Chapter XI. Riding with Kris Kringle
 

A slender ribbon of dust unrolling across the plain far to the northward marked the receding trail of Juan and his lazy burro. They had given him a week's extra pay and sent him on his way.

The burro was making for home, aided by the busy feet of its master, while Stacy Brown, shading his eyes with one hand, was watching the progress of the guide, whom he had just sent adrift.

"Well, he's gone," grinned Stacy, turning to his companions, who were busy striking camp.

"And a good riddance," nodded Tad.

"He'll probably join the Indians and tell them where we are," suggested Walter.

"I hadn't thought of that," replied Tad. "Still, if they wish to find us they know how without Juan's telling them."

"How?"

"They can follow a trail with their eyes shut," said Ned.

"That's right. They do not need to be told," muttered Tad.

Everything being in readiness, the boys started with their outfit for the dug-out, where they were to be joined by Kris Kringle. They felt a real relief to know that they were to have with them a strong man on whom they were sure they could rely to do the right thing under all circumstances. Tad, however, believed that Mr. Kringle had decided to join them, fearing they would be attacked by the Apaches and come to serious harm. Yet he hardly thought the redskins would dare to follow them, after the latter had once gotten over the frenzy of their fire dance. By that time the Indian agents would have rounded them all up on the reservations, where the Indians would be able to do no more harm for a while.

After picking up the new guide the start was made. The party had water in plenty in the water-bags, so that no effort was made to pick up a water hole when they made camp late in the afternoon. The guide had brought in his pack a tough old sage hen, at which the lads were inclined to jeer when he announced his intention of cooking it for their supper.

"You'll change your mind when you taste it, young gentlemen. It depends upon the cooking entirely. A sage hen may be a delicious morsel, or it may not," answered Mr. Kringle, with a grin.

They were encamped near a succession of low-lying buttes, and to while away the time until the supper hour, the boys strolled away singly to stretch their legs on the plain after the long day's ride in the hot sun.

When they returned an hour or so later, Stacy, they observed, was swinging a curious forked stick that he had picked up somewhere a few moments ago.

"What you got there?" questioned Ned.

"Don't know. Picked it up on the plain. Such a funny looking thing, that I brought it along."

"Let me see it," asked Mr. Kringle.

Stacy handed it to him.

"This," said the guide, turning the stick over in his hand, "is a divining rod."

"Divining rod?" demanded Stacy, pressing forward.

"Yes."

"Never heard of it. Is it good to eat?"

"Looks to me like a wish bone," interjected Ned. "Do you eat wish bones, Chunky?"

"Might, if I were hungry enough."

"A divining rod is used to locate springs. Some users of it have been very successful. I couldn't find a lake with it, even if I fell in first."

"Indeed," marveled the Professor. "I have heard of the remarkable work of divining rods. What Rind of wood is it?"

"This is hazel wood. Oak, elm, ash or privet also are used, but hazel is preferred in this country."

"Then-- then we won't have to go dry any more-- I can find water with this when I'm dry?" questioned Stacy.

"You might; then again you might not."

"Better take it away from him," suggested Ned. "He might find a spring. If he did he'd be sure to fall in and drown."

The stick, which was shaped like the letter Y, was an object of great interest to the Pony Rider Boys. One by one they took it out on the plain, in an effort to locate some water. The guide instructed them to hold the Y with the bottom up, one prong in each hand and to walk slowly.

But, try as they would, they were able to get no results.

"The thing's a fraud!" exclaimed Ned disgustedly, throwing the divining rod away.

Stacy picked it up.

"I know why it doesn't work," he said.

"Why?" demanded the other boys.

"'Cause-- 'cause there isn't any water to make it work," he replied wisely.

The boys groaned.

Shortly after returning to camp, they found the fat boy standing over a pail of water holding the stick above it.

He was talking to the stick confidentially, urging it to "do something," to the intense amusement of the whole outfit.

"Now, where's your theory?" questioned the Professor.

"Why, it doesn't have to work, does it? Don't we know there's water here? If we didn't the stick would tell us, maybe. Take my word for it, this outfit won't have to go dry after this. Stacy Brown and his magic wand will find all the water needed," continued the fat boy proudly.

"Your logic is good, at any rate, even if the rod doesn't work at command," laughed the Professor.

Supper was a jolly affair, for everyone was in high spirits. The sage hen, contrary to general expectation, was found to be delicious. Chunky begged for the wish bone and got it. He said he'd use it for a divining rod when he wanted to find a little spring.

"Mr. Kringle, I am commissioned by the fellows to ask you a question," announced Tad, after the meal had been in progress for a time.

"Ask it," smiled the guide.

"We thought we'd like to call you Santa Claus, seeing you've brought us so much cheer. Then again, it's your name you know. Kris Kringle is Santa Claus."

"Oh, well, call me what you please, young men."

From that moment on, Kris Kringle was Santa Claus to the Pony Rider Boys.

They had now come to a rolling country, with here and there high buttes, followed by large areas of bottom lands which were covered with rank growths of bunch grass. Traveling was more difficult than it had been, and water more scarce.

It was on the second day out, after they had been skirmishing for water in every direction, that the lads heard the familiar yell from Chunky.

"There goes the trouble maker," cried Ned. "He's at it again."

The guide bounded up, starting on a run for the spot where Chunky's wail had been heard. The others were not far behind.

They saw the red, perspiring face of the fat boy above a clump of grass, his yells for help continuing, unabated.

"What is it?" shouted the guide.

"I've got it, Santa Claus! I've got it!"

"Got what?" roared the Professor.

"The stick!-- I mean it's got me. Help! Help!"

