Chapter III. A Daring Proposal
 

For a full moment the boys looked at each other doubtfully. Professor Zepplin was the first to break the silence.

"Wha--what pack did the mule have?"

"Part of the kitchen outfit and all of the canned goods," answered Tad Butler impressively.

Ned Rector laughed.

"This is where we give our stomachs a rest," he mocked.

"I fail to see anything humorous in our present predicament," chided the Professor. "We are many miles from our base of supplies, with our supplies at the bottom of a gorge, goodness knows how deep down. Whether we can get down there or not I haven't the slightest idea--"

"Don't we get anything to eat?" wailed Chunky.

"Think you deserve to have anything?" demanded Ned.

"Don't be hard on him," spoke up Tad. "He feels cut up enough about it as it is. We've all done just as foolish things, only they didn't happen to turn out the way this one has."

Chunky turned his pony about and rode a few paces away from them, being more disturbed than he cared to have his companions know.

"Eagle-eye," called the Professor.

The Indian was leaning over the cliff looking down into the deep canyon, trying to find the pack mule. He straightened up and strode over to the Professor upon being called.

"You sure the mule is dead?"

"Mule no pack more."

"Can you get down there to gather up our belongings?"

Eagle-eye shook his head.

"No get um."

"Why not?" interjected Walter.

"Pony fall in--Injun fall in," grunted the Shawnee.

"But can we not go forward or else back a mile or so and find an entrance to the gorge?" demanded the Professor.

"Yes, that's the idea. Of course we can," urged Ned. "We are not half as bad off as we thought. Of course the mule is done for, but we can divide up the pack amongst us boys and carry it all right until we get where we can either hire or buy another mule. Don't think a little thing like that will stop us."

"How about it, Eagle-eye?" asked Tad.

"No get um. Water him deep. Him cold, b-r-r-r! Pony drown, Indian drown. Mebby fat boy drown, too."

"That seems to settle it," announced the Professor. "We shall have to hold a council of war, as Eagle-eye does not seem to have any suggestions to make. What have you to say about it, Master Tad?"

"I think it would be a good idea to take a look over the cliff before offering any suggestions," answered the lad, dismounting and tethering his pony. "Perhaps the guide may be wrong."

One look over the bold cliff, however, was sufficient to convince Tad of the correctness of the Indian's judgment. He found himself gazing down into one of those deep canyons that had been cut through the mountains by water courses during hundreds of years.

The wall on each side, while nearly straight up and down, was jagged and broken, but so precipitous as to make any idea of descending it impossible. There was not a bush nor shrub in sight until near the bottom, where Tad discovered a thick growth of bushes on the edge of the swiftly flowing water course.

A disturbed spot among these showed where the pack mule had fallen. That he had not gone on into the stream and been swept away was due to the matted growth down there. The others had joined Tad by the time he had made up his mind that their guide had described the situation correctly.

"What do you make of it, Master Tad?" asked the Professor.

"Nothing very encouraging."

"Whew! That's a drop!" exclaimed Ned, peering cautiously over. "Where is our kitchen outfit?"

"There, where you see the bushes trampled down. What there is left of it, anyway. But perhaps the canvas wrapped around the stuff has protected it from serious damage."

"Little difference it makes to us whether or not," answered the Professor. "The supplies are lost and that's all there is about it. We have scarcely enough left to carry us through the day."

"No!" said Walter. "Then what are we going to do?"

"I don't know, Master Walter."

"We've got to get the stuff up here, that's all," answered Tad, with a firm compression of the lips.

"Then you'll have to borrow a flying machine if you do. That's the only way we'll ever reach the pack mule. Why, it's a mile down there--"

"Not quite," answered Tad.

"How deep do you think the gorge is, Tad?" asked the Professor.

"Oh, forty or fifty feet, I should say. I hardly think it is deeper than that. But that is quite enough--"

Tad, in the meantime, had been considering the problem, thinking deeply on the best means of solving it.

"Yes, I think I can do it," he decided.

"Do what?" asked Walter.

"Get the stuff up."

"How?" demanded Ned sharply.

"Why, go down after it, of course."

"Out of the question," answered the Professor, with emphasis.

"No, I think it can be done, if you will allow me to--"

"You mean, Master Ted, that you will attempt to get to the bottom of that gorge and bring up the provisions?"

"Yes, sir; I'll try it."

"Impossible. I cannot permit it."

"I should say not," growled Ned. "If anybody goes it should be the guide. He is an expert at climbing, I should imagine, and--" Tad laughed.

"Why, my dear Ned, you couldn't even push Eagle-eye down there. For some reason he seems to have a superstitious dread of that place. I don't know why, for Indians are not supposed to be much afraid of anything. I'll ask him. Eagle-eye, will you go down there and try to get the provisions for us?" asked Tad, turning to the guide.

Eagle-eye shrugged his shoulders, at the same time giving a negative twist to his body.

"Eagle-eye not go down there," he grunted.

"Why not?" asked Ned.

"Bad spirits live in waters. Bymeby come out and get Eagle-eye."

"Oh, shucks!" jeered Ned. "My opinion is that they wouldn't bother to get you, even if there were any such things down there."

"Then there remains only one thing for us to do," said the Professor.

"And that?" queried Walter.

"Get to the nearest settlement as quickly as possible."

"That would take at least a day or two, would it not?" inquired Tad.

"Yes, I believe so."

"Then why not let me try--at least make an effort to recover our things? Why, just think of the amount of stuff we are losing, Professor."

"But the risk, Tad. No, I cannot assume the responsibility--"

"I'll take the risk of all that. The only danger will be up here. I shall not be taking any risks to speak of--"

"How do you propose to go about it, young man?"

"Simplest thing imaginable. I'll climb down with a rope around me, so that in case I slip anywhere you can straighten me up. I promise you I will not fall."

"The next question is, where are you going to get the rope?"

"I have one that is plenty long enough," answered Tad.

"You mean the quarter-inch rope?" spoke up Walter. "That's in the pack that went over the cliff."

Tad Butler's face fell.

"Guess you are mistaken, Walt," corrected Ned. "You threw that rope down when you were packing. I picked it up and it's in my kit on my pony now."

"Hurrah!" shouted the other boys. "You can't down the Pony Riders."

Tad hurried to Ned's mount, and, pulling down the pack, secured the precious rope, which he adjusted about his waist carefully, the others observing him silently.

"I guess I am ready now, boys. I'll tell you what I want you to do, so pay close heed to what I am about to say."