this cow country. But maybe we can attend to
_them_ later."

"Turn back she is!" exclaimed Bud, accepting, as did the others,
the advice of Slim as being final. "We'll see if we can find the
cattle, and then haze them to a safe place. After that we'll nab
Del Pinzo and his bunch--if we can," he added, as a saving
clause.

"Suits me!" remarked Yellin' Kid, taking off his hat and looking
at the two bullet holes. "That nabbin' part is what I want t'
play at," and his grin suggested that when he and the Greaser met
there would be some interesting happenings.

It having been thus decided that the pursuit would be abandoned
for the time being, a sort of council of war was held to settle
on the next course.

"I say grub!" exclaimed Bud, knowing that the suggestion would
come with better grace from him than from some of the men who
were working for him and his father. "Let's eat!"

There was no debate on this question and when the ponies had
been turned loose to graze on what scanty grass they could find,
a fire was made and preparations started for feeding the hungry
posse. For they were that--both hungry and a posse, bent on the
capture of the lawless rustlers. Though, for the time, righteous
revenge was given over to the more practical side of the
question--getting back the cattle.

Probably you do not need to be told that little time was wasted
over the meal, simple as it was. Cowboys, on the trail, or
otherwise engaged in their work of the ranch or range, do not
spend much time over the pleasures of the appetite. There is a
time for feasting, and a time for chasing cattle rustlers, and
there was no sense in combining the two. That, evidently, was the
thought in the minds of Bud and his friends, for they hurried
through their eating, and, having rested the horses, were soon in
saddles again.

"Now," remarked Bud, talking the matter over with Slim, "what is
the best plan?"

"To get back, as fast as we can, t' th' place where we saw th'
last signs of th' cattle," was the foreman's answer. "The
unravelin' of th' skein of mystery, t' use a poetical expression,
Bud, is there!"

They all agreed with this view of it, and after a short ride down
the defile, to see, if by chance, any of the Del Pinzo crowd
might be in evidence, or returning, the back trail was taken.

"We aren't going to discover much this day," observed Bud, as he
rode slowly along between Nort and Dick.

"Why, did you see a black rabbit?" Nort asked, remembering what
had happened when a similar incident occurred, just before the
strange events narrated in the chapter preceding this.

"No, I didn't see a black jack," Bud answered. "But it won't be
long until dark, for we don't get the full benefit of the
afternoon sun down in this gorge. And we can't do anything except
by daylight. No use looking for sign in the dark."

"That's right," agreed Nort. "But I was afraid it was a black
rabbit you'd seen."

"As if we didn't have enough bad luck without that," commented
Dick. "It's as bad, losing your herd as it is not to have enough
water to give 'em what they need," and he referred to the time
when, by the efforts of this same Del Pinzo, the supply for the
reservoir of Happy Valley was cut off.

"Oh, well, it might be worse," observed Bud, with a sort of
cheerful, philosophical air, for he was of rather a happy
disposition.

"How?" asked Snake, for he was rather "sore" because Del Pinzo
and the rustlers had escaped. Perhaps Snake felt that he might
have gone in and captured the outlaws single-handed when he was
on the lone spying expedition.

"Well, I might never have had any cattle for those fellows to
steal," went on Bud. "But say, boys," he went on, as they came to
a place where the trail seemed to divide. "Let's take this other
road back. It looks a bit easier, and we want to favor the ponies
all we can."

"Go ahead," advised Slim, to whom Bud looked for confirmation of
his plan. "Anything that makes it easier for th' horses makes it
more sure for us. And we may have a long hunt ahead of us."

The care taken by the boy ranchers and their friends of their
animals was not exaggerated, nor unusual. In the West so much
depends on a man's horse--his comfort and very life, often--that
it is a foolish fellow, indeed, who will not bestow at least some
thought and care on his horse. The animal becomes a trusted
companion and friend to the cowboys and prospectors.

So, in order, as he hoped, to provide an easier means of getting
back to the place they wished to reach, Bud led the way along a
different trail on the retreat.

It was practically a retreat, though one they had selected for
themselves, since the outlaws had distanced them.

It was rather a dejected bunch of boy ranchers and their friends
that were now back-trailing. There was not much talk, after the
excitement of the attack which had "petered out," and even Bud,
gay and cheerful as he usually was, now seemed to have little to
say.

It was Dick who startled them all by suddenly exclaiming:

"Look ahead there! Isn't that a man on the trail?" He, with Nort
and Bud were in advance of the others. Dick pointed toward the
place where he thought he saw something suspicious.

"I don't glimpse anything," observed Nort.

"Nor I," said his cousin.

"He's gone now," Dick stated. "But I did see some one, and I'm
almost sure it was a Greaser. Looked just like one of their
hats."

"What is it!" called Slim, for he caught snatches of the rather
excited talk of the boys.

"Dick thought he saw one of the Del Pinzo gang," answered Bud.

"Maybe he's the fellow I cracked on the head," suggested Snake.
For they had lost sight of that individual in the mad rush into
the canyon, and had not seen him when they turned back.

"Say, wouldn't it be a good thing to capture him?" asked Bud
eagerly. "We could make him tell where the others are, and where
our cattle are hidden."

"If we can get him," conceded Slim.

"There he is again!" cried Dick. "Come on, fellows!"

Disregarding, or forgetting the travel-weary horses, the ranch
lad urged his own steed ahead at as rapid a pace as the animal
could be induced to develop in a spurt.

"Take it easy!" advised Nort to his brother, but he might as well
have called to the wind, for Dick was off and away.

"I don't see anything!" cried Bud, and though he had looked
eagerly forward at Dick's call he had glimpsed neither hat nor
face of any personage who might be suspected of being one of the
Del Pinzo gang.

