Read CHAPTER XXII - A HORSE AND A SNAKE of The Rover Boys at Big Horn Ranch The Cowboys' Double Round-Up , free online book, by Edward Stratemeyer, on ReadCentral.com.

During the days which followed at Big Horn Ranch the Rover boys and their chums asked Joe Jackson if he knew Bud Haddon and the other men who had been with him.

“Yes, I know Haddon,” answered the foreman of the ranch.  “He used to work for Bimbel on a ranch on the other side of the river; but I think he left there several months ago.”

“Well, if he did, I rather think he’s going back,” answered Jack.  “Can you tell us anything about him?”

“Oh, I imagine he’s as good as the average fellow around Bimbel’s place,” answered Joe Jackson.  “You see, none of our crowd have much to do with that outfit.  Bimbel is a hard fellow to get along with, and some of the men working for his outfit have rather shady characters.”  The foreman looked at the boys curiously.  “How do you happen to know the fellow?”

The lads had come to like the foreman very much and felt that they could trust him thoroughly, so they told their story in detail, to which Jackson listened with interest.

“Looks to me as if Haddon was trying to blackmail that kid Bangs,” was his comment.  “That is unless there was something in the talk about that barn being burned with the horses.  It’s just possible that fellow Bangs had something to do with it and Haddon was making him pay for keeping his mouth shut.”

“Do you know anybody by the name of John Calder whose barn burned down?”

“No.  That couldn’t have been anywhere around here or I certainly would have heard about it.  But there’s one thing I do know,” added the foreman suddenly.  “There’s a man named Jarley Bangs who owns a ranch on the other side of the river - a small place next to the one run by Bimbel.”

“Jarley Bangs!” exclaimed Fred.  “Do you suppose it could be Brassy Bangs’ father?”

“I don’t think so,” answered Gif.  “I believe Bangs’ folks live in Wyoming.”

“But this Bangs may be some relative of his,” put in Spouter.

The matter was talked over a while longer, but the boys could learn little further from the foreman.

“I’ll tell you what I’ll do,” said Joe Jackson at last.  “I’ll put it up to some of the cowboys.  They may know more about Bimbel and his outfit and about Jarley Bangs than I do.  Bangs has a reputation for being a very queer and miserly man, but that’s about all I can say of him.”

The boys, and even the girls, spent quite a little of their time in the saddle.  Both Mary and Martha had learned to ride while at home, using the bridle path in Central Park, so they felt at home when galloping over the plains.

“This outing is going to do Mary a world of good,” confided Mrs. Rover to Mrs. Powell.  “She has always been so timid.”

The river in which the boys went fishing and also bathing was a broad, shallow stream which could be forded in many places with ease.  So far, however, the lads had remained on their side of the watercourse.  But one day Jack proposed that they go off on horseback and do a little exploring on the other side.

“We might ride past the Bimbel place, and also the one Jarley Bangs owns,” said he.  “Who knows but what we may catch sight of Bud Haddon and his crowd.”

“We don’t want to get into any trouble with those fellows,” put in Fred quickly.

“Oh, they can’t touch us!” exclaimed Andy.  “They don’t even know us.  And we’ve as much right to use the trails around here as anybody - the land isn’t fenced in.”

“Yes, but you know what Jackson said,” went on Fred.  “He said the Bimbel outfit wasn’t a very nice one and that Bangs was very miserly and peculiar.  That sounds as if both places were good ones to steer clear of.”

“Oh, come on!  Let’s go anyhow,” put in Spouter.  “I’m anxious to know what sort of neighbors we have.  They can’t find any fault with us for coming over when they find out that my father owns this ranch.”

The boys talked this matter over several times, and the next day obtained permission to take the horses and go off for a day’s outing along the river.  They were to take their lunch with them, and did not expect to come back until evening.

“I wish we could go along,” sighed Martha.

“We’ll take you along next time, Martha,” answered her brother.  “This time I’m afraid the ride will be a little too long for you.”

“Never mind, Martha and I will take a little ride of our own,” declared Mary.  “We can go up to the edge of the woods and pick some wild flowers.”

“Let’s do it!” answered her cousin quickly.  “One of the cowboys tells me there are all sorts of wild flowers up there near one of the springs.”

Hop Lung was told to prepare a lunch which the boys might take along with them, and set to work immediately.  As he got the things ready the Celestial had a faraway look in his eyes and once or twice he stuck out his tongue suggestively.

“One flishee - two flishee - lot flishee,” he murmured to himself.  “Hop Lung fixee boys,” and he smiled in his own peculiar way.

The day dawned bright and clear, and immediately after breakfast the boys leaped into the saddle and with good-natured shouts swung the sombreros they were wearing, and started off on their ride.  Each had equipped himself with a pistol, although they expected to do no shooting, and several carried small saddlebags containing their food and drink, the latter placed in a couple of thermos bottles.  They also carried feed for the horses.

“Whoop-la!” shouted Andy gaily.  “Come on, fellows! let’s put distance between ourselves and the ranch.”

