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Ranch. “We don’t have to go looking for it. We’ve got all we want. Some of Megget’s gang have raided our herd.”

“No? It must have been them I saw over near the hills early this morning.”

“Where were they?” “Which way were they going?” “How many were there of them?” demanded the lads, each one asking a question.

“It was just after sun-up. I was too far away to recognize the cattle, but I counted four men. As they only had about fifty head with ’em, I sort of suspected something was wrong, so I got out of sight before they could see me. Leastways, if they did, they didn’t make any move to get me.”

“Where have you been?”

“I’ve been up in the hills for a few days prospecting.”

“Did you find the mine?” inquired Tom, forgetting the raid and pursuit in his eagerness to learn about the Lost Lode.

“No, I didn’t. I just learned another trail, which isn’t the right one.”

Larry, however, was more interested in the cattle thieves and brought the conversation back to them.

“Were the men near the hills when you saw them?” he asked.

“About a quarter of a mile away.”

“Then come on. We must get to the hills so we can find their trail,” declared Horace.

“You kids sure ain’t going after ’em alone?” exclaimed Jeffreys incredulously.

“But if there are only four of them?”

“To you three, and they are men, don’t forget that.”

“But you’ll make four,” suggested Tom.

“Providing I was going with you, which I ain’t, I’d like to, but I reckon I’d better ride back to my own ranch and see they haven’t lifted any of my cattle. If they have, I’ll get my boys and take up the trail.”

Realizing from the expressions on their faces that the lads were surprised as well as disappointed at his refusal to accompany them, the horseman said:

“You all just take my advice and don’t try to follow those raiders into the mountains. What you want to do is to find Wilder and Snider as quick as you can, providing you won’t go back to your ranch, where you ought to be.”

“Which you can bet your whole outfit we won’t!” snapped Horace. “We started on this chase and we’re going to stay on it.”

Jeffreys smiled at the determined manner of the young rancher,

“Then join your father as soon as you can. Don’t try any fool stunt like going into the mountains. Remember, when you are on the prairie you can sec on all sides of you.”

“Except when you’re behind a crest,” chuckled Tom.

At this reference to the recent contretemps Jeffreys frowned, started to say something and instead dug his spurs into his pony, galloping away without even so much as looking back.

“He’s a fine neighbor–not,” declared Larry as the trio resumed their way. “I should have thought he would be only too glad to help your father and Mr. Snider get back their cattle.”

“He isn’t very keen for the Half-Moon,” rejoined Horace. “Father beat him in a law case over a boundary line once and he’s never forgotten it.”

“And I reckon he won’t forget his meeting with us to-day,” said Tom, grinning.

At the memory of the reception they had given, Jeffreys the comrades had a hearty laugh.

“Still, he gave us some good advice,” asserted Larry. “I agree with him that the thing for us is to find the Half-Moon and Three Stars crowd as soon as we can.”

“Which seems to be a pretty big order in itself,” mused Tom. “I say we go and see where they drove the cattle into the hills and then decide.”

This suggestion met with no opposition, and as the boys rode toward the mountains, the wooded sides of which looked inviting because of the relief they promised from the torrid heat of the plains, they discussed various plans, only to discard them.

At last they reached the hills. Dismounting, they hobbled their ponies, removed the saddles and bridles sticky with lather, and then broke out some lunch which they ate ravenously, despite the fact that their mouths were almost parched.

Greatly refreshed by the food, the boys decided to follow the trail of the cattle till they could get some idea of its direction.

“Let’s go on foot,” suggested Tom. “The ponies will be all right, the rest will do them good, and we can get through the brush and over the rocks with less noise.”

Readily his companions agreed, and picking up their rifles, they quickly found the tracks made by the cattle.

For some distance the trail seemed more like an abandoned wood road than anything else. But gradually it began to grow narrower and at last became no more than a path winding in and out among the rocks.

Several times some sound caused the boys to raise their guns to their shoulders and peer about in all directions, but nothing could they see save the trees and rocks, and they ascribed the noises to some denizen of the forest roaming about.

Of a sudden Tom, who was in the lead, stopped.

“I smell something awful queer,” he whispered.

The trail wound along the edge of a sharp descent and just ahead was an abrupt turn.

Ere either Larry or Horace could reply to their companion’s announcement all three were dumb-founded to see a big, shaggy brown head appear round the turn in the trail.

“It’s a bear!” gasped Horace.

At the sight of the three boys the big head had paused in surprise. Then its lips began to curl, disclosing a wicked looking set of teeth, and finally it broke into a savage snarl, at the same time rising in the air.

“He’s getting to his hind legs. That means fight!” breathed Horace. “Come on, let’s run!”

“But he’d overtake us and beat us down with his paws,” returned Larry. “We’ve got to kill him.”

Less time did the action consume than is required to describe it, and the boys were standing terror stricken when the bear charged upon them, making vicious lunges at them with his huge paws.

Roused from his fright by the imminence of his peril, Tom raised his rifle, only to have it knocked from his hands by a swing of one of the bear’s paws.

[Illustration: The rifle was knocked from his hand.]

“Drop down! drop down so I can shoot!” yelled Larry as he saw the desperate situation in which his brother was placed.

Instantly Tom obeyed, throwing himself to one side as he fell.

But as the younger of the brothers dropped the bear, as though singling him out for his particular antagonist, also dropped to all fours, and Larry’s shot went over him.

Horace, however, shot lower, and a terrible roar told them that the bullet had struck home.

In the fury of his pain the bear seemed to think that the boy lying flat on the rocks was the cause of his suffering, and, with mouth distended, charged upon him.

In a frenzy lest they might not be able to save Tom, Larry and Horace both fired.

At the impact of the bullets the bear rose on his hind legs, swung wildly with his paws at the steel barrels that were pouring the terribly painful things into him and fell prone, the huge carcass missing Tom by less than a foot.

CHAPTER XVII

LOST!

From the moment when his brother had cried to him to drop, Tom had kept his eyes on the bear, and when he saw the beast plunge forward and realized that it was dead, he leaped to his feet, his pale face telling of the awful strain under which he had been.

The reaction from their excitement made Larry and Horace tremble and, for the time, they could only look from their companion to the carcass of the bear, too unnerved to speak.

Tom was the first to recover from the fright, and he thanked the others for what they had done.

“Let’s not talk about it,” interposed Larry. “The thing for us to do is to get out of here lively. The reverberations from those shots are echoing yet. The raiders must have heard them, and they’ll know some one is on their trail, so they will either come back to sec who it is or else hide to waylay us.”

Tom and Horace were perfectly willing to give up following the trail farther, and all three were retracing their steps when the elder of the chums cried:

“The rifle! Tom, you forgot to pick up your rifle.”

“Which shows I was some scared,” and he smiled apologetically.

“But it’s a worse one on Larry and me,” protested Horace. “There’s some excuse for you. But the bear wasn’t charging us.”

“Oh, well there’s no harm done,” returned Larry, pleased at the spirit Horace’s words showed. “We can go back and get it. It’s a mighty good thing, though, that we thought of It before we reached the ponies. From the looks of the sky and the shadows it won’t be long before dusk, and Mr. Wilder told us night comes quickly in the mountains.”

Ere Larry had finished speaking they had started back to the scene of their encounter.

