The Pony Rider Boys in New Mexico
The End of the Silver Trail
by Frank Gee Patchin, 1910
SOMETHING IN THE WIND
"What was that?"
"Only one of the boys in the seat behind us, snoring."
"Sure they're asleep?"
"Yes, but what if they're not? They are only kids. They wouldn't understand."
"Don't you be too sure about that. I've heard about those kids. Heard about 'em over in Nevada. There's four of them. They call themselves the Pony Rider Boys; and they're no tenderfeet, if all I hear is true. They have done some pretty lively stunts."
"Yes, that's all right, Bob, but we ain't going to begin by getting cold feet over a bunch of kids out for a holiday."
"Where they going?"
"Don't know. Presume they'll be taking a trip over the plains or heading for the mountains. They've got a stock car up ahead jammed full of stock and equipment."
"No. Good stock. Some of the slickest ponies you ever set eyes on. There's one roan there that I wouldn't mind owning. Maybe we can make a trade," and the speaker chuckled softly to himself.
A snore louder than those that had preceded it, caused the two men to laugh heartily.
The snore had come from Stacy Brown. Both he and Tad Butler were resting from their long journey on the Atlantic and Pacific train. Further to the rear of the car, their companions, Ned Rector and Walter Perkins, also were curled up in a double seat, with Professor Zepplin sitting very straight as if sleep were furthest from his thoughts. They were nearing their destination now, and within the hour would be unloading their stock and equipment at Bluewater.
"They're asleep all right," grinned one of the two men who occupied the seat just ahead of Stacy and Tad. "Is old man Marquand going to meet us at the station?"
"Oh, no. That wouldn't be a good thing. Might attract too much attention. Told him not to. We'll get a couple of ponies at Bluewater and ride across the mountains. But we've got to be slick. The old man is no fool. He'll hang on to the location of the treasure till the last old cat's gone to sleep for good."
"Any idea where the place is?"
"No. Except that it's somewhere south of the Zuni range."
A solitary eye in the seat behind, opened cautiously. The eye belonged to Stacy Brown. The last snore had awakened him, and he had lain with closed eyes listening to the conversation of the two men.
He gave Tad a gentle nudge, which was returned with a soft pressure on Stacy's right arm as a warning that he was to remain quiet.
"Do you know what the treasure consists of?"
"Maybe a mine, but as near as I could draw from Marquand's talk it is jewels and Spanish money which one of the old Franciscan monks had buried. The Pueblos knew where it was, but they sealed the place up after the Pueblo revolution in 1680, and it's been corked tight ever since."
"How'd Marquand get wise to it?"
"From an old Pueblo Chief whose life he saved a few months ago. The old chief died a little while afterwards, but before he went, he told Marquand about the treasure."
"Didn't suppose a redskin had so much gratitude under his tough skin. Does the old man know where the place is?"
"No, not exactly. That's where we come in," grinned the speaker. "We are going to help him find it."
"Oh, well. There's lots of ways to get rid of him."
"He might tumble off into a canyon, or something of the sort, in the night time. Here's the place."
The train was rounding a bend into the little town of Bluewater.
"Sit still," whispered Tad. "I want to get a look at those fellows so I'll know them next time I see them."
The Pony Rider boy left his seat, and hurrying to the forward end of the car, helped himself to a drink of water from the tank; then slowly retraced his steps.
As he walked down the car, he took in the two men in one swift, comprehensive glance, then swung his hands to his companions at the other end of the car, as a signal that they were arriving at their destination.
"Know 'em?" whispered Stacy as Tad began pulling his baggage from the rack.
"Never saw either before. Better get your stuff together. This train is fast only when it stops. It drags along over the country, but when it gets into a station it's always in a hurry to get away," laughed Tad.
A few minutes later the party of bronzed young men sprang from the car to the station platform, where they instantly became the center of a throng of curious villagers.
Readers of the preceding volumes of this series are already too well acquainted with the Pony Rider Boys to need a formal introduction. As told in "THE PONY RIDER BOYS IN THE ROCKIES," the lads had set out from their homes in Missouri for a summer's vacation in the saddle. That first volume detailed how the lads penetrated the fastnesses of the Rockies, hunted big game and how they finally discovered the Lost Claim, which they won after fighting a battle with the mountaineers, thus earning for themselves quite a fortune.
In "THE PONY RIDER BOYS IN TEXAS," the boys were again seen to advantage. There they joined in a cattle drive across the state as cowboys. They played an exciting part in the rough life of the cowmen, meeting with many stirring adventures. It will be remembered how, in this story, Tad Butler saved a large part of the herd, besides performing numerous heroic deeds, including the saving of the life of a member of the party from a swollen river. At the end of their journey, they solved a deep mystery— a mystery that had perplexed and worried the cattle men, besides causing them heavy financial loss.
In "THE PONY RIDER BOYS IN MONTANA," the scene shifted to the old Custer Trail, the battle ground of one of the most tragic events in American history. The story described how Tad Butler overheard a plot to stampede and kill a flock of many thousand sheep; how after experiencing many hardships, he finally carried the news to the owner of the herd; then later, participated in the battle between the cowmen and sheep herders, in which the latter emerged victorious.
It will be recalled too, how the Pony Rider Boy was captured by the Blackfeet Indians and taken to their mountain retreat, where with a young companion he was held until they made their escape with the assistance of an Indian maiden; how they were pursued by the savages, the bullets from whose rifles singing over the heads of the lads as they headed for a river into which they plunged, thus effectually throwing off the savage pursuers; and finally, how in time they made their way back to the camp of the Pony Riders, having solved the mystery of the old Custer Trail.
After these exciting adventures, the lads concluded to cut short their Montana trip and go on to the next stage of their journeyings, which was destined to be even more stirring than any that had preceded it. How Tad Butler and Stacy Brown proved themselves to be real heroes, was told in "THE PONY RIDER BOYS IN THE OZARKS."
For a long time, an organized band of thieves had been stealing stock in the Ozark range, baffling all efforts to apprehend them. The boys had been warned to guard their own stock carefully, but despite this, their ponies were stolen from camp, one by one and in a most mysterious manner, until not an animal was left. Then, one by one, the Pony Rider Boys became lost until only Tad and Stacy remained. They were facing starvation, and it will be recalled how Tad Butler made a plucky trip to the nearest mining camp for assistance. There the boys were imprisoned underground by a mine explosion; escaping from which, they met with perils every bit as grave, and from which they were eventually rescued by Stacy himself.
Through the disaster, the lads solved the Secret of the Ruby Mountain, thus putting an end for good to the wholesale thieving in the Ozark range.
Though the Pony Rider Boys had suffered many hardships in their journeyings, those that lay before them were destined to try them even more. In "THE PONY RIDER BOYS IN THE ALKALI," they faced the perils of the baking alkali desert. It will be recalled how they fought desperately for water when all the usual sources of supply were found to have run dry; how Tad and Stacy Brown were captured by a desert hermit and thrown into a cave; how, after their escape, they were lost in the Desert Maze, and how after many hardships, they finally succeeded in making their way to camp, dragging behind them a wild coyote that Tad had roped when the boys were beset by the wild beasts in the dead of night.
Nothing daunted by their trying experiences the Pony Rider Boys set out on the concluding trip of the season— a journey over the historic plains and mountains of New Mexico. After a long railroad ride, they had finally arrived at the town of Bluewater, from which they were to begin their explorations in the southwest.
A guide was to meet and conduct them across the mountains of the Zuni range and so on to the southern borders of the state.
By the time they reached the platform of the station, the stock car had been uncoupled and was being shifted to a side track where they might unload their belongings at their leisure.
"I wonder where that guide is," said Tad.
"He was told to be here," answered the Professor.
"Never mind; we can unload better without him," averred Ned, starting off at a brisk trot for their car which had been shunted alongside the platform at the rear of the station.
With joyous anticipation of the new scenes and experiences that lay before them, the lads set briskly to work, and within an hour had all the stock and equipment removed from the car.
There was quite an imposing collection, with their ponies, their burros, tents and other equipment, the latter lying strewn all over the open level space beyond the station.
"Looks as if a circus had just come to town," laughed Walter.
"We've got a side show, anyway," retorted Ned.
"What's our side show?"
"No; he's the clown. The rest of us are the animals, only we're not in cages."
"Hey, fellows, see that funny Mexican on the burro there," laughed Chunky. "Guess he never saw an outfit like ours before."
The lads could not repress a laugh as they glanced at the figure pointed out by Stacy.
The man was sitting on the burro, his feet extended on the ground before him, hands thrust deep into trousers pockets. He was observing the work of the boys curiously. The fellow's high, conical head was crowned by a peaked Mexican hat, much the worse for wear, while his coarse, black hair was combed straight down over a pair of small, piercing, dark eyes. The complexion, or such of it as was visible through the mask of wiry hair, was swarthy, his form thin and insignificant.
Stacy Brown strode over to him somewhat pompously.
"You speak English?" questioned the boy.
The Mexican's lips curled back, revealing two rows of gleaming, white teeth.