“Better take it a little easy at the start, Andy,” remonstrated Gif.  “Remember we expect to cover quite a few miles, and we don’t want to wear out the horses at the start.”

“We’ll let Spouter set the pace,” announced Jack, for he had not forgotten that they were all guests of the lad mentioned.

They had questioned the foreman regarding the lay of the land, and he had drawn up a rough map for them which Jack carried.  Inside of half an hour they reached the fording place he had mentioned, and there crossed the stream, coming out on the side of a small hill.

“I wonder if we’ll come across any wild animals,” remarked Fred, as they pushed along a well-defined trail leading to the top of the hill and through a small patch of scrub timber further westward.

“From what Joe Jackson said, I don’t think there’s very much left in this immediate vicinity,” answered Spouter.  “You see, the cowboys have scared most of the animals away.  Of course, they occasionally come across a bobcat or a mountain lion, and then we might come across a wolf or a fox or some jackrabbits, or even a bear.”

“Well, please don’t let ’em come at us in a bunch!” cried Randy, with a grin.  “One at a time, please.”

“It’ll be our luck not to see a thing worth shooting,” declared Fred.  “I wouldn’t give five cents for our chances of bringing down anything.”

Fred had scarcely spoken when the horse Gif was riding shied suddenly to one side, throwing Gif into some low bushes.  Then the horse gave a snort and leaped ahead on the trail, not stopping until he had covered a hundred yards or more.

“Hello! what’s the trouble?” exclaimed Jack, bringing his own steed to a halt.  “Are you hurt, Gif?”

“No.  I’m all right.  But what startled that horse?” demanded the other lad, as he scrambled to his feet.  Then he gave a sudden yell.  “It’s a snake!  Look out!”

All looked in the direction pointed out by Gif, and there saw a black object wriggling away through the brushwood.  As quickly as they could Jack and Spouter, who were close by, pulled out their pistols and fired at the snake.  They saw the reptile rise up in the air, turning and twisting, and then disappear from sight between the rocks.

“What’s up?  What are you shooting at?” cried Fred, galloping to the spot.

“A snake.  He scared Gif’s horse and threw Gif into the bushes.”

“Where is he?”

“I guess he got away, although I think we wounded him,” answered Jack.

“It’s funny how that horse shied,” said Spouter.  “Maybe he stepped right on the snake.”

“That might be,” put in Fred.  “Maybe the snake was sunning himself and didn’t notice our approach until the horse stepped on him.  Then he switched around, and that must have started the horse off.  I wonder if we can catch him.”

“I think so,” answered Spouter.  “Gosh!  I’m glad no one was bit.  That snake looked to be of pretty good size.”

While Spouter and Jack hurried forward to capture the runaway horse, Gif was assisted to the back of the steed Randy rode.

“I’m glad I didn’t go out on my head on the rocks,” remarked Gif, as the boys went forward.  “I might have broken my neck.”

“Yes, you picked out just the right place to fall into,” answered Andy.

“I didn’t pick it out.  I went where I was sent,” returned the other lad calmly.  “After this I’m going to keep my eyes peeled for more snakes.”

“I think we had better all do that,” said Fred.  “Gee!  I’d forgotten all about those pests.”

When they reached the runaway horse they found him still somewhat skittish.  But he was soon calmed down, and then Gif remounted him, and they set off along the trail as before.

“Well, we didn’t exactly meet a wild animal,” remarked Randy.  “But we met something just as bad.”

Presently the boys came to a spot where the river wound around the hill, and beyond this was a broad stretch of plains, apparently many miles in extent.  Far to the southward they could see some tall timber.

“The Bimbel ranch must be somewhere in this vicinity,” declared Jack.

“Yes, and the Bangs place can’t be so very far off,” returned Fred.

But distances in the open air are deceiving, and the boys rode along over the plains for the best part of an hour before they reached a spot where the trail branched in several directions.  Here they came to a halt, wondering which way to turn next.

“It’s too bad they don’t put up a few signboards out here,” grumbled Randy.  “How is a fellow going to know where he’s heading?”

“I suppose the natives know these trails just like we know the main streets of New York City,” answered Jack.  “And that being so, they don’t need any signboards.”

Jack had consulted the rude map given to him by the ranch foreman, but this did not seem to have upon it the forks of the trail.

“I suppose those cowboys would know at once which was the main trail and which were only side trails,” said Gif.

The boys were still uncertain which way to turn when Fred set up a cry of amazement.

“Here comes an auto, boys!  What do you know about that?”

“An auto!” several of them repeated.  “Where?”

The youngest Rover pointed with his finger, and there, to the astonishment of every one in the party, they beheld a small touring car coming across the plains at a speed of twelve or fifteen miles an hour.  It was running in a curiously haphazard fashion.

“What a way to run an automobile!” ejaculated Randy.

“Maybe the driver is getting out of the way of holes,” answered Jack.  And then he added quickly:  “There isn’t any driver!”

Completely mystified, the boys stared at the oncoming automobile.  For a moment it seemed heading directly for them, but suddenly swerved and started off across the plains in another direction.

“It is empty!” ejaculated Andy.  “It’s running by itself!”