But, even with that, Bud was not going to miss a chance to be in
at the finish of whatever was about to happen, so he spurred his
animal forward.

"Come on, boys!" cried Slim to his comrades. "We can't let those
youngsters tackle this game alone--'specially when if there's one
of the rustlers there may be more. _Pronto_!"

He galloped forward, as did the others, along the new trail that
Bud had suggested taking. But Dick was in the lead, and, in a few
seconds, was out of sight beyond an outcropping ledge of rock,
which narrowed the trail at this particular point.

"Watch your step there, boys!" cried Snake, as he saw What was
likely to prove a bad turning. "I don't see how Dick got around
it as he did, taking it at the gallop," he went on.

And, as it happened, Dick had not exactly made it, for when Bud
and Nort reached the dangerous turn, slightly after Dick had
disappeared abound it, they saw no sight of their companion.

"Pull up!" cried Bud sharply. "There's something wrong!" Nort was
beginning to think so himself, and he hauled his steed back with
such good will and energy that the animal was almost on its
haunches.

"Where in the world did he go?" cried Bud.

Nort asked the same question, for there lay the narrow trail
before them, running along a ledge, with a shelving bank of shale
and sand on one side and a towering face of rock on the other.

Snake Purdee raced at such speed around the turn, in spite of his
own admonition to the boy ranchers, that the cowboy nearly ran
down Bud and Nort.

"Where's Dick?" cried Snake, at once aware that the stout lad was
not in sight.

"He's vamoosed--somewhere," said Bud. "Maybe he met-up with that
Greaser and----"

At that moment, however, there came a cry, unmistakably of
distress, seemingly from some distance ahead and down below the
high and narrow trail on which the party had come to a halt.

"There's Dick now!" cried Nort, recognizing his brother's voice.

"Where in the world is he?" asked Bud, looking about.

In answer Snake pointed down the sloping bank of shale and sand,
and there, at the bottom, was Dick, half buried in the soft
material, and his horse, with twisted saddle, was standing near
by, looking rather the worse for wear. And if the countenance of
the animal had been visible it would doubtless have shown pained
surprise.

"What's' the matter? What you doing down there?" called Nort to
his brother, as Dick proceeded to extricate himself from the sand
and shale that covered him almost to his neck.

"You don't s'pose I'm down here for fun, do you?" floated up the
somewhat sarcastic answer. "I came around that turn too fast and
the horse just sat down at the edge and slid here. It's lucky I'm
not killed!"

"It sure is!" agreed Slim. "You want to take a strange trail
easy, boy. Are you hurt--or your horse?"

Dick was about two hundred feet below them at the foot of the
slope. He got up and limped over to his animal.

"Guess he's all right," was the reply.

"How about you?" asked Bud, for Dick had followed the real
westerner's habit of looking first to his steed.

"Oh, I'm scratched up a bit, and lame," was the rueful reply,
"but I guess nothing is busted unless it's one of my girths."

The others watched him, while he straightened his saddle, which
had slipped around under the horse. Then Dick called up:

"It's all right. I can ride him, I reckon," which he proved by
vaulting into the saddle.

"How am I going to get back up there, though?" he asked. "It's as
slippery as an iceberg."

"You can't get up," Snake called down. "Don't try it. The trail up
here goes along the same direction as the one down there. Keep on
it until we join you."

Which Dick did, his pony, fortunately, proving to have suffered
no injuries in the unexpected slide down the hill. And thus, by a
narrow margin, was an accident diverted. For had the slope down
which Dick plunged, because of taking the turn too suddenly, been
of rock, both he and the horse might have been badly hurt, if not
killed.

"Keep a lookout for that Greaser," called Dick up to his chums
above him.

"I don't believe you saw any," retorted Slim. "There aren't any
signs of him here."

Nor were there, though the cowboys made careful scrutiny. And
afterward Dick admitted that he might have mistaken the
fluttering of a bush for the hat of someone he thought a member
of Del Pinzo's gang. In a short time the upper path merged into
the trail below, and Dick rejoined his friends, exhibiting some
scratches sustained in his perilous slide.

Together the posse rode on, making a trail back to the main
defile, and out of the one down which the Greaser and his gang
had turned, where they had been discovered by Dick. And then
Bud's prediction came true. The sun, which never shone directly
into the main canyon for any great length of time, began to set,
bringing gloom into the defile long before it would make its
appearance on the level country up above.

Seeing the gathering darkness, Slim advised calling a halt, and
this was done several miles beyond the place where the last trace
of the stolen cattle had been observed.

"Shall we camp here!" asked Bud, deferring to the foreman, as was
natural under the circumstances.

"We've got grass and water," Slim remarked, indicating a spring
toward which, even then, some of the horses were hastening.
"Water for the ponies and us, grass for the animals, and there
ought to be some grub left."

"There is," said Snake Purdee, who had assumed, or been given (it
did not much matter which) the office of commissary. "We brought
along plenty."

"And we may need it before we reach the end of the trail,"
remarked Bud. "I don't believe it's going to be easy to find
where those cattle disappeared to."

"There's only two ways, or at th' most three, in which they could
be kept away from us," said Slim, as he slid from his saddle.

"What are they?" asked Dick, who, like his brother, was always
eager to learn from a true son of the West, such as was the
foreman of Diamond X.

"Well," Slim resumed, "they've either been driven down some side
passage, or gorge, such like as we found Del Pinzo in, or they
were back-tracked to th' open an' driven off there th' same night
they was run off."

"That might be," admitted Bud. "I didn't think of a back track."

"Well, I did," Slim said, "but the signs of it was so faint I
passed it up."

A back trail, I might explain, is where an animal, or several of
them, or even a human, for that matter, turns and retraces the
way first traveled. A fox, fleeing before the hounds, will often
do this, and as the scent does not indicate the direction in
which Reynard is running, the dogs are often deceived.

