The Pony Rider Boys in the Ozarks by Frank Gee Patchin
Chapter XIV. Rescue Parties on the Trail
"Who is in charge in his place? There must be some one that I can talk to," demanded the lad, starting to his feet.
"Might see Tom Phipps, the assistant superintendent."
"Where is he? Tell me quickly."
"See that shack over there?"
"Well, if he ain't there, he's somewhere else."
"Thank you," said Tad, unheeding the fling.
Tad started for the shack at top speed. He burst into the place, which proved to be office and sleeping place as well, without even thinking to knock, so excited was he.
A young man, who sat studying a map, glanced up in surprise.
"Mr. Phipps--Mr. Thomas Phipps, I want," said Tad.
"I am he."
"I beg your pardon for my seeming rudeness, sir, but I'm in an awful hurry."
"So I have observed," smiled the young man. "What is it--is there something I can do for you?"
"Indeed there is. I had hoped to find Mr. Munson, as he would know who I am. You do not, but I am going to ask a very great favor of you--"
"Perhaps I may know, if you will tell me," smiled Phipps.
"I am Tad Butler, one of the Pony Rider Boys, and we're in an awful fix."
"Shake," nodded the assistant superintendent, extending his hand. "Of course I know about you. Dick has told me about your trips this summer and he's been expecting you almost any time now. When he left this morning he charged me to be on the lookout for you. Where's the rest of your party?"
"I'm afraid most of them are in trouble."
"Tell me about it."
Tad related in detail all that occurred since they left Springfield, not omitting the sudden disappearance of the Indian, nor the loss of the ponies.
"So you've been hit too, eh? You are not the only ones who have lost stock. It's getting to be a common thing in this part of the country. Nor do they confine their depredations to stealing horses. They help themselves liberally to whatever they happen to want. It's never seen again. They have some secret method of smuggling their plunder from the range that we can't discover," continued Phipps breezily.
"I am most concerned just now with getting food to my companions and having some one start out for the Professor," urged Tad.
"Yes, I'm thinking that over. There are not many ponies in camp here. We had more, but the same thing happened to them that did to yours," said the young miner. "I think Munson is planning to make a round-up of the country with the idea of breaking up the band. You stay here while I go out and see what I can do about it. By the way, have you had anything to eat?" asked Phipps suddenly.
Tad told him honestly what he had had.
"Three eggs and a drink of nanny goat milk, eh? Not much to travel more than thirty miles on. Can you cook?"
"After a fashion," admitted Tad.
"Then get to work. There's bacon. You'll find bread and butter in the large tin box there. Help yourself. I would cook it for you only I would rather get things going for your friends," said Phipps cordially.
Tad protested that he could help himself and urged the miner to make all haste possible. After the latter had left him, the lad lost no time in starting the fire and in a few moments had bacon sizzling in the spider and the coffee pot steaming. He found some cold potatoes which he fried in the grease of the bacon.
"Don't that smell good!" exclaimed Tad, as the odor of the cooking drifted up to his nostrils. "If it tastes half as good as it smells I'll have the meal of my life."
He was not disappointed. Tad ate and ate, yet he was wise enough to restrain himself and chew his food well, knowing full well that he would have to submit himself to a still further test of endurance before he could call his work done.
The lad was still eating when Tom Phipps returned.
"What luck?" cried Tad anxiously.
"It's all right. I've rounded up enough ponies for the party. I have called six of the miners from work. They are men who know the mountains. The cook in the chuck house is preparing food for you to take back with you--that is if you intend to go--"
"Of course I do," spoke up Tad quickly.
"I think it will be best for the whole party to return with you to the place where your friends are camped. From that point they can start on the trail. They'll find the Professor. No doubt about that. After you all get back we will talk with you about the loss of your stock. Perhaps your experience may help us to land the band. I hope so."
"Can--can your men find their way in the dark?"
"I should say they could. Some of them know now from my description just where your camp is. Don't worry about that. Here they come now."
The miners, leading an extra pony for Tad, rode up at that moment. When they glanced at the slight, boyish figure of Tad Butler they were of the opinion that he had best remain at the mining camp. They did not believe him hardy enough to stand the grilling journey that lay before them.
They changed their minds before they had been out of camp an hour. Tad rode well up with the leader, sitting in his saddle like a veteran, taking obstructions in their path with jumps that some of the party balked at and rode around.
"Say, kid, where'd you learn to hit a saddle like that?" called one.
