Chapter VII. Boy and Ponies Strangely Missing
 

After all, the supper proved a very jolly meal, now that they were sure Tad was all right. Then, again, the beans and bacon were pronounced excellent by each of them, and Stacy had made fully as good time with his crude chopsticks as had the others with the tablespoons.

Supper finished, all hands turned in to help wash the dishes, and in a few moments the camp was again in perfect order.

Tad was informed of Stacy's skill with chopsticks, and they could hear him laughing over it, even though they were no longer able to see him.

"Are you warm enough down there?" called Ned.

"Sure thing. I have most of the blankets."

"That means we freeze, I guess," interjected Stacy.

"You can go cut yourself a few chopsticks and sleep under them," retorted Ned Rector. "Hey, Tad, why don't you build a fire down there?"

"Haven't any matches."

"Never mind, Tad, the moon soon will be up and you can get warm by that," shouted the fat boy.

"Chunky has suddenly developed into a wit, Tad. I don't know what's happened to the boy. It must have been that fall over the cliff that shook his thinking machinery into place."

"Pity some other folks not more'n a million miles away wouldn't fall over," muttered Stacy.

"What's that you say?" demanded Ned, turning on him.

"I--I was just thinking to myself," explained Chunky, edging away.

Ned was glaring at him ferociously, at the same time struggling to keep back the laughter that rose to his lips because of Stacy's sharp retort.

"I'll make a suggestion, young gentlemen," said the Professor.

"Yes, sir, what is it?" asked the boys in chorus.

"Pile up all the dry wood that Walter has gathered. Pile it right up on the edge of the cliff and light it. I think that will make the evening more cheerful for Master Tad down there."

"That will be fine," cried Walter.

Quickly carrying the dried wood to the place indicated, they piled it so that it would make a long fire, then lighted it from three sides at the same time.

The result was a bright blaze that flared high, lighting the rocks far down into the canyon, but not sufficiently far to reach Tad.

"Trying to burn up the mountain?" shouted Tad.

"No; we're trying to burn it down, so we can pick you up," called Ned Rector.

"Oh," came up from the depths.

"It seems to me that you young men are getting rather sharp with each other," said the Professor, shaking his head.

"I guess it must be the Ozark air getting into our lungs," answered Ned. "I've felt like having a wrestling bout with some one ever since we got into these mountains."

"Wait till Tad comes up. I think he will accommodate you," suggested Chunky wisely.

"You mustn't mind our talk, Professor," explained Walter. "We say things to each other, but it's all in fun. We don't mean to be mean. Do we, Ned?"

"Of course not. Chunky is the only one who--"

"Never mind Chunky. He'll take care of himself," answered the fat boy sharply.

"Isn't it about time that lazy Indian were back, Professor?" asked Walter.

"Yes, that's so. I hadn't thought of that, Walter. He has been gone all of five hours now, and the trip should not have taken him more than three all told."

"Suppose he had to stop to smoke a pipe of peace with his friend," suggested Ned. "Then there would be a certain amount of grunting to do before Eagle-eye could state his business, and after that much talk, talk. That's the Indian of it."

"You seem to know a lot about Indians. Were you ever an Indian?" asked Stacy innocently.

"Even if I were, I couldn't be called a savage," retorted Ned.

The hours wore on, and the moon came up in a cloudless sky, much to the relief of the boy down in the canyon. Just before dark he had observed that there was quite a strip of rock and sand on his side of the rushing mountain torrent. It extended further than he could see and the lad wondered where it might lead to.

After a time he cuddled up, but could not sleep. Perhaps it was the loneliness of his position. Yet he had been alone in mountain and forest many times before.

"Hello, up there!" he shouted, pulling himself to a sitting position.

"Hello!" answered Walter.

"I'm going to bed. Don't worry about me. I suppose the Indian has not returned?"

"No such luck," answered Ned, who had come up beside Walter and replied to Tad's question.

"And he won't be back till morning," sang the boy down there in the shadows.

"Right you are," laughed Ned. "If he gets back then we are in great luck. I'll let the rope down to you if he should happen to return during the night."

"No; wait till morning. I wouldn't care to try to climb up in the dark. I'd be likely to get hurt if I did. You had better all turn in now. There will be no need for you to sit up."

"All right," answered Ned and Walter at once.

"I think perhaps Master Tad is right. We had better go to bed. I would suggest, however, that one of you roll up in his blankets outside here, so that he can hear if Master Tad calls," suggested Professor Zepplin.

"That's a good idea. I'll do that, with your permission, Professor," offered Ned Rector promptly.

"Yes. Then Walter and Stacy had better go to their tents. If anything occurs during the night, remember you are to let me know at once. If Eagle-eye returns, I want to know it, too."

"Very well, sir," answered Ned.

After replenishing the fire, determined to remain awake until daylight, the lad rolled up in his blankets.

