Chapter XIII. Following a Hot Trail
 

"Fire! Fire!" cried Professor Zepplin, leaping up from where he had been leaning over, watching the water bubbling in the bottom of the excavation they had made.

The guide had been hanging over the hole, dipping water to Ned, who was turning it into the water-bags.

"Where, where?" demanded Mr. Kringle explosively. He also sprang to his feet. "It's a prairie fire!"

"The boys are caught. They'll perish!" exclaimed Professor Zepplin, with blanching face. "Go to them, go to them, Mr. Kringle!" he begged.

"No living thing could get through that wall of fire, Professor," announced the guide impressively. "We'll shout and perhaps, if alive, they'll bear us."

They did so, with the result already known.

"Which direction did Master Stacy take?" Mr. Kringle asked.

"I saw him riding down that way," replied Walter, pointing excitedly.

"Then, perhaps he is safe outside of the fire zone. Some of you hurry back to the camp, The stock may take fright and stampede. No, we'll all go. The wind may shift at any moment, and while I do not think the flames could reach the camp, all our animals might be suffocated, even if they did not succeed in getting away."

"But you're not going to desert Tad and Chunky, are you?" demanded Walter indignantly.

"Certainly not. What can we do here? We must get the ponies first; then we'll hurry to them. I'm afraid they've been caught," answered the guide.

"If there's any way of escape you may depend upon it that Master Tad has discovered that way," answered the Professor. "He is a resourceful boy, and--"

But the rest were already dashing madly toward the camp and Professor Zepplin began to do so with all speed to catch up with them. The hot breath of the prairie fire had brought the color to his blanched cheeks.

"How-- how do you think the fire started?" stammered the Professor, when he at last came up with the guide.

"It was set afire," answered Kris Kringle grimly.

"Set!" shouted the Professor and the two boys all in one breath.

"Yes."

"By whom?"

"That remains to be seen."

"Do you mean that one of the boys was imprudent enough to build a fire in that grass? Surely they would not have been so foolish as to do a thing like that."

"As I said, that remains to be seen. The first thing to be done is to get to them as quickly as possible, though I don't know that we can do any good. They're either out of it, by this time, or else they're not," added Mr. Kringle suggestively. "Professor, I wish you and one of the boys would get out your rifles, mount your ponies and watch the camp, while two of us go in search of the lost ones."

"Watch the camp?"

"Yes."

"For what reason?"

"Merely as a precaution."

"I'll attend to that. I want all of you to get after Tad and Stacy. We don't care about the camp particularly, when compared with two human lives."

The smoke was rolling over them in such dense clouds that the camp was wholly obscured from view until they were upon it.

"Quick! Get the horses before they break away!" commanded the guide.

"I can't find them!" shouted Ned, who had bounded on ahead and disappeared in the great suffocating cloud.

Walter was only a few steps behind him, both boys groping, blinking and coughing as the smoke got into eyes and lungs.

"Lie down when it gets stronger than you can stand. There's always a current of fresh air near the ground," called the guide.

Both lads adopted his suggestion instantly, and they were none too soon, for already they were getting dizzy. After a few long breaths, they were up, groping about once more in search of the stock.

"Over to you right," called the Professor.

"We've been there. They're not there at all," answered Ned.

By this time the guide had dived into the cloud.

"The stock has gone," they heard him shoat.

"Have they stampeded?" roared the Professor.

"I don't know. I'll find out in a minute."

"Queer that this smoke blows two ways at once," said Walter.

"There is a slight breeze blowing this way," explained Ned. "Not enough, however, to turn the fire back. It has got too good a start."

Suddenly a weird "c-o-o-e-e" sounded to the right of them.

"What's that?"

"It's the guide, Walt. He's trying to call the boys, to see if they are alive," explained Ned.

"I don't think so. That cry is for some other purpose. I'm going over where he is to find out what it does mean. Come on."

Together the lads ran as fast as they could in the direction from which the guide's voice had come.

They found him with hands shaped into a megaphone, uttering his shrill cries. He made no answer to their questions as to what he was trying to do.

