Scanned by Kent Fielden and Sean Pobuda
The Pony Rider Boys in the Ozarks
By Frank Gee Patchin
A MYSTERIOUS VISITOR
There was no response to the imperative summons.
Professor Zepplin sat up in his cot, listening intently. Something had awakened him suddenly, but just what he was unable to decide.
"Be quiet over there, young men," he admonished, adding in a lower tone, "I'm sure I heard some one moving about."
The camp of the Pony Rider Boys lay wrapped in darkness, the camp-fire having long since died out. Not a sound disturbed the stillness of the night save the soft murmurings of the foliage, stirred in a gentle breeze that was drifting in from the southwest.
The Professor climbed from his cot, and, without waiting to draw on his clothes, stepped outside. He stood listening in front of his tent for several minutes, but heard nothing of a disturbing nature.
"I believe those young rascals are up to some of their pranks—either that, or I have been having bad dreams. While I'm up I might as well make sure," he decided, tip-toeing to the tent occupied by Tad Butler and Walter Perkins.
Both were apparently sleeping soundly, while in an adjoining tent Ned Rector and Stacy Brown were breathing regularly, sleeping the sleep that naturally comes after a day in the saddle over the rugged, uneven slopes of the Ozark Mountains.
Professor Zepplin uttered something that sounded not unlike an Indian's grunt of disgust.
"Dreams!" he decided sharply. "I should not have eaten that pie last night. Pie doesn't seem to trouble those boys in the least, but it certainly has a bad effect on my digestive apparatus."
Having thus delivered himself of his opinion on the value of pie as a bedtime food, the scientist trotted back to his tent, his teeth chattering and shoulders shrugging, for the mountain air was chill and the Professor was clad only in his pajamas.
No sooner had he settled himself between his comforting blankets, however, than he suddenly started up again with a muttered exclamation.
"I knew it! I told you so!"
This time there could be no doubt. He plainly heard a dry twig snap near by; whether it were under the weight of man or beast, he did not know.
"There is something out there. It couldn't have been the pie after all. I'm going to find out what it is before I get back into this bed again," he decided firmly, slipping quietly from under the covers and peering out through the half closed flap of his tent.
As before, all was silence, the drowsy, indistinct voices of the night passing almost without notice.
But Professor Zepplin instead of waiting where he was, reached for his revolver and then strode boldly out into the open space in front of the tents, determined to solve the mystery, and, if possible, without waking the boys.
The reader no doubt already has recognized in the four boys sleeping in the little weather-beaten tents the same lads who some time before had started off for a vacation in the mountains where they hunted the cougar and the bobcat, the thrilling adventures met with on that journey having been related in a former volume entitled, "THE PONY RIDER BOYS IN THE ROCKIES."
They will be remembered, too, as the lads who, in "THE PONY RIDER BOYS IN TEXAS," crossed the plains on a cattle drive, during the course of which Tad Butler bravely saved the life of the Chinese cook, by plunging into a swollen torrent; and later, saved a large part of the great herd, himself being nearly trampled to death in a wild stampede of the cattle.
It will be recalled also, how Tad Butler and his companions, after many strange and startling experiences, solved the veiled riddle of the plains and laid the ghost of the old church of San Miguel, for all time.
The stirring adventures of "THE PONY RIDER BOYS IN MONTANA," too, are still fresh in the minds of those who have followed the fortunes of the four lads since they first started out on their journeyings.
It will he recalled that in the latter story the lads experienced the thrill of being in a real battle between the cowboys and the sheep herders on the free-grass range of the north; how Tad Butler was captured by the Blackfeet Indians, and how, with the help of an Indian maiden, he managed to make his escape.
It will also be remembered that Tad was able to rescue another lad who, like himself, had been taken by the Blackfeet, and to return the boy to his father, none the worse for his exciting experiences. It will be recalled as well, how Tad Butler through his own efforts solved the mystery of the old Custer trail—a mystery that had perplexed and annoyed the ranchers along the historic trail for many months.
And now they were once more in the saddle, having chosen the Ozark Mountains in southwestern Missouri as the scene of their next explorations.
With them they carried a pack train of four mules, these being best adapted to packing the boys' belongings over the rugged mountains. For their guide they had engaged a full-blooded Shawnee Indian named Joe Hawk, known among his people as Eagle-eye, making a party of six, with eight head of stock in all.
At the time of the beginning of this narrative the Pony Riders were encamped on a fork of the White River some three days out from Springfield. Joe Hawk had asked permission to leave the party for the night to pay a visit to a fellow-tribesman who lived somewhere in the mountains to the west of them.
On second thought it occurred to Professor Zepplin that perhaps it might have been Joe, or Eagle-eye, as the boys had decided to call the Indian, whom he had heard skulking about the camp.
"Eagle-eye," he called softly.
There was no response, so the Professor, gripping his gun resolutely, crept along toward the opposite side of the camp where the noise had seemed to come from. So quietly had he moved that he made scarcely a sound, until suddenly there came a commotion that more than made up for the noise he had so successfully avoided before.
Stacy Brown, with his usual forgetfulness, had left his saddle in the middle of the camp. The Professor caught his toe on the obstruction, measuring his length on the ground instantly, where he floundered about for a few seconds.
"Instead of discovering the other fellow, I think I am discovering myself," he growled, scrambling to his feet, gingerly rubbing a knee.
Now the Professor walked with a distinct limp, while his bare feet seemed to pick up every sharp pebble in camp, all of which added to his discomfort.
"I'd make a nice sort of scout," he muttered. "Everybody within a mile of me would know I was coming even before I got started, I guess—"
The Professor suddenly cut short his words, and crouched down close to the ground. He thought he heard something ahead and a little to the right of him.
"Who's there?" he demanded.
No answer being made to his inquiry, he gripped his gun more firmly and crawled cautiously toward the spot where he thought he had heard some one moving. The night was so dark that he could make nothing out of the shadows about him, being obliged therefore to trust entirely to his sense of hearing.
Now he was certain that some one was in camp who had no business there, for the sound of footsteps was plainly borne to his ears—cautious, catlike steps, as if the intruder were seeking to get away without attracting attention.
The Professor, determined to capture the intruder, getting down on all fours to avoid possible detection, made a wide detour so as to come up behind where the fellow seemed to be at that moment. After much labor he managed to reach the desired position.
The Professor straightened up to listen. He must be close upon the other by this time. But what was his chagrin to hear those same footsteps on the opposite side of the camp. Professor Zepplin by much effort had just come from the other side himself.
"Stupid!" he muttered. "I'll take no roundabout way this time. I'll go straight ahead and be as quiet about it as I can."
He did so. He moved straight across the camp ground, not forgetting the saddle which he carefully avoided, but narrowly missing falling over it a second time.
By the time he had crossed to his former position, the intruder had done likewise. Professor Zepplin dodged behind a tree.
By this time the scientist was beginning to feel a little worried. He could not understand what the other fellow's object might be. If it were robbery, the fellow certainly would desire to get away as quickly as possible, rather than remain when he knew that efforts were being made to capture him. If not plunder, what could be his purpose?
With suddenly formed determination, Professor Zepplin strode out from his hiding place, starting for the other side on a run.
The other man did the same, and the only result of the move was that their positions were exchanged.
Once more the Professor decided to try strategy and see if he could not come up behind his opponent.
At the same moment the visitor apparently decided to resort to the same tactics. They went in opposite directions, however, to carry out their purpose, and when each arrived at the place it was to find that the other was opposite him again.
The Professor's bare feet were in a sad state by this time, his pajamas were torn and his hands were worn tender from using them for feet when running along on all fours. At the same time his temper was wearing to a point of dangerous thinness. It was likely to break down the slender barrier that held it at almost any time.
Suddenly he realized that the intruder had been silent for some minutes, and the Professor decided that it was time he ceased thinking over his own troubles and paid more attention to what the other man was doing.
"Now, I wonder what he is up to," growled the scientist. "I believe he has given me the slip and gotten away. Here I've been dreaming for minutes. I'll slip some myself and see if I can't surprise him if he's there yet."
Once again he started across the camp ground, without resorting to any of his former tactics, other than to proceed with extreme caution, covering the intervening space with long, careful strides.
Reaching the rock, he paused to listen, but could hear nothing.
Gun ready for instant use, Professor Zepplin dashed around the corner of the rock, running plump into the arms of the fellow whom he had been so successfully dodging for the past twenty minutes.
So startled was the scientist that he dropped his revolver, throwing both arms about his antagonist. He was surprised at the slenderness of the fellow, though he quickly discovered that what the other lacked in bulk he easily made up for by his lithe, supple body and muscular arms.
Almost before Professor Zepplin had collected his wits sufficiently to make any sort of defense he found himself lying flat on his back, with his opponent sitting on top of him, both wrists pinioned to the ground in an iron grip.
There seemed to the Professor something strangely familiar about the figure that was holding him down so firmly, but he did not try to analyze the impression. He had other things to think of at that moment.
"I'll wait a second until he lets up ever so little, then, with my superior weight, I ought to be able to throw him—"
"I've got you this time. What do you mean by prowling about our camp at this time of the—"
"Wha—what—who—who—" exclaimed the Professor.
"What!" fairly shouted the other. "Who—who are you?"
"I'm Professor Zepplin. Who are you?"
"Oh, shucks! I'm Tad Butler," answered the boy, hastily releasing his prisoner, and, more crestfallen than he would have cared to admit, assisting the Professor to his feet.
"What do you mean, you young rascal?" demanded the Professor, grasping the boy by the shoulders and shaking him vigorously. "I say, what do you mean by playing such pranks on me as this? Why, I might have shot you. I—"
"You are wrong, Professor; I have not intentionally played pranks on you—"
"Yes you have—yes you have," fumed the Professor.
"I might accuse you of doing the same thing to me, only I know you didn't get up in the middle of the night to play hide and seek with a boy—"
"Then what does this mean? Answer me instantly!"
"I can do so easily. The fact is, I heard somebody prowling around. The slight noise awakened me—"
"I should think it might," snarled Professor Zepplin.
"And, without waiting to dress, I slipped out—"
"And led me a nice chase. Look at me. There isn't a spot on my body that isn't black and blue. And to think I've been running around here in my bare feet trying to catch you—"
"You haven't entirely. You were chasing the same thing that I was," answered Tad thoughtfully.
"What's that? What's that you say?"
