Chapter XII. Rough Riders in the Saddle
 

The afternoon had grown old when a distant "C-oo-ee-e," told them that Lige Thomas was on his way back to camp.

They answered his call with a wild whoop, and were for rushing off to meet him. But Professor Zepplin advised them to remain where they were and get the fire going in case Lige had failed to find the pack train. He no doubt would bring food of some kind with him. The fire would be ready and thus no time would be lost in preparing the first meal of the day, which, in this case, would be breakfast, dinner and supper all in one.

The boys awaited the guide's approach with impatience, some pacing back and forth, while others coaxed the fire into a roaring blaze, at the same time confiding to each other how hungry they were.

After what had seemed an interminable time they heard Jose urging along the lazy burros.

It was a gladsome sound to this band of hungry boys, whose ordinarily healthy appetites, under the bracing mountain air and the long fast, had taken on what the Professor described as a "razor edge."

"Now you may go," he nodded.

With a shout, the boys dashed pell-mell to meet the pack train, and, falling in behind the slow-moving burros, urged them on with derisive shouts and sundry resounding slaps on the animals' flanks.

"Had anything to eat!" asked the guide.

"Not enough to give us indigestion," answered Ned. "Cold water is the most nourishing thing we've touched since last night."

"But I left you a rabbit. Didn 't you find it?"

"We did not. It must have come to life some time during the night and dug its way out," laughed Tad.

"And we've got a surprise for you," announced Stacy, swelling with pride.

"What's it all about?" laughed the guide.

"You'll see when you get to camp," answered Chunky. "I don't need guns to hunt with. A stout club for mine."

After having shown the cat to Lige and getting his promise to teach them how to skin it, the boys set to with a will to assist in the unpacking. While they were pitching the tents over the pine cots Jose got out his Buzzacot range, which he started up in the open, and in a few moments the savory odors of the cooking reached the nostrils of the Pony Riders, drawing from them a shout of approval.

By the time the meal was ready the tents had been pitched and the boys had returned from the spring, rubbing their faces with their coarse towels, their cheeks glowing and their eyes sparkling in anticipation of the feast.

Chunky reached the table first, greedily surveying what had been placed on it.

"Hooray, fellows!" he shouted. "Hot biscuit and--and honey. What do you think of that?"

"Honey? Why, Mr. Thomas, where did you get honey?" asked Walter.

"Found a bee tree on my way back, and cut it down. I think you will find there is enough of it to double you all up," grinned Lige.

"We'll take all chances," advised Ned. "But what's this! It looks like jam."

"Jam?" exclaimed Chunky, stretching his neck and eyeing the dish longingly.

"Yes; wild plum jam," answered the guide.

"Wow!" chuckled Stacy under his breath.

"Now, fall to, young gentlemen," directed the Professor. "I am free to admit that I am hungry, too. I think I shall help myself to some of that wild plum jam and biscuit, first It reminds me of old times. We sometimes had jam when I was with the German----"

"Army," added Ned.

"Yes."

But the Professor was lost in his enjoyment of the biscuit, which he had liberally smeared with the delicious jam.

Chunky did even better than that. He buried his biscuit under a layer of jam, over which he spread a thick coating of honey.

Ned fixed him with a stern eye.

"Remember, sir, that a certain amount of dignity befits the office of president of the Pony Riders Club, "he said.

Chunky colored.

"It's good, anyway."

"Then, I think I'll try some myself," announced Ned, helping himself liberally to the honey and jam. "I'd lose my dignity for a mouthful of that, any day," he decided after having sampled the combination. "President Brown, I withdraw my criticism. I offer you my humble apologies. You are not only the champion hunter of the Pony Riders, but you also are the champion food selector and eater. Next thing we know you'll be providing us with bear steak."

"Bears, did you say?" demanded Stacy in a voice not unmixed with awe. "Are there bears up here?"

"I reckon there are," smiled the guide. "We are in the bear country now. I had a tough battle with one in a cave not far from here, several years ago. I came near losing my life too, and----"

"A cave?" interrupted Tad.

"Yes, the country is full of caves. Some of them are so big that you would lose yourself in them almost at once; while others are merely dens where bears and other animals live. Besides this, there are many abandoned mines up the range further. All are more or less interesting, and some, for various reasons, are dangerous to enter."

"Shall we see any of them?" asked Tad eagerly.

"All you want. Perhaps we may even explore some if we come across any," said the guide.

This announcement filled the boys with excitement.

"What I want to know, is, when do we go hunting?" asked Ned.

"That depends. Perhaps Tuesday. We shall need a dog. But I know an old settler who will lend us his dog, if it is not out. Of course, dogs can't follow the trail of an animal as well, now, as they could with snow on the ground. But this dog, you will find, is a wonder. He can ride a pony, or do almost anything that you might set him at."

"I think I'll ride my own pony and let the dog walk," announced Ned.

Supper having been finished, the party gathered about the camp fire for their evening chat, after which, admonishing Stacy to keep within his tent and not to go borrowing trouble, the boys turned in for a sound sleep.

As yet, they had been unable to attempt any fancy riding with their ponies, owing to the rugged nature of the country through which they had been journeying. So in the morning they asked Lige if he knew of a place where they could do some "stunts," as Ned Rector phrased it.

