Three Young Ranchmen/Chapter 2
Allen on the Trail
Although Allen Winthrop was but a young man in years, yet the fact that he had had the care of the family on his shoulders since the death of his parents had tended to make him older in experience and give him the courage to face what ever arose before him in the path of duty.
He was four years older than Chet and two years the senior of Paul, and the others had always looked upon him as a guiding spirit in all undertakings.
Consequently but little was said by way of opposition when Allen determined to go after the thieves alone, but nevertheless the hearts of both the younger brothers were filled with anxiety when they saw Allen disappear on the back of his mare up the trail that led to the southwest.
"It's too bad that we can t accompany him," was the way Chet expressed himself. "I'd give all I possess for a good horse just now."
"All you possess isn't much, seeing we've all been cleaned out," replied Paul, with a trace of grim humor he did not really feel. "But I, too, wish I had a horse and could go along."
"Still, somebody ought to stay on the ranch," went on Chet, "we might have more unprofitable visitors."
"It's not likely that the gang will dare to show themselves in this vicinity again in a hurry. Like as not they'll steer for Deadwood, sell the horses, and then spend their ill-gotten gains around the gambling saloons. That is their usual style. They can t content themselves in the mountains or on the plains as long as they have the dust in their pockets."
After Allen had disappeared the two boys locked up the barn as well as was possible, using a wooden pin in lieu of the padlock that had been forced asunder, and then went back to the house. Chet brought in the string of fish and threw them in a big tin basin.
"I suppose I might as well fry a couple of these," he observed; "though, to tell the truth, I am not a bit hungry."
"I, too, have lost my appetite," replied Paul. "But we must eat, and dinner will help pass away the time. I reckon there is no telling when Allen will be back."
"No. I don t care much, if he only keeps from getting into serious trouble."
In the meantime Allen had passed down the trail until the buildings of the ranch were left far behind. He knew the way well, and had no difficulty in finding the tracks—new ones—made by the hoofs of four horses.
"As long as they remain as fresh as they are now it will be easy enough to follow them," was the mental conclusion which he reached, as he urged forward his tired mare in a way that showed his fondness for the animal and his disinclination to make her do more than could fairly be expected.
The belt of cottonwood was soon passed, and Allen emerged upon the bank of a small brook which flowed into the river at a point nearly half a mile further on.
He examined the wet bank of the brook minutely and came to the conclusion that here the horse thieves had stopped the animals for a drink.
"I imagine they came a long distance to get here," he thought, "and that means they will go a long way before they settle down for the night. Heigh-ho! I have a long and difficult search before me."
The brook had been forded, and Allen crossed over likewise, and five minutes later reached a bit of rolling land dotted here and there with sage and other brush.
Allen wondered if the trail would lead to Gold Fork, as the little mining town at the foot of the mountains was called.
"If they went that way I will have no trouble in getting help to run them down," he said to himself. "I can get Ike Watson and Mat Prigley, who will go willingly, and there is no better man to take hold of this sort of thing than Ike Watson."
Mile after mile was passed, and the trail remained as plain as before.
"It looks as if they didn t anticipate being followed," was the way Allen figured it, but he soon found out his mistake, when, on coming around a rocky spur of ground, the trail suddenly vanished.
The young ranchman came to a halt in some dismay, and a look of perplexity quickly stole over his face. He looked to the right and the left, and ahead, but all to no purpose. The trail was gone.
"Here's a state of things," he murmured as he continued to gaze around. "Where in the land of goodness has it gone to? They couldn t have taken wings and flown away."
Allen spent all of a quarter of an hour on the rocky spur. Then on a venture he moved for ward over the bare rocks, feeling pretty certain that it was the only way they could have gone without leaving tracks behind them.
He calculated that he had traveled nearly ten miles. His mare showed signs of being tired, and he spoke to her more kindly than ever.
"It won't do, Lilly," he said, patting her soft neck affectionately. "We have got to get through somehow or other. You must brace up and when it is all over you can take the best kind of a long resting spell."
And the faithful animal laid back her ears and appeared to understand every word he said to her. She was a most knowing creature, and Allen would have gone wild had she been one of those stolen.
The barren, rocky way lasted for upward of half a mile, and came to an end in a slight decline covered with rich grass and more brush. Allen looked about him eagerly.
"Hurrah! there is the trail, true enough!" he cried, as the well understood marks in the growth beneath his feet met his gaze. "That was a lucky chance I took. On, Lilly, and we'll have Jasper and Rush back before nightfall, or know the reason why."
Away flew the mare once more over the plain that stretched before her for several miles. Be yond were the mountains, covered with a purplish haze.
The vicinity of the mountains was gained at last, and now, more than tired, the mare dropped into a walk as the first upward slope was struck.
Hardly had she done so than Allen saw some thing that made his heart jump. It was a man, and he was riding Chet's horse!