AS CORY BLAINE, with Kay and Bud, rode away from the ranch house ahead of the others, they bore to the southwest through a low pass that took them out of the main valley in which the ranch lay.
At the horn of his saddle, Bud carried, a sack filled with paper cut into small pieces; and some of this he dropped occasionally as Blaine instructed him to do so.
“You might as well ride on ahead, Bud,” said Cory, “Follow that old, dry spring trail for about five miles and then cut across to the left, back into the valley. Drop a little paper when you enter a main trail; and then you don’t have to drop no more, as long as the trail is plain, until you leave it. After you leave a trail, ride about fifty yards before you drop any more paper. That’ll make ’em hunt around a bit to pick up your trail again. After you get into the valley, keep out of sight as much as possible. Use washes and high brush to hide yourself, and keep on up the valley quite a bit before you cross. I don’t care if you go as far as Mill Creek. We’re goin’ to give ’em a ride today that they’ll remember.”
“If I go that roundabout way to Mill Creek,” said Bud, “it’ll be nigh on to forty miles before we get back to the ranch.”
“I don’t believe some of us can stand it,” said Kay.
“They’ll have somethin’ to talk about for the rest of their lives,” said Cory, “and that’s what most of ’em are out here for. It won’t kill ’em.”
“Bert Adams won’t never sit down again,” said Bud.
“That’s his funeral,” said Blaine. “You mosey along now, Bud; and we’ll follow. You got the best horse in the outfit, and there aint no use of our tryin’ to keep up with you.”
“All right,” said Bud. “So long,” and he rode away.
Blaine held his horse to a walk until Bud was out of sight. He did not talk to the girl, who followed behind him along the narrow trail, but presently she spoke to him.
“You’re off the trail, Cory,” she said. “This isn’t the main trail, and Bud hasn’t dropped any paper.”
“Oh, that’s all right,” said Cory. “I know where Bud’s ridin’ and this is an easier way. It’s a short cut.”
“I don’t see how it can be a short cut,” said the girl, “when it’s bearing off to the west, while Mill Creek is southeast of us.”
“Well, it aint shorter in distance, Kay,” he said; “but it’s a whole lot easier, and we’ll make better time. The trail Bud’s on gets mighty rough a bit farther up, and we’ll dodge all that and may even beat him into the valley.”
They dropped down into a gully and crossed a low ridge, beyond which lay a barren and forbidding gulch, carved from the red soil by the rains of ages.
It did not look like an easier way to Kay; but she had confidence in Blaine’s knowledge of the country and was content to follow where he led.
A steep and precarious cattle trail led down into the bottom of the gulch, where they were entirely hidden from view in the winding bed of a dry wash.
“What a lonely place,” said Kay.
Blaine made no reply. He was unusually quiet and preoccupied.
Despite herself, the girl felt nervous. She wished now that she had insisted upon continuing on with Bud; and then she noticed for the first time that Cory carried no gun, as was habitually his custom.
“You forgot your gun,” she said.
“That’s right,” he replied, “I did. I was so busy this morning I must o’ plumb forgot it.”
“I don’t like this place, Cory,” she said after another silence. “I wish you’d take me out of it.”
They were crossing the mouth of another deep wash that entered that in which they were riding. The sides of these washes were unusually perpendicular and sometimes ten or fifteen feet in height, forming narrow, tortuous corridors, their walls broken occasionally by well worn cattle trails that led down one bank and up the other.
Something attracted Kay’s attention up the wash they were passing. “Cory!” she exclaimed in a startled whisper. “I saw a man up there. He had a handkerchief tied across his face.”
Just ahead of them the wash turned abruptly to the left, and the girl had scarcely ceased speaking when a rider blocked their further progress. He, too, wore a bandana about the lower part of his face, hiding all but his eyes.
“Stick ’em up,” he said.
Cory’s hands went up; and at the same instant Kay wheeled Lightfoot in an effort to escape; for in that instant she sensed that she had been led into a trap.
Quick though her action was, it was too late, for as Lightfoot wheeled, the other rider spurred into the wash, blocking her escape.
