Chapter IX. Horse Thieves Pay a Second Visit
 

Tad was unusually silent while they were packing ready to break camp, but as they got out on the trail he became more talkative. He did not refer to the ponies again on the way, though the lad's mind was working rapidly.

"Do you think we shall be able to hire some ponies of Mr. Munson?" he asked when they had been an hour on their journey.

"I have no doubt of it," answered the Professor. "Perhaps it would be better to buy a couple."

"I don't want to do that just yet. There's the place where we are to leave the trail," he added, pointing to what appeared to be a broad gash in the rocks ahead of them. "We shall have to leave the ponies, what few we have left. I don't suppose the thieves will come back for the rest of them, do you?"

"Hardly," answered the Professor.

Securing their mounts as well as the two pack mules, they started down the mountain side with Tad Butler in the lead. On down the long, sloping trail they trudged until at last they reached the point where they were obliged to get down on all fours to clamber the last fifteen feet of precipitous rocks.

Eagle-eye halted, standing rigid, gazing off across the gorge.

"Well, what are you waiting for?" demanded the Professor. "Come along. We shall need you."

"Me stay."

Professor Zepplin was angry. He was for trying to force the Indian to accompany them.

"I would suggest that you let him remain where he is," said Tad. "We shall need some one here to haul up the packs when we get them at the bottom there. I'll leave my rope for him."

"Very well, just as you say. I hate to see even an Indian make such an exhibition of himself," answered the Professor witheringly. "I never supposed there were such cowards among the red men."

Tad handed his rope to Eagle-eye, at the same time telling the fellow what he was to do. The party then scrambled down the rocks, soon finding themselves on more secure footing by the side of the roaring stream.

The mountain torrent was more of a reality to the boys now than had been the case when they were gazing down upon it from the top of the cliff.

"My, I'd hate to fall in there!" decided Stacy, edging away from the flying spray that floated like a thin cloud along the edge of the bank, masking the torrent like a white veil.

"Wonderful! wonderful!" exclaimed the Professor, raising both hands above his head, glancing first up then down the imposing mountain gash. He was deeply impressed by the spectacle.

"Young gentlemen," he said, turning to them, impressively, "it would be well for you to give serious thought to the remarkable region in which you now find yourselves."

"Yes, sir," agreed Tad.

"We are not liable to forget it, Professor," added Ned.

"The Ozark region is unusual in having within such limited areas so wide a range of geological formation."

Professor Zepplin in his enthusiasm was waxing eloquent, and the lads were giving respectful attention.

"Perhaps you are unaware," continued the scientist, "that in both the eastern and western portions of this range, a section running transversely to its main axis presents a complete succession from the oldest Archaean to the newest quaternary."

The Professor fixed Stacy with a stern eye.

"Do you follow me, young gentleman?"

"Ye--yes, sir," stammered Chunky weakly, shrinking back against the rocks.

"And from perfectly massive rocks to the most perfectly stratified sediments there are represented a considerable variety of masses belonging to different ages--a very complete section of the Palaeozoic and a rather full sequence of the latter deposits which recline against the older strata."

"Yes, sir," agreed Ned meekly.

"A-h-e-m. And now having thus enlightened you, we will proceed with our quest for something to eat. I trust my explanation has been perfectly clear to you all?" queried the scientist, with the suspicion of a twinkle in his eyes.

"With all due respect to you, sir, I must confess that I didn't understand a word of it," answered Tad boldly.

"I hadn't the slightest idea that you did," retorted the Professor, with a hearty laugh. "Our friend, Master Stacy, appears to be the only one of you who grasped the scientific truths."

The boys shouted with laughter.

Ned Rector proposed three cheers for Professor Zepplin, which were given with a will.

Stacy, rather crestfallen, joined in the cheering, weakly, however.

"It is well to give thought now and then to more serious matters, boys. After we are out of our present difficulty I will put what I have just told you into more simple language--language that you will all understand. This is the most unusual country we have been in yet, and I want you to leave it with a pretty clear idea of the lessons it teaches. How far is it to where our provisions were dumped?"

"It will take us an hour to get there, I should say," replied Tad. "We had better be on our way."

Tad tied his red handkerchief to a bush, so they might not miss the trail upon their return, after which the party started out on its long tramp.

"If we were nearer to food, I should not take the time to rescue the supplies. At the present rate, it may be days before we reach a settlement."

"Especially if we lose any more live stock," said Tad.

Lost in admiration, the lads worked their way along the bank, gazing first at the swirling waters, whose spray here and there gave off the colors of the rainbow in the morning sun, then up at the towering white limestone cliffs above them.

"There's the place," announced Tad finally.

"Where?" queried the Professor.

"Just below where you see that projection of rock that looks like an Indian's nose. That's the rock that I tumbled down after the rope broke with me. I am black and blue yet. Don't think there's a spot on the rock that I didn't hit on my way down. My, I got a bump!"

"Are the things damaged?" asked Ned solicitously.

"No, nothing to speak of. I guess I did the most damage when I helped myself last night," laughed Tad.

Tad, after finishing his meal, had carefully packed the stuff together, and they now found it all in excellent condition. The heavy canvas had protected the food and dishes in the dizzy fall, though some of the cans had been considerably flattened.

"What do you say to having a real breakfast down here?" suggested Walter.

