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While staying at a dude ranch, Brian and Sean investigate the theft of a prize racehorse.
While staying at a dude ranch, Brian and Sean investigate the theft of a prize racehorse.
Shortly after their arrival at the Austin Dude Ranch, Brian and Sean Quinn stopped at the door of cabin A to glance down the hill. At the foot of the hill was a swimming pool, its water skimmed with gold in the late afternoon sunlight.
Between the pool and the forest, a meadow stretched like a soft green blanket, broken only by a large campfire pit ringed with split-log benches.
Nine-year-old Sean began to picture a roaring campfire ... hot dogs ... toasted marshmallows ... He licked his lips.
"Come on," Brian said. "We've got to show up at the lodge for Mr. Austin's meeting in less than half an hour."
Once inside the cabin, they dumped their suitcases on their bunks. Brian and Sean smiled as they glanced around at the plain wooden walls and the floors decorated only with woven rag rugs. The Austin Dude Ranch looked just the way they thought a dude ranch ought to look.
Brian took a deep breath. "Smell that cool mountain air," he said.
Sean took a couple of sniffs. "It smells like horses to me," he answered.
Brian made a face at Sean. "A dude ranch is supposed to smell like horses."
"Do you think they'll let us go for a ride right away?" Sean asked. Riding horses was what Sean had been looking forward to most.
"They have to show you how to do it first," Brian told him laughingly. "You've never even been on a horse."
"Yeah?" countered Sean. "Well, neither have you!"
Just then a wiry, tanned boy, almost as tall as Brian, bounced into the cabin.
"They'll talk about camp schedules at the first meeting," the boy said. "Then you'll know what's going on. Oh, and you should know that I'm Carter Burton III."
"Hi," Brian said. "I'm—"
"I know who you are," Carter said. "I read Hank's roster. You're Brian Quinn. You're thirteen, and you're from a dinky little town called Redbud or something."
Sean glared at Carter. "That's Redoaks, California," he corrected. "And it's not a dinky little town. It's a real neat place to live."
Carter shrugged, muttered a "Whatever," and resumed talking to Brian. "And you came with your dinky little brother, Vaughn."
"That's Sean! And I'm not dinky, either."
"This is my third trip to Hank Austin's dude ranch," Carter explained to Brian, ignoring Sean. "I know all about the place, so if you have any questions, just ask me."
Carter flopped onto Sean's bunk, pulled a handful of peanuts out of his pocket, and began to pop them open.
"Hey!" Sean said as Carter began dropping the shells on the floor. "Quit making a mess."
"It's on your side. You clean it up," Carter said. He smirked. "You better clean it up or you'll get in trouble when the cabins are inspected."
Sean's face grew red as his temper began to flare, but Brian put a restraining hand on his arm.
"Come on," he told Sean as he scooped up the shells and dropped them into a nearby wastepaper basket. "Let's go to the lodge. Mr. Austin told us to get our stuff stowed away, then meet in the lodge."
Sean pointed at the wooden chests at the foot of their bunks. "I guess we're supposed to put our clothes and stuff in these." He flipped open the lid, unzipped his suitcase, and dumped the contents into the chest.
"There," Sean said. "All unpacked."
Brian was neatly arranging his clothes.
"Hurry up," Carter said impatiently. "It's time to go." He left the cabin and started up the path toward the lodge. Sean and Brian scrambled to catch up with him.
"Can we ask Mr. Austin when he'll let us ride the horses?" Sean asked.
"It better be soon," Carter said, "before they all get stolen."
"Stolen?" Brian asked. "What are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about horse thieves," Carter said.
Brian was so startled that he stumbled over a rock in the path. "Are you saying that someone's stealing Mr. Austin's horses?" he asked.
"The horse thieves haven't got to Hank's horses yet," Carter said, "but they probably will. Over on the nearest working ranch—where Wade Morrison breeds and sells horses—a valuable breeding stallion named Nightstar was stolen just last week and disappeared without a clue. The sheriff was here, asking questions, and so were a couple of newspaper reporters. You probably never heard of Nightstar, but he was a winning racehorse."
"Was?" asked Brian.
"He was retired five years ago," Carter said.
"What makes you think the thief who stole Nightstar would be after Mr. Austin's horses?" Brian asked. "A dude ranch isn't a place for valuable racehorses."
Sean grinned. "I don't think Chandler here knows as much about horses as he thinks."
Carter turned to Sean. "That's Carter," he grumbled, "and I know a lot more about horses than you do ... Vaughn."
When Carter began lecturing Brian about horses, Sean decided he'd had enough of Carter Burton III and ran on ahead. He was the first to reach the steps leading off the lodge porch, where a ranch hand was sitting in a battered oak rocking chair, rubbing strips of leather with a stained rag. His heavily wrinkled face was as deeply tanned as the leather.
Sean introduced himself. "Hi. I'm Sean Quinn."
"I'm called Woody." He smiled at Sean.
"What are you doing?" asked Sean as he leaned closer to watch.
"Cleaning a harness."
