Chapter IX. Rifles and Ponies
 

After having been well rubbed down by the guide, and given a steaming cup of tea, Walter was put to bed, protesting stubbornly that he was all right and that their attentions were unnecessary.

But Lige Thomas was firm.

"You'll be that lame, to-morrow, you can't reach a stirrup. I want you to be fit, for we have a long journey ahead of us."

Walter soon fell into a deep sleep, while Tad and Ned, too full of the events of the night to go to sleep at once, sat by the camp fire discussing the stirring scenes through which they had so recently passed, until the deep, rhythmic snores of Stacy Brown reminded them that they, too, should seek their pine bough cots if they intended to get any more rest that night.

Next morning the camp slept late in spite of itself--that is, all save Lige Thomas. He was up with the sun, busying himself with getting the outfit ready for a prompt start.

At nine o'clock the guide routed them out, and the boys, after washing themselves in the cool, refreshing waters of a little mountain stream, announced themselves as ready to eat anything that might be placed before them.

Walter, still pale from his recent experience, but smiling happily, took his place with the rest and ate as heartily as they did of the crisp bacon that Jose had prepared.

"Now that you young gentleman are all together, it's a good time to give you some advice," said Lige.

"Guess I'm the one who needs it most," laughed Walter.

"He's had his already," chuckled Chunky Brown.

"But yours is still coming to you," added Ned maliciously.

"You must keep in mind that these mountains are full of danger," continued the guide. "Even an experienced mountaineer sometimes goes wrong, losing his life as the result. So, before any one of you takes a step, be sure that your foot is going to land on something solid. As we get up into the Park Range you will find the country rougher, and still more caution will be necessary. But you're going to be all right. You boys have the right sort of stuff in you. Not many fellows of Master Tad's age would have had the courage to do what he did last night."

Tad Butler flushed a rosy red, and devoted his attention to his bacon.

"Yes, he saved my life," breathed Walter. "You all did your share too."

"There's one thing I should like to do more than anything else," interrupted Ned, changing the subject.

"And that?" inquired the Professor.

"To shoot a bear."

"Wow!" exclaimed Chunky.

"And so should I," agreed Tad, his blue eyes opening wide. "The biggest thing I ever shot was a woodchuck."

"You will have a chance to do some hunting soon," replied the guide. "We shall be on the hunting grounds in a day or so, if we have good luck, and none of you falls off a mountain. Then I am going to show you some real sport."

"Oh, that will be fine," chorused the boys.

"I believe I should like to try my hand at it, too," added the Professor. "Do you know, young gentlemen, I have not been on a hunting trip since I hunted wild boar in the Black Forest with General von Moltke! You may talk about the savagery of your native bear. But, for real brutality, I recommend the wild boar."

"Yes, but wait a minute," objected Ned Rector, his face sobering. "How are we going to hunt? We have no guns to hunt with. Mr. Thomas has the only rifle in the party."

"That's so," agreed Tad. "I hadn't thought of that. I should have brought my old rifle with me."

The guide smiled good-naturedly and motioned to Jose.

"Do you know where that long package marked 'hard tack' is, Jose?" he asked.

The cook said he did.

"Bring it to me," directed Lige so low that the others did not catch his words.

The package was placed on the ground at Lige's side a moment later.

"What is it?" asked Chunky, stretching his neck so he could look over the table.

"Your curiosity will be the death of you some day if you don't correct the habit," warned Ned. "If you'll use your eyes you will observe that the package contains hard tack, and----"

However, something in the shape of the four wrapped objects taken from the bundle, and laid on the ground, did not exactly correspond with their idea of what hard tack looked like.

The boys rose full of curiosity.

"Wha--what----" gasped Ned.

"It's--guns!" fairly shouted Tad Butler.

Sure enough, it was.

Undoing the other three packages, the guide laid before their astonished eyes four handsome thirty-eight calibre repeating rifles.

The boys looked at each other questioningly.

At first they could scarcely believe it to be true.

"Are--are they for us--for us to use?" stammered Tad.

"That's what they're for, young gentlemen," smiled the guide. "You surely didn't expect to go hunting without guns, did you? At the Professor's suggestion I have been keeping them as a sort of surprise for you."

"Three cheers for Lige Thomas and Professor Zepplin," cried Ned Rector, in which the boys joined with a will, their shouts echoing back to them from the rocky peaks on the other side of the gulch.

"Rifles and ponies! We surely ought to be happy!" laughed Tad, with flashing eyes. "Any boy with those two things wouldn't change places with a king, would he, fellows?"

"No!" answered the Pony Riders at the top of their voices. "Not even for a whole monarchy!"

