Chapter II. A Pack Mule Goes Over a Cliff
 

Next morning the boys, assisted by Eagle-eye, had prepared the breakfast by the time the Professor had awakened. They took keen satisfaction in calling him for breakfast. Ordinarily they slept so late that the Professor had to turn them out by physical force.

"Anybody'd think you'd been keeping late hours, Professor," laughed Ned Rector.

"Perhaps I have," answered the scientist good naturedly. "But if so, I am not the only one of this party who has."

That the Professor's words held some meaning unknown to them the boys were fully aware. Tad had said nothing of his experiences of the previous night, so they did not think to turn to him for an explanation.

"I might as well tell you, young gentlemen, that there was some one prowling about this camp after we all were asleep last night--"

"What!" cried the Pony Riders in sudden surprise.

"Yes, that is true. Thaddeus and myself chased him around for nearly half an hour, but--"

All eyes were now turned on Tad, who was bending over his plate that they might not observe the grin that was spreading over his face despite the lad's effort to keep it down.

"O Tad, tell us all about it," urged Walter Perkins. "What was he, a bold robber or what?"

"I guess he must have been an 'Or What,'" suggested Stacy Brown wisely.

"Don't mind him. He's dreaming still. It's only his appetite that's here at the table. The rest of him is in bed asleep," jeered Ned Rector, with such a funny grimace that the boys laughed.

"Yes," answered Tad, looking up, "we ran around here in our pajamas until we found each other. Then we gave it up and went to bed."

"But who was it?" insisted Walter.

"It was an--"

"Now, never mind, Chunky. You are supposed to be asleep," admonished Ned, with a superior wave of his hand.

"I cannot say as to that," answered Tad. "I really don't think it amounted to so very much. Probably some prowler curious to know what sort of camp he had stumbled upon. I didn't lose any sleep over it after I got back to bed."

"Neither did Chunky," laughed Ned.

"Did you?" asked the fat boy sharply, turning the laugh on Ned.

"You remember what we were told in Springfield," said Walter.

"What was that?" asked the Professor.

"That a band of robbers had been causing considerable excitement in the Ozarks for several months past."

"Yes, you are right. I had forgotten that," nodded Professor Zepplin. "Stealing horses and other things."

"Yes."

"But it's all nonsense to think they would bother us," objected Ned. "We haven't anything that they would want."

"No, nor do we want them," replied Walter, with emphasis. "I guess we had better sleep on our rifles to-night."

"That will hardly be necessary," smiled the Professor.

"How about Eagle-eye?" asked Ned. "Didn't he hear anything?"

"Eagle-eye was away last night."

"Oh, yes, that's so. I had forgotten that."

"It might be a good idea to tell him about it," suggested Tad, glancing over at the Professor.

Professor Zepplin nodded his head.

"Eagle-eye, will you come here, please?" called Tad.

The Shawnee, who had been pottering about the camp-fire, strode over to them with his almost noiseless tread, and squatted on the ground near the breakfast table.

"There was somebody here last night, Eagle-eye," Tad informed him in an impressive voice.

The Shawnee nodded.

"Of course, you not having been here, you knew nothing about it, but to-night you'd better sleep with one eye open.

"Joe Hawk know," answered the Indian.

"Know what?" demanded the Professor sharply.

"Know Indian come last night," was the startling announcement.

"What's that? What's that, Eagle-eye? You mean yourself, I presume. You mean you came back. But that is not the point--"

The Indian shook his head with emphasis.

"Other Indian come."

Tad nodded at his companions as if to say, "I told you so."

Then the Shawnee did know more than he had seen fit to tell them?

"Tell us about it, Eagle-eye."

"Joe Hawk find trail of canoe on river at sun-up," answered the Indian tersely.

"A trail on the river?" demanded Stacy, suddenly breaking into uproarious laughter, which died away in an indistinct gurgle when he found the eyes of his companions fixed sternly upon him. "Funny place to find a trail," he muttered, threatening to indulge in another fit of merriment.

"I don't understand you, Eagle-eye," said the Professor. "You say you found the trail of a canoe on the river?"

"Yes."

