Chapter XVIII. The Vigil by the Foothills
 

Supper was late in the sheep camp that evening. Old Hicks was in a terrible rage and no one dared protest at the delay, for fear he would get no supper at all. The boys were still discussing Stacy Brown's feat, and every time the subject was referred to all during the evening, it was sure to elicit a roar of laughter.

As night came on, the sky was gradually blotted out by a thin veil of clouds, which seemed to grow more dense as the evening wore on. Chunky had been sent out with Mary Johnson on guard duty, Walter having gone out with the foreman. That left Tad Butler and Ned Rector of the Pony Rider Boys, to take their turn on the late trick.

Tad preferred to sit up rather than to try to sleep for the short time that would intervene before it came his turn to go out.

"Do you think we shall have any trouble tonight?" he asked, looking up as Mr. Simms passed his tent.

"You know as much about that as I do, my boy. Perhaps your courage over at the Corners may scare them off, eh? They may think, if we are all such fighters over here, that it will be a good place to keep away from."

Tad laughed good-naturedly.

"Guess I didn't give them any such fright as that. How is Philip this evening?"

"Sound asleep. It's doing the boy good. He hasn't slept like this since his illness last spring."

"I wish he might go on with us and spend the summer out of doors."

"H-m-m-m," mused Mr. Simms. "I am afraid he would be too great a care. No, Tad, the boy is a little too young. Where are you going next?"

"I am not sure."

"Well, let me know when you find out and we will talk it over. Fine night for a raid of any kind, isn't it?"

"Yes, sir," answered Tad, glancing up at the black clouds.

"Good luck to you to-night. You and your partner must take care of yourselves. Do not take any unnecessary risk. You will have done your part in using your keen young eyes to see that no one gets near the camp."

"I should feel better if I had a gun," laughed the boy. "Somehow--but no, I guess it is not best."

"Certainly not."

Tad turned up the lantern in his tent and sat down to his book, which he had been reading most of the evening. He was not interrupted again until the camp watchmen came around to turn out the second guard.

Ned was asleep and he tumbled out rubbing his eyes, not sure just what was wanted of him.

"Wake up," laughed Tad. "You are getting to be a regular sleepy head."

"Guess I am. Is--is it time to go out?"

"It is. And it is a dark night, too."

"Whew! I should say it is," replied Ned, with an apprehensive glance out beyond the camp. "How are we ever going to find our way about to-night?"

"I don't imagine we shall be moving about much after we get on our station. Mr. Larue will place us there."

"Where are we going to be?"

"He hasn't said. I did hear him say that we were going to watch singly instead of in pairs, in order that he might cover more territory with the men at his disposal."

"Sounds shivery."

"I don't know why it should. It is night, that is the only difference. I am getting used to being out in the night and not knowing where I am," laughed Tad.

Tucking the lunches that had been wrapped for them into their pockets, the two boys walked over to the place where their ponies were tethered. The animals had been left bridled and saddled, the saddle girths having been loosened. These the boys tightened and prepared to mount when Tad happened to think of something.

"Hold my pony, Ned. I want to get something from the tent."

Tad returned a moment later with his lariat, which he coiled carefully and hung to the saddle horn, Ned Rector observing him with an amused smile.

"If you can't shoot them you're going to rope them, eh?"

"A rope is always a good thing to have with you. You don't think so, but it is. Never know what minute you are going to need it badly."

"It wouldn't do me any good, no matter how much I needed it," smiled Ned. "I couldn't lasso the side of a barn."

"You do very well. If you will practise every day you will be able to handle it as well as the average cowboy in less than a week. Come along."

As they left the camp, Luke Larue met them to conduct the boys to the places where they were to spend the last half of the night.

"After we leave the herd behind us, it's the frozen tongue for you," he said.

"You mean we are not to speak?" asked Tad.

"Not a word out loud. If you have anything you must say, whisper."

"Oh, all right."

They dropped Ned first. His station was nearer to the herd than that which had been assigned to Tad. The latter went on with the foreman until they were fairly out by the foothills.

"I've given you one of the most responsible stations, you see," whispered the foreman. "It will be lonesome out here. Do you mind?"

"Not at all. Anybody near me?"

"Noisy Cooper is over there to your left about ten rods away. Bat Coyne is to your right here. You're not so close that you can rub elbows, however. Be watchful. It's just the night for a raid. Use your own judgment in case you hear anything suspicious. Above all look out for yourself. You've got a pony that will take you away from trouble pretty fast if you get in a hurry. You know the signal?"

"Yes."

"Then good night and good luck," whispered Luke, reaching out and giving Tad's hand a hearty clasp.