Yet when they reached the spot Tom’s rifle was nowhere to be seen.

In dismay the boys looked at one another. Already the mountains were turning purple-black in the twilight, the shadows transforming the trees and rocks into weird figures.

“Perhaps it’s under the bear,” hazarded Horace, his low voice evidencing the awe which the silence and the surroundings inspired in him.

“Then give a hand while we move him,” commanded Larry. “It won’t do to stay here long or we may lose our way as well as the rifle.”

Little relishing the thought of wandering through the woods in the dark, the boys seized one of the paws and pulled with all their might.

But, to their surprise, they could move the carcass scarcely at all.

“My, but he’s a monster!” gasped Larry. “It’s only a waste of valuable time to try to lift him or even move him. The only thing we can do is to try to feel under him with our hands.”

Dropping to their knees, the lads thrust their arms under the shaggy fur, being able to reach far; enough to make sure that the much-wanted rifle was not beneath the body of the bear.

“Bet he knocked it over the cliff,” declared Horace. “From which side did he strike it, Tom?”

“More than I know. All I could see was paws. The air was full of them and they seemed to come from all directions at once.”

This explanation brought laughter to Larry and Horace, which ceased abruptly, however, as from somewhere on the mountains there suddenly rang out a low wail, more like the howl of a coyote than anything else, yet with a certain difference that even the chums were able to distinguish.

“Whatever that is, I don’t care to meet it,” exclaimed Horace. “Let’s go back. We’ve still got two rifles. If we stick to the plains till we join father we can get along all right.”

“Suppose we don’t meet your father, what then?” returned Larry.

“Always looking for more trouble, as if we didn’t have enough already,” chided Tom. “Of course we’ll meet him. Anyhow, this is no place to argue about it. If you and Horace can’t protect me, I’ll take both your rifles and watch over the two of you.”

There was a suggestion of mockery in Tom’s voice, but taking it good naturedly, Larry replied:

“Oh, no you won’t. You can’t throw your gun away every time you get scared and then take ours from us. You just get in between Horace and me. Horace, you lead because you know how to follow a trail better, and I’ll keep off the bears and raiders,” he added with a smile.

The movements of the boys, however, were more rapid than their words, and they were traveling the trail once more ere Larry’s joking allusion to the loss of the rifle and the protection he would afford.

So long as their way lay among the rocks they followed the trail with little difficulty, but when they entered the woods their troubles began in earnest.

None too self-possessed in the dark, even when going about the ranch, when he entered the inky darkness caused by the maze of boughs and foliage, Horace lost his head completely, and it did not take the comrades long to realize they had wandered from the trail.

“Better let me take the lead, Horace; I’m taller,” said Larry, at the same time giving his brother a poke In the ribs as a warning not to object.

“Well, you’ll have to be a giraffe to see your way over the tops of these trees,” chuckled Tom.

Their plight was too serious to admit of jest, however, and after wandering for half an hour, stumbling over dead limbs and running into trees and branches, they halted in despair.

“I remember Si told us back home that when a man’s lost he generally travels in a circle,” said Tom.

“So he did, and he said It was usually to the left, because a man takes a longer step with his right foot,” added Larry.

“That may help when you know which is the right and which is the left of the way you have been going, but here we’ve turned round to talk, so we don’t even know that much,” interposed Horace.

“That’s a fact,” admitted the elder of the chums reluctantly as he realized that by facing one another they had lost all sense of direction. “It’s a good thing you thought of it, Horace, or we might have got ourselves into a worse mess than we’re in now,”

“If it weren’t for all that good food cooked by Hop Joy back with the horses and the fact that I’m hungry, I’d be in favor of staying right where we are till morning,” announced Tom.

“I reckon that is the best thing we can do, anyhow,” declared his brother.

“Not with my appetite,” retorted Tom.

“This is no time to be funny,” reprimanded Larry. “If we keep on moving, we may never get out, while if we stay here we can climb into one of these trees and be safe till daylight shows us—-“

“By jove! That’s the very thing!” exclaimed the younger of the chums, and there was such a tone of genuine enthusiasm in his voice that the others asked excitedly:

“What?”

“Why, the trees. We won’t need to sleep in them. By climbing a tall one, we can get the lay of the land as soon as moonlight comes, which will show us at least how to get out onto the plains again.”

“Hooray!” cried Larry and Horace together.

Each realized the plan was feasible, provided the night was not cloudy, and once on the prairie it would not be difficult for the young rancher to lead the way to the horses. And, although they knew that the moon would not rise for two hours at least, they were so eager to try the plan that they began to discuss who should be the one to do the climbing.

The two brothers claimed preference because they were both stronger and taller than their companion, but Horace silenced them by declaring that not only could he go higher because he was lighter, but that he would be able to recognize their whereabouts from his knowledge of the mountains.

Restraining their impatience as best they could, the boys sat down.

“When we do get out, which way shall we go to join Mr. Wilder and the others?” asked Larry.

This question started further discussion. One suggestion after another was made only to be rejected because of some obstacle, and finally they decided the safest thing to do would be to ride till they found the trail over which the cattle had been driven from the bottoms and follow that.

Soon Horace climbed a convenient tree.

“We sure are dubs!” he cried.

“Why? Is the moon up?” asked the two chums eagerly..

“No, the moon isn’t up. I don’t need it. The stars are bright enough. We’ve been sitting here fretting all this while within a hundred yards of the prairie!”

CHAPTER XVIII

A MYSTERIOUS CALL

Horace and Larry having picked up their rifles, the three boys resumed their way, Larry leading slowly, taking care to make his steps of as nearly equal length as possible, and in due time they came onto the prairie.

“My, but this stretch of level does look good,” declared Tom, and his companions expressed their hearty agreement as they hastened toward the spot where they left their ponies.

Finding them without difficulty, the lads broke out the food and ate ravenously,

“Hey, go easy on the grub,” cautioned Larry as he noted the amount his companions were eating. “This is all we have to last us until we meet the others–or get back to the ranch,” he added as the thought recurred to him that luck would play a large part in the success of their search for the pursuing party.

“You can go easy if you like. So long as there’s anything to eat, I am going to eat,” returned his brother. “Don’t worry. We won’t starve. If worse comes to worse, I can get you some deer meat, provided you’ll lend me your rifle.”

“Or I can get you some mountain lion meat,” added Horace.

“I notice neither of you mention bear meat,” chuckled the elder of the chums.

“Because it doesn’t agree with us,” returned Tom, and at this allusion to their recent adventure they all laughed merrily.

In delight at the extrication from their dilemma the boys chatted and joked as they repacked the saddle bags, unhobbled their ponies and prepared to resume riding.

“There’s only one thing that could, add to my happiness,” remarked Larry as he swung onto Lightning’s back.

“What’s that?” Inquired his companions.

“About a gallon of drinking water.”

“I’m some thirsty, too,” said Horace, “but I don’t know of a place where there is any water.”

“Then we’ll leave it to the horses,” asserted Tom. “Mr. Wilder told me they would always locate water if there was any about. From the way Blackhawk acts, I think he scents some.”

“Scents water!” sneered Horace.

