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

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

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

“Now we’ll remove the bridles. Always remember to hobble your pony before unbridling.”

“But the rope ends?” asked Tom.

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

Before the task was finished they heard Horace calling.

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

“Then come and get it,” replied his father.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, we’ll all help,” declared the youthful commander of the camp.

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

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

“Where did you put the pine boughs, Horace? I don’t see them.”

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

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

“That trick won’t work this time. Now, hurry and tote the boughs over.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wh–what is it?” gasped Larry, sitting up and staring about him dazedly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discussion of such phenomena was prevented by his continuing:

“Hurry now and pack up. I’ll bring up the ponies while you are getting ready.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The boys were disappointed and said so.

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

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

“No, we’ll leave the ponies here. Lively now and hobble them and don’t talk.”

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

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

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

And in this fashion they set out.

After a few minutes’ search Mr. Wilder exclaimed:

“Here’s the run the deer use. Steady now. Mind your feet. Don’t make a sound.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then Mr. Wilder rallied them by exclaiming:

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

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

“I hit one, I know I did!” declared Bill. “Let’s follow.”

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

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

“Hooray! We’ve got another!” cried the lads,

“Don’t fire any more. The others are out of range,” declared the ranchman.

“Please, just one more,” begged Horace.

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

“Never mind, we’ve got two,” said Larry. “I call that pretty good luck.”

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

CHAPTER IX

THE MESSAGE FROM CROSS-EYED PETE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ohio wins!” he declared at last.

“Then Tom probably got him. He’s a better marksman that I am,” asserted Larry.

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

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

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

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

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

“Shall we take the antlers?” asked Horace.

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

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

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

“Oh, what’s that thing up by my buck?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laughing nervously, the boys obeyed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But I didn’t hear any shot,” interrupted Tom. “I’ve been listening, too.”

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

“Easily.”

“Then how did you follow it?” demanded Horace.

“By its blood and where its leg dragged.”

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

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

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

“Then what can we hunt?” protested Horace.

“Bear,” returned his father.

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

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

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

“You certainly did well, son,” interposed his father.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“From the canteens. I filled them this morning.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s some one on horseback. I can hear the click of horseshoes on the stones,” declared Larry.

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

“It’s Nails! It’s Nails!”

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

“Wait till he tells us. There are so many possibilities, it’s no use trying to guess.”

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

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

“What’s wrong, Nails?”

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

CHAPTER X

THE RETURN TO THE RANCH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The best cattle in the herd,” interrupted Mr. Wilder.

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

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

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

“Which way did they drive?” demanded the ranchman.

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

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

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

At this statement the Wilders were amazed.

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

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

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

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

“Gus Megget. He’s the only one with the nerve to pull it off.”

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

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

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

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

“They certainly did,” smiled the ranchman. “So I reckon we can’t blame Megget for this raid.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When they were ready to start again Larry said:

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

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

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

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

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

“Then we ought to find the whole crew at home.”

“That’s just what Pete and I were banking on,” returned Nails.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why didn’t you tell me?” demanded Mr. Wilder severely.

“Didn’t think it was necessary. Fatty and I fixed him so he wouldn’t brag any more.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CHAPTER XI

PREPARATIONS FOR PURSUIT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Has Nails returned?” asked Mr. Wilder of Ned.

“Not yet.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nail, he backee,” he announced. “Say he got heap talkee.”

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

“Allee lightee. Bymeby, two hours maybe.”

“Well, don’t be any longer. The sooner Ned can start, the sooner he’ll reach the Pool.”

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

CHAPTER XII

WHAT NAILS LEARNED

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“About midnight.”

“Good. Be ready to move by ten o’clock.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, can’t we go, please? If Megget should see Larry and Tom, he might run and—-“

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

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

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

As the boys awaited the answer of their friend, it was so still the fall of a pin could have been heard.

But their suspense did not last long.

With a drawl that was tantalizingly deliberate the owner of the Three Stars Ranch replied:

“I reckon we might as well. Bill’s got a level head on his shoulders, and some day he’ll be boss of the Half-Moon. If anything like this happens then he’ll know how to act. Yes, I think we’d better take him.”