"I mean that somebody was here—somebody who had no business to be here."
"Yes, I mean that after I had been out here a few moments I distinctly heard two men. One of them, it appears, was yourself. Who the other was I don't know. He evidently got away. As I couldn't follow both of them, I chose you. You seemed to be the easiest one to catch. I was right, wasn't I?" laughed the boy, at the thought of the game they had been playing with each other.
"Somebody else here? I knew it, I knew it," exclaimed the Professor. "When I first came out you were sound asleep. I must have awakened you when I fell over the saddle out there. Who left that thing there for me to nearly break my neck on?" he demanded angrily.
"I guess it must be Chunky's saddle."
"Of course. I'll talk to him in the morning. I'm going to bed. I'll catch my death of cold."
A PACK MULE GOES OVER A CLIFF
Next morning the boys, assisted by Eagle-eye, had prepared the breakfast by the time the Professor had awakened. They took keen satisfaction in calling him for breakfast. Ordinarily they slept so late that the Professor had to turn them out by physical force.
"Anybody'd think you'd been keeping late hours, Professor," laughed Ned Rector.
"Perhaps I have," answered the scientist good naturedly. "But if so, I am not the only one of this party who has."
That the Professor's words held some meaning unknown to them the boys were fully aware. Tad had said nothing of his experiences of the previous night, so they did not think to turn to him for an explanation.
"I might as well tell you, young gentlemen, that there was some one prowling about this camp after we all were asleep last night—"
"What!" cried the Pony Riders in sudden surprise.
"Yes, that is true. Thaddeus and myself chased him around for nearly half an hour, but—"
All eyes were now turned on Tad, who was bending over his plate that they might not observe the grin that was spreading over his face despite the lad's effort to keep it down.
"O Tad, tell us all about it," urged Walter Perkins. "What was he, a bold robber or what?"
"I guess he must have been an 'Or What,'" suggested Stacy Brown wisely.
"Don't mind him. He's dreaming still. It's only his appetite that's here at the table. The rest of him is in bed asleep," jeered Ned Rector, with such a funny grimace that the boys laughed.
"Yes," answered Tad, looking up, "we ran around here in our pajamas until we found each other. Then we gave it up and went to bed."
"But who was it?" insisted Walter.
"It was an—"
"Now, never mind, Chunky. You are supposed to be asleep," admonished Ned, with a superior wave of his hand.
"I cannot say as to that," answered Tad. "I really don't think it amounted to so very much. Probably some prowler curious to know what sort of camp he had stumbled upon. I didn't lose any sleep over it after I got back to bed."
"Neither did Chunky," laughed Ned.
"Did you?" asked the fat boy sharply, turning the laugh on Ned.
"You remember what we were told in Springfield," said Walter.
"What was that?" asked the Professor.
"That a band of robbers had been causing considerable excitement in the Ozarks for several months past."
"Yes, you are right. I had forgotten that," nodded Professor Zepplin. "Stealing horses and other things."
"But it's all nonsense to think they would bother us," objected Ned. "We haven't anything that they would want."
"No, nor do we want them," replied Walter, with emphasis. "I guess we had better sleep on our rifles to-night."
"That will hardly be necessary," smiled the Professor.
"How about Eagle-eye?" asked Ned. "Didn't he hear anything?"
"Eagle-eye was away last night."
"Oh, yes, that's so. I had forgotten that."
"It might be a good idea to tell him about it," suggested Tad, glancing over at the Professor.
Professor Zepplin nodded his head.
"Eagle-eye, will you come here, please?" called Tad.
The Shawnee, who had been pottering about the camp-fire, strode over to them with his almost noiseless tread, and squatted on the ground near the breakfast table.
"There was somebody here last night, Eagle-eye," Tad informed him in an impressive voice.
The Shawnee nodded.
"Of course, you not having been here, you knew nothing about it, but to-night you'd better sleep with one eye open.
"Joe Hawk know," answered the Indian.
"Know what?" demanded the Professor sharply.
"Know Indian come last night," was the startling announcement.
"What's that? What's that, Eagle-eye? You mean yourself, I presume. You mean you came back. But that is not the point—"
The Indian shook his head with emphasis.
"Other Indian come."
Tad nodded at his companions as if to say, "I told you so."
Then the Shawnee did know more than he had seen fit to tell them?
"Tell us about it, Eagle-eye."
"Joe Hawk find trail of canoe on river at sun-up," answered the Indian tersely.
"A trail on the river?" demanded Stacy, suddenly breaking into uproarious laughter, which died away in an indistinct gurgle when he found the eyes of his companions fixed sternly upon him. "Funny place to find a trail," he muttered, threatening to indulge in another fit of merriment.
"I don't understand you, Eagle-eye," said the Professor. "You say you found the trail of a canoe on the river?"
"That sounds peculiar. I agree with Master Stacy that it is a most remarkable place to find a trail hours after. Perhaps you will explain."
Eagle-eye rose to his feet.
"Come. I show you."
All rose from the table, forgetful that they were eating their breakfast, and followed the guide down the steep bank to the river.
"There trail," he announced, pointing a long, bronzed finger at the edge of the water.
Tad stooped over, examining the shore critically.
"The Shawnee is right," he said, turning to the Professor.
"How do you know? What have you found?"
"There. You can see for yourself. It is distinctly marked—"
"What's marked?" demanded Stacy, pressing forward.
"You can see where the keel of a canoe has rested in the dirt there. The trail is ever so faint, but it is unmistakably there. See how it broadens out as it extends backward until it reaches the gravel in the stream."
"Moccasin tracks," grunted the guide.
"Where?" asked Walter, apprehensively.
"There," answered the Indian, pointing up the bank whence they had just come.
The boys looked at each other in wondering silence.
"What do you think is the meaning of the visit, Eagle-eye?" asked the Professor.
The Shawnee shrugged his shoulders.
"That is a sensible explanation of the visit," decided Professor Zepplin. "What other motive could an Indian have for a visit at that hour? There is no cause for alarm. But I wish if any more hungry ones pay us a visit, they would do so in the day time, so as not to interrupt my sleep."
"And mine," laughed Tad.
"Yah-hum," yawned Stacy, sleepily.
"I told you you weren't awake yet," growled Ned. "Let's all go back to our breakfast."
"I second the motion," laughed the Professor. "We are forgetting all about the inner man. And it is time we were getting on our way if we are to make any great progress to-day."
Anxious to be in the saddle again, the boys bounded up the bank and hastily finished their breakfast. While they were doing so the guide stoically busied himself with packing the cooking kits and loading the pack mules, so that by the time the lads were ready all save their own belongings had been stowed away.
It was the work of a few minutes only to strike their tents, fold blankets and pack their personal belongings. They had now been roughing it long enough so that they had become really expert in the work. And, besides, they had learned to get together a fairly satisfying meal out of not much of anything. They had learned many other things that were to prove useful to them in after years, but which at the time was making little or no impression upon them.
Fairly radiating health and spirits, the boys threw themselves into their saddles with a shout. The guide led the way, leading the mule train, and his pace was so rapid that the pack animals were put to their best to keep up with him. Most of the time he appeared to be dragging the led mule, instead of leading it.
"A wonderful country," breathed the Professor, as they finally came out on a high elevation that gave them a glimpse of the eastern slope of the mountains.
They halted to take in the magnificent view.
"This is what is known as the 'Ozark Uplift,'" the Professor informed them.
"I should call it a downfall," answered Ned, gazing off at the deep gorges and jagged precipices. "Why do you call it that?"
The Professor waxed eloquent.
"From the earliest time, young gentlemen, this region has been subject to uprising or downsinking. In all sections of its area it has experienced the effects of powerful dynamic forces—"
"Dynamite—did they use dynamite to blow the mountains up into such shapes as that?" asked Stacy innocently.
"I said nothing about dynamite. Dynamic was the word I used," replied Professor Zepplin, casting a withering glance at the fat boy.
"Oh," Stacy exclaimed.
"It is therefore called the 'Ozark Uplift.'"
"That is interesting," answered Ned solemnly, though it is doubtful if he understood what the Professor was really talking about.
"There is still another of tremendous import connected with this region. You will all be interested in it," announced the Professor impressively.
The boys gathered about him in a circle, meantime allowing their ponies to nibble at the green leaves.
"Yes," urged Tad.
"The region where is now located the Ozark Uplift is said to have been the first land to appear above the waters of the continental ocean."
"You—you mean—" stammered Ned.
"He means this was the first land to appear above the water when this continent was all an ocean," spoke up Tad, with quick understanding.
Stacy urged his pony further into the circle. His face was flushed and he evidently was filled with some sudden new thought.
"What is it, Master Stacy?" asked the Professor.
"You—you say this was the first land to—"
"Yes, so it has been said."
"Then—then this—then this must have been where the Ark landed," exploded the fat boy.
For a few seconds a profound silence greeted this announcement. Then the lads broke out into a shout of laughter. Even Professor Zepplin threw his head back and laughed immoderately.
"I am afraid, my young friend, that the place where the ancient craft ran aground was some distance from this rugged spot—"
"But why not?" persisted the boy.
"In the first place, this continent came to life some time after the event you speak of is supposed to have taken place."
"Oh," muttered the lad.
"And now we had better be pressing on."
"When do we reach the Red Star Mine?" asked Ned.
"You will have to ask Eagle-eye. I don't know."
The Indian, when questioned on this point, said the Red Star Mine lay three suns to the southwest of them.
The country seemed to be getting more rough as they proceeded, and it had now become necessary to move with extreme caution for fear of plunging over one of the many abrupt cliffs that now and then appeared almost under the feet of the advancing train.
But the Indian seemed to feel no concern over these. He merely changed his course, skirting the canyon until a turn in its winding course enabled him to head straight into the southwest again.
Not even in the Rockies had the boys met with such peculiar formations as now appeared on all sides of them.
"I'd hate to travel this trail in the night," growled Stacy.
"You wouldn't have to travel it far," laughed Tad. "You'd be walking on air before you knew it."
Stacy had pressed on ahead while the others were talking. He had observed what they had not. One of the pack mules had lagged behind, and with head lowered almost to the ground appeared to have gone sound asleep. The Shawnee, engaged with his own thoughts, apparently was unaware that he had left a mule behind.
The fat boy, with great glee, was urging his pony quietly along, approaching the pack animal with as much caution as possible. It was Stacy's intention to give the beast the fright of its life, in which ambition he succeeded beyond his fondest anticipations.
