The Pony Rider Boys in the Ozarks by Frank Gee Patchin
Chapter X. The Professor Distinguishes Himself
The boys uttered a cry of dismay.
"You don't mean--you can't mean they have been here again?"
"It looks that way," replied Tad. "Both Walter's and Ned's ponies are gone. See, the ropes have been untied, not cut. The ponies surely did not do that."
The Professor was much too excited to speak for the moment.
"I am glad they did not take your mount, Professor. That is one thing to be thankful for, anyway," said Tad. "I don't understand this business at all."
"Why, they must have been hanging about our camp all the time. They followed us here," exploded Ned. "We are a lot of tenderfeet."
"Some of us," suggested Chunky.
"This is no joke," snapped Ned, turning on him almost savagely. "We are in a fix."
"Yes, but we've got two mules left, haven't we," queried the boy whimsically.
"It's an outrage!" shouted the Professor. "I'll have the law on them whoever they are. They shall suffer for this!"
"Yes, but first we shall have to catch them, Professor," returned Tad. "It seems we were not misinformed when they warned us to be on the lookout for horse thieves."
"In Springfield, yes. I had no idea it was as bad as this. They certainly can't get away without being caught."
"I don't know about that. But I do know that we have been easy game for the thieves."
"Do you think they took anything else?" demanded the Professor.
"I don't see that anything else is missing, do you, Ned?"
"See, they took off the saddles. Didn't want them for some reason. I'm glad of that. By the way, did they get my saddle when they stole my pony last night?" asked Tad.
"No, I had your saddle in my tent," Walter informed him.
"The question is--" began Tad.
"The first question is, what has become of Eagle-eye," interrupted the Professor.
"That's so. I had forgotten about him," said Tad.
The lads looked at each other questioningly. The same thought was in the mind of each.
"You--you don't suppose--" muttered Walter.
"Of course! That's it! It's Eagle-eye!" exclaimed Ned.
"Don't be too quick to accuse anyone, young gentlemen. It is very irritating, I know. But let us be slow about placing the charge at any man's door, be he copper colored or white."
"But, Professor," expostulated Ned Rector, "he goes away, and while absent from camp two ponies are stolen. To-day we leave him halfway down the rocks and upon our return, two more ponies are missing, as well as the Indian himself. What can we think, but that he has had something to do with our loss?"
"If I remember correctly, it was Eagle-eye who called our attention to the fact that the animals had been stolen last night. You thought they had broken away," recalled Professor Zepplin.
"That's so," agreed Ned.
"It certainly does look bad. If Eagle-eye had no hand in the theft, why should he run away as he seems to have done?" asked Tad.
"This is what is known as circumstantial evidence," the Professor informed them. "I do not say that the Indian is guiltless. I am simply counseling caution. Wait. We shall soon be at the mines, and from there, we can set the officers of the law on the track, which we shall do as soon as we are able to communicate with Mr. Munson."
"Yes, but how are we going to get there?" asked Ned.
"Guess we'll have to ride the mules," grinned Stacy.
"You may be a mule driver if you wish--I'll walk," retorted Ned.
"That's what we all shall have to do," laughed Tad. "Glad the thieves didn't take our guns."
"And the food," reminded Stacy.
"Yes. Probably they knew you had your appetite with you," laughed Ned.
In the meantime Tad had begun a search about the place for clues. He discovered where the animals had been taken from camp, but, as in the case with the loss of the other animals, the trail suddenly disappeared a short distance from camp.
"They seem to have headed for the west. We are sure of that much," decided Ned.
"Which means nothing at all," answered Tad. "They may have turned and gone back or else are traveling along ahead of us. In either case we can't follow them. Do you not think we had better be starting, Professor? We cannot afford to lose a minute now. I want my pony."
"And so do I--and I--and I," added the lads, one after the other.
"I think so. Yet how are we going to find our way? We shall be lost."
"No, we can't get lost, Professor," interrupted Stacy.
"Not lost--cannot get lost?"
"Why not?" glared the Professor.
"We can't get lost," announced Stacy impressively, "because we don't know where we are, anyway."
A roar of laughter greeted this assertion. It did more than anything else to put the boys in a better frame of mind--unless perhaps it might have been the return of the lost ponies.
"I am forced to admit the correctness of Master Stacy's logic," replied the scientist, after their laughter had subsided.
"It seems fairly simple to me," spoke up Tad. "The mountains run in a southeasterly direction. If we follow that direction we are bound to come out somewhere--"
"In Arkansas or the Indian Territory or some other place," cut in Ned Rector.
"As I understand it," went on Tad, not heeding the interruption, "these gorges or canyons in the Ozark range follow the same general direction. We have one right here by us, and we have the sun above us. Between the two we should be able to find our way."
"That sounds promising, Master Tad. You are a level-headed young man, even if you do take long chances and do foolish things now and again. I shall adopt your suggestion and we'll be off at once."
They were forced to pack some of their belongings on the back of Professor Zepplin's mount, while each of the two mules was subjected to an additional load.
When the packing had been finished there was little room for anyone to ride, so Tad took one of the mules, Ned Rector the other, leading them by short ropes, and started off followed by Walter and Stacy on foot, with the Professor riding his own pony.
The boys moved away with broad grins on their faces as they thought of the spectacle they were creating. Yet there was none to watch their undignified progress. However, leading a mule and riding a pony were two distinctly different operations. The boys were in a hurry and the mules were not and over this difference of inclination they had many disagreements.
Once Ned lost his temper with the beast of burden that he had in tow, and used his crop rather too freely to suit the long-eared animal. The latter kicked until he kicked the pack from his back.
