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CHAPTER XVI


A MEETING ON THE TRAIL


Arriving at the bridge, Sid Todd told Dave to halt, and the pair dismounted. As they did so they heard a sound in the bushes beside the stream. They looked in the direction, but saw nobody.

The cowboy had drawn his pistol, and with this in hand he walked closer to the bridge. His eyes were on the planking, and presently he uttered an exclamation:

"The rascals!"

He pointed to two of the planks, and Dave saw that they were loose and so placed that the slightest jar would send them down into the stream.

"Do you think those men I just saw did this?" questioned Dave.

"Certainly they did! They ought to be hung for it, too!" answered the cowboy, wrathfully.

"But what for—to cripple our horses?"

"Either that, or to cripple us. Dave, we've got to be on our guard. If those hoss-thieves are watching us——"

"I don't think they were horse-thieves, Todd."

"You don't? Then——" The cowboy broke off into a low whistle. "Do you mean to say Link Merwell would play such a dirty trick?"

"Yes, I do. You haven't any idea how that fellow hates me."

"Hum!" mused Sid Todd. "Well, maybe, but I thought it must be the hoss-thieves."

"Why would horse-thieves want to hurt our horses?"

"They wouldn't want to do that, but they might be thinking our horses would fall and throw us. But I see that reasoning is weak. Maybe it was young Merwell—and Hank Snogger. If it was, they ought to be punished good an' proper, hear me!" went on the cowboy, with emphasis.

"I am going to look around the bushes," went on Dave, determinedly.

"Look out that you don't get into trouble, son. Anybody who would do this would do worse."

Dave had seen a heavy stick lying beside the road, and arming himself with this, he walked to the bushes and around them. In the soft soil he made out a number of hoof-prints, and he called Todd's attention to these.

"On hossback, both of 'em," said the cowboy, after an examination. "Dave, you was right," he announced, a little later. "It must have been Merwell and Snogger, fer see, they have taken the old trail along the river. That leads to another trail that runs to the Merwell ranch."

"Well, they are gone, that's certain," answered the youth, after another look around. "We may as well be on our way. But we ought to mend the bridge."

"We'll do that, an' post a warning, too," said the cowboy.

Not without difficulty, they managed to fasten the planks into place once more. Then, at either end of the rickety structure, they set up a stick in the road.

"That's the usual warning in this country," explained Todd. "It means 'Go slow and look out.'"

When the pair arrived at Star Ranch they found the boys and girls waiting for them.

"You must have walked back," said Belle. "We have been waiting for you ever since we heard the locomotive whistle."

"Oh, we had to stop to fix the bridge," answered Dave, and then handed around the letters, which instantly claimed attention, so no more questions were asked. Then the Crumville youth had supper, and by that time it was late enough to go to bed.

"You've got a cut on your cheek, Dave," said Phil, when the three boys were undressing. "Did you scratch yourself?"

"Thereby hangs a tale, Phil," quoted Dave, and then, in a low voice, told of the encounter at the railroad station, and gave the true particulars of the trouble at the river.

"It's the same old Link!" murmured Roger. "We'll have to watch out for him!"

"I really think the girls ought to be warned," said Phil. "There is no telling what mean thing Link might do—if he met them alone."

"Well, we don't want to frighten them," answered Dave.

"Better frighten them than give Link the chance to annoy them," answered the senator's son.

"Say, I wish I had seen you polish off Link!" cried Phil. "It would have done my heart good. I'll wager he was as mad as he could be!"

"Oh, he was mad enough," replied Dave, with a grim smile. "But say, when you get the chance, I want you to look at that Hank Snogger. He looks like somebody I've met somewhere, but for the life of me I can't place him."

"Is he handsome?" quizzed the shipowner's son.

"No, he looks melancholy—as if he had something on his mind. It's a peculiar face, and for the life of me I can't get it out of my mind."

Several days passed and nothing of importance happened. The boys and girls enjoyed themselves thoroughly, and the Endicotts did all in their power to make the visitors feel at home. At first, Jessie was inclined to be a little shy, but soon this wore away and she felt as happy as anybody.

"It certainly is a splendid spot," said she to Dave. "I don't wonder Laura was anxious to get back, and to have you see it."

"It suits me—I wouldn't ask for a better vacation, especially"—Dave dropped his voice a little—"with you along, Jessie."

"Oh, Dave!" she cried, and blushed.

"It wouldn't be half so much fun if you hadn't come along, Jessie," he went on. "I am very, very glad that we are here—together."

"Well, so—so am I," answered the girl, and then, still blushing, she ran off to join Belle and Laura. But the look she gave Dave warmed his heart as it had never been warmed before.

Sunday passed, with a little home service, in which all those in the house and also a few of the cowboys joined. The boys and girls sang some of the familiar church songs, and this the cowboys greatly enjoyed.

