The startling announcement of “cattle thieves outside” galvanized Ned and Bob into action.
Outside the shuffle of countless hoofs could be plainly heard, and there was the murmur of men’s voices, though the words were not distinguishable. In a whisper Jerry told what he had heard, while he and his chums slipped on some of their clothes and got their revolvers.
“It’s the cattle thieves running off some of the Square Z stock as sure as mustard!” declared Jerry.
“Think we can catch ’em?” murmured Bob.
“Well, we’ll make a good try, anyhow. At least we can scare ’em so they’ll leave the cattle, and maybe we can round up the steers and save ’em.”
“What’s your plan?” asked Ned of his tall chum.
“Well, I guess it’s best to surprise ’em,” whispered Jerry. “That seems to be the only way now, for we don’t know how many of ’em there may be. Are you ready?”
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“Ready,” assented the two others.
“Then out on the jump, fire in the air and give ’em the surprise of their lives.”
But that plan was not destined to be carried out, for just as the three boys, who had not awakened Professor Snodgrass, were about to leap outside their shelter there came a sharp hail and the sound of a shot. Jerry, who was at the flaps of the tent, saw a flash and sliver of flame cut the blackness of the night.
“Throw up your hands, you in there!” came the sharp command.
“What is it?” asked a second voice in the darkness, as the boys slid out of the tent.
“I can’t make out what it is, Gimp,” was the answer. “But I’ve got ’em covered. And I’m a two-gun man,” he added evidently for the information of the boys. “I can shoot as well with my left hand as with my right, so be governed accordingly. Parson, you and Gimp ride up and see what that outfit is. If I ain’t greatly mistook it’s what we’ve been lookin’ for, though how in the name of a chuck wagon they make use of that contraption is more than I can remonstrate.”
“All right, Hinkee; but keep your big words for the round-up,” was the laughing advice from somewhere out of the darkness.
The boys heard horses galloping toward them. The silence of the night was further broken by[91] the uneasy movement of a large bunch of cattle that could dimly be observed off to the left.
“Take it easy now, whoever you are,” was the advice given by one of the approaching horsemen. “We’ve both got guns that go off mighty easy, and Hinkee Dee back there’s got two more.”
“Isn’t this rotten luck!” exclaimed Ned in disgust. “Just as we were going to get them they get us!”
“They haven’t got us yet,” observed Jerry, significantly in a low voice.
“Are you going to fight?” asked Bob.
“Not with guns, no. But let’s wait and see who they are.”
648ac377gw1f4i5907namj20fa0kdn0u“Cattle thieves! Who else?” asked Ned, indignantly.
The tramping of the horses ceased. The boys saw two mounted figures confronting them as they stood outside the tent that was attached to the rear of their car. Then a match flared and they blinked in the glare.
“Sufferin’ horned toads!” came the explanation. “They’re nothin’ but boys, and tenderfeet at that! Drop them guns, boys. It ain’t healthy to play with men’s tools that way in this country! Drop ’em!” and the command was not one to be lightly disregarded.
Ned, Bob and Jerry let their revolvers fall into the soft grass at their feet.
“That’s better,” said the other man, who seemed to have lighted a small torch. It was a patent pipe lighter, as they learned afterward.
“They’re sure enough young chaps,” was this man’s observation.
“That’s right, Gimp,” agreed the other, whom the boys guessed to be the one who had been called “Parson.” “It’s all right, Hinkee!” he called to the unseen third. “We’ve got ’em, such as they are. Ride up if you can leave the cattle.”
“All right,” answered a voice from out of the distant gloom. “Are you and Fatty there?”
“Yes,” was echoed.
“Well, look after the bunch. Don’t drive ’em any more until I say so.”
“There’s quite a crowd of ’em,” murmured Jerry.
“More’n enough to handle you—so be nice,” drawled the Parson. “If you’ve got a light, maybe you’d better show it, and we can get this business over with quicker. My fusee won’t burn forever.”
“I’ll light up,” said Jerry, moving to enter the tent again.
“And don’t light on a gun, whatever you do,” was the warning given in ominous tones.
For an instant Ned and Bob thought Jerry was about to put into execution some plan either to escape or to capture their captors. And they were[93] disappointed when he came out with a portable electric lantern that gave good light.
“Now then, boys, give an account of yourselves!” sharply exclaimed the third man who had ridden up. He seemed to be in command, though his small size, in contrast to his companions, and his not very dignified appellation of Hinkee Dee, seemed hardly in keeping with his leadership.
“Why should we account to you?” demanded Jerry, sparring for time.
“Because I said to!” was the curt response.
“Huh! This is a free country!” broke in Ned. “Besides, we’re not in the habit of being ordered about by cattle thieves!”
The three men on their horses started and looked at one another.
“Cattle thieves!” ejaculated Hinkee Dee. “Cattle—huh!” and he seemed too surprised for further observation.
“That’s what we’re hunting for,” went on Ned. “And we’d have had you, only you were too quick for us. But——”
“Say, who do you think you are?” demanded Hinkee Dee in contemptuous tones.
“I believe they really do take us for cattle thieves!” exclaimed another of the cowboys.
There was some laughter, and Hinkee Dee remarked:
“Well, then it’s an even guess, for that’s what[94] I think they are. Who are you?” he shot out suddenly.
It dawned on Ned and his chums that they had, perhaps, made a mistake.
“Tell ’em who we are, and what we’re after,” suggested Bob, in a low voice. “They might shoot without giving us a chance.”
Thereupon Ned explained, saying that he was the son of one of the owners of the ranch, that they had come out to try to capture the cattle rustlers but had lost their way.
“You’re not so very much lost,” said Hinkee Dee, drawlingly. “You’re on part of Square Z ranch now and we’re part of the outfit.”
“Are you, really?” asked Ned. “Not that I mean to doubt your word,” he went on quickly, as he discerned a startled movement among the cowboys, “but it seems very strange—meeting you at night this way.”
“Your outfit struck us as queer, too,” said one of the night-riders. “We’ve sorter been on the lookout for rustlers, but we haven’t had any luck trailing ’em.”
“And I don’t believe they’ll have any better,” struck in the sarcastic voice of Hinkee Dee. “I s’pose you’ve got something to prove who you are?” he suggested, questioningly.