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CHAPTER XII


THE RUNAWAY STEER


On the following morning there was the promise of a storm in the air, and the boys felt a bit blue over the prospects. But, by nine o'clock, the sun came out as brightly as ever and they were correspondingly elated.

"I don't care to do any camping out in wet weather," said Fred. "I got enough of that at the Hall."

"Well, when you camp out, you must take what comes, as the shark said when he swallowed a naval officer and found a sword sticking in his throat," answered Tom. "We can't have the weather built to order for anybody."

Wags was up and moving around, with his tail wagging as furiously as ever. He seemed to feel perfectly at home.

"Acts as if he had known us all our lives," said Dick. "He is certainly a fine creature, or he will be after he is fed up a bit."

"If he belongs around here, I don't see how he should be starved." said Sam.

"Well, you must remember, there are some pretty poor folks living in these parts, Sam. The colored folks are passionately fond of dogs, and very often they don't have enough to support themselves."

"I am going to claim Wags as my own until his rightful owner comes along," announced Tom. "Maybe I'll even take him home with me. Our old dog is dead."

This was final, and nobody saw fit to dispute the decision. So Wags was given his breakfast, after which the party struck camp, and the journey for the Denton plantation was continued.

The timber passed, they came out on a long stretch of prairie land leading to the high hills beyond.

"Here we are on the plains!" cried Sam. "Who wants to race?" And off he rode at top speed, with some of the others following. Even Wags seemed to enjoy the brush, and barked continually as he ran ahead and leaped up before one horse and then another.

Sam's wild ride on the plains lasted rather longer than the others had anticipated, and when it came to an end, all found themselves away from the beaten trail which they had been pursuing. They came to a sudden stop and gazed around in perplexity.

"Here's a mess," said Dick.

"Where's the trail?"

"That is what I want to know."

"I think it is over yonder."

"I think it is in the opposite direction."

All of the boys began to talk at once, and then followed a dead silence for several seconds.

"One thing is certain—the trail can't be in two directions," said Tom.

"He can pe if he vos krooked," said Hans wisely.

"It was a fairly straight trail," observed Fred. "I can't see how we happened to leave it."

"I was following Sam," said Songbird. "You can't blame me."

"So was I following Sam," added several of the others.

"And I was having a good time on the horse," said the youngest Rover. "I thought in the bunch there would be at least one who would look after the trail."

"So it is really nobody's fault," said Dick quickly, to avoid a possible quarrel. "The question is: how are we going to find the trail again?"

"I know how," put in Hans calmly.

"How?"

"Look for him."

"Thanks, awfully," said Tom. "That is a bright as a burnt-out match."

"Just the same, that is what we will have to do, Tom," said Dick. "Let us divide up, and some go to the right and some to the left."

This was considered a good plan and was carried out without delay. Ten minutes later, Songbird set up a shout:

"Upon this ground,
The trail is found.
All come right here
And see it clear."

"Good for Songbird!" cried Tom. "He gets a last year's tomato as a reward. Songbird, will you have it in tissue paper or a trunk?"

"Well, the trail is plain enough," was Dick's comment, as he came riding up. "I can't see how we missed such a well-defined path."

The run had tired their horses somewhat, and all were willing to proceed further on a walk. They were coming to a fringe of bushes on the plain, and here found a stream of water.

"Not a ranch or a plantation of any kind in sight," announced Fred as he gazed around while some of the steeds obtained a drink. "What a wilderness certain portions of our country are!"

"Plenty of chances for emigrants," returned Songbird. "We are a long way from being filled up."

"The trouble is, so I have heard father say, so many of the emigrants stay in the big cities, rather than come out to the country," put in Sam.

Having rested for a spell at the brook, they proceeded on their way once more. The air was growing warmer and, as the sun mounted higher in the sky, they wished they were in the shadow of a forest once more.

"What a journey it must be to cover some of the immense Western plains on horseback," remarked Songbird. "To ride for miles and miles—maybe all day—without seeing a cabin or a human being."

"We know something of that," answered Dick. "We liked our trip out West, though," he added.

Toward the middle of the afternoon they reached the first stunted growth of timber growing at the base of the hills toward which they had been journeying. At noon, as it was so hot, they had not stopped for lunch, and now they proceeded to make themselves comfortable on a patch of thick grass. Even Wags was willing to lie down aad stretch out. The dog acted as if he had been a member of the party since starting from home.

"Are you going to blame me for going wrong?" demanded the poetic youth.

"I wonder if he would be any good after game?" said Sam as he looked at Wags.

"I doubt it," said Tom. "An educated dog—that is, a trick dog—rarely knows anything else. But, nevertheless, I think Wags remarkably bright."

It was not until four o'clock that they went on once more. According to what they had been told, they ought now to be coming in sight of a cattle ranch kept by some old cattle men, but nothing like a ranch appeared.

"This is queer, to say the least," remarked Tom as they came to a halt in a small clearing. "What do you make of it, Dick?"

"I shouldn't like to say, just yet."

"Do you think we are on the wrong trail?" queried Fred quickly.

"We may be."

"Of dot is so, den, py Jiminatics, ve vos lost!" ejaculated Hans. "Now, vosn't dot lofly alretty?"

"Lost?" cried Fred.

"That's the size of it," cried Songbird. "We must have taken to the wrong trail after our little race."

"You found the trail for us," remarked Tom dryly.

"Not a bit of it," said Dick. "All of us were to blame, for we all thought it was the right trail. The one question is: where are we, and where is the right trail?"

"And a big question to answer, Dick," came from Sam. "For all we know, we may be miles and miles off the road."

"No use of crying over spilt oil, as the lamp said to the wick," sang out Tom. "I move we go on until we strike a ranch, or plantation, or something."

"That is what we'll have to do, unless we want to go back."

"No going back in this!" shouted several, and then they moved forward as before, but at a slower rate of speed.

It was truly warm work, and it must be confessed that all were more or less worried. In the last town at which they had stopped, they had met a number of undesirable characters, and one man had told Dick that not a few outlaws were roaming around, ready to pick up stray horses, or money, or whatever they could get their hands upon.

They were passing through a bit of sparse timber, when they heard a strange tramping at a distance.

"What do you think that can be?" questioned Fred, coming to a halt, followed by the others "Horses," suggested Hans.

"Sounds to me like cattle," said Dick. "But I don't see so much as a cow, do you?"

"Nothing whatever in sight," said Tom.

As the noise continued, Sam's horse began to grow skittish and showed some inclination to bolt.

"Steady, there!" sang out the youngest Rover. "None of that, now!" and he did his best to hold the steed in check.

"Something is coming!" cried Tom a few seconds later. "Something running pretty well, too!"

By instinct, all turned to the side of the trail, Sam taking a position between a clump of trees and a big rock. Swiftly the sound came closer, and then of a sudden a big and wild-looking steer broke into view, lumbering along the trail at his best speed.

"A steer!"

"Look out, fellows, he is wild and ugly!"

"He looks as if he meant to horn somebody!"

So the cries rang out, and all of the boys drew further to the side of the trail. As the steer came up, he paused and gazed at them in commingled wonder and anger.

"He is going to charge—" began Tom, when, with a fierce snort, the steer wheeled to one side and charged upon Sam and his horse at full speed!