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Grace Harlowe's Overland Riders on the Great American Desert
by Jessie Graham Flower
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GRACE HARLOWE'S OVERLAND RIDERS ON THE GREAT AMERICAN DESERT

BY

JESSIE GRAHAM FLOWER, A. M.

ILLUSTRATED



CHAPTER I—WHEN THE COWBOYS LAUGHED

Picking out the ponies for the desert journey. The Overland girls meet Hi Lang. Grace selects an "outlaw" pony. "Don't reckon you'll be able to stick on him," warns the guide. Grace Harlowe flings herself into the saddle, braced for the shock.

CHAPTER II—AN "OUTLAW" MEETS HIS MATCH

Grace fights a stubborn battle with the vicious bronco. "Look out!" yells the guide. "Wall, ef thet don't beat the Dutch!" exclaims a cowboy. A fainting conqueror. Cowboys voice their admiration of the Overland girl, and Bud offers his services in the event of trouble.

CHAPTER III—A THRILLING MOMENT

Enthusiastic plainsmen give Grace a Mexican lasso. The start for the desert. A rousing good-bye that ends in disaster. Elfreda and Grace accomplish a difficult feat. "Hang on! We'll stop him!" The runaway bronco is thrown. "They're caught!"

CHAPTER IV—PING WING MAKES A DISCOVERY

Elfreda confesses to being "all mussed up," and gives first aid to an injured cowboy. The lure of the desert. Welcomed at their first camp by Ping Wing. The Chinaman as a songbird. The Overland Eiders are aroused by cries and shots.

CHAPTER V—STALKING A MOUNTAIN MYSTERY

Ping uses a frying pan and a can of tomatoes as his weapons. Scooting for a mysterious foe. "Put up your hands! I have you covered!" Grace Harlowe exchanges shots with her adversary, then suddenly sinks out of sight.

CHAPTER VI—INTO THE GREAT SILENCE

Hi stalks an unseen enemy and wings him. The hole in the mountain. "The hound! He hit her! I'll kill him for that!" Grace, unconscious, is carried into camp. "This is not a gunshot wound!" Bullets are fired into the camp of the Overlanders.

CHAPTER VII—THE FIRST DESERT CAMP

Hi Lang shows his charges how to make a campfire on the desert. A water hole is found. "Some one is trying to poison us!" groans Hippy. The guide warns the campers against scorpions. Emma Dean wishes she had gone to the seashore.

CHAPTER VIII—CALLERS DROP IN

Amid scenes of desolation. "A party of horsemen coming this way!" The Overland party prepares for trouble. Hippy is doused by a wild desert rider. "Get off my desert!" orders Lieutenant Wingate. The leader is kicked into a water hole. The battle at the water hole.

CHAPTER IX—PIRATES GET A HOT RECEPTION

Bullets fly fast in the desert camp. Grace protests against Hi Lang's order to shoot the attackers' ponies. Miss Briggs dresses the wounds of the victims. The guide reads danger signals in the sky.

CHAPTER X—WHEN THE BLOW FELL

"It's here!" mutters Hi Lang. Enveloped in a wild desert sandstorm. "Down! Everybody down!" Overland girls nearly buried under drifting sands, and camp equipment is wrecked and blown away. "The water hole is lost!" announces the guide.

CHAPTER XI—FACING A NEW PERIL

Ponies stray away in the storm. On the trail of the missing ones. The Overland girl makes a capture. Headed for Death Valley. Grace Harlowe is lost, but doesn't know it. Hi Lang goes to the rescue and follows her trail.

CHAPTER XII—A BITTER DISAPPOINTMENT

"We must find water!" declares Hi Lang impressively. The search for a desert "tank" begun by the weary Riders. Directed to smell for water. A thrilling discovery. Hopes dashed to earth. "Get back to your positions!" orders the guide.

CHAPTER XIII—A STARTLING ALARM

Supper is eaten without water or tea. Hi Lang shows the girls how to extract food and moisture from a cactus plant. "This is heavenly!" gasps Emma, and wonders why they did not bring an artesian well. Shouts and screams suddenly disturb the camp.

CHAPTER XIV—THE MYSTERIOUS HORSEMAN

Hippy Wingate falls into the desert. A happy accident. "Water! I smell it!" cries Grace. Signal shots are fired. A desert wanderer rides in begging for water. A solitary horseman views the Overlanders from afar.

CHAPTER XV—THE GUIDE READS A DESERT TRAIL

A stranger's warning interests Hi Lang. Why the desert wanderer is always listening. More desert secrets revealed. Emma Dean dreams of snakes and things. Grace Harlowe is complimented. Hi tells the Overlanders what the mysterious horseman is.

CHAPTER XVI—THE CROSS ON THE DESERT

Grace learns to throw the lasso. An unpleasant discovery. The mystery box at the foot of the cross. Emma is eager to see their find opened. "It rattles like gold," declares Hippy. Lieutenant Wingate raises the cover of the mystery box.

CHAPTER XVII—ANOTHER MYSTERY TO SOLVE

What the Overland Riders found in the buried tin box. The map that aroused the curiosity of all. "I'll bury the old thing," declares Hippy. Hi Lang empties his rifle at the mysterious horseman, and later makes discoveries.

CHAPTER XVIII—AN OLD INDIAN TRICK

The most trying day of all. Hi Lang utters a warning. A cloud that aroused suspicion. Overlanders meet with a keen disappointment. "Folks, the tank is dry! The water hole has been tampered with!" announces the Overlanders' guide.

CHAPTER XIX—THE WARNING

An all-night ride for Forty-Mile Canyon. The red star is Hi Lang's beacon. Hippy Wingate mourns at missing a meal. Emma comes a cropper in a mountain stream. "The last spot made when the world was built." In camp in the Specter Range. Grace Harlowe's discovery.

CHAPTER XX—CONCLUSION

Grace Harlowe wades into the mountain stream and suddenly disappears. A remarkable scene behind the waterfall. Grace makes an important capture. Mountain and desert mysteries unveiled. Lindy becomes the daughter of five mothers. Home!



GRACE HARLOWE'S OVERLAND RIDERS ON THE GREAT AMERICAN DESERT



CHAPTER I

WHEN THE COWBOYS LAUGHED

"Grace Harlowe, do you realize what an indulgent husband you have?" demanded Elfreda Briggs severely.

"Why, of course I do," replied Grace, giving her companion a quick glance of inquiry. "Why this sudden realization of the fact on your part!"

"I was thinking of the really desperate journey we are about to undertake—the journey across the desert that lies just beyond the Cactus Range you can see over yonder," answered Miss Briggs, as she gazed out through the open window of their hotel at Elk Run, to the distant landscape to which she had referred. "What I am curious about is how Tom ever came to consent to your attempting such an adventure."

"I presume he really would have made serious objection had it not been for the fact that he had signed up for that forestry contract in Oregon. Tom knew that I would have a lonely summer at home, and, I believe, deep down in his heart, felt that were he to deny me the pleasure of this trip, I might break my neck driving my car. You see, since I drove an ambulance in France I do not exactly creep along the roads with my spirited little roadster."

"He did not object to the trip then?"

"Well, he did threaten to balk when I told him that we Overlanders had planned to ride horseback across the Great American Desert, starting from Elk Run, Nevada. However, he listened to reason. Tom is such a dear," reflected Grace.

"Yes, reason in the form of Grace Harlowe Gray," nodded Elfreda understandingly. "Should I ever have the misfortune to possess a husband I hope he may be as amenable to reason. Where is Tom, by the way?"

"He has gone out with Hippy Wingate to look for one Hiram Lang, known hereabouts as Hi Lang, the man who is to act as our guide and protector across the desert. He is Mr. Fairweather's cousin, you will recall, and my one great hope is that he may prove to be as fine a character as the man who piloted us over the Old Apache Trail last summer."

"I sincerely hope, for our sake, that he knows his business," nodded Elfreda Briggs.

"Where did you leave the girls?" questioned Grace.

"I left Emma Dean, Anne Nesbit and Nora Wingate at the general store where they were selecting picture cards of wild west scenes to send to the folks back home. By the way, when does Tom leave for Oregon?"

"To-night. I wish it were possible for him to go with us, knowing that it would prove an interesting experience for him, but now that he is out of the army he feels that he must get to work without loss of time. Tom now has a large family to look after— Yvonne and my own little self."

"I should say that, after fighting Bolshevists in Russia for the better part of a year, the desert would be a rather tame experience for him," observed Miss Briggs. "Of course he cannot be blamed for desiring to get to work. I feel the same way about myself, but since my return from France my law practice has been about what it was while I was serving my country on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean—nothing at all—so I might as well be on the desert as in my office."

"Your practice will come back, Elfreda. Don't worry, but in the meantime try to have the best kind of a time and set what happens this fall. I hear Tom's step."

A knock followed the brisk step in the hallway, and Grace's husband entered. Elfreda rose, but Grace held out a hand as a signal that her friend was not to leave.

"Well, Tom dear, did you find him?" questioned Grace.

"Oh, yes. This town isn't so large that one can well miss finding any one. Your man, Hi Lang, is getting the ponies into the corral and you girls are to go out there and make your selections."

"Did Mr. Lang say why he had not called here to see us?" asked Grace.