All at once off in the cloud they heard rapid hoofbeats. The boys glanced at each other in surprise.

"It's the ponies returning," breathed Walter Perkins.

Ned shook his head.

The cries now took on a more insistent tone, and a moment later two ponies came whinnying into the camp, snorting with fear. Kris Kringle spoke to them sharply, whereupon they came trotting up to him with every evidence of pleasure.

The lads were amazed.

"Can you boys shoot a rope?"

"Yes," they answered together.

"Which one is the better at it?"

"Ned is more expert than I am."

"Take one of my ponies. We've got to go after the stock. Rope and bring them in as fast as possible. It's getting late, and it will be dark before we know it. There's not more than two hours of daylight left."

"I can take my pony and help," began Walter.

"You haven't any pony. They're all gone."

Ned and the guide dashed from the camp at break-neck speed. Emerging from the dust cloud they saw some of the stock far off on the plain.

"There they are!" cried Ned

"Thank goodness, they're all together. And they are not running. We've got them bunched."

"Were they afraid of the smoke? What made them break away?"

"They didn't break away."

"What?"

"Their tethers were cut and they were sent adrift," answered the guide grimly;

Ned was speechless with surprise.

Some of the ponies, objecting to being roped, ran away, necessitating a lively chase. Kris Kringle worked with the precision of an automatic gun and with proportionate speed. In half an hour they had roped all the ponies, and, with the burros trailing along behind, started back to camp as rapidly as possible.

A heavy pall of smoke still hung over the camp and all the surrounding country.

Once more they staked down the ponies and pack animals, and urging vigilance on the part of Professor Zepplin, Ned and the guide dashed away at full gallop in search of the two missing lads.

"Are we going through the fire?" questioned Ned apprehensively.

"We're going to try it. The worst of it must have passed before this, but we may have to turn back or turn out for spots. It's the shortest way, and the only course to follow if we want to know what has become of them."

Spreading out a little they continued on their way, the ponies snorting, threatening to whirl about and race back into the open plain. The ground was like a furnace and the grass smouldered beneath them, heating their feet and singeing their fetlocks.

Suddenly Ned's pony reared into the air, bucked and hurled its rider far over into the smouldering bunch grass.

Ned uttered a yell of warning as he felt himself going.

The guide wheeled like a flash. Ned's mount had whirled and was away like a shot. But the guide was after him with even greater speed. The chase came to an abrupt ending some few rods farther on, when Kris Kringle's lariat squirmed out, bringing the fleeing pony to the ground with its nose in the hot dust.

Without dismounting, the guide turned his own mount, and fairly dragging the unwilling pony behind him, pounded back to the place where Ned had been unhorsed.

"Grab him!" commanded the guide to Ned, who had quickly scrambled to his feet. "What was it that he saw?"

"I don't know. Guess he made up his mind to go back."

"No; he saw something. Hang on to him and cover the ground all about you till you find it."

"Wha-- what do you--"

"Never mind. Look!"

"Here! Here it is!" cried Ned aghast.

The guide was at his side instantly.

"It's a pony," gasped the Pony Rider boy.

Kris Kringle was off his own mount instantly, and bidding Ned hold the animal, he made a brief examination of the fallen horse, after which he darted here and there, unheeding the fact that the still burning grass was blistering his feet through the heavy soles of his boots.

For several rods Kringle ran along the faint trail that Tad and Stacy had left, or rather, that the fire had left after passing over it.

"They beat their way out here. We may find them later. Come on!"

Again Ned and the guide dashed away, both keeping their gaze on the smoking prairie about them. The smoke now was almost more than they could bear.

"Do-- do you think they are alive?" asked Ned unsteadily.

"So far. If they are not, it's not their fault. The Professor is right. Those boys have pluck enough to pull them through, but sometimes pluck alone will not do it. A prairie fire is no respecter of pluck."

They burst out into an open space. There were no signs of either of the missing boys.

"Something has happened to them. We must have missed them," announced the guide.