But in the case of the fox the imprints of the animal's paws are
so light that perhaps only with a microscope could it be told
when he had "back-tracked." Except, of course, in some place
where soft mud might retain the impression of both trails.

In the case of a large body of cattle, also, though the scent
would not be relied upon, it would be difficult for the casual,
or, in some cases, even the trained observer, to say where the
herd had been turned and driven back over the same course
originally taken.

Thus pursuers would be baffled. And when to this is added the
fact that the floor of the gorge was of rock, in the main, which
did not take, or retain, any impressions, the puzzle was all the
more difficult to solve.

"Well, we'll see what happens in the morning," observed Bud, as
preparations for the camp went on.

The usual watches were set that night, two of the posse being
constantly on guard. It was rather nervous work for the boy
ranchers, especially Nort and Dick, as they started at every
chance sound which seemed to echo so loudly in the darkness. And
once Dick, who was taking the tour of duty with Yellin' Kid,
suddenly fired at an object he saw moving.

It was only a luckless coyote, as was evidenced by the howl of
pain that followed the report of Dick's gun, and then the night
was made hideous and sleepless, for the time, by the chorus of
weird howls from the other slinking beasts who were hanging
about, hoping for something to eat.

However, it was nearly morning when Dick did his shooting, and a
little later they all turned out for an early breakfast, the odor
of the coffee and sizzling bacon producing an aroma finer than
that of the most costly French perfume.

"And now for the day's work!" exclaimed Bud, when they were once
more ready to set off on the trail.

"And may we find something!" was the fervent petition of Dick.

Off they started, refreshed by the night's halt and eager for
what lay before them.

I shall not weary you by a recital of all the minor incidents of
the day, how they found many false trails and leads, several of
which at first seemed promising, but all of which led to nothing.

It was Bud who made the real discovery which, eventually, led to
the solving of the mystery. Bud had alighted from his pony, when
the halt was made for the noonday lunch, and was climbing up the
side of the rocky hill which extended for miles and formed one
wall of the gorge.

"Looking for gold?" asked Dick, as he saw his cousin pick up and
examine several rocks.

"Sure!" was the laughing answer. "Might find the bones of another
Triceratops, too!"

Bud reached forward to pick up something else, and a rock slipped
from beneath his foot. He had been resting heavily on it, and the
sudden lurch threw him backward. To save himself he clutched at
the nearest object, which happened to be a bush growing in the
side of the hill. For a moment it seemed that this would save the
lad from at least sliding down the declivity, but the bush was
not deeply rooted and, in another moment pulled out in the ranch
boy's hands. He flung up his arms, and almost toppled over
backward, but managed to throw himself forward, and then he slid
down several feet.

"Hurt!" called up Dick, ready to hasten to his cousin's aid.

"No, but my shoes are full of gravel. Next time I come up a place
like this I----"

Bud suddenly ceased speaking, and began to scramble up the side
of the shale-covered hill almost as fast as he had slid down.
Then, as he reached the place whence the bush had pulled out he
seemed to be looking into some crevice or opening.

A moment later he turned, looked down on the party gathered in
the defile below him, and shouted:

"I've found 'em! I've found 'em! Here they are, in one of the
queerest places you can imagine! Come up here and look!"



CHAPTER XXIII

THE FIGHT


Scrambling up the side of the gorge, slipping and sliding back,
almost like the frog in the well, Dick, Nort and the cowboys
reached Bud's side. He maintained his footing only by constantly
working his way upward, for the shale, at this point, was almost
like fine sand, and kept slipping down, taking the boy rancher
with it. But there were bushes growing here and there, and by
holding to these, taking care not to pull them out by the roots,
Bud managed to stay about where he had been when he made the
amazing discovery.

For it was an amazing discovery, as all the others admitted when
they reached his side, and looked through the fissure which had
been disclosed when Bud pulled out the big bush by which he tried
to save himself a fall.

"What is it?' cried Nort.

"And where are they?" demanded Dick.

"It's our cattle! They're inside there--a place like a football
stadium only there aren't any seats," explained Bud, breathlessly.
By this time he was surrounded by the others, all maintaining a
precarious foothold in the shifting shale. And what they saw
caused them all to join with Bud in wondering amazement.

For there, in what was a great natural bowl of the earth, with
partly sloping green sides, and with a floor covered by grass,
with a pool of sparkling water in the centre, were the missing
cattle! The whole of the big herd that had been driven away from
Happy Valley was there, it seemed. There they were, in that vast,
natural amphitheatre with food and water at hand, and, apparently,
as content as when they grazed on the range of the boy ranchers.

"By all the rattlers that ever rattled!" cried Snake. "We sure
have found 'em!"

"And they're all right, too!" added Yellin' Kid, as he gazed
through the crack which had been opened when Bud pulled out the
bush. For it was only through the crack that they were able to
view the steers contentedly feeding and drinking within that vast
bowl. That is what it was--bowl much more immense in size than
the one where Yale battles with Princeton and Harvard. More
immense than the Palmer Stadium at Old Nassau. The walls towered
higher, and it was greater in diameter. It was almost a perfect
bowl in shape--that is as perfect as so natural a formation could
be.

"But how did the cattle ever get in there!" exclaimed Nort.

"And how are we going to get them out?" asked Dick.

For it seemed, at first sight, that there was no entrance or
egress. And certainly nothing could get in over the top, or out
that way. For though the sides of the great, natural bowl were
green up to a certain distance, beyond that, and between the rim
and a point half way down, they were almost perpendicular in
straightness. And, being of rock, they would, it seemed, afford
scarcely a foot or hand-hold for the most expert "human fly."

"There must be a way in," declared Slim.