Aware that it would be useless to try to persuade Mr. Wilder to change his mind in respect to taking them, Tom, Larry and Horace made the most of the fact that they were to inspect the herd daily. But it was poor recompense, and in a few minutes they went on to see how near Ned was ready to start, stopping to sample Hop Joy’s cooking on the way.

“You goee?” asked the Chinaman as the trio entered his kitchen.

“Going to eat,” grinned Horace, helping himself to a doughnut and just managing to dodge a potato that Hop Joy tossed at him.

“Shoo! shoo! Lun out! Me bigee hully. No plague! no plague!”

“Poor fellow! It must be some job to get enough food ready for twelve men. Come on, let’s leave him alone,” said Larry. “I’d like to go down to the bunk-house.”

“That’s so. Maybe Sandy or some of his boys know the trail to the Lost Lode,” agreed Horace. And to the Chinaman’s surprise they left him in peace.

The men from the Three Stars were lying in the bunks and sprawling on the benches, getting what rest they could in anticipation of many long hours in the saddle, laughing and talking the while.

At the entrance of the trio the chatter ceased and the cowboys stared at the two Eastern boys with undisguised interest.

“Boys, these are the famous cowboy tamers, Larry and Tom Alden,” said Horace, bowing in feigned deference and indicating his friends with a wave of his hand.

“Don’t be afraid, though. We won’t try our hands on you unless you get gay with us,” declared Larry seriously.

“Thankee, thankee kindly, on behalf of me and my men,” bowed Sandy gravely, and then they all burst into a roar of laughter.

Cowboys love a joke, and the words and manner of the brothers, together with their clean-cut faces and manly bearing, appealed to them, winning the way to their good graces as nothing else could.

All reserve thus broken, the men bade the lads sit down.

“I s’pose you’ll be going with us?” hazarded Sandy.

“No, father won’t let us. He thinks we’re only babies. Says he’s afraid we’ll be in the way. So we’ve got to stay home and watch the herd at the Witches’ Pool.”

“You may have your hands full at that,” declared one of the cowboys.

“Keep quiet,” growled Sandy, frowning at the speaker.

But the remark had suggested all sorts of possibilities to the lads, and, glancing at Tom and Larry, Horace asked:

“What makes you think so?”

Again Sandy cast a look full of meaning at his fellow and the cowboy answered:

“Oh, nothing in particular. I was just talking.”

The boys had noted Sandy’s glances, however, and the reply only whetted their curiosity.

Drawing himself to his full height and striving to be as severe as possible, Horace said:

“If any of you men know of any trouble that may come to the Half-Moon herd, it is your duty to tell my father before he goes away.”

The words and the seriousness of the boy standing before them sent the men into another roar of laughter.

But Sandy hastened to say:

“There’s nothing we know, kid. Skinny was only joking.”

Horace was about to reply when Hop Joy poked his head through the door, saying:

“Glub all leady, Ned.”

“All right, Hop.” And springing from his bunk, Ned went out to harness his horses, accompanied by several of the cowboys.

For an hour or so the chums stayed in the bunkhouse, listening to stories of marvelous feats of broncho-busting and whatever else the men pleased to tell them, only leaving when Nails announced it was time to go to the corral and saddle up.

“Aren’t you going with them?” asked Tom.

“No,” returned Horace. “We are liable to get hurt, it’s so dark. We couldn’t see anything if we did go. Besides, father may have some orders to give us.”

The only instructions Mr. Wilder had to give, however, were to be careful not to do anything that would cause his wife to worry about them.

“Suppose the herd gets in trouble, what shall we do?” persisted Horace, on whose excited mind the words of the Three Stars’ cowboy had made a lasting impression.

“Use your own judgment. But don’t let your imagination play tricks on you. The cattle will be all right–unless you get them restless.”

“Oh, we won’t do that,” quickly declared Larry. “We’ll take such good care of them, you will want to hire us as cowboys when you get back.”