“Just you wait and see,” retorted the younger of the comrades, and giving free rein to his pony, he let him nose along through the grass for some distance when the animal turned abruptly and entered the woods, stopping beside a brook.

“You’d better appoint me guide and captain of this company,” smiled the boy as they dismounted and drank greedily of the cool water.

“You’d be a fine captain without a gun,” retorted Larry, and in high spirits they remounted.

For a time the boys had the moon for company, but toward, midnight clouds gathered in the sky and a chilly wind began to blow.

“How about pitching camp pretty soon?” suggested Larry.

“Wait till we get to Elkhorn River,” answered Horace”.

“How far is that? I didn’t suppose there was such a thing in these plains.”

“Oh, I should say it was fifteen miles from here,” returned the young rancher. “It isn’t much of a river, but it’s better than none.”

“Wouldn’t ride fifteen–Hello! What’s that glow in the sky right next the mountains?” exclaimed Tom, pointing to where a faint glare was visible against the dark background of trees.

“It’s a fire,” asserted Horace, “a camp fire. You can tell by the steadiness of the light.”

Excitedly they speculated as to whose it could be.

“If it’s raiders, we want to know it. Perhaps we can round up some of them,” declared Horace.

And urging their ponies into a gallop, the boys rode forward.

When they were near enough to distinguish the flames they dismounted, hobbled their horses in the underbrush and approached on foot.

No sign of man or beast could they see, and their curiosity was further aroused.

“Stoop down so your heads are In the grass,” admonished Horace. “It may be they have seen us and are hiding among the trees. Don’t make any noise and stick close together.”

Crouching low, the trio advanced stealthily. Nearer and nearer they drew, yet no sound could they hear. Consumed with curiosity, Horace suddenly stood up, determined to learn if any one were sleeping beside the fire.

Yet no sooner had he risen than a command rang out:

“Throw up your hands!”

The two brothers, ignorant of their companion’s action, gasped at the words. But Horace let out a whoop of joy.

“Hooray! It’s father and the boys,” he cried so loud that instantly a dozen figures bounded from about the fire.

“Well, if it ain’t them kids!” ejaculated Pete, who had been on guard. “It’s lucky you recognized my voice, Horace.”

By this time Tom and Larry had straightened up and all three were hastening toward the camp fire, thinking only of their good fortune in finding their friends.

“Horace, what does this mean?” demanded his father sternly. “I told you to stay at home, and yet we haven’t been gone but twenty-four hours and you come tagging along.”

But the severity of his father did not dismay the young rancher. Looking straight at him, the boy hastily told of the ride to the pool and the discovery that more cattle had been driven away.

The information excited the cowboys greatly, and emphatic were their opinions of the daring of the thieves in making another raid and within a few hours after the men pursuing them had set out.

“They probably were watching us all the time,” asserted the owner of the Three Stars.

“Probably,” agreed Mr. Wilder. “But what have you boys been doing since you learned of the raid? You could almost walk your ponies from the pool to here in all this time.”

Before any of them could reply, however, a long, low wail rang out. Surprised, the men glanced at one another,

“That sounds like a coyote, but it ain’t,” asserted Pete.

Again the cry broke on the air and was repeated twice.

“Why, it’s the very same sound we heard in the mountains!” exclaimed Larry. And his companions confirmed him.

“The same cry you heard in the mountains?” repeated Mr. Wilder.

“Yes, sir,” and in a few words the elder of the brothers related their adventures.

“Then it’s a signal,” declared Pete. “You boys have been followed. It’s a mighty good thing we were camping here.”

“Those cries came from the plains. Mebbe it’s the thieves going for more cattle,” declared Sandy.

“We’ll find out what it is. Everybody to horse!” commanded Mr. Wilder. “Pete, three or four of you go with Horace and the Aldens to get their ponies. We’ll ride up and join you.”

CHAPTER XIX

A TERRIBLE PLOT

Quickly the men ran to the woods where they had concealed their ponies, unhobbled, saddled and mounted them, riding along till they came to where Pete and the boys were.

“Which way shall we go?” inquired Sandy when all were In their saddles. “That cry came from straight ahead of us on the plains, according to my judgment.”

Pete and the other cowboys agreed with him, and, trusting to their sense of direction, the owner of the Half-Moon said:

“Then we’ll ride due east. Spread out abreast. The more ground we can cover the better.”

“But don’t get too far apart,” interposed the rancher from the Three Stars. “Keep close enough together so you can see the man on your right.”

Rapidly were these commands given, and within fifteen minutes after the mysterious calls had startled them the twenty-three horsemen were advancing over the prairie, eyes and ears alert for sound or sight of the men who had uttered the signals, the two Eastern boys and Horace riding between Mr. Wilder and Pete at the southern end of the line.

But for once Sandy’s ears had played him false. Ignorant of the psychological fact that only when a man’s head is turned can he correctly judge the direction of sound, it being impossible to distinguish between a sound coming from directly in front or behind, the foreman of the Three Stars Ranch had been deceived because he had been looking straight ahead out into the prairie. And instead of riding toward the men who had roused them by their cries, each bound of the horses was carrying them farther away.

When Larry and his companions had met the bear, the four raiders with the cattle Jeffreys had seen were only about two miles in advance of them. As the boys had thought, the reverberations of the shots had reached the ears of the men at the rear of the cattle and they had uttered the wail as a signal to those ahead, jumping to the conclusion that they were being followed.

Making use of their knowledge of the mountains, the raiders had hurriedly driven the cattle into the forest, where they would be out of sight and so could not give warning of the whereabouts of the thieves, and had then hidden themselves behind some rocks along the trail. From their ambuscade they would be able to shoot down their pursuers or capture them as they felt inclined.

But as the reader knows, the boys doubled on their trail and so divided the trap.

After waiting till dark without any sign of pursuers, the raiders grew fearsome.

“We’ve got to find out for sure whether it’s somebody on our trail or just some one that is hunting,” declared one of them, who, if the two brothers could have seen him, they would have recognized as Gus Megget.

“Considering we’ve waited more than two hours and no one has showed up, I say we ought to push onto the Lode, Gus,” asserted another.

“How can we drive cattle over this trail in the dark?” growled the chief of the raiders. “You ought to have more sense, seeing the trouble we’ve had to get them as far as this in the daylight.”

“So long as we can’t drive, we might just as well go back and find out who’s been shooting.”

Realizing that it was futile to urge their leader to change his mind, the other raiders sullenly acquiesced, and, emerging from their places of concealment, went into the woods to get their horses and were soon riding stealthily back over the trail.

Though they dared not refuse to go, the men, however, were not backward in expressing their disapproval of the move, declaring that they were tempting disaster by returning when they had made so successful a start.

But Megget paid no attention to their grumblings and soon his companions lapsed into silence.

Fate, however, which had saved the two brothers and the young rancher from stumbling into the ambush, was still favoring them.

For when the raiders reached the edge of the prairie Megget ordered a halt that they might eat, and when again they resumed their ride the boys were far on their way toward the spot where they met their friends.

Not long did it take their pursuers to discover the place where the three had eaten and then to find the direction in which they had departed.

“What’s the use of following any farther, Gus?” demanded one of them. “So long as they have ridden to the south, and there are only three of them, anyhow, we are in no danger.”