"No, he didn't say much of anything. He is not of the saying kind. I suppose he expected you to look him up. Besides, he is very busy getting ready for you, I could see that. If you are ready we will go over to the corral now."

"Where did you leave Hippy?" asked Miss Briggs.

"Talking horse with the owner of the ponies," Grace's husband informed her, whereat both girls smiled understandingly, knowing quite well that Hippy Wingate was posing as an expert on horses, whereas about all the knowledge he possessed in that direction had been gained from the ride over the Apache Trail during the previous summer.

Tom led the two girls to the corral at the extreme edge of the little western village. Anne, Emma and Nora already had found their way there and were watching the wranglers, as the men who catch up the ponies are called, roping broncos and leading them out for the inspection of Lieutenant Wingate and the guide.

"My, but they are a lively bunch," exclaimed Miss Briggs.

The roped ponies were bucking and squealing and biting and kicking. A suffocating gray cloud of alkali dust hung over the corral, and, altogether, the scene was not only exciting, but it stirred feelings of alarm in some of Grace Harlowe's Overland Riders.

"Surely, Grace, you girls aren't going to ride those wild animals!" protested Tom Gray.

"Judging from the performances I have just witnessed, I am inclined to think we are not," replied Grace whimsically. "Which is Mr. Lang?"

"The man with his hat off leading the pony from the corral."

Tom beckoned to the man who was to guide the Overlanders across the desert, and, as soon as he had turned the protesting bronco over to a cowboy, the guide responded to Tom Gray's summons.

"Lang, this is Mrs. Gray and Miss Briggs," said Tom by way of introduction.

"Reckon I'm mighty glad to know you all," greeted the guide, mopping the perspiration from his forehead with his sleeve.

Hi Lang interested Grace at once. Of medium height, thin-featured, with a complexion that reminded her of wrinkled parchment, eyes that, though intelligent and alert, frequently took on a dreamy, far-away expression, Hiram Lang proved a new type of westerner to Grace Harlowe.

"Got your telegram that you reckoned on starting to-day," he told her.

"Yes. Of course we do not wish to hurry you, but we are eager to get on our way. What about the supplies and equipment! Have you ordered everything that I suggested?"

The guide nodded.

"The stuff already has gone on ahead in charge of Ping Wing—"

"Who?" laughed Elfreda Briggs.

"Ping Wing, a Chinaman, with four lazy burros. Good man. Can cook, too. Been on the desert before. Lively as a cricket. Only trouble with Ping is that he thinks he can sing. Ride and shoot?" he demanded, abruptly changing the subject.

"I am not much of a rider, but manage to stick to the saddle most of the time," answered Grace. "I shoot a little. We are all novices, with the exception of Lieutenant Wingate who is an excellent shot. The lieutenant was a fighting aviator in the war."

Hi nodded and stroked his chin.

"Reckoned you could ride some. When we get out on the desert I'll see how you can shoot. When do you think you want to start?"

"I will leave that to you," replied Grace.

"Three o'clock this afternoon. We'll make the range where Ping will be waiting for us, and have chow there, then go on in the cool of the evening. Want to look over the broncos?"

"If you please. I should like to try the ponies that we are to ride."

"Do—do they always kick and buck as we saw them do just now?" questioned Miss Briggs apprehensively.

The guide shook his head and grinned.

"They don't like to be roped, that's all. No bronco does. They'll be as all right as a bronc' can be, so long as you don't use the spur or get the critters stubborn."

"If you say they are perfectly safe for my friends to ride, I am satisfied, though I should like to try them out. Hippy, have you ridden any of these animals?" asked Grace, turning to Lieutenant Wingate.

"He tried to," observed Tom Gray dryly. "Hippy mounted one on one side and promptly fell off on the other before getting his feet in the stirrups. It was not the pony's fault, however, but Hippy's clumsiness that caused the disaster."

"That's right, have all the fun at my expense you wish. I am the comedian of this outfit anyway," protested Hippy. "Let's see you ride one of them, Brown Eyes," he urged, speaking to Grace.

"Please have them saddled one by one and I will try them, Mr. Lang," directed Grace. "Any pony that I can ride, the others surely can."

The guide nodded and turned away. Grace watched the saddling with keen interest, especially the saddling of the first pony selected for her, which squealed and pawed and danced as the cinch-girth was being tightened.

"Vicious!" objected Elfreda Briggs.

"No," answered Grace. "Just playful. If the others are no worse, we shall have a good bunch of horses."

The saddle being secured, Grace stepped up and petted the little animal for a few moments, then mounted. The pony danced under her, then, at a word, galloped off. The Overland girl rode but a short distance, and, turning back, trotted up to the group smilingly.

"Spirited but sweet," was her comment as she dismounted. "He will be all right if he is used right. Try him, Elfreda. I know you will like him."

Miss Briggs took her test without falling off, and promptly claimed the little brown animal as her own private mount.

"You made a most excellent selection, Mr. Lang," complimented Grace, after she had tried the ponies for the rest of the girls and found them suitable. Each girl also tried out and selected her own mount from those that Grace had approved, the cowboys and half the village being interested spectators. Grace was pleased, both with the ponies and with the riding of her girl friends. Not the least of those who were pleased was Hi Lang, who, before the coming of the outfit, had felt considerable doubt as to the success of the proposed jaunt. Now he knew that the Overland Riders were not rank greenhorns, as he expressed it to himself.

"Which animal did you think of selecting for me!" asked Grace smilingly.

"Reckoned you'd do that for yourself," answered the guide.

"Thank you. Please have that black roped and brought out. He is the one I think will please me," replied Grace promptly.

"What, that black bronc'? He's a lively one, Mrs. Gray. Don't reckon you'll be able to stick on him at all," warned Hi Lang.

"I have fallen off before, sir. Have him roped and brought out. I'll try him out."

The guide shrugged his shoulders and walked over to the head wrangler.

"Why take such unnecessary chances!" begged Tom Gray. "Surely there are plenty of ponies in the bunch that are safe for you to ride."

"Tom, surely the black one can be no worse than that wild western pony that I bought last fall and rode. You know he was supposed to be the last word in viciousness and bucking ability, but I rode him successfully."

"Very well, go ahead. You won't be satisfied until you have tried him, but remember, I warned you," returned Grace's husband with some heat.

"Now, Tom," begged Grace pleadingly. "Please don't be a cross bear and spoil my trip. You have been so perfectly lovely about it right up to this moment, that it would be too bad if you were to get peevish now. If you say I must not, of course I will not try to ride the animal, but I do so want him."

Tom Gray shrugged his shoulders and laughed.

"Go to it, little woman. You have my full permission to break your neck if you insist. I will see that little Yvonne keeps your memory green."

"Oh, Tom! You are such a dear, but I promise you that you won't have occasion to keep my memory green so far as that mischievous little black pony is concerned."

Grace Harlowe's confidence in herself was not without good and sufficient reason. The western pony that she had ridden the previous winter had demonstrated nearly all the tricks known to the stubborn broncos of the great west. At first Grace had had some bad spills, but eventually she learned to outwit her pony and ride him no matter how savagely he tried to unhorse her.

Not only had Grace learned to ride, in anticipation of another summer in the saddle, but, under her husband's instruction, she had taken up revolver shooting, and by spring was capable of qualifying as an expert, especially in quick shooting at moving targets. Thus fitted for the strenuous life in the wilder parts of her native land, Grace looked forward with calm assurance to the experiences that she knew lay before her.

"Bring out the black," Hi Lang had directed. "Cinch him so tight it will make him squeal."

When a wrangler's rope caught him, the wiry little animal fought viciously for a few moments, then suddenly surrendered and was led out as docile as a lamb.

"Who said that black is vicious?" demanded Hippy Wingate.

"Want to ride him?" asked the guide good-naturedly.

"No. I have a real pony for myself."

"Watch those ears, Grace," warned Tom Gray.

"I am," replied Grace, and Hi Lang, overhearing, grunted his satisfaction.

The black pony's ears were tilted back at an angle of forty-five degrees, and there he held them while the saddle was being set in place, and the girth cinched, both forefeet spread wide apart and head well down. He winced a little as the girth was drawn a hole tighter so that the saddle might not slip, but otherwise made no move, which, the cowboys said, was an unusual thing for him to do.

The pony's sudden surrender was of itself suspicious to those who were familiar with the western bronco, and the laid-back ears were significant to them of trouble to come.

"Is he an outlaw!" asked Grace, meaning an animal naturally so vicious that he never had been satisfactorily broken.

Hi Lang, to whom the question had been addressed, gave Grace a quick glance of inquiry.

"Some call him that. At least he's got the ginger in him, and mebby he is an outlaw. Keep a tight rein on him; don't let him get his head down if you can help his doing so, and stick to your leather. Watch him every second, for he's got a box full of tricks."

"Thank you for the suggestions. I shall not forget."

"I ought not let you ride him. I reckon you'll get enough of the critter before you have ridden him many minutes, even if you stick on that long."

"Mr. Lang, I intend to ride that 'critter,' as you call him, across the desert. Will he bolt while I am mounting?"

"Mebby. All ready now."

"Have you any last requests to make, Grace Harlowe?" asked Elfreda Briggs frowningly. Elfreda strongly disapproved of Grace's "foolhardiness," as she called it.

