Chapter X. The Loss of the Pack Train
 

"Feels good to be in the saddle again, doesn't it, Walt?"

"Yes, Ned. At least it's better than falling over a cliff. How do you feel, Chunky?"

"Shoulder aches where the gun kicked me. I didn't think a gun could hit so hard from both ends at the same time."

Stacy Brown worked his right arm up and down like a pump-handle, making a wry face as he did so.

The boys had completed their first target practice, in which Tad and Ned had carried off even honors, with Walter Perkins a close second, while Stacy Brown had hit pretty much everything within range except the target itself.

About the best they had been able to do with him was to induce him to keep his eyes open, at least, until the first finger of his right hand had begun to exert a gentle pressure on the trigger. Then, he would pinch his eyelids so tightly together as to compress his forehead into a series of small ridges.

Their practice had lasted some two hours, and now they were once more picking their way over the rough mountain trail, headed for Bald Mountain, and discussing the happenings of the night and morning.

Considerable amusement was afforded them when, on the journey, old Bobtail, as they had named the Professor's cob, stumbled and threw its rider over its head.

Fortunately, Professor Zepplin was not injured. He explained that he had had too many similar disasters while an officer in the German army, and that he did not mind a slight mishap like that at all. He declared that it reminded him so much of his younger days that he really enjoyed the sensation of falling off.

This caused the Pony Riders to shout with laughter, and Ned confided to Tad, by whose side he was riding, that he never knew the Professor was such a real sport.

From then on the afternoon passed quickly. Although the sun was shining brightly, the air was cool and invigorating, and a gentle breeze fanned their cheeks when the riders reached the higher places.

At such times the boys would break into exclamations of wonder at the gorgeous panorama which unfolded itself before them.

"Makes a fellow feel as if he were walking on air, doesn't it?" bubbled Stacy Brown.

"You will be in a minute, if you don't watch out where you are going," warned Ned, observing that the boy had unconsciously pulled his horse too near the outer edge of the trail." Walt tried that last night, and you know what happened to him."

"Yes, but Chunky would not come out of it quite so well," spoke up Tad.

"I reckon he'd break a rock or two on the way down," grinned Ned Rector, clucking to his pony.

About four o'clock that afternoon Lige announced that they had arrived at their destination. Yet not a sign of Jose and the pack train could they find. He had not arrived.

The faces of the Pony Riders grew long at this, for the ride had given them an appetite that would not bear trifling with.

"What do you suppose has happened to the pack train, Mr. Thomas?" asked Tad.

"Probably been delayed by a pack slipping off. But don't you worry. Jose will be along in good time," smiled Lige.

However, in his own mind the guide believed that, while this might be possible, it was more likely that the cook had missed his way, and was now wandering about the mountains. It was too late to go in search of the missing outfit that day, so there was nothing to do but to wait until morning, then to start out after it, in case the straggler had not come in by then.

Lige told the boys to stake down their live stock and make themselves at home while he went out for an observation. In the meantime the boys also took the opportunity to look about them.

Their new location they found to be a sightly one. The wild and rugged reaches of the Rockies stretched away at their feet as far as the eye could see, the hills and low mountains rising in sheer slopes, broken by cliffs and riven by deeply cut and gloomy gorges.

The Pony Riders gazed upon the scene in awe --at least three of them did.

"Splendid, is it not?" breathed Tad, his eyes growing large with wonder.

"Oh, I don't know. It isn't so much," replied Chunky lightly. "I've seen better. We've got bigger mountains in Massachusetts."

"Humph!" grunted Ned Rector, resuming his study of the scene, its beauties intensified by the colors in which the low-lying sun had bathed them.

A shot sounded off somewhere in front of and below them.

"What's that?" exclaimed Chunky, now aroused to sudden interest.

No one was able to answer him.

Soon two more shots followed, and Chunky; was sure that he heard a bullet sing by his head.

Professor Zepplin laughed, saying it was no doubt some one hunting, and that what the boy had imagined was a bullet was merely an echo.

"You no doubt will hear many shots while you are in the mountains. This is a place where people make a business of shooting, and even yourselves will be doing some of it within a few days, if all goes well. Perhaps the shot you heard was from Lige, trying his skill on some bird or animal."

