“Did you hear that?” asked Ned in a whisper of his two chums.
“Sure,” nodded Jerry.
“What about it?” Bob said. “Hasn’t he got a right to buy cattle where he pleases?”
“Yes, but that’s dad’s ranch—his and your father’s,” went on Ned in low tones. “Maybe this man knows something about the stealing of the stock.”
“Well, don’t go up and ask him if he does,” returned Jerry, quickly, for Ned evinced a desire to approach the stranger.
“Huh! Think I’m as rash as that? But don’t you call it queer?” Norfloxacin
“Hum! Well, maybe,” said Jerry, slowly. He was not prompt to jump at conclusions.
“But can’t we do something?” Ned demanded. “Wouldn’t it be great if we got on the track of the thieves as easily as this?”
“It would be, only it’s too good to be true,” said Jerry. “But wait a bit. As long as he’s talking[82] as loudly as he is no one can call it impolite if we stand here and listen. Just see if we need any of these railway time-tables,” and he directed the attention of his chums to a rack of folders near the hotel desk. Taking out some of them, and pretending to look them over, gave a good excuse for lingering within hearing distance of the flashily dressed man who had announced he was a cattle buyer.
“So you’re going to get some of the Square Z stock; eh?” asked the man to whom the bediamonded one had spoken. “I do a little in that way myself, but the Square Z prices are too high for me. I can do better in other markets.”
“Too high! I don’t call what I pay too high!” boasted the speaker and he named a price “on the hoof” at which the other man exclaimed:
“Is that all you’re paying?”
“That’s all. I tell you it takes little ol’ Sid Munson to get the best of a deal!” and he patted his inflated chest in satisfaction.
“Munson, eh?” mused the other. “So that’s your name. I haven’t heard of you in the cattle business before. My name’s Johnson—Ed Johnson, and I’m from Omaha. But I want to tell you one thing, Mr. Munson, and I say it in all friendliness. If you’re only paying that much for cattle there’s something crooked somewhere.”
“Something crooked? What do you mean?”[83] and the voice of Mr. Munson expressed an amazement as great as was the surprise of the boys who were listening near the time-table rack.
“Oh, I don’t mean you, so don’t get roiled,” was the quiet response of Mr. Johnson. “I mean that the price you mentioned is lower than the lowest market quotations on live cattle that I’ve ever known, and there must be an African gentleman concealed somewhere in the fuel heap, as the poet says. I mean, if they’re quoting that price to you they must have an object in it. Maybe the cattle aren’t A, number one.”
“But they are!” exclaimed Munson. “I know, for I sold ’em at a good profit.”
“I should think you could, at the price you say you paid. Then if it isn’t the quality of the beef it’s something else. They may be stringing you along to get the best of you in some other deal. I’d watch out, if I were you.”
“Thanks. But don’t worry. I’ll take care of myself. It takes a pretty early bird to get the worm if little ol’ Sid Munson is after it!” and once more the man with the diamonds patted himself on the back, so to speak.
“Did you hear that?” asked Ned in a whisper, as the two men moved away.
“Couldn’t very well help hearing it,” assented Bob.
“Sort of queer,” commented Jerry.
“More than queer!” declared Ned when they were in the dining-room. “It’s a clue, I think, to the cattle——”
“Hush!” exclaimed Jerry with a warning glance; and he spoke only in time for at that moment the two men who had been talking in the corridor entered. They did not notice the boys but went to a table at the far end of the room, whence came murmurs of their talk about the cattle business. But the three chums could overhear no more because of the general din around them.
“Don’t give yourself away to them,” advised Jerry in a low voice.
“That’s right, I should be more careful,” admitted Ned. “But don’t you think there’s something in this?”
“Maybe more than we can tell at present,” agreed Jerry. “We’ll talk it over in our rooms.”
“It’s a clue, that’s what it is!” declared Ned when they were by themselves. “Either this man is one of the thieves, or he’s buying cattle from them. No wonder they can afford to sell below the market price when they don’t have to do anything to get their stock but run it off dad’s ranch. We’ve got to follow this fellow.”