"I'm glad to hear it. I didn't think you could. We are looking for a guide who was to have met us here to conduct us over the mountains. His name is Juan. It'll be something else when he does show up. Do you know him?"
"Isn't he coming to meet us?"
"Well, I must say he's taking his time about getting here. Where is he?"
"Juan here, seor."
"Here? I don't see him," answered the lad, looking about the place.
"Me Juan," grinned the Mexican. "You?"
"Never mind the seor. I'll take for granted I'm a seor, or whatever else you think. Say, fellows, come here," commanded Stacy.
"Well, what's the matter?" demanded Ned, approaching, followed by the other boys.
"This is it," announced Stacy, with a wave of his hand toward the Mexican.
"What is it?" sniffed Ned.
"Chunky, what are you getting at?" questioned Walter.
"Perhaps this gentleman will know where we may find our guide," interrupted the Professor, coming up. "Seor, do you know one Juan—"
"Yes, he knows him," grinned Stacy. "He's very well acquainted with the gentleman."
"Then where may we find this Juan
"That's Juan— that's your guide," Stacy informed the Professor.
"You— are you the guide?"
The Professor opened his eyes in amazement. The burro, on the other hand, stood with nose to the ground sound asleep, oblivious to all that was taking place about him.
"Why didn't you make yourself known— why haven't you helped us to unload?" demanded the Professor in an irritated tone.
"Me no peon. Me guide."
"He's a guide," explained Stacy. "Guides don't work, you know, Professor. They are just ornaments. He and the burro are going to pose for our amusement."
The boys laughed heartily. Professor Zepplin uttered an exclamation of impatience.
"Sir, if you are going with this outfit you will be expected to do your share of the labor. There are no drones in our hive."
"No; we all work," interposed Stacy.
"And some of us are eaters," added Ned.
Juan shrugged his shoulders and showed his pearly teeth.
At the Professor's command, however, Juan stepped off the burro without in the least disturbing that animal's dreams and lazily began collecting the baggage as directed by the Professor. After the equipment had been sorted into piles, the boys did it up into neat packs which they skillfully strapped to the backs of the burros of their pack train. Juan, lost in contemplation of their labors, forgot his own duties until reminded of them by Stacy, who gave the guide a violent poke in the ribs with his thumb.
Juan started; then, with a sheepish grin, became busy again.
It was no small task to get their belongings in packs preparatory to the journey; but late in the afternoon the boys had completed their task. They had had nothing to eat since early morning. But they were too anxious to be on their way to wait for dinner in town.
After making some necessary purchases in the village, the procession finally started away across the plain.
"You'll never get anywhere with that sleepy burro, Juan," decided the Professor, with a shake of the bead.
"Him go fast," grinned the Mexican.
"So can a crab on dry land," jeered Ned.
Just then the guide utter a series of shrill "yi-yi's," whereupon the lads were treated to an exhibition such as they never had seen before.
The sleepy burro projected his head straight out before him, while his tail, raised to a level with his back, stuck straight out behind him. The burro, seemingly imbued with sudden life, was off at a pace faster than a man could run.
It was most astonishing. The boys gazed in amazement; then burst out in a chorus of approving yells.
But it was the rider, even more than the burro, that excited their mirth. His long legs were working like those of a jumping jack, and though astride of the burro, Juan was walking at a lively pace. It reminded one of the way men propelled the old-fashioned velocipedes years before.
A cloud of dust rose behind the odd outfit as the party drew out on the plains. Their ponies were started at a gallop, which was necessary to enable them to keep up with the pace that Juan had set.
"Here! Here!" shouted the Professor.
Juan never looked back.
"We're leaving the pack train. Slow down!"
Laughingly the lads pulled their ponies down to a walk; then halted entirely to enable the burros to catch up with them. By this time the pack animals had become so familiar with their work that little attention was necessary on the part of the boys. Now and then one more sleepy than the rest would go to sleep and pause to doze a few minutes on the trail. This always necessitated all hands stopping to wait until the sleeper could be rounded up and driven up to the bunch.
Juan had disappeared. They were discussing the advisability of sending one of the boys out after him when he was seen returning. But at what a different gait! His burro was dragging itself along with close to the ground, while Juan himself was slouching on its back half asleep.
"You must have a motor inside that beast," grinned Tad.
"Him go some, seor?"
"Him do," answered Stacy, his solemn eyes taking in the sleepy burro wonderingly.
"Better not waste your energy performing," advised the Professor. "We shall need what little you have. We will make camp here, as I see there is a spring near by. Help the boys unpack the burros."
"Si, seor," answered the guide, standing erect and permitting his burro to walk from under him.
With shouts and songs the lads, in great good humor, went to work at once, pitching their camp for the first time on the plains of New Mexico. There was much to be done, and twilight was upon them before they had advanced far enough to begin cooking their evening meal.
IN THE ZUNI FOOTHILLS
A sudden wail from the guide attracted the attention of the party to him at once. "Now what's the matter?" demanded Tad, hurrying to him.
The guide had thrown himself prone upon the ground and was groaning as if in great agony, offering no reply to the question.
"Are you sick?"
"Si, si, seor," moaned Juan.
"Estomago— mucho malo."
"He's got a pain under his apron," diagnosed Stacy solemnly.
"Been working too hard," suggested Ned.
In the meantime the guide was rolling and twisting on the ground, glancing appealingly from one to the other of them.
"Professor, hadn't you better fetch your medicine case and dose him up?" asked Tad.
"Yes, I'll attend to him."
"Give him a good dose while you are about it," urged Ned. "Something that will cure his laziness at the same time."
The Professor brought his case; then, remembering something else in his kit that he wanted, he laid the case down and hurried back to his tent. However, Stacy opened the case, selecting a bottle, apparently at random, drew the cork and held the bottle under Juan's nose.
"Smell of this, my son. It'll cure your estomago on the run."
"Be careful, Chunky, what are you doing there?" warned Tad. "You shouldn't fool with the medicines. You—"
His further remarks were cut short by a sudden yell of terror and pain from Juan.
The guide leaped to his feet choking, gasping, while the tears ran down his cheeks as he danced about as if suddenly bereft of his senses.
"Now you've gone and done it," growled Ned. "He never moved so fast in his life, I'll wager."
Juan was running in a circle now, shrieking and moaning. Professor Zepplin approached them in a series of leaps. He could not imagine what new disaster had overtaken the lazy Mexican.
"Here, here, here, what's the trouble now?" He demanded sternly. "Stop that howling!"
"Chunky's been prescribing for your patient in your absence," Ned informed him.
The Professor grabbed the wild guide by the collar, giving him a vigorous shake. When he released his grip, Juan sank to the ground in a heap, moaning weakly.
"What's that you say? Stacy prescribed—"
"I— I let him smell of the bottle," explained Stacy guiltily.
Stacy slowly picked up the offending bottle and handed it to the Professor.
"Ammonia! Boy, you might have put his eyes out! Never let this occur again. Remember, you are not to touch the medicines under any circumstances whatever!"
"Yes, sir," agreed Chunky meekly, while Ned Rector strolled away, shaking with laughter.
"Drink," begged the patient.
"Fetch him some water," directed Professor Zepplin.
"No, no, no, seor," protested Juan, gesticulating protestingly.
"What do you want?"
"Guess he wants something stronger than water," suggested Ned.
"Si, si, si," agreed the guide, showing his white teeth in an approving grin.
"You won't get anything stronger than that in this outfit, unless you cook yourself some coffee," muttered Tad.
"That's what's the matter with him," decided Chunky, who had been observing the sick man keenly.
"Guess we drew a prize when we got Juan," announced Walter.
"Give him some medicine, anyway," urged Ned. "He is sick— let him take the dose."
"Let him have the worst you've got in your case, Professor," added Tad, with a laugh.
A grim smile played about the corners of Professor Zepplin's mouth as he ran his fingers over the bottles in his medicine case. Finally, selecting one that seemed to fit the particular ailment of his patient, he directed Chunky to fetch a spoon.
By this time Juan was protesting volubly that he was "all better" and did not need the medicine. The Professor gave no heed to the fellow's protestations.
"Open your mouth," he commanded.
Juan shut his teeth tightly together.
"Open your mouth!" commanded the Professor sternly. "We want no sick men about this camp. It will fix you in a minute."
But the guide steadfastly refused to separate the white teeth.
"Boys, open his mouth while I pour the medicine down him," gritted the Professor.
They required no urging to do the Professor's bidding. Tad and Ned ranged themselves on either side of the patient, while Chunky sat on the guide's feet. Almost before he was aware of their purpose the boys had pried his jaws open and into the opening thus made professor Zepplin dropped the concoction he had mixed.
The effect was electrical. Juan leaped to his feet as if elevated by springs, uttering a yell that might have been heard a mile or more on the open plain. But Juan did not run in a circle this time. Acting upon the mathematical theory that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points, the guide made a break for the spring, howling like a madman. The Pony Rider Boys looked on in amazement.
Juan fell on his knees before the spring, dipping up the water in his hands.
"What did you give him, professor?" grinned Tad.