When Lige returned, some little time after, the boys did not observe that he left his rifle in the bushes at the edge of the camp.

"Was that you shooting just now?" asked Tad.

Instead of answering the question, however, the guide called the boys to him.

"I'm going to teach you how to make beds in the mountains," he said. "We have not tried to make any like them yet ----"

"Beds? I don't see any beds to make," objected Chunky. "Where are they?"

"Get your hatchets and I'll show you," grinned Lige. "We have to discover a good many things when we are roughing it, you know."

Fetching their hatchets from the saddle bags, the boys cut great armfuls of pine boughs, all hands making two trips to camp and back in order to carry enough for the purpose. But, even then, they were mystified as to exactly what Thomas intended to do or how he would go about it to make a bed out of the stuff they had gathered.

Professor Zepplin watched the preparations with interest, finding much that was new to him in the resourceful operations of the mountain guide.

Having heaped up a great pile of fragrant green stuff, Lige looked about him to fix upon the best locations for the beds he was about to make.

"Oh, I know," exclaimed Ned. "You are going to lay the stuff into piles so we can sleep on them."

"Not quite," grinned Lige." Watch me."

Carefully selecting the branches that he wanted, he stuck one after another of them into the ground, stem down, until he had outlined a fairly good bed. This done, he continued setting more of the green limbs, pushing each firmly into the ground until the mass became so thick and matted that it resembled a green hedge.

"There," he announced. "One bed is ready for you."

"Call that a bed?" sniffed Stacy. "Why, that wouldn't hold a baby. He'd fall through the slats."

"Try it. Lie down on it," smiled Lige.

Chunky did so, gingerly, then little by little a sheepish smile crept over his countenance.

"Why, it does hold me up."

"Of course it does."

"Say, fellows, this is great. It's softer than any feather bed I ever slept in. But it wouldn't be half so funny if a fellow made a mistake and got a branch off a thorn bush; would it, now?"

One after the other, the boys took turns in trying the new bed, and each was enthusiastic over it.

"I'll never sleep on any other kind as long as I live," decided Ned. "I'll have a tent in the back yard and a pine bed under it. What do you say, fellows?"

"I have an idea," smiled the Professor, "that you will get all you want of the experience this summer. Some other trips have been planned for you, and you no doubt will spend many nights in the open air before you return to your homes this fall. I'll say no more on the subject at present."

And Professor Zepplin steadfastly stuck to his word, leaving to their youthful imaginations the solution of the problem that he had presented.

"Get busy for firewood," called Lige.

"Why, it's almost dark," exclaimed Ned. "Where is that pack train? What are we going to do, Professor?"

"Ask the guide. He knows everything. He's the original wizard," laughed the German. "What do you think about it, Lige?"

"I might as well tell you all now--the pack train undoubtedly is lost in the mountains. We probably shall see nothing of Jose nor the pack train until some time to-morrow."

"Yes; but what are we going to do?" demanded Walter. "Here we are, without a thing to eat, or a place to sleep."

"We have the pine beds," answered Tad. "That's a place to sleep, anyway."

"But we can't eat the beds," jeered Chunky.

"If you young gentlemen will build a fire, I'll see what I can do about getting you some supper," advised Lige." You know, we have to get used to difficulties in the mountains. In a short time you should be well able to take care of yourselves without any of my help."

Lige disappeared in the bushes, returning a few moments later, carrying a brace of some sort of animal by the hind legs.

"What's that?" demanded Stacy Brown, his eyes growing large.

"Jack-rabbits," answered the guide. "There are two of them. I shot them, and now we'll eat them. I was providing a supper for you when you heard those shots."

The boys set up a cheer. Now that the wholesome air of the mountains had in reality taken possession of their beings, they found themselves able to arouse enthusiasm over almost any subject.

Lige skilfully skinned the rabbits and dressed them. By the time he had accomplished this the fire was burning high, and out of it he scraped a bed of red hot coals, about which he built an oven of stones.

"Get two sharp sticks," he directed.

On these he spit the rabbits, thrusting them over the coals to cook, while the boys looked on wonderingly.

"You see," said the Professor, "it is possible for a man to find sustenance in almost any place--that is, if he knows how."