"And out, too," added Yellin' Kid. "Those rustlers never would
have driven th' steers in here unless there was some way of
getting 'em out."

"But what is this place, anyhow!" asked Nort. "It looks like the
Yale bowl, but it never could have been built by man."

"It wasn't," said Bud. "It's the crater of an extinct volcano. It
has been filled up, with land-slides, probably, and the winds and
the birds have brought grass seeds here, year after year, until
it makes a regular corral for cattle. There's water, too, which
isn't surprising. That's what it is, an old volcano crater. I
heard there was one around here, but I never had time to look for
it."

"Yes, I've heard of it myself," admitted Slim, "but I didn't think
it was like this. Let's have another look."

Dick and Nort moved aside to give the foreman a place of
advantage, and when he had looked through a spot where the crack
was wider he said: "I see where they can get th' cattle out.
Here, take a look, Bud," and Slim handed the ranch lad a pair of
field glasses that had been brought along in case of emergency.
They were of value now.

"Down at th' far end, and a little to the left of centre," Slim
directed Bud's gaze. "There's a sort of fence of trees piled up.
That's th' entrance all right--or one of 'em."

"You're right!" agreed Bud when he had taken a careful
observation. "But is there more than one!"

"Must be," said Slim. "The rustlers never drove th' cattle in
away around _there_. They sent 'em in from _this_ end. Th' trail
ends right here, an' it's here where th' rustlers drove th'  cattle in."

"But where?" asked Bud. "There isn't a sign of an opening!"

"Because they closed it after them," went on the foreman. "I
begin to see it now. There must have been a break in the wall of
the old crater right about here. They drove th' cattle in an' it
was an easy matter t' let some of th' dirt slide down an' fill it
up again. Let's take a look with a view t' seein' if I'm right."
It is easier to find a clue when you know just what you are
looking for. And it did not take long for the experienced eyes of
the cow punchers to discover where earth and shale from above had
been recently dislodged and allowed to slide down to cover what
must have been the same sort of natural opening into the side of
the wall as that at the far end, closed by a fence of trees. This
was to keep the cattle in without men being needed to ride herd.

"Yes, it does look as if they'd taken 'em in here," said Bud,
when it was found that the trail of the steers led to the foot of
the crater wall, where all signs stopped. "If we had looked up a
little, instead of sticking so close to the ground, we might have
seen this clue before."

"All in good time," observed Slim. "The question is, now, how can
we get in there?"

"It will be easy enough," suggested Nort. "All you'll have to do
will be to enlarge the crack we looked through."

"That's all right for us getting inside that crater," observed
Dick, "but what about our horses? They can't scramble up there."

"Then what can we do?" asked Bud. "Ride around to the other
entrance?"

"That would take too long," answered the foreman. "I fancy that
Del Pinzo and his gang are on their way to this natural corral
now, t' drive out th' cattle they stole from us. We've got t' get
ahead of 'em!"

"But how?" Bud wanted to know.

"I think we can dig out enough of th' shale an' dirt they slid
int' th' opening, so that we can get th' horses through," Slim
answered. "We ought t' have shovels, but we can use sticks t' dig
with. It will take longer, but it's the best we can do."

Little time was lost in putting this plan into operation. With a
hatchet, which formed part of their camp equipment, some strong
poles were cut from one of the few trees that grew on the slope
of the gorge, and with these digging operations began. It was
slow work, but many hands were engaged and soon an opening was
made so that entrance could be had to the original crack in the
rocky side of the bowl. For it was by this crack that the cattle
had been driven in. And the crack had only been partly filled
with broken rock and earth to conceal it from view.

"Yes, they did come in this way!" cried Bud as he and the others
urged their horses through the opening and into the bowl proper--the
crater of the extinct volcano. "Look, plenty of signs!" There
was no doubt of it. The rustlers had driven the cattle into the
defile, hazed them along until they reached the opening into this
great natural hiding place, and then the rest was easy.

The animals had been run into this solitary place, passing
through the narrow, fissure-like opening in the rocky wall, a
crack similar to, but larger, than the opening through which Bud
had made his discovery. Then shale and dirt had been started, in
a miniature avalanche, down the side of the slope, effectually
hiding the means by which the cattle were secreted away.

"No wonder we thought an airship had been used," commented Dick.

Before them lay the vast crater of the old volcano, inactive for
centuries. Nature had covered the hard lava with a layer of soil
in which grew rich grass. And nature had further made the place
an ideal corral for cattle by supplying a large spring of water.
It was a "rustler's paradise," to quote Slim Degnan.

As the boy ranchers rode into the amphitheatre, the cattle at the
far end, and in the middle, stopped grazing to look at them.

"We're friends of yours!" called Bud, waving his hat in the joy
at finding his lost stock.

"Yes, but here come some fellows who aren't!" shouted Yellin'
Kid.

"Where?" asked Bud, quickly.

"There!" Kid pointed to the far end of the crater, if one may use
the word "end" in referring to a circular bowl.

The cowboy posse saw, riding at top speed into the great
depression, a crowd of men, who, as they came nearer, could be
recognized as the Del Pinzo gang. The Greaser leader was not in
evidence, however.

"They're after the cattle!" cried Nort.

"Well, they won't get 'em without a fight!" shouted Bud.

He drew his weapon, an example followed by the others, and as the
two parties, one representing law and order and the other the
wild, reckless element, started toward each other, the fight
began.



CHAPTER XXIV

A DESPERATE CHANCE


"Come on, fellows; Come on!" yelled Bud, as he clapped his heels
against the sides of his pony and rushed toward the rustlers.
"Give 'em all they got coming!"

"We're with you!" cried Nort.

"A fight to the finish!" shouted Dick.

