Chapter XV. The Round Up
 

Some miles from the camp the searchers next morning came upon an abandoned camp where there had been a fire and where, from the bones found there, they decided some one had eaten a rabbit.

"We're on the trail," said the leader. "We'll get him yet."

An hour later one of the men reported that he had picked up a repeating rifle with the magazine empty. When Tad joined them later, he identified the weapon as having been the one used by Ned Rector.

The course he was taking, if followed, would eventually take him out of the mountains into the open country. Perhaps through some instinct, the boy understood this and was seeking to gain the open where he would soon get food and directions for continuing his journey.

They found no other trace of the one they were looking for, however.

All that day and the next they drew the net slowly over that portion of the Ozark range that cut through the southwestern part of the state.

"I guess we shall have to give it up," confided the leader to Tad.

"Oh, no, we can't do that," objected the lad hastily. "We simply must find Ned and the Professor."

"If you can show me the way how or where, I wish you would then. We are only a few miles from the mining camp. I'll wager a jack rabbit couldn't have gotten through our lines, so we'd have been pretty likely to have rounded up a man on a pony or a boy on foot. Don't you think so?"

Tad was forced to admit that this was true.

"It's my idea that neither of them is in the range now, at all. If they are, they're below the Red Star--gone by the place entirely."

"That may be, but I do not see how it is possible."

"You went by her, didn't you?"

Tad colored.

"I guess so. But it was different in my case."

"Ah, that's it. It's different with them, too. If it wasn't, we would have found them long before this."

"Then you are going to give it up? Is that what you mean?"

"Don't see as there is anything else we can do. If we don't come across them this afternoon, we won't at all. See, there's the Ruby Mountain already."

"The Ruby Mountain! I've heard of that. What a peculiar formation it is. Almost blood red in spots. What is it--isn't there some superstition about the rock?"

"Well, you might call it that. There are those who declare they have seen strange lights appear on the face of the rock after dark."

"Have you?" queried Tad.

"Well, that's another story," laughed the leader.

"What makes it look so red?"

"That's the quality of the rock. It is red only when the sun or bright moonlight is shining on it. Isn't really red, you see."

Tad did not see, but his mind was too full of his own troubles to permit him to interest it deeply in the subject of the Ruby Mountain.

Continuing on their journey, the searchers eventually rode into the Red Star camp. By this time the entire camp was interested in what it was pleased to call "the man hunt." Somehow they were unable to free their minds of the idea that the disappearance of the members of the Pony Rider party was due to the mysterious band that had been terrorizing that part of the country for a long time.

Tom Phipps, assistant superintendent of the mine, had awaited the return of his rescue party with an impatience that he made no effort to conceal. He met them, mounted on his pony, as they entered the mine property. At first he was inclined to make the men turn about and go over the ground again, but after learning from the leader of the party the precautions they had taken, he decided that further search to the north would be futile.

What to do next he did not know, and in the absence of Mr. Munson, who had not yet returned, he was considering sending another party out to cover the territory south of the mining camp.

Stacy Brown had come in with his guide and the mules, and having satisfied his appetite, was in as good humor as usual. If he worried about the disappearance of his companions, he kept his trouble well to himself. Nevertheless he was waiting for Tad and the rescue party when they rode in.

"Hello, Chunky, any news?" called Tad on espying him.

Stacy shook his head.

"Have you any?" asked Chunky.

"No. We found where Ned had been, but we didn't see anything of him."

"That's too bad."

"Yes, you do seem to feel sad over it. I believe they are all right, however. Mr. McCormick, who has charge of this party, thinks so too. He believes they have succeeded in getting out of the mountains."

"So do I," cut in Tom Phipps. "Otherwise you could not have missed them."

"Yes, sir. But what would you advise doing now?"

"Should we hear nothing from them by morning I'll start a party for the open country to the west, and send another through the mountains south of here. I do not believe there will be much use in doing so to-night. Come over to my shack, you and your friend Brown, and we will talk the matter over while we are having our supper."

"Thank you. I guess I am pretty hungry. Has Mr. Munson returned?"

"No. I cannot imagine what is keeping him."

Turning his pony over to Mr. McCormick, Tad and Chunky followed the young mining engineer to his one-roomed cabin where the host had prepared an appetizing meal.

It was Tad's second meal in the place. This time, however, he found himself too much disturbed to eat heartily. His appetite seemed to leave him all at once.

"As I was saying just after you arrived," began Mr. Phipps--

"Hark! What was that?"

Tad raised a hand for silence.

"I heard nothing."