The shouts from the corral told the ranchmen that the time for the start had arrived, and quickly they made themselves ready, while Hop Joy appeared to say he had sent saddle bags with food for Mr. Wilder and Bill by Ned.

With a great clatter of hoofs, the cowboys rode up. The Wilders and Mr. Snider bade a hurried good-by, mounted and galloped away into the darkness of the night, with the wishes of Mrs. Wilder and the boys for success and a speedy return ringing in their ears.

CHAPTER XIII

OUT ON THE PLAINS

Unlike the night when the hunting party had ridden over the plains, black clouds covered the sky, making the darkness so intense that the riders could not see fifty feet ahead of them. But Mr. Wilder and Nails knew the route well, so that the absence of the moon made no great difference.

That they need not tire their mounts by hard riding, Mr. Wilder had purposely set the start early and, with Snider on one side and Bill on the other, he led the cavalcade, setting the pace at a slow lope.

Now and then the cowboys talked or laughed, but for the most part they were silent, the creak of the saddle leathers and the swish of the horses’ legs as they brushed through the grass being the only sounds to tell that a body of men were riding through the darkness.

So lonesome was the ranch house after the departure of the party that, though they made several attempts to talk, Horace and the two Eastern lads finally decided to go to bed, to the evident relief of Mrs. Wilder.

But sleep did not come to Larry and Tom, and as they lay tossing and turning, the former asked:

“Do you think that fellow they call Skinny really meant there was any danger threatening the herd at the Witches’ Pool?”

“I don’t believe so,” replied Tom. “I suppose there is always the chance that a lot of things may happen to a big herd like that. Some of them might try to wander away or they might get frightened and stampede. I read about a stampede once where the cattle ran right over the edge of a cliff.”

“Well, they couldn’t do that at the pool, because there aren’t any cliffs near there,” replied Tom.

Larry was not satisfied, however, and said:

“I wonder what cowboys do to stop a stampede? I wish we’d thought to ask Mr. Wilder.”

“Don’t always be looking for trouble, Larry,” protested his brother.

“Still, we ought to know. He said he’d hold us responsible for the cattle.”

“We can ask Ned when he gets back, if you really want to know. But don’t, for goodness sake let Horace hear you. His imagination is so lively that he would think it was a stampede every time the cattle moved. I think it was because Horace is so excitable that Mr. Wilder had us stay home. He probably thought we were older and could steady him down. Now don’t try to think up any more things that might happen. I’m tired and want to go to sleep.” And turning his back to his brother, Tom refused to talk any more.

Out on the prairie the body of horsemen were riding silently and steadily.

“I hope we shall not be obliged to wait long for Pete,” said Bill, giving voice to his thoughts.

“He’ll be on hand, barring accidents,” returned his father.

This confidence of the owner of the Half-Moon in his foreman was justified, when, at the end of another hour, the men caught the flare of a camp fire in the direction of the pool.

“Must have hurried some,” asserted Snider.

But this comment elicited no other response than a quickening of the pace.

When they were within a mile of the fire Mr. Wilder drew rein.

“You boys wait here,” he commanded. “I haven’t any doubt but that it’s Pete’s fire. Still, it won’t pay to take any chances. Snider and I will ride ahead to reconnoiter. If we are not back within half an hour, you’ll know it’s all right and can follow.”

Little relishing the enforced halt, the cowboys, however, obeyed, some of them dismounting and stretching out in the grass.

Riding a rod or so from the others, Bill, Nails and Sandy eagerly peered through the darkness, listening intently for any sound that should indicate danger.

The two ranch owners, being experienced in the art of scouting, rode to the left into a roll of the plains, one crest of which shut them off from the light. For they were aware that should they ride in its glare they would be seen by whoever was about the fire, and they wished to make sure it was Pete and his men at the pool before disclosing themselves.

But their caution was unnecessary. When they had covered only a little more than half the distance the lowing of cattle broke on their ears.

“That’s the Half-Moon outfit, sure enough,” declared Snider. And putting spurs to their ponies, the ranch owners galloped straight for the fire.