The boy ranchers had their weapons out, as, indeed, had every one
of the following cowboys. Nor was Del Pinzo's gang a whit behind
in this, though their lawless leader did not seem to be present.
The sun gleamed on the flashing ornaments of silver worn by some
of the Mexican Greasers as they rode to the fray.

"Don't ride too far, Bud!" called Slim, for the boys were
inclined to be reckless.

"We've got to ride 'em down or they'll have all the cattle out of
that far opening before we get there!" Bud answered. And, as he
replied he fired one shot in the air, over the heads of the
enemy. For Bud bore in mind his father's injunction, not to shoot
to wound unless it was absolutely necessary. And Bud thought
perhaps a strong show of force would awe the rustlers, causing
them to retreat.

However, they were in too strong force for this. And as the boy
ranchers and their friends rode on into the vast, natural,
volcanic bowl, and were able to take note of their foes, they saw
that the rustlers outnumbered them two to one.

Bud's shot--the first of the fight--was the signal for general
firing, though, as usual in such engagements, the initial
fusilade was wild on both sides; mercifully so, it seemed
ordered, for no one was hurt by the opening volley.

"There's going to be a hot time!" shouted Yellin' Kid, as he
spurred forward. "And I don't see th' skunk that spoiled my hat!
Where is he?"

"Del Pinzo would rather his men'd get th' lickin's!" answered
Snake. "He's hidin' out, I reckon."

"I'd like to find his hole!" said Yellin' Kid.

The clashing forces were nearer each other now, with the bunch of
Happy Valley steers in between, but off to one side. In order
that you may better understand what follows, and the positions of
the contending parties, I will explain the situation briefly.

The boy ranchers and their friends had ridden in on what I might
call the north end of the volcanic crater, in which bowl the
rustlers had hidden the cattle. The opening by which the cattle
had been placed in the bowl had been closed by a slide of dirt
and shale but this had been partly cleared away by our friends so
they could ride through the crack.

At what may be termed the south end of the crater was a larger
opening, wide enough, in fact, for several horsemen to ride
abreast or a large herd of cattle to be driven through. This
opening had been roughly fenced off to keep in the cattle. And it
was through this opening that the rustlers had ridden, advancing
to meet the force of the boy ranchers coming from the north.

The cattle had been feeding in the centre of the bowl, but as the
two parties began the fight, the steers drew off to the west. It
was evidently the intention of the rustlers to take out the
cattle if possible. Whether they could succeed in driving them
away in spite of the pursuit of the rightful owners, or whether
they hoped to hide them in some other secret place did not
develop.

At any rate, here were the two contending parties racing toward
each other, and firing as they galloped forward. And when they
were all out in the open it was evident that the rustlers far
outnumbered the boy ranchers and their friends.

One thing, however, was in favor of Bud and the others with him.
They had advanced farther into the bowl than had the rustlers,
and were past the centre when the actual fray began. Using the
illustration of a football game, to which I am tempted because of
the location of the fray, I might remark that the ball was now
over the centre line and well into the enemy's territory. It was
up to Bud and his followers to rush it over for a touchdown.

But the rustlers were not going to give up without a sharp fight.
They had come to take away the cattle, and this they now
endeavored to do. Several Greasers separated from the main body
and began to circle around with the evident intention of cutting
out a bunch of steers, to drive them to the larger opening, where
the fence had been torn down.

"We've got to stop that!" shouted Slim. "Here, Snake, you and Kid
ride over and see what you can do!"

The two cowboys, shouting at the tops of their voices, wheeled to
one side and started toward half a dozen Greasers. The odds were
not so great as they seemed, for right and justice were on the
side of the cowboys.

Suddenly Dick, who was riding between Bud and Nort, gave a little
cry, and his weapon dropped from his right hand, on which a spot
of blood appeared.

"Hit?" asked Nort.

"Only a scratch," Dick answered. He halted his pony, snatched his
neckerchief off and, with the help of his brother, bound up the
wound. It was decidedly more than a scratch, being a deep cut
where a glancing bullet had hit, and Dick's hand would be out of
commission for some time.

"But I can fire with my left," he added, a feat to which he was
equal, "and Star guides by knee pressure." He was riding a pony
he had taught to obey directions by means of pressure of the
cowboy's knees on either side. And Dick had been practicing left
hand shooting for some time. His gun restored to him, he rode on
with his brother and cousin.

With sudden yells, accompanied by as sudden a rush, a band of the
Greasers now rode straight for Bud, Dick, Nort and some of the
Diamond X outfit with our heroes. So fierce was the attack, and
in such numbers, that there was nothing for our friends to do but
retreat, for the time being at least.

This attack took place in a part of the bowl where there were a
large number of immense boulders scattered. Seeing that these
formed a natural protection, or breastwork, Bud called to his
cousins and the men to get behind the stones.

"Make the horses lie down!" was his advice. "We'll fight Indian
fashion!"

And, at this point, at least, this became the style of the
battle. The Greasers rode fast, endeavoring to cut off Bud and
his party, but the latter reached the haven of rocks first, and
with the horses on their sides, positions the steeds were glad
enough to assume, doubtless, the advantage was on the side of the
boy ranchers.

They were protected by rocks, from behind which they could fire,
while the enemy was in the open. But the enemy far outnumbered
our friends, and the latter, for the time being, were in the
position of persons besieged.

For, no sooner had the Greasers seen what was the object of Bud
and his followers, than the lawless ones took such small shelter
as they could find, some behind their prostrate horses, and began
firing at the boy ranchers' party. And as the renegade Mexicans
were, in a number of cases, armed with rifles, the odds against
Bud and his chums were increased. True, the Greasers were not
good marksmen, but a rifle in the hands of even a poor shooter is
often more than a match for a .45 revolver in the hands of an
expert.

