Chapter XVII. The Ponies Stampede
 

Next morning the camp was stirring as the first gray streaks appeared on the eastern horizon.

Each saddle bag was quickly packed with hard tack, coffee and other necessaries which might be easily carried, the rest of the space being taken up with cartridges and the like. Blankets were rolled, ready to be strapped behind the saddles on the ponies' backs.

The luggage was to be reduced to the absolute needs of the party, but with the possibility of having to remain out over night, their requirements were greater than if they had intended to return the same evening.

Before they had finished their hurried breakfast, Ben Tackers appeared, accompanied by two vicious looking hounds, whose red eyes and beetle brows made the boys hesitate to approach them at first.

However, after the Pony Riders had tossed small chunks of cooked bear meat to them, the animals, by wagging their tails, showed that nothing need be feared from them.

No sooner were the guns brought out than the dogs, beginning to understand what was in the air, bounded from one to another of the lads, barking and yelping with keen delight.

All was activity in the camp. Ponies were quickly rubbed down, saddled and bridled, blankets strapped on, and, at a command from Tad Butler, the young hunters fairly threw themselves into their saddles. The party moved off, with the enthusiastic riders waving their hats and shouting farewells to those who had been left behind.

Jose swung a dishpan, grinning broadly, while the Professor smiled and nodded at the departing horsemen. In a few moments the voices of the boys had become only a distant murmur.

"Come into my tent a moment, Mr. Tackers," invited the Professor.

The old mountaineer accepted the invitation apparently somewhat grudgingly.

"I hear considerable about gold being found in this neighborhood, occasionally, Mr. Tackers. What has been your experience, may I ask?"

"There's some as has found pay dirt," answered Ben. "But I reckon Ben Tackers don't bother his head about it."

"Hm-m-m-m," mused the Professor. "What is the nearest railroad station to this placet"

"Eagle Pass. 'Bout twenty miles from here, due east."

"How long would it take you to make the trip there and back?"

"Wouldn't make it again. Just been there. Haven't any horse."

"I have a horse, Mr. Tackers, and I should very much like to have you make this trip for me," announced the Professor, coming directly to the point. "I will pay you well for your trouble, but with the understanding that you say nothing of it to anyoue. The errand on which I am asking you to go is a confidential one. You will not mention it even to Lige Thomas. And, of course, it goes without saying that I do not wish the boys to know about it, either."

Ben peered at the Professor from behind his bushy eyebrows, with suspicion plainly written in his beady eyes.

"What for?" he grunted.

"That I cannot tell you--in fact it is not necessary for you to know. When you get there, all you will be required to do will be to hand two packages to the express agent there, with instructions to forward them at once to their destination, which will be Denver."

"What'll you give?"

"How much will you charge?" asked the Professor.

Ben considered for a moment.

"'Bout fifty cents, I reckon," he answered hesitatingly, as if thinking the amount named would be too much.

"I'll give you five times that," announced the Professor promptly.

"No; fifty cents 'll be 'bout right."

"How soon can you start?"

"Now, I reckon."

"Be ready in an hour, and I will have the packages for you. When will you return?"

"To-night."

"Good. Now he off and get yourself ready. You know where my horse is. And, by the way, I shall want you to make the trip again no later than the day after to-morrow, as I shall expect an answer to my message by that time. For that service I shall be glad to pay you the same."

"No; fifty cents will cover it all."

"Have it your own way."

Ben, understanding that the interview was at an end, rose and left the tent. Professor Zepplin then took one of the ore specimens from his pocket and packed it carefully in a small pasteboard box, wrapping and tying the package with great care.

Next, he wrote industriously for some twenty minutes. The letter he sealed in a large, tough envelope, after which he leaned back, lost in thought.

"Things couldn't be better," he muttered. Ben, upon his return, received the packages which he was to express, and a few moments later had ridden from camp on old Bobtail, headed for Eagle Pass.

"I rather think I have turned a trick that will surprise some people," chuckled the Professor. "Perhaps I'll even surprise myself."

Later in the morning he strolled up to the cave entrance, hammer in hand, breaking off a bit of rock here and there, all of which he dropped into a little leathern bag that he carried attached to his belt. Yet the Professor wisely concluded not to take the chance of entering the cave alone, much as he wished to do so.

The young hunters, in the meantime, were plodding along on their ponies on their way to the hunting grounds, which lay some ten miles to the northward of their camp. They found rough traveling. Instead of following the ridges, they were now moving at right angles to them, which carried the boys over mountains, down through gulches and ravines, over narrow, dangerous passes and rocky slopes that they would not have believed it was possible for either man or horse to scale.

"Regular goats, these ponies," said Tad proudly. "Regular trick ponies, all of them."

"They have to be or break their necks," replied Walter.

"Or ours," added Ned Rector.

"I don't see any wild beasts, but I feel hungry," declared Stacy. "My stomach tells me it's time for the 'chuck wagon,' as Lige Thomas calls it, to drive up."

"Tighten your belt--tighten your belt," jeered Ned. "Cheer up! You'll be hungrier bye-and-bye."

The boys munched their hard tack in the saddle, the guide being anxious to get, before nightfall, to the grounds where Tackers had advised him the bob-cats were plentiful. Already the dogs were lolling with tongues protruding from their mouths, not being used to running the trail in such warm weather. Now and then they would plunge into a cool mountain stream, immersing themselves to the tips of their noses where the water was deep enough, and sending up a shower of glistening spray as they shook themselves free of the water after springing to the bank again.

It was close to the hour of sunset when the guide finally gave the word to halt. Lige prepared the supper while the boys bathed and rubbed down their ponies, after which they busied themselves cutting boughs for their beds, which they now were well able to make without assistance from their guide.

Bronzed almost to a copper color, the lads were teeming with health and spirits. Even Walter Perkins, for the first time in his life, felt the red blood coursing healthfully through his veins, for he was fast hardening himself to the rough life of the mountains.

All were tired enough to seek their beds early. Wrapping themselves in their blankets, they were soon asleep.

Midnight came, and the camp fire slowly died away to a dull, lurid pile of red hot coals that shed a flicker of light now and then, as some charred stick flamed up and was consumed. A long, weird, wailing cry, as of some human being in dire distress, broke on the stillness of the night.

The boys awoke with a start.

"What's that?" whispered Chunky, shivering in his bed.

"Nothing," growled Ned. "What did you wake me up for?"

Once more the thrilling cry woke the echoes, wailing from rock to rock, and gathering volume, until it seemed as if there were many voices instead of only one.

The ponies sprang to their feet with snorts of fear, while the boys, little less startled, leaped from their beds with blanching faces.

The guide was already on his feet, rifle in hand.

Again the cry was repeated, this time seeming to come from directly over their heads, somewhere up the rocky side of the gulch in which they were encamped.

Even horses trained to mountain work had been known to stampede under less provocation. The frightened ponies suddenly settled back on their haunches. There was a sound of breaking leather, as the straps with which they were tethered parted, and the little animals were free.

"Stop them! Stop them! Jump for them!" roared the guide.

But his warning command had come to late. With neighs of terror, the animals dashed straight through the camp, some leaping over the boys' cots as they went.

"Catch them!" thundered Lige. "It's a cougar stampeding them so he can catch them himself."