"Yes, keep back and give me plenty of room. See that the other girls do the same. The black may do a little side-stepping."

Grace, as she had done with the other ponies before mounting, stepped up to the black and began petting and caressing him, now and then straightening up the animal's ears, chiding him as she might a child. This made the cowboys laugh. Cowboys when subduing broncos do not ordinarily do so with anything resembling baby talk, and it was their firm conviction that this pretty young tenderfoot from the east was about to get the surprise of her life. Instead of feeling sorry for her, however, the souls of the cowboys were filled with joy at the prospect of some real fun. It was not often that they were privileged to see an innocent easterner make an exhibition of himself on a vicious western pony, and this was the first time they had ever seen a woman from the east attempt to ride a bucking bronco, which made the occasion all the more interesting.

"Stand clear, please," warned Grace, giving the pony's neck a final pat, and at the same time edging her way back from his head, measuring the distance to the stirrup with her eyes.

"I'll give you the word when to hit the leather," directed Hi in a low voice. "Watch your step."

Grace acknowledged the warning with a brief nod, watching the black's head narrowly. The animal still stood with forefeet braced apart, head slightly lowered, ears, it seemed, flatter than ever.

"If I miss it I'm lost," muttered Grace, referring to the stirrup.

"Ready," warned the voice of the guide.

The girl's left hand holding the bridle rein crept cautiously to the pommel of the saddle.

"Now!"

Grace's left foot caught the stirrup and, like a flash, the Overland girl landed hard and firmly seated on the saddle, the right foot in the stirrup on that side, then, with the aid of stirrup and cantle, she braced herself to meet the shock that she knew was right at hand.



CHAPTER II

AN "OUTLAW" MEETS HIS MATCH

The black did not move a muscle for a few seconds, then, with a sudden turn of the head, he made a grab for his rider's leg.

Grace, never having taken her eyes from the laid-back ears, gave a quick kick with her left foot, catching the pony fairly on the nose. As he hastily withdrew his head, she took advantage of the opportunity to tighten up on the reins, which brought the animal's head well up.

All these preparatory activities were observed with intense interest by cowboys and Overlanders.

"Watch him!" called Hi Lang in an urgent tone.

Grace was watching, her every faculty beat to the task of discovering what the next move of her mount was to be.

The black, as she tightened the rein, reared high in the air until his rider seemed to be standing straight up. One moment she felt that they were both going to fall over backwards, and was about to clear the stirrups to jump. Instead she brought her crop down on the black's head, with a resounding whack.

"Yeow!" howled the cowboys, but Grace did not hear them, for the pony had dropped to all fours, and no sooner had his feet touched the ground than he leaped clear of it, coming down stiff-legged with a jolt that jarred Grace Harlowe throughout her body in spite of her effort to soften the shock by throwing most of her weight on the stirrups.

"He's going to buck," warned the steady voice of Hi Lang.

Grace knew it in advance of the guide's warning, but, though she tugged with all her might, she was not strong enough to get the black bronco's head up so he could not carry out his intention. There followed a series of bucks and squeals, accompanied with flying hoofs, that sent the spectators fleeing for safety.

As for the Overland girl, her head was spinning, her hair was down and her sombrero long since had fallen off and been trampled in the alkali dust by the hoofs of her mount. The jolting she was getting was almost more than she could endure and sharp pains were shooting through her body. This bronco indeed was a master at the art of bucking, but vicious as were his movements the black had not succeeded in ridding himself of his rider.

"Look out!" yelled the guide.

All four feet went from under the pony and he struck the ground on his side with a force that brought a grunt from him. In the cloud of dust the spectators thought that Grace had been caught under the horse and crashed. Emma Dean uttered a cry of alarm, and Nora Wingate turned her head away that she might not see.

"She's all right!" shouted Hiram Lang, who had sprung forward to give assistance if it were needed.

The pony had thrown itself on its right side. Mr. Lang found Grace sitting calmly on the side of the saddle, free of the body of the horse, but breathing heavily. Her quickness had been the means of her disengaging herself as the bronco threw himself to the ground.

After giving the black a few seconds on his side, the Overland Rider brought her crop down on his rump with a vicious whack. It stung. Like a flash the pony was on his feet, with Grace's feet now planted firmly in the stirrups.

As Grace had expected, the bucking was resumed the instant the pony felt the smart of the crop. How the dust did fly then, and how those cowboy wranglers did yell!

"Who's a tenderfoot!" howled Hippy Wingate. "Just watch her smoke."

Grace Harlowe's whole body was weary, but her grit was not diminishing in the least. However, she decided that the time had arrived when she must do a little fighting for herself, and not leave it all to the pony, so, having arrived at this decision, Grace watched narrowly for a favorable opportunity to begin.

The opportunity came a few seconds later when the horse threw up his head preparatory to pitching forward in another series of savage bucks. Grace jerked the animal's head to one side, brought her quirt down sharply, and, at the same time, jabbed the little black fighter with her spurs.

She continued to apply this treatment for several seconds until the bronco, goaded to a change of tactics, whirled and started away at a run, driving straight through the assembled crowd. The crowd fled for their lives with Grace unable now to do more than stay on the saddle.

The black had not gone far before he stopped as suddenly as he had started, stopped stiff-legged, braced himself and slid on his feet through the alkali for several yards.

Grace Harlowe had been alert for this very thing, but just the same the suddenness of the move had nearly unhorsed her. As it was she fell forward on the neck of the bronco, but, recovering herself before the animal could begin bucking again, she regained her former position in the saddle and applied crop and spur vigorously.

The bronco again tried to buck, but under Grace's lively treatment he gave it up and started to run, and for the next few minutes pony and rider went like a black streak across the landscape, the Overland girl giving the pony no time for anything but to travel as fast as his legs would carry him, until they were a full two miles from the village.

Grace finally turned him about, without resistance on the pony's part, and raced for the corral, driving and urging the pony with crop and word, bound to wear him down and convince him once and for all that she was his master.

As the Overland Rider came up to the corral now at a jog trot, the bronco covered with white foam, the cowboys broke loose. Shrill cowboy yells, whoops and cat calls and a rattling fire of revolver shots into the air greeted her achievement.

"Grab him, you duffers!" shouted Hi Lang, running toward the bronco as he saw Grace wavering on her saddle. "Can't you see that game kid's all in?"

It was only by the exercise of sheer pluck that Grace Harlowe had held her seat on the saddle throughout that grilling ride. She had fought and won a battle with an "outlaw" pony that many a hard- muscled cowboy had fought only to lose. Now that she had conquered, however, Grace felt weak and dizzy, and the reaction, she found, was worse than the experience itself.

At Hi Lang's command, half a dozen cowboys had sprung to her assistance, but it was Hi who held up his arms to help her down.

"Fall over. I'll catch you," he urged.

Grace shook her head and tried to smile.

"I—I think I can make it, tha—ank you," she gasped, freeing her feet from the stirrups and slipping limply until her feet touched the ground. For a moment she stood leaning against the bronco for support, one hand clinging to the pommel of the saddle.

The guide sought to draw her away, fearful that the pony might spring to one side and let loose a volley of kicks.

Grace shook her head, her left hand grasped the mane of the pony and she pulled herself to his head. Fumbling in her pocket, she drew forth a piece of candy and felt rather than, saw the bronco's lips close over the sweet morsel.

"Wall, ef thet don't beat the Dutch!" exclaimed a cowboy. "A bronc' eatin' outer a lady's hand. What's the alkali flats a- comin' to!"

"She's a reg'lar lion tamer, thet's the shorest thing I know," declared another. "Hey! What's up now?"

Grace's fingers had slowly relaxed their grip on the black bronco's mane, a faint moan escaped her lips, and the Overland girl slipped down under the pony's neck in a dead faint. The bronco, merely by lifting a forefoot and bringing it down on his conqueror, could have crushed the life out of Grace Harlowe.

Instead, the horse arched his neck, curled his head down and nosed her with the nearest approach to affection that any man there ever had seen a bronco exhibit.

Hi Lang gathered the unconscious girl up cautiously and carried her to a safe spot where he laid her down.

"Get water. Everybody stand back and give her air," he directed.

"I will look after her," said Elfreda Brigg hurrying to Grace's side.

The water, fetched in a cowboy's hat, came hand just as Grace regained consciousness Elfreda bathed her face from the hat and fanned her with her own sombrero.

"What a per—perfectly silly thing for me do," muttered Grace, raising herself on elbow.

"If you mean riding that wild animal, I agree with you," frowned Miss Briggs.

"I mean the faint. What will these men think of me!"

"I reckon if you'll give them a chance they'll tell you what they think," interjected Hi Lang. "Bud, come here," he called, beckoning to one of the wranglers. "This little lady wants to know what you fellows think of a woman who rides a horse and then faints away. Tell her."

Bud stepped up, flushing painfully under his tan, awkwardly fumbling his hat.

"Ah—Ah reckon they think thet you're 'bout the gamest little sport thet ever hit the leather," declared Bud. "Any feller thet sez you ain't, is a liar and a hoss thief!" Bud glared about him as if challenging some one to take up his defi.

Grace laughed so merrily that, for the moment, she forgot that she was supposed to be in a fainting condition. Getting up rather unsteadily, she offered her hand to the cowboy, who, in his embarrassment, instantly dropped his bravado and half held out a limp paw for Grace to shake.