Amid the shouts of laughter of his companions, his face red and perspiring, Ned was obliged to gather up the pack in sections and strap it in place again, which he did after much endeavor. Thereafter he kept his temper.
"I've heard it said that a mule wouldn't kick after twelve o'clock," said Chunky. "Guess it wasn't true."
"Perhaps it is after twelve o'clock at night that was meant," suggested Tad.
"Mules are asleep then, aren't they?"
"Supposed to be, I guess."
"Then that's it," answered the fat boy somewhat enigmatically.
They failed to make any great distance that day. How far they had advanced they did not know. Shortly before sundown they called a halt at Professor Zepplin's suggestion.
The mules went to sleep while the boys were unloading them. Ned confessed that he was nearly fagged. Tad, on the other hand, declared that he had never felt better in his life.
"Hope they won't steal anymore live stock," said Ned. "If they do we'll have to pack the outfit on our own backs, which, after all, probably wouldn't be any harder than trying to lead a stubborn mule. I think I'll tie a string around the necks of the stock and hitch the string to my big-toe to-night. Then I'll know if anybody tries to run off with them."
"Run off with your big-toes?" queried Chunky.
"No, run off with the ponies, I said--I mean the pony and the mules."
Stacy's eyes lighted up appreciatively.
"I've got a string that you can use," he said. "I'll fix it up for you. Shall I?"
"You would like to see me lose my big-toes, wouldn't you? No, thank you, I'll furnish my own string if I decide to adopt the plan."
After supper had been cooked and eaten, and the dishes washed, all hands gathered around the camp-fire, where they remained until bedtime, which on that particular night was earlier than usual, because all were more or less tired after their active day.
It was decided that some one should be left on guard lest they lose their remaining stock. The Professor took the first half of the night, Tad going on at half past twelve and remaining through the rest of the night.
Nothing occurred to disturb the camp, for which all hands were thankful. Tents were quickly struck after breakfast and once more the outfit started out on the trail after having discussed the advisability of bearing to the west a little. Their final conclusion, however, was to keep within sight of the gorge.
Two days passed as the little outfit crawled along over the rough mountain passes, down through broad deep washes and narrow draws. It was trying work, but the lads kept up their spirits. So inured were they to hardships, by this time, that the unusual strain gave them little or no inconvenience.
On the morning of the third day they had about decided to change the course and try to find their way out of the mountains as the quickest method of getting out of their predicament.
They were gathering their equipment together preparatory to making a start in the new direction, when Tad startled the camp by a sudden exclamation of surprise.
"What is it this time?" cried the Professor, prepared for almost any surprise.
"I see smoke!"
"Oh, is that all," answered Ned disgustedly, not at first realizing the importance of the announcement to them. "I thought maybe you had discovered the missing ponies."
"Perhaps I have. Who knows? At any rate, don't you see it means we are going to meet some human beings at last? We haven't seen one, outside of our own party, in several days, though we have good reason for thinking that one or more has been near us."
"Smoke, smoke?" queried the Professor. "Where?"
"There, to the southwest."
"That's so, it is smoke. It surely is."
"Must be somebody's camp-fire," decided Tad, studying the wisps of vapor that were curling lazily up on the clear, warm morning air.
"Indeed, it must be," declared the Professor. "We must get in touch with them at once, for they no doubt will soon be on their way. We have not a minute to lose."
The Professor began bustling about excitedly.
"It will be an hour or more before we can hope to get there with our old local freight train," objected Ned. "They probably will be gone long before that."
"Yes. I have it," cried the Professor. "I will hurry over there on my pony. You boys come along at your leisure. Even if they do not wish to wait for the rest of our party, I shall be able to get directions at least, and perhaps to hire some one to pilot us on to the Red Star."
This seemed to be good judgment, so the boys hastened to saddle the Professor's mount, and in a few moments he was jogging away as rapidly as the uneven ground would permit, his eyes fixed on the distant spiral of smoke curling lazily upward.
"Guess we had better follow as fast as we can," suggested Tad.
"Chunky, get busy. What are you standing around with your hands in your pockets for while Rome is burning?" shouted Ned Rector. "Hurry up! Take down those tents, pack all the stuff over to the mules and--"
"And what are you going to do while I'm doing that?" drawled Stacy.
"Me? I'm going to boss the job. What did you suppose I was going to do?"
"Oh, that's about what I thought you would be doing. I'll pack my own stuff. You can leave yours here for all I care," laughed the fat boy, sauntering to his tent without the least attempt to hurry.
"Don't tease him so," advised Tad in a low voice.
"What, tease Chunky Brown? You couldn't tease Chunky with a club. I just say those things to get him started. He says such funny things."
Nevertheless, the camp was struck in record time that morning, and the pack mules loaded so rapidly that they turned back their soulful eyes in mild protest.
"Got a new job for you to-day, Chunky," announced Ned Rector while cinching the pack girths.
"What is it?"
"We've decided to let you follow along behind with a sharp stick and prod the mules so they will make better time."
"Think I'll wait till after twelve o'clock to-night," answered the fat boy.
They were off soon after that, but the mules had never seemed to move as slowly as they did that morning. Instead of an hour, more than two hours had passed before they finally came within hailing distance of the camp-fire. For some time, they had been finding difficulty in keeping it in sight, as the fire appeared to be dying down.
Tad shouted to attract the attention of the campers or the Professor to let them know the Pony Riders were coming. There was no reply, which caused the lads to wonder.
So they pushed the mules all they could, a vague apprehension that all was not as it should be, growing in their minds. They soon came upon the object of their search. What they found was a smouldering camp-fire.
"The camp is deserted," groaned Tad.
Not a person save themselves was within sight or sound. Professor Zepplin, too, had disappeared.