Chapter III. Indians!
 

"Juan, did you see two men get off the train at Bluewater yesterday when we did? One of them had a big, broad sombrero like mine?" asked Tad, riding up beside the guide next day while they were crossing the range.

"Si."

"Know them?"

"Si," he replied, holding up one finger.

"You mean you know one of them?"

The guide nodded.

"Who is he?"

"Seņor Lasar."

"Lasar. What's his other name?"

"Juan not know."

"Did they stop in the village?"

"No. Seņors get ponies, ride over mountain," and the guide pointed lazily to the south-west.

"Where did they go? Do you know?"

Juan shrugged his shoulders, indicating that he did not.

"What is Mr. Lasar's business?"

Again the guide answered with a shrug. He seemed disinclined to discuss the man in whom Tad Butler was so much interested. Up to that time the lad had been too fully occupied with other matters to think of the conversation he and Stacy had overheard on the Atlantic and Pacific train. Now it came back to him with full force.

"Know anybody by the name of Marquand in this country?" he asked, taking another tack.

Juan said he did not, and then Tad gave up his questioning.

"I was asking Juan about the two men who sat ahead of us in the train yesterday," he explained to Chunky, as the fat boy joined them.

"Wha'd he say?"

"One is named Lasar, but he did not know the other one. I can't help believing that those fellows were plotting to do some one a great injury."

"So do I," agreed Chunky. "I guess we had better not say anything about it to the others, but we'll try to find out who this man Lasar is, and who Mr. Marquand is. Then we'll decide what to do next."

Their further conversation was interrupted by the voice of the Professor, announcing that they would halt for their noonday meal. All other thoughts left the mind of Stacy Brown when the question of food was raised. He quickly slipped from his pony, running back to hurry the burros along so as to hasten the meal for which he was yearning. Only one burro was unpacked, as it was the intention of the outfit to push on soon after finishing their lunch.

While the guide, under Ned's direction, was making it ready, Tad and Chunky strolled off to climb a high rock that they had seen in the vicinity and which, they thought, might give them a good view of the plains to the southwest on the other side of the range.

They had promised to be back in half an hour, but circumstances arose that caused them to delay their return considerably.

After threshing through the bushes, over sharp rocks and through miniature canyons, they gained at last the object of their quest. The distance had been further than they had imagined.

"We'll have to make a short trip of it up to the top and back," said Tad. "It has taken us almost all our time to get here. But we'll have a look, anyway."

They soon gained the top of the rock, which stood some twenty feet higher than the crest of the mountain on which it rested.

"Isn't this great?" exclaimed Tad.

"Might think we were in the Rockies."

"Or the Ozarks."

"I hope we don't have as much trouble here as we did in that range. Our guide is not much better than the Shawnee we had for a time on that trip. I can't see the foothills, but the plain on beyond is pretty clear."

"Hope we don't have to chase all over the desert for water. I--"

Tad grasped his companion by the sleeve and jerked him violently to the rock.

"What's up? What's the matter with you?" protested Stacy.

"Keep still, some one's coming."

The lad's keen ears had caught a sound which Stacy had entirely failed to hear. It was the sound of horses making their way through the bushes. There were several in the party, Tad could tell by the sounds, and having in mind the man Lasar, he thought he might perhaps learn something of advantage by remaining quietly on the top of the rock.

All this he explained in a few brief words to his companion. Then both boys crouched low, peering over the cliff, having first removed their sombreros.

What they saw, a few moments later, surprised them very much indeed.

The horsemen in single file suddenly appeared out of a draw to the east and headed for the rock where the lads were in hiding.

"Look! Look!" exclaimed Tad in a low, suppressed voice.

"I-n-d-i-a-n-s!" breathed Chunky.

They seemed to rise right up out of the ground, as one by one they emerged from the draw to the more level rocks that lay about the hiding place of the Pony Rider Boys.

"I wonder who they are?" questioned Tad.

"They look savage. I wonder if they'd hurt us, Tad?"

"I don't know. I do know, though, that I wouldn't trust those ugly faces one second. I thought the Blackfeet were savage, but they're not to be compared with these redskins."

A full dozen of them had, by this time, come into view. They sat huddled on their ponies, their painted faces just appearing above the gayly colored blankets in which they were enveloped.

"They must be cold," muttered Chunky. "Shouldn't think they'd need bed clothes around them this time of the year."

"Not so loud, Chunky," warned Tad.

"Know what they are, Tad?"

"I wouldn't say positively, but somehow they look to me like Apaches."

Tad's surmise was correct. The twelve warriors were members of the savage band that had in past years caused the Government so much trouble and bloodshed.

"They're off their reservation, if they are Apaches," whispered the lad.

"What does that indicate, Tad?"

"I don't know. They may be on the warpath; then, again, they may be down here after game. I'm not sure even, if there is any game here. We'll lie still until they get by us. That's the best plan; don't you think so?"

"Yes."

"Lie perfectly still, Chunky. The little bushes in front of us will screen us, providing we don't move about. Indians have quick eyes, though they do look as if they were half asleep."

"They're getting off their horses, Tad. What does that mean?"

"I don't know."