"Them's our sentiments. We double cinch what Bud jest articulated, Lady," called a cowboy voice.

"Thank you, Bud. Thank you all, fellows. It is much higher praise than I deserve," she replied, smiling and waving a hand to the group.

"Where do you all reckon on goin', Miss?" questioned another of the men.

Grace told him that they had planned to cross the American Desert.

"And maybe we're going to look for a lost gold mine or a diamond mine or an iron mine down in the Specter Range, or something equally exciting," added Hippy Wingate.

"Reckon there ain't no such animal in these here parts," drawled Bud. "If you all need help any old time, Ah reckon you all know where to come for it, Lady," he added.

Grace thanked him and said she would remember.

"You are not thinking of riding that black bronco, are you!" questioned Tom Gray. "What's the next move?"

"Yes, to your first question. We expect to make our start this afternoon, unless Mr. Lang advises to the contrary. What do you say, Mr. Lang?"

"I reckoned that, after what you've been through, you'd be wishing to lay up for the rest of the day," replied the guide.

"That would be the sensible course to follow," agreed Grace's husband.

"No. No change of plans is necessary so far as I am concerned," she replied. "Mr. Lang, will you please ask one of the boys to groom Blackie—that is what I shall call my pony—and not to be cross with him? I do not wish the little fellow stirred up. I have him temporarily under control, and am certain that after I have ridden him for a day he will be as manageable as the rest of them. Where shall we meet you, Mr. Lang?"

"Eight here at the corral. Three o'clock." Hi turned his back on them and walked away to give Grace's directions about the bronco to one of the wranglers.

"I am going back to the hotel to lie down for an hour," announced Grace. "Tom, you may go out and do a little shopping for me while I am resting. Girls," she said, turning to her companions, "I would suggest that all of you turn in for a beauty sleep. You will need it, for we shall have a hot, dusty ride between here and the mountains, which we shall not reach until some time this evening. If you have any further purchases to make at the general store, you had better make them now, or let Tom do it for you. We must be on time at the corral. Mr. Lang probably has timed our departure to fit certain plans of his own."

The girls said they had completed their purchases, and shortly after that all were sound asleep, fortifying themselves for the experiences before them, experiences that were destined to be the most strenuous that they had ever met with, outside of the battle front in France.



CHAPTER III

A THRILLING MOMENT

"We are ready, Mr. Lang," greeted Grace Harlowe as she and her party came up to the corral where the guide was supervising the saddling of the ponies for the outfit.

The girls now wore the overseas uniforms that they had worn in their ride over the Old Apache Trail. In addition, a red bandana handkerchief was twisted about the neck of each Overland Rider, in true western style, to keep the alkali dust from sifting down their necks.

All the equipment except mess kits and emergency rations, and a canteen of water for each, had been sent forward on the burros in charge of the Chinaman, Ping Wing, whom the Overland girls had not yet met.

"How is Blackie behaving at present, Mr. Lang?" questioned Grace, stepping over towards the guide, who was readjusting the cinch- girth on the little animal.

"Quiet as a kitten after finding a nest of young mice. Better put your revolver in the saddle holster where it will be handy. That's where I carry mine. The lieutenant is stowing his now. Never know when the 'hardware' is going to come in handy on the desert."

A lump of sugar found its way into the black bronco's mouth from Grace Harlowe's hand, as she petted and talked to the little fellow. This time his ears were tilted forward, and he stood motionless while his new master was caressing him. The instant Grace stepped away, however, the black grew restless. He dragged the cowboy who was holding him and threatened to break away, nor was he quieted until Grace herself intervened and, slipping the bridle rein over her arm and leading the pony, walked over to Tom Gray.

"No wonder you are successful in managing a husband," observed Tom. "Even the dumb animals bow to your will."

"Now, Tom," protested Grace laughingly, the color mounting to her cheeks. "That wasn't a bit nice of you."

"Ready whenever you are, Mrs. Gray," interrupted the voice of Hi Lang.

Grace turned to her husband, the laughter gone from her face.

"I shall miss you, Tom dear. Write to Yvonne as often as you can, and to me, but Yvonne needs our letters to keep her from getting lonely at school. Good-bye and the best of luck, as we used to say when we were in France."

Grace patted the neck of the black bronco, and Tom assisted her to the saddle. Blackie began to prance, but, though he threatened to buck, he did not. Grace finally subdued him and sat waiting for her companions to mount, all of whom managed the operation successfully, though Emma Dean was twice nearly unhorsed.

The cowboys, as the Overland girls observed, were saddled up as if they too were going along, but she supposed they were starting out on some duty connected with their work. All but two of them mounted, and there followed an exhibition of prancing and bucking that furnished amusement and interest to Grace and her friends.

Bud and a companion finally rode up before Grace and dismounted, the former removing his sombrero and approaching her awkwardly.

Glancing inquiringly at Mr. Lang, Grace saw that he was smiling.

"Bud has something on his mind. I reckon he wants to unload, Mrs. Gray," announced the guide.

"Yes, Bud?" smiled Grace encouragingly. "What is it?"

"It's yourself, Miss. The bunch here reckoned as I, bein' gifted with the knack of gab, it fer me to speak for 'em. They're tongue- tied when there's a woman on the premises."

"What is it the 'bunch' wishes you to say to me?" asked the Overland girl.

"They seen you bust the black bronc' this morning, and bein' as no female woman ever pulled off a stunt like it in these parts, they reckoned it might not make you mad if they told you you was all to the good."

"Thank you—thank you all." Grace waved a hand and smiled at the eager faces of the cowboys who, lined up on their ponies, just to the rear of Bud and a companion, were eagerly hanging on Bud's words, but not taking their gaze from Grace Harlowe's face for an instant.

"The bunch reckoned, too, that bein' a champeen mebby you'd take a little present from 'em. I ain't much on spreadin' the dough, even if I have some gab," added Bud, floundering for the rest of his speech.

"Bud, I'm just as excited as you are, and, were I in your place, I should not know what to say next," comforted Grace seriously. "What is it that the 'bunch' wished you to give to me?"

Bud reached a hand behind him, whereupon his companion placed something in it. Emma Dean whispered to Nora that it looked like a blacksnake all coiled up and ready to jump.

"This here," resumed the cowboy, holding up the coil that had been passed to him, "is a real Mexican lariat, made by a Greaser, but real horsehair, and warranted not to kink or to miss in the hands of a lady. The bunch reckons they'd like to give it to you to remember 'em by," concluded Bud, stepping forward and handing the lariat to Grace.

"Bud—boys, I don't need anything to make me remember you, but of course I will accept your thoughtful gift. I never threw a rope and could not hit the side of a barn with one, but now that you have given me this beautiful piece of rope I am going to learn to throw it. Mr. Lang, will you teach me how to rope—to throw the lasso?"

The guide nodded.

"If we come back this way, I hope I shall see all you boys here, and I will then throw the rope for you and you shall tell me whether or not I am a hopeless tenderfoot."

"You ain't no tenderfoot already," called a cowboy.

"Thank you. Good-bye, all." Grace waved her sombrero, and, blowing a kiss to her husband, clucked to her pony and was off at a gallop, following in the wake of Hi Lang, who had already started on.

The others of the Overland party swung in and the party began its journey. They had gone but a short distance when, hearing shouts to the rear, they turned to discover the cowboys racing toward them in a cloud of dust.

"What do they want, Mr. Lang!" called Grace, urging her pony up to him.

"I reckon they're coming out to give you a send off," answered the guide.

As they approached, the cowboys spread out and began circling the galloping Overlanders, yelling, whooping and firing their revolvers into the air. Now and then one's sombrero would fly off, whereupon a following cowboy would swing down from his saddle and scoop up the hat.

Ropes began to wiggle through the air as the western riders sought to rope each other. They were giving Grace Harlowe a demonstration of what western roping was, and, as she rode, Grace observed and enjoyed, as did her companions.

Suddenly a rope darted into the air behind her, and, had she not seen its shadow, Grace surely would have been caught. Interpreting that shadow for what it was the Overland Rider threw herself forward on her pony's neck just as the loop descended. It dropped lightly on her back, but she was out from under it in a flash, and, as she sped on, she turned a laughing face to the roper, who was being rewarded by the jeers of his companions who had chanced to see him make the cast and fail.

Howling and whooping like a wild Indian, another rider shot directly across Grace's path, his glee spinning his sombrero as high in the air as he could throw it, intending to ride under and catch it. Grace's revolver, the same weapon that she had taken from Belle Bates, the wife of the bandit of the Apache Trail, whipped out of its holster in a second. Her first shot at the spinning hat missed, but her second shot was a hit. She put a hole right through the crown of the hat.

The whooping and yelling was renewed as the owner of the hat scooped it up from the ground and held it up for the others to see. There were two, however, who were taking no interest in the shooting—the cowboy who had tried to rope Grace, and a companion who was chasing and trying to rope him in payment for his unsportsmanlike attempt to cast his lariat over Grace Harlowe's head.

The two were darting in and out among the racing cowboys and Overlanders at the imminent peril of running down some one; the dust was a suffocating, choking cloud except as they rode ahead, and then only those in the lead were out of the worst of it. The Overlanders were coughing and perspiring, and the shouting and shooting at times made conversation well nigh impossible.