In a few minutes after the camp quieted down he fell sound asleep; and he did not open his eyes again until the sun peeped over the eastern range of the mountains and burned apart his eyelids.

Ned awoke with a start. He could scarcely believe that another day had dawned.

He sat up, rubbing his eyes and blinking in the strong morning light.

"Whew! I'm stiff in every joint," he mumbled. "And sleepier than Stacy Brown ever thought of being."

Ned pulled himself to his feet, yawning broadly.

"That's another bad habit I have learned from Chunky. I wonder if Tad's awake."

Peering over the edge, Ned was unable to make out whether his companion down there were awake or sleeping. He hesitated to call, knowing that if Tad Butler were still asleep at that hour of the day it was because he was tired out and needed rest badly.

Ned strode over to Stacy's tent.

"Wake up," he commanded, pinching one of the fat boy's big-toes.

"Get out," mumbled Stacy sleepily, at the same time kicking viciously with the disturbed foot.

Thus encouraged, Ned pulled the other big-toe.

Chunky rose in his wrath, hurling the rubber pillow on which he had been sleeping full into the face of his tormentor.

Ned, caught off his balance, tumbled over in a heap, while Stacy crawled back under the blankets, very well satisfied with the result of his throw.

But he was left in peace only a moment. Ned recovered himself and returned to the charge. Over went the cot, with Stacy beneath it. From the confusion of blankets emerged the red face of the fat boy.

Ned Rector thought it time to leave. He did so, with Stacy a close second and the rubber pillow brushing Ned's cheek in transit.

There was no more sleep in the camp. Ned and Stacy's foot race continued until both were out of breath and thoroughly awake. Then they sat down, laughing, the color flaming in their cheeks and eyes sparkling with pleasurable excitement.

"I'll wake up Tad, I guess," announced Ned after recovering his breath.

Going to edge of the cliff, he shouted loudly. But there was no answer to his summons. Then both boys added their voices to the effort, joined a few minutes later by the Professor and Walter Perkins.

They were unable to get any reply at all; nor was there the slightest movement or sign of life where Tad had last been seen.

"What can it mean?" they asked each other, all the laughter gone out of their faces now.

"It means," said Ned, "that Tad isn't there. Beyond that, I would not venture an opinion."

"Maybe he's fallen into the stream during the night and drowned," suggested Chunky.

"We shall not even consider that as possible, nor do I believe it is," replied the Professor. Nevertheless, he was deeply concerned over the mysterious disappearance of the lad.

"If the Indian ever gets here with a rope, I'll go down there and see if I can find out anything," said Ned.

"Not until all other means have been exhausted," declared the Professor. "We appear to have lost one boy, and I do not intend that we shall lose another."

"I wouldn't worry," comforted Walter Perkins. "You all know Tad, and you know he isn't a boy that you can lose so easily. I'll bet my share in the next meal that he's back here before dark this afternoon."

This confidence brightened the others visibly.

"That's right," agreed Ned. "You can't down Tad. I guess I'll go water my pony and give him some fresh trees to eat up while some of you are starting the fire. We had better eat, anyway."

"What is there to eat?" asked the Professor.

"Beans, that's all, and not much of that. Unless we get the stuff down there, we won't have another meal to-day."

The other two boys began preparing for the camp-fire. Ned had been gone only a few moments when he returned on a run.

"Boys! Boys!" he cried.

"What is it? What is it?" they exclaimed in sudden alarm.

"The ponies! The ponies!"

"What about them?" asked Walter, pausing as he was about to strike a match to the wood.

"Yes, what of them, Master Ned? Has anything happened to them?" asked the Professor, striding toward the excited Ned Rector.

"Happened? I should say there had--"

"Well, what is it? Don't keep us waiting in suspense all--"

"They're gone!"

"Gone?" exclaimed the two boys in chorus.

"It can't be possible."

"Two of them are. They have broken away, I think. It must have happened late last night, for I looked at them just before going to bed, and they were all asleep then."

"Whi--which ponies--which ones are gone?" asked Walter apprehensively.

"Chunky's and Tad's."

"Is it possible?" sputtered the Professor, striding to the place where their stock had been tethered.

"Yes, they've broken away," he decided, observing that a piece of stake rope belonging to each had been broken short off. "Look around, boys. They cannot be far away. Probably got hungry and concluded to look for some tender bushes to browse on."

The boys, thus encouraged, hastened to begin their search for the missing stock.

"They went this way," shouted Ned.

All hands hurried to him.

"Yes, there's their tracks," agreed the Professor. "Now follow them, but look out that you do not get lost."

Instead, a few moments afterward, they lost the trail. It disappeared from before them as utterly as if the ponies had walked on air from that point on. No amount of searching brought it to view again, and after more than an hour of persistent effort, the Professor called the hunt off, and the crestfallen party returned to camp.

"What are we going to do?" asked Stacy dolefully.

"I know what you are going to do," returned Ned.

"What?"

"You're going to ride a mule from this point on."