Hint of a Mystery

“What’s that?” asked Jerry Hopkins, sharply. He had been reading over again a portion of his mother’s letter, and had not quite caught what Ned had said. The latter repeated his statement.
“Cattle rustlers! Plain thieves, in other words; eh?” exclaimed Jerry. “That’s no joke out West, I believe. In the early days ranch owners used to suffer big losses from the acts of rustlers, but I thought it had all died out.”
“It doesn’t seem to have done so—not on dad’s ranch,” went on Ned. “This letter from the foreman must have been quite a shock to him. He got it a day or so ago, I guess,” and Ned glanced at the date.
“I didn’t know your father was interested in a Western ranch,” remarked Jerry.
“It’s a comparatively new venture for dad—going into the cattle business,” Ned replied. “He figured, though, that with the price of beef as high as it is, and going higher, he could make money. Norfloxacin nicotinate. But I guess if this sort of thing keeps up he’ll come out the little end of the horn. I’ll read the letter to you.”
And while Ned’s chums gather around to hear the letter, which he prepared to explain, I will take just a moment to give my new readers, who may meet Ned, Bob and Jerry for the first time in this volume, an idea of the books that precede this.
Under the name, “The Motor Boys,” our three heroes made their first bow to the public. The boys lived in Cresville, not far from Boston, and had many good times together. Jerry Hopkins was the son of Mrs. Julia Hopkins, a wealthy widow. Aaron Slade, Ned’s father, was a prosperous department store keeper, and Andrew Baker was president of the largest bank in the city where he lived.
The boys’ first experiences with gasoline vehicles had to do with motorcycles, but it was not long before they had an automobile, and in that they took many trips, overland, into Mexico, over the plains and home again. Then the motor boys went in for boating, and sailed not only on the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans but in strange waters.
On many of their trips the boys were accompanied by Professor Uriah Snodgrass, and he did not balk even when they went in for airships, in[13] which line of locomotion they were very successful. Professor Snodgrass—at present an instructor in Boxwood Hall—was a great seeker after queer forms of insect life and his zeal sometimes got him into odd predicaments.
I had the pleasure, in a number of volumes, of telling you of the activities of the motor boys until it seemed there were no more worlds left for them to conquer. But they heard the call of the under sea, and, venturing into a submarine, they found life beneath the waves fully as remarkable as above, if not more so.
The parents of the boys began to think the lads were getting too much idle fun. They wanted their sons to have a better education. So our three heroes had been sent to a boarding school. “The Motor Boys at Boxwood Hall, or, Ned, Bob and Jerry as Freshmen,” the volume immediately preceding this, tells of new adventures for Ned Slade, Bob Baker and Jerry Hopkins.
Of the merry times they had, and how they were instrumental in “putting Boxwood Hall on the map,” in athletics, you may read in that book. This present story opens with the boys coming to an end of their first year in the place, with the prospect of a long summer vacation, and at this moment we find them puzzled over the foreman’s letter to Mr. Slade.
[14]
“He says,” began Ned, reading the missive again. “He says——”
“Who’s he?” demanded Jerry.
“Dick Watson, foreman of dad’s Square Z ranch,” explained Ned.
“Square Z ranch—what does that mean?” asked Bob.
“Guess you’ve forgotten all the western lingo you used to know, haven’t you?” Ned asked. “The brand on dad’s cattle is a Z in a hollow square, and his ranch is named that.”
“Cut out the explains,” begged Jerry, “and get down to facts. What about the cattle rustlers?”
“Well, Dick writes dad that a lot of his choice stock has been run off the ranch,” went on Ned, reading the letter and summarizing the information he gathered from it. “It isn’t the first time, it seems, for the thieving had been going on before dad bought the place. Dick was foreman then and dad kept him on,” Ned explained. “He’s one of the best there is, so all reports of him say.
“But he writes that never before were the cattle thieves so bold or so successful. They have wiggled out of every trap set for them and seem to laugh at the cowboys. Dad’s ranch isn’t the only one that has suffered either, for Dick tells of others. He ends up his letter by warning dad that he’ll have to do something if he doesn’t want to lose all he invested in the place.”
[15]
“And something ought to be done!” declared Bob. “Think of all the prospective roast beef that’s being stolen! Those cattle thieves ought to be—they ought to be——” and Bob paused to consider a punishment to fit the crime.
“They ought to be kept on a vegetable diet!” laughed Jerry. “That would leave so much more roast beef for Bob—eh, Chunky?”
“Well, I’d like a chance to chase after ’em,” declared the fat lad. “What’s your father going to do, Ned?”
“I don’t know. This is the first I have heard about it. I suppose I’d better send this letter back to him. He may want it to refer to.”
“Too bad we missed him—and my dad, too,” put in Bob. “I’m sorry I forgot about the gas, but——”
“Oh, well, there’s no use worrying about it now,” was Ned’s philosophical comment. He was now in better humor. “If I only had some of the money I’m sure dad would have given me——”
“Here!” cried Bob, eagerly producing a few bills. “Take half of this until you can get yours. I sha’n’t need it. Besides, I’ve got credit with the proctor.”
“I haven’t—worse luck,” grumbled Ned. “Well, I’ll take this, and make you an I. O. U. later. Thanks. And now let’s have a real meal. Ah, I beat you to it!” he exclaimed as he saw Bob[16] about to make the same suggestion. “We’ll eat and go back to Boxwood. Then I’ll write to dad and send him this letter.”
The meal progressed merrily. It was a holiday at the school, the occasion being the regatta on the lower end of the lake, and the boys, having already missed the racing, were in no haste to return.
“Make sure you have plenty of gas this time, Bob,” advised Ned, as the three went down to the dock where the motor boat was tied.
The trip back was uneventful, if we except the fact that Bob nearly fell overboard when making a sudden grab for his hat that had blown off.
d8937438gw1es4qdwsllnj20c80lpabn“Yes, this sure is queer business,” said Ned, musingly, when the three chums were gathered in his room, which adjoined the apartments of Bob and Jerry.
“What’s queer?” the tall lad questioned, rather absent-mindedly.
“This cattle-stealing out on dad’s ranch,” and Ned glanced over the foreman’s letter again.
“Seems to interest you,” observed Bob.
“Sure! Why wouldn’t it? What gets me, though, is why the foreman or some of his cowboys on the ranch haven’t been able to get on the trail of the thieves. Watson seems to think there is something of a mystery about it.”
“How mystery?” inquired Jerry.
“In the way the rustlers cover their tracks after they run off a bunch of choice steers. There’s something queer about that. I may have to take a trip out there myself, and help clear up the mystery,” and Ned assumed a whimsical air of importance.
“Mystery; eh?” cried Chunky. “Say, I wouldn’t mind taking a chance at that myself!”
“Not so bad,” came drawlingly from Jerry Hopkins. “We haven’t made our vacation plans yet, and trying to find and frustrate a band of mysterious cattle rustlers might not be the worst way of having a good time.”
Something seemed to startle Ned Slade into action. He folded the foreman’s letter, slapped it sharply on the edge of the table and cried:
“Fellows, I’ve got the greatest idea ever! If we three——”
There came an imperative knock on the door, followed by the command:
“Come on! Open up there!”
Startled, the three chums looked at one another.