Stacy was wrestling about as if engaged in combat with some enemy. They could not imagine what had gone wrong-- what had caused his sudden cries of alarm.

"It's the divining rod!" called the guide.

"He's found water!" shouted the boys.

"I've got it! I've got it! Come help me hold it. The thing's jerking my arms off."

To the amazement of the Pony Rider Boys, the forked stick in the hands of the fat boy was performing some strange antics. Breathing hard, he would force it up until it was nearly upright, when all at once the point of the triangle would suddenly swerve downward, bending the rod almost to the breaking point.

"See it? See it?"

"Most remarkable," breathed Professor Zepplin.

"Yes, there can be no doubt about it," nodded the guide.

"He's bluffing," disagreed Ned.

"Doesn't look to me as if he were," returned Tad.

"Take hold with me here, if you don't believe me," cried Stacy. "No, not on the stick, take hold of my wrists."

Ned promptly accepted the invitation.

Instantly the tug of the divining rod was felt by the new hands.

Ned let go quickly.

"Ugh! The thing gives me the creeps."

"Let me try it, Master Stacy," said Professor Zepplin.

"I can't let go of it," wailed Chunky.

"Step off a piece," directed the guide.

Stacy did so, whereupon the divining rod immediately ceased its peculiar actions.

The Professor took hold of it, but the rod refused to work for him.

"Let Santa Claus try it," suggested Ned.

The guide did so, but with no more success than the Professor had had.

"I told you it wouldn't work for me," Mr. Kringle grinned. "Here, Master Tad, you try it."

Tad, with the rod grasped firmly in his hands, walked back and forth three times without result. On the fourth attempt, however, the stick suddenly bent nearly double.

All were amazed.

"Why were we unable to get results, Mr. Kringle?" questioned the Professor.

"According to some French writers as much depends upon the man as on the divining rod. Where one succeeds another fails absolutely. Supposing the others take a try?"

Walter and Ned did so, but neither could get the rod to move for him.

"I guess Chunky is the champion water-finder," laughed Ned.

"Would it not be a good idea to find out whether or not there is water here?" asked the Professor.

"Yes," agreed the guide. "It may be so far down that we cannot reach it, however. You know in some parts of this region they are locating water with the rod and sinking artesian wells."

"Why-- why didn't we think to bring some down with us?" demanded Chunky. "Can't we get any in some of the towns down here?"

"Some what?" questioned the guide.

"Artesian wells."

A roar greeted the fat boy's question.

"Bring down a load of artesian wells!" jeered Ned.

"An artesian well, my boy, is nothing more than a hole in the ground," the guide informed him, much to Chunky's chagrin.

The spot where the divining rod had so suddenly gotten busy was about midway of an old water course, covered with a thick growth of bunch grass.

"Get some tools, boys," directed the Professor.

Tad ran back to camp, which lay some distance to the east of where they were gathered. Searching out a pick and two shovels, he leaped on his pony, dashing back to the arroyo.

"That was quickly done," smiled Santa Claus. "Are all of you lads as quick on an errand as that?"

"Only Chunky," answered Ned solemnly.

The guide began to dig, in which effort he was joined by Stacy Brown, who, with a shovel, caved in about as much dirt as he threw out.

"Here, give me that shovel," commanded Ned. "You'll fill up the bole before we get it dug."

Tad, having tethered his pony, took the extra shovel and went to work.

"Guess it's a false alarm," decided Ned, after they were up to their shoulders in the hole.

"Don't be too sure. The ground is quite damp here. Try your rod, young man."

"Chunky held the divining rod over the excavation, whereupon it drew down with even greater force than before.

"Dig," directed the guide.

They did so with a will.

"Here's water!" shouted Kris Kringle.

They crowded about the hole, amazement written on every face.

A fresh, cool stream bubbled up into the hole, causing those in the pit to scramble out hastily.

"Some of you boys run back to camp and fetch pails and water-bags," directed the guide.

"I'll go. I've got the pony here," spoke up Tad.

"No; I want you to do something else for me."

"We'll all go," offered Walter. The three lads started on a run, Chunky holding his precious divining rod tightly clasped in both hands.

"What is it you wish?" questioned Tad.

"I wish you would ride over toward that small butte and cut a load of brush. Want to rip-rap the outer edge of this water hole, so the bank will not cave in and undo all our work! Have you a hatchet?"

"Yes, in my saddlebags."

"Good. Hurry, please."

Tad leaped into the saddle, and putting spurs to his broncho, tore through the high bunch grass, above which only his head was now observable. In a short time he was back with the green stuff piled high on the saddle in front of him, with a large bundle tied to the cantle of the saddle behind.

Unloading this, Butler started back at a gallop for more. When there was work to be done, Tad Butler was happy. Activity to him was a tonic that spurred him on to ever greater efforts.

This time he found himself obliged to climb higher up the butte in order to get branches of available size. These he cut and threw down. After having procured what he thought would be all he could carry the lad scrambled down, and, dropping on his knees began tying them into bundles. The heat was sweltering, and occasionally be paused to wipe away the perspiration.

"I smell smoke," sniffed Tad. "I wonder where it comes from?"

The odor grew stronger, but so interested was he in his labor that he did not at once understand the significance of his discovery.

"W-h-o-o-e-e!"

It was a long-drawn, warning shout.

"It's a signal!" exclaimed the lad, straightening up. "I wonder what's the matter?"

As he looked toward the camp a great wall of flame seemed to leap from the ground between him and his companions. There it poised for one brief instant, then, with a roar swooped down into the tall bunch grass, rushing roaring and crackling toward him.

For an instant he stood unbelieving, then the truth dawned upon him.

"The prairie's on fire!" cried Tad.