Chapter XII. A Timely Warning
 

Arriving in the little town about noon, Tad dashed up the street toward Mr. Simms' bank. Tethering his broncho to the post, he entered the bank, and in his anxiety, pushed open the door of Mr. Simms' private office without ceremony.

Here, as we already know, were Mr. Simms, Luke Larue and Ned, all eagerly discussing Tad's mysterious disappearance. For a moment not one of those in the office spoke a word. Tad stood before them, his clothes hanging in ribbons, his face scratched and torn, the dust and grime of the plains fairly ground into his face, hands and neck.

Luke Larue, of course, did not know the lad, but the keen eyes of the banker lighted up with recognition.

"Master Ned," he said. "I think if this young man were washed and dressed up, you might recognize in him the friend you are looking for."

"Tad!" exclaimed the boy, springing forward, excitedly grasping the hands of the freckle-faced boy.

"Hello, Ned. What you doing here?'

"Looking for you. They're all upset back at the camp. We thought the bear had gotten you."

"No, I got the bear. A two-legged bear nearly got me later on. I'll tell you all about it later. I want to see Mr. Simms now."

"Master Tad, I don't know where you have been, but you certainly look used up. This is the foreman of my ranch, Mr. Luke Larue," said the banker.

With a quiet smile on the face of each, man and boy shook hands.

"Heard about you," greeted Luke. "Heard you was a tenderfoot. Don't look like it."

"Neither do I feel like it. Feel as if I'd been put through an ore mill or something that would grind equally fine. When do you expect the sheep?"

The foreman shot a keen glance at him.

"To-day or to-morrow. Why?"

"Because there is trouble ahead for you when they get here."

"What do you mean?"

"What is this you say?" demanded Mr. Simms.

"That is what I have come here to tell you about. There is a plan on foot to ride down your sheep when they get here."

Larue laughed.

"Guess they'd better not try it. Where did you hear that fairy story, young man?"

"It's not a fairy tale--it is the fact."

Mr. Simms had risen from his chair and was now facing Tad. He saw in the lad's face what convinced him that there was more to be told.

"Let me hear all about it, Master Tad," he said.

"Somebody's been filling the boy up with tenderfoot yarns," smiled the foreman.

Tad did not appear to heed the foreman's scoffing. Instead, he began in a low incisive voice the narration of his experiences of the previous night, beginning with the bear hunt and ending with his finding his way out of the forest that morning.

As he proceeded with the story, the lines on the face of the banker grew tense, his blue eyes appearing to fade to a misty gray.

At first indifferent, Larue soon pricked up his ears, then became intensely interested in the story.

"And that's about all I can think of to tell you," concluded Tad.

Ned uttered a low whistle of amazement.

"So you think this is a tenderfoot yarn, eh?" asked the banker, turning to his foreman.

"Not now," answered Larue. "I guess the boy did get it straight."

"Humph! You had no means of knowing-- didn't hear what his name was, did you?"

"No, sir. He was a big man with red hair and beard and he had a scar over his left temple. The men with him called him Bluff."

"Don't know any such man, do you, Luke?"

Luke shook his head.

"Nobody who would mix up in such a dirty deal as that. Oscar Stillwell who owns a cow ranch on the other side of the Rosebud, answers to that description, but he ain't the man for that kind of a raw job. Known him five years now."

"Sure about him, are you?"

"Positive. He don't approve of the hatred that the cowmen generally have for the sheep business. Says there's free grass enough for all of us and that the sheepmen have just as much right to it as the cowmen. I'll ride over to his ranch this afternoon and talk with him. I can tell him the story without his giving it away."

"Just as you think best. You know your man and I don't."

"Yes. And if there's any such plan on foot, he'll be likely to know about it."

"This business has been getting altogether too common. All the way up and down the old Custer trail, there has been sheep killing, sheep stealing, stampeding and no end of trouble for the past year. We have seemed unable to fix the responsibility on anyone. But I'll tell you that if they try to break into any of our herds this time, somebody is going to be shot," decided Mr. Simms, compressing his lips tightly together. "We're forewarned this time."

