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CHAPTER XIX


A FRUITLESS SEARCH


Phil stared at Dave in consternation.

"Do you really think that?" he cried.

"I don't say I think so, I only say it may be," returned the youth from Crumville.

"If they are the horse-thieves, and we watch our chances, we may get the animals back!"

"Not unless it is a single thief, Phil. We don't want to run the risk of getting shot in the dark."

"That's true."

With great caution the two lads advanced along the muddy trail. As they got closer to the light they saw that it came from a log house, low and rambling. Not far away were several other buildings, and also a corral.

"We are on the right trail after all!" sang out the shipowner's son, joyfully, and commenced to run at the best speed he could command.

"Hold on!" called Dave, but Phil was so eager to get to the house first that he paid no attention to the words. Not until he had reached the very piazza of the building did he pause to stare around him.

"Why, it's not Mr. Endicott's place at all!" he exclaimed.

He had made considerable noise ascending the piazza, and now a door was flung open, letting a stream of light flood his face, momentarily blinding him.

"Hello! what do you want?" demanded a man Phil had never seen before.

"Why—er—what place is this?" stammered the youth, and as he asked the question Dave came up behind him.

"This is the Triple X Ranch," was the man's answer.

"What! Mr. Merwell's place?" stammered Phil.

"That's it. Want to see him? Why, say, you're all out of wind,—anything wrong?"

"I—I didn't know this was the Merwell place," murmured Phil. He knew not what else to say, he was so taken back.

"Who is that, Jerry?" asked another voice, and a moment later Felix Merwell stepped into view. As he saw Dave he scowled slightly.

"Why, Mr. Merwell, we—er——" commenced Phil, and then he looked at Dave.

"We were out and we lost our way in the darkness and got on the wrong trail," said Dave, quickly. "Will you be kind enough to direct us to the trail to Mr. Endicott's ranch?"

"Endicott's ranch is a good bit from here," growled Felix Merwell.

"But, Dave——" interrupted Phil, when a meaning look from his chum silenced him.

"Haven't you got no hosses?" asked the man who had first come to the door.

"No, but we don't mind that," said Dave. "We can walk."

"Jerry, show them the trail," said Mr. Merwell, shortly, and turned his back on the boys.

The ranch hand came out without waiting to get his hat or coat, and walked to a point back of the corral.

"It's a long, lonely way," he said, kindly. "You ought to have horses."

"How many miles?" asked Dave.

"About one and a half."

"Oh, that is not so far."

"Got caught in the storm, eh? "

"Yes."

"Link is out too and the old man is kind of worried about him. He sent Hank Snogger out to look for him."

"Then Link didn't come back this afternoon?" said Dave, quickly.

"No, he's been out since early morning. You met him, eh?"

"Yes, but that was about the middle of the forenoon. He was over in the woods."

"It was such a blow the old man is worried, thinking Link might have got caught under a tree in the woods, or something like that. There's your trail. Keep to that and it will take you right to the Endicott corral."

"Thank you," said both boys, and a moment later they and the man had separated. The ranch hand watched them out of sight, then returned to the house.

"Dave, why didn't you tell them about the horse-thieves?" asked Phil, as soon as he deemed it safe to ask the question.

"I didn't want to ask any favors of Mr. Merwell, that's why," was the reply. "I don't believe he'd want to go after them, and I didn't want to borrow any horses from him."

"Well, I don't blame you for looking at it that way. But we may be losing valuable time."

"We ought to be able to reach Mr. Endicott's place inside of twenty minutes. Come on," and Dave increased his speed.

"Did you note the fact that Link has not yet returned?" said the shipowner's son.

"Yes, but that doesn't prove anything. He may have crept into some place for shelter from the storm, just as we did."

The two youths kept on steadily and before long saw another light in the distance. Then they heard hoofbeats, and soon several forms on horseback loomed out of the darkness.

"Hello!" sang out the voice of Sid Todd. "Who are you?"

"Todd!" called Dave, and a moment later the cowboy rode up, followed by another ranch hand and Mr. Endicott.

"What is wrong?" demanded the railroad president, quickly. "Where are the others?" and his face showed his extreme anxiety.

"The others are safe, so far as we know," answered Dave. "But we have had quite an adventure." And then he and Phil told of how the horses had been stolen, and of how they themselves had been caught in the woods during the great blow.

"The horse-thieves again!" exclaimed Mr. Endicott, wrathfully. "We must get after them this time and run them down! Todd, tell the other men at once! We must lose no time in getting after them! And send word around to the other ranches!"

The railroad president smiled grimly when the boys told him of the brief stop at the Merwell place.