"Cool," Sean said. He imagined putting the harness on one of the horses, then climbing up into the saddle. He couldn't wait for his first ride.
Brian was asking Carter a question when they clumped up the wooden stairs to the porch.
"That horse you said was stolen," he suggested. "If it was taken out of the barn in a truck or a horse trailer, wouldn't somebody have heard something?"
"How should I know?" Carter said, shrugging.
"Woody," Sean said, "this is my brother, Brian."
Brian and Woody exchanged hellos.
"Hey, Brian, maybe Woody can answer your question," Sean said.
"Right!" Brian said, brightening. "Carter and I were talking about the horse theft," he explained, "and there are lots of things I want to know." From force of habit, Brian pulled out a pen and a notebook from his jeans pocket. "Did the sheriff check to see if anyone had spotted a horse trailer on the highway at night?" Brian began. "And did he look around for hoofprints, in case the horse was led away on foot?"
Woody shrugged. "Don't ask me," he said, directing his attention to the harness. "That's Wade Morrison's business." He looked up at Brian and squinted. "I don't mind anybody's business but my own."
"But do you happen to know if they found anything unusual around the stables or the grounds?"
"A criminal not only takes away something from the scene of a crime," Sean said. "He also leaves something—maybe just a clump of dirt from his shoe or a blade of grass."
It was one of the first rules of investigating, something he'd heard his father mention a million times.
"What's with you two dorks?" Carter snapped. "You ask so many questions someone might think you're private investigators or something."
"Our dad is a private investigator," Brian said. "And someday I plan to be one, too. This case of a disappearing horse interests me."
"If I were you," Woody said, "I'd stop trying to play detective about that missing black stallion. Sooner or later the sheriff will find the horse." He looked sharply at Brian. "Mind your own business, like I do, and you won't get into any trouble or cause any trouble."
Brian sighed and reluctantly tucked his notebook and pen back into his pocket.
Sean, however, was glad. He always enjoyed working with Brian on their investigations, but this was a vacation, and he didn't want to do any investigating.
"I'm getting hungry," Sean said. "I wonder if we'll have a campfire and a cookout tonight."
"We'll have a campfire," Carter said. He looked down at Sean and sneered. "But it might be too scary for a little kid like you, because Hank is going to tell ghost stories."
He pulled another handful of peanuts out of his pocket and began munching.
"I'm not afraid of ghosts!" Sean insisted. "I even helped our dad and Brian uncover some so-called ghosts that were haunting guests at a place called the Pine Tree Inn." He wished that what he'd said about not believing in ghosts were true. But the truth was, he did believe in ghosts.
"Yeah?" Carter asked. He didn't look impressed. In fact, his eyes sparkled as though he knew a good joke. "If that's so," he said in a challenging tone, "then maybe you won't mind running into the ghost of a crazy old prospector who lost his silver mine and sometimes wanders through the mountains around here."
"A crazy old prospector? Oh, sure," Brian said skeptically.
"The story's true," Carter insisted. "Isn't it, Woody?"
"Yep," Woody said. "I've even seen the ghost once myself."
Brian couldn't believe it! He was just about to ask Woody a question when he saw the ranch hand point at the pile of peanut shells at Carter's feet.
"Carter," he barked, "I told you before to stop littering! You know the rules. Now pick up those shells."
Carter heaved a huge sigh and began to pick up the shells.
Ordinarily, Sean would have enjoyed teasing Carter about having to pick up the peanut shells, but he couldn't help thinking about what Woody had said about the prospector's ghost.
He glanced out at the rolling grassland and the dark woods just beyond. In the daylight the dude ranch didn't seem the least bit scary. Sean shivered. Ghosts never came out during the day, but what might happen at night?CHAPTER 2
As Brian, Sean, and Carter entered the main room of the lodge, Hank Austin, the owner of the ranch, shouted to them over the loud babble of the other campers.
"Come on inside, boys, and find yourselves seats."
The lodge was decorated with wagon-wheel chandeliers, deep sofas and chairs draped with Indian blankets, and wood carvings of horses that stood on most of the tables.
Brian, Sean, and Carter took the nearest available chairs, and Mr. Austin pounded on a table until the other boys quieted down to listen.
"There are a few things to go over before supper," Mr. Austin began. He explained to the boys that there were rules for making beds, sweeping cabin floors, being good bunkmates, and strictly following safety regulations.
"Other than that," Mr. Austin said, "you boys are here to have fun. Now, we've got an early ride planned for tomorrow morning with a breakfast cookout down by the creek."
"Yahoo!" Sean yelled.
Carter snorted. "He hasn't even been here one day and he thinks he's a cowboy already," he muttered.
"Remember," Mr. Austin said, "we use a buddy system. No one is to take off in the woods on his own. Understood?"
He looked right at Carter as he said, "It's too easy to get lost."
Sean grinned when he saw the embarrassed look on Carter's face. "So you were dumb enough to get lost," he whispered to Carter. "I bet that's a good story. Maybe Woody will tell us about it if you don't."