"I'd starve to death if I were turned loose up here," said Chunky.

"Of course you would; and I probably should share the same fate. The only mountain subject with which I am familiar is geology," said the Professor.

"And you can't eat rocks," grinned Ned.

"Just so."

"Now, boys, if you will go to my saddle bags you will find salt and pepper and some hard tack. Bring it all over here, fill your folding cups with water, and then I think we'll be ready for supper," announced the guide, after the rabbits had been done to a rich brown.

"Pardon me, sir, but I'm curious to know what we're going to do for plates, knives and forks," asked Tad.

"Do?

"Why, my young friend, we shall do without them. If you'll watch me carefully you will learn how."

By Lige's direction, the boys squatted down about a flat rock, after which the guide proceeded to carve the rabbits with his hunting-knife, seasoning the pieces with salt and pepper, yet doing all with tantalizing deliberation.

The boys looked on expectantly.

"Much as I need money, I wouldn't take four dollars and a half for my appetite at this very moment," declared Ned Rector, earnestly.

"It can't beat mine, fellows," laughed Walter. "I tell you, there's nothing like falling off a mountain to give a chap a full-grown hankering for real food."

"I should imagine it would shake one down a bit," agreed Tad. "What do you think about it, Chunky?"

But Chunky's reply was not clear to them, for the greater part of his face was buried in a flank of jack-rabbit, and he was able to talk with his eyes alone, which at that moment were large and expressive.

Never had a meal seemed to taste so good to these boys as did this crude repast, served on a rock several thousand feet in the air and with only such conveniences for eating it as nature had provided. But good humor prevailed and everybody was happy.

Chunky at last paused from his labor long enough to go to the spring for a cup of water.

"While you are up you might fetch some for the rest of us," suggested Ned.

So Chunky gathered up the cups and plodded to the spring, chewing vigorously as he went. However, finding it inconvenient to carry all the cups at one time, he left his own at the spring, returning with those of the others, filled with cool, sparkling water.

The boys were profuse in their thanks, to which Stacy bowed with great ceremony and returned to the spring for more water.

For the moment, in the conversation that followed, they forgot Clunky entirely. But he was recalled sharply to their minds a few minutes later.

"Pussy, pussy, pussy!"

Ned and Tad turned inquiringly at the sound. Lige and the Professor, being engaged in earnest conversation at the time, had not heard Stacy Brown's plaintive call off behind the rocks youder.

The Pony Riders looked at each other and roared.

"Well, what do you think of that?" laughed Ned. "That kid has gone and picked up a cat. Who would ever think of finding a cat up here?"

"What's that?" demanded Lige sharply, turning to them.

"Why, Chunky's found a----"

"Pussy, pussy, pussy! Nice pussy. Come here, pussy. That's a good kittie. Puss, puss, puss," continued the soothing voice of the boy.

Had Lige Thomas been projected from a huge bow-gun he probably would not have leaped forward with much greater quickness than he did in this instance, bowling over the Professor as he sprang by him, and making for the spring m mighty strides.

"Leave him alone!" he roared.

The guide had heard and understood. He was hurrying to the rescue.

Those by the camp fire heard two sharp, quick explosions from the guide's revolver, followed by a squall of rage and pain and a great floundering about in the bushes. Then the guide appeared around the corner of a large rock, leading Chunky by one ear, the latter taking as long strides as his short legs would permit, to relieve the strain on the aforesaid ear.

"Wha--what----" stammered the Professor.

The boys had sprung to their feet in alarm at the crack of the pistol, and stood, amazement written on their faces, as Lige and Chunky came toward them.

"What's the row?" asked Ned Rector in as firm a voice as he could muster.

"I got a pussy and he tried to shoot it," wailed Chunky.

"Pussy! Huh! He got a bob-cat and he was trying to catch the brute, " growled the guide. "Lucky I got there when I did."

Stacy's eyes opened wide and his face blanched.

"A--a bob-cat?" they gasped.

"Yes; I put a shot into him, but it did not kill kill him! Hear him squall?" the guide made answer.

"Well of all the idiotic things I ever heard of!" exclaimed Ned, gazing at Chunky in bewilderment.

"Yes; it was all of that," grinned Lige.