"It was somebody shouting, I am sure," answered Tad in a voice of tense expectancy. "Yes, there it is again."

"You're right," answered the miner, springing up and hurrying to the door.

The shouting now became general all up and down the street.

"What is it?" asked Tad.

"I don't know. Seems to be a party coming into the camp. It's Munson, that's who it is. There are two people with him on foot. I can't make them out in the twilight. Come on, we'll hurry down and find out what the uproar is about."

Instinctively Tad and Tom Phipps set off at a jog-trot, followed more leisurely by Stacy Brown.

Tad soon observed something familiar in the movements of the two figures who were walking beside the superintendent's pony, and in a moment Tad made out through the gloom the well-known form of Professor Zepplin.

"There they are! There they are!" he shouted. "They've got back. Hurrah!"

"Rah!" echoed Stacy Brown, flirting one hand lazily.

The meeting was a joyous one for all concerned.

"All hands come over to my shack," glowed Tom Phipps. "I want to hear about this mystery. Thought you were riding a pony, Professor Zepplin?"

"He was," laughed Dick Munson. "Some other people wanted the animal more than he did and helped themselves."

At this point, Walter, who was staying in another cabin, having heard the noise, had hurried over and joined the little party.

"Now let us hear all about it," urged Phipps, after all had gathered in his shack.

"There is not much to tell," smiled the Professor. "I did exactly what I had been warning my young men against. I lost myself. Then the next thing that happened, I lost my pony."

"How?" interrupted Mr. Phipps.

"I don't know."

"Stolen," nodded Dick Munson.

"Same old game," muttered Phipps. "Yes, what next?"

"Then in a most miraculous way I found Master Ned. I had gone to sleep, worn out and discouraged, not caring much whether I got back or not, the way I felt then. Along toward morning I woke up. I thought I had heard something. I listened, and then all at once realized that some one was snoring not far from me."

"And it wasn't Chunky this time," cut in Walter Perkins.

"Chunky doesn't snore on an empty stomach," laughed Tad.

"I called out, 'Hello, who's there?' The snorer woke up calling out something that I could not catch."

"Who was it?" asked Stacy in a hurry to learn what the Professor was getting at.

"Well, when he woke up he said his name was Ned Rector and that he was lost."

The Professor smiled grimly as the boys shouted with laughter, in which Tom Phipps joined. Even the rugged face of the superintendent relaxed into a broad smile.

"Yes, it was I," nodded Ned. "We had been sleeping within a rod of each other nearly all night and didn't know it. I had stumbled along after the Professor got to sleep. In the darkness of course I did not see him, and in his sound sleep he did not hear me."

"That's the funniest mix-up I ever heard of," chuckled young Mr. Phipps. "What did you do for food?"

"Master Ned, it seems, had shot two rabbits which he intended to take back to our camp. When he found that he too was lost, he built a fire and cooked them. What he did not need at once he wrapped up in his handkerchief and carried along with him--"

"Yes, we found the remnants of the jack rabbits," Tad informed them. "We picked up your rifle later, as well."

"Good," brightened Ned. "I had to throw it away. I had about all I could do to carry myself."

"Well, the rabbits saved us from starvation."

"Yes, but how did you happen to find Dick Munson, or he to find you?" queried Phipps.

"We wandered out of the mountains and lost ourselves in the foothills. How we got so far south I do not know. This morning we saw a horseman and shouted until we attracted his attention. The horseman proved to be the very man we wanted to see--Mr. Richard Munson himself."

"I--I am the only one who didn't fall in," piped Stacy, which caused everyone to laugh.

"We heard you shooting," said Walter. "I wish we might have had some of that rabbit meat. We nearly starved up there."

"Yes, let's hear how you boys got along," spoke up Ned. "We have told you all about our experiences. Now we want to know about yours."

Tad related in detail all that occurred to them since the Professor left them in pursuit of the elusive camp-fire. The Professor's eyes glowed appreciatively upon learning of Tad Butler's heroic tramp over nearly forty miles of rough mountain trail in the desperate effort to find food for his starving companions as well as help to rescue them from their perilous position.

But Munson, while complimenting Tad, was more deeply interested in the loss of their stock, about which occurrence he asked many questions.

"If we had a few men with your courage and resourcefulness we should soon put a stop to this wholesale thieving," he said.

"I'm going to find my pony before I leave this place, Mr. Munson," announced Tad firmly. "At least I am going to try pretty hard--"

A knock on the door of the shack cut short what he was going to say.

"McCormick reports that two ponies are missing from number two section," said a voice outside the door.