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CHAPTER XIV


OUT OF AN UNPLEASANT SITUATION


Not one of the party was just then in a position to give poor Hans any assistance. All were stuck in the ooze, and one horse after another was slowly but surely sinking.

"We must turn back," cried Songbird, "and do it in a hurry, too'"

"Easier said than done." grunted Fred. "My, this is worse than glue!"

"I think the ground on our left is a bit firmer than here," said Sam. "I am going to try it, anyway."

Not without considerable difficulty, he turned his steed, and after a struggle the spot he had indicated was gained. Dick followed, and so did Tom. The Rovers were safe, but not so their chums. Hans was the worst off, but Fred and Songbird were likewise in positions of serious peril. Wags was flying around, barking dismally, as though he understood that all was not right.

"Turn this way!" called out Sam. "It's your one hope!"

"Let me have that rope you are carrying, Tom," said Dick, and having received the article, he threw one end to Hans, who was still floundering around. "Catch hold, Hans, and I'll haul you over!"

As the rope fell across the German youth's body, he caught it tightly in both hands, and, as Dick, Tom and Sam pulled with might and main, he fairly slid on his breast to where they were standing.

"Mine gracious, dot vos somedings awful!" he exclaimed. "It vos so sticky like molasses alretty!"

"Now, we must help the others," said Dick.

"Songbird is out," exclaimed Sam.

The rope was thrown to Fred, and with a great tug he was finally brought out of the ooze.

"Nearly took my hand off," he declared. "But I don't care—anything is better than to be stuck in such a spot as that."

The horses were still floundering desperately, and it was little that they could do for the beasts. One went in one direction and the others in another, but at last all appeared to be safe, although covered with the sticky mud and slime.

"That's an adventure I didn't bargain for," was Tom's comment. "Do you know what I think? I think that cowboy sent us into this on purpose."

"Maybe he did," came from Dick. "Did it, I suppose, to get square because we didn't pay him all he thought the steer was worth."

To round up the horses was no easy task, and by the time this was accomplished it was long past dark. They searched around for a suitable spot and then went into camp.

"This trip is lasting longer than I expected," remarked Dick when they were around the campfire preparing an evening meal. "I trust the others don't get worried about us."

"Oh, I guess they know that we can take care of ourselves," answered Tom.

"I wish I had that cowboy here," muttered Sam. "I'd give him a piece of my mind."

"I think we'd all do that," added Fred.

"I vos gif him a biece of mine mind from der end of mine fist," said Hans, and this made them all laugh.

The camping spot was not a particularly good one, yet all slept soundly. They left Wags on guard, but nothing came to disturb them.

It was misty in the morning and so raw that fchey shivered as they prepared to start off. How to proceed was a question, and it took them a good quarter of an hour to decide it.

"It would be folly to go deeper into this bog, or swamp," said Dick. "I vote we keep to the high ground."

"That's the talk," said Sam. "Maybe, when we get up far enough, we will have a chance to look around us."

As well as they were able, they had cleaned off the horses and themselves, and now they took good care to keep from all ground that looked in the least bit treacherous.

"Here is a new trail," cried Tom after about two miles had been covered. "And it seems to lead up a hill, too."

"Then that is the trail for us," put in Songbird, and they took to the new trail without further words.

"Songbird, I don't hear any poetry," observed Dick as they rode along. "What's the matter?"

"Can't make up poetry in such a dismal place as this," was the answer in a disgusted voice. "I wish we were out of this woods, and out of the mist, too. I declare, it's enough to give a fellow malaria."

The sun was trying to break through the mist, which was an encouraging sign. Here and there a bird set up a piping note, but otherwise all was as quiet as a tomb.

"I see something of a clearing ahead," an nounced Sam presently.

"And a trail!" cried Fred. "Thank fortune for that!"

The clearing reached, they found a well-defined trail running to the southwestward.

"That must run to Caville," announced Dick. "See, there is a regular wagon track."

"I hope it is the right road," returned Fred. They were soon out on the plains again, and then into another patch of timber. They had to ford a small stream, and on the other side came to a fork in the trail.

"Which way now?" questioned Sam, as all came to a halt in perplexity.

"This seems to be the main road, although it is hard to tell one from the other," said Dick after an examination.

The others agreed with the eldest Rover, and once more they went forward But, in less than a mile, they saw that the road was not in as good a condition as that left behind.

"This looks as if we had made a mistake," observed Fred. "Oh, what luck we are having."

"I'd like to know—" began Tom, when he stopped abruptly, for out of the brushwood an old man had stepped, gun in hand.

"You-uns, hold on!" cried the old mam.

"Hullo, what do you want?" asked Dick.

"I want for you-uns to turn around an' go tudder way."

"Isn't this the trail to Caville?"

"No, it ain't, an' you-uns can't come this way< nohow."

"Is it a private road?"

"Yes."

"Where does it lead to?"

"That ain't none o' you-uns' business," said the old man curtly. "You-uns is on the wrong road, an' have got to turn back."

"Supposing we don't turn back?" questioned Tom, who did not fancy the style in which they were being addressed.

At this, the old man tapped his gun.

"Orders is to turn 'em back, or shoot," he an* swered simply. "This are a private road. Don't ye see the wire fence?"

They looked into the brushwood and saw a single strand of wire stretched from tree to tree on each side of the trail.

"Not much of a fence," was Songbird's comment.

"It's enough, an' you-uns can't come no further."

"Maybe you live beyond," said Sam curiously.

"Maybe I do, an' maybe I don't. It ain't none of you-uns' business."

"You are very civil, I must say."

"Don't you git fly, boy, or this ole gun o' mine might go off. This ain't no trail fer you-uns, an' you-uns have got to turn back."

"Will you tell us if that other trail runs to Caville?" asked Dick.

"It don't run nowheres." The old man grinned for a moment. "It stays where it are. But if you-uns travel along it for about five miles, ye'll reach the town."

"And you won't tell us whose road this is?" came from Tom.

"It ain't none of you-uns' business, thet ain't. Better turn back an' have done with it."

The old man showed plainly that he did not wish to converse further. He stood in the center of the trail, with his gun ready for instant use.

"We made a mistake before and got into a sink-hole," said Dick. "We don't want to make another mistake."

"Take tudder trail an' you-uns will be all right," answered the old man, and thereupon they turned around and rode off.

"What a crusty old fellow!" said Sam.

"Yes, but he meant business," came from Fred. "He would have shot at us sure, had we insisted upon moving forward."

"There is some mystery about this," said Dick.

"Perhaps he lives a hermit life down that trail," suggested Songbird.

"It looked more to me as if he was on guard," put in Sam. "He certainly meant business."

"If we had time, I'd sneak around to one side and see what was beyond."

"Yes, and get shot," said Fred. "We had better take his advice and go on to Caville."

It did not take them long to reach the fork in the road, and here they turned into the other trail. They had proceeded less than fifty yards, when Dick put up his hand.

"Somebody is coming behind us," he announced. They halted at a turn in the road and looked back. Two persons soon appeared, both on horse-back. They were riding at a good gait and turned into the trail which was guarded by the old man.

"Well, I never!" cried Tom in amazement.

"I recognized the first man," said Sam. "It was that bushy-haired fellow. I think somebody said his name was Sack Todd."

"That's the chap," replied Dick. "But didn't you recognize the other?"

"No."

"It was Dan Baxter."