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- Nan Sherwood at Rose Ranch - 20/37 -


It was later that they learned they had met none of "Dan's bunch." That was the crowd that had ridden away the very morning after the visitors had arrived at the ranch. The outfit headed by Dan MacCormack had gone to round up a horse herd many miles from headquarters.

Mr. Hammond and several other ranchmen of the vicinity allowed their horses to run wild in the hills for a part of each year. The larger part, in fact.

"You see, they get their own living up there, on pasturage that they never could be driven to," Rhoda explained to the girls. "Besides, many of the finest mustangs in the country run wild and will never be caught. Daddy likes to have his herds crossed with that wild blood. It makes the colts more vigorous and handsomer. Oh, I just wish you girls could see some of the wild stallions. But they seldom come down with the herds to the rodeo. They go back into the wilder hills with the scrubs that the boys don't care to drive in.

"About this time of year the several bands belonging to Rose Ranch and our neighbors are driven down to the lowlands. The mares and yearlings are already branded, of course; so the various owners cut out their own animals, and the young colts, of course, run with their mothers.

"Each ranch outfit knows its own colts and brands accordingly. We call it a round-up. 'Rodeo' is Mexican for it. We drive them into the branding pens and mark the colts. Then we cut out the horses that are needed on the ranch, or to train for sale, and let the others drift again."

"And do all the poor horses have to be burned?" murmured Grace, with a shudder.

"And our cattle, too. How else would we know them from other people's cattle?" demanded Rhoda. "It's nowhere near so horrid as it sounds. The smart is soon over. And, really, how else could we tell the creatures apart?"

"Goodness! don't ask _me_" said Grace. "I am not in the cattle business."

But she confessed to Nan that she intended to shut her eyes tight when the poor little colts were to be burned, and stuff her fingers into her ears, too. However, she and the other girls were very eager to attend the round-up; and a messenger from Dan, the sub-foreman, had come in to headquarters with the announcement that the herdsmen from the combined ranches were driving down the biggest bunch of horses in a decade.

"You and your party, Rhoda, can start away in the morning, bright and early," said her father at dinner that night. "I've sent away a grub wagon and Ah Foon's right bower to cook for you. I know you'd cause a famine if you depended on the regular chuck wagon of Dan's outfit. There isn't but one sleeping tent; Walter will have to rough it."

"That will not bother me, Mr. Hammond," declared the boy. "I've camped out more than once."

"'Twon't be much of a punishment to sleep out-of-doors this weather," said the old ranchman. "All that may bother you is a tornado. We have 'em occasionally at this season."

"And what do you do when there is a tornado, Mr. Hammond?" asked Bess, interested.

"Only one thing to do--hold tight and keep your hair on," chuckled Mr. Hammond. "If you really do get in the path of one, lie down and cling to the grass-roots till it blows over."

"Oh! A cyclone!" cried Bess.

"Not exactly. A cyclone, I reckon, is some worse. A cyclone is a twister. They say if a cyclone hits a pig end to, and the wrong way, it twists his tail to the left instead of to the right and he's never the same pig again."

"Now, daddy!" complained Rhoda, "what do you want to tell such awful jokes for? Nothing like that ever happened to our pigs."

"Well," said her father, his eyes twinkling, "we never had a real cyclone down here. But tornadoes are bad enough."

It was barely daybreak the next morning when the sleepy peons brought the ponies to the house. Rhoda knew the trail well, and within the precincts of Rose Ranch, at least, her father did not consider it necessary for any guard to ride with her.

"I often ride to Osaka for the mail," explained Rhoda. "What should I be afraid of?"

"Aren't there any tramps?" murmured Grace.

"Well," laughed Rhoda, "not the kind you mean. Tramps afoot would not get far in this country. And how could a man on foot catch me? Your kind of tramps don't go far from the railroad lines. And if there are any other ne'er-do-wells in the neighborhood, they know daddy too well to molest me. You see, daddy used to be sheriff in the old days. And he has a reputation," laughed Rhoda.

This conversation occurred just after they left the house on this windy morning, with a red sun coming up behind them "as big as a cartwheel," Bess announced. The level rays of the sun shot far, far across the plains and gilded the line of buttes and mesas Rhoda had told them so much about while back at Lakeview Hall.

"Those are not the Blue Buttes this morning, Rhoda," declared Nan. "They are golden."

Rhoda's eyes swept the frontage of the eminences. She carried a pair of glasses in a case slung from her shoulder. Suddenly she seized these, uncased them, and clapped them to her eyes.

"Hi, cap'n!" cried Bess, "what do you spy?"

"See that flash between those two hills?" said Rhoda, reining in her mount.

They gathered about her, looking where she aimed the glasses. Walter exclaimed:

"I see the flash! It isn't the sun shining on guns, is it?"

"Nonsense!" cried Nan Sherwood.

"No-o," said Rhoda. "People don't carry guns that way around here. Besides, the only part of a gun that the sun would flash on would be the bayonet; and we don't carry army rifles in this country," and she laughed.

"There it is again!" exclaimed Walter.

"I see it, too," said Nan. "Rhoda, what can it be? Something is surely moving this way on a road."

"That is the old Spanish Trail," said the Rose Ranch girl. "It is the trail I told you about, by which the old _Conquistadors_ of Cortez reached this part of the country. And it is the most direct road into Mexico."

"It must be some kind of caravan coming through there," said Bess dryly.

"You are quite right," Rhoda declared. "A party of horsemen are riding this way. And they are Mexicans."

"Rhoda!" cried Nan, "you can't see that through those glasses."

"No; I cannot distinguish the horsemen. But I can see the little flashes moving across the saddle of the Gap and down into the valley on this side. And I know they are Mexicans because those flashes are the sun's rays shining on the silver trimming on their sombreros. Yes, they are Mexicans."

"Glory be!" exclaimed Bess. "Can you be sure of all that?"

"More. Poor Mexicans--the peons who come up here to find work--do not wear such sombreros. Nor do many Mexicans waste their money in such fashions nowadays. But there is a class that dress just that fancily."

"Who are they?"

"Men that the ranchers here will not want to see. I know that daddy will ride over to the rodeo behind us, or I would turn about now and run to tell him. There! they are gone. There must have been a dozen of them."

"But who are they?" demanded Nan, anxiously.

"Of course, I am not positive. But I think," said Rhoda, closing the glasses and putting them in the case again, "that they are a band of wanderers. Perhaps a raiding party led by one of the so-called 'liberators' of Mexico. You know, there are more 'liberators' in Mexico than you can shake a stick at," and the girl of Rose Ranch laughed.

"You mean bandits!" cried Nan.

"Well, that is a harsh word. They are political leaders for the most part. Sometimes they become important leaders. But when they come over on this side of the Border they need just as close watching as a pack of wolves."

"Are these men like that Lobarto you told us about?" said Walter.

"Perhaps. Of course, I do not really know. Let us ride along, and when daddy overtakes us, I will tell him."

CHAPTER XVII

THE ROUND-UP


Nan Sherwood at Rose Ranch - 20/37

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