“Well, maybe not exactly that,” said Jerry, slowly, “but I think it might be wise to pump him a bit. He’s made some advances to us, and it won’t look suspicious if we come back at him.”
“You’re not going to gamble with him, are you?” asked Bob in surprise.
“I should say not! There are other ways,” and Jerry smiled. “I guess we haven’t traveled around for nothing.”
But their plan of having further conversation with Mr. Sid Munson was not destined to be carried out just then. For when they looked for him around the hotel he had gone, and the clerk said he had given up his room.
The man who had given his name as Johnson was in evidence, however, but a bit of judicious questioning by the boys, after they had scraped an acquaintance by asking directions for getting about the city, convinced them that he knew no more of Munson, and the cheap cattle, than they themselves had overheard in the talk.
“We might as well get on with our trip,” advised Jerry the next morning, when it became evident that staying in Des Moines would not advance their case. “The sooner we get out to Square Z ranch and look for clues, the better, I think.”
“Same here!” agreed Ned and Bob.
The big automobile had been put in shape to make the rest of the trans-continental trip, Professor Snodgrass was gently but firmly persuaded to break away from his scientific friend, and once more the motor boys were on their way.
There was plenty of excitement along the route. Once they came within a narrow margin of toppling, car and all, over a high cliff while going along a narrow, perilous road. Again the professor went on a little side trip after some queer bug and became lost. They were a day finding him and he was quite exhausted and in great distress when he was found. So, taking it by and large, Ned, Bob and Jerry had plenty of adventures to keep them awake on the trip.
“And isn’t it just one dandy little refrigerator though?” asked Bob for perhaps the fiftieth time as he took some cold chicken from it one warm afternoon and proceeded to make sandwiches. “How would you like to be eating hot roast beef now?” and he looked at the thermometer which was creeping up toward ninety degrees in the shade.
“It’s certainly all right!” agreed Ned in a mumbly voice, for he was just then engaged in masticating one of the chicken sandwiches. “You didn’t make any mistake, Chunky. But I’m thinking we won’t need it much longer.”
“Why not?” asked Bob in surprise. “You’re not going to chuck it away, are you?”
“No, but we ought to be at Square Z in a day or so now, if our maps are any good. We’ll be in Medicine Bow by to-night, and it’s only about a hundred miles from there to dad’s place.”
“Good!” cried Jerry.
They reached Medicine Bow about supper time and put up over night. Early in the morning they were under way again, following the directions given them for reaching Square Z ranch. But they did not follow the directions closely enough and took the wrong trail. Consequently, when darkness was settling down they had not reached their destination and they decided they would have to wait until morning.
“But that needn’t worry us,” said Bob. “We’ve got fine shelter, even if it should rain, which it won’t. And the refrigerator——”
“Yes, one of us can crawl in there and sleep!” laughed Ned.
“Suppose we camp right here,” suggested Jerry, bringing the car to a stop. It was on a sort of wagon road that ran over a big grassy plain.
“This is as good as any,” agreed Ned. “I don’t see why we didn’t hit the ranch, though.”
They made their preparations for spending the night, not exactly in the open, for they had their shelter tent, but at least far from any habitation. There seemed no need of setting a watch and after an hour or two spent around the campfire, they turned into their bunks and were soon sound asleep.
It was still dark when Jerry was awakened by[88] hearing a movement outside the shelter curtains of their tent. It was as though some large body were being dragged over the ground, and there was a distant hum and murmur.
Then as the lad sat up on his cot to listen better he heard a voice saying distinctly:
“It’ll be easier to drive them over to the north I reckon. There aren’t many in this bunch and they’re quietin’ down.”
“Yes,” agreed someone else. “But for well brought up cattle these were as ornery a bunch as I ever seen. They’re all right now, though, an’ we can soon run ’em over.”
Jerry was out of bed in a hurry, and a second later had awakened Ned and Bob, but had prevented them from calling out by putting his hand over their mouths.
“Not a word!” he whispered in their ears. “But get up and put on some clothes. Also slip a gun in your pocket.”
“What for?” demanded Ned.
“Cattle thieves outside!” murmured Jerry.