"Yes, I'm hungry," urged Chunky.

"Oh, you'll get over that," retorted Ned.

"An excellent idea, but what are you going to do for a fire?" asked Professor Zepplin.

They had not thought of that before.

"That's so. There is no wood down here at all," said Tad. "But, wait a minute. I know where there are some dead brush sticks a little way from here. Come on, some of you fellows, and we'll see what we can do."

When they returned each had his arms full of brush and vines, all of which they dumped in a heap on the edge of the rapids.

"It doesn't look very promising," said the Professor, with a doubtful shake of his head.

"No, I guess it will be a quick fire," answered Tad. "Ned, you get the coffee ready and the other things so we can put them on the fire the moment we get it started. I'll have the pile ready by the time you are."

With considerable skill the lad arranged the heap, placing the dead leaves and the driest of the sticks at the bottom. On top he placed a mass of half green stuff, packing the whole down by throwing himself on the pile, after which he rounded it up in a mound shape, with a circle of stones in the middle.

The fire blazed up encouragingly, and Ned, getting water from the rapids for the coffee, put the pot quickly into the ring of stones.

"Something's going to happen in about a minute," announced Chunky, with an air of great wisdom. He had been watching the preparations with hands thrust deeply into his pockets.

"What's going to happen?" demanded Ned, turning on him sharply.

Chunky, instead of replying, leaned back against the rocks and began to whistle. In a moment the disaster that he had foreseen was upon them.

The flimsy pile of brush and vines, after the fire had burned away its foundations, gave way beneath the weight of the stones. Coffee pot, coffee and stones went down with a crash and a clatter.

"Save the coffee pot!" shouted Ned, giving Chunky a push.

"Save it yourself. I'm not the cook," answered the fat boy, who chanced to be nearest to the fire. "I told you something was going to happen."

In the meantime Tad Butler had sprung to the rescue. With one well-directed kick he had scattered the brush and rescued the coffee pot before serious damage had been done to it.

Rushing to the river, he scooped up a fresh supply of water, planting the pot in the center of the fire and heaping the burning stuff about it.

"We'll have some coffee after all," he glowed. "I don't think Ned is much of a cook, do you, Chunky?"

"'Bout as good as you are at making fires to cook by, I guess," mumbled Chunky.

Tad laughed with them at his own expense.

The water was soon boiling, however, and with the canned stuff laid on the canvas which had been spread out close to the water, the jolly party shortly after that were able to sit down to breakfast.

"Two lumps of sugar I believe you take, Professor?" questioned Ned politely, poising a handful of lumps over the Professor's cup.

"Give me four," interjected Chunky.

"You take yours clear this morning," retorted Ned.

"I got the condensed milk, anyway," jeered Chunky. "No sugar for me, no condensed milk for you," and he planted the can firmly between his feet, which were curled up half under him.

"Oh, give him the sugar. I have to take my coffee half milk," begged Walter.

"All right, hand over the condensed milk then. I'll give you two lumps," said Ned.

"Three," replied Chunky, firmly, making no move to hand over the milk.

Ned let the lumps drop into his companion's cup, but from such a height that Chunky had to dodge as the coffee flew up.

He wiped a few drops of the coffee from his face, deliberately filled his cup to overflowing with milk, then handed the can to Walter.

"I guess Chunky doesn't need any of our help. He is pretty well able to take care of himself," laughed Tad.

"Delicious," breathed the Professor, sampling his cup of steaming liquid.

"Who, Chunky?" asked Ned quizzically.

"Certainly not the coffee," replied the Professor in a tone of reproof.

The meal was finished with many a jest and the pack divided up into bundles so that each should have his share to carry, after which the lads took up their return tramp.

They arrived at the mountain trail shortly before noon.

"Where's the guide?" asked Tad, glancing about.

"Probably asleep somewhere," replied Ned. "He's almost as big a sleepy head as Chunky."

"He is not here, Ned."

"Most unreliable guide we've had. I shall dismiss him immediately upon our arrival at the Red Star Mine," decided the Professor. "You are sure he is nowhere about, Tad?"

"You can see. He's not here. I hope he has left the rope. I'll climb up there and find out. No, he has taken it with him, evidently."

"Here's the rope," called Stacy, hauling it from a clump of bushes where it had evidently been dropped.

"Coil it and cast it up here," directed Tad.

This done, he began hauling up the bundles that they made fast to it below. Finally, this was completed without accident. All hands took up their packages from that point and started along the winding trail that led up the mountain side.

"Most peculiar, most peculiar," muttered the Professor.

"Maybe some of those spirits that the Indian was talking about came up and got him," suggested Stacy, with serious face.

"Maybe," agreed Ned. "But I'd sooner think they would take you if they were the real bad spirits."

"It is my opinion," declared Professor Zepplin gravely, "that the spirits that trouble Eagle-eye most are not the supernatural kind. We certainly drew a prize when we picked him."

"We did," agreed Tad, laughing.

"Next time we'll choose a white man, if we can get one--"

"Hello, he isn't here, either," called Ned, who was the first to reach the end of the trail at the top.

Tad, close behind him, cast a searching glance about.

"That's not all that is missing, either," he said sharply.

"What!" exclaimed the Professor.

"Two more ponies, that's all," replied Tad Butler. "We are a smart lot to let him steal our stock right under our very eyes."