Chapter I. Excitement on the West Fork
 

Leaving the main branch of Delaware Creek, a broad, sluggish stream that slowly made its way toward the muddy Pecos River, a party of horsemen turned up the west branch.

Horses and men alike were wearied, dusty, perspiring and sleepy under the glare of a midsummer Texas sun. Little had been said for some time. None felt like talking. For hours they had been working south by west, urged on by the green of the foliage that they could see a short distance ahead. At least it had seemed a short distance for the last five hours, but the green trees now appeared to be just as far away as when the party had first sighted them early in the morning.

At the head of the line rode a grizzled, stern-faced man, sitting on his pony very stiff and erect. Just behind him was a young man, slender, fair haired and smiling, despite the discomfort his red face showed him to be suffering. Still back of them rode three other young men, the last in the line being a disconsolate fat figure of a boy who slouched from side to side in his saddle, each lurch threatening to precipitate him to the ground. The boy's pony was dragging along with nose close to the earth, the bridle rein slipping lower and lower over the animal's neck. The fat boy was plainly asleep. He had been slumbering in the saddle for more than an hour, and occasional mutterings indicated that he was dreaming.

"Professor, don't you think we had better make camp and take a rest?" asked the first boy in the line, addressing the grizzled leader.

Professor Zepplin cast a critical glance down the line of jaded horses and riders, a faint smile twitching the corners of his mouth.

"All tired out, eh, Tad?" he questioned.

"Yes, I'll confess that I am for once. Of course I can stand it as long as the next one, but there's no use in wearing out the stock," answered Tad Butler. "Chunky's asleep. Ned and Walter will be in a few minutes more."

"Very good; call a halt. We will ride into the bushes over there on the other side of the stream. The water cannot be deep. Some hot coffee will wake us all up."

"Hoo---oo!" cried Tad, interrupting the professor. "Wake up, fellows, and make camp!"

"Wha---what's up?" demanded Ned Rector, straightening in his saddle.

"Nothing's up, except ourselves, and we'll all be down in a minute. We're going to ford the stream and make camp on the other side."

"Is this the Guadalupe range?" asked Walter Perkins sleepily.

"This is the loop all right, but not the Guadalupe," laughed Rector. "Hullo, Chunky's in the Land of Nod."

"Wake him up, Ned," nodded Tad.

"Not much. Let him wake himself up."

"His pony has gone to sleep, too," added Walter.

"Yes, they are a couple of sleepy heads, Tad."

As the lads turned to gaze at the fat boy, they could not repress a shout of laughter. Stacy Brown's pony now stood the picture of dejection, its nose clear to the ground. Chunky had settled in his saddle until it seemed that the boy was less than half his natural height. His body had fairly telescoped itself. The fat boy sat leaning forward, his sombrero tipped forward until it covered his face, leaving only the point of the chin exposed.

By this time Professor Zepplin had driven his own pony into the creek, the others following, where the horses drank greedily. Stacy and his mount were still on the bank, too sound asleep to think of either water or food.

"Stacy!" shouted the professor.

"Oh let him sleep," begged the boys.

"Too bad to disturb his infantile slumbers," jeered Ned Rector.

"But he will fall off."

"It wouldn't be the first time," laughed Tad. "Gid-ap!"

The ponies climbed the opposite bank, the tired Pony Riders throwing themselves off and quickly stripping the equipment from their mounts. They then led the animals farther into the bushes, where the ponies were tethered until they should be wanted again.

Chunky still slumbered on.

In the meantime Tad was carrying water from the creek, while the other two boys were starting a fire on the bank, the smoke from which was already curling up lazily into the still, hot air. But not much of a meal was cooked. It was too hot to eat or to cook. The boys sat down to their little meal, almost choking with laughter every time they glanced across the stream toward the sleeping pony and its sleeping rider.

"Most remarkable," nodded the professor. "Surely the smell of food ought to awaken him if nothing else does."

"He's just as much of a sleeper as he is an eater, Professor," declared Rector.