Tad peered through the bushes, noting every move that the redskins made. At first he thought they had discovered him and were about to surround the rock and take him prisoner. But he soon saw that such was not their intention. Tethering their ponies, the Indians cast their blankets on the ground, after having first picked out a suitable place.

"They're making camp," whispered Tad.

One after another of the savages took out his pipe, and soon the odor from burning tobacco was wafted to the nostrils of the hidden Pony Rider Boys.

"Guess they're going to get some dinner," decided Stacy, observing that the strangers were gathering brush.

This was the case. The ponies had been staked where they could browse on the green leaves, and now their masters were about to satisfy their own appetites.

Tad groaned.

"What is it?" questioned Stacy apprehensively.

"They will be here half of the day at least. I know a little about Indians, having been captured by them once. The difference is that my Indians were in a hurry to get somewhere. These fellows seem to have all the time in the world. They're waiting-- killing time for some reason. You'll see, after they finish their dinner, that they will smoke some more, then lie down for a catnap."

"And-- and what'll we be doing?"

"We'll be hiding on the top of this rock, Chunky."

"Wish I had my rifle."

"Lucky for both of us that you haven't."

The lads had been talking in whispers, but the words fairly froze in their mouths, when, upon glancing down they saw the eyes of a savage fixed upon them.

"On your life, don't move a muscle, Chunky," whispered Tad, as soon as he had recovered his wits.

Tad was not sure that the Indian saw them, yet there could be no doubt that the savage eyes were burning into their very own.

Soon, however, the Indian dropped his glances to his pipe bowl and the boys breathed a sigh of relief.

"Don't move yet, Chunky," directed Tad.

It was a wise command, for almost instantly the Indian glanced in their direction again, and, as if satisfied, emptied his pipe and stretched out on his blanket. The two lads breathed sighs of relief.

"Did he see us, do you think, Tad?"

"No. At first he thought he saw something up here, but he changed his mind after a little, as you observed."

By this time the redskins were cooking their midday meal, and the odor nearly drove Stacy frantic. It made him realize how hungry he was. He pulled a leaf from a bush and began chewing it in hopes of wearing off the keen edge of his appetite.

"How long we got to stay here?" he demanded. "I've a good notion to get up and walk back to camp. They don't dare hurt us."

"Lie still!" commanded his companion sternly. "I have a plan that we may be able to put into operation. We can't do it now, though."

The lads waited, Tad almost with the patience of an Indian, Chunky ill at ease and restless.

"Can't you lie still? What ails you?"

"My stomach's fighting my appetite. Hear 'em growl at each other?"

"S-h-h-h."

"I don't care. I'd 'bout as soon be scalped as to starve to death."

The braves had by now filled their stomachs, gulping their food down without the formality of chewing it at all. Stacy's amazement was partly mixed with admiration as he observed the food disappear with such rapidity.

Now the braves had begun puffing at their pipes. After a time, one by one laid down his smoking bowl and stretched himself out for a nap, just as Tad had said they would. The savages were spread out so that they had a very good view of three sides of the rock on which the two lads were perched, but the fourth side was hidden from them. Tad decided that, as the Indians showed no intention of moving, they were going to remain where they were until night.

"I want you to follow me, Chunky," Butler said, determined to try his plan. "You will have to move absolutely without a sound. Look before you put down foot or hand. Be sure where you place them. We'll wait a few minutes until they're sound asleep."

"What you going to do-- sneak?"

"Try to get back to camp. The others will be coming along looking for us pretty soon, if we don't get away. The Indians might resent being disturbed, and perhaps make trouble."

"Tell me when you're ready, then."

Some minutes had elapsed and the lads could plainly hear the snores of their besiegers.

"Now!" whispered Tad.

At the same time he began crawling toward the edge of the rock at their rear. Stacy was close upon his heels.

The side which the boys were to descend was much more precipitous than the one they had come up by, but offered no very great difficulties for two nimble boys. Proceeding with infinite caution, they gained the ground without a mishap.

"We'll walk straight on in this direction, until we get out of sight; then we can turn to the left and hurry to the camp."

Stacy nodded. As he did so his eyes were off the ground for a few seconds. Those few seconds proved his undoing.

The lad stepped on a stone that gave way under him, turning his ankle almost upon its side.

"Ouch!" yelled Chunky.

"Now you've done it," snapped Tad. "We'll have the whole pack of them down on us. Can you walk?"

"I-- I don't know. I'll try."

"Take hold of my hand. You've got to run."

The redskins were on their feet in an instant. A few bounds carried them around the rock whence the exclamation had come. By this time Tad had dragged his companion into the bushes but not quickly enough to elude the keen eyes of the savages.

The Indians uttered a short, sharp cry, then aimed their rifles at the figures of the two fleeing Pony Rider Boys.

Tad saw the movement. He threw himself prone upon the ground, jerking Chunky down beside him.

They were screened from the eyes of the enemy, for the moment.

"Crawl! Crawl!" commanded Tad.

On hands and feet the boys began running rapidly over the ground, on down into a narrow gulch. If they could gain the opposite side they would be safe, as it was unlikely that the Indians would follow them there. To do so, the boys were obliged to cross an open space. They had just reached it, when their pursuers appeared behind them. Once more the Indians raised their rifles, their fingers exerting a gentle pressure on the triggers.