Read CHAPTER XXVI - THE CATTLE STAMPEDE of The Rover Boys at Big Horn Ranch The Cowboys' Double Round-Up , free online book, by Edward Stratemeyer, on ReadCentral.com.

“Four more horses gone!” cried Songbird Powell in consternation.  “When did this happen, Jackson?”

“Less than half an hour ago, over on the three-tree range,” returned the foreman.

“And what makes you certain that they were stolen this time?”

“Because the horses had been left all properly tethered.  Billy Brown and his crowd had ’em, and I know Billy is a very careful man.  He’s positive they couldn’t have broken away.”

“This is certainly getting to be a serious matter,” declared Sam Rover.  “Songbird, if these last four horses were stolen, it’s more than probable that the first four went the same way.”

“Any clue to the thief or thieves?” asked Tom Rover.

“The boys looked around and picked up a quirt that they say don’t belong to our outfit.  But it’s a very ordinary quirt and might belong to almost anybody.  Of course, they found a good many hoof marks, but they were so mixed up with the marks from the other horses they couldn’t tell one from the other.”

“I’ll ride over to the place with you and investigate,” returned Songbird Powell after a moment’s thought.  “Perhaps we can get on the trail of the thieves.”

“Can we go along?” questioned Spouter quickly.

“No, Son.  We want to use the horses.  And, anyway, I think it would be better for you lads to remain behind.”

Songbird and the foreman hurried down to the horse corral accompanied by Tom and Sam.  And thus the boys and girls, as well as the ladies of the household, were left by themselves.

“Gee!  I’d like to go on a chase after those horse thieves,” burst out Andy.

“You might get a pretty warm reception if you did that,” remarked Fred.  “Horse thieves and cattle rustlers are usually a bad bunch.”

“It isn’t likely they’ll get on the trail of the horses very quickly,” put in Jack.  “Those fellows have too much of a start.  The most they can do is to advertise the loss as widely as possible and trust to it that some one will recognize the horses, especially Blackbird.”

The boys had spoken about going fishing, and Ruth and May had asked if they could go along.  As a consequence the young folks spent the remainder of the afternoon along the river.  They managed to catch a good mess of fish, of which they were justly proud.

“And just to think!  I caught two of the fish myself!” exclaimed Ruth.  “I never knew I was going to be a fisherman.”

“You mustn’t say ‘fisherman;’ you must say fisherlady,” put in Andy mischievously.

The men did not return until ten o’clock that night.  All were tired and hungry and glad to sit down to the meal which Mrs. Powell and the cook provided.

“It was a wild-goose chase,” answered Tom Rover in reply to a question from Andy.  “We followed half a dozen clues, but they didn’t get us anywhere.”

“What are you going to do next, Dad?” questioned Spouter.

“We sent word to Arrow Junction and several other places, and they’ll post notices giving a description of the stolen animals,” answered Songbird.  “And I’ve offered a hundred dollars reward for any information leading to the recovery of the horses.”

The next day one of the cowboys came in with more information.  This was to the effect that a ranch in that neighborhood, owned by a man named Cheltham, had suffered the loss of three horses, one a mare of considerable value.

“Say, this certainly is getting interesting,” said Jack, when the lads heard the older heads talking it over.  “First thing we know, all the horses on the place will be gone.”

“Years ago they used to suffer from the cattle rustlers in this neighborhood,” said Spouter.  “But horse stealing is something new.”

“I wonder if that fellow Bud Haddon had anything to do with it?” questioned Fred.

“I was thinking of that,” broke in Randy.  “I think they ought to make an investigation.”

The boys spoke to the men about this, and there was a long discussion which ended when Songbird said he would ride over to the Bimbel ranch with his foreman and interview the men.

The visit to the Bimbel ranch occurred the next day, and the boys waited impatiently for the return of the two men to learn what Bimbel and Bud Haddon might have to say.

“Another wild-goose chase,” announced Songbird Powell, on the return that evening.  “We saw Bimbel, and he seemed as much surprised as anybody to learn of the horses being taken.”

“And what about Bud Haddon?” asked Jack.

“We didn’t see Haddon.  But Bimbel said he had been at the ranch house early in the morning and he was certain Haddon knew nothing about the loss.  He said Haddon and the other men were out on a range to the westward, looking after the cattle.  Of course, if Haddon was away out there he couldn’t have been here taking our horses.”

“And you didn’t see any trace of the animals?” asked Spouter.

“Nothing at all.  They said they hadn’t heard of the theft nor of the loss of the horses over at Cheltham’s ranch.”

After that a week passed swiftly, during which time the young folks enjoyed themselves thoroughly, not only in tramping and riding around and in fishing, but also in other sports around the ranch home.  With so much level ground available, a tennis court had been laid out, and also a croquet ground, and the boys and girls enjoyed these games immensely.  The lads also pitched quoits, a sport which at times had been popular at Colby Hall.

One day the boys accompanied Joe Jackson on a round-up of some cattle far down the river.  This was a day full of excitement, for some of the cattle broke away and Andy and Fred happened to be separated from the rest of the crowd and got directly in line with the runaway steers.

