Chapter IV. Surprised by an Unwelcome Visitor
 

"I'm sorry I was to blame for your going into the creek," apologized Ned Rector, bending over the shivering Stacy.

"I fell in, didn't I?" grinned the fat boy.

"No, you rolled in. My, but that water was cold!"

"B-r-r-r!" shivered Stacy, as the recollection of his icy bath came back to him. "Di--did you win the race?"

"Tad won it. I've got to get up and cook the breakfast, and it wasn't my turn at all. It was Tad's turn."

"Yab-hum," yawned Stacy, "I'm awful sleepy."

"So am I," answered Ned, uttering a long-drawn yawn.

"See here, Master Ned. Get out of those wet pajamas, rub yourself down thoroughly and put on a dry suit. I can't have you all sick on my hands to-morrow," commanded the Professor.

"Don't worry about us," laughed Ned. "It takes more than a bath in a cold creek to lay us up, eh, Tad?"

"I hope so," answered Tad Butler, who had rubbed himself until his body glowed. "But I thought once or twice that I was a goner while I was holding to that rock. I could not make Chunky try to support himself at all. He just clung to me until he fagged me all out."

"Come now, young gentlemen, down with this coffee and into the blankets."

Professor Zepplin had prepared the coffee, with which to warm the lads up, and had heated in the camp-fire some good sized boulders, which he wrapped in blankets and tucked in their beds. Chunky was the only one of the boys who did not protest. Ned and Tad objected to being "babied" as they called it, and when the Professor was not looking, they quickly rolled the feet warmers out at the foot of their beds.

Early next morning they were aroused by the cook's welcome call to breakfast. None of the lads seemed to be any the worse for his exciting experiences in the creek, much to the relief of Professor Zepplin, who feared the icy bath might at least bring on heavy colds.

Tumbling from their cots, they quickly washed; and then sprinting back and forth a few times, stirred up their circulation, after which the boys sat down to the morning meal with keen appetites.

Ned had cooked a liberal supply of bacon and potatoes and boiled a large pot of coffee.

Stacy opened his mouth as if he were about to yawn.

"Don't you dare to do that," warned Ned, waving the coffee pot threateningly. "The first boy who yawns to-day gets into trouble. And Stacy Brown, if you fall in the river again you'll get out the best way you can alone. We won't help you, remember that."

"This bacon looks funny," retorted Stacy, holding up a piece at the end of his fork. "Kind of looks as if something had happened to it."

"Just what I was going to say," added Walter.

"Yes, what has happened to it? It's as black as the Professor's hat."

All eyes were fixed upon the cook. "I don't care, I couldn't help it. If any of you fellows think you can do any better, you just try it. Cook your own meals if you don't like my way of serving them up. It wasn't my turn to get the breakfast, anyway."

"Our cook evidently has a grouch on this morning," laughed Walter. "Doesn't agree with him to take a midnight bath."

"The bath was all right, but I object to having my cooking criticised."

"The bacon does look peculiar," decided Professor Zepplin, sniffing gingerly at his own piece.

Ned's face flushed.

"What did you do to it to give it that peculiar shade, young man?"

"Why, I soused it in the creek to wash it off, then laid it in the fire to cook," replied Ned.

"In the fire?" shouted Tad.

"Of course. How do you expect I cooked it?" demanded the boy irritably. "I cooked it in the fire."

"I could do better'n that myself," muttered Stacy.

"Didn't you use the spider?" asked Walter.

"Spider? No. I didn't know you used a spider. Do you?"

"He cooked it in the fire," groaned Tad.

"Peculiar, very peculiar to say the least," decided the Professor grimly. "Gives it that peculiar sooty flavor, common to smoked ham I think we shall have to elect a new cook if you cannot do better than that. However, we'll manage to get along very well with this meal. If we have to get others we will hold a consultation as to the latest and most approved methods of doing so," he added, amid a general laugh at Ned's expense.

Breakfast over, blankets were rolled and packed on the ponies. About nine o'clock the Pony Riders set out for the foothills, after first having consulted their compasses and decided upon the course they were to follow to reach the point, some fifteen miles distant, where they expected to pick up the guide.

"Seems good to be in the saddle once more, doesn't it?" smiled Walter, after they had gotten well under way.

"Beats being in the river at midnight," laughed Tad. "Bad-eye looks as if he needed grooming, too. Ned, I take back all I said about the bacon this morning. You did me a good turn last night. If it hadn't been for you, Chunky and I wouldn't be here now. I couldn't have held to that rock much longer."

"Neither could I," interjected Stacy wisely.

