Chapter XV. Roped by a Cowboy
 

The Professor had no sooner marched Stacy to his tent to wash the mud from himself and get into a clean suit of clothes, than the sheepmen came galloping back to camp. A few of them had been left out near the foothills in case of a surprise.

"Where's that boy who sent us off on this fool chase?" demanded Luke Larue, riding right into the camp.

Chunky poked his head from the tent, holding the flap about him to cover himself.

"What did you tell us the cowmen were after us for?"

"Who, me?"

"Yes, come out here. I want to talk to you."

"I--I--I can't."

"You'd better or I'll have to fetch you out. Why can't you?" demanded the foreman sternly.

"I--I haven't got any clothes on," stammered the boy.

The foreman slipped from his pony, leaning against a tree with a helpless expression on his face.

Stacy's companions with Mr. Simms and several of the sheepmen rode in at that moment.

"Where's that boy?" demanded the rancher of Larue.

The foreman pointed to the tent. But the lad not yet having finished his toilet, all hands were obliged to stand about waiting for him. They did so with much impatience. Stacy took all the time he needed, apparently not believing that there was any necessity for haste.

At last he sauntered out smiling broadly.

"I think you owe us an explanation, at least," announced Mr. Simms, a peculiar smile playing about the corners of his lips. He had intended to be stern, but the sight of Chunky's good-natured face disarmed him at once, as it did most people.

"'Bout what?" asked the lad.

"Sending us out to the foothills, telling us the cowmen were attacking us."

Stacy's eyes opened widely.

"Never said so."

"What did you say, then?"

"Nothing."

"I guess we are all dreaming," laughed the rancher. "Will you please tell me what did happen then, when you started us away?"

"When I was riding in, you all started up and mounted your ponies. Somebody yelled, 'where are they?' I pointed back to the mountains, and then you rode on," the lad informed him.

It was an unusually long speech for Chunky to make without many halts and pauses. But he did very well with it.

"That is exactly what you did do. When we got there we found not the slightest trace of the cowmen. Where did you see them?"

"I didn't see them," persisted the lad.

"Then why did you tell us you did?"

"I didn't."

Mr. Simms thrust his hands in his pockets and strode back and forth several times.

"Say, young man, did you see anything at all, except what your imagination furnished?"

Chunky nodded emphatically.

"What did you see?"

"Indians."

"Oh, pshaw!" grunted Mr. Simms disgustedly.

"Indians?" interrupted Walter Perkins. "Tell me about it?"

"I was asleep," began Stacy.

"So that's the way you keep watch over our herd is it?" growled Luke. "We were just about to organize a searching party to go after you, when we saw you coming."

"I got tired. I sat down by a rook and-- y-a-li--hum----"

"Ho-ho-ho--hum," yawned the foreman.

Within half a minute the whole outfit was yawning lazily, all save Old Hicks, the cook, who with hands thrust into his trousers pockets stood peering at the fat boy out of the corners of his eyes.

"Stop that, d'ye hear!" snapped Ned Rector angrily. "I'll duck you in that water hole, if you don't."

"Just been ducked," answered Stacy lazily. "Got kicked in by a sheep."

"What about the Indians?" asked Tad impatiently. "I guess you dreamed you saw them."

"No, I didn't. I went to sleep by the rock and when I woke up it was daylight. I yawned."

"Of course you did," jeered Ned. "Wouldn't have been you if you hadn't yawned."

"I was rubbing my eyes and trying to make up my mind where I was when--when----"

"When what?" urged Tad.

"When somebody said, 'How?'"

The sheepmen laughed.

"I--I looked around, and there--there stood a lot of Indians----"

"On their heads!" asked Ned.

"No, sitting on their ponies. Then--then I --"

"Then you pitched into them and drove them away," laughed Walter.

"No, I didn't. I yelled and run away. So would you."

Every man and boy of the sheep outfit roared with laughter.

"My boy," said Mr. Simms, "you will have to get used to seeing Indians if you remain with us long. This state is full of them, some bad, some good. But you need not be afraid of them. They dare not interfere with us, so if you see any, just pass the time of day and go on along about your business."

"When I got back here I fell in----" Professor Zepplin here broke into the conversation to explain what had happened to the fat boy, whereupon the outfit once more shouted with merriment.

The camp finally having been restored to its normal state, plans were made for moving on to the north.

"I wish you would ride over to Groveland Corners and get me fifty feet of quarter inch rope, Tad," said Mr. Simms. "You will have no trouble in finding the way. I'll show you exactly how to get there and find your way back afterwards. And by the way, you might take Philip with you, if you don't mind. I want him to get all the riding he can stand."

"I'll answer yes to both, requests," smiled Tad. "How far is it to the--the----"

"Corners? Five miles as the crow flies. It will be a slightly longer distance, because you have to go around the Little Butte. The place is situated just behind it on the west side."

"Then, I'm ready now, if Phil is."

The young man was not only ready, but anxious to be off, so without delay, the two lads brought in their ponies and after receiving final instructions as to how to find the new camp, they set off at an easy gallop in the fresh morning air, their spirits rising as they rode over the green mesa that lay sparkling in the morning sunlight.

Groveland Corners was little more than its name implied, consisting of one store that supplied the wants of the half dozen families who inhabited the place, as well as furnishing certain supplies to near-by ranchmen.

A group of cattle men had gathered at the store. They were sitting on the front porch talking earnestly when the two boys rode up. Tad dismounted, hitching his pony, while Phil, shifting to an easy position on his saddle, waited until the purchase of the rope had been made.

The conversation came to a sudden pause as the boys rode up, the cowmen eyeing the newcomers almost suspiciously, Tad thought. However, he paid no attention to them, further than to bid them a pleasant good morning, to which one or two of them gave a grunting reply.

He had noticed one raw-boned mountain boy among the lot who had answered his greeting with a sneering smile and a reply under his breath that Tad had not caught. The lad gave no heed to it, but went about his business. Besides the rope, he made several small purchases for himself. In reply to a question of the storekeeper, Tad informed him that he was with the Simms outfit. One of the cowmen who had entered the store, overhearing this, went outside and informed his companions.

"Hello, kid," greeted one, as the boy left the store. "How's mutton to-day?"

Busily coiling the rope, Tad paid no attention to the taunt; he hung the rope on his saddle horn and then methodically unhitched Pinkeye.

"Going to hang yerself?" jeered another. "That's all a mutton puncher's worth. I guess."

Tad felt his face flush. He paused long enough to turn and look straight into the eyes of the speaker.

"My, but ain't our little boy spunky!" called the fellow in derision.

"If he is, he knows, at least, enough to mind his own business," snapped Tad.

A jeering laugh followed the remark.

"Did ye mean that fer me?" demanded the mountain boy, rising angrily.

"If the coat fits, put it on," answered the freckle-faced boy indifferently, vaulting lightly into the saddle.

"I'll bet that's Boss Simms's kid--the pale-faced dude, eh?" sneered one sharply.

An angry growl answered the suggestion. Tad thinking it was time to be off, turned his pony about and Phil did the same. But no sooner had they headed their mounts toward home, Tad being slightly in the lead, than a rope squirmed through the air.

It dropped over the shoulders of Mr. Simms' delicate young son, tightened about his arms with a jerk.

"Help!" cried the frightened boy.

Tad, glancing back apprehensively saw what had happened. He wheeled his pony like a flash, but not quickly enough to save his companion from falling.

Phil Simms was roped from his pony, landing heavily in the dust of the street.

"Y-e-o-w!" chorused the cowboys.