If Mr. Sid Munson, as he had called himself, was at all surprised to see the boys under the present circumstances, he made no mention of it. From his manner and air one would have thought it was something he had expected all along, and that he would have been disappointed if he had not encountered them. Smiling, his diamonds sparkling in the sun, and his red tie matching the healthful color of his face he came on, breezily—airily.
“Well, boys, how are you?” he exclaimed genially. “You look just the same as ever. Quite a change from the hotel where we first met, though. I’ll wager you didn’t expect to see me here.”
“No, we didn’t, for a fact,” answered Ned.
“And by the tone of your voice you’re not glad to see me,” went on Mr. Munson in no whit abashed. “Never mind. I’ll not give your game away.”
“How do you know we have a game?” asked Jerry, and, for the life of him, he could not keep[119] the coldness out of his voice. Verily, neither he nor his chums were glad to see the flashy man.
“Everybody has a game—life’s a game,” returned the man. “I have mine, and I play it my own way. You have yours and you play it according to your lights. So, as I said, I’ll not give you away. Are you making this to sell?” and he nodded toward the airship.
“No, just for pleasure,” responded Bob. “And if you would just as soon we’d rather you wouldn’t mention it to anyone. We want it to be a surprise.”
“I see!” exclaimed Mr. Munson. “Now that’s the way to talk,” for Bob had spoken earnestly. “Well, I’ll keep mum about it. I suppose I’m near the Square Z ranch?” he questioned.
“Are you going there to buy cattle?” asked Jerry. Neither he nor his chums had mentioned to anyone on the ranch what they had overheard Mr. Munson saying in the hotel. They had regarded it as part of the stolen cattle mystery they were to solve, and they wanted to solve it in their own way. But the sudden disappearance of the man they suspected had rather puzzled them. Now he had bobbed up again, most unexpectedly.
“Well, I don’t know—I might make an offer for some,” was the guarded answer. “I don’t know just what my plans are. I came on from Des Moines, stopping off at several places. I’ve[120] been riding sitting down so much that I decided to walk for a change. I told the man who drove me over here from the station to set me down about five miles from Square Z and I’d hoof it the rest of the way. But I guess he wasn’t a very good judge of distance. I’ve walked five miles already and I don’t seem to have arrived.”
“It’s only about three miles further on,” said Jerry. “We—we are sort of stopping there and——” norfloxacin EP8.0
“Oh, don’t bother to explain!” broke in Mr. Munson. “I don’t want to know anybody’s business, any more than I want them to know mine. It’s all in the game.”
“If you wait a while we’ll take you back in the car,” said Jerry, nodding toward the big automobile. “We want to finish work on this to have it ready for a flight as soon as possible.”
“And are you really going up in that yourselves?”
“Sure,” and Jerry’s voice was more cordial now. He had quickly formed a resolution, later shared by his chums, that they must, if necessary, placate this man. Though they suspected him of having dealings with the cattle thieves he might, or might not, be one of them to the extent of sharing in their ill-gotten gains. Of course, there was the benefit of the doubt to be given, Jerry reasoned, and if they wanted this man’s silence, as[121] indeed they did regarding the airship, it would be best to have him on their side rather than against them. And he seemed inclined to be on their side.
“Well, I’ve seen some of them in the air, with fellows in them,” went on Mr. Munson, “but I never really had a chance to look at one close by, nor talk to anyone who had flown. I always supposed a chap had to be rather light and airy to go up in one, but you boys seem husky enough.”
“Oh, our machine can carry a good weight,” Jerry said. “We could even take you up, and I guess you’ll go over two hundred.”
“A little, yes. But you’ll never take me up—not if I know it!” and he shook his head heartily. “I’ll take a chance in your auto, but not in your airship. What do you expect to do with it, anyhow? Oh, I forgot—no questions asked—that’s part of the game—forget it.”
Indeed, the boys were glad not to have to answer. They had hopes of accomplishing several things by giving an exhibition flight over the ranch. The chief was that they might startle the cowboys and cause them to become more friendly. For Jerry and his chums felt that the ranch employees could, if they wished, give better clues to the cattle thieves than had yet been forthcoming.
Mr. Munson, as indeed all casual visitors were, was made welcome by the foreman of Square Z[122] ranch. The newcomer explained that he was on cattle business, but he did not go into details nor was he asked. He told of having met the boys on his way to the ranch. His tale ended there, and no mention was made of the airship.
At supper that night Hinkee Dee, in his usual sneering, chaffing way, asked:
“Well, have you got the cattle rustlers yet, tenderfeet?”
“We have their address,” answered Jerry, good-naturedly.
“What!” exclaimed Mr. Munson in real or simulated surprise. “Are you bothered with cattle raids here, too?”