"Hot drops!" answered the man of science tersely.
"Not that stuff you fed me when I ate too much honey in the Rockies?" questioned Stacy.
"Wow! I had ten drops and it felt like a pailful when it got inside of me."
"How much did you give Juan?" questioned Walter.
"Twenty drops," answered Professor Zepplin without the suspicion of a smile on his face this time.
The Pony Rider Boys added their yells to those of the guide, only with a difference. The more Juan drank of the spring water, the more did the hot drops burn.
All at once he sprang up and started for the plain.
"Catch him!" commanded the Professor.
With a shout the lads started in pursuit. They overhauled the guide some twenty rods from camp, he having proved himself fleet of foot. Then again, the fire within him perhaps helped to increase his natural speed.
"I burn! I burn!" he wailed as the boys grabbed and laughingly hustled him back to camp.
"You'll burn worse than that if you ever ask for liquor in this outfit," retorted Ned. "We don't use the stuff, nor do we allow anyone around us who does."
"How do you feel now?" grinned the Professor as they came up to him with their prisoner.
"He's got a whole camp-fire in his little estomago," announced Chunky solemnly, which sally elicited a loud laugh from the boys.
"Give him some olive oil," directed the Professor. "I think the lesson has been sufficiently burned into him "
But considerable persuasion was necessary to induce Juan to take a spoonful of the Professor's medicine. He had already had one sample of it and he did not want another. Yet after some urging he tasted of the oil, at first gingerly; then he took it down at a gulp.
"Ah!" he breathed.
"Is it good?" grinned Tad.
"Si. Much burn, much burn," he explained, rubbing his stomach.
"Think you want some liquor still, Juan, or would you prefer another dose of my magic drops?"
"No, no, no, seor!" cried Juan, hastily moving away from Professor Zepplin.
"Very well; any time when you feel a longing for strong drink, just help yourself to the hot drops," said the Professor, striding away to his tent, medicine case in hand.
The guide, a much chastened man, set about assisting in getting the evening meal, but the hot drops still remained with him, making their presence known by occasional hot twinges.
Supper that night was an enjoyable affair, though it was observed that the guide did not eat heartily.
"Do you think he really had a pain?" asked Walter confidentially, leaning toward Ned.
"Pain? No. He wanted something else."
"And he got it," added Stacy, nodding solemnly.
A chorus of "he dids" ran around the table, stopping only when they reached Juan himself.
"Juan, did you see two men get off the train at Bluewater yesterday when we did? One of them had a big, broad sombrero like mine?" asked Tad, riding up beside the guide next day while they were crossing the range.
"Si," he replied, holding up one finger.
"You mean you know one of them?"
The guide nodded.
"Who is he?"
"Lasar. What's his other name?"
"Juan not know."
"Did they stop in the village?"
"No. Seors get ponies, ride over mountain," and the guide pointed lazily to the south-west.
"Where did they go? Do you know?"
Juan shrugged his shoulders, indicating that he did not.
"What is Mr. Lasar's business?"
Again the guide answered with a shrug. He seemed disinclined to discuss the man in whom Tad Butler was so much interested. Up to that time the lad had been too fully occupied with other matters to think of the conversation he and Stacy had overheard on the Atlantic and Pacific train. Now it came back to him with full force.
"Know anybody by the name of Marquand in this country?" he asked, taking another tack.
Juan said he did not, and then Tad gave up his questioning.
"I was asking Juan about the two men who sat ahead of us in the train yesterday," he explained to Chunky, as the fat boy joined them.
"Wha'd he say?"
"One is named Lasar, but he did not know the other one. I can't help believing that those fellows were plotting to do some one a great injury."
"So do I," agreed Chunky. "I guess we had better not say anything about it to the others, but we'll try to find out who this man Lasar is, and who Mr. Marquand is. Then we'll decide what to do next."
Their further conversation was interrupted by the voice of the Professor, announcing that they would halt for their noonday meal. All other thoughts left the mind of Stacy Brown when the question of food was raised. He quickly slipped from his pony, running back to hurry the burros along so as to hasten the meal for which he was yearning. Only one burro was unpacked, as it was the intention of the outfit to push on soon after finishing their lunch.
While the guide, under Ned's direction, was making it ready, Tad and Chunky strolled off to climb a high rock that they had seen in the vicinity and which, they thought, might give them a good view of the plains to the southwest on the other side of the range.
They had promised to be back in half an hour, but circumstances arose that caused them to delay their return considerably.
After threshing through the bushes, over sharp rocks and through miniature canyons, they gained at last the object of their quest. The distance had been further than they had imagined.
"We'll have to make a short trip of it up to the top and back," said Tad. "It has taken us almost all our time to get here. But we'll have a look, anyway."
They soon gained the top of the rock, which stood some twenty feet higher than the crest of the mountain on which it rested.
"Isn't this great?" exclaimed Tad.
"Might think we were in the Rockies."
"Or the Ozarks."
"I hope we don't have as much trouble here as we did in that range. Our guide is not much better than the Shawnee we had for a time on that trip. I can't see the foothills, but the plain on beyond is pretty clear."
"Hope we don't have to chase all over the desert for water. I—"
Tad grasped his companion by the sleeve and jerked him violently to the rock.
"What's up? What's the matter with you?" protested Stacy.
"Keep still, some one's coming."
The lad's keen ears had caught a sound which Stacy had entirely failed to hear. It was the sound of horses making their way through the bushes. There were several in the party, Tad could tell by the sounds, and having in mind the man Lasar, he thought he might perhaps learn something of advantage by remaining quietly on the top of the rock.
All this he explained in a few brief words to his companion. Then both boys crouched low, peering over the cliff, having first removed their sombreros.
What they saw, a few moments later, surprised them very much indeed.
The horsemen in single file suddenly appeared out of a draw to the east and headed for the rock where the lads were in hiding.
"Look! Look!" exclaimed Tad in a low, suppressed voice.
"I-n-d-i-a-n-s!" breathed Chunky.
They seemed to rise right up out of the ground, as one by one they emerged from the draw to the more level rocks that lay about the hiding place of the Pony Rider Boys.
"I wonder who they are?" questioned Tad.
"They look savage. I wonder if they'd hurt us, Tad?"
"I don't know. I do know, though, that I wouldn't trust those ugly faces one second. I thought the Blackfeet were savage, but they're not to be compared with these redskins."
A full dozen of them had, by this time, come into view. They sat huddled on their ponies, their painted faces just appearing above the gayly colored blankets in which they were enveloped.
"They must be cold," muttered Chunky. "Shouldn't think they'd need bed clothes around them this time of the year."
"Not so loud, Chunky," warned Tad.
"Know what they are, Tad?"
"I wouldn't say positively, but somehow they look to me like Apaches."
Tad's surmise was correct. The twelve warriors were members of the savage band that had in past years caused the Government so much trouble and bloodshed.
"They're off their reservation, if they are Apaches," whispered the lad.
"What does that indicate, Tad?"
"I don't know. They may be on the warpath; then, again, they may be down here after game. I'm not sure even, if there is any game here. We'll lie still until they get by us. That's the best plan; don't you think so?"
"Lie perfectly still, Chunky. The little bushes in front of us will screen us, providing we don't move about. Indians have quick eyes, though they do look as if they were half asleep."
"They're getting off their horses, Tad. What does that mean?"
"I don't know."
Tad peered through the bushes, noting every move that the redskins made. At first he thought they had discovered him and were about to surround the rock and take him prisoner. But he soon saw that such was not their intention. Tethering their ponies, the Indians cast their blankets on the ground, after having first picked out a suitable place.
"They're making camp," whispered Tad.
One after another of the savages took out his pipe, and soon the odor from burning tobacco was wafted to the nostrils of the hidden Pony Rider Boys.
"Guess they're going to get some dinner," decided Stacy, observing that the strangers were gathering brush.
This was the case. The ponies had been staked where they could browse on the green leaves, and now their masters were about to satisfy their own appetites.
"What is it?" questioned Stacy apprehensively.
"They will be here half of the day at least. I know a little about Indians, having been captured by them once. The difference is that my Indians were in a hurry to get somewhere. These fellows seem to have all the time in the world. They're waiting— killing time for some reason. You'll see, after they finish their dinner, that they will smoke some more, then lie down for a catnap."
"And— and what'll we be doing?"
"We'll be hiding on the top of this rock, Chunky."
"Wish I had my rifle."
"Lucky for both of us that you haven't."
The lads had been talking in whispers, but the words fairly froze in their mouths, when, upon glancing down they saw the eyes of a savage fixed upon them.
"On your life, don't move a muscle, Chunky," whispered Tad, as soon as he had recovered his wits.
Tad was not sure that the Indian saw them, yet there could be no doubt that the savage eyes were burning into their very own.
Soon, however, the Indian dropped his glances to his pipe bowl and the boys breathed a sigh of relief.
"Don't move yet, Chunky," directed Tad.
It was a wise command, for almost instantly the Indian glanced in their direction again, and, as if satisfied, emptied his pipe and stretched out on his blanket. The two lads breathed sighs of relief.