“Hi there!  Hi there!  Ride out of the way!” yelled Joe Jackson at the top of his lungs.

Andy and Fred were looking in the opposite direction and did not notice the cattle until the beasts were within a hundred yards of them.  Then they heard the foreman’s cry and also the beating of the hoofs on the prairie.

“My gracious!” gasped Fred.  “Look what’s coming!”

“We’ve got to get out of the way and be quick about it,” returned Andy, and struck his horse on the flank.

The steeds the boys were riding needed no urging, for the sudden rush of the cattle filled them with alarm.  Away they bounded across the grassy plain with the maddened cattle thundering after them.

“Let’s ride to one side and let ’em pass!” gasped Fred, who was badly shaken by this sudden turn of affairs.  He had not dreamed that the herd of cattle would head for them in this fashion.

But to get out of the way was not easy.  To one side of the plains was a series of rough rocks, while to the other side there was a brook flowing into the river, and here the ground was soft and treacherous.

“Don’t go that way!” cried Andy, as he saw his cousin heading toward the brook.  “You’ll get stuck and you’ll never get out.”

“I’d rather get stuck than be trampled under foot by those beasts,” panted Fred.

“No, no, Fred!  Turn this way!  I’m sure we can get up on the rocks somehow!” declared Andy.

The boys continued to advance with the thoroughly frightened cattle not far behind them.  While being rounded up both cattle and cowboys had come upon a nest of small rattlesnakes.  These had, of course, frightened the beasts, and they were still more frightened when the cowboys had begun to shoot at the reptiles.  Then a few of the cattle had started the stampede, and the rest, terrorized by the pistol shots, had followed.

As the two lads galloped on, they looked anxiously to the side where the rocks were located.  Most of the places they passed were too steep to ascend.  But presently Andy caught sight of a point where there was something of a trail leading upward.

“Come on this way!” he yelled to his cousin.  “I think we can get up on the rocks here!”

In the meanwhile Joe Jackson and his men, followed by Jack and the others, were doing their best to get the cattle to turn back to the point from which they had started.  The best herd riders were circling the edge of the rushing animals, shouting at the top of their lungs and firing their pistols.  But so far this demonstration had had little effect.

“Oh, Jack! do you think they’ll be run down?” gasped Randy.

“I hope not.”

“They’re on a pair of good horses; they ought to be able to outrun the cattle,” came from Gif.

“Don’t be so sure of that,” cried Spouter.  “A mad steer can go some, believe me.”

“Who ever thought they would start off like that?” went on Randy.

“It was firing at those rattlesnakes did it,” declared Jack.  “Of course, I can’t blame the cowboys for doing that.”

Andy and Fred found the rocks anything but easy to ascend.  They went up a few feet, and then the horses began to slip and were in danger of rolling over, carrying their young riders with them.

“Look out!” screamed Fred. He had to catch his horse around the neck to keep from being flung headlong.

But the horses were as anxious to escape the maddened cattle as were the lads, and the steeds continued to scramble upward until they reached a ledge of rock where the footing was comparatively level.

“Do you think we’ll be all right here?” panted Fred, when he could catch his breath sufficiently to speak.

“We shall be unless some of those steers take it into their heads to climb the rocks the same way we did,” answered Andy.  He was suffering from a slight bruise on his left leg where he had brushed some of the roughest of the rocks.

The horses were still alarmed, and continued to snort and stamp their feet, and the two lads for a few seconds had their hands full quieting the animals.  They looked below them and saw the cattle coming on in a great mass.  Some had already passed, but others were huddled close to the rocks as if on the point of making an ascent.

“I really think they’ll try to come up,” said Fred.

“Come ahead!  We’ll see if we can’t get a little higher up,” answered Andy.  “I don’t think the steers will follow us very far, even if they do come.  We can shoot at them if we have to,” he added, for each of them carried a pistol.

Beyond the ledge were more rough rocks, and here the two lads had to proceed with caution for fear one of their horses might slip and perhaps break a leg.  As they advanced they looked back and saw that the cowboys were coming closer and were beginning to drive a part of the cattle to the rear.

“Oh, if only they can drive them back!” sighed Fred.  “Just look at ’em, Andy!  There must be a hundred of the steers directly below us!  And see how angry that big black fellow looks!  He acts just as if he’d like to come up here and gore us!”

“Listen!” ejaculated Andy, pulling back on the rein.  “What’s that funny noise?”

Both listened, and, mingled with the murmurs of the cattle at the foot of the rocks, came to their ears a peculiar whine or growl that was entirely new to the lads.

“It’s a wild animal of some kind!” cried Fred, as the growl was repeated.

“Where did it come from?”

“I don’t know.  But it was close at hand.”

Thoroughly scared, both boys looked on all sides.  Then, of a sudden, Fred let out another exclamation.

“There it is!  Right on the shelf of rocks yonder!  Oh, Andy, it’s a mountain lion!”