But with a blind obstinacy the leader of the cattle thieves persisted in continuing the pursuit, and set the pace at a fast gallop.

In due course of time, as the boys before them, they discovered the glare from the camp fire.

“We’ll ride into the mountains, dismount and then find out who it is that has the fire,” declared Megget.

“You’re playing with trouble, Gus,” protested his companions. “From what I know of Wilder, he won’t let a bunch of his cattle be lifted without doing something. That may be his fire.”

“All the more reason why we should go to it–to make sure,” snapped the leader of the raiders. “Wilder is a fool or he wouldn’t leave his herd unguarded at the Witches’ Pool.”

“You’ll find he’s smarter than you think. I’ll bet all my share of these raids will come to that the only reason the herd was alone was because his whole outfit is on the trail from the bottoms,” asserted another.

“Well, the boys can take care of ’em if they are. I said I was going to find out who built that fire, and I’m going to.” And without more ado, the leader of the raiders dashed into the woods.

Riding cautiously among the trees until he thought he was about back of the fire Megget gave the word to dismount.

A short distance to the south and above them was a ledge from which they would be able to command a view of the camp fire, and rapidly the raiders made their way to It.

What they saw when they reached the top and gazed down caused them to exclaim in amazement.

The cowboys were saddling their ponies, and instead of the three men they had expected to discover, Megget and his companions saw a dozen.

“That’s the Half-Moon bunch!” declared one of them.

“There are too many of them,” asserted another. “We’re in a pretty mess now. Those three men we followed have evidently informed them of finding our trail and they are starting to pick it up.”

“Don’t you worry about that,” growled Megget. And before his companions were aware what he intended to do, he uttered the calls that caused the ranch owners and cowboys to start out into the prairie.

Eagerly the raiders watched them disappear and Megget chuckled:

“I thought I could fool ’em. It’s easy when you are above any one.” And then he added: “You’ll wish you had never started after me, Wilder!”

Wondering at their leader’s meaning, his fellows had no chance to ask, however, for even as he spoke Megget was descending from the ledge.

Arriving at the camp fire, he glanced about for a few moments, then sent his men for the horses.

As soon as he was sure he was alone, the leader of the raiders walked out on the plains, paused, wet his finger in his mouth, then raised his hand above his head.

“Great! I’m sure playing in luck,” he muttered to himself. “The wind is blowing from the west–straight out across the plains.” And chuckling grimly, the cattle thief returned to the fire to await the horses.

Mounting quickly when they arrived, Megget gave a curt order for his own men to follow and galloped in the same direction the ranch owners and cowboys had taken.

At the end of a quarter of a mile he drew rein and again went through the performance of wetting his finger and raising it above his head, murmuring more to himself than his pals:

“I didn’t know but that the hills might have changed the direction of the wind.

“Here, you,” he added, turning to his men, “two of you ride a mile up and Squinty and I’ll ride south. When I give the call, fire the grass and then ride for the trail and drive the cattle to the mine. I’ll cut across and warn Vasquez and the others.”

CHAPTER XX

THE PRAIRIE FIRE

As his men heard the words and realized their significance, they glanced at their leader and then at one another.

Yet none of them moved.

“Are you deaf?” roared Megget. “Do as I say–and lively. Squinty, come with me.” And clapping spurs to his pony, he dashed southward.

Fearing to disobey, the two raiders delegated to ride to the north started. But as soon as they were out of earshot one of them said:

“Megget can fire the prairie if he wants to, I won’t. I’m none too stuck on cattle raiding, anyhow, but when it comes to starting a fire that will probably wipe out the Half-Moon outfit and perhaps even the herd, Bobby Lawrence balks!”

“Showing the white feather, eh?” snarled his companion. “I warned Gus you wasn’t any good, but he wouldn’t believe me. You’ll do what he says, though, as long as you’re with Red Ike!”

Red Ike was a giant in strength, the bully of the gang, and Lawrence had seen too much of him to care to risk an encounter with him, so with a growl he said:

“All right. Lead the way.”

“Not much. I’ll ride beside you, so you won’t come any tricks.”

But though Lawrence had appeared to yield, it was only as a matter of policy, and his determination not to fire the prairie was as firm as before. Yet how he could prevent it, he was at a loss to determine until suddenly he remembered that Red Ike had asked him for a match that afternoon.

As the thought flashed through his mind that his companion had no means for carrying out Megget’s instructions Lawrence put his hand to his belt, where he carried his tobacco outfit, and quickly unloosening it, let it fall into the grass.

None too soon was his action, for even as he opened his hand to let go of the pouch that held his pipe, tobacco and cigarette papers Red Ike snapped:

“I reckon we’ve gone a mile.” And as he turned to look back the signal sounded, and in a trice he saw the flames, set by his leader, leap in the air.

“Quick, Gus has touched off!” he cried, then added as he felt in vain for any matches, “Gimme some of your fire-sticks, mine are all gone.”

Suppressing the smile that came to his face at the words, for Lawrence bad feared his companion might have obtained a supply from one of the others, he replied:

“Can’t. I haven’t any.”

“What?” roared Red Ike. “You can’t come any such game on me. You had plenty this afternoon. Hand ’em over–and be lively!”

As he spoke the bully edged his pony closer to the other.

Lawrence, however, only repeated his statement calmly.

“You won’t gimme them, eh? Then I’ll take ’em myself.” And like a flash his powerful fist shot out, striking his companion under the right side of his jaw with such terrific force that it lifted him from the saddle.

Springing to the ground, Red Ike roughly searched the motionless body, and when he found that the tobacco pouch was indeed gone he realized the trick that Lawrence had played.

For a moment the baffled raider glowered upon the man who had outwitted him. Then his attention was distracted by the sound of hoof beats and, turning, he beheld the two horses racing toward the hills, having taken fright at the flames leaping over the plains. And never thinking of the man he had unhorsed, Red Ike dashed after them.

Advancing cautiously, the ranch owners and their men were beginning to wonder if they could have mistaken the direction of the signals when they heard the call again.

“That’s back of us,” declared Pete.

Instantly the others turned in their saddles, and as they did so the flames bounded into the air.

“They fooled us good and plenty!” growled Nails, while all the boys glared at the foreman of the Three Stars Ranch.

“They did,” asserted Mr. Wilder grimly, “but it’s no use talking about it now. We’ve got all we can do to get away from the fire.”

In terror the boy chums watched the flames spread as if by magic till in a few minutes a towering wall of fire was racing toward them.

“Shall we start a back fire?” asked Bill.

“No use,” returned several of the cowboys, “the wind’s in the wrong direction.”

“Then we’ve got to ride for it,” asserted Snider.

Well did the cowboys realize the danger, and with might and main they urged their ponies, each one bent only on saving himself.

For a time the two brothers and Horace kept pace with them, but they were not skilled in the fine art of getting the most out of their ponies when the animals began to tire, and it was not long before they found themselves dropping behind.

“Wait for us!” shouted Horace as he noticed the distance that separated them constantly increasing.

For a moment it seemed to the terrified lads that their cry had not been heard, yet just when they began to despair three horses dropped behind, and as the boys came up with them they recognized the two ranch owners and Pete.

“Take Horace, Pete; Snider, Tom; I’ll take Larry,” commanded Mr. Wilder, and each of the men leaped their horses to seize the bridle of the boy indicated.

