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CHAPTER XVIII


OUT IN THE WIND AND RAIN


"Dave, what do you suppose those six horses were worth?" questioned Phil, as the two youths hurried along the back trail on a dog-trot,—the same dog-trot they used when on a cross-country run at Oak Hall.

"At least two thousand dollars, Phil," was the reply. "The horse I used was a dandy, and so was that Belle had—and yours was a good one, too."

"What do you suppose those horse-thieves will do with them?"

"Drive them a long distance, hide them for a while, and then, when they get the chance, sell them. Of course they don't expect to get full value for them, but they'll get a neat sum."

"You don't suppose this can be a trick of Link Merwell's?"

"I thought of that, but I don't think so. Taking a horse in this section of the country is a serious business. Why, they used to hang horse-thieves, and even now a ranchman wouldn't hesitate to shoot at a fellow who had his horse and was making off with it. No, I don't think Link would quite dare to play such a trick. But of course we can investigate, after we have reported to Mr. Endicott."

"You are not going to try to keep up this dog-trot all the way to the house, are you?" questioned the shipowner's son, after about a mile had been covered, and when they were passing over a rather rough portion of the trail.

"Winded?"

"Not exactly, but I shall be if I keep this up," panted Phil. "Besides, I don't want to tumble over these tree roots."

"I wanted to get as far as possible on the way before that storm broke," went on Dave, glancing anxiously upward, between the branches of the trees. "When it comes, I rather think it will be a corker. I hope the others reach that shack before it rains."

"Oh, they ought to be there by this time."

The boys kept on, sometimes running and sometimes dropping into a walk. As they advanced, the sky kept growing steadily darker, both on account of the storm and because the day was drawing to a close.

"Here's the spot where we passed Link and that man with him," said Dave, presently. "Wonder who that fellow was?"

"Oh, some hand from the Merwell ranch, I suppose. He didn't seem to be very sociable. He kept his head turned away all the time Link was talking to us."

"If he's from the Merwell place, they can't have very nice fellows up there."

"Well, who would want to work for a man like Mr. Merwell? He and Link are just alike, dictatorial and mean."

The two boys kept on for a short distance further. Then Phil caught his foot in a tree root and went sprawling.

"Wow!" he spluttered, as he arose. "Hi, Dave, wait for me!" he added, for his chum had continued on the run.

"What's wrong?"

"I tripped and fell—just as I was afraid I'd do. Better go slow—unless you want to break an ankle or skin your nose."

"The storm is coming," said Dave, as he came to a stop. "Much hurt?"

"Not very,—scratched my hand, that's all. Phew! listen to the wind!"

The sky overhead was black with clouds, but to the north and the south were great patches of light. The wind was increasing steadily.

"Maybe it will be more wind than rain," said Dave. "I hope so, too, for I have no fancy for getting drenched to the skin."

"I don't like a wind storm—when I am in a big woods like this," answered the shipowner's son. "I am always afraid a tree will come down on me."

"Well, we have got to look out for that—if we can," answered Dave, gravely. "I don't like it myself, but it can't be helped."

They continued on their way. The wind increased rapidly, and soon it grew so dark they could see little or nothing under the thickest of the trees. They came to an open space, and there the wind struck them with great force, almost hurling them flat.

"Say, I think—we had—had better wait a—a bit!" panted Phil, as he clutched Dave by the arm.

"Let us get over to yonder rocks," answered Dave. "We'll be a little safer there than between the trees."

Hand in hand the chums crossed the glade and made for a series of rocks looming between the trees beyond. The wind was now blowing with almost tornado force, and with it came a few scattering drops of rain. Just as they gained the rocks something whizzed past their heads.

"What was that?" gasped Phil, ducking after the object had passed.

"It was a small tree limb," answered Dave. "We've got to watch out. Hark!"

They listened, and above the whistling of the wind heard a great crash.

"It's a tree being blown down!" cried Phil. "Come on, let us get between the rocks, before something hits us on the head!"

Much alarmed, both boys leaped for the shelter of the rocks, and in the darkness felt their way until they reached a split that was seven or eight feet deep and a foot wide at the bottom and twice that at the top.

"I guess this is as good a place as any, Phil," remarked Dave, when he had regained his breath sufficiently to speak.

"It won't be much protection if it rains hard," grumbled the shipowner's son.

"Well, I don't see that we can do better."

"Neither do I."

Further conversation was cut off by the wind and the rain. The former shrieked and whistled through the woods, sending down branch after branch with tremendous crashes that awed the boys completely. The rain was light, but the drops were large and hit them with stinging force.