"That would be impossible," objected Tad. "As an eater he is a champion, as a sleeper he is just above the average. You're the champion sleeper of this outfit, Ned."

"It's too hot to resent your unseemly remarks, Tad. I'll take that matter up when we get to the mountains. By the way, how much farther is it to the mountains?"

"Just as far as it was this morning. How about it, Professor?"

"We ought to reach them this afternoon. According to my understanding, we were a little more than forty miles from them this morning. Since then we have gone a good twentyfive miles."

"Then we will camp there to-night?" questioned Walter.

"Yes, I hope so."

"What are we going to do about Chunky?" demanded Walter.

All eyes were directed toward the sleeping fat boy and his slumbering pony. The latter was now beginning to show some signs of life. It had lifted one foot, then another, until it had taken two steps toward the creek. But the rider was as soundly asleep as before. Nothing seemed to disturb Chunky when he was having a nap.

"He will fall off. Wake him up!" commanded the professor.

"Oh, please don't bother him. We want to see what he will do," begged Walter.

"I think you will see, all right," chuckled Tad. "You will see what you shall see, and---"

"There he goes!"

The pony had taken three or four more steps toward the stream. Now its eyes were partly open. It saw the rest of the party on the other side of the creek.

The cool water completed the awakening process for the horse. It drank freely then started for the other side, Chunky still sleeping. All at once the pony stepped into a deep hole in the creek. The animal went down on its nose with a mighty splash. Stacy shot over the disappearing head, then boy and pony vanished under the waters of Delaware Creek while the others of the party bowled with delight.

"Oh, wow!" howled Stacy, coming to the surface and making for shore with mighty splashes, coughs and chokings. "Oh, wow!"

Walter ran down to the water's edge, lending the unfortunate fat boy a helping hand. The pony in the meantime had clambered up the bank and was trotting off to join its fellows.

"What---what---who did that?" demanded Stacy belligerently.

"Did what?" replied Ned.

"Who threw me in?"

"I reckon you threw yourself in," answered Tad.

"I didn't."

"The pony did it for you. Don't be a goose," commanded Ned.

"Yes, you went to sleep. You've been asleep for the last ten miles or so," nodded Butler.

"I'm all wet," wailed Stacy.

"You will be dry in a few moments in this hot sun," interposed the professor.

"I don't want to be dry."

"Then jump in again," suggested Butler. "Anyhow, you've missed your dinner."

"I---I've---what?"

"Missed your dinner."

Chunky's gaze wandered from the camp fire to the dishes and provisions that already were being packed preparatory to moving on.

"I want my dinner," he wailed.

"Dinner is finished, young man," replied the professor severely. "You should be on hand when meals are being served. There is no second table in this outfit, except for good and sufficient reasons."

"My reasons are good. I---I fell in, I did. And---say, why didn't you fellows wake me up?" demanded the fat boy, a sudden suspicion entering his mind. He began to understand that a trick had been played upon him. "What'd you let me sleep for?"

"Because you were sleepy," answered Ned Rector solemnly.

"That's a mean trick. I wouldn't play that on a horse," answered Stacy indignantly.

"But you did play it on a horse," spoke up Tad. "The horse went to sleep with you, out of sheer sympathy I should say."

"I should think he would have. Anything would go to sleep with Chunky on hand," declared Ned.

"You fellows are too funny! I don't care what you think. I'm going to have something to eat. Where's the biscuit?"

"Packed."

"Then we'll unpack them again. I guess I've got as much right to the grub of this outfit as the next one."

With that Stacy helped himself to such of the food as he was able to find. In order to get what he wanted he was obliged to undo three of the large packs. Once undone no one would help him lash them together again, so grumbling and growling, the fat boy tugged with the ropes until he had taken a secure hitch about each of the three packages. They made him tie the three before they would allow him to eat the biscuit and cold bacon that he had got out.

While Stacy was munching his cold lunch the others were lashing the packs to the lazy ponies and preparing to start again, every one being anxious to reach the mountains before night fell. But the fat boy was surly as well as sleepy. He felt aggrieved. That his companions should sit down to a meal, leaving him asleep on his pony, filled Stacy with resentment and a deep-rooted determination to be even with them. He was already planning how he could repay his companions in their own coin.