"What is this, a wild west show?" cried Elfreda Briggs, riding toward Grace Harlowe, who was entering into the sport with a zest that set Hi Lang's head nodding in approval.

"The real wild west, Elfreda. It is not easy to find, but we have found it in earnest. Oh! Look at that!"

The pursuing cowboy had now roped a hind foot of the pony ridden by the man who had attempted to lasso Grace Harlowe.

The lariat being attached to the pommel of the thrower's saddle, the roped pony went down on its nose, violently hurling its rider to the ground, but the little horse was up in a flash, galloping away and dragging along the rope which it had jerked free from the owner's hands and from the saddle pommel.

Not only was it dragging the lasso, but also its cowboy rider, who, with one foot caught in a stirrup, was being bumped along on his back over the uneven ground.

Elfreda Briggs, nearest to the fallen cowboy, instantly spurred her pony after the runaway. She was abreast of it in a moment. Grasping the bridle of the runaway, Elfreda tugged at it with all her might in her endeavor to stop the animal, shouting, "Whoa! Whoa!"

In the meantime, Grace on Blackie was heading for the scene at top speed, seeking to head off the runaway.

Others also were trying to stop the animal and rescue the fallen cowboy, but it was Elfreda's race, with Grace following her. Elfreda was clinging desperately to the bridle of the runaway with one hand, the other holding fast to the pommel of her saddle, but despite all her efforts she failed to check the speed of the runaway, leaning over toward it further and further as the space between the two ponies widened.

This meant a fall for Elfreda, as she suddenly realized.

"Let go!" cried Grace, but Elfreda was too busy to hear and still held on to the runaway.

The runaway swerved sharply to the right. Miss Briggs had the presence of mind to kick back with both feet as she felt herself going to fall off. She did this to clear her feet from the stirrups so that when she fell she might not be dragged along on the ground by one foot. She was now leaning too far over to be able to recover her balance on her own saddle.

Miss Briggs suddenly let go of the pommel of her saddle as she felt herself slipping, and threw both arms about the neck of the runaway, to which she clung with all her might.

"Whoa! Whoa!" she gasped chokingly, her feet whipping the ground with every leap of the runaway as she was dragged along. Elfreda was taking severe punishment, but she was enduring it pluckily, determined to hang on until either the runaway stopped or her arms came off.

Grace Harlowe drew down rapidly on the runaway and its victims, having so timed her arrival that she succeeded in heading the pony off, with several yards between it and herself.

"Whoa! Whoa!" commanded Grace sharply, at the same time hurling her sombrero into the face of the runaway. Instead of slowing down, he came on with a rush, and Grace, who was now directly in his path, saw that she could not avoid a collision.

The bronco ridden by Grace braced himself, seeming to know instinctively what was coming.

In the next moment the runaway plunged against Blackie, and the impact bowled Blackie over flat on his side.

Grace already had slipped her feet from the stirrups, and, when the collision came, she too threw herself on the neck of the runaway.

"Ha—ang on! We'll stop him!" she cried, her arms now tightly encircling the runaway's neck, her feet dragging on the ground just as Elfreda's were.

By this time the two girls on the running pony's neck were surrounded by mounted cowboys.

"Let go! Jump clear so we kin rope him!" shouted Bud, for the men dared not rope and throw the horse, fearing that he might fall on one of the girls and crush her.

The cowboys did not seem to realize that neither girl would let go of her own free will until the runaway had been stopped.

The end came suddenly. The heavy burden on his neck was too much for the bronco, and, his knees weakening, all at once he stumbled and went down on his nose, then toppled over on his side, enveloped in a cloud of dust.

"They're caught!" shouted Hi Lang.



CHAPTER IV

PING WING MAKES A DISCOVERY

When the cowboys, with Hi Lang in the lead, reached the Overland girls, they discovered Grace Harlowe calmly sitting on the runaway bronco's head to hold him down.

"Get Miss Briggs out from between the pony's legs. She can't help herself. Drag the man out, too. The pony fell on him," urged Grace.

"Are you hurt, Mrs. Gray!" begged Hi anxiously.

"No."

"And Miss Briggs!"

"I think not. She was a little stunned when we fell with the bronco. Hold down his head so I can get to her."

Surrendering her seat on the bronco's head to a cowboy, Grace got up and insisted in removing Elfreda from her perilous position. They stood Miss Briggs on her feet, Grace supporting her with an arm about her waist to give Elfreda opportunity to collect herself.

"How do you feel now!" asked Grace.

"All—all mussed up," was J. Elfreda's characteristic reply.

Both girls showed the effects of their experience. Their hair was hanging down their backs, their uniforms were covered with dust and their faces were grimy from the alkali dirt of the plain.

"Let me walk you about to see if all your joints function," suggested Grace.

"They never again will do so properly as long as I live," complained Miss Briggs. "Did the ponies run away? I mean our ponies."

"I have been too busy to notice. If you will sit down I will see what I can do for the poor fellow who was dragged."

Elfreda insisted on assisting, and a moment later both girls were kneeling beside the dazed, but conscious, cowboy whose clothing was in tatters and whose face was scarcely recognizable from the dust that was ground into it.

Grace moistened her handkerchief with water from her canteen and bathed the man's face, and Elfreda, producing a bottle of smelling salts, held it to his nostrils. The cowboy quickly came out of his daze. One arm was doubled up under his body, and this Elfreda Briggs carefully drew out. The cowboy groaned as she did so.

"Can you lift your arm!" she asked.

"No," gritted the cowboy, his face twisting with pain as he tried to raise the arm.

"His left arm is broken," announced Elfreda. "Men, you must get this poor fellow to town as quickly as possible. I will make a sling to support the arm until you can get him to a surgeon."

"Do you folks reckon you want to go back to Elk Run, too?" questioned the guide.

"I was about to ask that question of you," replied Grace, turning to Elfreda.

"You should know better than to ask," returned Miss Briggs.

"We will go on, Mr. Lang. Perhaps it is as well that we have been broken in properly at the start. We shall be in better form to cope with real emergencies if such arise," declared Grace.

"Real! Huh!" grunted Hi Lang.

"Oh, you'll get used to having things happen," soothed Hippy Wingate. "Wherever this outfit goes there is trouble and then some more."

"Yes, but this is the worst," complained Emma Dean.

"Alors! Let's go," urged Elfreda Briggs as she got up after having arranged a sling to support the cowboy's injured arm.

Their ponies were led up by the cowboys and the girls mounted for a fresh start, Grace and Elfreda considerably rumpled and both very tired after their lively experience. The cowboys, having loaded their injured companion on a pony, now gave the Overland girls a rousing farewell whoop and trotted slowly homeward.

Hi Lang had uttered no comment on what had occurred, but he was keeping up a constant thinking, now and then scowling observingly at his charges. Of Grace and Elfreda he had no doubts, for, in his estimation, they had graduated from the tenderfoot class. The others had yet to prove themselves.

The ride was hot and dusty, and, in order to make up for lost time, the party was riding fast, but the ponies, though already flecked with foam, appeared to be as fresh as at the start.

"What time do you think we will reach the mountains?" called Anne, who was suffering tortures from the heat and dust.

"Sundown," briefly answered the guide. "It will be worse than this after we reach the desert."

"Worse!" groaned Emma. "I shall expire, I know I shall."

The mountains, for which they were heading, were looming larger now, and looked cool and inviting compared to the heat of their present position.

"What is that smoke?" asked Grace Harlowe, as they neared the range, pointing to a thin spiral of vapor rising from the mountains.

"I reckon it's in our camp. Ping should have chow ready by the time we get there."

"You intend to go on this evening, do you not?" asked Grace.

"Yes. You said you were in a hurry to get to the desert."

"I shouldn't put it that way, Mr. Lang, but I am rather eager to get into the real phase of our journey, and eager to know what the desert is like. I have a feeling that I shall love it."

"Some do—some hate it," replied the guide thoughtfully.

"Do you hate it?" questioned the Overland Rider.

"I love it," murmured Hi Lang after a brief silence. "Little woman, I love the white sands, the burning heat of the day, the deadly, sweet silence of the night when all the stars come down so close you can almost reach out and touch them. I love the dead odor, and then—"

"Yes?" urged Grace.

"I hate it, I fight it—and I win," added the guide in a tone that was almost triumphant. "Yet, I'd rather be out there where the starving coyotes howl the night through, where the great, gaunt gray wolves loom up in the night seeking what they may kill and eat, or where a step in the dark may be your last should you tread on a desert rattler. I'd rather be there and face all of that, and the peril of dying from thirst, than be anywhere else in the world," he concluded, and then lapsed into silence.

"I understand, Mr. Lang. It is the lure of the desert that appeals to you, though none knows better than you the perils that lurk there for the unwary traveler. I hope and believe that I may feel as you do about it."

"You will, and so will Miss Briggs. I am not so certain about the others."

"When you get to know us better, Mr. Lang, you will find that, though some of us complain and fret, all are true blue."

"Humph! Beckon I know something about that myself. What I saw to- day shows me that I don't have to worry about you and Miss Briggs. Did you know that Ike Fairweather wrote me a long letter about you folks!"

Grace looked her interest.