Not more than two miles behind them was the terrible wall of fire. In front of it coyotes and all other animals of the plains were In full flight, their cries of fear or pain as they fell victims to the all-devouring flames now and then rising above the sullen roar.

“Oh, it’s gaining! it’s gaining!” wailed Horace.

“Don’t look behind. Keep your eyes in front and _ride_!” commanded his father.

Sparks borne by the wind began to fall all about, now and then starting blazes which the cowboys put out by beating with their blankets where they could, yet none checked his speed. To the hot air was added smoke, and men and horses were breathing with difficulty, gasping and coughing.

“If you’ve got handkerchiefs, jam them in your mouths!” cried Snider.

Nearer, ever nearer drew the wall of flame. It seemed to the chums that they must be breathing fire, so did the air burn their mouths.

Time and again they swayed in their saddles and would have fallen had it not been for the men beside them, who had let go the bridles to steady the boys, at the same time rowelling their own mounts.

Just when it seemed to the boys that the shirts on their backs would burst into flames a shout went up from in front:

“The river! The river!”

“One more spurt, everybody!”

Gamely men, boys and horses responded.

“Right over the bank! Don’t stop!” bellowed Pete.

Ignorant of the height, caring little, eager only to gain the water, the boys felt their horses leap through the air and the next minute were sputtering and gasping as they sank below the surface of the river.

CHAPTER XXI

A RIDE FOR LIFE

Quickly the horses swam for the shore, and as the Elkhorn was only deep for a few rods, it was not many minutes before the cowboys were shaking and removing their wet garments. But the boys were oblivious of their condition.

In open-mouthed wonder they stared at the spectacle presented by the flames from whose devouring fury they had so narrowly escaped.

The wall of fire had in reality been farther away than it had seemed. For several minutes it advanced, the tongues of flames towering in the air. A moment the livid wall paused as it reached the brink of the river, while jets of fire reached out as though striving to clutch the men who had escaped. Then seemingly bent on overtaking them, the flames leaped over the edge, devouring the brush and grass to the water’s edge, where, loath to admit defeat, the flames flickered uncertainly and then died away, leaving nothing but a pall of smoke to mark their course of destruction.

“They came mighty near getting us that time,” exclaimed Pete, looking back over the still glowing plains.

“Too near,” assented Mr. Wilder. “But Megget’s men will suffer for this trick, never fear.”

“They’ll sure be surprised when they see us,” chimed in the owner of the Three Stars.

“That’s just it,” returned Mr. Wilder. “Of course, they think we have perished in the flames, and when they see us riding in on them they will be so scared it will take all the fight out of them.”

None the worse for their experience, the cowboys were eager to be under way again that they might exact satisfaction upon the raiders for their unwilling flight. But Mr. Wilder curbed their impatience by saying:

“It’s all right to want to get on the trail again, but if we should start now, while the plains are still hot, we run the risk of crippling some of our ponies. We’ll eat breakfast here and then in an hour I guess we can start. What do you think, Jim?”

“It will be all right to take grub and we can tell about the ground when we’ve eaten.”

Fate, however, was still on the side of the ranchers, for while they were at their meal it began to rain.

With a shout the cowboys greeted the first drops, but their masters grew serious.

“This rain will make it mighty hard to pick up the trail,” observed the owner of the Three Stars.

“But we won’t need to search for it,” interposed Tom.

At his words all eyes were turned upon him, and Mr. Wilder voiced their sentiments by asking:

“Why?”

“Because I know the very place where Horace and Larry and I rode into the mountains. I thought I might want to remember it, so I broke off some branches and cut a half moon in one of the trees with my jackknife.”

“That’s all right, but why should we follow that trail?” demanded Bill. “The men who set the fire were all of–how far, Horace, from Tom’s trail?” and he looked at his brother.

“A good twenty miles.”

“Why should we ride twenty miles when we can start right in at the hills back where the fire started?” continued Bill.

Some of the cowboys laughed at this seeming evidence of Tom’s lack of understanding of the situation, but the younger of the chums had his good reasons, as he quickly proved by replying:

“Because that is where they drove fifty cattle in. Mr. Jeffreys said it was a short cut. Besides, it stands to reason the men wouldn’t have gone that way unless the trail led to the mine where they could join the rest of the gang. I may be from the East,” and he glanced at the boys who had laughed at him, “but I’m not so much of a tenderfoot as not to know four men aren’t going on a pleasure trip with a herd of fifty steers.”

“I reckon the kid is right,” said the owner of the Half-Moon after the merriment this jibe evoked had subsided. “Even if the ‘rustlers’ didn’t know we had started when they lifted the cattle from the pool, they’d know something was up when all the boys were away and that we could follow the trail to the mountains. Consequently, they being only four, would take the shortest route to join the main body.”

“That argument would have been all right before the fire, Jim, but things are different now,” rejoined Bill.

“Certain. But the difference is the raiders will take more time in driving the cattle in the thought that there’s no one to pursue ’em till the fact of the prairie fire reaches Tolopah.”

“And then that bow-legged sheriff will set out,” grunted Skinny. “He couldn’t catch a prairie dog. There’s only one man I’d like to see on the job besides the bunch we’ve got here.”

“Name him,” cried several of the cowboys.

“Shorty Jenks.”

“Why, that’s our friend!” exclaimed Tom and Larry.

“I don’t know about his being a friend of yours, but there’s nothing on two or four legs he’s afraid of. And he’s great on tricks. He’d think up a scheme in no time to land Megget.”

“I think Tom’s idea is the right one,” said Mr. Wilder. “By riding that trail we can reach the Lost Lode probably in a few hours, while it might take days to find where the gang that set fire rode into the hills. This rain has cooled off the ground, so we can start right away.”

No direct command to pack the food and saddle up did the cowboys need and as day dawned they again entered the Elkhorn River.

Tom had been provided with an extra rifle Mr. Wilder had been carrying and great care did he and the other lads take to keep their arms and ammunition from getting wet a second time.

Arrived at the top of the bank from which they had leaped to safety, the party beheld a long stretch of blackened ground. As far as they could see, it stretched away to the north and in width it was about four miles.

“Why didn’t it burn everything, instead of cutting a sort of path?” asked Larry after a survey of the scene.

“That’s one of the things you can’t explain,” replied the owner of the Three Stars. “It just don’t, that’s all. Of course, the wind has to be right–that is, stay in the same direction as when the fire was started. And when it does you can count on the fire’s following pretty close to its lines. You see this one was set in a sort of semi-circle, with the ends burning toward one another. If you want a fire to spread, start it fan-shaped.”

“There’s one way the fire helped us,” said Horace. “We can travel faster than we could through the grass, and it doesn’t tire the horses so.”

“Just another proof it’s an ill wind that doesn’t do somebody good,” quoted Mr. Wilder, smiling.

“Maybe, but I’d rather go without the wind than have another experience like last night’s,” returned the owner of the Three Stars.

CHAPTER XXII

LAWRENCE’S PLAN

Realizing that they would be able to advance but slowly along the trail, giving their ponies a chance to rest, the men were riding a stiff lope.