Getting near enough for his purpose, Stacy slipped from his pony, hunted about until he found a stick long enough for his purpose, and with this crept up on the sleeping mule.
With a shrill shriek the lad brought the stick down on the long-eared animal's rump with a whack that, while it could not have hurt, did all that he had hoped it might.
Both the mule's hind feet shot up into the air, while the beast with a short, sharp bray of fright lunged straight ahead.
The guide uttered a shrill exclamation of warning as he saw the mule tearing through the bushes to the left of the trail. Leaving his two pack animals, Eagle-eye leaped for the fleeing one.
But he was too late.
All at once the frightened beast appeared to stand on his head, his hind feet beating a tattoo in the air; then he disappeared altogether.
The Pony Rider Boys, hearing the disturbance, had hurried up, and just in time to see the final scene in the little tragedy that their companion had caused.
"What's this? What's this?" demanded the Professor. "What's the matter?"
"Pony fall down! Pony fall down!" exclaimed the Indian, with a trace of excitement in his tone.
"He means our long-eared friend has taken a header over that rock there," Ned Rector informed them.
"I am afraid it is more serious than that," added Tad. "It looked to me as if the pack mule went over a cliff."
"Him fall down, fall down, fall down," repeated the guide.
Chunky, frightened at the result of his prank, had quickly scrambled into his own saddle and drawn back from the scene of his late exploit.
Professor Zepplin did not understand how it had happened.
"I'm to blame, sir," announced Chunky, plucking up courage and riding up beside the Professor. "I hit him with a stick and he ran away."
In spite of the disaster that had come upon them, the boys could not but laugh at the boy's rueful countenance. Nor did the Professor find it in his heart to be harsh.
"You deserve to be punished, sir, but somehow when I look at you my anger vanishes instantly. The next question is, how are we going to get the beast up here? What do you say, guide?"
"Pack pony, him gone Happy Hunting Ground."
"You don't mean he has been killed?"
The guide nodded with emphasis, at the same time bringing the palms of his hands sharply together to convey the impression that the mule had hit the rocks below so hard that he would never rise of his own accord again.
"Now we are in a fix," said Ned.
"I guess we had better make Chunky walk and use his pony for packing the outfit," suggested Walter.
"Yes, but we have little or no outfit to pack," answered Tad. "Most of it is down there with the dead mule; how far I don't know."
The Pony Rider Boys gasped. This, indeed, was a serious situation.
A DARING PROPOSAL
For a full moment the boys looked at each other doubtfully. Professor Zepplin was the first to break the silence.
"Wha—what pack did the mule have?"
"Part of the kitchen outfit and all of the canned goods," answered Tad Butler impressively.
Ned Rector laughed.
"This is where we give our stomachs a rest," he mocked.
"I fail to see anything humorous in our present predicament," chided the Professor. "We are many miles from our base of supplies, with our supplies at the bottom of a gorge, goodness knows how deep down. Whether we can get down there or not I haven't the slightest idea—"
"Don't we get anything to eat?" wailed Chunky.
"Think you deserve to have anything?" demanded Ned.
"Don't be hard on him," spoke up Tad. "He feels cut up enough about it as it is. We've all done just as foolish things, only they didn't happen to turn out the way this one has."
Chunky turned his pony about and rode a few paces away from them, being more disturbed than he cared to have his companions know.
"Eagle-eye," called the Professor.
The Indian was leaning over the cliff looking down into the deep canyon, trying to find the pack mule. He straightened up and strode over to the Professor upon being called.
"You sure the mule is dead?"
"Mule no pack more."
"Can you get down there to gather up our belongings?"
Eagle-eye shook his head.
"No get um."
"Why not?" interjected Walter.
"Pony fall in—Injun fall in," grunted the Shawnee.
"But can we not go forward or else back a mile or so and find an entrance to the gorge?" demanded the Professor.
"Yes, that's the idea. Of course we can," urged Ned. "We are not half as bad off as we thought. Of course the mule is done for, but we can divide up the pack amongst us boys and carry it all right until we get where we can either hire or buy another mule. Don't think a little thing like that will stop us."
"How about it, Eagle-eye?" asked Tad.
"No get um. Water him deep. Him cold, b-r-r-r! Pony drown, Indian drown. Mebby fat boy drown, too."
"That seems to settle it," announced the Professor. "We shall have to hold a council of war, as Eagle-eye does not seem to have any suggestions to make. What have you to say about it, Master Tad?"
"I think it would be a good idea to take a look over the cliff before offering any suggestions," answered the lad, dismounting and tethering his pony. "Perhaps the guide may be wrong."
One look over the bold cliff, however, was sufficient to convince Tad of the correctness of the Indian's judgment. He found himself gazing down into one of those deep canyons that had been cut through the mountains by water courses during hundreds of years.
The wall on each side, while nearly straight up and down, was jagged and broken, but so precipitous as to make any idea of descending it impossible. There was not a bush nor shrub in sight until near the bottom, where Tad discovered a thick growth of bushes on the edge of the swiftly flowing water course.
A disturbed spot among these showed where the pack mule had fallen. That he had not gone on into the stream and been swept away was due to the matted growth down there. The others had joined Tad by the time he had made up his mind that their guide had described the situation correctly.
"What do you make of it, Master Tad?" asked the Professor.
"Nothing very encouraging."
"Whew! That's a drop!" exclaimed Ned, peering cautiously over. "Where is our kitchen outfit?"
"There, where you see the bushes trampled down. What there is left of it, anyway. But perhaps the canvas wrapped around the stuff has protected it from serious damage."
"Little difference it makes to us whether or not," answered the Professor. "The supplies are lost and that's all there is about it. We have scarcely enough left to carry us through the day."
"No!" said Walter. "Then what are we going to do?"
"I don't know, Master Walter."
"We've got to get the stuff up here, that's all," answered Tad, with a firm compression of the lips.
"Then you'll have to borrow a flying machine if you do. That's the only way we'll ever reach the pack mule. Why, it's a mile down there—"
"Not quite," answered Tad.
"How deep do you think the gorge is, Tad?" asked the Professor.
"Oh, forty or fifty feet, I should say. I hardly think it is deeper than that. But that is quite enough—"
Tad, in the meantime, had been considering the problem, thinking deeply on the best means of solving it.
"Yes, I think I can do it," he decided.
"Do what?" asked Walter.
"Get the stuff up."
"How?" demanded Ned sharply.
"Why, go down after it, of course."
"Out of the question," answered the Professor, with emphasis.
"No, I think it can be done, if you will allow me to—"
"You mean, Master Ted, that you will attempt to get to the bottom of that gorge and bring up the provisions?"
"Yes, sir; I'll try it."
"Impossible. I cannot permit it."
"I should say not," growled Ned. "If anybody goes it should be the guide. He is an expert at climbing, I should imagine, and—" Tad laughed.
"Why, my dear Ned, you couldn't even push Eagle-eye down there. For some reason he seems to have a superstitious dread of that place. I don't know why, for Indians are not supposed to be much afraid of anything. I'll ask him. Eagle-eye, will you go down there and try to get the provisions for us?" asked Tad, turning to the guide.
Eagle-eye shrugged his shoulders, at the same time giving a negative twist to his body.
"Eagle-eye not go down there," he grunted.
"Why not?" asked Ned.
"Bad spirits live in waters. Bymeby come out and get Eagle-eye."
"Oh, shucks!" jeered Ned. "My opinion is that they wouldn't bother to get you, even if there were any such things down there."
"Then there remains only one thing for us to do," said the Professor.
"And that?" queried Walter.
"Get to the nearest settlement as quickly as possible."
"That would take at least a day or two, would it not?" inquired Tad.
"Yes, I believe so."
"Then why not let me try—at least make an effort to recover our things? Why, just think of the amount of stuff we are losing, Professor."
"But the risk, Tad. No, I cannot assume the responsibility—"
"I'll take the risk of all that. The only danger will be up here. I shall not be taking any risks to speak of—"
"How do you propose to go about it, young man?"
"Simplest thing imaginable. I'll climb down with a rope around me, so that in case I slip anywhere you can straighten me up. I promise you I will not fall."
"The next question is, where are you going to get the rope?"
"I have one that is plenty long enough," answered Tad.
"You mean the quarter-inch rope?" spoke up Walter. "That's in the pack that went over the cliff."
Tad Butler's face fell.
"Guess you are mistaken, Walt," corrected Ned. "You threw that rope down when you were packing. I picked it up and it's in my kit on my pony now."
"Hurrah!" shouted the other boys. "You can't down the Pony Riders."
Tad hurried to Ned's mount, and, pulling down the pack, secured the precious rope, which he adjusted about his waist carefully, the others observing him silently.
"I guess I am ready now, boys. I'll tell you what I want you to do, so pay close heed to what I am about to say."
INTO THE CANYON
"Thaddeus, I cannot consent to this. I—"
"Please, now, Professor, don't stop me. I'm all right, don't you see I am?"
"Yes, at this precise moment you are. It's the moments to come that I am thinking about."
"Don't you worry one little bit. Walt, will you bring me two of those staking-down ropes? I want to splice them on in case this one should prove to be a little short. Distance is deceptive, looking down, as we are here."
"What do you want us to do?" asked Ned.
"Hold on to the rope, that's all."
"In other words, we are to be a sort of 'tug-of-war' team, eh? Is that it?"
"I suppose it is, Ned."
"Then I hope we win."
"I sincerely hope you do, too," laughed Tad.
"If I win, I'll lose. That sounds funny, doesn't it?"
"What do you mean?" demanded Chunky, pushing his way forward.
"He means," Walter informed him, "that if he wins it will be because he takes a tumble to the bottom of the canyon. Understand?"
"Oh," muttered Chunky, thrusting his hands into his trousers pockets. He stepped to the edge of the cliff, where he stood peering over curiously.
"I hope Tad doesn't win, too," he decided sagely, whereat the others laughed loudly.
"Now, Professor, will you please take charge of the operations?"
"Certainly. But, you understand, I permit this thing under strong protest. I am doing wrong. I should use my authority to prevent it were we not already in such a serious predicament."
"Don't worry. What I want is to have you take a few turns around that small tree there with the rope, and pay it out carefully, so that I can lower myself safely. Don't give me too much rope at one time, you know."
"No," chuckled Ned. "You know what they say happens to people who have too much rope."