"Did he see us, do you think, Tad?"
"No. At first he thought he saw something up here, but he changed his mind after a little, as you observed."
By this time the redskins were cooking their midday meal, and the odor nearly drove Stacy frantic. It made him realize how hungry he was. He pulled a leaf from a bush and began chewing it in hopes of wearing off the keen edge of his appetite.
"How long we got to stay here?" he demanded. "I've a good notion to get up and walk back to camp. They don't dare hurt us."
"Lie still!" commanded his companion sternly. "I have a plan that we may be able to put into operation. We can't do it now, though."
The lads waited, Tad almost with the patience of an Indian, Chunky ill at ease and restless.
"Can't you lie still? What ails you?"
"My stomach's fighting my appetite. Hear 'em growl at each other?"
"I don't care. I'd 'bout as soon be scalped as to starve to death."
The braves had by now filled their stomachs, gulping their food down without the formality of chewing it at all. Stacy's amazement was partly mixed with admiration as he observed the food disappear with such rapidity.
Now the braves had begun puffing at their pipes. After a time, one by one laid down his smoking bowl and stretched himself out for a nap, just as Tad had said they would. The savages were spread out so that they had a very good view of three sides of the rock on which the two lads were perched, but the fourth side was hidden from them. Tad decided that, as the Indians showed no intention of moving, they were going to remain where they were until night.
"I want you to follow me, Chunky," Butler said, determined to try his plan. "You will have to move absolutely without a sound. Look before you put down foot or hand. Be sure where you place them. We'll wait a few minutes until they're sound asleep."
"What you going to do— sneak?"
"Try to get back to camp. The others will be coming along looking for us pretty soon, if we don't get away. The Indians might resent being disturbed, and perhaps make trouble."
"Tell me when you're ready, then."
Some minutes had elapsed and the lads could plainly hear the snores of their besiegers.
"Now!" whispered Tad.
At the same time he began crawling toward the edge of the rock at their rear. Stacy was close upon his heels.
The side which the boys were to descend was much more precipitous than the one they had come up by, but offered no very great difficulties for two nimble boys. Proceeding with infinite caution, they gained the ground without a mishap.
"We'll walk straight on in this direction, until we get out of sight; then we can turn to the left and hurry to the camp."
Stacy nodded. As he did so his eyes were off the ground for a few seconds. Those few seconds proved his undoing.
The lad stepped on a stone that gave way under him, turning his ankle almost upon its side.
"Ouch!" yelled Chunky.
"Now you've done it," snapped Tad. "We'll have the whole pack of them down on us. Can you walk?"
"I— I don't know. I'll try."
"Take hold of my hand. You've got to run."
The redskins were on their feet in an instant. A few bounds carried them around the rock whence the exclamation had come. By this time Tad had dragged his companion into the bushes but not quickly enough to elude the keen eyes of the savages.
The Indians uttered a short, sharp cry, then aimed their rifles at the figures of the two fleeing Pony Rider Boys.
Tad saw the movement. He threw himself prone upon the ground, jerking Chunky down beside him.
They were screened from the eyes of the enemy, for the moment.
"Crawl! Crawl!" commanded Tad.
On hands and feet the boys began running rapidly over the ground, on down into a narrow gulch. If they could gain the opposite side they would be safe, as it was unlikely that the Indians would follow them there. To do so, the boys were obliged to cross an open space. They had just reached it, when their pursuers appeared behind them. Once more the Indians raised their rifles, their fingers exerting a gentle pressure on the triggers.
ON THE TRAIL OF JUAN
"Look out! They're going to shoot!" cried Tad.
The lads quickly rolled in opposite directions.
The call was in the stentorian voice of Professor Zepplin, to which Ned Rector added a shout of his own.
Fearing that some ill had befallen Tad and Stacy, the others had started out after them. Following them came Walter and the lazy Mexican.
"We're down here! Look out for the Indians!" warned Tad in a loud voice.
"You're crazy!" jeered Ned. "Come out of that. What ails you fellows? The dinner's stone cold and Professor Zepplin is all in the stew."
Tad scrambled to his feet, with a quick glance at the top of the ridge, where, but a moment before, half a dozen rifles had been leveled at Chunky and himself.
Not an Indian was in sight. Tad was amazed. He could not understand it. Grabbing Stacy by an arm he hurried him up the other side of the gulch, where they quickly joined their companions.
"What does this mean?" demanded the Professor.
"Hurry! We must get out of this. It's Indians!"
"They— they wanted to scalp us," interjected Stacy.
"But you runned away, eh? Brave man!" chuckled Ned.
"Indians! There are no Indians here.
"I'll tell you about it when we get to camp. They were just about to shoot at us when you appeared up here."
"'Pache bad Injun," vouchsafed Juan.
"Were those Apaches?" questioned Tad.
The guide shrugged his shoulders.
"I was sure they were, though I do not think I ever saw an Apache before. They don't live about here, do they, Juan?"
"'Pache off reservation. Him go dance. Firewater! Ugh!" making a motion as if scalping himself.
"I'm hungry," called Stacy.
"Yes; so am I," added Tad. "But I think we had better not wait to eat. We can take a bite in the saddle while we are moving."
Stacy protested loudly at this, but Tad's judgment prevailed with the Professor, after the boys had related their experience in detail. All hands began at once to pack up the few belongings that had been taken from the burro, and once more they started on their way, moving somewhat more rapidly than had been the case in the early part of the day.
"I don't suppose there will be much use in our hurrying, Professor," said the lad, after they had been going a short time. "I know enough about Indians to be sure those fellows will follow us until they satisfy themselves who and what we are. They are up to some mischief, and they thought we were spying on them. Otherwise, I do not believe they would have tried to shoot us. Don't know as you could blame them much."
"I am inclined to agree with you, Master Tad. It will be good policy not to pay any attention to them if we discover any of them. Just go right along about our business as if we didn't see them at all."
"And you're not likely to," grinned Tad. "Where did you say they were going, Juan?"
"'Pache, go dance."
"He means they're bound for a pow-wow somewhere. That explains it," nodded the lad.
The rest of the day passed without incident. Not a sign of the Indians did the boys see. As a matter of fact, the roving redskins were as anxious to keep out of the sight of the Pony Riders as the boys were to have them do so.
The party enjoyed the trip over the mountains immensely; and, when, a few days later, they made camp in the foothills on the southern side of the Zuni range, the boys declared that they had never had a better time.
Professor Zepplin decided that they would remain in that camp for a couple of days, as be desired to make some scientific investigations and collect geological specimens. This suited the rest of the party, who were free to make as many side trips as they wished, into mountain fastnesses or over the plains to the south of them.
Early in the day the guide asked permission to go away for an hour or so. They noticed that he had been uneasy, apparently anxious to get away for some reason unknown to them.
"He's got something up his sleeve," decided Tad, eyeing Juan narrowly.
"You may go, but we shall expect you back in time for the noon meal," the Professor told him.
"Give me money," requested the guide.
"Certainly. Let me see, you have worked a week. I gave you five dollars when we started out. You were to have ten dollars a week while you were with us. That leaves five dollars due you," announced the Professor.
"Me work week. Me want ten dollars."
"But, my man, I've already paid you five dollars, which pays you for half of the week. Here is the five dollars for the other half. That's all I owe you. Do you understand?"
"Si seor. But Juan work one week," protested the guide.
"Let me show him," interrupted Tad. He drew ten marks in the sand with a stick, separating them into two groups of five. "Here are ten marks, Juan. We'll call them ten dollars. Understand?"
"Well, here are the first five marks in the dirt that the Professor paid you. How many does that leave?"
"Five," gleamed the white teeth.
"Right. Go to the head of the class," interrupted Stacy.
"Chunky, you keep out of this. You'll mix him up."
"Guess somebody's mixed up already," retorted the fat boy.
"Five is right," continued Tad. Five dollars is what we owe you. Is that clear now?"
"Si, seor. But I work one week. Juan earn ten dollar—"
"I'll tell you what to do," interjected Ned. "Start all over again. You begin work to-day; Juan, and we'll pay you ten dollars for every week from now on. You haven't worked for us before to-day, you know."
The lads laughed heartily, but Juan merely showed his teeth, protesting that he had earned ten dollars.
"Here," said Tad, thrusting a five dollar bill at him. "You take this. It's all we owe you. If you see any of your friends, you ask them how much we owe you. They'll tell you the Professor is right."
Juan took the money greedily, still protesting that they owed him ten dollars, because he had worked a week. Mounting his burro, he rode away; at once falling into the marvelous speed that he had shown them on the first day out.
The lads shouted with laughter as they saw burro and rider disappear among the foothills, both running for all they were worth, Juan uttering his shrill "yi-yi's," as he pedaled the ground.
That was the last they saw of the Mexican guide that day. The rest of the day was employed in games, trick riding, rope throwing and the like. Stacy found some horned frogs, which were of considerable interest to the boys. Chunky made the discovery that the frogs liked to have their backs scratched with a stick, and the frogs of the foothills probably never spent such a happy day in all their lives as Chunky and his stick provided for them that afternoon.
