Three Young Ranchmen/Chapter 1

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THREE YOUNG RANCHMEN




CHAPTER I.


An Unpleasant Discovery


"When do you think Allen will be back, Paul?"

"He ought to be back by two or three o clock, Chet. His horse was fresh, and the roads are very good just now."

"I hope he brings good news, don't you? I am tired of waiting here."

"We will have to content ourselves on the ranch another year, I am afraid. Father left matters in a very unsettled condition, and what has become of Uncle Barnaby the world only knows."

"I don't care so much about the dullness—I like to hunt and fish and round up the cattle just as well as any one—but what I'm complaining of is the uncertainty of the way things are going to turn. For all we know, we may be cast adrift, as the saying goes, any day."

"That is true, although I imagine our title to the ranch is O.K. If those title papers hadn't been burned up when one end of the house took fire I wouldn't worry a bit."

"Neither would I. But we all know what Captain Grady is—the meanest man that ever drew the breath of life—and if he once learns that we haven't the papers he'll be down on us quicker than a grizzly bear in the spring."

"Well, we won't let him know that the papers have been burned up. We will continue to bluff him off."

"We can't bluff him forever. To my mind ——"

The boy broke off short, and coming to a halt, pointed with his disengaged hand toward the barn.

"Did you leave that door unlocked?" he went on.

"Certainly I didn't. Who opened it? Perhaps Allen is back."

"And perhaps there are horse thieves around!" was the quick reply. "Come on."

Without a word more the two boys dropped their burdens and started for the structure in which the horse belonging to each had been stabled. The boys were Chetwood and Paul Winthrop, two brothers, tall, well-built, and handsome. The face of each was browned by exposure, and showed the perfect health that only a life in the open can give.

Chet and Paul lived with their elder brother Allen at a typical ranch home in Idaho, on one of the numerous branches of the winding Salmon River. The home was a rude but comfortable affair, with several outbuildings close at hand, the whole surrounded by a rude but substantial stockade, a relic of the time when troubles with the Indians were numerous.

It was a warm, sunshiny day in August, and the two boys had been down to the river fishing at a favorite deep hole near the roots of a clump of cottonwood trees. Each had a nice mess of fish strung on a brush branch, showing that their quest of game had not been a vain one.

For three years the three Winthrop boys had lived alone at the ranch home. Their former history was a peculiar one, the particulars of which will be given later. Just now we will follow Chet and Paul to the barn, the door to which stood half open.

"Gone!"

The single word burst from the lips of both simultaneously. It was enough, for it told the whole story. Their two animals, Jasper and Rush, had vanished.

"Thieves, as sure as fate!" ejaculated Paul, gazing rapidly on all sides. "See how the lock has been broken open."

"And they have taken all the extra harness as well," added Chet, his black eyes snapping angrily. "I wonder how long ago this happened."

"There s no telling, Chet. Let's see—we went off about eight o'clock, didn't we?"

"Yes."

"Then the rascals have had nearly four hours in which to do their dirty work. By this time they are probably miles away. This is the worst luck of all."

"You are not going to sit down and suck your thumb, are you, Paul?" questioned the younger brother, quickly.

"Not if we can do anything. But we are tied fast here,—we can't follow on foot,—they knew that when they came to rob us."

"Have you any idea who the thieves can be?"

"Most likely a remnant of that old gang from Jordan Creek. I knew they would spring up again, even after Sol Davids was lynched. Let us take a look around, and see if we can't find some clew to their identity."

"If only Allen would come——"

"Fire off your gun. If he is in hearing that will hasten his movements."

Thus directed, Chet hastened outside, and running to the house, quickly brought forth his double-barreled shotgun. Two reports rent the air a second later, and then the youth returned with the still smoking firearm to the barn.

"Have you found anything?" he asked.

"Here is a strap that doesn't belong to our outfit," replied Paul. "But it s only a common affair that might belong to any one."

"And here is a silver cross!" cried Chet, as he sprang forward to pick up the object.

The article which Chet had found embedded in the dirt flooring of the barn was really of silver, but so unpolished that it did not shine. It was not over an inch in length and height, with a round hole directly in the center. At the four corners of the cross were the letters

D A F G.

"What do you make of it?" asked Paul, impatiently, as he bent over to examine the object as it lay in his younger brother's palm.