"Have you any suggestions, Mr. Simms? I must be getting back to the ranch if this is in the wind?"

"Yes. Let no one outside of our own men, know that we suspect, unless it be Stillwell and you are sure you can trust him----"

"There's no doubt of it."

"When the new herd gets here, put all the men on it save one who will watch the corral at night. They won't be likely to attack the sheep that are in the enclosure. It's the new ones that we have to herd on the open range that they will be likely to direct their efforts toward. Master Tad has heard as much."

"Will you be out?"

"Of course. I'll ride out this afternoon and remain at the ranch or on the range until this thing has blown over. We had better begin grazing north at once. I want to get them up where the grass is better, as soon as possible. Then you can let them take their time until after shearing. We're late with that as it is. See that the men are well armed, but make no plans until I have been out and looked the ground over."

"Very well. Suppose you have no idea where it was that these men found you, or where you found them?" asked the foreman.

"No, sir. I was too busy to take notice."

"I should say so," laughed Mr. Simms.

"I'd better be moving then, if there's nothing else to be said," decided Luke.

"I think you had better spare the time to take these young men back to their camp."

"I helped myself to one of your horses, Mr. Simms. The roan."

"Help yourself to anything that belongs to me, young man," answered the banker. "You have done us a service that nothing we can do will repay."

"The roan--you say you rode the roan?" asked Lame.

"Yes. He's a good one."

"Did he throw you?"

"He tried to," grinned Tad.

"Then I take back all I said about your being a tenderfoot. There aren't three men on the ranch who can stick on his back when he takes a notion that he doesn't want them to."

"Luke, I have asked these young men to join our outfit. When I did so, I didn't know I was drawing a prize. They rather thought the sheep business wouldn't suit them, having been out with a herd of cows----"

"We shall be glad to accept your kind offer, Mr. Simms," interrupted Tad. "I've changed my mind since I saw how the cattle men act toward sheep."

"That's good."

"When do you wish us to join you?"

"Join to-day by all means, if you have no other plans. I am surprised that the guide failed you. You will not need a guide if you go with the outfit, and you can take as many side trips for hunting, as you wish."

"That will be fine," agreed Ned Rector.

"Another idea occurs to me. My boy Philip has not been well, and if you lads have no objection, I should like to send him along with the herd. If you will keep an eye on him to see that he doesn't get into trouble, I shall be deeply grateful to you."

"Of course we shall," answered Tad brightening. "How old is he?"

"Only twelve. He's quite a baby still. You will not have any responsibility at all, you understand. He and Old Hicks the cook of the outfit, are great friends, and Hicks will look after him most of the time."

"We shall be glad to have him with us," glowed Ned.

"Perhaps you would prefer not to join until after this trouble is over. It probably would be safer, come to think of it----"

"No. I think we should like to join right away," interrupted Tad hastily. "Besides, we may be able to be of some service to you. We can handle cattle, so I don't know why we should not be of use with sheep. Don't you think so, Ned?"

"Yes, of course. That will just suit Chunky, too. That's what we call our friend Stacy Brown," explained Ned, with a grin. "He's the fat boy, you know."

"Was once. He's getting over it rapidly," laughed Tad. "His uncle won't know him when he gets back to Chillicothe."

"You have had most of the fun and excitement thus far, Tad. Now the rest of us want to have some too."

"If you call being shot at fun, then I have had more than my share."

"Most likely you will have all that's coming to you if this thing comes off," grunted the foreman. "I'm going out now. Meet you here in an hour. We'll ride back to the ranch. I'll either accompany you to your own camp from there, or send some one else who knows the way. I think I understand where your friends are located. I'm going to get a case of shells at the hardware store, Mr. Sirnms."

"That's the idea. Better take out some more guns while you are about it. You know what to buy."

At the appointed time Larue presented himself at the bank, announcing himself as ready for the ride. The banker again renewed his expressions of appreciation of all that Tad Butler had done for him, after which they swung into their saddles and started off on their long ride over the plains.

There was plenty of excitement before the Pony Riders. Their few weeks with the herd were to be more eventful, even, than had been their journey with the cattle over the plains of Texas.