Ned, Bob and Jerry were perhaps better fitted to attempt to solve a mystery of this kind than most young men would have been. They had traveled considerably, and had been in strange situations. More than once they had had to do with secret passageways and queer tunnels which they had discovered only after long, tiresome search.
“But I never saw anything quite so plain as this,” confessed Jerry, as he and his chums rode around the sides of the V-shaped gulch. It was shaped like a V in two ways. That is, the entrance was of that character and the sides sloped down from the top; though because of the width of the floor, as it might be called, of the gulch the outline of the elevation would better be represented by the letter U.
The opening of the gulch was perhaps half a mile in width, and the two sides were a mile or more long. They came together, gradually converging, until they formed the inside of a sharp wedge.
“Now the question,” said Jerry, “is whether or not there is an opening in this V; and, if so—where?”
“Now you’ve said it!” exclaimed Ned. “Where? Beats any problem in geometry I ever tackled.”
“Well, come on, let’s be systematic about this,” suggested Jerry. “There are three of us, and we can divide this gulch into three parts.”
The tall lad indicated some natural landmarks on the rocky walls of the ravine. He would take from the entrance on the left to a third of the way down the side. From there, extending part way up the other side, and, of course, including the angle of the V, would be Bob’s portion. The remainder would be inspected by Ned.
“But Bob and I have done it all before,” objected Ned. “We didn’t find a thing.”
“And maybe we sha’n’t now,” admitted Jerry. “But it won’t be for lack of trying. Come on now, start.”
“And you can both meet me at the end of the gulch,” suggested Bob.
“Why meet you there?” Jerry asked.
“So you can eat,” was the ready response. “I’ve got the grub, you know.”
“Trust you for that,” laughed Ned. “But it’s a good idea all the same.”
The search began. The boys were sure the[160] cattle had been driven up to the entrance of the defile. In this they were supported by the cowboys who agreed to the same thing. But there was a division of opinion as to whether the steers had been driven into the gulch and held there for a time.
There were objections to this theory on the ground that in some cases pursuit had been made so soon after the raid that had the cattle been held in the gulch they would have been seen.
Of course, they might have been kept there for a little while, and then concealed, either further up the side of the mountain or among the low foothills. But searches in these places had failed to give any clue.
“The cattle come into this gulch,” was Jerry’s decision, “and we’ve got to find out how they are taken out without being seen.”
The boys searched the rocky sides of the gulch thoroughly. They even climbed part way up, but all to no purpose. When Jerry and Ned met with Bob in the angle, and began to eat, they were no nearer a solution of the mystery than at first.
“Well, I know one thing I’m going to do!” exclaimed Jerry, vigorously, as he washed down the last of his sandwich with a drink of water.
“What’s that?” queried Ned.
“I’m going up on top and look down. That’s getting a different viewpoint, and that’s a whole[161] lot, sometimes. Me for the top of the mountain.”
“Well, maybe that wouldn’t be a bad idea,” conceded Ned. “Go to it!”
“But not to-day,” objected Bob. “I’m about tuckered out.”
“You’re getting too fat!” laughed Jerry. “But I’m in no hurry about it to-day. To-morrow or day after will do as well. And I have an idea we’ll discover something.”
“It’s going to be a climb,” observed Bob, dubiously, as they rode out of the gulch on their homeward way and looked up at the steep sides of the mountain. Then they started for the house.
“Didn’t bring ’em back with you this time, did you?” sneered Hinkee Dee as the boys rode into the corral at the ranch.
“No, but we’re on their track,” replied Jerry, good-naturedly. “And we’ll have them in a few days now.”
“Well, give ’em my regards,” said the cowboy.
“Why, are the rustlers friends of yours?” asked Ned in drawling tones.
Hinkee Dee turned like a flash.
“What do you mean by that?” he cried.
“Just the same as you meant,” was Ned’s cool rejoinder; and, after a moment’s insolent scrutiny of the lad, Ned never flinching under the gaze, the assistant foreman swung away muttering.
“You an’ him don’t seem to pull together very well,” observed Gimp, leaping from his pony.
“That doesn’t worry me any,” said Ned.
The trip to the top of the mountain required a little more preparation than the one on which the boys had fruitlessly examined the gulch. They could not make it in one day, and had to arrange to spend the night out. But the weather was fine and they knew they would enjoy the excursion, since they could take a shelter tent along.