"That they usually hang themselves."
Tad laughed softly.
"Please call that lazy Indian over here and set him to work. Little does he care what trouble we're in. See, he's asleep against a tree now."
"Yes, his head would fall off if it were not nailed fast to him," added Ned, striding to the Shawnee and giving him a violent shake. "Wake up, you sleepy head!" shouted Ned in a voice that brought the Indian quickly to his feet.
"Come over here, Eagle-eye. You're wanted," called Walter.
"Put the Indian on the end of the rope; and, Professor, you please take a hold nearest to the tree. You'll be my salvation. The rest of you, except Chunky, can stand between the Professor and Eagle-eye."
They took their places as directed, while Tad straightened out the rope until it extended to the edge of the cliff.
"What do you want me to do? Have I got to stand here and look on?" demanded Stacy.
"No, Chunky. You may run the signal tower," laughed Tad.
"What's that? I don't see any such thing around here?"
"You are it."
"What? I'm what?" answered the fat boy, plainly puzzled.
"You are the signal tower in this case. That is, you will stand here and watch me. When I give a signal you will receive and pass it on to the others."
"What kind of signals?"
"That's what I'm trying to tell you, if you will give me the chance. When I hold up my hand, it means that they are to stop letting out rope. When I move it up and down, it means they are to let out on the rope a little. Understand?"
"Oh, yes; that's easy. When they shake their hand, it means you want to go up or down," exclaimed the lad enthusiastically.
"O Chunky, you're hopeless. No, no! Nothing of the kind. Listen. When I move my hand up and down, just like this—Understand?"
"That means I want to go down further. They don't wave their hands at all, at least I hope they don't while I am hanging in the air. Now, do you think you understand?"
"Yes, I understand."
"Repeat the directions to me then, please."
Stacy did so.
"That's right. See that you don't forget. Remember, I'm depending upon you, Chunky, and if you fail me, I may be killed."
"Don't you worry about me, Tad," answered Stacy, swelling with pride because of the responsibility that had been placed upon his plump shoulders. "I can make motions as well as anybody. Eagle-eye, tend to business over there. Get hold of that rope. Twist it around your arm. There, that's right."
"Hear, hear!" cried the boys.
Such self-confidence they had never observed in their companion before. And then again, they were trying to be as jolly as possible, that they might not give too much thought to the seriousness of the undertaking before them.
"Chunky's coming into his own," muttered Ned. "He'll be wanting to thrash some of us next. See if he doesn't."
"I think I am all ready now," announced Tad, casting a critical glance at the men holding the rope, then taking a careful survey of the depths below him.
He was standing on the very edge of the cliff, a position that would have made the average person dizzy. Yet it seemed to have no effect at all on Tad Butler.
He motioned for them to let out a little rope.
"More rope!" bellowed Stacy.
"All right, Captain," jeered Ned. "Better port your helm, though, or the rope will give you a side wipe and take you along over with Tad."
Stacy quickly changed his position, which Tad had intended telling him to do.
Without another word Tad sat down with his feet dangling over, then crawled cautiously down the steep wall. For a short distance he was able to do this without depending on the rope, Stacy in the meanwhile lying flat on his stomach, peering down and passing on the signals to those holding the rope.
Now Tad came to a piece of rock that was straight up and down and perfectly smooth. He motioned for them to lower him slowly, which they did until the boy's feet once more touched a solid footing.
He carefully settled down until he was in a sitting posture. He was on a narrow, shelving rock, and there he remained for a few moments to rest, for the trip thus far had been exceedingly trying.
"The water's fine, Chunky," he called up cheerfully.
"The water's fine," bellowed Chunky, glaring at his companions. Then a sheepish grin spread over his countenance when he realized what he had said. "I mean, that's what Tad called," he explained, amid a roar of laughter.
"He won't find it so fine if he falls in," muttered Walter.
"Bad spirits in water," grunted the Indian.
"Unfortunately for us, they're not all down there," growled Ned. But his barbed wit failed to penetrate the tough skin of the red man.
"Tend to business, boys," warned the Professor, observing a series of frantic gestures on the part of Stacy Brown. "What does he want, to be lowered?"
"Yes, yes, don't you understand?"
"No, we don't understand motions in a foreign language," laughed Walter, permitting the rope to slip through his hands a little.
"How's that?" queried Professor Zepplin.
"More rope!" roared Stacy. "Watch my signals, then you'll know what to do."
"What not to do," muttered Ned.
Once more Tad began his cautious creeping down the uncertain trail. Though he had gone some distance, it seemed to him as if the bottom were further away than when he started.
"I'm afraid this rope is not going to be long enough," he breathed. "However, I believe I can crawl down the last fifteen or twenty feet if the line will only reach to them. It's not nearly so steep down there as it is higher up."
There occurred a sudden sharp jolt on the rope, due to the men above not letting the loops slip around the tree while the rope was taut. This gave Tad a drop of three or four feet and a jar that made him think he was falling.
"Here you, up there! What are you trying to do?"
"What do you fellows mean?" demanded Stacy.
"Just a slip, that's all," answered Walter.
"Somebody slipped," shouted Stacy.
"Tell them to be careful, Chunky. This rope won't stand many such jerks as that. Remember, it's running over some sharp rocks above here and is liable to be cut in two."
Stacy transmitted the order in a loud tone of command, which the Professor emphasized by a sharp command to the boys, at the same time admitting that he himself had also been at fault.
"Tell him we will not make that mistake again, Chunky," said the Professor.
"Won't do it again," called Stacy, passing the word along.
"All right. I'm doing well now. Just keep the line fairly steady so that I won't lose my footing."
He was obliged to raise his voice now, being a long way down the slope, with the goal still far from him.
"Who would have ever thought it so far?" Tad asked himself. "I'm sure now that the rope will not reach."
Believing that he could obtain a better footing a little to the right of him, he motioned for more rope, then raised his hand aloft as a signal that he had sufficient for present needs, all of which Stacy repeated with more or less correctness.
Tad had gained a broad, shelving rock this time. Above him projected a rocky roof that reminded him of the roof over his mother's porch at home. It shut off his view of the cliff above him entirely. Straight down below him roared the river, here and there a spout of white spray shooting up into the air, revealing the presence of a hidden, treacherous rock.
It was an impressive moment for Tad Butler up there alone, with nothing between himself and sudden death save a slender quarter-inch strand of rope.
But though he felt the loneliness of his position, he felt no fear; he was impressed with the solitary grandeur of it all. Time was pressing, however, and he decided that he must continue his descent.
Stepping back to his former position, he started to grope his way downward. For several minutes he made more rapid headway than he had at any time before.
He was congratulating himself that he would soon be at the bottom of the cliff, which lay about twenty feet below him.
All at once he gave a gasp as he felt the rock crumble beneath his feet. He had thrown his weight on a piece of crumbling limestone and it had given way.
At that moment he had some two or three feet of slack rope, that he had motioned to them to pay out, as the way was not now nearly so steep.
Grasping wildly for some projecting rock to break the jolt which he knew would come when he reached the end of his rope, and perhaps seriously hurt him, the boy was able to stay his progress a little.
However, the pressure that his body threw on the slender rope was so great as to jolt nearly all the air from his lungs.
Then Tad suddenly made another and terrifying discovery.
He was going down. He was falling.
At the top of the cliff another scene was being enacted. The sudden jolt on the rope had occurred just after the boys had paid out the rope beyond the place where Tad had spliced it before beginning his descent.
The strain was too great for it. The ropes parted at a weak spot near the knot.
The Pony Riders were too much stunned to do more than gaze upon that which they believed meant the death of their companion.
Chunky, who appeared to be the coolest of any, had been watching the knot approaching him with almost fascinated interest. He was speculating what would happen should the knot chance to come apart. And the very emergency that he was considering did happen.
"The rope's broken!" shouted the Professor.
But Chunky had no need to be told that. He knew it already, almost before they realized it.
With great presence of mind, and an agility that none would have given him credit for, the fat boy threw himself upon the line that was whisking over the cliff.
Somehow he managed to fasten both hands on it.
The boy began to slide along the ground with the speed of an express train.
"Grab him! Grab him, somebody! He's going over the cliff!"
"Let go!" bellowed Ned Rector.
Stacy hung on grimly, perhaps not realizing the danger he was in. At any rate, he was determined to save Tad if he could.
"There he goes!" fairly screamed the Professor.
Chunky slipped over the brink and disappeared with a terrified "Wow!"
"They're both down there, now," groaned the Professor, leaning against the tree and wiping the perspiration from his brow.
RESCUED BY A HUMAN CHAIN
Too much stupefied to speak, even to move, the other two boys stood pale and trembling. There was no doubt in their minds that both Tad and Stacy had been killed.
"Do something! Do something!" shouted the Professor, recovering his voice in a sudden rush of words.
"I—I am afraid there is nothing we can do now," stammered Walter.
But Ned Rector had bounded to the edge and was gazing over half fearfully.
"There's Chunky! There he is!" he shouted.
"Where? Where?" cried the Professor, running up. "Where is he, I say?"
"Right down there, not more than ten feet below us. He has lodged between two rocks—no, I see now, he's caught on one."
Now that they looked closer, they observed that he was hanging head down, doubled over like a sack of meal, a sharp rock having caught in his left trousers pocket, thus stopping his downward flight.
It was not a very secure position at best.
"Are you hurt, Chunky?" called Walter.
"I—I don't know. I think I'm killed."
"Can you see Tad? Do you know what happened to him?" asked Ned, in an excited tone.
"No, I can't. I've got troubles of my own. Get me out of here quick. I can't hold on much longer."
"If the trousers only hold out, we'll save you," cried Walter. "Get a rope, Eagle-eye."
"Move! Move, idiot!" snorted the Professor. "What are you standing there for?"
Eagle-eye shrugged his shoulders, if anything more indifferently than before.
"No rope," he answered, as if it were a matter of no moment.
"I'll get a lariat. That surely ought to be long enough," said Walter, darting away to the ponies.
"Come back. There's no lariats there. They're all in the pack down at the bottom of the canyon," shouted Ned.
"Then we're helpless," groaned the Professor.
"No, we're not. I'll find a way to get the boy out," announced Ned, in a voice of stern determination. There was no laughter in his face now. Purpose was written in every line of it.
"Come here, you lazy redskin, you," he commanded, which summons Eagle-eye obeyed reluctantly.