There was something so encouraging--so confident in the grip, that even had Tad Butler's courage been waning, it would have come back to him with a rush after that.

"Good night," he breathed. "I'll be on the spot if anything occurs."

"I know that," answered the foreman. In an instant Luke had been swallowed up in the great shadow and not even the hoof beats of his pony were audible to the listening ears of the boy.

Tad looked about him inquiringly. As his eyes became more used to the darkness he found himself able to make out objects about him, though the darkness distorted them into strange shapes.

"I think I'll get under that tree," he decided. "No one can see me there. They'd pick me out here in a minute. The cowboys have eyes as well as ears. I know that, for I've lived with them."

The lad tightened on the reins ever so little, and the pony pricking up its ears moved away with scarcely a sound, as if realizing that extreme caution were expected of it.

They pulled up under the shadow of the tree. There, Tad found that he could see what lay about him even better than before.

He patted Pink-eye on the neck and a swish of the animal's tail told him that the little attention was appreciated.

"Good boy," soothed the lad, running his fingers through the mane, straightening out a kink here and there.

He had dropped the reins as he finished with the mane, and Pink-eye's head began to droop until his nose was almost on the ground. He had settled himself for the long vigil. Perhaps he would go to sleep in a few moments. The rider hoped he would, for then there would be no movement that a stranger might hear.

It was a lonesome post. There was scarcely a sound, though now and then a bird twittered somewhere in the foliage and once he beard the mournful hoot of an owl far away to his left.

"I wonder if that could have been a signal, or was it a real bird," whispered Tad to himself. "I have heard of a certain band of outlaws that always used the hoot of the owl as their signal to each other."

After an interval of perhaps a minute another owl wailed out its weird cry off to his right.

Tad Butler pricked up his ears.

"Well, if it isn't a signal, those owls are holding a regular wireless conversation. Hark!"

Far back in the foothills there sounded another similar call.

Tad Butler was sure, by this time, that something was going on that would bear watching.

For a long time he heard nothing more, and was beginning to think that perhaps he had drawn on his imagination too far. It might be owls after all.

"I wonder if the others heard that, too? Maybe they know better than I what it means, if it means anything at all. I wish Mr. Larue would happen along now. I'd like to tell him what I think."

He knew, however, that the foreman, like himself was stationed somewhere off there in the blackness, sitting on his pony as immovable as a statue, his straining eyes peering into the night, his ears keyed to catch the slightest sound.

A gentle breeze rippled over the trees, stirring the foliage into a soft murmur. Then the breeze passed on and silence once more settled over the scene.

Tad sighed. Even a little wind was a welcome break in the monotony. He was not afraid, but his nerves were on edge by this time, and Tad made no attempt to deny it.

Something snapped to the left of him. The sound was as if some one had stepped on a dry branch which had crumpled under his weight.

The lad was all attention instantly.

"There certainly is something over there," he whispered. "It may be a man, but I'll bet it's a bear or some other animal. If it's a bear, first thing I know Pink-eye will bolt and then I'll be in a fix."

Tad cautiously gathered up the reins, using care not to disturb the pony, for it was all important that the animal remain absolutely quiet just now.

But, though the boy listened with straining ears, there was no repetition of the sound and this led him to believe that it had been an animal, which perhaps had scented them and was stalking him already.

It was not a comforting thought. Yet Tad never moved. He sat in his saddle rigidly, every nerve and muscle tense. He was determined to be calm no matter what happened.

The lad's head was thrown slightly forward, his chin protruding stubbornly, and as he listened there was borne to his ears another sound. It was as if something was approaching with a soft tread. He could hear it distinctly.

"Whatever that thing is, it has four feet," decided the lad quickly. "It's not a man, that is sure."

Instinctively he permitted his left hand to drop to the pommel of the saddle so that he might not be unseated in case Pink-eye should take sudden alarm and leap to one side. The reins were lightly bunched in the left, Tad's right hanging idly at his side.

The footsteps became more and more pronounced, Tad's curiosity increasing in proportion.

He fully expected to see a bear lumber from the shadows at any second now. If this happened he did not know what he should do. Of course he could ride away, but in doing so he might alarm the watching sheepmen and upset all their plans.

The noise after approaching for some moments, suddenly ceased. Tad's eyes were fairly boring into the shadows. All at once the particular shadow at which he was looking moved.

Tad started violently.

The shadow moved forward a few steps, then halted.

It was a man on horseback. He had ridden right out from the foothills.

"It's here," whispered Tad Butler to himself. The rider moved up a few steps again, this time halting within a few feet of the watching boy.

Tad's hand cautiously stole down to his lariat. He brought it up at arm's length, held it for one brief moment then swung it over his head.