The Pony Rider Boys in New Mexico by Frank Gee Patchin
Chapter XV. Hit by a Dry Storm
"There it goes! Lower, Chunky!"
A rifle had crashed somewhere to the left of them.
Stacy's curiosity getting the better of him, he had twisted his body around, and was peering back; but he was bobbing up and down so fast that he found it difficult to fix his eyes on any one point long enough to distinguish what that object was.
"Look! Look!" he cried, when in a long rise of the pony his eyes had caught something definite.
The roped Indian was running for his pony, which he caught, leaping to its back and dashing away madly.
"Hold up! Hold up! There's something doing," shouted the fat, boy.
Tad swerved a little, turning to his left. Rifles were banging, and the dust was spurting up under the feet of the savage's racing pony.
By this time, the second Indian had recovered from the blow that Stacy had landed on his jaw, and he too was in his saddle in a twinkling, tearing madly cross the plain.
Stacy Brown uttered a series of wild whoops and yells. He knew their assailants were running and that some one was shooting at the Indians, but who it was the fat boy could only guess.
Two ponies suddenly dashed out from the low-lying smoke cloud. One of their riders was swinging his sombrero and cheering; the other was firing his rifle after the fleeing savages.
"Hooray, it's Santa Claus," howled Stacy, fairly beside himself with excitement. Even Tad caught something of his companion's spirit of enthusiasm. He swung his hand and started galloping toward the two horsemen.
"Shoot 'em! Kill 'em!" howled Chunky.
But Santa Claus merely shook his head, and after refilling the magazine of his rifle slipped it into the holster.
"It would only make trouble and probably cause an uprising if I did. They know I could have winged them both had I wanted to," he grinned. "Well, you boys are a sight."
"I-- I lost my shirt," interjected Stacy.
"And I suppose you fell in," chuckled Ned.
"No; I fell off."
"We're lucky to be alive," laughed Tad.
"You are that. I see now that Professor Zepplin was right when he said you could take care of yourself. Never saw anything quite so slick as the way you roped that redskin--"
"And-- and I punched the other one," glowed Chunky.
"Did you see us?" questioned Tad.
"Yes, we saw the whole proceeding. But you were so mixed up that we couldn't fire without danger of hitting one of you boys. Wonder what those Apaches think struck them," laughed the guide. "How did you get through the fire?"
Tad explained briefly; at the same time accounting for the loss of Stacy's shirt.
"I bet that the fellow with the canary-wing face has a sore jaw," bubbled Stacy.
"No doubt of it, Master Stacy. I didn't suppose you had such a punch as that. You're a good Indian fighter."
"Always was," answered the fat boy, swelling with importance.
"Come, we'll have to hurry back It will be dark before we reach camp, as it is, and the Professor will be worrying about you."
They turned about, and, heading across the burned area, started for camp. Fitful blazes were springing up here and there, but all danger had, by this time, passed, though the smoke still hung heavy and the odor of burned vegetation smote the nostrils unpleasantly.
Stacy sniffed the air suspiciously.
"Tastes like a drug store fire I smelled once in Chillicothe," he averred.
"I haven't made up my mind, yet, how that fire started, Mr. Kringle," wondered Tad.
"I have," replied the guide tersely.
"It was set afire!"
"By one of those savages, or by somebody who was with them. They must have been watching you all the time. Did you recognize either of them as the fellow you knocked down the other might?"
"No; I don't think I would know the Indian. The light was too uncertain at the fire dance, and then again, all Indians look alike to me."
"It was a narrow escape."
"Do you think they'll come back again?" questioned Ned.
"I doubt it. They won't if they recognized me. They know me. They've done business with me before."
Professor Zepplin and Walter were overjoyed when at last the party rode into camp and they learned that both boys were safe. The lads were obliged to go all over their experiences again for the benefit of the Professor and Walter.
"It's getting worse and worse," decided the Professor helplessly. "I don't know where all this is going to end. I thought when we got a new guide-- but what's the use? Do you think we had better start to-night, Mr. Kringle?"