Lige was beset by a perfect clamor of questions as to when they were to have a chance to try the guns on real game.

"One at a time--one at a time," begged the guide. "First I must find out how well you boys can shoot. Has any of you ever handled a gun before?"

"I have," spoke up Tad promptly.

"And I," added Ned Rector.

"I've done a little shooting with my thirty-two calibre," said Walter. "But I don't call myself much of a shot."

"And how about you, Master Stacy?" smiled the guide.

"I? Why, I can shoot a bull's eye with a how and arrow. But somehow, when I try to fire a real gun, I can't help shutting my eyes before the thing goes off."

"That's bad."

"Then I don't hit anything--that is, not the thing I want to hit," he added humorously, at which there was a loud laugh from the other boys.

"Won't do at all," decided the guide with a shake of the head. "You will have to learn to do better than that before we take you out."

"Yes, he'll have to before I go gunning with him," growled Ned Rector. "Any man who shuts his eyes when he's getting ready to shoot, is no friend of mine, especially if I happen to be in the neighborhood."

"Yes," agreed Lige. "We'll have to go out for a little practice--this morning if you wish. I guess we can spare the time. But we must not waste too much of it, as we have an eighteen mile journey ahead of us over a rough trail, and I want to reach Bald Mountain before night.

To-morrow will be Sunday, and we must have a nice camping place, as you will want to rest and get ready for the busy week ahead of us. At any rate, you boys can try out the guns this morning and get the sights regulated. Jose bring me a box of those thirty-eights, will you?"

Wistful glances were cast at the pasteboard box, as the boys fondled the guns, worked the cartridge ejectors, examined the magazines and looked over the sights at imaginary game.

"Better fall to, now, and strike camp, so the pack train can go on ahead," advised the guide. "When we finish shooting you can strap your guns to the saddles, or carry them over your backs, as you prefer. You see they have a leather on them for the purpose."

There were no doubts in the minds of the Pony Riders as to how they would carry the weapons. As they set about obeying the instructions of the guide, they pictured themselves riding over the mountains like a troop of cavalry, rifles hanging across their backs, following the trail of a band of real Indians.

The camp was struck in record time that morning, and the tents, neatly rolled, soon were strapped to the backs of the sleepy burros. Jose attended to the packing of the commissary.

"I think we are ready, Mr. Thomas," announced Tad, their task having been completed.

The boys shouldered their guns proudly.

"Oh, yes; there is something else that goes with it," advised Lige, after glancing critically over the boys and their outfits." I had almost forgotten it. Fine general I'd make in war time!"

The guide ran to the cook tent which Jose was packing, returning in a moment with another of those mysterious packages.

By now the Pony Riders were worked up to a high pitch of excitement and anticipation.

"What have you got?" asked Chunky, with his usual curiosity.

"I'll show you if you'll wait a minute," whereupon the guide opened the package, holding the contents toward them.

"What is it!" marveled Chunky, eyeing the things gingerly.

"I know! Cartridge belts!" shouted Ned Rector.

And cartridge belts they were--regulation canvas belts, each with a shining brass buckle, bearing a spread eagle on its face, the belts each having compartments for forty-five rounds of ammunition.

Once more the Pony Riders made the mountains ring with their shouts of joy in which not even the dignified German Professor could resist joining.

Stacy Brown in the meantime, had been greedily filling his belt with the cartridges, until finally there was room for no more.

The other three boys, who had quickly strapped on their belts, were parading about with guns on their shoulders, Walter Perkins giving them their orders.

"Wow! But this thing is heavy," exclaimed Chunky, the weight of his loaded belt tugging at his waist line.

"Here, here, Master Brown! You don't need all those shells. Put all but ten of them back in the box," laughed the guide,

"They're not good to eat, Chunky," advised Walter.

"Huh!" grunted Ned Rector. "Anybody would think he was going into battle. Why, a soldier doesn't carry any more bullets than that. And what's more, Mr. Chunky Brown, if you intend to shoot off a belt full of those shells, it's me for a rocky cave where the bullets can't reach. Eh, Tad?"

Tad nodded and grinned.

"I'm with you in that."

"We all have precious lives to save," added Ned.

"We are all ready," announced the guide. "Jose, you bear to the right after you leave camp and follow the blazed trail. We shall take the lower trail. Push right along so as to have a meal ready for us when we get in. We'll be hungry by that time."

"Have we any lunch with us?" asked the Professor.

"Yes, in the saddle bags."

A few moments later the boys were waking the echoes with the crashing explosions of their weapons as they banged away at the targets.