Three Young Ranchmen/Chapter 17

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CHAPTER XVII.


Something About a Letter


Allen Winthrop knew full well that he had a long journey before him and one that would, perhaps, be full of peril, yet his heart did not fail him as he and Noel Urner rode away, bound first for Dottery's ranch, and then for the railroad station, over a hundred miles away.

"You must keep up a stout heart, Allen," said the young man from the east. "Perhaps all is well with your uncle in spite of appearances."

"I am not daunted by what lies ahead," said the young ranchman. "But I am convinced that Uncle Barnaby has been led into some great trouble. Were it otherwise we would surely have heard from him ere this."

At Dottery's they put up over night, and set off at sunrise in the morning; Allen riding the animal from the ranch and Noel using a large and powerful beast hired to him by Dottery.

"Thirty-five miles to-day," observed Allen, as they pushed on along a somewhat hilly trail, lined on either side by cactus and other low plants.

"Is that the distance to Daddy Wampole's hotel, as you call it?"

"Yes by the roads. The direct route would not make it over thirty miles, but we can't fly as the birds do."

"We ought to make thirty-five miles easily enough."

"We could on a level. But you must remember we have several hills to climb and half a dozen water courses to ford. I imagine, too, you will get tired of the saddle before nightfall."

"Oh, I can stand it," laughed Noel Urner, "thanks to my experience in the riding schools in New York and my frequent exercises in Central Park."

"A big difference between Central Park and this, eh? I would like to see the park some time," returned Allen.

On they went, taking advantage of the early morning while the sun was still low. The level stretch was passed and then they came to a good-sized brook. Beyond was a belt of timber and the first of the hills.

They watered the horses and took a drink themselves, and pushed on without stopping further. Allen knew they must keep on the move if they expected to reach Daddy Wampole's crossroads ranch before the evening shadows fell.

On through the forest of spruce and hemlock, with here and there a tall cottonwood, they spurred their horses. The foot of the hill was soon reached, and up they toiled.

"A grand country," murmured Noel Urner.

"And big room for improvements," returned Allen, grimly. "It will take a deal of labor to put this land in shape for use."

"We never realize what the pioneers had to contend with when they first settled this country until we see things as they are here. To cut down forests, level the land, build houses and barns, and fix roads—it's an immense amount of labor, truly."

At noon they halted near the top of a second hill, and here started up just enough of a fire to boil themselves a pot of coffee. They had brought jerked meat and crackers from home and made a comfortable, if not luxurious meal. In twenty minutes they were again on the way, the horses in the meantime having also been fed.

"Daddy Wampole's ranch is our post office," explained Allen, as they rode along side by side. "The mail comes down from Deadwood once a week. It s not very extensive and Wampole usually puts everything in a soap box and lets every comer pick out whatever belongs to him."

Noel laughed. "I've heard of such doings before," he said. "I suppose he has another box of letters to be mailed."

"Exactly."

"It's not a very safe way to do. Letters might easily be stolen or taken by mistake. Who knows but what some communication from your uncle was carried off by another?"

Allen's face grew serious. "I never thought of that. But who would be mean enough to do it?"

"The man who sent that forged letter to me would be mean enough."

"So he would! I must ask Wampole if he remembers any letter addressed to us."

It was now the hottest part of the day. The road was dry and dusty and the horses hung out their tongues as they toiled onward. All were glad when they reached a portion of the road overhung by huge rocks a hundred feet or more in height.

"A day in the saddle seems a long while," said Noel Urner.

"And we have four more days to follow," smiled Allen. "I was afraid it would tire you."

"Oh, I am all right yet, Allen. But look, what is that ahead, a building?"

"That's the crossroads hotel. Come, we have less than a mile more to go."

The sight of the rude building ahead raised Noel Urner's spirits. Off he went on a gallop, with Allen close at his heels. In ten minutes they drew up at the rude horse block and dismounted.

