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CHAPTER XVII


IN WHICH SOME HORSES ARE STOLEN


A half hour more of riding brought the little party to the bank of the stream at a point where Belle said they would be sure to find good fishing. Here there was something of a pool, the river tumbling from some rocks above. The pool was lined with rocks and brushwood, and behind these was a glade, backed up by the woods.

"What a lovely spot!" cried Jessie, enthusiastically, as Dave assisted her to dismount, and took charge of her horse. "Just look at the wild flowers among the rocks! One would not believe that they could grow in such a place!"

"I am glad I brought my camera with me," said Laura. "I am sure I shall get some fine pictures."

Belle showed the boys where the animals might be tethered, and they took particular care to fasten the steeds properly, as Sid Todd had instructed them. Then they got out their fishing-rods, and also that of Belle, and baited up with the artificial flies they had brought along.

"We'll fish for an hour," announced Dave. "And then I'll knock off and start up a campfire."

"When you do that be careful and not set fire to the woods," said Belle. "Papa is very much afraid of fire."

"I don't blame him," put in Roger. "A fire out here would do a terrible amount of damage."

The boys and Belle were soon busy fishing, in the pool and along the lower part of the river. The stream was about thirty feet in width and from a foot to four foot deep, with great rocks sticking up here and there. Trout and some other fish were plentiful, and all had but little difficulty in getting bites, and it was great sport to play their catches and land them.

"This is the best fishing I ever saw!" cried Phil, as he succeeded in landing an extra fine mountain trout. "I don't wonder that fishermen come many miles to gratify their taste for such sport."

"Here's another!" exclaimed Belle, merrily, and brought in a fish that was a beauty. Roger and Dave both leaped to help her, and soon the catch was dropped into a side pool with the others.

While the boys and Belle were fishing, Laura and Jessie wandered up and down the rocks and the grassy glade beyond, gathering wild flowers and also some blackberries that grew in that vicinity. Dave's sister also succeeded in getting several photographs, including two of the others with their fishing outfits.

"Now, I want you all to stand in a group, with your fish on strings," said Laura, a little later, when the fishing seemed to slow up a little. And then she arranged them to suit herself and took two snapshots.

"Now, let me take a snapshot of you and Jessie, with your bunches of wild flowers," said Dave, and this was soon added to the other films.

They had great fun building a campfire and preparing lunch. The boys cut the wood and started the blaze, and even made coffee, while the girls spread a tablecloth that had been brought along, and put out tin plates and tin cups, and the various good things to eat. Then some of the fish were cleaned by the boys and fried by the girls, and all sat down to enjoy what every one declared was better than a feast at a hotel. In the meantime the horses were tethered in a new place, so that they could crop the luxurious grass.

"I can tell you one thing, life in the open air gives one a great appetite," remarked the senator's son, as he smacked his lips over a particularly dainty portion of trout.

"As if there was ever anything the matter with Roger's appetite," cried Phil.

"How about yourself, Phil?" questioned Dave, with a grin.

"Oh, I reckon I can get away with my share," answered the shipowner's son calmly, as he reached for another portion of the fish.

As there was no hurry, the boys and girls took their time over the meal, and many were the stories told and the jokes cracked while the food was disappearing.

"If only some of the Oak Hall boys could see us now!" cried Dave. "Wouldn't they envy us!"

"They certainly would," answered Roger.

"And what of the girls at home?" asked Jessie. "I rather think they'd like to be in our place."

"Crumville seems a long way off, doesn't it?" said Laura.

Besides the fish, they had chicken sandwiches, cake, pie, and half a dozen other things to eat, and coffee, and water from a sparkling spring to drink. When they had finished, they took it easy for a while, and then fished some more, and went strolling.

"I think we had better be thinking of returning," said Belle, at length. "It is a long ride back, remember, and unless I am mistaken there is a storm coming up."

"A storm!" cried Jessie. "Oh, I hope not!"

"We don't want to get wet," added Laura.

"I don't think the storm will come right away. But I don't like the looks of the clouds yonder."

"They certainly do look bad," remarked Dave, casting his eyes in the direction to which Belle pointed. "It didn't look like rain this morning."

"It may be more wind than rain, Dave. Sometimes we have great windstorms around Star Ranch."

They were quite a distance up the river shore when Belle called attention to the clouds. They had gone up to get a view of a small but picturesque waterfall, and Laura had taken several snapshots, with the boys and girls in the foreground, seated on a fallen tree trunk. Now all started back in the direction of the temporary camp.

"Say, Roger, you help the girls pack up," said Dave. "Phil and I can get the horses ready. Be sure to see that the fire is out, too," he called back.

"All right," answered the senator's son. "The fire is out—I saw to that before," he added.

