Chapter VIII. The Indian Makes a Discovery
 

It was not a cheerful breakfast to which the lads sat down. It seemed as if nothing but trouble had overtaken them ever since they had been in the Ozark Mountains.

They had just finished when the Indian rode in on Ned's mount, which he had chosen for his journey.

This was something at least to detract their attention from their troubles.

"Hey, you haven't got back, have you?" taunted Ned, noting the flecks of foam on his pony with disapproving eyes.

"Me back," grinned the Indian.

"I see you are," replied the Professor dryly. "Where's the rope?"

"Yes; we don't care so much about seeing you, but we want that rope," added Ned emphatically.

"No got um."

"Do you mean to say you have been gone nearly twenty-four hours and have not found a rope?" demanded Professor Zepplin.

"No rope," persisted the guide sullenly.

"Why not?" demanded Ned, steadying himself, for he was more wrought up than he wished to admit, even to himself.

The Shawnee shrugged his shoulders.

"Where's that rope?" snapped Chunky, with sudden new-found courage, facing the guide at close quarters.

"No get um! No get um!" insisted the Indian, gesticulating extravagantly.

"Yes, but why not, why not?" urged the Professor.

"No find."

"You mean you could not find one?"

"He doesn't know what he means," sneered Ned. "He's had too much pipe of peace."

"Go take care of that pony," commanded the Professor sternly. "Rub him down well. After you have done so, return and get your breakfast. There's not much for you."

"He'll have to wash his own dishes," announced Ned. "No washing dishes for a lazy Indian. No, not for me."

"Yes, he will have to do that," agreed the Professor. "Come back here, Eagle-eye."

The boys did not know at the moment what the Professor had in mind.

"Two of our ponies got away last night, Eagle-eye."

The Indian nodded, but without exhibiting any surprise.

"Did you know it?"

"Me know."

"How?" demanded the Professor, with unfeigned surprise.

"Me see um tracks. Me see um ropes there."

"Well, you have got some sense after all,"' retorted the Professor. "How do you suppose they got away?"

"No get away."

"What's that? What do you mean?" asked Ned sharply.

"No get away."

"I guess the pipe of peace has gone to his head," declared Ned disgustedly. "Now you say they didn't get away. If not, they must be over there now. How do you explain that?"

"No there."

"Of course they're not. Then they got away."

"No get away. Steal um," announced the Indian calmly.

His announcement was like an electric shock to them.

"Stolen? Stolen? Is that what you mean?" shouted Professor Zepplin.

"Yes."

"Oh, preposterous! Stolen? And with all of us sleeping within a rod or so of them? Impossible."

"Eagle-eye say stole," insisted the guide.

"How do you know?"

"See um tracks, then not see um tracks."

"Well, what do you infer from that--what does that mean?"

The Indian went through a series of pantomimic gestures to indicate that the feet of the missing ponies had been bound with cloths so that their hoofs would leave no imprint.

"Come Eagle-eye," he commanded, striding off toward the bedding-down place.

They followed and gathered around him as he picked up the ends of the tether ropes.

"Break um? No, cut um."

"You mean the ropes have been cut?"

"Uh-huh," he grunted in gutteral tones.

There was silence for a moment.

"He isn't such a wooden Indian as he'd have us believe after all," grinned Ned.

"Can't you trail them?" asked Stacy.

The Shawnee shook his head.

"Why not?"

"No leave trail. Smart man."

"Yes, there is no doubt of that," agreed the Professor. "Have you any idea who did this thing, Eagle-eye?"

The Shawnee shrugged his shoulders as indicating that he did not know.

"Probably it was the same fellow whom you found fooling about the camp the other night," suggested Walter.

"Just what I was thinking," added Ned.

"Yes, no doubt he is the man. But what we are going to do, I don't know. It occurs to me that I might send some one on to Mr. Munson, superintendent of the Red Star Mine, to whom I have a letter, asking him to send us on a couple of extra ponies."

"Does he know who we are?" asked Walter Perkins.

"Yes, he knows your father. Mr. Munson is expecting us, and is to entertain us when we reach the place."

"How far are we from there now?" inquired Ned.

"How far, Eagle-eye?"

"Two suns."

"Two days, eh. We could make it while Eagle-eye was going there and back. I move that we wait until to-morrow. Perhaps we may find Tad some time to-day. I believe he will return, as I said before. If he does, we can start right on. Some of us will have to walk, but that doesn't matter. We are pretty well used to doing that, I guess."

"Master Ned, your suggestion is a good one. We shall adopt it. I presume the other animals are safe. The thieves certainly will not have the assurance to come back again."