The guide said that, by making a detour in their journey that day, they would cross table lands several acres in extent and covered with grass.

"And come to think of it, that will be an ideal place for us to drop off for our noon meal," he added. "We'll let Jose go on again, and I don't think he can lose himself so easily this time. The trail is so plainly marked that he can't miss it."

The boys were now all anxiety to start, while the ponies, after their Sunday rest, were almost as full of life as were their owners. The little animals were becoming more sure-footed every day, and Ned said that, before the trip was finished, "Jimmie" would be able to walk a slack rope.

An early start was made, so that the party reached the promised table lands shortly before ten o'clock in the forenoon. A temporary camp was quickly pitched.

At their urgent request, Professor Zepplin told the boys to go ahead and enjoy themselves.

"But be careful that you don't break your necks," he added, with a laugh. "I guess I had better go along to see that you do not."

They assured him that nothing was further from their intention, and quickly casting aside guns and cartridge belts, they threw themselves into their saddles again for a jolly romp.

The great, green field, surrounded on all sides by tall trees, made the place an ideal one for their purpose.

"Tell you what let's do," suggested Tad. "Suppose we start with a race? We'll race the length of the field and back. We'll do it three times, and the one who wins two times out of three will be it."

To this all agreed. Appointing Professor Zepplin as starter, the Pony Riders lined up for the word.

The first heat was run easily, none of the ponies being put to its utmost speed. Walter Perkins won the heat.

The next two heats were different. This time the battle lay between Tad Butler and Ned Rector. It was a beautiful race, the little Indian ponies seeming to enter thoroughly into the spirit of the contest, stretching themselves out to their full lengths, and, with heads on a level with their backs, fairly flew across the great plot of green.

Up to within a moment of the finish of the second heat the two ponies were racing neck and neck.

Tad hitched in his saddle a little, throwing the greater part of his weight on the stirrups. He slapped Texas sharply on the flank with the flat of his hand.

Texas seemed to leap clear of the ground, planting himself on all fours just over the line, the winner by a neck.

The third heat was merely a repetition of the second. All agreed that Tad's superior horsemanship, alone, had won the race for him. Ned took his defeat good-naturedly.

By this time, the boys had come to feel fully as much at home in the saddle as they formerly had been out of it. Even Stacy Brown, though he did not sit his saddle with the same grace that marked the riding of Tad Butler and Ned Rector, more practiced horsemen, was nevertheless no mean rider.

"We will now try some cowboy riding," announced Tad, who, as master of horse, was supposed to direct the riding of the club. "Who of you can pick up a hat on the run?"

"Don't all speak at once," said Ned, after a moment's silence on the part of the band.

"I'll show you," promised Tad.

Galloping into camp the boy fetched his sombrero, which he carried well out into the field and tossed away. Then, bidding the boys ride up near the spot to watch him, he drew off some ten rods, and, wheeling, spurred his pony to a run.

Tad rose in the stirrups as he neared the spot where the hat lay, keeping his eyes fixed intently upon it.

All at once he dropped to the saddle and slipped the left foot from the stirrup. Grasping the pommel with the left hand, he appeared to dive head first toward the ground.

They saw his long hair almost brush the grass; one of his hands swept down and up, and once more Tad Butler rose standing, in his stirrups, uttering a cowboy yell as he waved the sombrero on high.

The boys howled with delight--that is, all did save Stacy Brown.

"Huh! That's nothing. I can do that myself," he grunted. "I've seen them do that in the wild west shows too many times not to know how myself."

Walter smiled, with a twinkle in his eyes.

"Why not show us, then?" he said.

"I will," replied Chunky, confidently.

"Got your life insured?" asked Ned. "If you haven't I would advise you to go easy. Tad is an experienced rider."

"Don't you worry about me, Ned Rector. Guess I know how to ride. Let me have that hat, Tad," he demanded as the latter came trotting up to the group.

Stacy, his face flushed, determination plainly showing in his eyes, stretched forth his hand for the sombrero. Riding bravely out into the field, he tossed it to the ground. The first time he rode swiftly by it, leaning over to look at the hat as he passed, holding to the pommel firmly with his left hand.

Stacy dismounted and removed the hat carefully to one side.

"What's that for?" demanded Ned, wonderingly.

"Hat too close to me. I couldn't get it," explained Chunky.

The boys roared.

"Why don't you move the pony? You don't have to move the hat, you ninny."

Once more Stacy approached the sombrero, his pony running well, and as he drew near it, they saw him rise in his saddle just as Tad Butler had done a few minutes before.

"By George, he's going to try it," exclaimed Ned.

"Be careful, Chunky," warned Walter.

"He's got to learn," declared Tad.

Then Chunky essayed the feat.

At the moment when he freed his left foot from the stirrup, he threw his body sharply to the right, reaching for the hat without taking the precaution to grasp the pommel.

As a result, instead of stopping when he reached the hat, the boy kept on going. Fortunately, his right foot freed itself from the stirrup at the same time, or there might have been a different ending. Chunky turned a double somersault, lay still for a moment, then struggled up, rubbing his body gingerly, as the rest of the party came hurrying up to him.

"Are you hurt?" asked Tad apprehensively.

"No; that's the way I always get off," grinned Chunky.