“Set tight, Miss,” he said, covering her with his forty-five.
“Climb down!” ordered the man confronting Blaine.
“What do you want?” asked Cory. “If it’s money, take what you want. I aint armed.”
“Shut up and climb down,” growled the bandit.
Cory did as he was bid, and the man also dismounted and came toward him. “Turn around,” he said, “and don’t make no funny moves if you don’t want to get kilt.”
He took the riata from Blaine’s saddle, had the man lower his arms behind his back and then secured his wrists there with one end of the rope. Looping the reins of Blaine’s horse over the horn of his own saddle, he turned back up the wash leading his horse, while Blaine followed at the end of the rope, with Kay and her captor trailing in the rear.
Around the bend a cattle trail led up onto the bank, and here the party climbed out of the wash and halted beside a clump of high bushes. Here the man who had Cory in charge made the latter lie down and quickly bound his ankles, after which he removed Blaine’s bandana from about his throat, twirled it into a cylinder, the center of which he made Blaine take in his mouth, after which he tied the ends tightly at the back of his neck, effectually gagging him. Then he tied the prostrate man’s horse to the other side of the bush.
“I reckon they’ll find you in a couple of days,” he said.
In the meantime the other man had taken down Kay’s halter rope and was holding it to prevent another attempt at escape.
“What are you going to do with me?”
“You’re goin’ along with us, Miss,” said the man who had been tying up Cory. “As long as you don’t get to actin’ up, you won’t get hurt.” Then he mounted, and the three rode up the gulch toward the south.
It was five o’clock in the afternoon when Bud rode into the ranch yard, unsaddled his pony, and turned it out to pasture. As he walked toward the bunk house, Miss Pruell called to him from the veranda, where she was sitting with John White.
“Where are the rest of them?” she asked, when he had come over.
“I guess they aint far behind,” he said. “I seen ’em a couple of times.”
“I thought Kay and Cory were with you,” said Miss Pruell.
“They dropped behind the first thing this morning,” said Bud, “and I haven’t seen ’em since. I reckon they’ll be in directly though.”
A half hour later the other riders commenced to straggle in. Dora Crowell was first; and fifteen minutes later the Talbots appeared and joined them on the veranda.
Miss Pruell had introduced John White first to Dora and then to the Talbots; and of each he had inquired about Kay, but none of them had seen either her or Cory.
“Look there,” exclaimed White, pointing up the valley. “Here comes a riderless horse.”
“That is probably Adams’,” said Benson Talbot. “The last time I saw him he looked like he’d a whole lot rather walk than ride.”
Bud was standing at the foot of the steps and now he strained his eyes through the growing dusk. “That aint Adams’ horse,” he said. “That’s Cory’s. Somethin’ must have happened.”
With the exception of Miss Pruell and Birdie Talbot, they all went down to the corral to meet the horse as he came trotting in. The animal was dragging his halter rope, the loose end of which was knotted about a bit of broken brush wood.
“Cory had him tied and he busted loose,” said Bud. “I reckon he’s walkin’ in and that Miss White is stayin’ with him.”
“Why didn’t they continue on with you?” demanded White.
“That’s just what I’d like to know,” said Bud. “I can’t figure it out.”
“Did the rest of you follow this man’s trail all the way?” asked White, turning to Talbot.
“Yes,” replied Talbot, “it was plainly marked; and I think we never got off of it once.”
“Then if they weren’t considerably off the trail you should have seen something of them,” continued White. “There is something wrong here. It doesn’t look good to me at all.”
“It doesn’t look good to me either, Mr. White,” said Dora Crowell, “and there is something wrong.”
“We should send out after them at once,” continued White. “How many men have you here?” he turned to Bud.
“There’s me and two other fellers,” said Bud. “We’ll start right out if you say so.”
“I wish you would,” replied White; “and you will be well rewarded if you find them.”
“We’ll have to catch up some fresh horses,” said Bud. “We’ll find them all right, Mr. White. Don’t worry.” He turned to the two men in the corral. “Get up the horses,” he said, “and get saddled up. I want to get a snack of grub before I start. I aint had nothin’ to eat all day.”