"What are you going to do?" demanded the Professor.
"Help!" came a wail from the unhappy Chunky.
"We're coming. Keep quiet. Don't you move," admonished Walter.
"I'll get a nosebleed if I have to hang here this way."
"You'll get worse than that if you don't get a grip on yourself and keep quiet. I'm going to form a human chain, the way we used to do to get pond lilies at home. Professor, lie down there, while I tie your feet to the tree. We will use you for an anchor."
In a trice the Professor's feet were made fast to the tree with the remaining piece of rope that had broken off short.
"Down on your stomach, Eagle-eye!" commanded the resourceful Ned, giving the redskin a jerk that sent him sprawling. "Take hold of his ankles and hang on, Professor. You next, Walter. Good. Now grab me by the ankles, while I go over head first."
But Ned's carefully laid plans failed. The human chain was not long enough to reach.
"Pull back, quick!" he ordered.
The return, however, was less easily executed, and perspiring, weak and trembling, Ned finally succeeded in scrambling to the cliff, with the aid of those behind him.
"What can we do now?" begged the Professor, greatly agitated.
"Try it another way, that's all. We've simply got to do it. Sit down and brace your feet against that boulder near the edge, there, Professor."
This Professor Zepplin did quickly. Walter dropped down in front of him, and next came the Shawnee and Ned Rector, each, save the Professor, sitting on his knees, facing the edge of the cliff.
"Now each one grab the ankles of the one ahead of him," directed Ned.
As they did so, the sitting men and boys, still doubled up, let themselves fall forward on their faces.
Slowly the line lengthened out like the unwinding of the coils of a serpent, Ned Rector slipping slowly over the brink, the red man squirming after him, until both were clear of the edge, hanging head down.
"I've got him," came up the muffled voice of Ned. "But I've got a rush of blood to the head. Pull now! Pull for all you're worth, all of you. If you slip we're all gone. Be careful."
His words of caution were not needed. Each realized the responsibility that rested upon his shoulders, and each was bending every nerve and muscle in his body to the task.
Eagle-eye himself was urged to renewed efforts by the certain knowledge that if he failed he would go to join the "evil spirits" in the rapid waters below.
"Wait a minute. I want to turn him around. He's a dead weight this way and I'm afraid we won't get him over," cautioned Ned.
After much effort he succeeded finally in turning Stacy around so that they could clasp hands.
"Now brace your feet, Chunky, and help all you can."
This Stacy did gladly enough.
"Don't drop me," he warned.
"If somebody doesn't let go you'll be all right," was the comforting answer.
Walter, being weaker than the others, was by this time well-nigh exhausted, but he held on with a determination that did him credit. At last they succeeded in pulling Ned and Chunky to the surface. Both boys were thoroughly exhausted by the time they were hauled up, and for a moment they lay breathing hard.
"Lucky my pants didn't rip, wasn't it?" grinned Chunky. "Did you see me fall in? But where's Tad?" he exclaimed, suddenly sitting up.
The Professor had already hurried to the edge as soon as he was able to get his breath, calling loudly into the depths.
There was no answer. Then the boys added their voices to his, but without result.
Tad could hear them call, but as yet he did not possess the strength to answer. When the rope parted he realized instantly that he was falling, and sought desperately to check his fall. He was powerless to do so. However, the rope did this for him to a certain extent, catching here and there in crevices in the rocks, jolting Tad almost into unconsciousness as he bounded up and down. Finally the springing rope bounced him clear of the last jagged points, dropping him neatly into the bushes.
Tad landed squarely on the pack that he had gone in search of, but the shock was so severe that for a time he lay stunned and motionless.
When finally he became conscious he heard his companions far above calling.
The lad tried and tried to answer them, to assure them that he was safe, but the roar of the stream beside him seemed to drown his weakened voice.
"I've got to make them hear. I simply must make them hear," he said to himself. "They will be beside themselves with worry, believing that I am killed."
Finding that he could not raise his voice sufficiently to carry to the top of the cliff, the lad struggled to his feet and began waving his handkerchief.
At first those above were so busy using their voices that they did not observe the tiny piece of cloth.
They had about given up hope of finding the boy alive, when Ned Rector, who had been anxiously peering into the gorge, suddenly raised himself to his knees.
"I see something moving," he shouted.
The others crowded around him as close to the edge as they dared. They were able to make nothing of what he saw.
"It's Tad! It's Tad!" He's signaling us," cried Ned eagerly.
"Are you sure?" asked the Professor doubtfully.
"Come and see for yourself," answered Ned, grasping the Professor by the arm and rushing him to the edge.
"Be careful! Be careful! You'll have both of us over there, next thing you know."
"Judging from the experiences of our friends, it wouldn't do us much harm," laughed Ned. "There's Tad Butler down there. Goodness knows how far he fell, and Chunky got a bump that would have knocked the breath out of almost anyone. Hooray, T-a-d!" roared Ned in answer to his companion's signal. "Are you all right?"
The tiny piece of cloth waved more emphatically.
"What's the matter, can't you talk?"
The handkerchief fluttered more rapidly.
Ned interpreted this as meaning that the boy could not make himself heard.
"I am afraid he is hurt."
"Can't be very seriously or he would be unable to stand up and swing that rag," suggested Walter.
"Looks to me as if he were trying to climb up the rocks," announced Chunky.
As they gazed down intently they discovered Tad emerging from the bushes, slowly making his way upward.
"He never can make it," breathed the Professor, anxiously. "He will be killed if he tries it."
"Trust Tad. He knows what he is about. He won't try to climb up here," returned Ned.
"You'll see what he's up to in a minute."
The lad's object in scaling the steep wall as far as he could was to get away from the roar of the water that was hurling itself furiously through the gorge, so he could talk with his companions.
After ascending as far as the formation of the rocks would allow, Tad perched himself behind a point of limestone and swung his hand gayly to those above.
"You can't kill a Pony Rider," glowed Ned.
"Yes, judging from what we have been through, you young gentlemen seem to be immune to almost everything. Of course there is liable to be a first time. We don't want that to happen. But we have a serious difficulty on hand at the present moment. Call to Master Tad. See if he is all right."
Ned did so.
"I got a pretty fair shaking up," answered Tad, in a voice that they could catch only by the most careful attention.
"How far did you fall?" shouted Walter.
"I didn't have time to measure the distance," answered the voice from below.
The boys uttered a shout of laughter.
"Neither did Chunky."
"What happened to him?"
"He fell over in trying to catch the rope and save you."
"Good boy! Hurt him any?"
"No. It hurt us more in getting him out."
"Ask him if he found the provisions ruined?" suggested the Professor.
Tad informed them that nothing save some of the cooking utensils had been damaged.
All had been too securely packed and wrapped with canvas to insure them against exactly the kind of an accident that had happened.
"Think you can get the stuff up here?" asked Ned.
"I'd like to know how? The rope is all down here. I can't very well throw the things up to the top of the mountain," replied Tad.
"That's so. We had forgotten that," muttered the Professor. "And young gentlemen, will you tell me how Master Tad himself is going to get back? Don't you see my judgment was right when I said it was a dangerous undertaking?"
"It seems so," answered Ned ruefully. "But there must be some way to get the provisions out."
"Bother the provisions," interrupted the Professor, impatiently. "We've something more important than food to consider just now. Master Tad is down in the canyon and from the present outlook he is liable to remain there for some time. Any of you think of a plan that will help us? Here, Eagle-eye, perhaps you can tell us how to get that young gentlemen out of there."
The Indian shrugged his shoulders indifferently.
"Him stay. Spirits git um bymeby."
"You stop that kind of talk," commanded Ned.
"Tad is calling," interrupted Walter.
"What is it?" asked Ned.
"Get a rope and let down here."
"There is not ten feet of rope in the outfit."
"Send for help then. I've got to get out of here somehow."
"Tell him there is no help that we could depend upon, within twenty or thirty miles of here," said the Professor.
MAKING THE BEST OF IT
They were well along in the afternoon now and their predicament was apparently serious.
"There seems to be only one way out of the difficulty," said the Professor, after a little thought.
"What's that, Professor?" asked Walter.
"We must send for help, distant as it is."
"If you will pardon my differing with you, Professor, we have help in plenty right here and a lazy Indian thrown in for good measure," said Chunky.
The boys laughed and nodded their heads in approval.
"What we need is a rope, not more help. Don't you think so?"
"Yes, yes. I should have put it that way myself only—"
"Why not send the Indian for a rope?" suggested Chunky. "I would go myself if I knew the way."
"No, you'd fall in somewhere," chuckled Ned.
"And the Indian probably would forget to come back," added Walter. "Altogether we are in a fix."
"I think Master Stacy's suggestion is the most practicable of all," decided the Professor.
"Yes, but where could you send Eagle-eye?" asked Ned. "It would take two days for him to ride to Springfield, and that much more time to return. Tad would starve to death before that, wouldn't he?"
"Not hardly. Altogether, the situation has some humor in it. Master Tad is down there with plenty of food, but he cannot get up here. On the other hand we are up here safe, but without food and cannot get down to him."
"If Tad couldn't get out, he'd be even better off than we then," laughed Walter.
"We would all be all right in that event, my boy. Come here, Eagle-eye."
The Indian obeyed the command lazily.
"We want you to take one of the ponies and ride back to your friend's place as fast as you can. Get a rope, one long enough to reach down into the gully. Don't spare the pony. Get back as quickly as possible."
"Him no got rope."
"How do you know? You go just the same and you go in a hurry. Don't you dare to show your face back here unless you bring a rope, sir. If you get back before dark, I shall make you a present of this rifle that you have admired so much—"
"I beg your pardon, that's my gun you are trying to give away," objected Stacy.
"Never mind, you shall have another. Don't you think it's worth that much to get Master Tad out of his difficulty quickly?"
"Of course it is. I didn't mean it just that way. Sure, give the lazy Indian my gun, give him anything I have, only do something to make him hurry."
The Indian's eyes sparkled with anticipation. "You give Indian gun?" he asked. "Yes. Me ride um pony like fire from sky."
"Well, get off now," said the Professor. "We'll take for granted that you'll do your best. But get back before dark."
The red man was off with a bound, and releasing one of the ponies leaped into the saddle, plunging over the rough, rocky trail at a pace that threatened destruction to pony and rider.
"They'll break their necks. But he certainly is making time," grinned Walter.