"That sounds peculiar. I agree with Master Stacy that it is a most remarkable place to find a trail hours after. Perhaps you will explain."

Eagle-eye rose to his feet.

"Come. I show you."

All rose from the table, forgetful that they were eating their breakfast, and followed the guide down the steep bank to the river.

"There trail," he announced, pointing a long, bronzed finger at the edge of the water.

Tad stooped over, examining the shore critically.

"The Shawnee is right," he said, turning to the Professor.

"How do you know? What have you found?"

"There. You can see for yourself. It is distinctly marked--"

"What's marked?" demanded Stacy, pressing forward.

"You can see where the keel of a canoe has rested in the dirt there. The trail is ever so faint, but it is unmistakably there. See how it broadens out as it extends backward until it reaches the gravel in the stream."

"Moccasin tracks," grunted the guide.

"Where?" asked Walter, apprehensively.

"There," answered the Indian, pointing up the bank whence they had just come.

The boys looked at each other in wondering silence.

"What do you think is the meaning of the visit, Eagle-eye?" asked the Professor.

The Shawnee shrugged his shoulders.

"Mebby hungry."

"That is a sensible explanation of the visit," decided Professor Zepplin. "What other motive could an Indian have for a visit at that hour? There is no cause for alarm. But I wish if any more hungry ones pay us a visit, they would do so in the day time, so as not to interrupt my sleep."

"And mine," laughed Tad.

"Yah-hum," yawned Stacy, sleepily.

"I told you you weren't awake yet," growled Ned. "Let's all go back to our breakfast."

"I second the motion," laughed the Professor. "We are forgetting all about the inner man. And it is time we were getting on our way if we are to make any great progress to-day."

Anxious to be in the saddle again, the boys bounded up the bank and hastily finished their breakfast. While they were doing so the guide stoically busied himself with packing the cooking kits and loading the pack mules, so that by the time the lads were ready all save their own belongings had been stowed away.

It was the work of a few minutes only to strike their tents, fold blankets and pack their personal belongings. They had now been roughing it long enough so that they had become really expert in the work. And, besides, they had learned to get together a fairly satisfying meal out of not much of anything. They had learned many other things that were to prove useful to them in after years, but which at the time was making little or no impression upon them.

Fairly radiating health and spirits, the boys threw themselves into their saddles with a shout. The guide led the way, leading the mule train, and his pace was so rapid that the pack animals were put to their best to keep up with him. Most of the time he appeared to be dragging the led mule, instead of leading it.

"A wonderful country," breathed the Professor, as they finally came out on a high elevation that gave them a glimpse of the eastern slope of the mountains.

They halted to take in the magnificent view.

"This is what is known as the 'Ozark Uplift,'" the Professor informed them.

"I should call it a downfall," answered Ned, gazing off at the deep gorges and jagged precipices. "Why do you call it that?"

The Professor waxed eloquent.

"From the earliest time, young gentlemen, this region has been subject to uprising or downsinking. In all sections of its area it has experienced the effects of powerful dynamic forces--"

"Dynamite--did they use dynamite to blow the mountains up into such shapes as that?" asked Stacy innocently.

"I said nothing about dynamite. Dynamic was the word I used," replied Professor Zepplin, casting a withering glance at the fat boy.

"Oh," Stacy exclaimed.

"It is therefore called the 'Ozark Uplift.'"

"That is interesting," answered Ned solemnly, though it is doubtful if he understood what the Professor was really talking about.

"There is still another of tremendous import connected with this region. You will all be interested in it," announced the Professor impressively.

The boys gathered about him in a circle, meantime allowing their ponies to nibble at the green leaves.

"Yes," urged Tad.

"The region where is now located the Ozark Uplift is said to have been the first land to appear above the waters of the continental ocean."

"You--you mean--" stammered Ned.

"He means this was the first land to appear above the water when this continent was all an ocean," spoke up Tad, with quick understanding.

Stacy urged his pony further into the circle. His face was flushed and he evidently was filled with some sudden new thought.

"What is it, Master Stacy?" asked the Professor.

"You--you say this was the first land to--"

"Yes, so it has been said."

"Then--then this--then this must have been where the Ark landed," exploded the fat boy.