"Yes. Ike said I'd have my hands full, and that you folks would trot a pace that would make my legs weary trying to keep up with you. Said you weren't afraid of anything that walked, crept or crawled."

Grace laughed merrily.

"Mr. Fairweather is mistaken. I am terribly shy of snakes and— and—well, I don't know what else" she added lamely.

Hi Lang chuckled under his breath.

"Yes, that's our camp where you see the smoke. I just caught a glimpse of Ping. I reckon when we get closer we'll hear his voice."

"We are almost there, girls," Grace called back to her companions. "That is Ping's smoke you see yonder."

"Is Ping on fire?" answered Emma so innocently that the Overlanders shouted with laughter, and Hi indulged in the hearty, soundless laugh that they had already discovered was characteristic of him.

A few moments later a cooling breeze from the range was wafted down to them, heavy with, odors of mountain and foliage and suggestive of cooling mountain water as well.

"What's that screeching?" demanded Hippy Wingate, as they fell into single file and began climbing a narrow mountain trail.

"Screeching?" answered Anne Nesbit. "Why, that's our Celestial being singing a lullaby to the coyotes lurking in their dens."

As they drew nearer those in advance could make out some of the words of the song. The guide pointed to a rock, behind which Ping was cooking supper, and held up a hand to indicate that the party was to stop and listen.

"What on earth, is he saying?" wondered Nora Wingate.

"I should call it a heathen version of 'Little Jack Horner,'" suggested Miss Briggs.

Hi nodded.

"Listen!" urged Grace. "I want to hear it. Perhaps he will sing it again."

The guide said that when Ping got started on a song he ordinarily kept it up for some time unless interrupted.

"Sh—h—h!" warned Grace as Emma began to laugh. "He is singing again."

Ping, in a high falsetto voice that was almost a screech, sang:

"Littee Jack Horner Makee sit inside corner, Chow-chow he Clismas pie; He put inside t'um, Hab catchee one plum, Hai yah! what one good chilo (child) my!"

The Overland girls, unable longer to contain their laughter, burst into a shout of merriment. The song ceased instantly, and a moment later Ping appeared at the top of the rock, clad in a white linen suit, the blouse, with its wide-flowing sleeves, being cut in native Chinese fashion The queue, which Ping had declined to part was tucked into a side pocket, being all braided up and shiny, like a snake.

The Chinaman, in greeting, bowed and scraped and smiled and shook hands with himself cordially.

"Hulloa, Ping Pong! Is supper ready?" called Hippy jovially.

"Him come along, top-side piecee Heaven pidgin man," answered the Chinaman without an instant's hesitation, which, being freely translated, meant, "Supper is ready, high Heaven-born man." The retort brought a peal of laughter from the girls and a flush to the face of Hippy.

"All right, old top. You win," was the way Hippy confessed his defeat.

It was a happy, laughing group that rode around the rock and into the camp where odors of cooking food, and the smiling face of Ping Wing, met them. Horses were quickly unsaddled and tethered, then the guide introduced his charges. Ping shook hands with himself at each introduction, and smiled and bowed with a profound grace that would have done credit at a king's reception.

"You belongee plenty smart inside," was his greeting to Grace Harlowe, which she interpreted correctly, Ping having meant to convey that, in his opinion, she was an intelligent woman.

"Thank you. Is mess ready?"

"Les. You belongee one time Flance!" he questioned, touching the sleeve of her Red Cross uniform.

"Yes, we all were in France. I drove an ambulance there; Mr. Wingate was an aviator, and the other young ladies worked in hospitals and canteens. How do you know about France?"

"Me cook-man in Melican army. No likee war. Belongee too muchee number one blam, blam!"

"You mean the shooting? You mean you did not like to have the big German shells come over?" smiled the Overland girl.

"No likee."

Hippy's appetite was getting the better him and at this juncture he voiced his desire for food.

"Come, come, Ping. We are hungry. Rustle some grub for us, for we may wish to on our way," urged Hi Lang.

Ping, thus reminded of his duty, hurriedly gathered the mess kits of the party and soon produced a really fine supper, which the Overlanders ate sitting on the ground.

"Are you people pretty tired?" questioned Grace.

A chorus of yeses answered her. Elfreda Briggs said she was so lame that she would be glad never to look at a saddle again, and Emma Dean declared that her body felt as if it had been sandpapered.

"I have been thinking that perhaps we had better make camp right here and go on to the desert some time to-morrow. Will that interfere with your plans Mr. Lang?" asked Grace.

The guide said it would not, and the girls of the party eagerly urged that they be permitted to stay where they were and have a good night's rest, so it was decided to pitch their little tents on the spot and lay up for the night.

"Ping tells me that a man visited this camp late in the afternoon and asked a great many questions," Hi Lang then informed them. "The caller, according to Ping, showed a heap of interest in what we were here for, where we were going and what we proposed to do, and said that the best thing for you ladies to do would be to turn about and go back to Elk Run. Do you know of any one who might be interested in heading off your journey over the desert, Mrs. Gray?" he asked, bending a searching look on Grace.

"I do not, Mr. Lang. If I did it would make no difference in our plans. Ping may be mistaken about the man's motive."

The guide shook his head.

"Ping Wing is not easily deceived. He the caller was a 'number one blad man,' only he expressed it with some further words to emphasize his point. There's something about this business that I don't like. I'll keep my eyes peeled."

"Don't worry, Hi," soothed Hippy. "This outfit can take care of any bad characters that get in its way. I—"

"Merciful Heaven! What's that!" cried Emma Dean.

"Ping is in trouble!" cried Elfreda.

A shrill screeching, accompanied by the clatter of tinware, a struggle, then two quick shots brought the Overlanders to their feet. There was a quick rush toward the scene of the disturbance, the guide, Grace and Hippy in the lead as they ran stumbling over the rough ground in the darkness.



CHAPTER V

STALKING A MOUNTAIN MYSTERY

"Ping! Ping!" shouted the guide.

"Where are you, Ping Pong?" added Lieutenant Wingate.

A groan revealed the Chinaman's presence. They found him sitting on the ground, rocking back and forth holding the thumb of his right hand. A brief examination revealed that a bullet had clipped off the end of the thumb.

"I observe that we have started in early," declared Miss Briggs. "Who did it?"

"That's what I want to know," growled Hi Lang.

"Let me dress the wound, then you can question him," suggested Elfreda.

This having been done, Ping was led into camp and placed with his back against a rock where the light of the campfire lighted up his countenance.

"Tell me what happened!" demanded the guide.

"Big piecee man come 'long. Him clawl like dog. Him listen to what say."

"To what we were saying!" interjected Grace.

"Les. Him bad piecee man."

Hi Lang and Grace exchanged glances of inquiry. Each was wondering what the meaning of what Ping had discovered, might be.

"What then!" urged Mr. Lang.

"Him clawl like a dog."

"So you said," piped Emma Dean.

"Me clawl like dog too. One timee me tlow can tlomatoes and hab hit piecee man on head."

"You threw a can of tomatoes and hit him on the head?" nodded the guide, whereupon Emma Dean laughed, but no one paid the slightest heed to her. "What did the man do then!"

"Him jlump. Me hit piecee man with flying pan; then me run. Him shoot—blam, blam! and run away. Hab hit thumb. Hab makee me stop, and run away. Why for big piecee man makee so fashion?"

"We do not know why, Ping. That is what we are trying to find out," answered Grace Harlowe. "Can you tell us how the man looked!"

The Chinaman shook his head.

"What would you advise, Mr. Lang!" she asked.

"We must beat up about the camp to make certain that he is not hiding near, then I will stand the watch to-night so that he may not surprise us. I will get out the rifles, but be careful that you don't shoot each other. In case you discover some one prowling, make them stand and put up their hands, then call for assistance. Ping, you will stay here. Three of us will be sufficient to go out."

"Whom do you wish to accompany you?" asked Grace.

"You and the lieutenant will go, if agreeable to you."

"It will be more agreeable to go than to stay. Elfreda, you will please watch the camp," directed Grace. "If disturbed, you know what to do."

Rifles were laid on the ground by the campfire, Hi, Hippy and Grace having decided that the rifles would be cumbersome to carry, and that their revolvers would be much more serviceable. After Hi Lang had given final instructions as to how they were to operate, the three started out and soon were out of sight of their companions.

A new moon, fast sinking into the west, shed a faint light over the mountains, bringing out the bare spots and deepening the shadows cast by rocks and trees. The stalkers laid their course by the moon so that they might keep going in one direction and not get in each other's way, though some little distance separated them, and only now and then did they come within speaking distance of one another.

Not a sound did the guide make as he moved forward. Grace was almost equally quiet in her movement, but now and then Hippy Wingate would stumble, followed by a grunt or a growl of disgust that might have been heard several yards away.

Hippy, being between the guide and Grace, knew that two pairs of ears were alert for any fumbling on his part, which irritated more than it helped him to be quiet.

Grace finally halted at the edge of an open space, faintly lighted by the moon's rays, and waited watchfully before attempting to cross the open spot. Crouching low, she gazed and listened, every faculty on the alert. The Overland Rider's heart gave a jump when she saw something move out there behind a clump of bushes.

With revolver at ready, she waited, then leveled the weapon as something moved out from behind the bushes.

"A coyote," she whispered to herself. "He hasn't heard me."

