Chapter VIII. Into the Enemy's Camp
 

"Has Simms been warned that he'd better keep them out of this here territory?" asked one.

"Yes."

"Who told him?"

"Bob Moore, who owns the Double X Ranch on the west side of the range. I saw to that," announced the man with the beard.

Tad decided that he was the leader of the party, but it was not yet clear what they were planning to do. Yet he knew that if he listened long enough something was sure to be dropped that would give him a clue to the mystery.

"Bob's mad as a trapped bear over it. Swears he'll kill every sheep in the country before he'll let Simms drive in the new herd and graze it here."

"Suppose you put it into his head proper like to do something?" laughed one.

"Well, I did talk it over with him a bit," admitted the leader. "But he wasn't hard to show."

"When is the thing coming off?"

"We haven't decided yet. We four will talk that over. Perhaps the same night they get in. They'll be restless then and easy to start."

"But won't the foreman corral the sheep?"

"Don't think so. Haven't room. They haven't fixed up a new corral, because they expected to graze the sheep on north. That many will clean up the range right straight ahead of us for more'n a hundred miles, so that we cattle men won't have half a chance to graze our cattle," grinned the spokesman of the party.

His companions laughed harshly.

"I reckon," answered another. "We'll have all the cattle men on both sides of the Rosebud range so stirred up that they will pitch into that flock like hyenas who haven't had a square meal since snow fell last. When they break loose there's going to be fun, now I tell you. That's the time we get busy. We ought to be able to get a thousand of them anyhow. Before next morning we'll be so far down toward the Big Horn range that they won't catch us. And besides, after the cattle men get through killing mutton, a thousand more or less won't be missed. It'll make a nice bunch to add to our flock. If we work that a few times we'll have enough to make a shipment worth while."

"So that's the game is it?" muttered Tad Butler. "Well, they won't do it if I can help it." Yet be realized how powerless he was at that moment to defeat their nefarious plans.

Somehow they were going to urge the real cattle men to use highhanded measures to destroy Mr. Simms's flock. They were going to scatter them, and then these men were going to make off with all they could drive away. It did not seem to the listening boy that such things were possible; yet Mr. Simms was authority for the statement that such acts were not unknown in this far northern state.

There were still many points that Tad was not clear on, but he had heard enough to enable him to give the rancher a timely warning of what they proposed to do.

The lad knew what that meant. It meant trouble. His sympathies had been largely with the cattle men--he had looked down on the sheep industry and for the reason that he knew only what the cattle men had told him about it.

At that moment Tad Butler was experiencing a change of heart. That they could plan ruthlessly to slaughter the inoffensive little animals passed his comprehension. A remark below him caused the lad to prick up his ears and listen intently.

"As I came over the Little Muddy this afternoon, I thought I saw some sort of a camp in the foothills," said a voice. "Thought mebby that might be the outfit, though I couldn't see what they were doing on that side of the range."

"Oh," laughed the big man, "I know the one you mean. Yes, I took a look at that outfit myself."

"Oh, he did, eh? Wonder we didn't see him," grunted Tad, realizing that the men referred to the camp of the Pony Riders. "There was something besides bears around there, I see."

"Find out what it was!"

"Yes, it seemed to be a camp of boys. There was only one man in the bunch so far as I could see. He was a tall gent with whiskers that hadn't been shaved for two weeks o' Sundays."

Tad could not repress a laugh.

"I wish the boys could hear that," he said, laughing softly. "That hits off the Professor better than a real picture could do."

"Huh! What were they doing!"

"You can search me for the answer. I haven't got it," laughed the big fellow. "We don't need to bother about them. They're out here with some crazy idea in their tops. They can't interfere with our plans any."

"You'd better not be too sure about that," chuckled Tad. "Perhaps one of them may if he has the good luck to get out of here without being discovered."

"What's the plan, Bluff?"

"So that's his name? I'll remember that," muttered Tad.