“Queer we can’t see any of the boys,” muttered Mr. Wilder in a low voice. “I know they are tired. But, all things considered, one of them at least ought to be on watch if for nothing else than to keep the cattle from breaking away. That they are restless, you can tell from their lowing.

“It’s no wonder the raiders were able to cut out my short-horned Durhams if the boys didn’t keep better watch.”

His tone showed deep annoyance, and he was on the point of speaking again when a sharp challenge rang out from their left:

“Who goes there?”

Instantly Mr. Wilder’s anger vanished as he recognized the voice of his foreman and replied:

“Don’t get excited, Pete. It’s only Jim Snider and me.”

In response to his master’s greeting the cowboy sprang to his feet and a movement of his hand toward his belt showed both ranchmen that he had been prepared to dispute their advance should they have proven foes instead of friends.

“Where are the others? You two didn’t come alone, did you? I told Nails to have you get as many as you could,” said the foreman.

“We left them back yonder,” returned the owner of the Half-Moon. “Nails said we were to meet you in the morning, and when we saw the fire Jim and I thought we’d make sure it was you.”

“Well, I’m glad you’ve come,” responded Pete. “Now we can get on the trail so much the sooner. How many did you bring?”

“Nine from the Three Stars, including Jim, Bill, Nails and myself. With your boys that will make twenty, just the number of the raiders.”

As he uttered the last words Mr. Wilder expected his foreman to evince surprise, but instead he and Snider were the ones to be taken aback as Pete remarked:

“So Nails found out, did he? What else did he? What else did he learn?”

Briefly the owner of the Half-Moon reported the information Nails had gleaned at Tolopah and then told him of the opinions he and the proprietor of the Three Stars had formed.

“You got the lay of the land down to the last sage brush,” declared the foreman. “But we will put a crimp in Megget’s plans that he will not forget. My men are asleep by the fire, so there is no use waking them till we’ve decided what to do.”

“Then we must get down to business,” returned his master. “I told the boys to ride up unless we returned in half an hour.”

A moment there was silence, as though each were waiting for the other to make some suggestion as to the best course to pursue, and then Mr. Wilder said:

“So long as we know the headquarters are in the Lost Lode Mine, it seems to me we had better strike for it direct. Nails told me you knew some trail.” And he looked at Pete.

“I know trails enough, but which is the one that leads to the Lost Lode, I can’t say. That’s just the trouble. It would take a month of Sundays to ride them all down. While we were driving the cattle up here, I was trying to figure out which trail to take in case Nails found the mine was the place.”

“You have tried some of the trails, haven’t you, Pete?” inquired the owner of the Three Stars.

“Sure. There are six I know that don’t lead to the mine. That leaves three between the pool and the Long Creek bottoms, and it may be any one of them.”

“Why do you think so?” asked his master.

“Because I know the right trail is between the pool and the bottoms.”

Again the men lapsed into silence, which Mr. Snider broke by inquiring:

“What was it that young Alden mentioned about men crossing the dirt?”

“That’s so. I’d forgotten it again,” and quickly Mr. Wilder narrated the incident to his foreman.

“Probably that was Megget,” asserted Pete. “But that doesn’t help us much. We don’t know where that trail breaks on the plains. Besides, while we practically know the headquarters are near the old mine, we don’t know they are driving the cattle there. They may be heading straight for Don Vasquez’s ranch.

“The plan that I kind of made up was to follow the trail from the bottoms till we were sure which way the raiders were headed. If it’s for the mine, we can ride back along the plains and try out my three trails.”

“But why not follow the cattle?” interrupted Mr. Wilder.

“Because I’d rather head them off than creep up on them. The raiders will be expecting us from behind. By riding on the prairie we can cover ten miles to their one, which will give us time to try out the three trails, and, when we find the right one, we can get in ahead and block the trail.”

CHAPTER XIV

ANOTHER DISCOVERY

For several minutes the ranch owners discussed the suggestion and finally decided to act on it unless circumstances should make a change advisable.

Having settled the matter, they rode to the fire and aroused the sleeping cowboys, being joined a few minutes later by Bill, Sandy and the others. Soon the men of the Half-Moon were saddling their ponies.

