Chapter VII. Almost Betrayed by a Sneeze
 

Tad awakened with a start.

His first impression was that he smelled smoke, and for the moment he believed himself back in camp. A movement convinced him of his error. A jagged point of rock had cut into his flesh while he slept. He almost cried out with the pain of it, and as he moved a little to shift his body from it, the wound hurt worse than ever.

The lad was still surrounded by an impenetrable darkness. It all came back to him--but standing out stronger than all the rest was the fact that he was lost.

"Wonder how long I've slept," he muttered. "Seems as if I had been here a year. Lucky I awoke or I'd been stuck fast on that rock, for good and all. Whew! B-r-r-r! I think it's going to snow. Thought it was going to rain just before I went to sleep. Wonder if they have snow up here in the summer time. Have almost everything else," continued the lad, muttering to himself, half under his breath.

Slowly rising he shook himself vigorously and rubbed his palms together to get his circulation stirred up.

"Hello, what's that? I remember now, I smelled smoke or thought I did."

Tad sniffed the chill air suspiciously.

"It is smoke," he decided. "Maybe I've set the woods on fire with my matches. Guess I'll climb down and investigate."

He started to move down the side of the ledge when it occurred to him that perhaps it would be better to investigate from where he was; he did not know what danger he might be running into if he were to climb down without first having made sure that it was perfectly safe to do so. Just what he might meet with he did not know. But he felt an uneasy sense of impending danger.

"Often feel that way when I first wake up, especially if I've been eating pie the night before," he confided to himself, in order to urge his courage back to life.

Bending forward he peered from side to side, but was unable to find a single trace of light, anywhere about him. If it were a fire it must be some distance away, he concluded.

"If it were some distance away, I wouldn't smell it. The wind has died down. No, the fire that smoke comes from is right near by me," he whispered.

The sense of human habitation near him caused his pulses to beat more rapidly. The question that remained for him to decide, was who was it that had started the fire?

Tad Butler determined to find out if possible, and at once.

He crept cautiously to the right, feeling his way along the ledge, not being sure how near he was to the edge. He found it more suddenly than he had expected, and narrowly missed falling over head first.

"Whew! That was a close call," he muttered. "I must be more careful."

There was no sign of either smoke or fire below him, as he observed after getting his balance again. He drew back cautiously and worked his way to the side that he had been facing, yet with no better result than before.

There yet remained two sides to be investigated--the one he had climbed up and the other that lay to the left of him. Tad chose the latter as the most likely to give him the information he sought. However, he found that the edge lay some distance away. The table of rock was much wider than he had imagined, when he first ascended to it.

The way was rough. Once the lad's foot slipped into a crevice. In seeking to withdraw it he gave the ankle a wrench that caused him to settle down on the rocks with a half moan of pain. His shoe had become wedged in between the rocks so that he had difficulty in withdrawing it at all, and the injured ankle gave him a great deal of pain as he struggled to release himself.

"Guess I'll have to take off my shoe. Hope I haven't sprained my ankle. I'll be in a fine mess if I have," he grumbled.

The ankle gave him considerable trouble; but he rubbed it all of ten minutes, and he found that he could endure his shoe again. He was full of curiosity as well as anxiety to learn the cause of the smoke, which, by this time, seemed to be coming his way in greater volume.

After having relaced the shoe and leggin, Tad started on again, this time on all fours, not trusting himself to try to walk, feeling his way ahead of him with his hands, which he considered the safer way to do.

"There's somebody down there," he whispered, after a long interval of slow creeping over the rocks. "I wonder who it is? Perhaps they are looking for me. I'll give them a surprise if they are."

The surprise, however, was to be Tad's.

At last he reached the edge of the little butte. Slowly stretching his neck and lying flat on his stomach, he peered over.

A cloud of black smoke rolled up into his face, causing the lad to withdraw hastily.

"Aka-c-h-e-w," sneezed Tad, burying his face in his hands.

"Whew, what a smudge! I'll bet they heard that sneeze."

"What's that?" demanded a gruff voice below. "Sounded like somebody sneezing."

"No, it's an owl," replied another. "I've heard that kind before. Sometimes you'd think it was a fellow snoring."

"Must be funny kind of a bird," grunted the first speaker.

"He's right. That's exactly what I am," growled Tad, who had plainly overheard their conversation. Yet he was thankful that the men below had not realized the truth. Tad was quite willing to be mistaken for a bird under the circumstances.

After making sure that the men were not going to investigate the sound, the boy crept again toward the edge, working to the right a little further this time, so that the smoke might not smite him full in the face as had been the case before.

There were four of them--strangers. The boy observed that they were dressed like cowboys, broad brimmed hats, blue shirts and all. From the belt of each was suspended a holster from which protruded the butt of a heavy revolver.

"Cowboys," he breathed. "At least they ought to be and I hope they are nothing else."

The lad's attention was fixed particularly on one of the party. He was all of six feet tall, powerfully built, his swarthy face covered with a scraggly growth of red beard, and with a face of a peculiarly sinister appearance.

"When do they expect the herd?" asked the first speaker.

"Be here the day after tomorrer I reckon," answered the man with the red beard.

"How many?"

"They say there's five thousand sheep in the herd, but it's more'n likely there'll be ten when they git here."

"Huh!" grunted the other.

"There'll be less when we git through with them."

"You bet."

"Boss Simms will be mad. He'll be ripping, when we clean him out."

Two of the men rose at the big fellow's direction and stalked off into the bushes to attend to their ponies, which the lad could hear stirring restlessly, but could not see.

"Simms!" breathed Tad. "What does this mean? Those men are up to some mischief. I know it. I must find out what it is they are planning to do."

Tad learned a few moments later, but in his attempts to overhear what the plans of these strange men were, he nearly lost his own life.