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Comrades of the Saddle by Frank V. Webster

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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

"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

"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

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

"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

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

"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

"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

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

"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

"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

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



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

"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

"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?"


"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

"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

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

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

"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."



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

"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

"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

"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

"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

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

"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

"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

"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

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.



"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

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

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

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.



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.

"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

"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

"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

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

"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

"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

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.



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

"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

"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

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

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

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

"What was it that young Alden mentioned about men crossing the

"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."



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

"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

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

"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

"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

"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

"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

"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.




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

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

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

"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.



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

"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

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