When he had departed in the direction of the kitchen, Dora Crowell drew John White to one side. “I don’t want to alarm you unnecessarily, Mr. White,” she said; “but if I were you I wouldn’t trust entirely to these men. There’s a deputy sheriff down in town. I think you should telephone him to start a posse out after them.”
“Do you think that it is as serious as that?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she said; “but if you were not here, I should have done it myself.”
“You must have some grounds for your suspicions,” he said. “I wish that you would be frank with me.”
“Blaine is in love with your daughter,” said Dora; “and,” she added, “I don’t think that he is any too trustworthy.”
“Does she care for him?” he asked.
“No, and that is where the danger lies.”
“Where is the telephone?” asked White.
“In the office,” replied Dora. “Come with me, and I’ll show you where it is.”
As the two returned to the ranch house, Bert Adams rode into the yard and up to the corral. He was swaying in the saddle when his horse came to a stop. Painfully and laboriously, he dismounted; then he lay down in the dirt, while his horse walked on into the stable.
Bruce Marvel was sitting in the office of the hotel in the little cow town when the telephone bell rang. The proprietor was washing his face in a tin basin just outside the door. His hands and his hair and his eyes and his nose and his mouth were covered with lather. “Will you answer the danged thing for me, young feller?” he asked; and in compliance with the request Bruce crossed to the instrument.
“Hello!” he said, as he took down the receiver.
“Hello!” said a voice at the other end. “This is John White at the TF Ranch. I want to speak to the deputy sheriff.”
“Wait a minute,” said Bruce, and then turning to the proprietor “Here’s a fellow wants to talk with the deputy sheriff,” he said.
“He’s out to his ranch, and he aint got no telephone. Take the message.”
“I can’t get hold of him now,” said Marvel into the transmitter, “but if you’ll give me your message I’ll get it to him.”
“My daughter and Cory Blaine are lost somewhere in the hills,” said White. “They went out on a paper chase early this morning. Every one else is in but them. Blaine’s horse came in alone five minutes ago. I want the sheriff to form a posse and make a thorough search for them. I’ll stand all the expenses and pay a reward in addition.”
Marvel was almost stunned by the information, but his voice showed no indication of excitement as he answered. “One man will start right now, Mr. White,” he said, “and the sheriff will be notified to follow with a posse. Good bye,” and he hung up without waiting to hear more.
In a few brief words he explained the situation to the hotel proprietor. “Can you get word to the sheriff at once?” he asked.
“I’ll have a man on the road in five minutes.”
“Good. And now listen to me. Tell ’em never to mind huntin’ the hills. Ride straight to Hi Bryam’s shack at the head of Mill Creek canyon. If they don’t find nuthin’ there, tell ’em to keep on along the One Mile Creek trail to Kelly’s place in Sonora.”
“You seem to know a lot about this here country for a tenderfoot,” commented the proprietor.
“Never mind what I know. Get busy,” and, turning, he took the steps two at a time to his room on the second floor.
Quickly he stripped off his clothes, and opening his trunk dragged out well worn boots and spurs, overalls, flannel shirt, Stetson, chaps and bandana. Quickly he donned them, and then strapped about his hips a cartridge belt that supported two old forty-fours in holsters as darkened and mellowed by age as were his chaps and his cartridge belt.
As he ran down the stairs, crossed the office and stepped out into the night, no one saw him, for the proprietor had gone to find a man to send after the sheriff. The train from the east was pulling into the station; and Butts was waiting for his passengers; so that he did not see Marvel as the latter hurried to the stable as Olga Gunderstrom alighted from the train.
No one was at the livery stable as Marvel entered and saddled and bridled Baldy, for the proprietor was eating his supper in his home across the street.
Earlier in the afternoon, while it was still light, Marvel had noticed a pile of empty gunny sacks on the floor beside the grain bin. Into one of these he dumped several measures of oats, tied the sack securely back of his saddle and a moment later rode out into the night toward the south.