Ned gave him a withering glance.

"You are an expert at falling in, but when it comes to getting out, that's another matter."

"How blue those mountains look!" marveled Walter, shading his eyes and gazing off toward the Rosebud Range.

"I hear there are some lawless characters in there, too," Tad answered thoughtfully.

"Where'd your hear that?" demanded Ned.

"Heard some men talking about it in the hotel back at Forsythe."

"Mustn't believe all you hear. What did they say?"

"Acting upon your advice, I should say that you wouldn't believe it if I told you," answered Tad sharply. "These men are a kind of outlaws, I believe. They steal horses and cattle. Probably sell the hides--I don't know. Somehow the Government officers have not been able to catch them, let alone to find out who they are."

"Indians, probably," replied Ned. "The country is full of them about here, so I hear."

"Mustn't believe all you hear," piped up Stacy, repeating Ned Rector's own words, and the latter's muttered reply was lost in the laughter that followed.

It was close to twelve o'clock when they finally emerged on a broad table or mesa. Before them lay the foothills of the Rosebud, rising in broken mounds, some of which towered almost level with the lower peaks of the mountains themselves.

"I don't see anything of our guide's cabin," said Tad, halting and looking about them. "What do you think, Professor!"

"We will go on to the foothills and wait there. I imagine he will he waiting for us somewhere hereabouts."

"Yes, we have followed our course by the compass," answered Tad.

However, the lad had overlooked the fact, as had the others, that in order to find a suitable fording place, they had followed the hanks of the East Fork for several miles. This served to throw them off their course and when they finally reached the foothills they were some six miles to the north of the place where the guide was to pick them up.

As they rode on, the ground gradually rose under them, nor did they realize that they were entering the foothills themselves; and so it continued until they finally found themselves surrounded by hills, narrow draws and broad, rocky gorges.

"Young gentlemen, I think we had better halt right here. We shall be lost if we continue any farther," decided the Professor. "This is a nice level spot with just enough trees to give us shade. I propose that we dismount and make camp."

"Yes, we haven't had the tents up since we were in the Rockies," replied Ned. "We shall be forgetting how to pitch them soon if we do not have some practice."

On this trip, besides their small tents, the Pony Riders had brought with them canvas for a nine by twelve feet tent, which they proposed to use for a dining tent in wet weather, as well as a place for social gathering whenever the occasion demanded its use. They named it the parlor.

In high spirits, the lads leaped from their ponies and began removing their packs. Stacy Brown began industriously tugging at the fastenings which held the large tent to the back of the pack pony.

'I can't get it loose," he shouted. "What kind of hitch do you call this, anyway?"

"Young man, that's a squaw hitch. Ever hear of it before?" laughed Tad.

"No. What kind of hitch is a squaw hitch?" asked Chunky.

"Probably one that the braves use to tie up their wives with when they get lazy," Ned informed him.

"I know," spoke up Walter. "It's a hitch used to fasten the packs to the ponies. Mr. Stallings explained that to me when we were in Texas."

"Right," announced Tad, skillfully loosening the hitch, thus allowing the canvas of the parlor tent to fall to the ground.

While Tad and Walter were doing this, Professor Zepplin with Stacy had started off with hatchets to cut poles for the tents.

The sleeping tents were erected in a straight row with the parlor tent set up to the rear some few rods, backing up against the hills nearest to the mountains.

In front of the small tents the ponies were tethered out among the trees so as to be in plain view of the boys in case of trouble. Profiting from past experiences, they knew that without their mounts they would find themselves helpless.

In an hour the camp was pitched and the boys stood off to view the effect of their work.

"Looks like a military camp," said Ned.

"All but the guns," replied Walter. "We might stack our rifles outside here to make it look more military like."

"Let's do it." suggested Tad.

Laughing joyously, the lads got out their rifles, standing them on their stocks, with the muzzles together in front of the small tents. Not being equipped with bayonets the guns refused to stand alone, so they bound the muzzles together with twine wrapped about the sights. This held them firmly.

"There!" glowed Ned. "Where's the flag? Somebody get that and I'll cut a pole for it," suggested Tad Butler.

In a few moments Old Glory was waving idly in the gentle summer breeze and the boys, doffing their hats, gave three cheers and a tiger for it, in which Professor Zepplin joined with almost boyish enthusiasm.

"I always take off my hat to that beautiful flag," said the Professor, gazing up at it admiringly.

"How about your own country's flag?" teased Ned.

