Chapter IV. Into the Canyon
 

"Thaddeus, I cannot consent to this. I--"

"Please, now, Professor, don't stop me. I'm all right, don't you see I am?"

"Yes, at this precise moment you are. It's the moments to come that I am thinking about."

"Don't you worry one little bit. Walt, will you bring me two of those staking-down ropes? I want to splice them on in case this one should prove to be a little short. Distance is deceptive, looking down, as we are here."

"What do you want us to do?" asked Ned.

"Hold on to the rope, that's all."

"In other words, we are to be a sort of 'tug-of-war' team, eh? Is that it?"

"I suppose it is, Ned."

"Then I hope we win."

"I sincerely hope you do, too," laughed Tad.

"If I win, I'll lose. That sounds funny, doesn't it?"

"What do you mean?" demanded Chunky, pushing his way forward.

"He means," Walter informed him, "that if he wins it will be because he takes a tumble to the bottom of the canyon. Understand?"

"Oh," muttered Chunky, thrusting his hands into his trousers pockets. He stepped to the edge of the cliff, where he stood peering over curiously.

"I hope Tad doesn't win, too," he decided sagely, whereat the others laughed loudly.

"Now, Professor, will you please take charge of the operations?"

"Certainly. But, you understand, I permit this thing under strong protest. I am doing wrong. I should use my authority to prevent it were we not already in such a serious predicament."

"Don't worry. What I want is to have you take a few turns around that small tree there with the rope, and pay it out carefully, so that I can lower myself safely. Don't give me too much rope at one time, you know."

"No," chuckled Ned. "You know what they say happens to people who have too much rope."

"You mean?"

"That they usually hang themselves."

Tad laughed softly.

"Please call that lazy Indian over here and set him to work. Little does he care what trouble we're in. See, he's asleep against a tree now."

"Yes, his head would fall off if it were not nailed fast to him," added Ned, striding to the Shawnee and giving him a violent shake. "Wake up, you sleepy head!" shouted Ned in a voice that brought the Indian quickly to his feet.

"Come over here, Eagle-eye. You're wanted," called Walter.

"Put the Indian on the end of the rope; and, Professor, you please take a hold nearest to the tree. You'll be my salvation. The rest of you, except Chunky, can stand between the Professor and Eagle-eye."

They took their places as directed, while Tad straightened out the rope until it extended to the edge of the cliff.

"What do you want me to do? Have I got to stand here and look on?" demanded Stacy.

"No, Chunky. You may run the signal tower," laughed Tad.

"What's that? I don't see any such thing around here?"

"You are it."

"What? I'm what?" answered the fat boy, plainly puzzled.

"You are the signal tower in this case. That is, you will stand here and watch me. When I give a signal you will receive and pass it on to the others."

"What kind of signals?"

"That's what I'm trying to tell you, if you will give me the chance. When I hold up my hand, it means that they are to stop letting out rope. When I move it up and down, it means they are to let out on the rope a little. Understand?"

"Oh, yes; that's easy. When they shake their hand, it means you want to go up or down," exclaimed the lad enthusiastically.

"O Chunky, you're hopeless. No, no! Nothing of the kind. Listen. When I move my hand up and down, just like this--Understand?"

"Sure."

"That means I want to go down further. They don't wave their hands at all, at least I hope they don't while I am hanging in the air. Now, do you think you understand?"

"Yes, I understand."

"Repeat the directions to me then, please."

Stacy did so.

"That's right. See that you don't forget. Remember, I'm depending upon you, Chunky, and if you fail me, I may be killed."

"Don't you worry about me, Tad," answered Stacy, swelling with pride because of the responsibility that had been placed upon his plump shoulders. "I can make motions as well as anybody. Eagle-eye, tend to business over there. Get hold of that rope. Twist it around your arm. There, that's right."

"Hear, hear!" cried the boys.

Such self-confidence they had never observed in their companion before. And then again, they were trying to be as jolly as possible, that they might not give too much thought to the seriousness of the undertaking before them.

"Chunky's coming into his own," muttered Ned. "He'll be wanting to thrash some of us next. See if he doesn't."

"I think I am all ready now," announced Tad, casting a critical glance at the men holding the rope, then taking a careful survey of the depths below him.

He was standing on the very edge of the cliff, a position that would have made the average person dizzy. Yet it seemed to have no effect at all on Tad Butler.

He motioned for them to let out a little rope.

"More rope!" bellowed Stacy.

"All right, Captain," jeered Ned. "Better port your helm, though, or the rope will give you a side wipe and take you along over with Tad."

Stacy quickly changed his position, which Tad had intended telling him to do.

Without another word Tad sat down with his feet dangling over, then crawled cautiously down the steep wall. For a short distance he was able to do this without depending on the rope, Stacy in the meanwhile lying flat on his stomach, peering down and passing on the signals to those holding the rope.

Now Tad came to a piece of rock that was straight up and down and perfectly smooth. He motioned for them to lower him slowly, which they did until the boy's feet once more touched a solid footing.

He carefully settled down until he was in a sitting posture. He was on a narrow, shelving rock, and there he remained for a few moments to rest, for the trip thus far had been exceedingly trying.