The husky boy to Sean's left chuckled. "I want to hear that story, too," he said.
Carter shot them both an angry glance, then jumped up and sat down at a table across the room.
"Hi, I'm Mike Dennis," the husky boy said to Sean.
"I'm Sean Quinn."
Mike lowered his voice and said, "I'm in the same cabin as you, so I have to put up with Carter the dweeb, too."
"He's a real jerk. What's with him?"
Mike made a face. "My mom knows Carter's mom. I'm supposed to try to understand Carter and be nice to him because his mom's always getting married and that makes him feel mixed up and ..."
"Did you say, 'always getting married'?" Sean clapped a hand over his mouth as Brian turned to frown at him.
"Well, four times, anyway," Mike whispered.
Mr. Austin pounded on the table again and spoke to Sean and Mike. "Pay attention now, boys," he said, and introduced his wife, Rose. Mrs. Austin explained that she'd always be on hand to answer questions, take care of cuts and scrapes, make sure letters were written to parents, and help anyone who might feel a little homesick.
Sean thought she looked friendly. She even reminded him of his favorite teacher back at Redoaks Elementary School.
Brian nudged Sean when Mrs. Austin mentioned "homesick." The two brothers grinned at each other. Homesick? they both thought. No way. They'd see their parents in two weeks, which would be soon enough. Living on a real dude ranch was going to be a great adventure.
"I want you to meet Cookie, the ranch's cook," Mr. Austin said. "Cookie has some rules of his own you'll need to follow."
A weathered, wrinkled, bowlegged man stepped to Mr. Austin's side. Sean couldn't help grinning. The man's scraggly tufts of white hair looked as though someone had run over his head with a dull lawn mower.
"Mr. Austin feeds his guests well," Cookie growled, "so I know there won't be any complaints about my cooking. There'll be no food fights, and if you want dessert, you'll eat your vegetables."
"He's just like my mom," Mike mumbled to Sean.
Imagining a mother who looked like Cookie was too much for Sean. He burst out laughing.
Cookie's stare pinned Sean to his chair. "Son," he barked, "is there something about vegetables you find funny?"
"No, sir," squeaked Sean. "I like vegetables."
"Good," Cookie said, "because I'm thinking of cooking up a mess of turnip greens special for you tonight."
Sean gulped. "Yes, sir," he said.
Just then Cookie winked at Sean. Mr. Austin laughed and clapped Cookie on the shoulder. "No turnip greens tonight," he said. "Cookie's already planned a real cowboy supper of grilled steak and baked beans to start you off on your two weeks as dude-ranch hands."
The boys broke into a loud cheer. Sean smiled at Cookie. He was thankful he hadn't started his two-week adventure by getting into trouble. Besides, turnip greens sounded awful!
After the meeting, Brian and Sean introduced themselves to their bunkmates. Besides Mike Dennis, who was ten years old and said all he really liked was football, they met fourteen-year-old Dan Page and Bobby Wilson, who had just turned eight.
"My favorite team is the Cowboys," Mike explained. "But I also like the Rams."
Dan shook his head. "The Rams stink." He looked at Brian. "What about you?" Brian shrugged. "I'm not much of a football fan, really," he said.
Dan smiled. "Me, neither. Maybe I should be. It would make my parents happy. They complain that I spend too much time with my computer. In fact, they sent me to this dude ranch just to separate me from my computer and make sure I get plenty of fresh air and exercise."
"You're good with computers?" Brian asked. "Cool!" He had an idea. "I wonder if there's a computer on the ranch."
"I know there is," Dan said, then frowned. "The only problem is I had to promise my parents I wouldn't touch a keyboard the entire time I was here."
Just then Mr. Austin walked past, and Brian immediately ran to catch up with him.
"Mr. Austin," Brian asked, "would you mind if I ask you some questions?"
"Sure thing," Mr. Austin said. "That's why I'm here." He gave Brian a big smile. "The fact is, though, I thought I'd covered everything you'd need to know." He scratched his head. "I did mention the pool hours, didn't I?"
"My questions aren't about your dude ranch," Brian explained.
Mr. Austin gave Brian a puzzled, sideways glance. "They're not?" he said.
"No," Brian said. "They're about the missing horse—Nightstar."
Mr. Austin looked meaningfully at Brian. "Now how in the world would you know about Nightstar?" he asked.
"That's the thing," said Brian. "I don't know much more than that he was stolen."
Brian could tell from Mr. Austin's confused expression that he still didn't understand.
"My dad's a private investigator," explained Brian. "Someday I'd like to be one, too, and this case interests me."
Mr. Austin nodded, then looked at his watch. "We've got a few minutes," he said, "but I don't know if I'll have the answers you're looking for."
Great! Brian thought as he whipped out his notebook. He got right to work. "If the horse was taken out of the barn in a truck or a horse trailer," he began, "wouldn't somebody have heard something?"
Excerpted from The Legend of Deadman's Mine by Joan Lowery Nixon. Copyright © 1995 Joan Lowery Nixon. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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