"That is it. I am an American citizen. Your flag is my flag. And now that we have done homage to our country and our flag, supposing we consult our own bodily comfort by getting dinner. Of course, if you young gentlemen are not hungry we can skip the noon----"

"Not hungry? Did you ever hear of our skipping a meal when we could get it?" protested Walter.

"For a young man with a delicate appetite, you do very well," laughed the Professor. "It wag less than two months ago, if I remember correctly, that the doctors thought you were not going to live, you were so delicate."

"Almost as delicate as Chunky now," chuckled Ned maliciously.

The midday meal was more successful than had been their breakfast. They ate it under the trees, deciding to dine in the parlor tent just at dusk.

The afternoon was spent in shooting, at which the boys were becoming quite proficient. By this time, even Stacy Brown could be trusted to manage his own rifle without endangering the lives of his companions.

"Is there any game in these hills?" asked Ned, while he was refilling the magazine of his repeating rifle.

"Plenty of it, I am told," replied the Professor. "There is big game all over the state."

"What kind?"

"Bears, mountain lions and the like."

"W-h-e-w. That sounds interesting. May we go gunning to-morrow?"

"Better wait until the guide joins us. It will be best to have some one with us who understands the habits of the animals. As you have learned, hunting big game is not boys' play," concluded the Professor.

"Yes, I remember our experience in hunting the cougar in the Rockies. I guess I'll wait."

During the afternoon, the boys made short trips along the foothills hoping to find some trace of the guide, but search as they would they were unable to locate him. Nor did they dare stray far from the camp for fear of being unable to find their way back. The foothills all looked so alike that if one unfamiliar with them should lose his way he would find himself in a serious predicament.

"I guess we shall have to camp here for the rest of the summer," Professor Zepplin said, while they were eating their supper. "We must be a long distance from our man if he has not heard our shooting this afternoon."

The boys were enjoying themselves, however; in addition, there was a sense of independence that they had not felt before. They were alone and entirely on their own resources, which of itself added to the zest of the trip.

The supper dishes having been cleared away and the camp-fire stirred up to a bright, cheerful blaze, all hands gathered in the parlor tent for an evening chat.

Above them swung an oil lantern which dimly shed its rays over the little company. Professor Zepplin was poring over an old volume that he had brought with him, while the boys were discussing the merits of their new ponies, which by this time had developed their individual peculiarities.

Chunky, growing sleepy, had crawled to the rear of the tent, where he sat leaning against the closed flap, nodding drowsily.

Finally they saw him straighten up and brush a hand over the back of his head.

"He's dreaming," laughed Ned. "Imagines he's rolling down the river bank again."

Suddenly they were aroused by the fat boy's voice raised in angry protest.

"Stop tickling my neck," he growled, vigorously rubbing that part of his anatomy. "Funny, you fellows can't let me alone."

"You must be having bad dreams," laughed Ned. "We are not bothering you. We're all over here."

"Yes, you are. You've done it three times and you woke me up," answered the fat boy, settling back and closing his eyes preparatory to renewing his disturbed nap.

He was asleep in a moment, not having heeded the laughter of his companions, nor their noisy comments.

But Stacy dozed for a moment only. He sat up quickly and very straight, while a shrewd expression appeared in his eyes. Had they been looking they might have observed one of his hands being drawn cautiously behind him, as if he were reaching for something. The boys were too busy, however, to pay any heed to the lad, and the Professor was deeply absorbed in his book.

"I've got you this time! Tell me you weren't tickling my neck? I'll show you Stacy Brown's not the sleepy head you----"

The boy paused suddenly and scrambling to all fours turned about on his hands and knees, intently gazing at the flap against which he had been leaning.

"What's the matter, gone crazy over there!" called Tad. "Anybody would think you had from the racket you are making."

Stacy did not answer. He had not even heard Tad speak to him. His eyes, bulging with fear, were fixed on the flap. What he saw was a long black snout poked through the slit in the canvas, and just back of that a pair of beady, evil eyes.

"Y-e-o-w!" yelled Stacy. The lad leaped to his feet and dashed from the tent, bowling over Walter and Tad as he ran, shouting in his fright and crying for help. Knowing instinctively that something really serious had happened, the others sprang up, peering at the other end of the tent. For a moment, they could see nothing in the flickering shadows; then as their eyes became more accustomed to the half light, they discovered what filled them with alarm as well.

"Run for your lives!" shouted Tad, bolting from the tent in a single leap, followed almost instantly by Ned Rector and Walter Perkins.

The Professor with one startled glance, hurled his precious book at the object he saw entering the tent at the back, and bolted through the front opening, taking the end tent pole down with him in his hasty flight.