The horses had been tethered at some distance from the camping-out spot, behind some heavy brushwood, where the grass was extra thick and nutritious. Dave hurried in that direction, with Phil at his heels.

When the two youths reached the spot, both stared around in perplexity.

"Why, Dave——" stammered the shipowner's son. "I thought——"

"We left the horses here!" cried Dave. "I'm sure of it."

"Then where are they now?"

"Maybe they broke loose and wandered away."

"Or else they have been stolen!"

"Stolen!"

"Yes,—it couldn't be otherwise. They wandered away or they have been stolen."

"We'll take a look around."

Both boys hurried, first in one direction, and then another. They could see hoofprints in the grass, leading towards the rocks back of the bushes, but that was all. The horses had been tethered to some saplings.

"The halters didn't break, that's certain," said Phil, soberly. "For if they did, we'd find the broken ends."

"I can't understand it," returned Dave, and his face grew thoughtful.

"Hello!" came in Roger's voice. "Why don't you bring those horses? We are all ready to go."

"Come here!" called back Dave. "Something is wrong!"

The senator's son answered the summons on a run, and the three girls trailed behind him. The newcomers to Star Ranch did not know what to say, but Belle uttered a cry of dismay:

"Horse-thieves!"

"Oh, Belle, do you really think somebody has stolen the horses?" queried Laura, while Jessie turned very pale.

"Yes, I do," was the blunt response. "That is, if they were tied properly."

"Yes, they were well tied—I saw to that myself," said Dave.

"I know mine was tied fast,and so was Laura's," added the senator's son.

"And I put a double knot in the rope to Belle's and mine," came from Phil.

"One thing is sure," said Laura. "They couldn't very well all break away at once."

"I am sure it is the work of horse-thieves," responded Belle. "Papa has been afraid they might come back."

"But how did they know about our horses being here?" asked Phil.

"They must have watched us and seen us ride away from the ranch, and then they followed, and took the horses while we were up the river."

"If only we could follow them, and get the horses back!" said the senator's son, with a sigh.

"They must be worth a lot of money," murmured Jessie. "Oh, supposing they had shot us!" she added, tremblingly.

"Horse-thieves are usually cowards," answered Belle. "They won't shoot unless they are cornered. I'd like to follow them myself, but we can't do it on foot."

"What are we to do?" asked Laura, and looked at her brother.

"I don't know," answered Dave. "One or two of us boys might walk back to the ranch and tell the folks of what has happened."

"But it is such a distance, Dave!" cried Jessie. "And see how black the sky is getting!" she added.

"It is quite a number of miles to the ranch house," said Belle. "You would not be able to reach there until long after nightfall."

"I shouldn't mind that," answered Dave. "But what will the rest of you do in the meantime? You can't stay out here in the open very well, with that storm coming on."

"Dave, you're not going to the house alone," cried Laura. "I'll not allow it. Supposing those horse-thieves should be watching you? They might attack you, and rob you!"

"Yes, please don't think of going alone," pleaded Jessie, and her eyes began to fill with tears.

"Dave is not going alone. I am going with him," declared Roger.

"No, I'll go," volunteered Phil. "You can stay with the girls."

"Well, both of you can't go," answered Dave, with a grim smile. "Somebody has got to stay here,—in fact, I think it would be better that both of you stay with the girls—in case I don't get back with help by morning."

"Of course, if it wasn't for the loss of the horses we could all stay here," said Belle. "Papa will be sure to send somebody out to look us up when it gets late and we are not back. But I think he ought to know about the horses just as soon as possible."

"Is there any sort of a shelter around here?" questioned Roger.

"Yes, there is a shack about a quarter of a mile up the river," answered the ranch owner's daughter. "Papa stayed there several nights, once upon a time. It isn't much of a place, but it will shelter us from the storm."

"Are you sure you can find it?"

"Oh, yes, I've been there twice."

"Then you and the others had best put up there for the night, and I'll start at once for the ranch house," went on Dave. "I am not afraid, and I'll keep my eyes wide open for those horse-thieves," he continued.

But to this plan the girls would not listen, and at last it was arranged that Roger should remain with the girls, while Dave and Phil walked to the house for aid. The crowd left behind were to hurry to the shack up the river, and there make themselves as comfortable as possible until help arrived.

"Do be careful now, Dave!" said his sister, as he was on the point of departing.

"Yes! yes!" added Jessie. "I shall worry every minute until you get back! "

"Don't be alarmed," answered Dave. "We'll get through all right, and have help here before you know it."

"Are you sure of the trail?" asked Belle.

"Oh, yes, that's easy," answered Phil.

Without another word the two chums started off in the direction of the ranch house, so many miles distant. The others watched them out of sight, and then turned and walked up the river bank toward the shack Belle had mentioned.