Late in the day, it dawned upon the boys that Juan was still absent. They consulted with the Professor about this, upon his return from a collecting trip along the foot of the mountains. But the Professor was sure Juan would be in in time for supper.
Such was not the case, however. After the meal had been finished Tad announced his intention of riding off in the direction Juan had gone, to see if the guide could not be found.
"I'll go with you," announced Stacy.
"All right; come along," said Tad, tightening his saddle girths. "We'll have a fine gallop."
"Be careful that you do not get lost, boys," warned the Professor.
"Can't get lost. All we have to do is to follow the foothills. We shall probably find Juan and his burro sound asleep on an ant-hill somewhere. He's positively the laziest human being I ever set eyes on."
"Better take along five dollars to bait him with," suggested Ned.
"I've got my stick," said Stacy. "I'll tickle the back of the burro and its rider, just as I did the frogs."
"You try that on the burro and he'll kick you into the middle of next week," warned Walter.
"Yes," laughed Tad. "Did you see him kick when Juan tossed a tomato can against his heels this morning ? Kicked the can clear over a tree and out of sight."
"He'd make a good batter for the Chillicothe baseball team," suggested Chunky. "He'd be the only real batter in the nine. They could turn him loose on the umpire when they didn't need him on the diamond. Wouldn't it be funny to see some umpires kicked over the high board fence?"
"Come along if you are going with me."
Stacy swung into his saddle, and, galloping off, caught up with Tad, who was in a hurry to get back to camp before dark.
"Keep your eyes to the right, Chunky, and I'll look on the left. If you see anything that looks like a lazy Mexican and a lazy burro, just call out."
"I'll run over them, that's what I'll do," declared the fat boy. "Hello, there's a fellow on horseback."
"I see him."
The lads changed their course a little so as to head off the solitary horseman, who was loping along in something of a hurry.
"Howdy," greeted the lad.
"Evening, stranger. Where you hail from and where to?"
"We're in camp back here. I'm looking for our guide, a Mexican named Juan. He went away this morning and we haven't seen him since."
"And you won't so long as his money holds out," laughed the horseman.
"Then, you've seen him? Will you tell me where I may find him?"
"Sure thing, boy, but I reckon you'd better not be going any further?"
"He's over yonder, gambling with some renegade Apaches."
"Apaches!" exclaimed the lads in one voice. "Those must be the same fellows we saw up in the range. But how do you suppose he knew they were over there?"
"He? Those Greasers know everything except what they ought to know— especially if there's any games of chance going on."
"Will you please tell me how we can reach the place? We want to make a very early start in the morning, and I don't like to take a chance of his not getting back in time."
"If ye're bound to go, keep right along the edge of the foothills. You can't miss the place. Better keep away if you don't want to be getting into a mix-up. There's going to be lively doings over there pretty soon," warned the stranger.
"How do you mean? I've seen Indians before. Guess they won't hurt us if they let Juan pow-wow with them."
"This is different, young man. They're going to hold a fire dance to-night—"
"A fire dance?"
"I thought they weren't allowed to do that any more?"
"They ain't, but they will. There's a bunch of Sabobas from over the line. They're the original fire eaters. They come over here kind of secret like. Then there's Pueblos, 'Paches, and bad ones from every tribe within a hundred miles of here. Been making smoke signals from the mountains for more'n a week past—"
"I saw that yesterday and thought it was intended as a signal."
"But you don't think there will be any danger in just going after our guide, do you?"
"Boy, they'll be letting blood before morning, even if the Government doesn't drop down on the picnic and clean out the whole bunch of them. There is sure to be trouble before morning."
"Thank you," said Tad, touching his pony;
"Going on?" questioned the horseman.
"Yes; I'm going to fetch Juan," replied Tad, touching spurs to his pony and galloping away, followed by Stacy Brown.
The horseman sat his saddle watching the receding forms of the two Pony Rider Boys until they disappeared behind a butte in the foothills.
"Well, if those kids ain't got the sand!" he muttered.
A DARING ACT
"If you don't want to go with me you may go back, Chunky. Perhaps one would not be as likely to get into trouble as two. You can find your way, can't you?"
"I go back? Think I'm a tenderfoot? Huh! Guess I ain't afraid of any cheap Wild West Indians. I'm going with you, Tad."
"Very well; but see to it that you keep in the background. You have a habit of getting into trouble on the slightest provocation."
"So do you," retorted Stacy.
The ponies had been urged to their best pace by this time. Twilight had fallen and darkness would settle over them in a very short time now, though a new moon hovered pale and weak in the blue sky above. Tad knew this, so he did not worry about the return trip.
"We should be sighting the place pretty soon," he muttered.
"I see a light," announced Stacy.
"To the right. Over that low butte there."
"Yes; that's so. I see it now. You have sharp eyes," laughed Tad.
"I can see when there's anything to see."
"And eat when there's food to be had," added Tad.
"Think those are the Indians that wanted to shoot us, Tad?" he asked, with a trace of apprehension in his voice.
Tad glanced at his companion keenly;
"Getting cold feet, Chunky?"
"No!" roared the fat boy.
"I beg your pardon," grinned Tad. "I didn't mean to insult you."
"Better not. Look out that you don't get chilblains on your own feet. May need a hot mustard bath yourself before you get through."
They rounded the butte. A full quarter of a mile ahead of them flickered a large fire, with several smaller blazes twinkling here and there about it. Shadowy figures were observed moving back and forth, some with rapid movements, others in slow, methodical steps.
"There must be a lot of them, Tad."
"Looks that way. I wonder where we shall find the guide."
Both boys fell silent for a time, and as they drew nearer to the scene pulled their ponies down to a walk. Tad concluded to make a detour half way round the camp in order to get a clump of bushes that he had observed between them and the redskins. From that point of vantage he would be able to get a closer view, and perhaps locate the man for whom he was looking.
Riding in, they were soon swallowed up in the shadows.
"Hold my pony a moment," directed Tad, slipping to the ground.
"Where are you going?"
"Nowhere, just this minute. I'm going to look around."
The lad peered through the bushes until, uttering a low exclamation, he turned to his companion.
"I see him. He's over on the other side—"
"Yes. Now I want you to remain right here. Don't move away. I'll tie my pony so he won't give you any trouble. Sit perfectly quiet, and if any Indians come along don't bother them. I'm going around the outside, so I don't have to pass through the crowd, though they seem too busy to notice anyone."
Tad slipped away in the shadows until he came to a spot opposite where he had caught a glimpse of the lazy Mexican.
He discovered Juan in the center of a circle of dusky Indians who were squatting on the ground. Some of the braves were clothed in nondescript garments, while others were attired in gaudy blankets. These were the gamblers.
At that moment their efforts were concentrated on winning from Juan the wages of his first week's work with the Pony Rider Boys. A blanket had been spread over the ground, and on this they were wagering small amounts on the throw of the dice, a flickering camp-fire near by dimly lighting up the blanket and making the reading of the dice a difficult matter for any but the keenest of eyes. The sing-song calls of the players added to the weirdness of the scene.
Tad waited long enough to observe that the guide lost nearly every time, the stolid-faced red men raking in his coins with painful regularity.
"It's a wonder he has a cent left. But they're not playing for very large amounts, as near as I can tell."
Each time the Mexican lost he would utter a shrill "si, si," then lured by the hope that Dame Fortune would favor him, reached greedily for the next throw.
"It's time for me to do something," muttered Tad.
Stepping boldly from his cover, he walked up to the edge of the circle.
"Juan!" he called sharply.
"Si," answered the Mexican, without looking up.
This time the word was uttered in a more commanding voice.
"You come with me!"
The guide, oblivious to all beyond the terrible fascination of the game he was playing, gave no heed to Tad Butler's stern command. Three times did Tad call to him, but without result. One of the red men cast an angry glance in the Tad's direction, and then returned to his play.
Without an instant's hesitation, Tad sprang over into the center of the circle, and grasping Juan by an ear, jerked him to his feet.
Red hands fell to belts and dark faces scowled menacingly at the intruder.
"You come with me, Juan!"
Juan sought to jerk away, but under the strong pull on his ear, he did not find it advisable to force himself from his captor's grip.
"You ought to be ashamed of yourself. You're lucky if Professor Zepplin doesn't give you another dose of hot drops for this. I suppose these Indians sat down to rob you," growled Tad.
"No, no, no," protested Juan.
By this time the Indian gamblers had leaped to their feet, an ugly light in their eyes that boded ill for the Pony Rider Boy who had interrupted them in the process of fleecing the Mexican.
With one accord they barred the way in a solid human wall. Tad found himself hemmed in on all sides. It had been easy to gain an entrance to the circle, but getting out of it was another matter.
"This man belongs to me," he said with as much courage in his tone as he was able to command. "You will please step aside and let us go. You're breaking the law. If you offer any resistance I'll have the government officers after you in short order."
He could not have said a worse thing under the circumstances. At first they took him for a spy, possibly a Government spy. Now they were sure of it, for had not the lad told them so himself?