"We don't git much in the way of entertainment here," explained Sid Todd, "and that singin' sounds mighty good to us. It touches a fellow here, too," he added, with his finger over his heart.

"If Mr. Endicott will permit it, we'll give you boys an entertainment before we go home," answered Dave. "We give them at Oak Hall, you know,—and the girls can help."

"Say, that sure would be fine!" answered the cowboy, enthusiastically.

The boys had found out from Mr. Endicott where good fishing could be had, and early of the second week at Star Ranch they went out, taking the girls with them. All were on horseback, and carried lunch along, for they were to remain out all day.

"Now keep out of truble," said Mrs. Endicott, as they rode away. "And be sure to come back before dark."

"We'll be back by six, mamma," answered Belle. "And you needn't worry about us, for we'll be perfectly safe."

They were bound for a spot among the foothills, about six miles away. Here was located a mountain torrent, said to be filled with the gamiest kind of specimens of the finny tribe. Sid Todd had told them of a particularly good bend in the stream, where fishing was bound to be excellent, and Belle said she knew the trail, having gone to the locality several times with her father. She was a true young sportswoman, and could fish almost as well as her parent. She carried the same kind of an outfit as did the boys. Jessie and Laura did not expect to fish, but said they would watch the others, and pick wild flowers, and also prepare the lunch when it came time to eat.

All were in the best of health and spirits when they departed. It promised to be an ideal day, with the sun shining clearly, and a gentle breeze blowing from the northwest. They passed along at a smart gait, for the boys and Belle were anxious to try their luck with their lines and poles.

"If we catch enough, right from, the start, we can fry some fish for lunch," said Dave. "I love fish just from the water."

"Oh, so do I!" cried Belle. "They seem so much sweeter."

"In the city one gets them all packed in ice, and then half the flavor is gone," added Laura.

They started in a bunch, but gradually drifted into pairs, Dave riding beside Jessie, Roger escorting Laura, and Phil taking the lead with Belle. The senator's son and Dave's sister had become very "chummy," and it can be said that Phil and Belle were fully as attentive to one another as the occasion warranted. All told stories and sang, and the boys whistled.

Half an hour of riding brought them to the edge of a woods, and here they had to proceed in single file, or "Indian fashion," as Belle expressed it.

"By the way, are there any Indians around here?" asked Jessie, timidly.

"A few, and they are very peaceable," answered the ranch owner's daughter. "Our only enemies are the cattle- and horse-thieves."

They were passing through some dense underbrush when Belle suddenly called a halt. The trail was very narrow, and on either side grew dense clumps of trees.

"Somebody is coming," announced the girl.

"On this trail?" asked Laura.

"Yes."

"We'll have some fun passing each other, especially if it's a fat man," remarked Roger, dryly, and this caused a laugh.

They waited, and presently saw a boy approaching on horseback, followed by a lean-looking man who wore a tattered cowboy dress and a much-battered sombrero.

"It's Link Merwell!" exclaimed Phil.

He was right, and the bully did not stop until his horse stood directly in front of that ridden by Belle. Then he came to a halt, and his companion halted directly behind him.

"I want to pass," growled Link, without so much as raising his hat or bidding the time of day.

"All right, pass," answered Phil, stiffly. "We are not keeping you."

"You are blocking the trail."

"Can't you pass around the ladies?" questioned Roger.

"I've got as much right on this trail as you," returned the bully, shooting a dark look at the others. "You needn't think you own everything!"

"Oh, let us ride to one side and let him pass!" whispered Jessie. "He may want to fight if we don't!"

"He won't fight with so many against him," answered Dave.

"You are very considerate of the ladies, I must say," said Roger. "We'll give you half the trail and no more," and he urged his horse a little to one side and Dave and Phil did the same. The girls moved still further over, so that Link Merwell might not touch them as he passed.

"Where are you going?" demanded the bully, as he moved slowly forward.

"That is our affair, not yours," answered Dave, sharply.

"You keep off my father's land!"

"We don't intend to go near your land," said Belle, coldly.

"Oh, I didn't mean you, Belle, I meant Dave Porter and his cronies."

"Mr. Porter and his friends are my guests, Mr. Merwell. When you insult them, you insult me." And Belle held her head high in the air.

"All right; have your own way, if you want to. I haven't got anything against you and your folks. But I don't intend these outsiders shall ride over me," growled Link. He faced Dave. "I'm not done with you yet, remember that!" he added, bitterly. Then he rode on, and the lean-looking man behind him followed. Belle looked at the man curiously, but the fellow kept his face averted as he slipped by. Soon boy and man had disappeared from view.

"Talk about a lemon!" cried Phil. "Say, isn't Link the sourest ever!"

"He certainly is," answered Roger.

"Let's forget him," said Dave. "We are out for fun to-day, not for trouble." And then they moved forward as before. Little did any of them dream of what that unexpected meeting in the woods was to bring forth.