“I’ll go with you,” declared Professor Snodgrass. “You are going to remain out all night and that is just what I want. I am making a special study of night moths now, and I imagine I may find a new species on the mountain top. I’ll go with you.”
“Glad to have you,” replied Jerry, cordially. Since arriving at the ranch they had not seen as much of the scientist as they usually did on their travels.
“We’ll take the ponies,” suggested Jerry, in talking over the plans. “It will be easier for us and not too hard for them if we ride the slope slowly. We can even walk part of the way if it’s too steep. And with the animals we can easily carry what we need for the night camp.”
“I’m not a very good horseman,” objected the professor. “I had hopes that you would go in the car or the airship.”
“The car couldn’t make the trip,” Jerry said. “Of course we could use the airship, but I’m not sure about a good landing place up on the summit. It looks as if it were pretty well wooded. I guess we can pick you out a good, safe pony, Professor.”
“Lots of ’em,” Mr. Watson assured them.
“Well, if I fall off you’ll have to pick me up, boys,” and the scientist smiled, but somewhat apprehensively and dubiously.
However, the animal which was assigned to him proved so very tractable and gentle that Professor Snodgrass felt all his fears vanish, and after a preliminary trial around the ranch buildings he said he felt that he could go anywhere the boys went.
The tent in which they would sleep was in four sections, each rider carrying one. The food, too, was divided into packets and this, except for weapons, was about all they needed, save blankets that went with the tent.
“Well, we’re off!” called Ned as he and his chums, with the professor, mounted their well-laden ponies and started away from the ranch.
“Good luck!” called the foreman.
“And don’t lose the rustlers when you start back with ’em!” added his assistant. “Better hog-tie ’em or they might slip loose.”
Some of the boys chuckled at this sally of wit,[164] but others showed by their attitude that their sympathies were more with the boys than with Hinkee Dee.
The trail up the mountain was not an easy one, but the sure-footed ponies made it very well indeed. At first Professor Snodgrass stopped his steed every few steps to get off to look for some bug he fancied he saw, or to gather a specimen of a new plant or flower.
But Jerry pointed out to him that if thus delayed they would not reach the summit in time to hunt any moths that night, and admitting the right of this the professor kept on with the boys.
“Just what do you expect to find when you get up there, Jerry?” he asked.
“I wish I knew,” was the answer. “But we’ve got to find something somewhere to solve this puzzle.”
“That’s what,” agreed his chums.
The boys fully expected to get to the top well before noon, but the trail was circuitous and presented accumulating difficulties as they went upward, and finally the ponies and they, themselves, were so tired that they halted at noon, still several miles from the top, and ate their lunch, giving the animals a breathing spell and a chance to crop what scanty herbage there was.
The remainder of the trip was worse than the first part as regarded going, and the sun was hiding[165] behind a big bank of gorgeously colored clouds when they topped the last rise and reached the summit. They found themselves on a wide, level stretch of rich land, extending for miles, and parallel to the next mountain range, there being a valley between. But the boys could not see into this yet, as night was coming on and the shadows lay deep in the valley.
“Can’t do any exploring to-night,” decided Jerry. “We’d better make camp at once and turn in, so as to be up early. Then we can put in a full day.”
“Good idea!” exclaimed Bob. “I’ll get a fire going right away. I brought along some bacon and eggs.”
“Good old scout!” yelled Ned.
The tent was soon erected, the fire was merrily burning, the horses eagerly cropping the sweet grass, and the aromatic smell of bacon and coffee filled the air.
“I’ll sleep like a top to-night,” declared Jerry as he and the others wrapped themselves up in their blankets a little later and went into the tent.
“I’ll sleep like two,” said Bob.
“No wonder—you ate so much!” joked Ned.
Probably their sound slumber accounted for the fact that the boys did not hear Professor Snodgrass leave the tent. And then he had told them he intended to get up in the night and go out with[166] a lantern to hunt for moths that would be attracted by the light. In accordance with this plan they had given him an outside place so he would not disturb them.
Just when he went out the boys did not know, but in the middle of the night they were awakened by a cry.
“Boys! Boys! Help! They’ve got me!” was shouted in distressed tones.
“It’s the professor!” exclaimed Jerry, sitting up suddenly.
“That’s what! And he’s in trouble!” added Ned. “We’ve got to help him!”
They arose and rushed from the tent into the darkness only faintly illuminated by the dying blaze of the campfire.