“Sure. Haven’t you heard about it?” answered Mr. Watson. “But I forgot, you just arrived.”
“They’re a pest—those rustlers,” declared the Parson.
“They’re worse than that,” came from Gimp. “You never know when they’re going to hit you—it’s like the toothache. And they’re such ornery critters. Too lazy to do an honest man’s work, they make the other fellow work for ’em. I’d like to get a bunch of ’em within reach of my gun,” and he tapped his big revolver significantly.
“Cattle rustlers, eh?” said Mr. Munson, musingly. “I’m sorry to hear that. It may interfere with my business,” though he did not say in what way. “I heard rumors in several places where I[123] stopped that they were up to their old tricks,” he resumed, “but I supposed you ranchmen had organized to drive them out of business.”
“We did once,” said Mr. Watson. “Back in ninety-two, when some of the small settlers around here got so bold in their cattle rustling that they’d run a herd off under your nose, we formed a small army, and started to round up the suspects.”
“That was the Johnson County Raid, wasn’t it?” asked Ned.
“Yes. But how’d you know?” the foreman questioned.
“I read about it,” Ned replied.
“Yes, we had quite a time then,” went on Mr. Watson. “We trailed some of the suspects to a lonely cabin and surrounded ’em. Two was killed and then the whole lot got roused up and they came back at us. We’d have been in a bad way ourselves only some United States troops heard of our plight and rescued us. But it stopped cattle rustling for a time. Now they’re at it again, and the worst of it here with us is that we can’t get a single clue.”
“That’s mean,” agreed Mr. Munson. “Well, I’m in no particular hurry and if I hear anything that would help I’ll let you know.”
“Oh, don’t tell us—tell these boys!” sneered Hinkee Dee, nodding at the motor boys. “They’re the only original cattle detectives.”
“Is that so? Are you really after the thieves?” asked Mr. Munson.
“Well, my father, one of the owners of this ranch, said we could try our hands,” replied Ned, “especially after these gentlemen had failed,” and he looked at the assistant foreman, who laughed.
“Well, you might stumble on the trail just as well as anyone else,” agreed Mr. Munson. “I wish you luck. It’s no fun to raise choice cattle and have them stolen.”
Jerry and his chums wondered whether the man would refer to his boast that he had bought Square Z cattle below the market price, but he said nothing, nor did they.
The next day when Mr. Munson had gone with the foreman to look over the round-up of some distantly pastured cattle, and when Professor Snodgrass had gone afield on his usual bug-hunting expedition, the three boys talked matters over.
“We want to make this airship flight impressive,” Jerry said.
“How are we going to do it?” asked Bob.
“Well, my notion is to start a discussion of it say to-night after supper. I understand most of the cowboys don’t believe in airships. Few, if any of them, have ever seen one, for they haven’t been away from the ranch in a good while. They may have read about long flights, but they don’t believe much of what they read. So they’ll be all[125] the more surprised when they see us flying over their heads. I think the best time to do it will be right after dinner some day, when they’re sitting in the shade smoking and telling yarns. We can come along just then.”
“Good!” agreed Ned and Bob.
To prepare the minds of the cowboys for the surprise, or, rather, to ascertain their feelings on the matter, Jerry started the ball rolling that night by reading from a paper something about a woman having made a particularly long flight.
“Don’t you believe it!” declared Hinkee Dee. “No human bein’ can fly through the air, and never will.”
This suited the boys, as the assistant foreman was the chief one they wanted to impress. So Jerry kept the talk going by adding:
“You don’t know what you’re talking about! Of course, anybody can fly if they have the nerve.”
“I suppose you think you have!” sneered Hinkee Dee.
“Yes, I have—we all have,” was Jerry’s quiet answer.
“Let me out of here!” laughed the man. “I—I feel sorter sick. You make me tired!”
“Just the condition I want him in,” Jerry said to his chums as they went to bed that night.
Two days later the airship was ready for a flight. The engine had been tried and worked[126] perfectly. The boys had gone off as usual in their automobile and now, as the hour of noon approached, they awaited the favorable moment for approaching and hovering over Square Z ranch.
“Well, let her go,” said Jerry as he and his chums took their seats in the airship. The powerful motor hummed, the craft hesitated a moment and then shot swiftly over the smooth ground. Jerry turned on more gas, gave the control of the elevating rudder a shift and, as lightly and airily as a bird, the craft soared.
“Feels like old times!” shouted Bob in Jerry’s ear, but the engine, muffled as it was, made so much noise that the tall lad barely heard. He nodded his head in answer.
“They’re all there!” the lips of Ned formed as they came near the group of ranch houses. Looking down the boys could see the cowboys relaxing after dinner. Out of the air swooped down toward them the flying craft.