"Better not try it," suggested Tad carelessly as he passed the fat boy on his way to get his pony.

"Try what?"

"To get even," answered Tad laughingly.

"How do you know that I was thinking of such a thing?"

"Perhaps I read your mind."

"Humph! You better learn to read your own before you go prying into mine. I'll show you what I'm going to do."

"Cinch up," interrupted the voice of Professor Zepplin. "We have no time to waste."

Still grumbling, Stacy climbed into the saddle. He promptly fell off, having forgotten to cinch the saddle girth. Now the pony woke up and began to kick as the saddle slipped under its belly. Stacy moved more quickly than he had at any other time during the day. Over and over he rolled in a cloud of dust in his efforts to get out of the danger zone, while the pony kicked and squealed, the boys shouting with laughter.

"Whoa!" roared the fat boy, sitting up after he had reached a place where he considered it safe to do so. "Whoa! Catch him, somebody."

"Catch him yourself," retorted Ned.

Tad's rope wriggled through the air. It caught one of the flying hind feet of the pony. Then the little animal plowed the dirt with its nose, while Walter sprang forward, sitting down on the angry animal's head.

"Now get that saddle off," commanded Tad. "Come, Chunky! Do you think we are going to wait here all day for you?"

The fat boy reluctantly obeyed the command of Tad Butler. After some further trouble, Stacy's pony was properly saddled, but still stubborn and ready for further trouble. The lad got on this time without falling off, and with much laughter and joking, the party started off toward the blue haze in the distance, the dark ridge that marked the Guadalupes.

It was in "The Pony Rider Boys in the Rockies" that our readers first learned how this little private club of youthful horsemen came to be organized. The need of open-air life for the then sickly Walter Perkins was one of the great factors in the organization of this little band of rough-and-ready travelers. Our readers remember the adventures of our young friends in the fastnesses of the Rocky Mountains. These lads speedily fitted themselves into the stirring life of the big game land, and had other yet more startling adventures in which wild animals did not play so strong a part as did wild men. The story of the discovery of Lost Claim, with its accompanying battle with claim-jumpers, was fully told in this first volume.

It was in "The Pony Rider Boys In Texas" that we found the lads learning the first rudiments of the cattle business. The thrilling part that the young men took in the long cattle drive, with its stampedes, the fording of swollen rivers, the games of the cowboys and the tricks of the cattle thieves, is related in that second volume. How the boys improved their shooting and mastered the details of that fascinating sport of handling the lariat are all familiar to our readers.

In "The Pony Rider Boys in Montana" is told the story of the long and exciting ride over the old Custer Trail, famous in the tragic annals of our earlier days of Indian fighting. Here the boys found themselves drawn into the life of the sheep men, on those great ranges where the sheep men must still defend themselves from the prejudices, and sometimes from the extreme violence, of the cattle men. It was in this connection that Tad Butler and his friends discovered leading clues in the great conspiracy of certain cattle men against the prosperity and safety of the sheep men. This state of affairs led finally to an angry battle, at which the boys were present. Then, too, our readers all recall Tad Butler's capture by the Blackfeet Indians, and all that befell him ere he succeeded in escaping to his friends.

The next stage of adventures took our lads somewhat further east, as told in "The Pony Rider Boys in the Ozarks." It was a thrilling, desperate time when the boys, with their ponies stolen, found themselves facing actual starvation in the wilds. Tad Butler's perilous trip for assistance is bound to bring throbs of recollection to every reader of that volume. The imprisonment of the youngsters in a mine, following a big explosion, formed another interesting scene in the narrative brought forth in that fourth volume of the series. It was here that Chunky, as our readers know, displayed the splendid stuff that lurked under his odd exterior and behind his sometimes queer manners. How, in escaping from the mine, the Pony Rider Boys penetrated a mystery that had disquieted the dwellers near the Ozarks for a long time, was one of the most interesting features of the tale.