With a growl, one who appeared to be the most important personage in the group drew his sheath knife and sprang straight at the slender figure of Tad Butler.
Tad acted without an instant's hesitation.
Stepping aside quickly; he cleverly avoided the knife-thrust. At the same instant, while the Indian was off his balance, not yet having recovered from the lunge, the Pony Rider Boy's fist and the Indian's jaw met in sudden collision.
The impact of the blow might have been heard more than a rod away.
The red man's blanket dropped from his shoulders; he staggered backward, made a supreme effort to pull himself together, then dropped in a heap at the feet of the boy who had felled him.
Without waiting for the astonished red gamblers to recover their wits, Tad grasped an arm of the Mexican and sprang away into the bushes.
He had done a serious thing, even though in self-protection. He had knocked down an Apache brave with his fist. The sting of that blow would rest upon the savage jaw until the insult was wiped out by the victim himself.
THE FIRE DANCE OF THE RED MEN
The Indians made a sudden move to pursue the lad who had done so daring a thing. One of their number restrained them, pointing to the fallen brave, as much as to say, "Revenge is for him!"
With a shrug of their shoulders the Indians sank down and resumed their game as stoically as before. They gave no further heed to the unconscious Apache, who still lay just outside the circle where he had been knocked out by Tad's blow.
"Hurry! Hurry!" commanded the lad, fairly dragging his companion along. "They'll be after us in a minute."
Yet before the minute had elapsed Tad had halted suddenly, his wondering eyes fixed upon the scene that was being enacted before him.
About a pit of red hot coals, naked save for the breech clouts they wore, swayed the bodies of half-a-dozen powerful braves.
They were the fire dancers and Tad was gazing upon a scene that probably never will he seen again in this country— the last of the fire dances— a secret dance of which it was to be supposed the Government agents knew nothing.
Back and forth waved the copper-colored line, right up to the edge of the pit of glowing coals, uttering a weird chant, which was taken up by others who were not in the dance.
The voices of the chanters grew louder, their excitement waxed higher, as the thrill of song and dance pulsed through their veins.
All at once, Tad was horrified to see one of the dancers leap into the air, uttering a mighty shriek. While still clear of the ground the dancer's body turned, then he dove head first into the bed of hot coals. He was out in an instant.
The chant rose higher as the remaining dancers followed the leader into the burning pit and out of it. So quickly did they move that they seemed not to feel the heat, and from Tad's point of vantage, he was sure that none was burned in the slightest.
Juan tried to pull away. But Tad held him in a firm grip.
Now that the dancers had passed through the fire unscathed, others followed them, some no more than touching the live coals, then bounding out on the other side of the pit; others remaining long enough to roll swiftly across the glowing bed.
Excitement was rapidly waxing higher and higher. The red men were in a dangerous mood. It boded ill for the paleface who sought to interfere with their carnival at this moment.
"Come!" whispered Tad in a low, tense voice. "We've got to get out of this mighty quick! Chunky's probably half scared to death, too."
Tad did not go far. He had scarcely taken half a dozen steps when a frenzied yell, a series of shrill shrieks sounded in the air. The sounds seemed to come from all directions at once.
"Me not know."
"Somebody's running a pony. I hear it coming. It's headed right for that bunch of crazy savages. Probably an Indian gone mad."
It was not an Indian who was the cause of this new disturbance, as the lad discovered almost immediately afterward.
"Yip, yip! Y-e-o-w! W-o-w!"
The yells were uttered in the shrill voice of Stacy Brown.
"It's Chunky!" groaned Tad. "Here's trouble in earnest!"
They never knew just how it happened, and Chunky could not tell them, but in all probability the excitement had been too much for the fat boy!
He had moved closer when the dancing began, and the fever of it got into his veins until his excitement had reached a pitch beyond his control.
With a series of howls and yells, the fat boy drove the rowels of the spurs deep into his pony's aides.
The animal dashed forward at a break-neck pace.
Stacy headed straight for the glowing pit, yelling with every leap of the pony.
Tad gazed spellbound. He seemed powerless to move. He had been deeply affected by the scenes he had seen; but this was different. The lad held his breath.
Reaching the edge of the pit, Stacy's pony rose in the air, clearing the bed of coals in a long, curving leap.
Two red men had just risen from their fiery bath. The hind hoofs of the pony caught and bowled them over.
"Run to the camp and get help! Take my pony! Ride for your life! Don't lose a second!" gasped Tad, giving the lazy Mexican a shove that sent him stumbling until he had measured his length upon the ground.
Juan picked himself up slowly; and, crawling away into the bushes, lay down to rest or hide.
Stacy's pony landed fairly in the center of a bunch of half-clothed savages; some of whom went down under the pony when it landed on them so unexpectedly.
The next instant the fat boy had been jerked from the animal's back, to which he was clinging desperately.
With a yell the redskins hurled him toward the fire. But the force of the throw had not been quite strong enough. Stacy landed on the edge of the pit, rolling half into it, the upper part of his body being on the ground to which he was hanging, yelling lustily. His shod feet were in the fire, however, but as yet he did not realize that his clothes were burning.
Tad Butler sprang quickly from his hiding place.
"Crawl out!" he roared. "You'll be burned alive!"
"I— I can't. I fell in," piped Stacy, all his bravery gone now.
Tad leaped across the intervening space and bounded to the side of his companion.
"Ouch! I'm on fire!" shrieked Stacy.
Tad grabbed and hauled him from his dangerous position. One of Tad's feet slipped in while he was doing so. By this time the clothes of both lads had begun to smoulder.
"Run for it! Better be burned than scalped!" shouted Tad.
Holding to Chunky's arm the Pony Rider Boy started to run. He was tripped by a moccasined foot before they had gone ten feet. Both boys fell headlong. Ere they could rise half a dozen mad savages were upon them.
The lads were jerked roughly to their feet, Chunky shivering, Tad pale but resolute. There was nothing that he could say or do to repair the damage that his companion had done.
One whom the lad took to be a chief, from his head-dress and commanding appearance, pushed his way into the crowd about the two boys, hurling the red men aside with reckless sweeps of his powerful arms.
"Ugh!" he grunted, folding his arms and gazing sternly at the two prisoners.
Tad explained as best he could.
"Why you do this?"
"My friend here got excited," Tad declared.
Tad's face burned. He could scarcely resist the impulse to resent the imputation that the savage had cast upon him. He conquered the inclination with an effort.
"Sir, we had no wish to interfere with you. We came here to get one of our men who had come here to gamble. If you will release us we will return to our camp and give you no further trouble. I promise you that."
"T-h-h-h-at's so," chattered Chunky.
"Keep still," whispered Tad. "You'll get us into more trouble."
The chief appeared to be debating the question in his own mind, when one of the men, whom Tad recognized as a member of the gambling circle, whispered something to the chief.
The chief's eyes blazed. Uttering a succession of gutteral sounds, he gave some quick directions to the red men near him.
"He makes a noise like a litter of pigs," muttered Chunky.
Acting upon the chief's direction two braves grabbed the lads, and hurried them away, Tad meanwhile watching for an opportunity to break away. Had he been alone, he felt sure he could do so safely. But he would not leave his companion, of course.
The Apaches took the boys a short distance from the camp, planked them down roughly with their backs to a rock.
"Now, I wonder what next?" muttered Tad.
While one of the braves stood guard over them, the second trotted back to the camp, returning after a few minutes with a third savage who carried a rifle.
The boys were sure then that they were to be shot.
"Huh! You run, brave shoot um!" warned one of the first pair, after which parting injunction the two captors strode away, leaving their companion to guard the boys.
For a few moments the Indian walked up and down in front of them, keeping his eyes fixed on the lads. Tad noted that he walked rather unsteadily. Finally, the guard sat down facing them, some ten feet away.
"Well, you've certainly gone and done it this time, Chunky," said Tad in a low voice. "What on earth made you do a crazy thing like that?"
"I— I don't know."
"Well, it's too late for regrets. All we can do will be to make the best of our situation and watch for an opportunity to get away."
For several minutes the boys sat gazing at the stolid figure before them. Tad's mind was working, though his body was not.
"Make believe you're going to sleep, but don't overdo it," whispered Tad.
This was something that Stacy could do, and he did it with such naturalness that Tad could not repress a smile.
"That Indian is dazed from his excitement, and if we make him think we're asleep he's likely to relax his vigilance," mused Tad, as the two boys gradually leaned closer together, soon to all appearances being wrapped in sleep. Little by little the Indian's head nodded.
Finally he toppled over to one side, the rifle lying across his feet.
Tad and Chunky remained motionless.
The Indian snored.
The boys waited. Soon the snores became regular. The moment for action had arrived.
Tad pinched Chunky.
"Huh! Wat'cher want?"
The fat boy had in reality been asleep.
"For goodness sake, keep quiet!" begged Tad in a whisper. "Don't you know there's an Indian with a gun guarding us? He's asleep. Come, but be quiet if you value your life at all. Anyway; remember that I want to save mine."