"Pick 'em off!" cried Bud, as bullets zinged their way in among
the rocks behind which he and his friends were hidden. "Pick 'em
off, but don't expose yourself!"

This was good advice if it could have been followed, but to fire
effectively it was necessary for those of the Diamond X outfit to
take aim over, or to one side, of the rocks, and when this was
done, some part of the body was exposed. At such times the
watching Greasers fired.

It was now an actual state of siege as far as Bud and his
immediate companions were concerned, and they were outnumbered.
Several of Bud's party, including Nort this time, had been
slightly wounded. But, in turn, they had wounded some Greasers,
too, one vitally, as was learned later.

Meanwhile, Snake and Kid were having their own troubles with the
party of Greasers they had been sent off to intercept and prevent
from driving off the cattle. More Mexicans had joined their
comrades, and Kid and Snake were obliged to beat a retreat,
joining Slim and his forces, who were fighting the main, and
larger body of rustlers.

And it was while these two separate fights were going on, and
while the Greasers that had forced Kid and Snake to retire were
gathering together a bunch of cattle to drive out of the main
opening, that Dick, who was readjusting the bandage on his hand,
saw something that made his heart sink.

This was a sight of another body of Greasers riding into the bowl
from the south end--a body of Mexican horsemen led by Del Pinzo
himself.

"I guess it's all up with us now," said Dick to his brother,
calling the latter's attention to the reinforcements of the
enemy. "That's what that half-breed was hanging back for. He
wanted to get us well mixed up, and now he'll drive off the
cattle."

"Whew!" whistled Nort. "It does look that way. What we going to
do, Dick?"

The two brothers were behind a great boulder, off to one side.
Bud and some of the cowboys were replying to a brisk fire on the
part of the besieging Greasers.

For a moment, after having tied the bandage on his hand, Dick did
not answer. Then, as if an inspiration came to him, he said:

"It's only a chance, Nort, and a desperate chance at that. But
maybe we can do it! Did you ever read Kipling's 'Drums of the
Fore and Aft'?"

"Sure! But what's that got to do with this?"

"A lot. You and I are going to be the 'Drums' and these are going
to play the tune," and he tapped his .45. "Come on," he added,
motioning to his brother. "As I said, it's a desperate chance,
but it may do the trick!"



CHAPTER XXV

LIEUTENANT WAYNE


Not to mystify you, when there is no need for it, I will say that
the scheme Dick had hit upon was simple enough. If you recall
Kipling's famous story you know that two drummer boys, of a
British regiment in India, when the main body was being defeated
by a horde of natives, slipped quietly off to one side, and, by
hiding behind rocks, played the fife and beat the drum to such
advantage that the heathens thought another regiment was
approaching to take them in the rear, while the British force was
so heartened by hearing the familiar strains that they rallied,
the retreat was stopped and the day won.

Dick and Nort had no fife or drum, and, if they had possessed
those instruments, it is doubtful if they could have performed on
them with any credit to themselves.

Each of them was slightly wounded, but they possessed their guns
and had a plentiful supply of ammunition, and it was Dick's idea
to use this. "We'll slide out, crawl along that gully there," and
he pointed to Nort the one he meant, "and we'll take 'em on the
flank. By keeping behind the rocks, and firing fast, we can make
'em think, maybe, that another force is coming."

"You well said it--_maybe_," murmured Nort. "But at that,
the idea isn't so bad. They may hold us here all day, and with
Slim and his bunch having their hands full, it looks as if the
cattle would be driven off."

For while some of the rustlers were holding Bud and his band in
check behind the rocks, and while others were fighting Slim and
his cowboys, still others were driving the cattle toward the
opening in the old volcano bowl. It was Dick's idea that if by a
cross fire on the part of himself and his brother, hidden among
the rocks, they could scare away the band besieging Bud and his
friends, a diversion might be created which would rout the enemy.
At any rate, it was worth trying.

Bud was busy, as Nort and Dick slipped off, tying a bandage on
the arm of one of the cowboys who had been shot. And the brothers
were glad to try their desperate venture unnoticed, for they did
not want to explain. And they did not want to be observed going
away, as it looked a little like desertion in the face of the
enemy. But, for the time being, there was a lull in the fighting.
The Greasers who had been holding Bud's force behind the rocks,
had quieted down. The fighting between Slim and his cowboys out
in the open, however, was going on fiercely, and several had
fallen on both sides.

Once Dick and Nort were down in a gully, off to the right of the
rocks behind which the band had taken shelter, the eastern lads
were screened from observation, both by their friends and by the
Greasers.

"Cut along, North!" advised Dick, and, in spite of their wounds,
the boy ranchers ran in crouching positions, their guns in
readiness.

It did not take them long to reach a point which they regarded as
favorable for the trick they were going to play--for it was
nothing more nor less than a trick. If they could succeed, by
quick firing, in deceiving the enemy, and causing a retreat, a
sudden rush on the part of Bud and his friends might turn the
scale.

"All ready?" asked Dick of his brother, as they reached some
sheltering rocks on the flank of the party besieging Bud.

"Wait until I lay a lot of cartridges ready on the ground. It
will be easier to reload them."

"Good idea. I'll do the same."

It was rather awkward for Dick, with his wounded right hand, to
reload his gun, but he could manage after a fashion, though not
so well as Nort, whose hurt was in his upper left arm. The lads
saw to it that their weapons were ready, with a goodly supply of
cartridges in front of them. Nort looked across at Dick, behind
the sheltering rock, and at a nod from the latter they both began
firing.

The effect on the Greasers, poorly screened as they were, was
instantaneous. Several leaped to their feet and turned in
surprise toward the sound of firing on their flank. These made
good targets, and by firing at them Dick and Nort brought more
than one to the ground.

