Chapter XXI. Two Boys Strangely Missing
 

"No use. He's been picked up by those dastardly cowmen," growled Luke after he and Tad had searched until daybreak. "We must go back to the camp and then turn out the outfit. We've got to find him, that's all. Mr. Simms will be crazy when he hears that the boy has strayed away from us."

"What do you think he'll do?" asked Tad in a worried tone.

"Heaven only knows. If it's those cow fellows who have done it, he'll never rest till he's settled with them for good and all. I'll plan out a hunt for the kid, but it has got to be each man for himself. We must cover every inch of the territory to the north, west and south of us. He couldn't have gone the other way. Come, let's be hustling back to camp."

"Perhaps they have not taken him at all. I should not be surprised if he were only lost."

But Luke shook his head. He was convinced that the rancher's son had not strayed away of his own accord. He believed that the cowmen had picked the lad up and carried him away for sheer revenge on Mr. Simms. Having seen Philip at Groveland Comers, some of them knew him, argued the foreman.

When Mr. Simms was informed of the loss of Phil, he was well-nigh beside himself.

"Do something! Why don't you do something?" he exclaimed in agony.

"We have," answered Luke. "And we have returned to get the rest of your men started on a daylight hunt."

"Did he take his pony with him?" asked Tad, as a thought occurred to him.

"Yes," replied Luke.

"Then, if the pony has not come back, it is pretty good evidence that Philip is still on his back, it seems to me."

"Then turn out; everybody turn out!" shouted Mr. Simms. "Don't come back till you get him or bring me some tidings."

"You will want some one to round up each scattered band of sheep, Mr. Simms. You do not want to lose your herd, do you?" asked the foreman.

"I don't care for the herd. Let two men and the dogs remain with the sheep that did not stampede. All the rest go out on the search. I'll take a turn myself. What's your plan, Luke?"

The foreman explained that he proposed to send the searchers out alone, so that all the territory might be covered. He had planned to lay his party out in the shape of a fan. The fan closed, he would push up into the foothills, then open it in a wide sweep. As he expressed it, "not even a jack rabbit could get away from them if he were within the semicircle covered by their formation."

Mr. Simms bore the strain as well as a father could be expected to bear it.

Without the loss of a moment Luke gathered the men about him, explaining briefly what was to be done and assigning to each man the part he was to play in the day's search.

Foremost among the party were the Pony Rider Boys. Even Stacy Brown, serious-faced and impatient to be off, had saddled and bridled his pony and sat awaiting the order to move.

At last all was ready.

"Right!" announced the foreman, whereupon the sheepmen, headed by Luke and Tad Butler, started up at a brisk gallop, headed straight across the mesa, taking a course that would lead them to the foothills, a short distance ahead of them. Beaching the foothills, they continued on for some two or three miles. Here the foreman gave the order to open the fan, he taking the lead on the left and Tad on the right. The searchers were now moving with a space of about a quarter of a mile between them,

shouting out the name of Phil Simms now and then, these calls running down the line to the lower end of the fan-shaped formation.

After a time Tad found that he could no longer hear the shouts of his companions, yet from the position of the sun, which he consulted frequently, he felt sure that he was following the right course.

On and on he rode, until the sun lay on the western horizon. The others of the party were making a thorough search, investigating every gully and draw that lay in their course, shouting for Phil, hut not shooting their guns, as this was to be the signal that the lost boy had been found.

"I'm afraid we are going to miss him," mused the foreman. "If we fail to find him, then they've got him, sure."

At last he had completed his half of the sweep of the fan, and his face wore a troubled look as his pony emerged from the foothills onto the open mesa again. The sun was setting.

Luke rode out and waited a few moments, and when joined by the rest of his section, started back to the camp.

Old Hicks had prepared the hated mutton for supper by the time the right side of the fan formation got in. Not a trace had one of them found of the missing Philip Simms.

The rancher said nothing when told that they had failed. He strode away to his tent and they saw him no more for hours.

They had just gathered about the table for the evening meal, all unusually silent, when Ned Rector, glancing about, made a sudden discovery.

"Where's Tad?" he demanded.

"Didn't he come in?" asked the foreman, pausing in the act of sitting down to the table.

"That's what I should like to know? Where is he?"

No one seemed to know.

"Now, he's gone, too," breathed the foreman anxiously. "That's one more mystery on the old Custer trail."

"We--we'll have to go hunt for Tad now. You don't suppose he and Phil are together, do you?" asked Walter.