"The water's fine, Chunky," he called up cheerfully.

"The water's fine," bellowed Chunky, glaring at his companions. Then a sheepish grin spread over his countenance when he realized what he had said. "I mean, that's what Tad called," he explained, amid a roar of laughter.

"He won't find it so fine if he falls in," muttered Walter.

"Bad spirits in water," grunted the Indian.

"Unfortunately for us, they're not all down there," growled Ned. But his barbed wit failed to penetrate the tough skin of the red man.

"Tend to business, boys," warned the Professor, observing a series of frantic gestures on the part of Stacy Brown. "What does he want, to be lowered?"

"Yes, yes, don't you understand?"

"No, we don't understand motions in a foreign language," laughed Walter, permitting the rope to slip through his hands a little.

"How's that?" queried Professor Zepplin.

"More rope!" roared Stacy. "Watch my signals, then you'll know what to do."

"What not to do," muttered Ned.

Once more Tad began his cautious creeping down the uncertain trail. Though he had gone some distance, it seemed to him as if the bottom were further away than when he started.

"I'm afraid this rope is not going to be long enough," he breathed. "However, I believe I can crawl down the last fifteen or twenty feet if the line will only reach to them. It's not nearly so steep down there as it is higher up."

There occurred a sudden sharp jolt on the rope, due to the men above not letting the loops slip around the tree while the rope was taut. This gave Tad a drop of three or four feet and a jar that made him think he was falling.

"Here you, up there! What are you trying to do?"

"What do you fellows mean?" demanded Stacy.

"Just a slip, that's all," answered Walter.

"Somebody slipped," shouted Stacy.

"Tell them to be careful, Chunky. This rope won't stand many such jerks as that. Remember, it's running over some sharp rocks above here and is liable to be cut in two."

Stacy transmitted the order in a loud tone of command, which the Professor emphasized by a sharp command to the boys, at the same time admitting that he himself had also been at fault.

"Tell him we will not make that mistake again, Chunky," said the Professor.

"Won't do it again," called Stacy, passing the word along.

"All right. I'm doing well now. Just keep the line fairly steady so that I won't lose my footing."

He was obliged to raise his voice now, being a long way down the slope, with the goal still far from him.

"Who would have ever thought it so far?" Tad asked himself. "I'm sure now that the rope will not reach."

Believing that he could obtain a better footing a little to the right of him, he motioned for more rope, then raised his hand aloft as a signal that he had sufficient for present needs, all of which Stacy repeated with more or less correctness.

Tad had gained a broad, shelving rock this time. Above him projected a rocky roof that reminded him of the roof over his mother's porch at home. It shut off his view of the cliff above him entirely. Straight down below him roared the river, here and there a spout of white spray shooting up into the air, revealing the presence of a hidden, treacherous rock.

It was an impressive moment for Tad Butler up there alone, with nothing between himself and sudden death save a slender quarter-inch strand of rope.

But though he felt the loneliness of his position, he felt no fear; he was impressed with the solitary grandeur of it all. Time was pressing, however, and he decided that he must continue his descent.

Stepping back to his former position, he started to grope his way downward. For several minutes he made more rapid headway than he had at any time before.

He was congratulating himself that he would soon be at the bottom of the cliff, which lay about twenty feet below him.

All at once he gave a gasp as he felt the rock crumble beneath his feet. He had thrown his weight on a piece of crumbling limestone and it had given way.

At that moment he had some two or three feet of slack rope, that he had motioned to them to pay out, as the way was not now nearly so steep.

Grasping wildly for some projecting rock to break the jolt which he knew would come when he reached the end of his rope, and perhaps seriously hurt him, the boy was able to stay his progress a little.

However, the pressure that his body threw on the slender rope was so great as to jolt nearly all the air from his lungs.

Then Tad suddenly made another and terrifying discovery.

He was going down. He was falling.

At the top of the cliff another scene was being enacted. The sudden jolt on the rope had occurred just after the boys had paid out the rope beyond the place where Tad had spliced it before beginning his descent.

The strain was too great for it. The ropes parted at a weak spot near the knot.

The Pony Riders were too much stunned to do more than gaze upon that which they believed meant the death of their companion.

Chunky, who appeared to be the coolest of any, had been watching the knot approaching him with almost fascinated interest. He was speculating what would happen should the knot chance to come apart. And the very emergency that he was considering did happen.

"The rope's broken!" shouted the Professor.

But Chunky had no need to be told that. He knew it already, almost before they realized it.

With great presence of mind, and an agility that none would have given him credit for, the fat boy threw himself upon the line that was whisking over the cliff.

Somehow he managed to fasten both hands on it.

The boy began to slide along the ground with the speed of an express train.

"Grab him! Grab him, somebody! He's going over the cliff!"

"Let go!" bellowed Ned Rector.

Stacy hung on grimly, perhaps not realizing the danger he was in. At any rate, he was determined to save Tad if he could.

"There he goes!" fairly screamed the Professor.

Chunky slipped over the brink and disappeared with a terrified "Wow!"

"They're both down there, now," groaned the Professor, leaning against the tree and wiping the perspiration from his brow.