Stacy was wide awake now. Together the lads crawled cautiously away, every nerve on the alert. Over by the pit of live coals the uproar was, if any thing, louder than before.
The boys gave that part of the camp a wide berth.
"Now get up and run!" commanded Tad. "Raise your feet off the ground, so that you won't fall over every pebble you come to."
Tad and Chunky clasped hands and scurried through the bushes, making as little noise as possible, and rapidly putting considerable distance between them and the sleeping red man who had been set to watch them.
"Having lots of fun, ain't we, Tad?"
"Fun! You're lucky if you get off with a whole scalp—"
"Wow!" exclaimed Stacy.
The lads brought up suddenly.
At first they were not sure what had disturbed them, that is, Tad was not. This time Stacy had seen more clearly than his companion.
"Ugh!" grunted a voice right in front of them, and there before their amazed eyes stood an Indian. To their imaginations, he was magnified until he appeared nearly as tall as the moonlit mountains in the background.
For one hesitating instant the lads stood staring at the figure looming over them.
With an angry growl the red man bounded toward them. He had recognized the boys and was determined that they should not escape him.
It was Stacy Brown's wits that saved the situation this time. As the Indian came at them the fat boy dived between the savage's naked legs, uttering a short, sharp yelp, for all the world just like that of a small dog attempting to frighten off a bigger antagonist.
There could be only one result following Chunky's unexpected tactics. Mr. Redskin flattened himself on the ground prone upon his face. Somehow the fellow was slightly stunned by the fall, not having had time to save himself from a violent bump on the head.
"Run for it, Chunky! He'll be after us in a second."
The lads made a lively sprint for the open. In a moment, observing that they were not being followed, they halted, still in the shadows of the bushes. All at once Tad stumbled over an object in the dark. At first he thought it was another Indian, and both boys were about to run again, when the voice of the prostrate man caused them to laugh instead.
"Si, si, seor," muttered the fellow.
"Juan? It's Juan! Get up! You here yet?"
They pulled the lazy guide to his feet, starting off with him, when all at once Tad happened to think that one of the ponies was back there somewhere among the Indians.
"You stay here, and don't make a fool of yourself this time!" commanded Tad.
"Where are you going?"
"After your pony. You hang on to Juan. I'll hold you responsible for him, Chunky."
"Guess I can take care of a lazy Mexican if I can floor a redskin," answered Stacy proudly.
But Tad was off. He had not heard the last remark of his companion. In picking his way carefully around the camp to where he had seen a lot of ponies tethered, Tad found a Navajo blanket. He quickly possessed himself of it, throwing it over his head, wrapping himself in its folds.
He was now in plain sight of the wild antics of the dancers, who, still mad with the excitement of the hour, were performing all manner of weird movements. For a moment, the lad squatted down to watch them. He had been there but a short time when a voice at his side startled him, and Tad was about to take a fresh sprint when he realized that it was not the voice of a savage.
"Young man, you'd better light out of here while you've got the chance," said the stranger.
Turning sharply, Tad discovered a man, who, like himself, was wrapped in a gaudy blanket. He was unable to see the man's face, which was hidden under the Navajo.
"Who are you?" demanded the lad sharply.
"I'm an Indian agent. I only got wind of this proposed fire dance late this afternoon. These men will all be punished unless they return to their reservations peaceably. If they do, they will be let go with a warning."
"Do they know you're here?"
"They? Not much," laughed the agent.
"But supposing they ask you a question?"
"I can talk all the different tribal languages represented here. You'd better go now. Where are you from?"
Tad explained briefly.
"Well, you have had a narrow escape tonight. If they catch you again they'll make short work of you."
"They won't catch me. Thank you and good-bye."
"Don't go that way. Strike straight back; then you will have an open course."
"I'm going after my companion's pony. I think I know where to find it," answered Tad, wrapping the blanket about himself and stealing across an open moonlit space without attracting attention.
The Indian agent watched him curiously for a moment; then he rose and followed quickly after Tad.
"That boy is either a fool— which I don't think— or else he doesn't know the meaning of the word 'fear.'"
Tad did not find Stacy's pony where he had expected. Indian ponies were tethered all about, singly and in groups, while here and there one was left to graze where it would.
"What sort of a looking pony is yours?" questioned the agent, coming up to him.
"Then I think I know where he is. He was not like the horses in this vicinity, which attracted my attention to him."
The agent led the way, in a roundabout course, to the south side of the camp, where they began looking over the animals. Occasionally a redskin would pass them, but no one gave either the slightest heed.
"Here he is," whispered Tad."
"Lead him off. Don't mount just yet."
Tad did as the agent had suggested. But all at once something happened. Tad's blanket had dropped from his shoulders, revealing him in his true colors. An Indian uttered a yell. Tad sprang into his saddle and put spurs to the pony. In a moment more than a dozen redskins had mounted and started yelling after him, believing he was stealing a pony.
Tad headed away to the south to give his companions a chance to get out of the way, and the savages came in full cry after him.
FLEEING FROM THE ENEMY
A shrill cry was wafted to the boy.
After a few moments Tad realized that they were no longer on his trail. He knew the cry had been a signal, warning them to halt. What he did not know, however, was that the Indian agent had been responsible for the signal; that he in all probability had saved the boy's life.
The lad, after satisfying himself that the Indians had abandoned the chase, at once circled about, coming back to the point where he had left Chunky and the Mexican. They were both there waiting for him.
"What was all that row?" demanded the fat boy. "We were having a little horse race, that's all," grinned Tad grimly; "Hurry along, now."
They reached their own camp in safety an hour later. The two boys had much to relate, and as the narration proceeded, Professor Zepplin shook his head disapprovingly.
"Young gentlemen, much as I have enjoyed this summer's outing, it's a wonder I haven't had nervous prostration long before this. It'll be a load off my mind if I get you all back in Chillicothe without anything serious happening to you."
"I think," suggested Tad, "that we had better strike camp at once and move on. The moon is shining brightly, and Juan ought to have no trouble in leading the way."
"Yes; that will be an excellent idea. You think they may give as further trouble?" questioned the Professor.
"They may before morning. They're getting more ugly every minute."
"Everything worth while seems to happen when I am not around," protested Ned.
"Good thing you weren't along," replied Stacy. "You'd been scared stiff. It was no place for tenderfeet."
"You— you call me a tenderfoot?" snapped Ned, starting for him.
"Stop quarreling, you two!" commanded Tad. "We've had all the fighting we want for one night. Get busy and help strike this camp. Guess none of this outfit could truthfully be called a tenderfoot. We've all had our share of hard knocks, and we'll have enough to look back to and think about when we get home and have time to go over our experiences together this winter."
The thought, that at any minute the half-crazed savages might sweep down on them hastened the preparations for departure. The Pony Rider Boys never struck camp more quickly than they did in the soft southern moonlight that night.
All at once Juan set up a wail.
"What is it— what's the trouble now?" demanded Tad.
"My burro. I go for him."
"You'll do nothing of the sort. You'll walk, or ride a pack animal," answered Stacy. "You don't deserve to have a burro."
"Here's his old burro now," called Walter, as a shambling object, much the worse for wear, came stumbling sleepily into camp.
The boys set up a shout that was quickly checked by Tad.
"If the burro can find the way what do you think an Indian could do, fellows?"
"That's right," agreed Professor Zepplin. "We had better keep quiet—"
"And hit the trail as fast as possible," added Tad. "Daylight must find us a long ways from here."
"And ride all night— is that what you mean?" complained Stacy.
"Yes; it'll give you an appetite for breakfast."
"I've got one already."
"That goes without saying," agreed Ned.
"Come, come, Juan!" urged Tad, observing that the guide was doing nothing more in the way of work than rubbing the nose of his prodigal burro. "Aren't you going to help us?"
"Yes; what do you think we're paying you good American dollars for?" demanded Ned.
"I think some of the Professor's hot drops would be good for what ails him," observed Stacy Brown. "I'll get the Professor to give him a dose right now."
"No, no, no! Juan no want fire drops."
"All right; get busy, then."
He did. Not since the last dose of the Professor's medicine had he shown such activity. Very soon after that the camp had been struck and the party was ready to take up its journey.
Tad took a last look about, to make sure that nothing had been left.
"I think I'll put out the fire," he said, tossing the bridle reins to Stacy, while he ran over to the dying camp-fire, whose embers he kicked apart, stamping them out one by one. "No use leaving a trail like that for any prowling redskin."
They were quickly under way after that, Juan leading the way without the least hesitancy. He and the burro worked together like a piece of automatic machinery.
"He might better walk and lead the burro," said Stacy, who had been observing their peculiar method of locomotion. "Should think it would be easier."
The moon was dropping slowly westward, and the party was using it for a guide, keeping the silver ball sharply to their right. Juan on the other hand had hitched his lazy chariot to a star.
By this star he was laying his course to the southward. The Pony Rider Boys enjoyed their moonlight trip immensely; and a gentle breeze from the desert drifting over them relieved the scorching heat of the late afternoon and early evening.
"Guess the Indians are not going to bother us," said Walter, riding up to Tad just before daylight.