"I don't know. I hope they are. But, boy, it's useless to go out looking for them now. All we can do will be to wait until morning, then take up the search again"----

"That's what comes from taking kids out on a man's job," growled Old Hicks, as he served the mutton.

"Hicks, no one asked you for your opinion," snapped the foreman. "These boys have done men's work ever since they joined. Had it not been for Tad, Boss Simms would have been out of business entirely now. Don't let me hear anybody casting any slurs on these boys. I won't stand for it."

Old Hicks grumbled and hobbled away to his black kettle, while the others ate their supper in silence. But, somehow, the meal was far from satisfying, and one by one they rose from the table, leaving plates half filled, and strolled away to spend the evening as best they could until bedtime. Ned and the foreman remained up, for they were to go out at midnight and take their trick at watching over the herd.

"I've just got an idea," said the foreman, calling Ned to him.

"Yes; what is it?"

"I'm going to put some one on the herd in my place and ride over to Groveland. Want to go along?"

"Yes, if it has anything to do with our friends."

"That's what I mean."

"All right, I'm ready; but it is pretty late."

"Makes no difference. We'll wake them up if they are in bed. I want to see Cavanagh, who keeps the store. I have one or two questions to ask him."

Without saying anything to the others as to their intention, the two quietly saddled their ponies and rode off. The foreman made arrangements to have others take their trick, after which they headed across the mesa toward the place where Tad had whipped the mountain boy.

Though the night, like the one that had preceded it, was intensely dark, Luke rode on with perfect confidence, never for one instant hesitating over the course.

Ned did not know that they had reached the little village until the foreman told him.

"We're here," he said quietly.

"Where's the town?"

"In it now."

"I don't see it, if we are."

"You hold my horse. I'll wake up Cavanagh," announced the foreman, dismounting and tossing the reins to his companion.

Luke thundered on the front door of the store, above which the owner had his quarters. After an interval, during which the foreman had pounded insistently with the butt of his revolver, an upper window opened and a voice demanded to know what was wanted.

"Come down here and I'll tell you."

"Who are you? What do you mean prowling around this time of the night?"

"I'm Luke Larue, of the Simms's outfit, and I want to see you."

"Oh, hello, Luke. Thought there was something familiar about your voice. I'll be down in a minute. Anybody with you?" "Yes, friend. Hurry up." Cavanagh opened the front door, peering out suspiciously before he permitted his caller to enter.

"Wait a minute. I want to call my friend in. Ned, tether the ponies and come along."

After the lad had joined them, the two ranchers entered the store, the proprietor taking them to the back of the store and lighting a lantern, which he placed behind a cracker barrel, so that the light might not be observed from the outside,

"Now, what is it?" he demanded. Luke told him briefly of the battle with the cowboys, of which Cavanagh had already heard. Then he related the story of the mysterious disappearance of the two boys.

"What do you want of me?" asked the storekeeper, when the story had been finished.

"To know whether you had heard any of the boys say anything that might lead you to believe they knew anything about the matter?"

"No," answered Canavagh after a moment's thought. "Hain't heard a word. Don't believe they know anything about it. They'd a said something if they'd heard of it."

"Don't you know anything about the boys yourself?"

"No, don't know nothing about them."

"Sure?"

"Surest thing, you know."

"Very well. I believe you. One of my reasons for coming over here, however, was to tell you to keep your eyes and ears open to-morrow."

"I'll do that for you----"

"If we fail to find them to-morrow, I'll ride over at night after the crowd has left here and hear what you have learned. When any of the cowmen come in, I want you to bring up the subject and try to draw them out. You'll get something that will be of use to us, I know, for I'm dead certain that they've got both of those boys."

"Do you think they would dare do a thing like that?" asked Ned.

"Dare?" Luke laughed harshly. "They'd dare anything, especially about this time. Oh, did you hear whether any of them got hit last night!"

"Two or three is laid up for repairs," grinned the storekeeper.

"I'm glad of it. I wish the whole bunch had been trimmed."

"Lose many sheep?"

"Yes; too many. But that isn't what's troubling us now."

"No, I understand. It's the kids."

"Exactly. Don't forget what you have got to do, now."

Ned had been leaning against the counter listening to the conversation, when his hand came in contact with a soft object that lay on the counter. He carelessly picked it up and looked at it.

What he had found was a sombrero. This of itself was unimportant, for the store carried them for sale. A broad, yellow band about it was what attracted Ned Rector's attention, causing him to utter a sharp exclamation.

"What is it?" demanded Luke quickly.

"Look. Did you ever see this before?" he asked excitedly.

"It's Philip Simms's hat," answered the foreman, fixing a stern eye on the old storekeeper.