At first Mr. Wilder had insisted that the three youngest boys return to the ranch as soon as Tom had showed them the trail, but they had pleaded so hard, asserting they were entitled to accompany the pursuers because of their discovery of the trail, that he had finally consented, making the condition, however, that when they entered the hills the boys must ride next the rear, where in case of attack, they would not be in the brunt of it.

Larry was following the edge of grass as they drew near the place where the fire had been started. As his eyes roved over the billowy plains, they suddenly were attracted by a peculiar furrow that seemed to run through the grass like a channel.

For the moment he was tempted to call the attention of the others to it, and then, fearing their ridicule, decided to find out what it was first.

Accordingly he reined his pony to one side and was approaching the furrow when he was startled to hear a cry of delight:

“I’ve got it! I’ve got it!”

Hastily unslinging his rifle, the elder of the chums pointed it in the direction whence the unexpected voice had come and shouted:

“You there, in the grass! Stand up before I count five or I’ll—-“

But Larry had no occasion to complete his command.

Unconscious that there was another soul within miles of him, the person addressed raised his head cautiously to see who had accosted him.

“Stand up straight, I said!” ordered the boy.

As the fellow obeyed, Mr. Wilder, Pete and the others, who had been almost as surprised at hearing Larry’s words as the prisoner himself, dashed up, quickly followed by the cowboys.

Intuitively each man felt they had captured one of the raiders, and without waiting for instructions, closed in on him in a circle, completely cutting off any chance for escape.

“Who are you and what are you doing, sneaking along in the grass ?” demanded Mr. Wilder sternly.

“I’m Bobby Lawrence, and I was hunting for my tobacco pouch,” returned the fellow, undaunted by the angry faces gazing at him.

“That’s the name of one of Megget’s right-hand men,” declared Nails. “I found that out at Tolopah.”

With no gentle hands half a dozen of the cowboys searched Lawrence, taking from him his pistols and a long knife.

When their prisoner was harmless Mr. Wilder resumed his questions.

“Who set the fire last night?”

“If I play fair with you, will you treat me square?” demanded Lawrence.

“That depends,” temporized the ranch owner. “You belong to the gang that has been raiding my herds and last night tried to destroy us by fire. You can’t expect much leniency from us under the circumstances. Still, if you give us any assistance in founding up Megget, we’ll not forget it.”

“Well, I’ll do all I can, honest I will, Mr. Wilder.”

“Don’t trust him, Wilder,” interposed the owner of the Three Stars, “When a man is so willing to turn on his pals, there’s something wrong.”

“See here, Jim Snider, you keep out of this. I’m talking to Mr. Wilder, not to you. He’s square. If it was only you, all your ponies couldn’t drag a word out of me!” snapped Lawrence.

This retort angered the owner of the Three Stars, but before he could say anything the proprietor of the Half-Moon exclaimed:

“If you can give me any reason why I should believe you, Lawrence, do so.”

“That’s easy,” returned the captive, and without wasting words, he related the incidents of the pursuit of the three boys, Megget’s signals, the order to set the fire and his own action that alone had saved the herd at the pool from destruction.

In silence, now looking at one another in amazement and then at the speaker, the cowboys listened.

“That’s a likely story, throwing your tobacco away,” sneered Snider.

“I believe it,” announced Larry calmly. “The only way I knew it was a man I’d discovered was because I heard him say twice I’ve found it.'”

This confirmation of his words from the very one who had captured him gave Lawrence heart, and quick to see the advantage it gave him, he pressed it, saying:

“There, you see, I’m telling you straight. And everything else I’ve said is just as true.”

“Why didn’t you strike for the hills when you recovered your senses?” asked Mr. Wilder. “You would have been safe there, both from Megget and from us.”

“Because I wanted my tobacco.”

Whatever doubt was in the mind of the Half-Moon owner as to whether or not Lawrence had been telling the truth was dispelled by this answer.

Indeed even the owner of the Three Stars was convinced by the answer, and after a whispered consultation with Mr. Wilder, the latter announced:

“I have this proposition to make you, Lawrence. Your act in refusing to obey Megget, which beyond doubt has saved my cattle at the pool, shows you are not thoroughly bad. Therefore, if you will lead us by the shortest trail to the headquarters at the Lost Lode and help us round up Megget and his gang, I will give you a job on my ranch.”

For a moment Lawrence gazed at the ranchman as though unable to believe his ears, but the kindly light in Mr. Wilder’s eyes reassured him and he replied:

“Will I? Say, Bobby Lawrence knows a white man when he meets one. Give me a horse and I’ll have you at the Lost Lode before dark to-night!”

CHAPTER XXIII

IN THE MOUNTAINS

Openly the owner of the Three Stars objected to the proposition of providing the erstwhile raider with a pony.

“If we’re going to trust Lawrence to lead us to the mine, we can certainly trust him with a horse,” declared Mr. Wilder. “Horace, climb up behind Tom and let Lawrence have your mount.”

Quickly the change was made, and again the party advanced.

“To think we were within two miles of meeting Megget again,” exclaimed Tom as they rode along. “I’m afraid we would not have got away from him so well this time.”

As he heard the remark, Lawrence turned and looked the boy over from head to foot, finally saying with a smile:

“So you are the lad Gus ran foul of up in Oklahoma?”

“Yes, but my brother was with me.”

“Which is he?”

“The one who found you.”

At this information Lawrence threw back his head and laughed heartily. “My, but that is a good one,” he ejaculated when he had recovered from his merriment. “You tenderfeet make a monkey of Gus and then capture one of his men. I’ll let Gus know it was you who found me, if I never speak again. It will make him more angry than anything else could.”

To their surprise, the ranchers learned that the Lost Lode was only about five miles from the plains and that it was at the foot of one of the mountains, instead of high up in them, with a splendid valley where the cattle could graze close beside it.

“Why, I’ve ridden through that place at least twice,” asserted Pete as he recognized Lawrence’s description of the spot, “but never a sign of cattle or mine have I seen.”

“You noticed there was heavy woods on both sides, didn’t you?” returned the former raider, smiling.

“Yes.”

“Well, that explains why you didn’t learn anything, though of course it might be that no cattle were in the valley when you struck it.”

This explanation only served to arouse the curiosity of the hearers the more.

“The woods are the thing,” he continued. “Every time any one comes along, we drive the cattle into them and no one would think to look for the entrance to a mine among the trees.”

“But how does it happen you have never been taken by surprise?” queried Mr. Wilder.

“Because when we had steers in the valley we always kept a lookout. There’s a cliff just above the mine from which a man can see the trail for at least two miles.”

“Then won’t some one discover us?” asked Bill.

“Not if we hurry. Every man jack of Megget’s gang is out on this raid. All we need to do is to get there first.”

“How about that fellow who was with you?” Bill inquired. “Won’t he be on the lookout?”

“Who, Red Ike? Not much. He’ll be too anxious to tell Gus about me. He knows his chief was going to cut across to join Vasquez and the others, and he’ll follow. They’ll be so tickled at the thought you all were lost in the fire they won’t hurry much. Still, if we’re going to round them up, we must get there before dark to-night. There’s a spot just before you enter the valley where we can lie in wait and get them all.”

“No, that won’t do,” declared Mr. Wilder. “I want to capture them without resorting to firearms, if possible. While, of course, if it should be necessary, I would sanction shooting, I much prefer to take the men prisoners and turn them over to the sheriff and the law.”