Bud and his companions, hearing the firing in a new direction,
where, as yet they did not know they had supporters, were also
taken by surprise, but it was of another nature.

"Come on! Rush 'em!" yelled Bud, when he had looked around, and,
missing Dick and Nort, guessed what had happened. "We've got 'em
in a cross fire now! Rush 'em!"

But the Greasers, disheartened by the firing of Dick and Nort on
their flank, did not stop to be rushed. Those who were able
leaped up and ran toward their horses, which had strayed off to
one side. Bud and his party emerged from behind the rocks, firing
as they rushed the enemy.

"This is the stuff, Dick!" shouted Nort, as he reloaded his gun
and sent another fusilade of bullets into the ranks of the now
retreating Greasers.

"I'm glad it worked!" remarked the proposer of the Kipling
scheme. "Now we can go help Slim and his bunch. They're having
trouble!"

Indeed the tide of battle did seem to be turning against the
foreman and his forces. They were outnumbered, and had lost
several cowboys, by wounds if not by death--just which it was
impossible to determine then. And, meanwhile, the other Greasers,
under the leadership of the wily Del Pinzo, were hazing the
cattle toward the main entrance.

"Good work, boys! Great work!" Bud greeted his cousins with as he
rode out to meet them, when the besieging Greasers had been
routed by the cross fire of the two lads. "How'd you think of
it?"

"It was Dick," spoke Nort.

"It was Kipling!" Dick answered.

"Get mounted and join us!" Bud requested. "We've got to help
Slim!"

This was evident, as the foreman and his cowboys were now hard
pressed. But as Nort and Dick rejoined Bud, having leaped to
their saddles they, as well as the others from Diamond X caught
sight of something which, for the moment made them sick at heart.

For the sight was that of another body of horsemen riding into
the old volcano bowl. On they cantered, the sun glinting on their
arms.

"More of Del Pinzo's rustlers!" burst out Bud. "We may as well
give up! They're too many for us!"

But he did not pull rein, intending it seemed, to fight it out to
the bitter end. A cry from Dick was the cause of wonderment. He
pointed to the new body of advancing horsemen.

"Look! Look!" Dick shouted. "Those aren't Greasers! They aren't
rustlers or Del Pinzo's gang! They're United States troopers! By
all the jack rabbits that ever jumped we've got the rustlers now!
The United States cavalry is on the job!"

And a moment later, as the notes of a bugle gave a musical order,
causing the advancing troop to deploy to right and left, it was
evident that the tide of battle had turned in favor of the boy
ranchers and their friends.

For the newcomers were, in reality, a troop of United States
regulars, and with a dash and vim, exceeded nowhere in the world,
and among no other fighters, this band of grim-faced men entered
into action. Carbines were unslung and their short and ugly bark
was added to the din.

"Come on, fellows!"

"Now we've got 'em!"

"Over the line!"

"Touchdown!"

These were only a few of the excited shouts of the boy ranchers
themselves, while the cowboys of Diamond X riding into the fray
with new hearts, sent up their shrill, yipping yells. It was all
over then but the shouting, so to speak. The Greasers were fairly
trapped--Del Pinzo and all his gang. In vain they attempted to
ride around and escape by the main entrance. But the troopers had
stationed a guard there, and the bowl was "bottled up." One or
two Greasers, sneaking around to the north, did manage to escape
through the crack by which Bud and his friends had entered,
though the main body was captured and the cattle saved.

"Whew, but that was hot work!" commented Bud, toward sundown,
when the rustlers had been caught, disarmed and corraled under
guard.

"You told the truth for once," remarked Dick, whose wound had
been rebandaged by the surgeon accompanying the troopers.

"And I guess this is the end of Del Pinzo," remarked Nort, for
the outlaw Greaser half-breed had been caught red-handed, so to
speak.

"I hope so," mused Bud. "But we paid a price for it."

"And so did they," observed Slim. "We accounted for quite a few,
but I'm sorry for our boys." Several of the Diamond X outfit had
been grievously wounded, and one was killed outright. But the
casualties on the side of the enemy were greater.

The fight was over. The cattle of the boy ranchers were saved,
and the rustlers captured. Tired horses were staked out near
grass and water, and while the cavalry established their camp,
Bud and his friends began to wonder how it was the troopers had
arrived in the nick of time.

"Well, it was more by chance than anything else," said Captain
Parker, who was in command. "We'd been on the trail of these
outlaws for some time, and finally we saw a chance to corner
them. It was due to the work of Lieutenant Wayne that we were
able so to effectually bag them here, though. He has been on
scout duty in this section for some time, endeavoring to get information
so that we might round up this gang."

"Lieutenant Wayne," repeated Bud, wonderingly.

"Yes, here he comes now. He says he knows you boys."

"Knows us!" murmured Dick, as a trooper approached, saluting his
superior and smiling at the boy ranchers. "Yes, don't you know
me?" asked Lieutenant Wayne, holding out his hand to Bud.
"Perhaps if I had on my glasses, you would be better able to----"

"Four Eyes!" burst out Nort. "At least--I beg your pardon--Henry--er--Mr.
Mellon--Lieutenant Wayne!" he stammered.

"Yes, Four Eyes!" was the laughing answer of the trooper. "Those
glasses were only fakes! I wore them as a sort of disguise, and
very effectual they were, it seems."

"Four Eyes!" gasped Bud. "And were you in the United States
cavalry all the while?"

"Yes, on scout, or detached duty," was the answer. "The
government has had many complaints of this band of Del Pinzo's
rustlers, and we were detailed to put them out of business. I was
assigned to go on duty as a cowboy, which wasn't so hard, as I
had been one nearly all my life before joining the army. I worked
on several ranches, picking up bits of information here and
there, and I completed all I needed to get in Happy Valley," he
added.