"No come more," affirmed the guide.

"After you have finished your breakfast I want you to start in and look for Master Butler. You'll have to find a way to get down there, even if you have to wade in the stream--"

"Spirits git um boy."

"We will leave that out of the question. You find him, that's all."

"He won't go down there," said Ned. "He may say he will, but he won't."

"I'll see that he does," replied the Professor, with a firm closing of the lips. "I have trifled long enough. Now we shall do something. I--"

"Well, what's all the excitement about?" demanded a cheery voice behind them.

"Tad! It's Tad!" shouted the boys in chorus.

With yells of delight they pounced upon him and for a moment there was a regular football scrimmage, with Tad Butler at the bottom of the heap, the others mauling him about with shouts of glee.

It was the Pony Rider Boys' way of showing their delight at the return of their companion. But Tad did not mind it at all. Throwing them off with a prodigious effort he scrambled to his feet, dust-covered, hatless and with hair in a sad state of disorder.

Professor Zepplin had thrust the other boys aside and was gripping Tad's hands.

"It's the last time you ever get me to consent to your taking such a chance," he said. "How did you get out? You certainly did not climb up the side of the mountain."

"Oh, no," laughed Tad. "I knew there must be some way out, for I found a moccasin track down there in the sand before I turned in last night."

"You must have pretty good eyes to find a moccasin track in the dark," laughed Ned.

"I did not say it was dark. I made the discovery before that."

"Tell us about it," urged Walter.

"You didn't find any of Eagle-eye's evil spirits down there, did you?" asked Ned.

"No. I wish I had. I should have been glad of company of any kind."

"We want to hear how you got out," spoke up Chunky. "I--I came pretty near falling in after you, too."

"Yes, I know. Well, to begin with, before I found the moccasin track I noticed that there was room to walk along by the side of the stream. When the moon came up, not being able to sleep, for some reason--I guess it was on account of the water that made such a racket, I thought I'd look around a bit. After I got started I kept on going and going, and the further I went the less steep did the banks appeared--"

"How far did you go?" interrupted the Professor.

"I haven't the slightest idea."

"I presume you found no great change in the topographic features of--"

Tad laughed good-naturedly.

"I was trying to get out, Professor. Finally, I found a place that looked good and after I had scrambled up some fifteen feet I discovered that I had struck a trail. It had been in use not long since. What for I cannot imagine. The rest was very easy. I reached the top of the cliff just after daylight."

"How--how did you find your way back?" wondered Stacy.

"I followed along the ridge. After a while I saw the smoke from your camp-fire, then I hurried in and here I am."

"You always were a lucky fellow," laughed Ned. "Now if that had been myself I should have been down there yet, or else in the river or whatever you call that stream down there."

"Got anything to eat?" asked Tad. "My appetite this morning is a thing to be feared."

"Depends upon how much the guide has eaten," replied Walter. "I guess you will have to lick the frying pan."

"Yes, that's all he'll get," added Ned. "Any fellow who has filled up on canned peaches and the like doesn't need any more than that."

"Professor," continued Tad, "I would suggest that we pack up and move along down until we come to the trail. We can all then work into the gorge leaving the ponies on top. It will be an easy matter for us to pack the stuff to the top. We'll be in good shape then. Shall we do it?"

"Yes, yes," answered the Professor absently.

"Come on then, fellows. I'll tighten my belt and save my appetite until we get something like real food to eat. Licking a frying pan won't satisfy my longings this morning. I'll pack the ponies while you are striking the tents. I--"

Tad turned, gazing at them curiously. They were strangely silent. The lad felt instinctively that something had gone wrong, for Tad Butler was quick to catch a suggestion.

"Well, what is it all about? You are as solemn as a lot of owls at sunrise. Anything happened?"

Walter nodded.

"It's about the ponies, Master Tad," the Professor informed him.

"The ponies? Which ponies? Are they hurt?" exclaimed the lad sharply.

"We don't know," answered Professor Zepplin.

"Then what is the matter? Don't keep me in suspense."

"Gone," growled Ned dismally.

"Where?"

"I'm sure I don't know. The redskin says they have been stolen--your pony and Chunky's. The trail has been masked so we cannot follow them."

Without a word, Tad Butler hastened to the spot where the animals had been tethered when he went over the cliff. Silently he made a careful inspection of the place.

"Well, what do you think of it?" asked Ned.

"I think I'll walk," answered Tad, thrusting both hands in his trousers pockets. "But I'm going to get my pony back before ever I leave these mountains," he announced quietly.