At first Lawrence could scarcely believe his ears. His creed had been force, supported by quick use of weapons, not law, and it seemed incredible to him that a man who had suffered from the raids of the cattle thieves should not take justice in his own hands when opportunity presented. But he suddenly realized that he was dealing with a new kind of man that he had never been brought in contact with, an honorable man, and his admiration for the owner of the Half-Moon increased a hundredfold.

Some time, however, was required to reconcile himself to his new scheme of life, but of a sudden he burst into a roar of merriment.

“We’ll do it, and without a shot. Say, Mr. Wilder, it will break Gus’ heart to think he was caught without any gun play.”

“That’s just it. Most of the power men like Megget have is because of the fear the very mention of their names inspires.

“But I don’t mean to preach a sermon. What I want to know is, How do you propose to capture Megget without trouble?”

“Wait till they are asleep. They’ll have a celebration when they reach the mine and afterward we can hog-tie them and they will never know it.”

Without vouchsafing any comment, the owner of the Half-Moon reined away from the strange guide, and, as Snider joined him, discussed the situation thoroughly.

The questioning of Lawrence, however, did not cease when the ranchmen left him. The four boys had listened eagerly, and when the opportunity presented deluged him with inquiries.

“Are there really ghosts in the Lost Lode?” queried Horace.

“None but very live ones,” grinned the former raider. “Vasquez started that story to keep people from coming into the valley. Many a time we’ve chased men in the night when they came near.”

The chums, however were more interested in learning whether or not there was rich ore in the mine.

“Probably there is,” explained Lawrence, “but it would require a lot of drilling and sinking of shafts. What silver could be got out, Vasquez has taken. He was planning to use the money from the cattle captured in the raid to buy machinery and begin work.”

Disappointed to think they would not be able to pick up chunks of the ore, the comrades lapsed into silence till Tom suddenly bethought him of the men he had seen crossing the cliff on the night of their hunting trip, and he lost no time in asking if they were some of Megget’s gang.

“Must have been Gus and the boys who were with him up in Oklahoma,” declared the guide. “There’s a trail from that direction to the mine. Now you mention it, I remember he spoke of having seen a party of horsemen. It’s a good thing for you he didn’t know who it was. If he had, he was so angry at your outwitting him that he would surely have made trouble.”

Further questioning, however, was prevented by the arrival of the troop at the trail.

“There are my marks,” exclaimed the younger of the chums, pointing to the branches he had broken. But no one paid him heed, for with the arrival at the hills the serious work began and the ranchmen were busy issuing instructions.

CHAPTER XXIV

CAPTURING THE CATTLE THIEVES

As they wound in and out among the hills and rocks, now ascending, now going down steep pitches, the silence of their surroundings and the realization that they were bent on a dangerous mission sobered the boys and few words did they speak.

Once or twice the line halted as the leaders heard some sound that roused their suspicions, and several times Sandy and Nails dropped back. But nothing untoward occurred, and late in the afternoon they descended into the valley that was the headquarters of the raiders.

“We’re in time; there’s no one here,” announced Lawrence after an examination of the ground for fresh horse or cattle tracks.

Remembering their guide’s statement about the cliff on which the lookout was posted when the raiders were at the mine, die boys sought it with their eyes. But though they scanned both sides of the mountains, all they could see was trees.

Horace was on the point of mentioning the fact when the word was passed back to dismount, and, leading their horses, they were soon within the protection of the woods.

“Any of the ponies likely to whinny?” asked Lawrence as they halted in a glen.

“Yes, Blackhawk,” answered Horace. “It was he that gave warning of Jeffreys’ approach.”

“Then we’ll take them all pretty well up into the woods. He won’t be able to scent when he’s above where Megget and the others will enter the valley.”

“Which way will they come?” asked Mr. Wilder.

“The opposite end from the way we did,” responded the former raider. “That’s why I’m taking our ponies to a place on this side.”

“Seems to me we’re leaving too much to this fellow who’s gone back on his former pals,” whispered the owner of the Three Stars to Mr. Wilder. “It’s all right if he plays fair, but if he doesn’t we’ll be in a pretty mess.”

“I believe he is acting square with us. Still it won’t do to take chances,” returned the other ranchman, and calling to Lawrence, he asked where the mine was.

“It’s about two hundred yards to the right, Mr. Wilder. I’ll show you when we get up on top of the cliff. There’s a big dead tree in front of it, so you can’t miss it, even in the night, for the bark has been peeled off it by lightning and the wind, so that it stands out like a white specter in the darkness.”

Deeming it inadvisable to unsaddle the horses, in case they should need them suddenly, the cowboys close-hobbled them on a plateau to which Lawrence guided them and then followed him to the ledge.

No need was there for the tree that marked the mine to be pointed out to them, for as the men looked down each one saw it.

To the east and to the west the ledge commanded a view of the trails, and as they gazed along them, the owner of the Half-Moon exclaimed:

“I don’t wonder no one can surprise Megget with such a lookout. Why, it’s practically impossible to approach without being seen by a man on guard.”

“The only time is at night,” returned Lawrence. “And, thanks to the loneliness of the place and the stories of ghosts, no one has ever tried to pass through or even come in at night while I’ve been with the gang.”

“Don’t start talking about ghosts or you’ll get us all nervous,” said Mr. Wilder, fearing the effect on his men. “Now that we’ve seen where the mine is, suppose you take us where you think we had better wait till we make the round-up.”

“That’s right here,” rejoined Lawrence. “We can see Megget and the others when they arrive by being here.”

“True enough, but how about the guard they send up?”

“There won’t be any to-night, don’t worry about that. They’ll be too busy celebrating your supposed loss in the fire last night.”

This grim reminder of their escape caused all of the ranchers to smile, and without further objection the men made themselves comfortable while they waited the arrival of the raiders.

Huddled together, the boys sat where they could watch the trail.

Of a sudden Tom grabbed his brother by the arm and pointed to where several specks were moving.

In silence they watched as more and more came into view, and then Larry cried out:

“Here they come!”

Eager with excitement, the others crowded forward to catch a glimpse of the men who had caused them so much trouble.

“Keep down!” snapped Lawrence. “Vasquez has an eye like a hawk.”

No second warning did the cowboys need, and dropping flat on their stomachs, they watched the raiders draw nearer and nearer.

Because of the cattle, their approach was slow, and it was fully an hour after the chums had sighted them before they reached the valley.

“That’s Vasquez and Gus in the lead,” announced the man who had forsaken his life of wrong-doing. And as the other raiders rode into sheltered grazing ground he mentioned them by name.

“There are only nineteen of them. I thought Nails said there were twenty,” exclaimed Bill.

“So there were till Lawrence joined us,” rejoined his father. “Thank goodness, my short-horn Durhams are all right. Now be quiet. It would be too bad to spoil everything when things are going so well for us.”

Instantly the men obeyed, sitting with eyes and ears alert for any sight or sound that should proclaim the approach of a guard.

But twilight fell and none came, as Lawrence had predicted.

Sounds of revelry, broken now and then by the lowing of the cattle, were constant. In due time the moon rose and with its coming the cowboys grew impatient.