But such strenuous life proves the mettle of the right kind of young Americans. So, far from being discouraged, or sighing for the comforts of home, we next find our lads in Nevada, as related in "The Pony Rider Boys on the Alkali." Here they left grass behind for the glaring discomforts of the baked desert lands, where severe thirst was one of the least yet most constant perils. Roving from water hole to water hole, finding them all gone dry, nearly drove the youngsters mad. Then, too, the fight with the mad hermit, who seemed a part of the life of that bleak desert, helped to accustom the boys to the strenuous life of daily danger.

As our readers will recall, it was in the next volume, "The Pony Rider Boys in New Mexico," that the author described the events surrounding the first real acquaintance that our lads formed with the little that is left of the savage Indian to-day. It was here, too, that they beheld the fire dance of the Saboba Indians in all its ancient fury. The adventures of the young horsemen at this point became fast and furious. Between prairie fire and fight they had the most exciting time of their lives.

Later, after a rest at home, as described in "The Pony Rider Boys in the Grand Canyon," the boys visited the wonderful region of the Colorado. Here, as our readers will recollect, the lads were cut off from their trail by the falling of great masses of rock during a fierce storm. Apparently the boys were doomed to remain helpless on a narrow shelf of rock; our readers recall how Tad Butler, at the risk of his life, spent hours in the attempt to get them out of their dangerous situation. The mysterious circumstances that followed the boys all the way along on their journey through the great canyon form a most remarkable series of events.

Now, from Arizona, Tad and his friends had journeyed onward and into the Lone Star State. Here they looked forward only to a long, healthful ride, full of pleasures, yet devoid of anything like sensational excitement. Yet one never knows what the day may bring forth, and these young travelers of ours, though they did not suspect it, were on the threshold of the most exciting experiences that had yet befallen them. The blue mountain ridge in the near distance was teeming with the story that was to unfold before them. So far the ride had been lonely. Of late rarely had they come in sight of a building of any sort, for this part of the state was but sparsely settled. To meet a horseman was an event. In fact they had not met one since the early morning. The Pony Riders had no guide with them on this journey, believing that one would not be needed. Nor did they carry a pack train. One additional pony bore all their extra baggage, each mount being loaded with all that he could carry in addition to its rider. For tents they had brought one large enough to accommodate the entire party. This was in sections, carried on the different ponies.

Five o'clock had come and gone. The sun was partly bidden by the ridge of the Guadalupes towards which the Pony Rider Boys were slowly drawing. Ned called up to the professor who was riding at the head.

"Where are we going to make camp, Professor?"

"Tad will decide that," answered Professor Zepplin without looking back.

"Near a stream, of course," answered Butler.

"Any mosquitoes there?" demanded Stacy.

"No odds, if there are," retorted Ned. "They wouldn't bite you."

"Not if they had got at you first," returned Stacy solemnly. "There's a level place in there by the creek."

"I see it. I'll ride on and have a closer look at it."

Butler spurred his pony ahead of the others. Reaching the foothills of the range he shaded his eyes, gazing up into the cool, green valley or canyon that led into the mountains.

"I guess this will do very well, boys," he said. "I---"

Bang!

"Wow!"

Stacy with a howl of terror slid from his pony, sending up a little cloud of dust as he collapsed on the plain.

"Wha---what---what-----" gasped the professor.

Bang!

Professor Zepplin's sombrero was snipped from his head. Stacy lay groaning on the ground.

"Ride for the rocks!" shouted Tad as shot after shot began popping from somewhere in the mountains, the bullets screaming over their heads close to their ears or snipping up flecks of dust in the plain.

Tad drove his pony straight at Stacy Brown. He scooped the fat boy up by the collar and rode madly for the protection of the rocks, Chunky's heels dragging on the ground. The others rode madly after them, while the shots were still being fired at them. It was an exciting moment. No one knew what the shooting meant, nor did they know whether Stacy really had been hit or not. There was no time to stop to reason the matter out. It was a case of getting to cover as fast as horse-flesh would carry them.