"Hope he doesn't break any necks until he returns with a rope. I don't care how soon after that he—"
"That's not a kind thing to say, even of an Indian," corrected the Professor.
"Then I won't say it. I'll just think it," laughed Ned.
"We have sent for a rope, Tad," called Walter. "You must have patience, for it may be several hours before he gets back."
"Whom did you send?"
"The noble red man," interjected Ned, with a laugh.
"Then, it is more likely to be a week before he returns," sighed the lad.
They could almost hear Tad groan. However, there was nothing they could do, and after talking back and forth for a time, the boys settled down to rest, rather worn out from the excitement of the last few hours.
Chunky, though, seemed drawn to the edge of the cliff as if by some invisible force. He simply could not keep away from it.
Twice Ned Rector had hauled him back.
"Fall over if you wish to, Chunky. I can't be bothered to watch you all the time," said Ned finally.
"I won't fall over. Once is enough," replied Stacy, then they left him to himself.
The boy, observing that his friends were not looking, began to toss tiny pebbles over. He was chuckling with glee. First he would throw one, peer over to watch the effect, then dodge back. Stacy Brown's sense of humor seemed impossible to satisfy.
At first Tad paid little attention, believing that what he heard dropping about him was particles dislodged from the rocks overhead.
But when finally, a bit of limestone the size of a chestnut hit the lad fairly on the top of his head and bounded off, he sprang up from where he had been sitting, with an exclamation of impatience.
Moving slightly to one side, Tad peered cautiously upward. He was gratified a moment later by a sight of Stacy Brown's red face peeking over at him.
"Hi, yi, yi, yi!" exploded Tad Butler.
Just at this time Professor Zepplin happened to cast his eyes over toward Stacy and, seeing that something unusual was going on, went quickly but silently over to the boy.
"What's the trouble? Anything the matter?" called the Professor.
"There will be if you don't tie Chunky to a tree or something," called Tad.
"We haven't any rope to tie him with, but we'll attend to the young man," answered the Professor. "See here, boy, what have you been up to?"
"I—I was tossing pebbles over at him," answered Stacy whimsically.
"That will do, young man," warned the Professor. "I shall have to take you in hand if I hear any more such complaints. Do you know that you might have seriously injured Master Tad? Anything thrown from such a height strikes with considerable force."
Stacy hung his head, and thrusting his hands in his pockets walked away, after which there was peace in the camp of the Pony Riders for some time.
"Every time I try to have a little fun I get into trouble," muttered the boy. "I'll show them some of these days that Stacy Brown isn't the tenderfoot they seem to think he is. I'll do something yet."
He had already done so when he threw himself on the rope with the hope of saving his companion from a terrible fall. But, as usual, his effort had resulted in his own undoing.
"Got anything to eat?" he asked, approaching the group.
"You deserve to go hungry," retorted Ned.
"Looks as though he would, whether he deserves it or not," added Walter.
"Young men, there are some canned beans in my saddle bag. I carried them along in case we should become separated from our pack train," observed the Professor.
"Hooray!" laughed Ned, tossing his hat in the air. "I guess we won't starve this evening. Let's cook them?"
"What shall we cook them in?" asked Walter.
"That's so. I'd forgotten that. Our cooking outfit is at the bottom of the gorge."
"I think you will find something on one of the two remaining mules—something that will answer the purpose," suggested the Professor. "But first, I would suggest that you unpack your tents and pitch them. It is plain that we shall have to remain here all night."
"Why not throw Tad's tent down to him if we don't succeed in getting him up?" asked Chunky.
"Don't you think we've got enough to do with getting him and the provisions up, without throwing down the rest of our stuff?" sniffed Ned. "You must think we have an easy job ahead of us. Well, if you think that you're wrong; we haven't."
They got to work at once, unloading their tents. The canvas was soon spread out on the ground, ropes laid in place and folding cots placed where they belonged. The next task was to cut some tent poles, which was quickly accomplished. Shortly afterwards, the little tents sprang up, and the boys busied themselves with making them inhabitable.
While they were doing this, Professor Zepplin had busied himself with gathering firewood. He had trouble in finding enough dry stuff to answer their purpose. Walter remembered having seen some in a gully a short distance away.
"I know where it is. I'll go fetch it as soon as we have finished here," he said.
"Very well, Walter. I have enough here to start the supper with."
Having done all that was necessary to the tent for the time being, Walter Perkins ran off to get the wood for the night fire, while Ned, having found a spider, prepared to cook the supper.
Out of the packs he had drawn a small package that looked good to him. He opened it and uttered a shout.
"Will we starve to-night? I guess not," he laughed, waving the contents of the package above his head.
"What have you found?" asked the Professor.
"Bacon. Enough for all of us and perhaps some to spare."
"Then, we are not so badly off after all, Master Ned. How about the coffee?"
"Coffee went down the hill."
"The tea also?"
"Yes. The whole business. Neither have we any butter or lard. We shall have to cook the beans in themselves and eat them without seasoning."
"Cook the bacon with them. That will furnish the salt," suggested Stacy.
"Large head," laughed Ned. "I'll do it. Go fetch me some water."
Stacy hurried away whistling, and in a few minutes returned with his sombrero filled with clear, cool mountain water.
"Here, here! What do you mean? Think we want to drink out of that old hat?" jeered Ned. "Get a pail; what ails you?"
"Nothing ails me. It's the pail you want to find fault with—not with me."
"What do you mean?"
"The pail's down at the bottom of the mountain with Tad," grinned Stacy.
"That's one on me," laughed Ned. "Very well, go wash the hat thoroughly. I suppose we shall have to use it for a water pail. A good scrubbing won't do it any harm, at that."
"I did wash it," replied Stacy. "Think I'd bring you water in it without doing so?"
"All right, put it down," said Ned, turning away.
"If I put the hat down the water will all run out over the top."
"Then stand there and hold it till we get through supper," growled Ned, turning to the fire where the bacon was frying in the pan of beans.
Stacy eyed him questioningly for a few seconds, and then with an exclamation poured the water on the ground, jamming the wet, dripping sombrero down over his head.
"You go get your own water. I'm not the cook, anyhow," he said, thrusting both hands into his trousers pockets and strolling over to the other side of the fire, where he watched the supper preparations out of the corners of his eyes.
"Serve you right if we didn't give you any supper," commented Ned.
"I'll set the table if you will agree not to find fault with the way I do it," offered the boy.
"Go ahead. I'll promise."
Stacy flirted the table cloth in the air, and after walking around several times, succeeded in smoothing it out. He could find only two spoons in their kit, and no knives and forks.
The boy pondered deeply for a moment, then hurried off into the brush, returning shortly, stuffing something in his inside coat pocket.
"Grub pi-i-i-lee!" announced the cook.
"Hey, Tad, supper's ready," shouted Ned, peering over the cliff.
"All right," came back the answer. "I'm eating mine now. I've got corned beef and—"
"And what? It must be something pretty good."
"It is. What would you say to canned peaches?"
"Canned peaches! Now, fellows, what do you think of that? I didn't know there were any in the pack," mourned Ned.
"And you the cook! I don't think you're much of a cook after all. It's lucky for us you didn't know it, I guess," said Stacy, with a grimace.
"Lucky for Tad, you mean. Precious little of those canned peaches we'll ever see. Come, fall to. You'll make me late with my dishes," urged Ned.
They were hungry enough, and the spiderful of beans and bacon looked good to them.
"What, do we have to eat with a spoon—a large spoon, at that?"
"You do, unless you prefer to use your fingers, Professor. We are not allowed by you to do that, but I presume you can if you want to. Chunky doesn't need any. We will divide the two spoons between the three of us," said Ned, with a twinkle in Stacy's direction.
But his levity did not disturb the fat boy in the least. After having had his plate heaped with beans and bacon, Stacy calmly took from his pocket two sharp sticks that he had cut and trimmed just before supper. On one of these he speared a piece of bacon, stringing several beans on the other, and carrying both mouthward at the same time.
The boys burst out laughing.
"Well, will you look at the chopsticks!" exclaimed Ned. "I always thought he'd make a good Chinaman."
"Master Stacy is at least resourceful," answered the Professor, a broad grin on his face. "I think I shall cut me some sticks just like those."
The boy stripped the beans from one into his mouth and extended the stick to Professor Zepplin.
"No, thank you," laughed the scientist. "I think I prefer to get my own."
Chunky solemnly chased a truant bean about his plate, finally spearing and conveying it to his already well-filled mouth.
BOY AND PONIES STRANGELY MISSING
After all, the supper proved a very jolly meal, now that they were sure Tad was all right. Then, again, the beans and bacon were pronounced excellent by each of them, and Stacy had made fully as good time with his crude chopsticks as had the others with the tablespoons.
Supper finished, all hands turned in to help wash the dishes, and in a few moments the camp was again in perfect order.
Tad was informed of Stacy's skill with chopsticks, and they could hear him laughing over it, even though they were no longer able to see him.
"Are you warm enough down there?" called Ned.
"Sure thing. I have most of the blankets."
"That means we freeze, I guess," interjected Stacy.
"You can go cut yourself a few chopsticks and sleep under them," retorted Ned Rector. "Hey, Tad, why don't you build a fire down there?"
"Haven't any matches."
"Never mind, Tad, the moon soon will be up and you can get warm by that," shouted the fat boy.
"Chunky has suddenly developed into a wit, Tad. I don't know what's happened to the boy. It must have been that fall over the cliff that shook his thinking machinery into place."
"Pity some other folks not more'n a million miles away wouldn't fall over," muttered Stacy.
"What's that you say?" demanded Ned, turning on him.
"I—I was just thinking to myself," explained Chunky, edging away.
Ned was glaring at him ferociously, at the same time struggling to keep back the laughter that rose to his lips because of Stacy's sharp retort.
"I'll make a suggestion, young gentlemen," said the Professor.
"Yes, sir, what is it?" asked the boys in chorus.
"Pile up all the dry wood that Walter has gathered. Pile it right up on the edge of the cliff and light it. I think that will make the evening more cheerful for Master Tad down there."
"That will be fine," cried Walter.
Quickly carrying the dried wood to the place indicated, they piled it so that it would make a long fire, then lighted it from three sides at the same time.
The result was a bright blaze that flared high, lighting the rocks far down into the canyon, but not sufficiently far to reach Tad.
"Trying to burn up the mountain?" shouted Tad.
