The Rover Boys on the Plains/Chapter 17
THE BANK BILLS ON THE TABLE
"Dick, this is a dangerous piece of business," said Fred, after the entire party was again on the ground.
"That's right," broke in Songbird. "Don't forget the warning on the wall of the shack."
"I am not afraid," answered the eldest Rover. "There is some great mystery here, and I feel it ought to be investigated. Why, those men may be bandits, or something like that, for all we know."
"They are certainly not on the level, or they wouldn't put up with a fellow like Dan Baxter," came from Sam.
"Dot ist so," said Hans. "At der same dime, ve ton't vont to put our mouths into der lion's head alretty!"
"I've got a plan," said Dick after a pause. "I do not think it a wise move for all of us to go forward at once. I think two will be enough. The others can stay here and await developments."
"Then you have got to take me with you," said Sam promptly.
"Sam, you had better let me go with Dick," put in Tom.
"No, I want to go," insisted the youngest Rover, and so it was at last decided.
"I don't see how you are going to approach that ranch in broad daylight," said Fred. "As they have guards on the road, it is more than likely they have guards around the ranch also."
"I think I'll wait until night, Fred—or at least until it is dark."
After that the boys spent the time in exploring the woods and looking over the plains beyond. They saw several wagon tracks, apparently leading to nowhere in particular, and they also found something of a cave, covered with logs and heaped-up brushwood.
"Something more to investigate," said Tom, and began to pull the brushwood away, followed by his companions. The logs followed, and there was revealed to them an opening at least twenty feet square by half that in height.
"What do you call this?" questioned Tom, as he kicked something of metal lying under a pile of dead leaves.
"It's a roller of some sort," answered Songbird. "And see, here are some cog-wheels and a lot of old shafting."
"Machinery, and quite some of it, too," murmured Dick. "They must run a regular factory of some sort here."
"I think I have solved the problem!" cried Fred. "I've read of this a number of times. This Sack Todd has a secret process of manufacturing some article and he doesn't want anybody to learn what the process is. So he has established himself here and sworn all his workmen to secrecy."
"I've heard of that myself," said Tom. "A man had a certain process of tanning leather. He kept his secret for years, until a workman got mad at him and gave the thing away."
Dick was inspecting the machinery with care. It was worn out and rusted, and hard to make out just what it was.
"Unless I am mistaken, these are parts of a printing press," said the eldest Rover.
"A printing press?" cried several of the others.
"Yes. But that doesn't solve the mystery of what the press was used for."
It was damp and unwholesome in the cave, and they were glad enough to leave it and come out into the sunlight once more. They walked back to where they had left their horses, and here procured lunch, and fed all of the animals, including Wags.
Slowly the afternoon wore away. It began to grow cloudy, and so became dark at an early hour.
"We may as well start," said Dick at last. "We can go to the edge of the woods, anyway."
"I suppose you don't know when you will be back," said Tom.
"No, but probably in three or four hours."
"Take good care of yourselves."
"We'll try to do that," put in Sam.
"If I were you, I'd not expose myself," was Fred's advice. "Those chaps are rough customers, and there is no telling what they would do if they caught you spying on them."
"That is true."
A few words more followed, and then Dick and Sam set off on their tour of inspection. Each carried a pistol, and each felt that he could take care of himself. But neither dreamed of the dire peril which he was confronting.
They had left their horses behind, and now found advancing on foot no easy task. In spots, the undergrowth was so dense they had to literally force their way through, and they also had to make two long detours to escape swamps and treacherous bog-holes. The mosquitoes and gnats were also bad and bothered them not a little.
"I guess we are earning all we are getting out of this," grumbled Sam as he came to a halt after pulling himself through a tangle of bushes and vines. "Unless we take care, we'll have our jackets ripped off our backs."
"Do you want to turn back, Sam?"
"No, but I guess we had better go a little slower."
Dick was willing, and, as a consequence, by the time the edge of the timber was reached, the sun was sinking over the hills in the West, and it was growing dark.
Red Rock ranch was now in plain view, not over two hundred yards distant. In front and to one side was a level stretch. The reddish rocks were behind, leading to a small hill. There were numerous outbuildings, and a heavy barbed fence surrounded the whole, excepting at one point, where there was a wide-swinging gate of wire and boards.
"I think the best thing we can do is to work our way around to the rocks," said Dick after studying the situation. "We can work up from the rocks to the outbuildings, and so on to the ranch itself—if we get the chance."
With caution, they skirted the woods and inside of quarter of an hour reached the first of the series of rocks. As they crouched behind these, Dick caught his brother by the arm.
"Keep quiet," he whispered. "I saw a man coming from the barn."
After that, they remained motionless for ten minutes. At a distance, they saw two men coming and going from one building to another. They were evidently caring for the horses, cattle and poultry for the night.
"They are gone," said Sam presently, as he saw the men walk toward the ranch house and disappear.
"Wait—they may come out again."
They waited, but the men did not reappear, and now it was growing darker rapidly. Look as hard as they might in all directions, they could not see a single human being.
"The coast seems to be clear now, Sam."
"Yes, but it won't hurt to wait a few minutes longer," was the answer.
As it grew darker, they saw several lights lit in the ranch. One was in the kitchen, one in what looked to be a bedroom and another in a small room in the main part of the building. The curtain over the window of the last-named room was up, and they could see the lamp quite plainly, resting on a table.
"Let us crawl up and take a look into the windows," whispered Dick. "It seems to be safe enough now. If we hear anybody coming, we can lay down in the grass or behind a bush."
Hardly daring to breathe, they crawled from the shelter of the rocks to the nearest outbuildings, one given over to some chickens. From there, they advanced to a cow shed and then to one of the big barns.
"I can see into the kitchen from here," whispered Sam. "Look!"
They looked, and by the light of a big bracket lamp, made out two men and a boy moving about the kitchen, evidently preparing the evening meal. The door to the next room was open, and they caught a glimpse of several men at a table eating, or waiting to be served.
"I'd like to know if Dan Baxter is in that crowd," said Dick.
They watched the scene for several minutes, but if the former bully of Putnam Hall was present he did not show himself. Then a curtain was drawn down, shutting off their view.
They next moved to the bedroom window, and there beheld a man lying on a couch, smoking a pipe. He seemed to be a refined individual, with a clean-shaven face and curly black hair."He doesn't look as if he belonged to this crowd," was Dick's comment. "He looks as if he might be a thorough gentleman."
"He certainly looks like a city man," answered Sam. "Perhaps he has come to see this Sack Todd on business."
They watched the man for several minutes and saw him get a letter from his pocket and read it attentively. Then he closed his eyes as if to take a nap, throwing his pipe on a chair.
"Whoever he is, he is making himself at home," observed the youngest Rover.
"Let us move on to the next window," said his brother. "Now is our best chance to size up the place—while most of the crowd are getting their supper."
As silently as before, they moved along in the darkness to where the light was streaming from the third window, not far from a corner of the ranch. Then each of the boys raised himself up with the slowness of an Indian on a trail.
Nobody seemed to be in the room, and, growing bolder, they drew nearer, until they could get a good view of the interior. They saw a table and several chairs, and also a desk and a safe. On the table was the lamp, and beside this, s*ireral piles of new, crisp bank bills.
"My gracious! Look at the money!" gasped Sam. "Why, there must be thousands and thou sands of dollars there, Dick!"
"You are right."
"Sack Todd must be very wealthy."
"Unless—" and the eldest Rover paused.
"Unless those bank bills are counterfeit."