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CHAPTER XVI


A SCENE FROM A TREETOP


"I don't know as we want anything of you," said Dick. "We chanced to be riding by, that is all."

"Oh!" The man looked relieved and let his hand drop from his pistol pocket. "Are you alone?"

"No, there is quite a crowd of us."

At this, the man leaped up and looked out of the open doorway of the shack. His face fell again when he saw so many, and all well mounted.

"May I ask what you are doing here?" he questioned, turning his sharp eyes on Dick once more.

"We are doing a bit of traveling overland. We were on a houseboat, but we got tired of riding on the Mississippi."

"I see. One of them 'personally conducted tours' a feller reads about in them magazines, eh?"

"That is pretty close to it," and Dick smiled, more to throw the man off his guard than anything else. He did not like the looks of the stranger in the least.

"Don't go an' git lost, young man. Have ye a guide?"

"No, but I don't think we are going to get lost. What place do you call this?" the eldest Rover continued, thinking to ask some questions himself, and thus keep the fellow from becoming too inquisitive.

"This is Pluggins' Palace;" the man gave a short laugh. "Did ye ever hear of Pluggins?"

"No."

"Pluggins was a pretty fair sort, but had a habit of stickin' his nose into other folks' business. One day, so the story goes, he went too far, and nobody has seen him since."

"Was he killed?"

The man shrugged his shoulders.

"Don't ask me, stranger. He disappeared, and that was the end of him. He used to live here, and the boys writ that motto to his memory." And the man pointed to a wall, upon which hung a board, on which had been painted the following:

ThiS iS iN MEMorY Of
SiLAs plUGGinS
he waS A GooD MaN,
bUT hE coULD NOT kEEp HiS NOsE
FRoM oTHeRS biSSnESS.
tAkE wARNiNG.!

Dick read the lines with deep interest, and so did all of the others.

"They didn't know much about sign painting, but they evidently knew what they wanted to say," remarked Tom. "Do you live here now?" he added, to the strange man.

"No; I was only taking a nap, that's all."

"Are you on foot?" asked Fred.

"No, my hoss is close by." The man gave a loud whistle, and soon a slick-looking mare came into view from behind the shack. "Reckon I must be goin'." He pointed to the board on the wall. "Kind of a sign to set a feller to thinkin', eh?"

"Just a bit," returned Dick dryly.

"It don't do to stick your nose into what don't concern you. Good-by."

The man left the shack, leaped into the saddle on the mare, spoke to the steed and, in a second, was off like the wind around a turn in the woods.

"Gracious, but he can ride!" was Tom's comment. "That mare is a peach!"

"Another mystery," came from Dick. He gazed at the board on the wall. "Do you know what I think?"

"What?" asked Songbird.

"That is an out-and-out warning——"

"Sure."

"A warning meant for just such persons as ourselves."

"You mean it is a warning to keep away from Red Rock ranch?" asked Sam.

"I do. And I think that fellow was on guard, Just as the old man was on that other road."

"If he was, why didn't he stop us, then?"

"Because we took him unawares, and because he saw that we were too many for him."

"By Jinks, Dick, I think you are right!" cried Tom. "And, if you are, it is more than likely that he has gone to the ranch to warn Sack Todd."

"Exactly, and that means warning Dan Baxter, too. I tell you, boys, there is something behind all this, and I, for one, am in favor of doing our best to solve the mystery."

"I am with you."

"So am I."

"And I, Dick! You can count on me!"

"Vell, ton't I vos here, too?" came from Hans.

"But we must go slow," said Tom. "It would be nonsense to rush forward. We'd be certain to walk into some trap."

The matter was talked over, and it was decided to leave the vicinity of the shack before making an extended halt. They did not know but what the strange man would come back accompanied by Sack Todd, Dan Baxter and others equally willing to do them harm.

They plunged into the woods in the direction the man had taken, but, coming to a brook, rode their steeds down the watercourse for half a mile, thus completely destroying their trail. Then they came out and urged their now tired horses up a small hill, from which to get some idea of their surroundings.

"It's too dark to see a thing," announced Tom, after he and Sam had mounted to the top of a tall tree. "But I think we could get a fine view from here in the daytime."

Again they held a discussion, and it was decided to go into camp where they were. They had brought some cooked food with them, so did not have to start a fire, and, being tired, all fell asleep in short order, leaving Wags on guard, as they had done before.

When they awoke, the sun was shining brightly. Wags was missing, having gone to hunt up something to eat in the brush. All swallowed a hasty repast, washing it down with a drink from the brook. Then Tom climbed the tree again, followed this time by his big brother.

"I see a ranch—out that way!" cried the fun-loving Rover after a look around. "Dick, can't you see it?"

"Yes, Tom, and it must be the one we are seeking, for, see, there is a series of rocks behind it, and they are red."

Dick was right—the rocks were certainly there, and there could not be the slightest doubt regarding their color.

The ranch was a long, low-lying place and so far off they could see it but imperfectly.

"We may as well draw closer," said Dick, and began to climb to the ground, followed by his brother.

There was no path through the woods, and the tree branches were so low-hanging that they were willing enough to walk their horses. Soon the tangle grew so thick they were forced to dismount and proceed on foot.

"I trust we don't get into a pocket," said Sam. "It would be a job to get back the way we came."

"I see a clearing ahead," announced Songbird a little later, and presently they reached an opening, in the midst of which grew a tall pine tree.

"I'm going to shin that tree," announced Sam, and went up, and so did all of the others, reaching the topmost branches only after a difficult climb lasting ten minutes.

They were well rewarded for their efforts, for from the top of the tree they could see a long distance in all directions. But they had eyes only for the ranch, which now stood out strongly in the bright sunlight.

"I see two men walking about the place," said Sam. "But I can't make out their faces."

"There is a big wagon approaching from a road yonder," announced Dick. "It seems to be filled with hay."

They watched the approach of the wagon, which lumbered along slowly, although drawn by a pair of powerful looking horses. At last, the wagon reached a side entrance to the ranch and came to a halt, and the driver dismounted.

Five minutes passed, and then four or five men came up to the wagon. The hay, which was on top, was cast aside, revealing some machinery resting on the bottom of the wagon.

"Some farming machinery," said Fred. "But why did they have it covered with hay?"

The men tugged at one of the pieces of machinery and at last lifted it from the wagon. But, instead of setting it on the ground, they disappeared with it into the ranch.

"Hullo!" ejaculated Dick. "If that is farming machinery, why are they taking it into the house?"

"Maybe it's a heating apparatus," suggested Sam.

"Yes, they need it in this weather," said Tom sarcastically.

"Well, what is it, then?"

"That remains to be found out," said Dick. "This certainly is a place of mystery," he added. "It is assuredly no ordinary ranch."

One piece of machinery after another was carried into the ranch, until the wagon was empty. Then the turnout was taken into a big barn at the back of the ranch.

"That show is over," said Songbird. "I wonder what the next act in this drama will be?"

They remained at the top of the tree for an hour or more. During that time, they saw several men moving around the ranch and some thick smoke coming from a broad chimney, but that was all.

"How much longer are you going to stay here?" asked Sam presently.

"No longer," answered the eldest brother, starting to descend. "I am going to investigate this whole thing and find out just what it means!"