For a few seconds a profound silence greeted this announcement. Then the lads broke out into a shout of laughter. Even Professor Zepplin threw his head back and laughed immoderately.

"I am afraid, my young friend, that the place where the ancient craft ran aground was some distance from this rugged spot--"

"But why not?" persisted the boy.

"In the first place, this continent came to life some time after the event you speak of is supposed to have taken place."

"Oh," muttered the lad.

"And now we had better be pressing on."

"When do we reach the Red Star Mine?" asked Ned.

"You will have to ask Eagle-eye. I don't know."

The Indian, when questioned on this point, said the Red Star Mine lay three suns to the southwest of them.

The country seemed to be getting more rough as they proceeded, and it had now become necessary to move with extreme caution for fear of plunging over one of the many abrupt cliffs that now and then appeared almost under the feet of the advancing train.

But the Indian seemed to feel no concern over these. He merely changed his course, skirting the canyon until a turn in its winding course enabled him to head straight into the southwest again.

Not even in the Rockies had the boys met with such peculiar formations as now appeared on all sides of them.

"I'd hate to travel this trail in the night," growled Stacy.

"You wouldn't have to travel it far," laughed Tad. "You'd be walking on air before you knew it."

Stacy had pressed on ahead while the others were talking. He had observed what they had not. One of the pack mules had lagged behind, and with head lowered almost to the ground appeared to have gone sound asleep. The Shawnee, engaged with his own thoughts, apparently was unaware that he had left a mule behind.

The fat boy, with great glee, was urging his pony quietly along, approaching the pack animal with as much caution as possible. It was Stacy's intention to give the beast the fright of its life, in which ambition he succeeded beyond his fondest anticipations.

Getting near enough for his purpose, Stacy slipped from his pony, hunted about until he found a stick long enough for his purpose, and with this crept up on the sleeping mule.

With a shrill shriek the lad brought the stick down on the long-eared animal's rump with a whack that, while it could not have hurt, did all that he had hoped it might.

Both the mule's hind feet shot up into the air, while the beast with a short, sharp bray of fright lunged straight ahead.

The guide uttered a shrill exclamation of warning as he saw the mule tearing through the bushes to the left of the trail. Leaving his two pack animals, Eagle-eye leaped for the fleeing one.

But he was too late.

All at once the frightened beast appeared to stand on his head, his hind feet beating a tattoo in the air; then he disappeared altogether.

The Pony Rider Boys, hearing the disturbance, had hurried up, and just in time to see the final scene in the little tragedy that their companion had caused.

"What's this? What's this?" demanded the Professor. "What's the matter?"

"Pony fall down! Pony fall down!" exclaimed the Indian, with a trace of excitement in his tone.

"He means our long-eared friend has taken a header over that rock there," Ned Rector informed them.

"I am afraid it is more serious than that," added Tad. "It looked to me as if the pack mule went over a cliff."

"Him fall down, fall down, fall down," repeated the guide.

Chunky, frightened at the result of his prank, had quickly scrambled into his own saddle and drawn back from the scene of his late exploit.

Professor Zepplin did not understand how it had happened.

"I'm to blame, sir," announced Chunky, plucking up courage and riding up beside the Professor. "I hit him with a stick and he ran away."

In spite of the disaster that had come upon them, the boys could not but laugh at the boy's rueful countenance. Nor did the Professor find it in his heart to be harsh.

"You deserve to be punished, sir, but somehow when I look at you my anger vanishes instantly. The next question is, how are we going to get the beast up here? What do you say, guide?"

"Him dead."

"What's that?"

"Pack pony, him gone Happy Hunting Ground."

"You don't mean he has been killed?"

The guide nodded with emphasis, at the same time bringing the palms of his hands sharply together to convey the impression that the mule had hit the rocks below so hard that he would never rise of his own accord again.

"Now we are in a fix," said Ned.

"I guess we had better make Chunky walk and use his pony for packing the outfit," suggested Walter.

"Yes, but we have little or no outfit to pack," answered Tad. "Most of it is down there with the dead mule; how far I don't know."

The Pony Rider Boys gasped. This, indeed, was a serious situation.