"No. There is no necessity."
"What am I going to do for a pony?" asked Chunky.
"You can ride one of mine. I always take two when on a long journey," replied the guide.
Chunky's first act after reaching camp, was to provide himself with a shirt. After donning it, he announced that he had an appetite and wanted to know when they were going to have supper.
"Why, you had supper hours ago," scoffed Ned. "Want another one already?"
"That wasn't supper, that was four o'clock tea. Indian fighters must have real food."
"Stop teasing. We'll give the 'ittle baby his milk," returned Ned.
That night, Kris Kringle remained on guard himself. He would not trust the guardianship of the camp to any of the boys, for he fully expected that they would receive a visit from one or more of the Indians, though he did not tell the others so. But nothing occurred to disturb the camp, and the boys, despite their trying experiences, slept soundly, awakening in the morning fresh and active, ready and anxious for any further adventures.
The party set out shortly after sunrise, and traveled all day across the uneven plains, across short mountain ranges, through deep gorges and rugged foothills.
Crossing an open space the guide espied a bottle glistening in the sunlight.
"There's a bottle," pointed the guide. "Want it?"
Stacy glanced at it indifferently;
"What do I want of a bottle?"
"Then I'll take it," decided the guide, dismounting and stowing the abandoned piece of glass in his saddle bags.
"Bottles are good for only two things."
"And what are they, Master Stacy?" questioned the Professor.
"To keep things in and to shoot at," replied the fat boy wisely.
Everybody laughed at that.
"I guess that embodies everything you can say about bottles," smiled the Professor. "Your logic, at times, young man, is unassailable."
Chunky nodded. He had a faint idea of what Professor Zepplin meant.
Late that afternoon the travelers came upon a shack in the foothills, where an old rancher, a hermit, lived when not tending his little flock of sheep, most of which, Kris Kringle said, the old man had stolen from droves that came up over the trail going north.
He was an interesting old character, this hermit, and the boys decided that they would like to make camp and have him take supper with them. This the Professor and the guide readily agreed to, for everyone was hot and dusty and the bronchos were nervous and ill-natured.
The boys found the old rancher talkative enough on all subjects save himself. When Chunky asked him where he came from, and what for, the old man's face flushed angrily.
At the first opportunity the guide took the fat boy aside for some fatherly advice.
"In this country it isn't good policy to be too curious about a man's family affairs. He's likely to resent it in a way you won't like. Most fellows out here have reasons for being out of the world, beyond what's apparent on the surface."
Chunky heeded the advice and asked no more personal questions for the next hour, though he did forget himself before the evening was ended.
"You seem to be having pretty dry weather down here," said the Professor, by way of starting the old man to talking.
"Yep. Haven't had any rain in this belt fer the last two years."
"Two years!" exclaimed the boys.
"Yep. Had a few light dews, but that's all," replied the hermit.
"Looks to me as if you were going to get some to-night," announced Tad.
"Then I'm no judge of weather."
Even as Tad spoke there was a low muttering of thunder, and the far lightning flashed pale and green, and rose on the long horizon to the southwest.
Kris Kringle heard the far away growl. Springing up, he began staking down the tents.
"That's a good idea. We lost our whole outfit on our last trip. Think they'll stand a blow?"
"I guess they will when I get through with them. Have we any more stakes in camp?"
"There should be some in the kit."
Tad searched until he found several more stakes, and with these and the emergency ropes, they made the tents secure.
By the time they had done so, the heavens had grown black and menacing. They could see the storm sweeping down on them. It was a magnificent sight, and the lads were so lost in observing its grandeur that they forgot to feel any alarm.
A cloud of dust accompanied the advance guard of the storm.
"Reckon there ain't any rain in them clouds," commented the old man. "There's plenty of the other thing, though."
"What's the other thing?" questioned Chunky.