"That's what I wanted you boys to meet me here for. I want you to see all the ranchers before to-morrow night on both sides of the Rosebud. Understand now, no blunt giving away of the game. You want to start by telling them you hear Boss Simms is bringing in ten thousand head of sheep, and that he's going to graze them up the valley all the way over the free grass to the north. Tell them that it'll be mighty poor picking for the cows and so on until you get 'em good and properly mad----"

"Yes, what then?"

"Better let the ranchers make threats first, then you can say that you hear the others are going to teach Boss Simms a lesson and stampede his flock to-morrow or next night. Say you hear the word will go out when the mine is ready to touch a match to. You'll know how to work it?"

"Sure thing, Bluff. Who do you want us to see?"

"I want you and Jake to take the west side of the mountains. Lazy and I will take the east. Work it thoroughly and don't you go to making any bad breaks. Right after the job is over, besides the sheep we get for our own herd, there'll be a few thousand laying dead around these parts. We'll take the contract to skin them for the hides. That'll be another rake off. Do you follow me?"

"Yes."

"To-morrow night meet me at the Three Sisters and I'll be able to give you your orders for the rest of the boys."

"You don't think they'll suspect you--that they'll be wise to what the game is?" asked one of the men apprehensively.

"No fear of that. They'd never mix me up with any such deal as that. I'm a respectable law abiding rancher, I am," laughed the man with the red beard. "Don't you go to getting cold feet. That's the sure way to get caught," admonished the leader.

"Want us to start now?"

"No, sure not. What's the use? We'd better turn in and get some sleep. It'll be light enough by three o'clock in the morning. We'll get a rasher of bacon and some hot coffee, then we'll light out for the valley. You know you don't have to see Bob Moore. And better not go near the Circle T Ranch. I'm not any too sure about those fellows. We'll turn in now."

"I've heard enough to hang the whole bunch," thought Tad Butler. "The trouble is I don't know who they are. But that does not make so much difference. Only if I did know, Mr. Simms might be able to have them arrested. As it is, I guess the best he can do is to get ready to fight them off when they do come," reasoned the lad.

"Better stake the ponies nearer camp in case anything comes along. I came across bear tracks a few miles to the east of here," the big man advised them."

"So did I," thought Tad.

"I forgot to tell you that there'll be three or four Crow braves with us on the raid as well as half a dozen Blackfeet?"

"Blackfeet? What are them redskins doing down here, off the reservation?" demanded Jake.

"They're like all critters, think the pasture over the fence is better'n their own," laughed Bluff. "Guess there's no need of any of us keeping awake. We ain't likely to have any surprises."

The cowboy outlaw, however, was about to have the most surprising of surprises that could have come to him at that time.

Tad, in his anxiety to catch every word that was uttered, had drawn his body close up to the edge of the cliff, his head and shoulders hanging well over.

In front of him, right down to the camp stretched a long, sloping rock, whose smooth face, glistened in the light of the camp fire. As the men rose to prepare for the night, Tad began pulling himself cautiously back, bracing himself with one hand.

Suddenly the hand slipped. How it happened he was unable to tell afterward, but instantly Tad was over the rock and tobogganing down its side head first.

A spot rougher than the rest of the rock, caught in his clothes, righting the boy's body, permitting him to shoot down the rest of the way, feet first.

The Pony Rider Boy's presence of mind did not desert him for an instant. It was not a long drop. He felt that he would land safely, providing he did not turn again and land on his head instead of his feet. It was a chance very liable to happen, as he knew from his experience of a second before.

They heard him coming, but did not catch the significance of it.

"What's that!" exclaimed Bluff, springing up in alarm.

"I don----"

"Y-e-o-w!"

Tad had uttered the shrill scream. With great presence of mind he hoped to take them so by surprise that they would hesitate for the few seconds, and that in this delay he would be able to get away.

The lad's feet struck the ground, his body plunged forward and he fell sprawling at the very feet of the men he was seeking to get away from.

"Catch him! It's a man!" roared the leader.

With one accord they sprang for the prostrate form of Tad Butler.