He heard her whisper, however. The alert ears tilted forward as the beast halted; then he bounded away and disappeared in a twinkling.

Grace was now well satisfied that she was proceeding with sufficient caution. If she could approach a keen-eared coyote without disturbing it, how much easier would it be to stalk a human being. Having decided upon this, Grace got up and stepped into the moonlit space, feeling more confidence in herself.

She had barely reached the middle of the open space when, from the other side, and plainly at close range, a revolver banged. She heard the bullet, as it sped past her head too close for comfort.

Without an instant's hesitation, Grace fired two shots from her revolver at the flash made by the other weapon, then throwing herself on the ground, wriggled away into a shadow and lay flat on the ground, screened by the short shrubbery and the unevenness of the ground.

Two shots were now fired from the other weapon, aimed, as nearly as she could see, at the place where she had thrown herself down. To the last two shots Grace made no reply. She lay waiting, hoping that the person who had fired them, would come out and show himself.

This he was too wary to do, and finally, becoming impatient, she groped for a stone, and, finding a small piece of rock, flipped it into the air, so that it might fall some little distance from her, hoping thereby to draw the other's fire.

Still there was no response from her adversary.

"He must have slipped away, and here I have been waiting all this time, afraid of what proves to be nothing. I'm going to start on," decided the Overland girl.

Instead of getting up where she was, Grace crawled further to the right for some little distance, until she was in a heavier shadow. There she arose cautiously, weapon at ready, prepared to see a flash and hear the report of a weapon.

Not a sound nor a movement followed her revealing herself. Grace now pushed on with still greater caution than before, but rather more rapidly, believing that her companions by this time had gained a considerable lead over her.

The moon was getting lower, Grace observed, and soon the range would be enveloped in darkness, though she was certain that she could find her way back by the stars, from which she already had taken her bearings.

In the meantime, Hi Lang, having heard the exchange of shots, had started for the scene at a long, loping trot, now and then giving an agreed upon signal whistle to warn Lieutenant Wingate of his approach.

Hippy had heard the shots too, but his orders were to keep his position and continue on until directed to stop. As Hi got within speaking distance of him, Hippy challenged.

"Move forward and keep going until I fire three signal shots to call you in," directed the guide. "The man may run along the ridge. Wing him if you see him. He may have shot Mrs. Gray. Both of them fired. There they go again!" Hi Lang was off at top speed.

Grace, in the meantime, thinking that she had heard a twig snap, halted sharply. Then, to her amazement, a man stepped out into the light a few yards to the rear of her. She saw him the instant he emerged from the shadows, and he was looking in the direction of the Overland camp.

"Now I have you!" muttered Grace Harlowe, taking a cautious step toward the man who was standing with his back toward her.

"Put up your hands! I have you covered!" she commanded sharply.

The man whirled like a flash and fired point blank at the Overland girl. Grace fired almost in the same instant. So close was he to her when he fired that she imagined she could feel the hot powder strike her face.

Each fired again. It was close quarters for Grace. She sprang to the right hoping to disconcert her adversary and make a more difficult mark for him to hit. He pulled the trigger of his revolver, and, at that second, Grace, uttering a little gasp, toppled over, half turning as she plunged forward with arms outstretched.

Black night instantly enveloped the Overland Rider, nor did she hear a rattling exchange of shots that followed almost instantly after her fall, for consciousness had left her.



CHAPTER VI

INTO THE GREAT SILENCE

Hi Lang had reached the scene just as the last shots were being fired by Grace and her adversary. The guide had seen neither of the combatants, but he had seen the flashes of their revolvers.

At first he was not certain which was which, but in a moment the man who had been shooting at Grace revealed himself for a second. It was then that the guide took a hand.

Hi Lang was a quick and accurate hand with both revolver and rifle, and he feared no man, nor collection of men. At his second shot he heard his man utter an exclamation and knew that he had scored a hit. For the next several minutes the two indulged in snap-shooting, firing at the slightest sound or movement; then the mysterious stranger suddenly ceased firing.

The guide was cautious. He did not take advantage of the lull in hostilities for some little time, and when he did he crawled to one side and crept noiselessly around to the position that the stranger had occupied when he had fired his last shot. The man had disappeared.

Mr. Lang was anxious about Grace Harlowe, but it might be equivalent to suicide to search for her until he had satisfied himself that his adversary was either wounded or had gone away. Finally, having searched all the surrounding bushes and rocks and finding no one, he returned to the scene of the shooting, softly calling to the Overland girl.

There was no response.

Hi stood still for a moment trying to recall where he had seen the flash of her weapon.

"It must have been about where I am standing now. I—"

Hi Lang suddenly disappeared from sight. The guide had fallen into a crevice in the rocks, a crevice that had been hidden by dwarf shrubs and mountain grass, and it seemed a long way to the bottom. Hi bumped his way to the bottom at the expense of some bruises and a badly ruffled temper.

"Hulloa!" he exclaimed. "What's this?"

He had touched something that was not rock—something that felt like a human form. The guide struck a match and peered down at Grace Harlowe, who lay face down at the bottom, and, as he turned her face up to the light, he saw flecks of blood on it.

"The hound! He hit her! I'll kill him for that, whoever he may be!"

Placing a hand over Grace's heart, Hi Lang found that she was alive.

"Thank God for that! Give me the luck to meet the critter that did this thing," breathed the desert guide.

Hi lifted the unconscious Overland girl in his arms and began scrambling toward the top of the big crevice. Finding that he could not make it without freeing one hand, he slipped an arm about Grace's waist, holding her with it while he used his free hand to assist him in climbing to the top. He reached it a little out of breath.

Without giving a thought now to the peril he was inviting by showing himself so boldly, Hi stepped out into the open space, raised his revolver and fired three shots into the air, the signal of recall for Lieutenant Wingate. Then, gathering Grace in his arms, he started for the camp in long strides, raging silently at the ruffian who had tried to kill her.

Elfreda, who was on watch just outside of their camp, heard him coming and challenged.

"It's Hi. I've got Mrs. Gray."

"Is—is she hurt?" questioned Elfreda more calmly than she felt.

"She's been shot, but she's alive."

Miss Briggs ran to meet the guide, and, walking along at his side, she placed a finger on Grace's pulse and held it there until they reached the camp. Nora, Anne and Emma paled as they caught sight of the limp figure in Hi Lang's arms.

"Who shot her!" asked Elfreda.

"The critter who tried to kill Ping, I suppose."

"Oh, this is terrible!" wailed Emma.

"Get water," directed Miss Briggs, after the guide had placed her where the light from the fire would shine in her face.

Nora fetched water from the spring near which the camp had been pitched, and Elfreda bathed the wound that she found on Grace's head. Elfreda's hospital training during the war, in France, had already stood her in good stead on several occasions since her return from Europe.

"This is not a gunshot wound," she announced after a critical examination of the patient's head.

"Not—not a gunshot—" exclaimed Hi.

"No. It is a severe scalp wound, however."

"What made it, then?" demanded the guide.

"Either she has been struck over the head or she has fallen and bumped her head against the sharp edge of a rock," answered Miss Briggs.

The Overland girls drew long breaths of relief.

"I found her in a hole in the ground. Fell into it myself. That's where she got hurt," said Hi. "She and that critter were shooting at each other when I came up, then all at once the shooting stopped. I got in a few shots on him myself. Reckon I winged him for he quit pretty soon after I got there. What do you think?"

Elfreda, still noting Grace's pulse and peering into her face, nodded encouragingly, and placed her smelling salts under Grace's nostrils.

"I feared it might be a fracture, but I believe it is not that bad. Concussion is the word. She must have struck hard, and it is a wonder she did not break her neck. You see how the neck is swollen. Her pulse is getting stronger, and I think she will be out of her faint in a few moments."

Grace regained consciousness shortly after that, but she was still dizzy and weak from the severe shock of her fall and the loss of quite a little blood.

"Where—where was I hit!" was her first question, weakly asked.

"You were not hit anywhere," replied Elfreda. "You fell into a hole and landed on your head. Mr. Lang, will you carry her to her tent? She must be quiet for the rest of the night, and it won't do for us to start across the desert until she has had a good rest."

"That suits me. I've got a little job on hand for the morning. Here's the lieutenant," he added, as Hippy came in, wiping the perspiration from his forehead.

"What's this! Brown Eyes knocked out again?" he demanded.

"She fell down and hurt herself," answered Elfreda.

"What was the shooting, Hi?"

"Mrs. Gray and that critter out there were doing it. I reckon she pinked the pirate, for he was shooting with his left hand when he opened up on me. I reckon I touched him up too, and, getting enough of it, he cleared out. I'll get him for that," added Hi, gathering Grace up and carrying her to her tent. "To-morrow we'll go out and see if we can't round up that critter. Can't do anything to-night except to see that he doesn't do any more damage to this outfit."

"I think I'd like to get a shot at him myself," observed Hippy.

"There, Mrs. Gray! You keep quiet. If there's any more scouting to be done this evening, the lieutenant and I will do it," directed the guide, laying down his burden.

Hippy nodded.

"Lieutenant, what do you think of this business? Are you certain that you folks haven't any enemies!" asked Mr. Lang when the two had walked out beyond the camp and sat down to talk over the affair.

"Not that I know of, in these parts, Hi."