"Does my riding please you?" inquired Tad.
"I should say it did. You are no tenderfoot."
Though the party rode rapidly, the hour was late when they reached the vicinity of the Pony Rider Boys camp. Having approached the place from another direction, Tad did not know where he was.
"It must be somewhere hereabouts," decided the leader. "Can't you remember whether it was to the north or the south of this?"
"Which way is the gorge?" asked Tad.
"That way. Lays right the other side of those rocks."
Tad considered for a moment.
"Wait," he said, a sudden idea coming to him. "I do not remember this particular spot, but when I left the camp I blazed trees all along so I could find my way back. If there are any marks on the trees here, I made them."
The men leaped from their ponies and began examining the trees, from the cliff back several rods. Not a sign of fresh blazing were they able to discover.
"There's nothing here," announced the leader.
"Then I didn't go this way," answered Tad, with a note of finality in his tone.
"We are too far to the north, boys. Turn around and follow the canyon."
This they did until they had proceeded for something like half an hour, when the leader of the rescue party decided to get down again and examine the trees.
"Here's a blaze. Is that yours, kid?" he exclaimed.
Tad examined the mark on the tree carefully, having first lighted a match to aid him.
"Yes, yes; I did that."
"Then we've gone by the place. There can't be anybody there or we would have seen the camp-fire."
"They must be there! Let's go back over the ground!" exclaimed Tad.
The men turned about without another word. After a few moments had passed Tad began calling loudly.
Soon a shout just ahead of them told the party that at last they had found that which they were in search of.
Tad uttered a glad cry.
"Where are you?"
"Here," answered the voice of Stacy Brown.
Tad put spurs to his pony and dashed up to where he thought the voice had come from.
"Where are the rest of the boys?"
"Got anything to eat?" asked Chunky, rousing himself to full wakefulness.
"Yes, plenty. But where's Ned and Walter? Are they asleep?" insisted Tad Butler half fearfully.
"I don't know."
"What do you mean?"
"Ned went off to hunt some game because we didn't have anything to eat. He hasn't come back. Walt got crazy about it and I guess he went out to look for him, though he didn't tell me he was going to--"
"What time was that?" interrupted Tad.
"When Ned went away?"
"No, when did Walter leave?"
"I don't know. It was somewhere about sundown when I saw him last."
"Which way do you think he went?"
"That way, I guess," replied Chunky, pointing.
By this time the men had lighted the fire.
"Give that boy something to eat right now," commanded the leader the moment he set eyes on Stacy. "He's half starved. He can hardly stand."
They opened the package of food at once, giving the once fat boy a little at a time at first and compelling him to eat slowly.
"Then there is not one of them here but Chunky," muttered Tad.
"No--nobody but me and the mules," answered Stacy quickly.
No one thought of laughing.
"Are we not going out to look for the others now?" asked Tad.
"Yes, I reckon we might as well," decided the leader. "We'll leave your friend here till morning. One of our men will remain here with him. At daylight they will start for the Red Star. If anything has been heard there of the folks we are looking for, they can then send word back to us so we don't spend the rest of our lives hunting for them."
His plan seemed a logical one to Tad. The party was to spread out, covering a large area, literally dragging the mountains with a human net, it being agreed that when one made a discovery he was to inform the others by shooting twice into the air.
After having received their instructions the men quickly rode away. The moon had come out, lighting the way and making their journey much easier.
Stacy gave no further heed to the miner who had been left in charge of him, and promptly went to sleep on a full stomach. He had not experienced that agreeable sensation for some time.
The night was well advanced when two sharp reports from the south told the searchers that some of their party had gained tidings of the absent ones.
Each man wheeled sharply about and raced for the camp as rapidly as the rough trail would permit, arriving there about the time their leader rode in with Walter Perkins. He had found the lad less than half a mile from camp. Beyond being very badly frightened, Walter seemed none the worse for his experience. Instead of having followed the direction in which he had started, Walter had gradually worn around to the north until finally he was headed back toward their original starting point.
In a short time he realized that he was lost. He called loudly for help, but as there was no one to hear his cries, he had at last thrown himself down on the ground in despair to wait for morning.
It was there that the leader of the rescue party had stumbled upon him, Walter having heard and answered his hail.
"That's one. Spread out again, boys. We'll rope the rest of the youngsters before morning. They can't be far away. The Professor, as they call him, has a horse, and there's no telling where he is by this time."
But the task they had set for themselves this time, was not quite so easy of accomplishment.