The Rover Boys on the Plains/Chapter 21

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The knowledge that Sam and Dick had been made prisoners by those at Red Rock ranch was most discouraging to Tom and Songbird.

"They are in a hole in the ground," said the fun-loving Rover. "That must mean that they are in some sort of dungeon."

"More than likely they have a place for prisoners at the ranch," returned Songbird. "The question is, now that we have learned so much: what's to do about it?"

"We must rescue Sam and Dick."

"That may be easier said than done, Tom. My idea is, the fellows at the ranch are desperate characters—horse thieves, or worse."

"No horse thieves there!" burst out Peter Poll, who had listened to the talk in wonder. "Sack Todd is rich—piles of money, piles. But Peter must not tell all he knows!" he added with a whine.

"So Sack Todd is rich?" questioned Tom.

"Piles of money—fine bank bills, I can tell you! Some day Peter will be a millionaire! But Peter must not tell——"

"Say, perhaps this dolt isn't telling the truth," cried Songbird. "He seems to be more than a button short."

"Button, button, who's got the button!" sang out the foolish boy. "Played that once—lots of fun. Let us play now." And he started to pull a button from his jacket.

"Come with us, Peter," said Tom. "Come, we won't hurt you."

"Where do you want Peter to go?"

"Not very far away. Come, we will give you something nice to eat."

Now, as it happened, eating was one of the dolt's weak points, and he readily consented to accompany them. Without loss of time, they made their way back to where Fred and Hans had been left.

"Hullo! who vos dot?" ejaculated the German youth as they hove in sight.

"This is a boy we picked up along the stream," answered Tom, and then drew the others aside and told his story.

"What are you going to do next?" questioned Fred seriously. "It is certainly too bad Sam and Dick are prisoners. We must take care that we are not captured."

"The mystery of the ranch grows deeper," said Songbird. "I rather wish we had some officers of the law to consult. We could then ride right up to the ranch and make our demands."

"It may come to that before we get through," answered Tom.

"That dolt may not be telling the truth, Tom."

"Well, he has told some truth anyway, for if Sam and Dick are free, why don't they show up here?"

They did their best to make Peter Poll tell them more concerning himself and those at the ranch. But the foolish boy was growing more and more suspicious, and would scarcely answer a question.

"Peter wants the fine eating you promised him," said he, but when they spread before him the best the camp afforded, he broke into a wild laugh of derision.

"Call that good!" he shrieked. "That is nothing! You ought to see one of the spreads at the ranch—especially when the men from Washington and Chicago come down. Everything of the best to eat and to drink! This is plain cowboy food. Peter wants something better—roast lamb, peas and pie!"

"This is the best we have, Peter," said Tom. "I am sorry you do not care for it. So they have feasts at the ranch, eh?"

"Peter must not tell all he knows." The foolish boy started up. "Peter is going."

"Don't go yet!" cried Tom.

"Peter must go to the other ranch—boss told him so—after he got through fishing. Going now." And, with a sudden jerk, he tore himself loose and was off like the wind among the trees.

"Hi!" cried Songbird. "Hadn't we better stop him?"

Tom was already after the dolt. But the foolish boy seemed to have legs like those of a deer for swiftness, and before they realized it he was out of sight. He knew how to run with but little noise, so it became almost impossible to follow him.

"Will he go back to the ranch, do you think?" asked Fred after the momentary excitement was over.

"He said something about going to the other ranch," returned Tom. "What he meant by it, I don't know."

"Well, he is gone, so we shall have to make the best of it," went on Fred. "I trust, though, that he doesn't get us into trouble."

The boys sat down in the temporary camp, and there Tom and Songbird gave all the details of how they had fallen in with Peter Poll.

"I suppose those rough characters make him do all sorts of dirty work," said Fred. "The boy isn't really responsible."

After a long consultation, it was decided to leave the neighborhood and move to the other side of Red Rock ranch. This would tend to throw the enemy off the trail, if the dolt should go back and relate what had occurred.

