Chapter X. The Ride for Help
 

"There's Pink-eye!" exclaimed Ned Rector.

"Is it possible?" answered the Professor. "Then something has happened to Tad."

"Mebby--mebby the bear's got him," suggested Stacy Brown, his face blanching.

All through the night the little party had sat up anxiously awaiting the return of their companion, who had set out after the bear. The tent had been ruined, but they found that the rifles had not been harmed at all, having been stacked in front of the small tents.

Early in the morning the three boys and Professor Zepplin had followed Tad's trail for some distance into the foothills, but feared to penetrate too far for fear of getting lost. The Professor reasoned that it would be much better to return to camp and give Tad a chance to find his way in in case he himself should prove to have been lost.

This the boys had done, but they were impatient to be doing something more active. Ned Rector was fairly fuming, because their guardian would not permit him to set out alone in search of the missing boy.

"No," the Professor had said; "if I did that with all of you, we should have the whole party scattered over the mountains and it is doubtful if we should all get together again before snow flies."

Yet when Tad's pony came trotting back to camp, the matter took on a more serious aspect. Something must be done and at once.

"Now, will you let me go, Professor?" begged Ned.

"Not in those mountains alone, if that is what you mean."

"Then what can we do?"

"If the guide were only here!" interjected Walter. "Do you suppose I could find him?"

"It will be useless to try, my boy. About the only course we can follow now, is that leading back to Forsythe, and I am not sure that we shouldn't be lost doing that."

"Then we don't know it," retorted Ned. "I know the trail. I could go back over it with my eyes shut. Why would that not be the idea, Professor? Why not let me ride back to Forsythe? Mr. Simms would give us some one who knew the foothills and mountains and I could bring him back."

"Let me see, how far is it?" mused the Professor.

"Thirty miles, he said."

"Why, it would take you couple of days to make that and back."

"You try me and see. I can get a fresh pony to come back with, and if I do not return with the guide, what difference does it make? He's the one you want. But never fear, I'll be back with him between now and morning if I have no bad luck," urged the lad earnestly.

"I am half inclined to agree to your plan. If I were sure that you knew the way----"

"It is not possible to get lost. We have the compasses and we know the direction in which Forsythe lies. All we have to do is to travel in an opposite direction from that by which we came."

"Supposing we all go!" suggested Walter.

"Wouldn't do at all," answered the Professor, with an emphatic shake of the head. "Some one must remain here in case Tad returns. That boy will get back somehow. I feel sure of that. He is resourceful and strong. And besides, he has my revolver. No; more than one on the trip would be apt to delay rather than to help. Master Ned, you may go." "Good!" shouted the lad. Bad-eye looked up almost resentfully as the boy approached him on the run, threw on the saddle and cinched the girths.

The hits were slipped into the animal's mouth, and, placing his left foot in the stirrup, Ned threw himself into the saddle.

"I'm ready now," he said, his eyes sparkling with anticipation, as he rode up to the little group.

"I'll show you that I'm not a tenderfoot even if I am from Missouri," he laughed.

"Be careful," warned Professor Zepplin.

"Don't worry about me, and, Chunky, you look out for bears. If Tad should come in within the next half hour or so, you can fire off your rifles to let me know. Then I'll turn about and come back. Good-bye, all."

"Good-bye and good luck," they shouted.

Giving a gentle pressure to the spurs, Ned Rector started off on his long ride at a brisk gallop. Within a short time the lad had the satisfaction of finding that he was emerging from the foothills. He then pulled up the pony and consulted his compass. "Five points north of east. The Professor said that should take me back. Besides I remember that we came this way yesterday. I'm going to save some time by fording that fork without going the roundabout way we took before."

Ned galloped on again. Had it not been for his anxiety over Tad, he would have enjoyed his ride to the fullest. The morning was glorious; the sun had not yet risen high enough to make the heat uncomfortable; birds were singing and in spots where the sun had not yet penetrated a heavy dew was glistening on foliage and grass.

Ned drew a long breath, drinking in the delicious air.

"This is real," he said. "Nothing artificial about this. I wish I might stay here always."

The lad did not think of the deep snows and biting cold of the northern winters there, winters so severe that hundreds of head of sheep and cattle frequently perished from the killing weather. He saw nature only in her most peaceful mood.

He had ridden on for something more than two hours, when he came to the East Fork, where they had had such an exciting experience two nights before. After a few moments' riding along the bank he discovered the spot where they had made their camp on the opposite side.

"I'm going to take a chance and ford right here," he decided. "No, I guess my mission is too important to take the risk. If I should get caught in there I should at least be delayed. There's somebody else who must be considered. That's Tad."

Half a mile above, the lad found a place that he felt safe in trying. Luckily he got across without mishap. He had found a rocky bar without being aware of it, and the water while swift was shallow enough so that by slipping his feet from the stirrups and holding them up, he was able to ford the stream without even getting them damp.

"I wonder why we didn't find this place the other night," he said aloud. "I guess we were in too big a hurry. That's the trouble with us boys. We blunder along without using our heads. But, I guess I had better not boast until after I have gotten back safely from Forsythe," he laughed. "I may need some good advice myself before that is accomplished."

The pony with ears laid back had settled to a long, loping gallop, covering mile after mile without seeming to feel the strain in the least.

Some distance beyond the Fork, Ned descried a horseman who had halted on beyond him, evidently awaiting his approach.

Ned was not greatly concerned about this. On the contrary, it was a relief to see a human being.

The man hailed him as he drew up. Ned noted the red beard and the general sinister appearance of the man.

"How," greeted the stranger, tossing his hand to the lad.

"How," answered Ned in kind.

"Where you headed!"

"Forsythe."

"Stranger in these parts, I reckon?"

"Yes, sir."

"On a herd?"