"No; we're trying to burn it down, so we can pick you up," called Ned Rector.
"Oh," came up from the depths.
"It seems to me that you young men are getting rather sharp with each other," said the Professor, shaking his head.
"I guess it must be the Ozark air getting into our lungs," answered Ned. "I've felt like having a wrestling bout with some one ever since we got into these mountains."
"Wait till Tad comes up. I think he will accommodate you," suggested Chunky wisely.
"You mustn't mind our talk, Professor," explained Walter. "We say things to each other, but it's all in fun. We don't mean to be mean. Do we, Ned?"
"Of course not. Chunky is the only one who—"
"Never mind Chunky. He'll take care of himself," answered the fat boy sharply.
"Isn't it about time that lazy Indian were back, Professor?" asked Walter.
"Yes, that's so. I hadn't thought of that, Walter. He has been gone all of five hours now, and the trip should not have taken him more than three all told."
"Suppose he had to stop to smoke a pipe of peace with his friend," suggested Ned. "Then there would be a certain amount of grunting to do before Eagle-eye could state his business, and after that much talk, talk. That's the Indian of it."
"You seem to know a lot about Indians. Were you ever an Indian?" asked Stacy innocently.
"Even if I were, I couldn't be called a savage," retorted Ned.
The hours wore on, and the moon came up in a cloudless sky, much to the relief of the boy down in the canyon. Just before dark he had observed that there was quite a strip of rock and sand on his side of the rushing mountain torrent. It extended further than he could see and the lad wondered where it might lead to.
After a time he cuddled up, but could not sleep. Perhaps it was the loneliness of his position. Yet he had been alone in mountain and forest many times before.
"Hello, up there!" he shouted, pulling himself to a sitting position.
"Hello!" answered Walter.
"I'm going to bed. Don't worry about me. I suppose the Indian has not returned?"
"No such luck," answered Ned, who had come up beside Walter and replied to Tad's question.
"And he won't be back till morning," sang the boy down there in the shadows.
"Right you are," laughed Ned. "If he gets back then we are in great luck. I'll let the rope down to you if he should happen to return during the night."
"No; wait till morning. I wouldn't care to try to climb up in the dark. I'd be likely to get hurt if I did. You had better all turn in now. There will be no need for you to sit up."
"All right," answered Ned and Walter at once.
"I think perhaps Master Tad is right. We had better go to bed. I would suggest, however, that one of you roll up in his blankets outside here, so that he can hear if Master Tad calls," suggested Professor Zepplin.
"That's a good idea. I'll do that, with your permission, Professor," offered Ned Rector promptly.
"Yes. Then Walter and Stacy had better go to their tents. If anything occurs during the night, remember you are to let me know at once. If Eagle-eye returns, I want to know it, too."
"Very well, sir," answered Ned.
After replenishing the fire, determined to remain awake until daylight, the lad rolled up in his blankets.
In a few minutes after the camp quieted down he fell sound asleep; and he did not open his eyes again until the sun peeped over the eastern range of the mountains and burned apart his eyelids.
Ned awoke with a start. He could scarcely believe that another day had dawned.
He sat up, rubbing his eyes and blinking in the strong morning light.
"Whew! I'm stiff in every joint," he mumbled. "And sleepier than Stacy Brown ever thought of being."
Ned pulled himself to his feet, yawning broadly.
"That's another bad habit I have learned from Chunky. I wonder if Tad's awake."
Peering over the edge, Ned was unable to make out whether his companion down there were awake or sleeping. He hesitated to call, knowing that if Tad Butler were still asleep at that hour of the day it was because he was tired out and needed rest badly.
Ned strode over to Stacy's tent.
"Wake up," he commanded, pinching one of the fat boy's big-toes.
"Get out," mumbled Stacy sleepily, at the same time kicking viciously with the disturbed foot.
Thus encouraged, Ned pulled the other big-toe.
Chunky rose in his wrath, hurling the rubber pillow on which he had been sleeping full into the face of his tormentor.
Ned, caught off his balance, tumbled over in a heap, while Stacy crawled back under the blankets, very well satisfied with the result of his throw.
But he was left in peace only a moment. Ned recovered himself and returned to the charge. Over went the cot, with Stacy beneath it. From the confusion of blankets emerged the red face of the fat boy.
Ned Rector thought it time to leave. He did so, with Stacy a close second and the rubber pillow brushing Ned's cheek in transit.
There was no more sleep in the camp. Ned and Stacy's foot race continued until both were out of breath and thoroughly awake. Then they sat down, laughing, the color flaming in their cheeks and eyes sparkling with pleasurable excitement.
"I'll wake up Tad, I guess," announced Ned after recovering his breath.
Going to edge of the cliff, he shouted loudly. But there was no answer to his summons. Then both boys added their voices to the effort, joined a few minutes later by the Professor and Walter Perkins.
They were unable to get any reply at all; nor was there the slightest movement or sign of life where Tad had last been seen.
"What can it mean?" they asked each other, all the laughter gone out of their faces now.
"It means," said Ned, "that Tad isn't there. Beyond that, I would not venture an opinion."
"Maybe he's fallen into the stream during the night and drowned," suggested Chunky.
"We shall not even consider that as possible, nor do I believe it is," replied the Professor. Nevertheless, he was deeply concerned over the mysterious disappearance of the lad.
"If the Indian ever gets here with a rope, I'll go down there and see if I can find out anything," said Ned.
"Not until all other means have been exhausted," declared the Professor. "We appear to have lost one boy, and I do not intend that we shall lose another."
"I wouldn't worry," comforted Walter Perkins. "You all know Tad, and you know he isn't a boy that you can lose so easily. I'll bet my share in the next meal that he's back here before dark this afternoon."
This confidence brightened the others visibly.
"That's right," agreed Ned. "You can't down Tad. I guess I'll go water my pony and give him some fresh trees to eat up while some of you are starting the fire. We had better eat, anyway."
"What is there to eat?" asked the Professor.
"Beans, that's all, and not much of that. Unless we get the stuff down there, we won't have another meal to-day."
The other two boys began preparing for the camp-fire. Ned had been gone only a few moments when he returned on a run.
"Boys! Boys!" he cried.
"What is it? What is it?" they exclaimed in sudden alarm.
"The ponies! The ponies!"
"What about them?" asked Walter, pausing as he was about to strike a match to the wood.
"Yes, what of them, Master Ned? Has anything happened to them?" asked the Professor, striding toward the excited Ned Rector.
"Happened? I should say there had—"
"Well, what is it? Don't keep us waiting in suspense all—"
"Gone?" exclaimed the two boys in chorus.
"It can't be possible."
"Two of them are. They have broken away, I think. It must have happened late last night, for I looked at them just before going to bed, and they were all asleep then."
"Whi—which ponies—which ones are gone?" asked Walter apprehensively.
"Chunky's and Tad's."
"Is it possible?" sputtered the Professor, striding to the place where their stock had been tethered.
"Yes, they've broken away," he decided, observing that a piece of stake rope belonging to each had been broken short off. "Look around, boys. They cannot be far away. Probably got hungry and concluded to look for some tender bushes to browse on."
The boys, thus encouraged, hastened to begin their search for the missing stock.
"They went this way," shouted Ned.
All hands hurried to him.
"Yes, there's their tracks," agreed the Professor. "Now follow them, but look out that you do not get lost."
Instead, a few moments afterward, they lost the trail. It disappeared from before them as utterly as if the ponies had walked on air from that point on. No amount of searching brought it to view again, and after more than an hour of persistent effort, the Professor called the hunt off, and the crestfallen party returned to camp.
"What are we going to do?" asked Stacy dolefully.
"I know what you are going to do," returned Ned.
"You're going to ride a mule from this point on."
THE INDIAN MAKES A DISCOVERY
It was not a cheerful breakfast to which the lads sat down. It seemed as if nothing but trouble had overtaken them ever since they had been in the Ozark Mountains.
They had just finished when the Indian rode in on Ned's mount, which he had chosen for his journey.
This was something at least to detract their attention from their troubles.
"Hey, you haven't got back, have you?" taunted Ned, noting the flecks of foam on his pony with disapproving eyes.
"Me back," grinned the Indian.
"I see you are," replied the Professor dryly. "Where's the rope?"
"Yes; we don't care so much about seeing you, but we want that rope," added Ned emphatically.
"No got um."
"Do you mean to say you have been gone nearly twenty-four hours and have not found a rope?" demanded Professor Zepplin.
"No rope," persisted the guide sullenly.
"Why not?" demanded Ned, steadying himself, for he was more wrought up than he wished to admit, even to himself.
The Shawnee shrugged his shoulders.
"Where's that rope?" snapped Chunky, with sudden new-found courage, facing the guide at close quarters.
"No get um! No get um!" insisted the Indian, gesticulating extravagantly.
"Yes, but why not, why not?" urged the Professor.
"You mean you could not find one?"
"He doesn't know what he means," sneered Ned. "He's had too much pipe of peace."
"Go take care of that pony," commanded the Professor sternly. "Rub him down well. After you have done so, return and get your breakfast. There's not much for you."
"He'll have to wash his own dishes," announced Ned. "No washing dishes for a lazy Indian. No, not for me."
"Yes, he will have to do that," agreed the Professor. "Come back here, Eagle-eye."
The boys did not know at the moment what the Professor had in mind.
"Two of our ponies got away last night, Eagle-eye."
The Indian nodded, but without exhibiting any surprise.
"Did you know it?"
"How?" demanded the Professor, with unfeigned surprise.
"Me see um tracks. Me see um ropes there."
"Well, you have got some sense after all,"' retorted the Professor. "How do you suppose they got away?"
"No get away."
"What's that? What do you mean?" asked Ned sharply.
"No get away."
"I guess the pipe of peace has gone to his head," declared Ned disgustedly. "Now you say they didn't get away. If not, they must be over there now. How do you explain that?"
"Of course they're not. Then they got away."
"No get away. Steal um," announced the Indian calmly.
His announcement was like an electric shock to them.
"Stolen? Stolen? Is that what you mean?" shouted Professor Zepplin.
"Oh, preposterous! Stolen? And with all of us sleeping within a rod or so of them? Impossible."
"Eagle-eye say stole," insisted the guide.
"How do you know?"
"See um tracks, then not see um tracks."
"Well, what do you infer from that—what does that mean?"