“Queer we don’t meet Ned anywhere,” Bill exclaimed. “I see from the bags he’s been here, Pete.”

“He got here all right, but he didn’t like to go back very well. Had a bad case of nerves, so he took down the white awning.”

“It’s just as well,” returned Mr. Wilder. Then, finding that the men were impatient to be on the move, he gave the command to start and they rode toward the Long Creek bottoms.

When Tom and Larry awoke it was bright daylight.

“Why it’s nine o’clock,” exclaimed Larry in amazement as he looked at his watch.

Hastily the brothers dressed and then went to see if Horace was in his room or had played some joke on them in letting them sleep. To their relief, they found him in bed.

“Hey, you, get up!” cried Tom. “You’re a fine one to be in charge of the Half-Moon Ranch. If you stay in bed much longer, it will be dark.”

Deeply chagrined to think he had overslept, Horace leaped to the floor, and soon the three boys were ready for breakfast.

At the sound of their voices Mrs. Wilder had ordered Hop Joy to bring in their food, and as the lads entered the dining-room she was awaiting them.

“Why didn’t you call us?” protested Horace.

“Because I thought you were all tired and that sleep would do you good.”

“And I suppose if Larry or Tom hadn’t happened to wake up, you would have let us sleep all day?”

“I suppose I should,” said his mother, smiling. “When you are in bed I know that you are safe.”

“You must not worry about us, Mrs. Wilder,” interposed Larry. “I always tell mother that we are old enough to take care of ourselves. So I wish you would feel the same. I think it would save you no end of anxiety.”

“Undoubtedly. But I never can think of my Horace except as my baby.”

“Huh! I’m a pretty husky baby,” grunted the boy. “See here, mother, I’m fifteen now, so I wish you’d stop calling me your baby. When a fellow has been put in charge of the Half-Moon herd he doesn’t like to be called a baby.”

“I’ll try to remember,” returned Mrs. Wilder gently. Yet there was a wistfulness in her voice that caused Horace to look up, and, at the sight of her face, he left his chair, ran and put his arm around her neck, exclaiming:

“If you want to call me baby, you can, Momsy! I don’t care. Tom and Larry are the right stuff and they won’t laugh.”

Ere either of the brothers could reply Hop Joy appeared.

“Ned he goee pool,” he announced. “Say if you boys wantee go, you hully.”

“Tell him to bring up Blackhawk, Lightning and Lady Belle. Then put up some food for us, Hop Joy. Plenty of it, mind.”

As the Chinaman glided from the room Mrs. Wilder asked:

“Why do you take anything except for lunch, son?”

“Because I think we will spend the night at the pool. Larry and Tom want to see the will-o’-the-wisps, and we maybe able to catch some fish early to-morrow morning. You know father always says early morning is the only time to fish in the pool.”

“Well, I don’t suppose it will do any harm for you to be gone over night. Only be careful. I shall worry if you are not back before dusk tomorrow night.”

Permission to pass the night obtained, the comrades quickly collected their rifles and some fishing tackle, mounted the ponies Ned had brought up and rode away.

After learning from their companion that he had found Pete and the herd at the pool when he arrived, the lads indulged in speculation as to when and where the pursuers would come across the raiders and the chances of recovering the cattle.

Of a sudden, remembering his discussion, with his brother the night before, Larry asked:

“How do you stop a stampede, Ned?”

“You generally don’t,” replied the man with a grin.

“But you try, don’t you? I’m sure I’ve read of cowboys stopping stampedes.”

“I guess they do it easier in story books then than on the plains. The best way to stop a stampede is not to let it start. Still, if there’s enough boys on hand, I suppose it could be done. The only way, though, would be to ride down the leaders and turn them round.

“As I said, if there are enough boys on hand when the trouble breaks, they can get them to milling, which is going round and round in a circle until the cattle get tired out. But it takes a mighty lively bunch of cow-punchers to do it.”

After riding for two hours they came in sight of the cattle, and the two brothers quickened their pace, eager to see them at close range.

“Steady now. Don’t go riding at them like a pack of Indians or you will have all the stampede you want to see,” exclaimed Ned. “My, but they surely are restless!”