Even as he spoke a bolt descended right in the center of the camp, tearing a hole in the earth and hurling a cloud of dirt and dust many feet up into the air.
The force of the explosion knocked some of the party flat.
Chunky picked himself up and carefully brushed his clothes; then, solemnly walked out and sat down on the spot where the lightning had struck.
"Here, here! What are you doing out there?" demanded the guide.
"Sitting on the lightning."
"You come in here! And quick, at that!"
"Huh! Guess I know what I'm doing. Lightning never strikes twice in the same place. I'm--"
By this time Kris Kringle had the fat boy by the collar, hustling him to the protection of one of the tents.
No sooner had they reached it than a crash that seemed as if it had split the earth wide open descended upon them. Balls of fire shot off in every direction. One went right through the tent where they were huddled, hurling the Pony Rider Boys in a heap.
They scrambled up calling to each other nervously.
The shock had extinguished the lantern that hung in the tent. The guide relighted it, and, stepping outside to see what had happened, pointed to the place where Chunky had been sitting but a few minutes before.
The bolt had struck in the identical spot where the previous one had landed.
"Now, young man, there's an object lesson for you," Mr. Kringle said, with a grim smile.
"And there's another!" replied Chunky, pointing to the outside of the tent.
There lay the old rancher, whose absence they had not noted. He had been in the tent with them when they last saw him and how he had gotten out there none knew. The rancher had been stripped of every vestige of clothing by the freaky lightning.
"He's dead," crooned Stacy solemnly.
"Get water, quick! He's been struck by lightning!" commanded the guide, making systematic efforts to bring the old man back to consciousness.
Stacy ran for the water-bags.
"I am afraid it is useless, Mr. Kringle," warned, the Professor, failing to find a pulse. The boys were standing about fanning the victim, having one by one dumped the contents of their canteens in his face.
Stacy returned with a water-bag after a little.
"I-- I-- I've got an idea," he exploded, as with eyes wide open he attempted to tell them something.
"Keep still. We've got something else to do besides listening to your foolishness," chided Ned.
"Chunky, we're trying to save this man's life. Give me that bag," commanded Tad.
The two older men were working desperately on the patient. Stacy stood around, fidgeting a little, but making no further attempt to enlighten them as to what his new idea was.
After a time the rancher began to show signs of recovering. He gasped a few times then opened his eyes.
"What kicked me?" he asked, with a half-grin.
They could all afford to laugh now, and they did. The rancher refused their offer of clothes, saying he had another suit in his shack.
"That's twice the stuff has knocked me out. Next time it'll git me for keeps," he said.
"Does it strike here very often?" questioned the Professor.
"Then, there must be some mineral substance in the soil."
"No, ain't nothing like that. Jest contrariness that's all. Hit my shack once, and 'cause 'twas raining, bored holes in the roof so the place got all wet inside."
"But it isn't raining now. Doesn't it usually rain when you have a thunder storm here?" asked the Professor.
"No. Ain't had no rain in nigh onto two year," the hermit reiterated.
"You'd better go and put on some clothes," suggested Kris Kringle.
"Guess that's right."
The old man seemed to have forgotten his condition. The others had wrapped a blanket around him, which seemed to satisfy his demand for clothes. Gathering up the blanket he strolled leisurely toward his cabin, undisturbed by his recent experience.
"Nothing like getting used to it," chuckled Stacy.
"Hello, now we'll hear what your new idea is, Chunky?" jeered Ned.
"Yes, what is it?" urged Tad.
"Never is," cut in Walter Perkins, a little maliciously.
"I-- I got an idea the ponies tried to kick holes in the lightning."
Everybody laughed loudly. They could well afford to laugh, now that the danger had passed.
"What makes you think that?" asked the guide, eyeing him sharply.
"'Cause they're dead!"
"What!" shouted the boys.
All hands dashed from the tent, Stacy regarding them with soulful eyes, after which he surreptitiously slipped a biscuit into his pocket and strolled out after them.