"It's mighty queer. I can't figure it out," pondered the guide.

"Have you any?" asked Hippy carelessly.

"Reckon I have plenty. They know better'n to cross my trail, though."

"It strikes me, Hi, old man, that one of them crossed your trail this evening," chuckled Hippy Wingate.

The guide made no reply then, and for some moments thereafter occupied himself with his own thoughts.

"You asked me just now if I had any enemies. I'll say this, Lieu—"

BANG! BANG!

Two quick shots were fired from behind Hippy and the guide. One bullet passed between the two men, the other clipped the crown, of Lieutenant Wingate's sombrero.

The answer came, it seemed, within a second after the two shots. Hippy and the guide leaped to their feet, drawing their revolvers as they did so, and emptying them into the bushes, firing low and trying to cover all the ground where a man might be lurking.

"As you were about to say," drawled Hippy, slipping another clip of ammunition into his revolver.

"That there is one man who might and would get me if he thought he could get away with it. But why should he wish to shoot a woman? Crawl out to the left and then go in and let the folks know everything is all right now. I'm going to hang around a bit and try to tease that cayuse into shooting at me again."

"They're at it again," complained Grace Harlowe in her tent. "Go out, Elfreda, am see if any one is hit."

Hippy was reassuring the girls when Elfreda came out.

"Humph!" exclaimed Miss Briggs. "We surely are making a brilliant start. I think I shall be glad to get on the desert. One can see such a long way there. Grace is anxious to know about those shots, so I will run in and tell her. Are you going out again, Hippy?"

"Not unless I get a word from Hi. You see I do not know where he is, and it would not be safe for either of us were we both to be out there without either knowing where the other is."

Ping, wide-eyed, was an eager listener to what Lieutenant Wingate had to say, but he made no comment, and no song that fitted the situation found expression on his lips.

An hour passed, and the guide had not returned. The girls were getting anxious, but Hippy said that, no shots having been heard, it was safe to assume that no one could have been hit.

No one had, and all this time Hi Lang, almost within sound of their voices, had been lying flat on top of a rock, listening with every faculty on the alert. For two hours the guide remained in one position, watching, waiting and eagerly hoping.

"One shot—just one second when I can see my mark, is all I ask," he muttered. "I'll get that shot yet!"

A few moments later Hi crept down from his hiding place and returned to camp, on the alert every second of the way for the report of a revolver and the whistle of a bullet.

"This beats me," he declared in answer to Hippy's question as to whether or not he had discovered anything. "You folks turn in, How's Mrs. Gray?"

"Asleep," answered Miss Briggs. "I think she will be ready for a start some time to-morrow."

The guide told Lieutenant Wingate to turn in also, saying that he would watch the camp through the night, so the Overland Riders went to bed for what sleep they could get, but they passed a restless night, starting up at every sound, listening for the report of rifle or revolver or a call for help. Nothing disturbing occurred. Shortly after daylight, Grace got up and dressed and went out to breathe in the invigorating, sweet mountain air. She felt strong and able to meet whatever emergency she might be called upon to face.

Hi Lang was nowhere in sight. Ping, who was fussing with a cook fire preparatory to getting breakfast, shook his head when Grace asked him where the guide was.

"No can tell," he said, caressing his injured hand.

Breakfast was served at seven o'clock, but long before that Grace had been out looking for trail signs and finding some, though she could not tell whether they had been left by a prowler or by one of her own party.

It was eleven o'clock that forenoon when Hi Lang strode into camp, his rifle slung under one arm, a heavy revolver on either hip.

The greeting of the girls brought a smile to the face of the guide. They were relieved and glad to see him, and he saw it. He also was glad to be with them once more, for, in the brief time he had known them, he had grown to feel a genuine affection for these bright-eyed, plucky young women who preferred to spend their vacation on his beloved desert rather than dance away the weeks of their vacation at some fashionable summer resort.

"Mr. Lang, where have you been?" cried Emma Dean.

"Out looking for game," he answered briefly, laying aside his rifle.

"Did you find it?" asked Grace smilingly.

"No. Ping, bring me some chow. How you feeling this morning, Mrs. Gray?" he asked after he had begun eating his breakfast.

"Fit and fine, sir. You found a trail, I take it," she added in a lower voice.

"Yes." Hi gave her a quick look of appreciation for her keenness. "You hit your man all right. I found blood where he was standing when you two were shooting at each other. I also found the trail, further on, the trail of the same man and another. There were two of them."

"I wonder which, one it was that put a hole through my perfectly new hat," grumbled Hippy.

"At least one of them has left the range," resumed the guide. "I found the trail of a pony and footprints of one man on the other side of the range, but what became of the other fellow, I don't know. I'm going out again after breakfast and look further. Do you feel like making a start to-day?"

"Yes. I think we should be moving," replied Grace.

"We'll leave after chow this evening. Better get what rest you can to-day. Lieutenant, I wish you would stick around and see that the camp is not bothered."

"If you need him, Mr. Lang, we can protect ourselves. Do not worry about us," interjected Grace.

"Don't need him. Ping, put some grub in my pack, then I'm off."

After the guide's departure time dragged rather heavily for the girls. Later in the day Grace took her pony out for a gallop and felt better for the change. At four o'clock Mr. Lang came in, and, though he had been up all night and had been hiking in the mountains all day long since early morning, he appeared fresh and alert.

"Pack up and get out!" he ordered, nodding to Ping Wing. "Serve the grub on our mess kits first. Follow the foothills and we will catch up with you. I give it up, folks. This mystery has got to solve itself. It's too much for me."

"Don't worry, Mr. Lang. If our friend the mystery man keeps at us long enough we shall catch him. I wish we knew why he is bothering us so," said Grace. "I should prefer to stay here until we solve the mystery, but we must be on our way, and perhaps he may follow us."

"That sounds interesting," observed Miss Briggs.

Ping and his lazy burros started about an hour before the rest of the party got under way, and when they did get under way they jogged along slowly through the foothills of the range, where the going was fairly easy. The guide said they should come up with Ping before dark, and that they would, after having mess, then continue on at a slower pace until they reached a suitable camping place for the night.

Dusk was upon them when they finally overtook the Chinaman, who was sitting on the rump of a burro chattering to his mount to get him to go faster, but without much success. The ponies of the party then took the lead, which, Hi Lang said, would induce the burros to move faster in an effort to keep up, but it was a much slower pace than the Overland Riders were in the habit of traveling, that they now dropped into.

Night enveloped the outfit suddenly, it seemed to them, and with the cool of the evening their spirits rose. Even Ping's spirits rose, until he forgot his aching thumb and broke into song.

The ground began to slope away under the hoofs of the horses, for they were now moving down a sharp descent, and the air seemed to take on a strange new quality, a new odor. No longer could the girls hear the rustling of foliage. A great and impressive silence settled over them, in which even the footfalls of the ponies were soft and subdued. Glancing up, they saw the stars shining with a brilliancy that none of the party had ever observed before.

The chatter of the Overland Riders died away, and Ping Wing's song died away, also, in a throaty gurgle.

"What is it?" cried Emma Dean. "I feel queer, and my pony is trembling. Oh, Grace, I'm afraid of something."

Grace knew what it was that was disturbing Emma, for she felt something of the same sensation that Emma was experiencing, but she made no reply.

"It is the desert!" answered the guide solemnly. "It is the mystery of the desert, a mystery that no man can solve. Perhaps it is the mystery of centuries; perhaps it is the spirits of the thousands who have perished here on this sweet, cruel sea of burning sand, that have come back to warn us living ones of the fate that may be in store for us who dare."

"The mystery of the desert," murmured Grace Harlowe, but Hi Lang spoke no more. His lips seemed sealed, though could they have seen his face they would have observed a new and more tender expression there, and seen him inhale in deep breaths, heavy draughts of the faintly scented air of the desert that he both loved and hated.



CHAPTER VII

THE FIRST DESERT CAMP

"How far do we go to-night?" asked Grace, after a long silence, during which the party moved steadily forward.

"Until we find a tank," was the brief reply uttered by Hi Lang.

"What's that he says?" questioned Hippy.

"Mr. Lang says that we must keep on going until we reach a tank, whatever that may be," answered Grace. "Will you please explain, Mr. Lang?"

"Tank is a water hole covered by a thin crust of alkali. Sometimes the crust is there but the water isn't," the guide informed her.

"Do you know where to find one?" questioned Hippy.

"I know where one ought to be, but you can't most always tell. Ought to reach this one about midnight. If we get water there we will be all right. Go easy with your canteens, for if we shouldn't find water you will need what you have."

"Mine is all gone now," spoke up Emma Dean. "May I have a drink of yours, Grace? My throat is burning."

"One little swallow," admonished Grace, passing her canteen to Emma. "You heard what the guide said."

"Yes, you'll wish you were a camel before you have done with this journey," added Lieutenant Wingate.

Too weary to talk, Anne and Nora were nodding on their saddles, but Elfreda was wide awake and alert, filled with a wonder that was akin to awe at the vast mysteriousness of the desert night.

It was shortly after midnight when Hi Lang halted and sat surveying his surroundings.

"Dismount and rest!" was his brief command.

The Overland girls slid from their saddles, and the guide, after handing his bridle-rein to Ping, strode off into the darkness.

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