"I don't blame you for not wanting aid from Mr. Merwell," said he. "I want to leave him alone myself. I am only sorry I have him for a neighbor. I'd help him to sell out, if he wished to do so."

The boys went to the house and were speedily given something to eat,—for they had had nothing since noon. They also donned some dry clothing.

"It won't do any good for you to go out again," said Mr. Endicott. "I'll go out, and so will most of the hands. You can remain here with Mrs. Endicott, who is very nervous because of the storm and the absence of Belle."

"As you think best, sir," answered Dave; and so it was arranged. Truth to tell, both Dave and Phil were glad to rest, for the long walk and the experience in the woods during the storm had tired them greatly. Each threw himself on a couch, and almost before he knew it was sound asleep.

When the two boys awoke it was morning. They found that Mrs. Endicott had covered them up with light blankets. A sound outside had aroused them.

It was the other young people returning, on horses Sid Todd had taken to them. Dave and Phil sprang up to meet them.

"Oh, I am so glad to get back!" cried Belle, as she ran to embrace her mother. "Such a time as we have had!"

"Oh, yes, we were safe enough, after we got to the shack," said Laura, in answer to a question from her brother. "But, oh, how it did blow!"

"We were afraid the shack would be carried right up into the air," said Jessie. "And we were so worried about you—thinking a tree in the woods would come down on you."

"Well, one did, pretty nearly," answered Dave, and gave the particulars.

"The men have all gone off after the horse-thieves," said Roger. "But Todd hasn't much hope of tracing them, for the rain washed out all the hoofmarks."

The newcomers were tremendously hungry, and a hearty meal was gotten ready with all the speed of which the Chinese cook was capable. As they ate, the boys and girls told the details of their experience at the shack up the river.

"Did you see anything more of Link or that man with him?" asked Dave.

"No," answered the senator's son. "We've been wondering if they had anything to do with the disappearance of the horses."

"We have been wondering the same thing," said Phil.

"I spoke to papa about it, and he says he will interview Mr. Merwell—if they get no trace of the thieves," said the ranch owner's daughter.

Those who had been at the shack all night were so tired that they went to bed directly after eating, and Dave and Phil were glad enough to rest some more; so that the balance of the day passed quietly. It was not until after sundown that Mr. Endicott showed himself, followed by about half of the ranch hands.

"We thought we found the trail, but we lost it again," said the ranch owner. "Todd and some of the others are still at it, but I am afraid the thieves are out of our reach. I have sent word to the sheriff, and I suppose he'll put some men on the trail to-morrow."

"Did you stop at the Merwell ranch?" asked Belle.

"Yes, I stopped there less than an hour ago. Mr. Merwell had just come in from a hunt for Link."

"What! then Link isn't back yet?" cried Dave.

"No, and his father was a good deal worried about his absence. When I told about the loss of the horses, Mr. Merwell was worried more yet. He said we needn't think that his son touched them."

"It is queer where Link is keeping himself," mused Roger.

"That's true—unless he was hurt by the storm," answered Phil.

"Have you any idea who these horse-thieves are?" asked Dave.

"We have a general idea, yes," answered Mr. Endicott. "The gang who took the other animals was led by a bold cowboy named Andy Andrews. Andrews is a thoroughly bad egg, and there had been a reward offered for his capture for several years. More than likely this raid was made by him or under his directions."

"Then I sincerely hope they round up this Andy Andrews," remarked Dave.

"So do I—and that we get our horses back."

The night and the next day passed quietly. When it grew dark Sid Todd came in, followed by several of the ranch hands. The look on the foreman's face showed that he had had no success in his hunt.

"We got the trail once, but lost it ag'in," said the cowboy. "The sheriff has got a posse of six men working on the trail now, but I don't think they'll make anything out of it." And then he told the story of how the woods had been scoured, and of a hunt along the river and over the plains. The men had ridden many miles and were all but exhausted.

"Did you see anybody from the Merwell ranch?" asked Dave.

"Saw Link and his father just as we were coming home," answered Sid Todd. "Merwell said he had seen nothing of the thieves."

"Did Link say anything?"

"No. He was dead tired and he looked scared."

"Scared?" queried Roger.

"Yes. When he saw me I thought he was going to run away. I asked him if he had seen anything, and when he answered me his face went almost white. I reckon he was scared—thinking of the way he treated you folks on the trail. Maybe he thought I was goin' to pitch into him for it."

"Maybe," said Dave, slowly. "He hadn't seen anything of the thieves?"

"No. He said he didn't know the hosses was gone until his father told him. He said he got lost in the woods, and stayed in a certain spot till the blow was over."

"Humph!" murmured Dave, and there the talk came to an end. But Dave was not satisfied. He still wondered if Link Merwell knew anything about the taking of the horses.