Old Daddy Wampole, then a well-know character throughout Idaho, came out on the porch of his ranch to greet them.

"Back ag'in, hey?" he called out to Allen. "Wall, thar ain't no new mail in sense ye war here afore."

"I know that, Daddy," replied the young man. "I didn't come for the mail, exactly. My friend and I are bound for the railroad station."

"Goin' ter San Francisco?"

"Yes; we want to stop here to-night."

"Ye air welcome ter do thet," and Daddy Wampole gave Noel a friendly nod.

The young man was introduced and all three entered the ranch, one room of which did duty as a general store, barroom, and post office. Before anything else could be spoken of, Allen questioned Wampole concerning the letters which had been in the box for several weeks back, and the people who had called for them.

"I don't remember much about the letters, but I recerlect thet Cap'n Grady took most all ez came in," was the suggestive reply from the so-styled postmaster.

"So he took most of the letters, did he?" said Allen, slowly. "How many of them, on a rough guess?"

"Seven or eight."

"And you can't remember if any of them were addressed to me?"

"No, I don't recerlect thet, Allen, but hold on—do ye suspect the cap'n o' tamperin' with yer mail?"

"I don't believe he is above such an action," replied the young man, bluntly.

"Wall, neither do I, privately speakin'. I was goin' ter say," went on the ranch owner slowly, "when the cap'n got the letters he walked over there to the old place and tore 'em open. Maybe——"

There was no need for the man to go on. Allen had already left the apartment and was hurrying across the road to what had in former days been the only house in the section.

It was a rude affair, now half fallen into decay. Outside, under the overhanging logs of the roof, was situated a bench sometimes used by travelers as a resting place. Here many a yarn had been told, and many a "hoss deal" talked over and closed.

Straight to the bench went Allen, and in the fading light looked eagerly on all sides for bits of paper of any kind. He found a great number and gathered them all into his empty dinner pouch. When he was sure there were no more scraps in the vicinity he returned to the house.

"Well, what have you?" asked Noel Urner, with interest.

"I have nearly fifty scraps of letters," said Allen. "I must look them over at once."

A lamp was lit, and, spreading out the scraps on a large, flat board, Allen set to work to sort out the various pieces. It was tedious work and Noel Urner assisted him.

Suddenly the young ranchman uttered a low cry.

"Look! Here is part of a letter that was addressed to me," he said.

And he held up a scrap which bore the words: "—you and Chet can meet me and Paul——"

"Is it in your uncle's handwriting?" questioned the young man from the east.

"Yes."

"Then it would seem as if some one had stolen your letter, certainly."

"That's just what was done!" ejaculated Allen. "I wonder——" he stopped short.

"What do you wonder?"

"I wonder if Captain Grady had anything to do with Uncle Barnaby's disappearance."

"The cap'n air a slick one," put in Daddy Wampole. "I never liked him from the day I fust sot eyes onto him. An' seein' as how he's achin' ter git thet ranch from ye boys, why, it ain't surprisin' he took thet letter and would do more, if 'twas fer his own benefit."

"It won't be for his benefit if I find he is playing such an underhand game," rejoined Allen, grimly. The thought that Captain Grady had stolen his letter angered him thoroughly. "He fancies that we are only three boys, but he'll find out that even boys can do something when they are put to it."

"It's a pity you didn't find the rest of the letter," observed Noel Urner. "No doubt that letter was of great importance. It might be best to hunt up this Captain Grady and learn the truth from him before we push further for the railroad station."

"The trouble is the cap'n air hard to find," said Daddy Wampole. "He ain't on his ranch more 'n a quarter o' his time. Ye know he's as much interested in mines ez he is in cattle."

The mention of mines gave a new turn to Allen's thoughts. Had that communication from Uncle Barnaby contained any reference to the valuable claim over by the Black Rock River?

"If it did, then Captain Grady will rob Uncle Barnaby as sure as fate," thought the young ranch man, with an inward groan.