"Probably not. They will be in too much trouble with the Government, after last night's performances, to give much thought to chasing us. And besides, I don't see why they should wish to do so. Had they been very anxious to be revenged on us, most likely they would not have allowed us to get away as they did."
"Was it very terrible, Tad?" asked Walter Perkins.
"What, the dance, or what happened afterwards?" laughed the lad.
"Well, I'm free to confess that neither was exactly pleasant. When they caught Chunky I thought it was all up with us. Hello. There's Mr. Daylight."
Glancing to the left the boys saw the sky turning to gray. A buzzard screamed overhead, laying its course for the mountains where it was journeying in search of food.
"What's that?" demanded Stacy, awakening from a doze in his saddle.
"Friend of yours with an appetite," grinned Ned.
"I thought it sounded like breakfast call," muttered Stacy, relapsing into sleep again, his head drooping forward until, a few minutes later, he was lying over the saddle pommel with arms thrown loosely about the pony's neck
Ned, observing the lad's position, suddenly conceived a mischievous plan. Unnoticed by the others, he permitted his own pony to fall back until he was a short distance behind Stacy. The others were a little way ahead.
Ned rode slowly alongside his companion, as he passed, bringing the rowel of his spur sharply against the withers of Chunky's mount.
The effect was instantaneous.
The fat boy's mount, itself half asleep, suddenly humped its back, and with bunching feet leaped clear of the ground.
"Hello, what's the matter back there?" called Ned, who by this time was a full rod in advance of his companion.
Stacy did not answer. He was at that moment turning an undignified somersault in the air, his pony standing meekly, awaiting the next act in the little drama.
The fat boy landed on the plain in a heap.
"Are you hurt, Chunky?" cried Tad anxiously, slipping from his saddle and running to his companion.
"I— I dunno, I— I fell off, didn't I?"
"You're off, at least," grinned Ned. "What was the matter?"
"I— I dunno; do you?"
"How should I know? If you will go to sleep an a bucking broncho, you must expect things to happen."
Stacy, by this time, had scrambled to his feet; after which, he began a careful inventory of himself to make sure that he was all there. He grinned sheepishly.
Satisfying himself on this point, Stacy shrugged his shoulders and walked over to his pony with a suggestion of a limp.
"Now that we have halted we might as well make camp for a few hours, get breakfast and take a nap," suggested the Professor.
The boys welcomed this proposition gratefully, for they were beginning to feel the effects of their long night ride, added to which, two of them had had a series of trying experiences before starting out.
In the meantime, Stacy Brown had been examining his pony with more than usual care.
Tad observed his action, and wondered at it. A moment later, the fat boy having moved away; Tad thought he would take a look at the animal. He was curious to know what Stacy had in mind.
"So that's it, is it?" muttered Tad.
He found the mark of a spur on the pony's withers. While it had not punctured the skin, the spur had raked the coat, showing that the rowel had been applied with considerable force.
Tad, with a covert glance about, saw Ned Rector watching him.
"You're the guilty one, eh?" he demanded, walking up to Ned.
"S-h-h-h," cautioned Ned. "He'll be redheaded if he knows I am to blame for his coming a cropper."
"Chunky's not so slow as you might think. But that wasn't a nice thing to do. It's all right to play tricks, but I hope you won't be so cruel as to use a spur on a dumb animal, the way you did, even if he is an ill-tempered broncho. You might have broken Chunky's neck, too."
Ned's face flushed.
"It was a mean trick, I'll admit. Didn't strike me so at the time. Shall I ask Chunky's pardon?"
"Do as you think best. I should, were I in your place."
"Then, I will after breakfast."
Ned got busy at once, assisting to cook the morning meal, while Juan led the ponies out to a patch of grass and staked them down. While the Pony Rider cook was thus engaged, he felt a tug at his coat sleeve.
Turning sharply, Ned found Stacy at his side. Stacy's face was flushed and his eyes were snapping.
"What is it, Chunky?"
"Come over here, I want to talk with you."
They stepped off a few paces out of hearing of the others, Tad smiling to himself as he observed Stacy's act.
"Well, what's the matter, Chunky?"
"I can lick you, Ned Rector!"
"Said I could lick you. Didn't say I was going to, understand. Just said I could—"
"Like to see you try it."
"All right; it's a go."
Ere Ned could recover from his surprise, Stacy Brown had launched himself upon his companion. One of Stacy's arms went about Ned's neck, one foot kicked a leg from under Ned, and the two lads went down in the dust together.
It had happened in a twinkling.
"Here, here! What's going on over there?" shouted the Professor, starting on a run, while the other lads were laughing.
Chunky was sitting on the chest of his fallen adversary, Ned struggling desperately to throw the lad off.
"Cock-a-doodle-doo!" crowed Chunky, in imitation of a rooster, flapping his hands on his thighs, in great good humor with himself.
Professor Zepplin grabbed him by the collar, jerking Stacy Brown from the fallen Pony Rider Boy.
Ned scrambled to his feet, and, with a sheepish grin on his face, proceeded to brush the dust from his clothes.
"Downed you, did he?" questioned Tad.
"It wasn't fair. I didn't know he was going to try."
"Neither did the Russians when the Japs sailed into them at Port Arthur," laughed Walter. "And they got what was coming to them."
"So did I. Chunky, I deserve more than you gave me. If you want to, beat me up some more."
"Now, isn't that sweet of him?" chortled Stacy. "I fell off my pony, then I fell on you, and we'll call it quits, eh, Ned?"
Ned put out a hand, which Stacy grasped with mock enthusiasm.
"We sure will."
"I'd like to know what this is all about?" questioned Walter. "Something's been going on."
"I made his pony throw him over," admitted Ned.
Stacy nodded with emphasis.
"He found it out and jumped on me."
"I'll turn you both over my knee if you try to repeat these performances," warned the Professor.
Linking arms, Stacy and Ned started for the breakfast table, humming,
"For he's a jolly good fellow,"
and a moment later all four of the lads were standing about the breakfast table, singing the chorus at the top of their voices.
ASLEEP ON THE SLEEPY GRASS
The slanting rays of the sun got into the eyes of the Pony Rider Boys. Four arms were thrown over as many pairs of eyes to shut out the blinding light.
"Ho-ho-hum!" yawned Chunky.
Cocking an impish eye at his companions, he observed that each had fallen into a deep sleep again.
The fat boy cautiously gathered up a handful of dry sand and hurled it into the air. A shower of it sprinkled over them, into their eyes and half-opened mouths.
Three pairs of eyes were opened, then closed again.
Encouraged by his success, Stacy chuckled softly to himself, then dumped another handful of sand over his companions.
But he was not prepared for what followed.
Three muscular boys hurled themselves upon him. Instantly the peaceful scene was changed into a pandemonium of yells. Down came the tent poles, the canvas rising and falling as if imbued with sudden life.
Professor Zepplin, startled by the racket, roused himself and sprang from his own tent. Observing the erratic actions of the tent in which the boys had been sleeping, he instantly concluded that something serious had happened.
"Boys! boys!" he cried, running to the spot, frantically hauling away the canvas. "What has happened? What has happened?"
They were too busy to answer him. When finally he had uncovered what lay below, he found his charges literally tied up in a knot, rolling and tumbling, with Stacy Brown lying flat on his back, each of his three companions vigorously rubbing handfuls of sand over his face, down his neck and in the hair of his head.
"I think I'll take a hand in this myself," smiled the Professor. He ran to his tent, returning quickly. In his hands he carried two pails of water.
Unluckily for the boys, they had failed to observe what he was doing. Nor did they understand that they were in danger until the contents of the two pails had been dashed over them.
There were yells in earnest this time. The water turned the dirt into mud at once, and their faces were "sights." Stacy's face had been protected, in a measure, by the other boys who were bending over him rubbing in the sand.
The unexpected bath put a sudden end to their sport, and they staggered out shouting for vengeance. They did not even know who had been the cause of their undoing.
The Professor, as he walked away smiling, had handed the pails to the grinning Juan with instructions to refill them.
The unfortunate Juan, bearing the pails away, was the first person to catch the eyes of the lads, as they rubbed the sticky mud out of them.
With a howl they projected themselves upon him. Juan's grin changed instantly to an expression of great concern. He went down under their charge, with four boys, instead of three, on top of him.
"Duck him!" shouted some one.
"Yes! Douse him in the spring!" chorused the boys.
Juan cried out for the Professor, but his appeals were in vain.
Shouting in high glee the lads bore him to the spring from which they got their water. They plumped him in, not any too gently, again and again.
"Now roll him in the sand," suggested Ned.
They did so.
The wet clothing and body made the sand stick to him until the lazy Mexican was scarcely recognizable.
At this point Professor Zepplin took a hand. He came bounding to the scene and began throwing the boys roughly from their unhappy victim. Perhaps be was not greatly disturbed over the shaking up the guide had sustained, but of course he confided nothing of this to the boys.
"You ought to be ashamed of yourselves— for four of you to pitch on to one weak Mexican! I'm surprised, young gentlemen."