Chapter XXVIII. Bill Noxton Comes to Grief
 

"We've found him, boys! Here's the hoss thief, with five o' the hosses with him!"

"Git up thar, young feller, an' give an account o'yerself!"

Tom did not hear these words, but he felt a sharp kick in the ribs and gave a gasp of pain and surprise.

"Let up, Sam," he murmured. "Can't you keep your feet out of my --" He broke off short and stared around him. "Wha -- what does this mean?" he stammered.

Three men stood around him-rough-bearded men, each heavily armed.

"It means thet we have collared ye!" answered one of the men sharply. "Git up!" And he kicked Tom again.

"See here, keep your toe to yourself!" cried Tom hotly. "If you are Arnold Baxter's tools you can treat me half decently, anyway," and he leaped up and faced the crowd.

"Who is Arnold Baxter?" questioned the leader of the men quickly.

"I guess you know well enough."

"Oh, all right if you don't want to talk. But let me say, young feller, thet you have got yerself in a fine mess. Don't yer know ez how they hang hoss thieves in these parts?"

"A horse thief! What do you mean? I am no horse thief, if that's what you are driving at."

Tom's straightforward manner appeared to impress all three men. But the leader shrugged his shoulders.

"Ef ye aint no hoss thief, how is it ye hev got all these critters with ye?" he questioned triumphantly.

"I can explain that easily enough. That horse is my own, purchased in Gunnison from Ralph Verbeck the dealer there. Those horses belong to a set of rascals who captured me and made me their prisoner. I got away from them, and to prevent them from following me I took their horses with me."

"Hurmph! Thet's a slick story!"

"It's the plain truth. Do I look like a horse thief?"

"Not persackly, youngster. But two o' them hosses I know well, an' they war stolen. My pards hyer kin prove it."

"Well, I know nothing about that. I have told you the plain truth. You don't claim the horse I said was mine, do you?"

"No. But wot's this tale ye tell of bein' captured?"

Anxious to set himself straight with these men, who appeared to be of upright character, Tom told the larger part of his story, to which the crowd listened patiently. Then they asked him a number of questions.

"I reckon you are O.K.," said the leader at last. "I know Jack Wumble, and I know he wouldn't be attached to a gang that wasn't on the level."

"I don't care what becomes of those horses," went on Tom. "Only I want my own."

"You shall have it, lad. But you must put us on the trail o' them thieves. It runs in my mind thet I know this Bill Noxton, 'though perhaps not by thet handle. Thar used ter be a hoss thief down hyer called Slinky Bill, with a scar on his cheek an' one tooth missin' in front --"

"That's your man. The tooth is still missing and the scar is there as plain as day."

"Then he's the gent as we wants to be introduced to," put in one of the other men.

"I calkerlated he had left these diggin's fer good," added the third newcomer.

"I can try to lead you back to their camp," said Tom, "although I am not altogether sure of the trail. They were stopping at a long, low deserted house, having a wide chimney, and with several big trees growing close by."

"Dillwell's old overland hotel, I'll bet a hoss," cried the leader of the men.

"It must be about ten miles from here," went on Tom.

"Jest about, youngster. Come, we want ye to go with us."

"I will do that willingly, if you'll promise to protect me from the rascals. I suppose they are mad enough to shoot me down on sight."

"We'll see ye through -- ef everything is straight," answered Hank Yates, for such was the name of the leading spirit of the party.

The men had their own horses close at hand, and soon all were in the saddle, with the extra horses bringing up the rear, as before. The men had rations with them, and offered Tom some crackers and a bit of meat as they progressed.

They were not a bad crowd, although very rough and stern, and it developed presently that Hank Yates had known the Kennedy who had been Anderson Rover's partner in mining operations.

"He war a good man," said Yates. "A banrup, whole-souled critter. It's a pity he had to turn up his toes, with wuss men hangin' on an never dyin', at all."

Half of the distance to the old hotel had been covered, when on coming out on a little hill one of the men called attention to a man and a boy riding along the top of a ridge, a short distance away.

"It's my brother Sam and Jack Wumble!" ejaculated Tom. "Oh, but am I not glad to see them again!"

He set up a shout and waved his cap, and soon Wumble saw him and waved his hand in return. Then the old miner and Sam came forward at top speed.

"Tom!" came from Sam, and he rode up close and almost embraced his brother. "Where in the world have you been?"

"Been with the enemy," answered Tom. "I can tell you I paid up for going to sleep on the trait!" he added half comically. The meeting made his heart ten times lighter than it had been.

"Where is Dick?"

"Thet's the wust on it," answered Wumble. "Dick had a dirty tumble, and we can't find him nowhar."

Of course the stories on both sides had to be told. Jack Wumble could not keep from laughing when told that Tom had been mistaken for a horse thief.

"Not but wot ye run away with them hosses slick enough," he added slyly.

Dick's disappearance sobered Tom greatly.

Can it be possible that he has been drowned?" he asked.

"I crawled down to the river, but couldn't find hide nor hair of him," answered Wumble.

Soon all were on the way to the old hotel. As they drew closer Yates warned them to be cautious.

"Perhaps we can do a bit o' surprisin'," he explained.

"Here comes Noxton!" exclaimed Tom.

"Slinky Bill, sure enough," returned Yates, and one of his companions nodded.

Noxton was still fifty feet away when he saw them, and gave a shout of consternation. Then he turned and tried to run away.

"Stop!" called Hank Yates. "Stop, or I'll fire on ye!"

But instead of stopping Noxton ran the faster. Seeing this, the man of the plains raised his pistol, took steady aim, and fired. Noxton was hit in the leg and went down in a heap, shrieking with pain.