The ranchmen, however, refused to move till no sound from the raiders could be heard.

“It’s midnight,” announced Mr. Wilder, looking at his watch. “They must be asleep, by this time. We’ll chance it, anyhow. Careful, every one. Come, Lawrence.”

Overjoyed that the time for action had arrived, the boys followed their guide, halting at the edge of the valley.

Ordering the others to wait, the owner of the Half-Moon and the former raider glided noiselessly toward the mine.

All about were signs of the celebration in which the thieves had indulged, and their loud snores told how sound asleep they were.

Confident the time was ripe for action, the two scouts returned to their impatient fellows.

“Pete, Sandy, Nails, Skinny, Lawrence, you take the ropes and do the hog-tying. The rest of you have your rifles ready for use. But don’t shoot till I give the word,” commanded Mr. Wilder. Opening the ropes so they could use them rapidly, the men selected for the binding of the raiders moved forward, closely followed by the others, guns ready for action.

Signing to Sandy and Skinny to tie the men lying outside, Lawrence led the others into the mine.

More like a cavern did it seem to them than anything else as they cast a hurried glance about the rock-walled room which two flickering torches lighted.

Sprawled upon the floor lay the raiders, and to them Pete and Nails turned their attention, while Lawrence glided among them, peering into their faces.

Watching for the slightest move, stood a dozen of the cowboys, with Mr. Wilder and the four lads.

Of a sudden Lawrence stooped down, worked his hand rapidly, then rose, a smile on his face, and continued his search till he found another form, when he repeated the operation.

Gliding to the owner of the Half-Moon, he whispered:

“I’ve bound Megget and Vasquez. If they wake up now it doesn’t matter.”

CHAPTER XXV

HOMEWARD

Having made fast the leaders, for he knew that with them rendered powerless no effective opposition would be made by the others should they be aroused, Lawrence returned to the task of “hog-tying,” and in a few minutes every cattle thief in the cave had been securely bound.

“Well, it has been easier to round up Megget and his gang than I ever imagined it could be, thanks to you, Lawrence,” exclaimed Mr. Wilder as they left the mine to join the others.

“It was no fun at all,” protested Horace, and his opinion voiced the sentiments of the cowboys. “Can’t we wake them up or do something to let them know they’ve been captured?”

“You’d have some trouble in rousing them, son,” replied his father. “They’ve been drinking too heavily.”

“That’s what,” agreed the former raider. “You could ride over them and they would not budge.”

“It’s the only time I ever knew the drinking of too much liquor to do good,” chuckled Mr. Wilder. “That is, good to us. I don’t suppose our prisoners will share our opinion, though, when they awake.”

When the raiders had been bound the owner of the Three Stars had sent his men to bring down all the ponies, that the animals might be relieved of their saddles and enjoy the tender grass in the valley. And no sooner had Blackhawk reached the open than he gave an ear-splitting whinny which was answered by several of the raiders’ horses.

At the racket two or three of the thieves awoke and tried to get up.

For a moment the men blinked at the sight of the cowboys. Then, their senses returning, they discovered they were tied hand and foot, and in a trice they were yelling like a band of Indians.

“Go it! Go it!” howled the cowboys.

The shouts roused the prisoners in the cave, and their yells of rage added to the pandemonium.

“Come on in to see Megget,” exclaimed Lawrence. “I say, Mr. Wilder, can’t Larry and Tom go in first alone? You promised, you know.”

Willing that his men should have their fun, the owner of the Half-Moon laughingly consented.

And with the others following close, the brothers went into the cave.

Entering thoroughly into the spirit of the occasion, Larry approached the struggling chief.

“Why, how do you do again, Mr. Megget?” he exclaimed, bowing in mock deference. “What’s the trouble? You seem to be down and out. Quite a difference from when you were teasing me at that station in Oklahoma, eh?”

As Megget recognized the brothers his face grew terrible to see, and, summoning all his strength, he leaped to his feet.

But Lawrence had tied his ankles so tight he could not keep his balance, and the raider pitched forward while Mr. Wilder and the others rushed in to make sure he did not harm the boys.

At the sight of the men he thought burned, the leader of the raiders lay trembling like a leaf.

“You see you can’t raid the Half-Moon herd with impunity,” exclaimed Mr. Wilder sternly. “Come on, boys, let’s go outside. These men are not pleasant companions.” And turning on his heel, he led the way from the mine.

Appointing Pete, Sandy and two others to stand guard to make sure none of the prisoners broke their bonds, Mr. Wilder ordered the others to turn in.

Some time it took them to get to sleep, but when they did they slept soundly, and it was broad daylight when they awoke.

After a hearty breakfast, they were discussing the best way to get their prisoners to Tolopah when a body of horsemen galloped into the valley.

For the moment the ranchmen and cowboys thought they were partners of the raiders and quickly they sprang for their guns. But the next minute their alarm vanished.

“It’s Shorty Jenks and the sheriff of Tolopah!” yelled Skinny. And such, indeed, it proved to be, together with a score of deputies.

Hearty were the greetings exchanged by the sheriffs and the ranch owners, and the former were elated when they learned of the successful round-up of the cattle thieves.

Deeming it unwise to start to drive out the cattle so late In the day, they whiled away the time exploring the mine, where, to the delight of the boys, they were able to dig out several small pieces of almost pure silver ore.

Without adventure the day passed and at dawn the next morning the start was made.

The prisoners, their legs tied together under their ponies and guarded by the deputies, led the procession, followed by the sheriffs, the ranch owners and the lads. Behind them the cowboys drove the cattle.

Able to travel faster than the steers, Mr. Wilder ordered his men to drive to the pool, picking up the fifty head on the way, after which he told them to come to the ranch for a jollification in honor of the capture.

Reaching the plains In good season, the ranchmen and the boys separated from the sheriffs and, urging their ponies, arrived at the home in time for dinner.

As they rode into the yard Mrs. Wilder greeted all joyfully. After the flush of delight at their safe return she asked about the raiders, clapping her hands at the information they had all been captured and were on their way to Tolopah.

“And now for some fun,” said Bill the next day.

With riding, hunting and fishing the chums passed many happy days. At the trial of Megget and his pals in Tolopah Tom and Larry attracted even more attention than the raiders, but they bore it like sensible boys, making light of their experience at the crossing and never referring to it when they could avoid so doing.

Upon the completion of the trial, with long sentences for the cattle thieves, from which fate Mr. Wilder’s influence saved Lawrence, the brothers returned to the ranch.

Great favorites with all the cowboys, they learned many a trick of roping steers and riding, and they were never so happy as when, together with Bill and Horace, they were allowed to pass a few days herding.

Upon the return from one of these trips Mr. Wilder handed Larry a telegram. Opening it, he read:

“We arrived in New York this morning. Received fifty thousand dollars from Uncle Darwent. We shall expect to meet you at the Hotel Boswell in Pittsburg Saturday. Love. FATHER.”

“It’s a good thing we came back to the ranch today,” exclaimed Horace. “To-morrow is Thursday, and you’ll be obliged to start then to reach Pittsburg on Saturday.”

“Yes, I suppose it is,” assented Larry. “Still we’ve had such a good time we hate to go home.”

“And leave the life in the saddle for life in Ohio,” added Tom.

THE END