"And we never tumbled!" remarked Dick.

"Glad you didn't!" laughed Lieutenant Wayne, to give him his
proper title. "I thought you were suspicious of me, more than
once, though," he said.

"We were, after you built that signal lantern on the watch tower--you
did do that, didn't you?" asked Bud.

"Yes, but only as a decoy for the rustlers. I managed to overhear
some of their plans, and part of their scheme called for a light
on the tower when the time was ripe for a raid on your cattle,
boys. So I flashed the signal myself, and, indirectly, it led to
this capture today. For I joined my troop right after that, and
we have been rounding the rascals up ever since.

"We knew they had made a big raid at your place, but we didn't
know where they had hidden the cattle until I happened to think
of this old crater, which I discovered one day when I was working
for you, Bud. So we made our way here and--well, this is the end,
I believe," he added, as he looked over at the bunch of miserable
prisoners.

"I hope it's the end," said Bud. "We want to get back to
business. And I'm sorry we suspected you, Lieutenant."

"Oh, that's all right. In fact, I'm glad you did. It shows I
lived up to the character I was supposed to represent."

There is little more to tell. That night, around the campfire
many things, hitherto a mystery, were explained. The stethoscope
the boys found was the property of Lieutenant Wayne. He had
dropped it when paying a secret visit to Happy Valley. He had
intended to pose as a doctor to deceive the rustlers, but, on
losing the stethoscope he gave up that plan. It is needless to
say that he had nothing to do with the robbery at Diamond X, the
real thieves never being discovered. Lieutenant Wayne apologized
for cutting his way from Bud's tent the night he disappeared
after the signal from the tower. This was the only way he could
disappear and accomplish his plans, he said. And it was he who
had fired and broken the bottle, and had also fired mysterious
signal shots, in order to play up to his character of being in
with the rustlers.

"Though the bottle-breaking was only a joke I indulged in," he
admitted, "I'm sorry it worried you so."

The soldier, of course, had nothing to do with the prairie fire,
and who set it, if it was set, was not discovered. Lieutenant
Wayne finally recovered his black horse Cinder, the animal having
made its way back to Curly Q ranch, where the officer once posed
as a cowboy.

The cattle first stolen by the rustlers were not recovered, but
it was found that when they seemed they had been spirited off in
an airship they had been merely back-tracked and hidden until an
opportune time to dispose of them. Del Pinzo's gang was in
hiding, waiting for a chance to drive off the main body of
steers, when they were surprised by our heroes. Whether Hank
Fisher was in with the rustlers was not decided, though
suspicions pointed toward him. The outlaws were sentenced to long
terms after being captured by the troopers, and their secret
meeting place, having been discovered, was destroyed.

After these explanations had been made, it was decided not to try
to drive the cattle out of the crater until the next day.

The night passed without incident, though none of the boy
ranchers turned in early. They were too excited, and they wanted
to talk over what had happened.

The existence of the old crater was not generally known, but Del
Pinzo and his rustlers appeared to have the secret of it. They
had driven off Bud's cattle, put them into the natural corral and
then filled in, with dirt, the only entrance visible from the
defile trail leading from Happy Valley. They intended to use the
larger opening out of the bowl, to the south, to get the cattle
away. But their plans were frustrated.

The next day the troopers drove off before them the discomfitted
Del Pinzo and his disheartened followers, Yellin' Kid taking the
Mexican's elaborate hat to replace the cowboy's with the bullet
holes. Lieutenant Wayne said farewell to the boy ranchers,
promising to come and see them again, in his real character.

The wounded were transported as tenderly as possible out of the
main egress from the bowl, it being impractical to use the other.
And it was from this larger entrance, after the fence had been
torn away, that the cattle were driven, by a long winding trail
amid the mountains back to Happy Valley. Only a few were lost by
the raid, which was the largest ever perpetrated by the rustlers
in that part of the country.

"But I guess, now that the troopers have Del Pinzo, and not the
local authorities with their flimsy town jails, that this Greaser
won't be foot-loose for some time," observed Bud, when, once
more, the boy ranchers were back in camp.

"I don't want to hear his name again," murmured Dick, nursing his
wounded hand.

"And to think that Four Eyes was working in our interests when we
thought him a spy! That was pretty good!" laughed Nort.

"Yes, it all worked out pretty well," spoke Bud. "And do you know
what I'd like to do? I'd like Dad to buy that old volcano crater
for us. It would be a peach of a place where we could winter a
herd of cattle, and have 'em fat for spring selling. I'm going to
speak to him about it," he concluded.

"Well, you can speak right now, for here he comes, and your
mother and sister, too," added Dick, as Mr. Merkel's auto chugged
down the trail from Diamond X.

"Well, boys, I hear you beat Del Pinzo at his own game!" greeted
the rancher, while Nell expressed her sorrow at Dick's wound, to
the somewhat jealous regard of Nort, whose hurt was more slight.

"Yes, he's where he won't blur any more brands right away," Bud
answered. "But it looked like touch and go for a while. The
troopers came just in time!"

"Well, you fellows seem to know how to take care of yourselves
and the cattle," observed Bud's father. "Guess I'll turn one of
my main ranches over to you. What say?"

But the boys did not answer. They were busy eating slices of a
large chocolate cake that Nell had brought over. This is reason
enough, isn't it? However, the adventures of our heroes did not
end with the capture of the rustlers. And those of you who wish
to follow them further may do so in the next volume of this
series which will be entitled: "The Boy Ranchers Among the
Indians; or Trailing the Yaquis." In that volume we shall meet
many of our old friends again, and, should Bud permit it, I may
tell you about Zip Foster. But with the capture of Del Pinzo, and
his rustlers, this book is finished.

THE END





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