This last remark was caused by some of the steers which raised their heads at the approach of the riders, then turned and dashed back to the body of the herd.

“Oh, dear! I’m afraid we’ve started them,” said Horace.

“Pull in your horses!” commanded Ned. “The main bunch is all right. If we come up to them slow, there won’t be any trouble.”

Obeying instantly, the boys reined their horses to a walk and reached the pool without causing further alarm among the cattle.

“So this is where the ghosts live, is it?” asked Tom, gazing from a little knoll at a placid body of water about one hundred feet long by twice as many wide, surrounded by reeds.

“Maybe you won’t laugh so much to-night,” declared their friend and then, because he did not like to be joked about his belief that the place was haunted, he added: “Come on, let’s see if we can find which direction father and the boys took.”

The chance to try if they could track any one on the prairie appealed to the others, and they started to ride around the pool.

“I can see where they had a camp fire!” cried Tom, pointing toward a pile of white ashes.

“Here’s where the grass is all tramped down. Look, there’s a regular path right for the mountains.”

“No, this is the way they went, to the south, here,” returned Larry.

Each boy was firm in his declaration that he had found the trail and to prove it they dismounted and began to examine the ground.

“I’m right. I can see horse tracks!” cried Larry. “This is the way they took, isn’t it, Ned?” Thus appealed to, both Horace and the man rode up.

“Larry’s right,” announced Ned, after a few moments observation,

“Then what caused my tracks?” demanded Tom. “Here are horse tracks, too, only most of the hoofprints are made by cattle.”

“Oh, you can’t tell a cow from a pony print,” taunted Horace.

“Come over and see for yourself,” retorted Tom.

Examination proving that he was right, his friend exclaimed:

“That was made by the boys coming up.”

“But the tracks are all going toward the mountains. They certainly wouldn’t drive any cattle away with them. You don’t–you don’t suppose it’s another raid, do you?” and Tom glanced at Ned.

“Yes.”

CHAPTER XV

THE CONTESTED TRAIL

The thought that the cattle thieves should have dared to make still another raid on the very night when the outfits of the Half-Moon and Three Stars ranches had set out to run them to cover was so startling that for several minutes after Tom had suggested it no one spoke.

Larry was the first one to recover from the shock of surprise.

“There’s no use in trying to guess,” he declared. “We must find out. The only way to do that, so far as I can see, is to follow the trail and discover where it leads.”

This proposition received the excited endorsement of the other two boys, and Horace added:

“Wouldn’t it be dandy if we could round up Megget and his men before father and the others? Come on!”

“Don’t be in too much of a hurry,” urged Tom.

“Oh, if you are afraid to go, you needn’t. I’ll go alone,” sneered Horace.

Flushing at the taunt of cowardice, Tom bit his lips that he might not say anything he should regret.

“You ought to know, Horace, that neither Larry nor I are afraid,” he responded. “I was only thinking about your mother. We promised her we would be back by to-morrow night. The idea of our going in pursuit of Megget by ourselves is foolish. The thing to do is to make sure this trail leads into the mountains and then go and try to find your father and his men.”

“Now you’re talking sense,” interrupted Ned.

“To find them will certainly take us longer than until to-morrow night. In order that Mrs. Wilder need not worry, we must let her know of the change in our plans.”

“That’s so,” agreed Larry. “Still there is no reason for our all going back; one is enough. Let’s draw lots to see who it shall be.”

“Not much,” returned Horace. “So long as father and Bill are away, I am in charge of the Half-Moon. The rest of you must do as I say. Ned is the one to go back!”

“But you boys don’t know anything about the trails,” protested the man. “You will get lost.”

“We certainly can follow this one,” retorted Horace hotly. “And we can always find our way back. Just tell mother we shall join father.”

In vain the driver of the grub wagon endeavored to dissuade the lads, but the thought of taking part in the pursuit of the raiders, after all, made them deaf to all his arguments, and at last Horace exclaimed impatiently:

“You are only delaying us, Ned. I say you are to return to the ranch. That settles it. Larry and Tom and I are going to take the trail.” And, without further ado, he shook out his pony and headed for the mountains, the two brothers at his side.