The Indian went through a series of pantomimic gestures to indicate that the feet of the missing ponies had been bound with cloths so that their hoofs would leave no imprint.
"Come Eagle-eye," he commanded, striding off toward the bedding-down place.
They followed and gathered around him as he picked up the ends of the tether ropes.
"Break um? No, cut um."
"You mean the ropes have been cut?"
"Uh-huh," he grunted in gutteral tones.
There was silence for a moment.
"He isn't such a wooden Indian as he'd have us believe after all," grinned Ned.
"Can't you trail them?" asked Stacy.
The Shawnee shook his head.
"No leave trail. Smart man."
"Yes, there is no doubt of that," agreed the Professor. "Have you any idea who did this thing, Eagle-eye?"
The Shawnee shrugged his shoulders as indicating that he did not know.
"Probably it was the same fellow whom you found fooling about the camp the other night," suggested Walter.
"Just what I was thinking," added Ned.
"Yes, no doubt he is the man. But what we are going to do, I don't know. It occurs to me that I might send some one on to Mr. Munson, superintendent of the Red Star Mine, to whom I have a letter, asking him to send us on a couple of extra ponies."
"Does he know who we are?" asked Walter Perkins.
"Yes, he knows your father. Mr. Munson is expecting us, and is to entertain us when we reach the place."
"How far are we from there now?" inquired Ned.
"How far, Eagle-eye?"
"Two days, eh. We could make it while Eagle-eye was going there and back. I move that we wait until to-morrow. Perhaps we may find Tad some time to-day. I believe he will return, as I said before. If he does, we can start right on. Some of us will have to walk, but that doesn't matter. We are pretty well used to doing that, I guess."
"Master Ned, your suggestion is a good one. We shall adopt it. I presume the other animals are safe. The thieves certainly will not have the assurance to come back again."
"No come more," affirmed the guide.
"After you have finished your breakfast I want you to start in and look for Master Butler. You'll have to find a way to get down there, even if you have to wade in the stream—"
"Spirits git um boy."
"We will leave that out of the question. You find him, that's all."
"He won't go down there," said Ned. "He may say he will, but he won't."
"I'll see that he does," replied the Professor, with a firm closing of the lips. "I have trifled long enough. Now we shall do something. I—"
"Well, what's all the excitement about?" demanded a cheery voice behind them.
"Tad! It's Tad!" shouted the boys in chorus.
With yells of delight they pounced upon him and for a moment there was a regular football scrimmage, with Tad Butler at the bottom of the heap, the others mauling him about with shouts of glee.
It was the Pony Rider Boys' way of showing their delight at the return of their companion. But Tad did not mind it at all. Throwing them off with a prodigious effort he scrambled to his feet, dust-covered, hatless and with hair in a sad state of disorder.
Professor Zepplin had thrust the other boys aside and was gripping Tad's hands.
"It's the last time you ever get me to consent to your taking such a chance," he said. "How did you get out? You certainly did not climb up the side of the mountain."
"Oh, no," laughed Tad. "I knew there must be some way out, for I found a moccasin track down there in the sand before I turned in last night."
"You must have pretty good eyes to find a moccasin track in the dark," laughed Ned.
"I did not say it was dark. I made the discovery before that."
"Tell us about it," urged Walter.
"You didn't find any of Eagle-eye's evil spirits down there, did you?" asked Ned.
"No. I wish I had. I should have been glad of company of any kind."
"We want to hear how you got out," spoke up Chunky. "I—I came pretty near falling in after you, too."
"Yes, I know. Well, to begin with, before I found the moccasin track I noticed that there was room to walk along by the side of the stream. When the moon came up, not being able to sleep, for some reason—I guess it was on account of the water that made such a racket, I thought I'd look around a bit. After I got started I kept on going and going, and the further I went the less steep did the banks appeared—"
"How far did you go?" interrupted the Professor.
"I haven't the slightest idea."
"I presume you found no great change in the topographic features of—"
Tad laughed good-naturedly.
"I was trying to get out, Professor. Finally, I found a place that looked good and after I had scrambled up some fifteen feet I discovered that I had struck a trail. It had been in use not long since. What for I cannot imagine. The rest was very easy. I reached the top of the cliff just after daylight."
"How—how did you find your way back?" wondered Stacy.
"I followed along the ridge. After a while I saw the smoke from your camp-fire, then I hurried in and here I am."
"You always were a lucky fellow," laughed Ned. "Now if that had been myself I should have been down there yet, or else in the river or whatever you call that stream down there."
"Got anything to eat?" asked Tad. "My appetite this morning is a thing to be feared."
"Depends upon how much the guide has eaten," replied Walter. "I guess you will have to lick the frying pan."
"Yes, that's all he'll get," added Ned. "Any fellow who has filled up on canned peaches and the like doesn't need any more than that."
"Professor," continued Tad, "I would suggest that we pack up and move along down until we come to the trail. We can all then work into the gorge leaving the ponies on top. It will be an easy matter for us to pack the stuff to the top. We'll be in good shape then. Shall we do it?"
"Yes, yes," answered the Professor absently.
"Come on then, fellows. I'll tighten my belt and save my appetite until we get something like real food to eat. Licking a frying pan won't satisfy my longings this morning. I'll pack the ponies while you are striking the tents. I—"
Tad turned, gazing at them curiously. They were strangely silent. The lad felt instinctively that something had gone wrong, for Tad Butler was quick to catch a suggestion.
"Well, what is it all about? You are as solemn as a lot of owls at sunrise. Anything happened?"
"It's about the ponies, Master Tad," the Professor informed him.
"The ponies? Which ponies? Are they hurt?" exclaimed the lad sharply.
"We don't know," answered Professor Zepplin.
"Then what is the matter? Don't keep me in suspense."
"Gone," growled Ned dismally.
"I'm sure I don't know. The redskin says they have been stolen—your pony and Chunky's. The trail has been masked so we cannot follow them."
Without a word, Tad Butler hastened to the spot where the animals had been tethered when he went over the cliff. Silently he made a careful inspection of the place.
"Well, what do you think of it?" asked Ned.
"I think I'll walk," answered Tad, thrusting both hands in his trousers pockets. "But I'm going to get my pony back before ever I leave these mountains," he announced quietly.
HORSE THIEVES PAY A SECOND VISIT
Tad was unusually silent while they were packing ready to break camp, but as they got out on the trail he became more talkative. He did not refer to the ponies again on the way, though the lad's mind was working rapidly.
"Do you think we shall be able to hire some ponies of Mr. Munson?" he asked when they had been an hour on their journey.
"I have no doubt of it," answered the Professor. "Perhaps it would be better to buy a couple."
"I don't want to do that just yet. There's the place where we are to leave the trail," he added, pointing to what appeared to be a broad gash in the rocks ahead of them. "We shall have to leave the ponies, what few we have left. I don't suppose the thieves will come back for the rest of them, do you?"
"Hardly," answered the Professor.
Securing their mounts as well as the two pack mules, they started down the mountain side with Tad Butler in the lead. On down the long, sloping trail they trudged until at last they reached the point where they were obliged to get down on all fours to clamber the last fifteen feet of precipitous rocks.
Eagle-eye halted, standing rigid, gazing off across the gorge.
"Well, what are you waiting for?" demanded the Professor. "Come along. We shall need you."
Professor Zepplin was angry. He was for trying to force the Indian to accompany them.
"I would suggest that you let him remain where he is," said Tad. "We shall need some one here to haul up the packs when we get them at the bottom there. I'll leave my rope for him."
"Very well, just as you say. I hate to see even an Indian make such an exhibition of himself," answered the Professor witheringly. "I never supposed there were such cowards among the red men."
Tad handed his rope to Eagle-eye, at the same time telling the fellow what he was to do. The party then scrambled down the rocks, soon finding themselves on more secure footing by the side of the roaring stream.
The mountain torrent was more of a reality to the boys now than had been the case when they were gazing down upon it from the top of the cliff.
"My, I'd hate to fall in there!" decided Stacy, edging away from the flying spray that floated like a thin cloud along the edge of the bank, masking the torrent like a white veil.
"Wonderful! wonderful!" exclaimed the Professor, raising both hands above his head, glancing first up then down the imposing mountain gash. He was deeply impressed by the spectacle.
"Young gentlemen," he said, turning to them, impressively, "it would be well for you to give serious thought to the remarkable region in which you now find yourselves."
"Yes, sir," agreed Tad.
"We are not liable to forget it, Professor," added Ned.
"The Ozark region is unusual in having within such limited areas so wide a range of geological formation."
Professor Zepplin in his enthusiasm was waxing eloquent, and the lads were giving respectful attention.
"Perhaps you are unaware," continued the scientist, "that in both the eastern and western portions of this range, a section running transversely to its main axis presents a complete succession from the oldest Archaean to the newest quaternary."
The Professor fixed Stacy with a stern eye.
"Do you follow me, young gentleman?"
"Ye—yes, sir," stammered Chunky weakly, shrinking back against the rocks.
"And from perfectly massive rocks to the most perfectly stratified sediments there are represented a considerable variety of masses belonging to different ages—a very complete section of the Palaeozoic and a rather full sequence of the latter deposits which recline against the older strata."
"Yes, sir," agreed Ned meekly.
"A-h-e-m. And now having thus enlightened you, we will proceed with our quest for something to eat. I trust my explanation has been perfectly clear to you all?" queried the scientist, with the suspicion of a twinkle in his eyes.
"With all due respect to you, sir, I must confess that I didn't understand a word of it," answered Tad boldly.
"I hadn't the slightest idea that you did," retorted the Professor, with a hearty laugh. "Our friend, Master Stacy, appears to be the only one of you who grasped the scientific truths."
The boys shouted with laughter.
Ned Rector proposed three cheers for Professor Zepplin, which were given with a will.
Stacy, rather crestfallen, joined in the cheering, weakly, however.
"It is well to give thought now and then to more serious matters, boys. After we are out of our present difficulty I will put what I have just told you into more simple language—language that you will all understand. This is the most unusual country we have been in yet, and I want you to leave it with a pretty clear idea of the lessons it teaches. How far is it to where our provisions were dumped?"
"It will take us an hour to get there, I should say," replied Tad. "We had better be on our way."
Tad tied his red handkerchief to a bush, so they might not miss the trail upon their return, after which the party started out on its long tramp.
"If we were nearer to food, I should not take the time to rescue the supplies. At the present rate, it may be days before we reach a settlement."