"Expect to he soon. Just finished a drive down in Texas."

"Cattle, of course?"

"Oh, yes."

"That's right. This sheep business has got to stop. I hear there's going to be something doing round these parts pretty lively," grinned the stranger.

"What do you mean?" asked the lad, peering sharply into the man's face.

"Oh, nothing much," answered the other. "Thought being as you were a cowman it might interest you some."

"It does," replied the boy almost sharply.

"Well, guess the rest, then," laughed the stranger. "Where'd you get that pony?"

"Is that not rather a personal question?" asked Ned, smiling coldly.

"Not in this country. Kinder reminded me of a nag that belonged to me. He strayed away from my ranch a few weeks ago," said the fellow significantly.

"It wasn't this pony," retorted Ned, flushing. "I bought this animal. Good day, sir, I must be getting along."

"In a hurry, ain't ye?"

"I am," answered Ned, touching the spurs to the pony's sides and galloping off.

"Hey, hold on a minute," called the stranger.

"Can't. In too much of a hurry," replied Ned.

"I don't like the looks of that fellow at all," muttered the boy as he rode on, instinctively urging his mount along at an increased speed to put as much distance as possible between himself and the curious stranger.

"Funny he should ask me that question about my pony. However, perhaps it is a peculiarity in this part of the country. Wonder what he meant by saying that there would be something doing here pretty quick."

After a time Ned turned in his saddle and looked back. The horseman was standing as Ned had left him. He was watching the boy. Ned swung his hand, and then turned, glad that he was well rid of the man.

Late in the afternoon, he saw the village of Forsythe just ahead of him. The boy could have shouted at the sight.

"Straight as you could shoot a bullet," he chuckled. "I guess I can follow the old Custer trail without getting lost.

He did not pause, but galloped on into the village and up the main street, not halting until he had reached the bank with which Mr. Simms was connected.

He was stiff and sore from the long, continuous ride, and as he dismounted he found that he could scarcely stand.

After tethering the pony to the iron rod that had been fastened to two posts, Ned walked into the bank. Red-faced and dusty he presented himself to the banker. At first the latter did not appear to recognize him.

"I am Ned Rector of the Pony Rider Boys," explained the lad.

Mr. Simms sprang up and grasped the boy cordially by the hand.

"This is a surprise. You back so soon? Why, is anything wrong!"

"Well, yes, there is," admitted Ned.

"Sit down and tell me about it."

Ned seated himself, but the effort hurt him and he winced a little.

"Stiffened up, eh? Where did you come from?"

The lad explained and Mr. Simms uttered a soft whistle.

"Well, you have had a ride. I didn't suppose you boys could ride like that. I suppose the guide found you?"

"We have seen nothing of him at all."

"Is it possible? I should not have troubled myself to come back to tell you had it not been for the fact that one of our boys is lost."

"Lost?"

"Yes. At least we think so. He has been away since early last evening. We should not have worried so much had not his pony returned without him early this morning. We dared not go far into the mountains to search for him for fear of getting lost ourselves."

"You don't mean it?"

"Yes. I came back to see if you could give me a man from here, or get me one rather. One who knows the mountains and who will ride back with me at once."

"Of course I will. You did perfectly right in coming to me quickly. My foreman is in town to-day. He will be in shortly and I think he will know of some one who will answer your purpose. I wish you had ridden to my ranch, however. It would have been much nearer."

"I didn't know where it was."

"Of course not."

"While waiting for the foreman, tell me about how it all happened?" urged Mr. Simms.

Ned went over the events of the previous evening, in detail, to all of which the banker gave an attentive ear.

Mr. Simms regarded him with serious face.

"You young men are having plenty of excitement, I must say. Yes, you are right. Something must have happened to Master Tad. He looks to me like a boy who could be relied upon to look out for himself pretty well, however," added the banker.

"He is. We were afraid that perhaps he might have gotten into trouble with the bear."

"Quite likely. Do you plan on going back with the guide that we get for you?"

"Certainly."

"Then you will need a fresh, pony. I will have one brought around for you when you are ready to start. I should think, however, that it would be best for you to remain over until tomorrow. You'll be lamed up for sure."

"No, I must go back. I'll be lame all right, but it won't be the first time. I'm lame and sore now. I've polished that saddle so you could skate on it already," laughed Ned.

Mr. Simms laughed.

"I can understand that quite easily. I've been in the saddle a good share of my life, too. There comes the foreman now."

The foreman of the Simms ranch, who bore the euphonious name of Luke Larue, was a product of the West. Six feet tall, straight, muscular, with piercing gray eyes that looked out at one from beneath heavy eyelashes, Ned instinctively recognized him as a man calculated to inspire confidence.

He shook hands with the young man cordially, sweeping him with a quick, comprehensive glance.

Mr. Simms briefly related all that Ned Rector had told him, and the foreman glanced at the young man with renewed interest after learning of the ride he had taken that morning.

"Pretty good for a tenderfoot, eh?"

Ned's bronzed face took on a darker hue as he blushed violently.

"I don't exactly call myself that now, sir," he replied.

"Right. You say your friend chased a bear out!"

The lad nodded.

Luke shook his head.

"Bad. Can he shoot?"

"Oh, yes. But he had only a revolver--a heavy thirty-eight calibre that belongs to Professor Zepplin."

"Nice toy to hunt bears with," laughed the foreman. "Bear's probably cleaned him up. I'll get a man I know and I'll go back with you myself. We can run down the trail easily enough, but it will need two trailers, one to follow the pony and the other the bear after their trails separate," the foreman informed them wisely.

"Do--do--you think he has been killed?" stammered Ned.

"I ain't saying. It looks bad, that's all."

Ned forced a composure that he did not feel. He started to ask a further question, when there came a sudden interruption that brought all three to their feet.