The pace at which Horace rode was terrific, and because of the hot sun, the horses were soon covered with lather.

“Look here, we’ve got to go at a slower gait,” announced Larry. “If we keep up this clip, our ponies will give out. They can’t stand it and the heat, too. And if they do give out, it will be sure to be just at the very time we need them most.”

“But we’ll soon be in the mountains, and then it will be cooler,” asserted Horace. “I want to overhaul the raiders before night. Won’t father and the others feel small when they learn that we three, whom they left behind because we were too young, have rounded up Megget?”

“You don’t mean to say that you intend for us three to tackle the raiders alone?” exclaimed Tom.

“Why not?”

“Because we wouldn’t stand one chance in a thousand–no, nor in ten thousand–of being able to capture them. We don’t know the trail at all, and they probably are familiar with every rock and turn in it. If they should discover that we were pursuing them, all they would need do would be to lie in wait for us and capture us when we came along.”

The truth of what the younger of the chums said was so evident that even the impetuous Horace was forced to admit it.

“Then what shall we do?” he asked. “If you have any better plan to suggest, out with it.”

Tom, however, could think of nothing feasible and was silent.

The boys had pulled their ponies down to a walk and for several minutes none of them spoke.

Of a sudden Blackhawk raised his head, sniffed the air and then uttered a low whinny.

The sound, coming so unexpectedly, scared the lads, and they looked at one another in alarm.

“He smells something,” exclaimed Horace in a whisper, as though fearing to speak out loud.

The boys were in the lowland between two crests of the rolling plains.

“Perhaps it’s the cattle. They may be on the other side of that rise in the plains,” returned Larry.

Anxiously the three boys gazed toward the crest. The thought that they might be close upon the very men they were chasing startled them, and they were at a loss as to the best thing to do.

“If it is the raiders and the cattle Blackhawk scented, then they’ll be on the lookout for us,” murmured Tom. “They could hear that whinny for—-“

“By jove! it is they,” cried Larry excitedly. “See those horses’ ears bobbing?” And he pointed to the south.

Following his finger, his companions beheld two sharp points steadily advancing from the farther side of the crest.

“Be ready to give it to ’em,” breathed Horace, at the same time unslinging his rifle.

But before he could get it to his shoulder the head of the horse came into view and the next instant the head and shoulders of a man.

In a flash the chums seized their rifles.

The horseman was only about one hundred yards away, and as he caught sight of the rifles pointed toward him he pulled his pony to its haunches.

“Throw up your hands!” yelled Horace. “If you make a move, we’ll drop you. You are a prisoner of the Half-Moon Ranch!”

As the horseman heard the name he shouted:

“Steady, there! I’m Jim Jeffreys. What are you up to, anyhow?”

“Who’s Jim Jeffreys?” demanded Larry of Horace.

“He’s one of our neighbors, if it’s him.”

“Well, don’t you know? Can’t you recognize him?”

Having recovered from his fright, the boy stared at the man who had caused it and then announced:

“Yes, it is Jim.”

“It’s a pity you couldn’t have recognized him before!” snapped Tom as he and his brother lowered their rifles.

CHAPTER XVI

WHAT JEFFREYS KNEW

Jeffreys, as soon as he understood his identity had been established, leaped his pony toward the boys and was soon beside them.

“You are a fine lot to be packing rifles!” he snorted, his anger rising as the danger passed. “You may think it’s a good joke to cover anybody you meet on the plains, but some one may turn the joke on you by firing before you get your aim. You aren’t what you call ‘quick on the trigger.'”

“Which is fortunate for you–in this case,” declared Larry, resenting the manner and tone of the stranger.

The sight of the two serious-faced boys, whose eyes showed them to be keen and alert, brought Jeffreys to his senses.

“I reckon you’re right,” he exclaimed. “But what’s up, Horace? If you and your friends are out for a little excitement, just take my tip and turn your attention to jumping a coyote or you may—-“

“We are not after excitement,” retorted the boy from the Half-Moon