For fully half an hour the blow continued, and then it appeared to let up and the rain stopped entirely.

"Shall we go on?" questioned Phil, standing up and trying to pierce the darkness around them.

"Better hold up a while, Phil," answered Dave. "This is as safe a spot as any, with the wind blowing down the trees all around us."

They waited, and it was well that they did so, for presently the wind started to whistle once more, growing louder and louder. A small tree branch came down on them, and then came a crash that made them both jump.

"It's coming this way!" yelled Phil. "The tree behind the rocks!"

"Get down!" cried Dave, and threw himself flat.

Both boys crouched as low as possible. They heard the tree bend and crack. Then came a tremendous crash, and they felt one of the rocks moving.

"Maybe we'll be crushed to a jelly!" groaned the shipowner's son.

There was no time to say more, for an instant later the tree came down, directly over the top of the opening. Several small branches thrust themselves down upon the lads, pinning them to the bottom of the crevice. The rocks trembled, and for the moment the boys were afraid they would be crushed to death, as Phil had intimated.

"Safe, Phil?" asked Dave, as the rocking of the stones and the big tree ceased and the wind seemed to die down once more.

"I—I guess so! A tree limb is on my back, though."

"I've got one across my legs."

With caution both boys crawled from beneath the branches and out of the split in the rocks. They could see where the big tree had been uprooted, leaving a hole in the soil fifteen feet in diameter. The top of the tree was all of a hundred feet away from this hole.

"We were lucky to be between the rocks, Phil," said Dave, with a grave shake of his head. "Otherwise, if that tree had come down on us——"

"We wouldn't be here to tell the tale," finished the shipowner's son. "Ugh! it makes me shiver to look at it."

"Now it is down, we may as well get between the rocks until we are sure this blow is over," went on Dave, after standing several minutes in the rain.

This appeared the best thing to do, and they crawled back into the crevice and partly under the tree. Here the thick branches protected the lads, so that but little rain reached them.

A dismal hour went by, and then the storm came to an end. The wind died down into a gentle breeze and the rain was reduced to a few scattering drops, to which they paid no attention.

"If only that wind didn't blow the shack down on the other folks' heads," said Dave. He was thinking of how frightened the girls, and especially Jessie, must have been.

"I'll wager the trail is now a mass of mud and water," said Phil, and he was right, and as they progressed, they frequently got into the mud up to their ankles.

It was eleven o'clock when they gained the edge of the woods and came out on the plains. The sky was still overcast, only a few stars being faintly visible.

"Are you sure of the right direction, Dave?" asked the shipowner's son, as both paused to look around.

"I think this is the trail, Phil, don't you?" and Dave pointed with his finger to a deep rut in the soil.

"Yes. But that doesn't make it right," and Phil gazed around in some perplexity.

"What do you mean? This is the only trail around here."

"So I see. But, somehow, this edge of the woods doesn't look familiar to me. I thought we entered at a point where I saw a clump of four trees on the left."

"Hum! I rather think I saw those trees myself," mused Dave. "But I don't see them now."

"Neither do I, and that makes me think that perhaps we came out of the woods at the wrong spot."

Much perplexed, the two lads walked around the edge of the woods for a considerable distance. But they saw nothing of any other trail and so came back to the point from which they had started.

"This must be right, after all," was Phil's comment. "Anyway, it's the only trail here, so we may as well follow it."

They hurried on, the halt under the rocks having rested them a good deal. Out on the prairie the trail grew a bit drier, for which they were thankful. They got into their dog-trot once more, and thus covered all of two miles in a short space of time. Then, of a sudden, both came to a halt in dismay.

"Which one?" asked Phil, laconically.

"Don't know," was Dave's equally laconic answer.

Before them the trail branched out in three different directions, like three spokes within the right angle of a wheel.

"This is a regular Chinese puzzle," said Dave, after an inspection of the trails. "The one to the right looks to be the most traveled."

The two boys made every possible effort to pierce the darkness ahead of them, and presently Phil fancied he saw a light in the distance. Dave was not sure if it was a light or a star just showing above the clearing horizon.

"Well, we may as well go ahead," said the shipowner's son. "No use in staying here trying to figure it out."

They went on, taking the center one of the three trails. They had covered less than quarter of a mile when Phil gave a shout.

"It is a light, I am sure of it—the light of a lamp or lantern! Hurrah! we must be on the right trail after all!"

"Go slow, Phil," cried Dave, a sudden thought striking him. "That may not be a ranch light."

"Yes, but——"

"It may be something much worse—for us."

"What do you mean?"

"It may be the light from the camp of the horse-thieves."