"Dis vos gitting so interesting like a story book," was Hans' comment. "I only vish I could see der last page alretty!"

"We all wish that," laughed Tom. "Then we'd know if the villain dies and the girl marries the millionaire," and this sally brought forth a short laugh.

The things were packed rapidly, and soon they were on horseback and leading the steeds Sam and Dick had ridden. They had to ford the stream where the dolt had been captured, and here the horses obtained a refreshing drink.

"Some day I suppose this whole forest will fall before the woodman's ax," remarked Songbird. "Too bad!" and then he murmured to himself:

"The sturdy woodman with his ax
Will strike full many a blow,
And as the chips go flying fast
He'll lay these giants low,
Until the ground is bare and void
Of all this grateful shade——"

"And then the planter beans can plant
With plow, and hoe, and spade,"

finished Tom. "Beans would pay better than trees any day."

"Beans!" snorted Songbird in disgust. "What have beans to do with poetry?" and he walked ahead so that he might make up his verses without further interruption.

They soon found the ground getting very rough, and the tangle through which Sam and Dick had passed made them do not a little complaining.

"Mine cracious! How long vos dis to last, hey?" cried poor Hans as he found himself in a tangle from which he could not escape. "Hellup, somepody, oder I ton't vos git out of dis annyhow!"

"Hans is stuck on this brushwood," sang out Fred. "He loves it so he can't bear to leave it."

"This way, Hansy, my boy," came from Tom. '^NTow then, a long pull, a strong pull and a pull altogether!"

With might and main he hauled on the German boy's arm, and with a tearing sound Hans came loose and almost pitched forward on his face.

"Hi! hi! let go alretty kvick!" he bawled. "Mine clothes vos most tore off of me." He felt of his trousers and the back of his jacket. "Too pad! Da vos full of vinders now!"

"Never mind, Hansy, you need the openings for ventilation," returned Tom smoothly.

"Vendilations, hey? Vot you know about him, hey? I vos look like a ragpickers alretty!" And he surveyed the damaged suit dubiously.

"Now is the time to have your picture taken," suggested Fred. "You can send it to your best girl, Hans."

"I ton't vos got no girls."

"Then send it to your grandma," suggested Tom blandly. "Maybe she'll take pity on you and send you a new suit. That would suit, wouldn't it?"

"I ton't vos do noddings, but ven ve go to camp again, I make you all sit town und blay tailors," answered the German boy; and then the whole crowd pushed forward as before.

They had to cross a tiny brook, and then began to scramble over some rather rough rocks. This was hard work for the horses, and a consultation was held regarding the advisability of leaving them behind.

"I would do it in a minute," said Tom. "But it may not suit us to come back this way."

"Yes, and we may need the horses to ride away on," put in Fred. "Supposing those men on the ranch come after us? We can't get away very well on foot, and, if we could, we wouldn't want to leave the horses behind." And so it was decided to go slowly and take the steeds along.

It was growing dark, and they were afraid they were in for another storm. So far, there had been no breeze, but now the wind began to rush through the trees with a mournful sound.

"If it does come, it will surely be a soaker," announced Tom when he got to an opening where he could survey the sky. "Perhaps it will pay us to stay in the shelter of the forest."

"Yes, and have the lightning bring a tree down on us," added Fred. "None of that for me."

They were still among the rocks when it began to rain. At first, the drops did not reach them, but, as the storm increased, the water began to fall in all directions from the branches.

"We must find some shelter, unless we want to be soaked," said Fred. "Hullo, just the thing! Couldn't be any better if we had it made to order."

He pointed to a spot where the rocks arose to a height of twenty or more feet. Low down was an opening leading to a hollow that was very like a cave.

"That will do first-rate," returned Tom. "It is large enough for the whole crowd."

"Too bad the horses can't get in, too," said Fred. "But maybe a wetting won't hurt them in this warm weather."

The steeds were tied close by, and then the boys ran for the shelter under the rocks, followed by Wags. They had just reached it when the storm broke in all its violence, and the rain came down in torrents.