"Nothing. It's a silver cross with letters on it; that's all. I never saw one like it before."

"Is there no name on the back?"

Quickly the cross was turned over. There, dug into the metal, as if with a jackknife, were the letters S. M.

"S. M.," said Chet, slowly. "Who can they stand for?"

"Sam somebody, I suppose," replied Paul. "I reckon there are a good many folks in Idaho with the initials S. M."

"That is true, too, but it's not likely many of them are mean enough to turn horse thieves."

Chet surveyed the cross for a few seconds longer Then he rammed it into his pocket and went on with the search, and Paul followed suit.

But their further efforts remained unrewarded. Not another thing of value was brought to light.

They were on the point of giving up when a clatter of hoofs was heard outside on the rocks leading from the trail back to the willows and cottonwoods.

"There is Allen now!" cried Paul, joyfully. "Hi, Allen! This way, quick!" he added, elevating his voice.

"All right, Paul, my boy!" came in a cheery voice from the elder of the Winthrops, as he dashed up on his faithful mare. "What's wanted?"

"The horses have been stolen!"

"Phew!" It was a low and significant whistle that Allen Winthrop emitted, and the pleasant look on his fine features gave way to one of deep concern.

"Stolen!" he said at last. "When? By whom?"

"We don't know," replied Paul. "We just got back from the river a few minutes ago and found the barn door broken open and both horses gone."

"And no clew?"

"We found this."

Allen Winthrop caught up the silver cross quickly and gazed at it for the fraction of a minute. Then he muttered something under his breath.

"Did you ever see this cross before?" asked Paul.

"No, but I have heard father tell of it," was the answer. "It is the cross the old Sol Davids gang used to wear. Do you see those letters—D A F G? They stand for Dare All For Gold. That was the gang's motto, and they never hesitated to carry it out."

"Then we were right in thinking that the horse thieves might be some left-overs from the old gang," observed Paul.

"Yes they are most likely of the same old crowd," said Allen. "The hanging of old Sol did not drive them out of this district."

"But what of the initials S. M.?" asked Chet. "I never heard of any horse thief that those would fit."

"We'll find out about that when we run the thieves down," said Allen. "You say you discovered the robbery but a short while since?"

"Less than a quarter of an hour ago."

"Have you been up to the house?"

"I went for my gun," began Chet. "I wonder if it were possible——" he commenced, and then meeting his older brother's eyes stopped short.

Not one of the trio said more just then. All made a wild dash from the barn to the house. They burst into the living room of the latter like a cyclone.

"It looks all right," began Paul.

"But it isn't all right," burst out Chet. "See the side window has been forced open!"

Allen said nothing, having passed into one of the sleeping rooms. He began to rummage around the apartment, into the closet and the trunks.

"By gracious!" he burst out presently.

"What's up?" questioned his two brothers in a breath.

"It's gone!"

"Gone?"

"Yes, every dollar is gone!" groaned Allen.

He referred to three bags which had contained silver and gold to the amount of seven hundred dollars—the Winthrop savings for several years.

Paul and Chet gave a groan. Something like a lump arose in the throat of the younger youth, but he cleared it away with a cough.

"The mean, contemptible scoundrels!" burst out Paul. "We must get after them somehow!"

"I'll go after them," replied Allen, with swift determination. "Give me my rifle. I already have my pistol."

"You are not going alone, are you?" demanded Paul.

"I'll have to. There is only my mare to be had."

"It's foolhardy, Allen," urged Chet. "What could one fellow do against two or more? They would knock you over at the first chance."

"I won't give them the first chance," grimly replied Allen, as he ran for his rifle. "As they used to say when father was young, I'll shoot first and talk afterward."

"Can't two of us ride on the mare?" asked Paul. "I am not so very heavy."

The older brother shook his head.

"It can t be done, Paul; not with her all tired out after her morning's jaunt. No, I'll go alone. Perhaps the trail will lead past some other ranch and then I'll call on the neighbors for help."

"Can you follow the trail?"

"I reckon I can; leastwise I can try. I won't lose it unless they take to the rocks and leave the river entirely, and it ain't likely they'll do that."

Chet and Paul shook their heads. To them it seemed dangerous, and so it was. But it was no use arguing with Allen when he had once made up his mind, so they let him have his own way.

Three minutes later Allen was off on the trail of the horse thieves.