Chapter XXIV. Conclusion
 

The night was a restful one to most of the party, except as they were aroused by the barking of the dogs at frequent intervals, perhaps scenting some prowling animal in search of food.

Chunky was awakened by Tad at an early hour. The fat boy uttered a familiar "Oh, wow!" when he sought to get up, then lay back groaning.

"Why, what's the matter?" demanded Butler.

"My skin's shrunk," moaned Stacy. "It fits me so tight I---I can't move."

"His skin's shrunk," chorused the Pony Rider Boys. "His skin is a misfit."

"Take it back and demand a new suit if you don't like it," laughed Ned Rector.

"It isn't any laughing matter. I tell you it's shrunk," protested Stacy.

"All right, it will do you good. You'll know you've got a skin. Last night you said it was all roasted off from you."

"It was. This is the new skin, about a billionth of an inch thick, and oh-h-h-h," moaned the lad, struggling to his feet. "I wish you had my skin, Ned Rector. No, I don't, either I---I wish yours were drawn as tightly as mine."

"Come on for a run and you will feel better" cried Tad, grasping the fat boy by an arm and racing him down to the river and back, accompanied by a series of howls from Stacy. But the limbering-up process was a success. Stacy felt better. He was able to do full justice to the breakfast that was served on the greasy blanket shortly afterwards. For breakfast the white men shared their bacon with the chief, which the Indian ate, grunting appreciatively.

Before leaving, the boys bought some of the finer specimens of the Indian blankets, which they got remarkably cheap. They decided to do up a bale of these and send them home to their folks when they reached a place where there was a railroad. At present they were a good many miles from a railway, with little prospect even of seeing one for a matter of several weeks.

After breakfast they bade good-bye to the chief. Chunky wanted to shake hands with Afraid Of His Face, but the chief would not permit his young buck to leave the ha-wa. Chi-i-wa, the chief's wife, bade them a grudging good-bye without so much as turning her head, after which the party rode away, Chunky uttering dismal groans because the saddle hurt him, for the fat boy was still very tender.

"I know what I'll do when I get home," he said.

"So do I," laughed Tad.

"Well, what'll I do, if you know so much about it?"

"Why, you will puff out your chest and strut up and down Main Street for the edification of the natives of Chillicothe," answered Tad.

"That's what he'll do, for sure," jeered Ned. "But we'll be on hand to take him down a peg or two. Don't you forget that, Chunky."

Joking and enjoying themselves to the fullest, these brown-faced, hardy young travelers continued on, making camp that night by the roaring river, reaching Camp Butler the following forenoon.

Chow, the half breed pack-train man, met them with a long face. The party saw at once that something was wrong.

"What's happened?" snapped Nance.

"The dogs."

"What about them? Speak up."

"Him dead," announced the half breed stolidly.

"Dead?" cried Dad and the boys in one voice.

"Him dead."

"What caused their death?"

The half breed shook his head. All he knew was that two mornings before he had come in for breakfast, and upon going out again found the dogs stretched out on the ground dead. That there was another mystery facing them the boys saw clearly. Nance examined the carcasses of the dead hounds. His face was dark with anger when he had finished.

"It's my opinion that those hounds were poisoned," he declared.

"Poisoned!" exclaimed the boys.

"Yes. There's some mysterious work being done around this camp. I'm going to find out who is at the bottom of it; then you'll hear something drop that will be louder than a boulder falling off the rim of the Grand Canyon."

"This is a most remarkable state of affairs." said the Professor. "Surely you do not suspect the man Chow?"

"No, I don't suspect him. It's someone else. I had a talk with Chief Tom. He told me some things that set me thinking."

"What was it?" asked Tad.

"I'm not going to say anything about it just now, but I am going to have this camp guarded after to-night. We'll see whether folks can come in here and play tag with us in this fashion without answering to Jim Nance."

"I'll bet the ghost has been here again," spoke up Stacy.

"Ghost nothing!" exploded Nance.

"That's what you said before, or words to that effect," answered the fat boy. "You found I was right, though. Yes, sir, there are spirits around these diggings. One of them carried away my gun."

"We will divide the night into watches after this. I am not going to be caught napping again," announced Nance.

That night the guide sat up all night. Nothing occurred to arouse his suspicion. Next day they went out lion hunting without dogs. Nance got a shot at a cat, but missed him. The next day the Professor killed a cub that was hiding in a juniper tree. It was his first kill and put the Professor in high good humor. He explained all about it that night as they sat around the camp fire. Then the boys made him tell the story over again.

Nance took the first watch that night, remaining on duty until three in the morning, when he called Tad. The latter was wide awake on the instant, the mark of a good woodsman. Taking his rifle, he strolled out near the mustangs, where he sat down on a rock. Tad was shivering in the chill morning air, but after a time he overcame that. He grew drowsy after a half hour of waiting with nothing doing.

All of a sudden the lad sat up wide awake. He knew that he had heard something. That something was a stealthy footstep. The night was graying by this time, so that objects might be made out dimly. Tad stood up, swinging his rifle into position for quick use. For some moments he heard nothing further, then out of the bushes crept a shadowy figure.

"Chunky's ghost," was the thought that flashed into the mind of the young sentry. "No, I declare, if it isn't an Indian!"

It was an Indian, but the light was too dim to make anything out of the intruder. The Indian was crouched low and as Tad observed was treading on his toes, choosing a place for each step with infinite care. The watcher now understood why no moccasin tracks had been found about the camp, for he had no doubt that this fellow was the one who was responsible for all the mysterious occurrences in camp up to that time.

The Pony Rider boy did not move. He wanted to see what the Indian was going to do. Step by step the red man drew near to the canvas covered storage place, where they kept their supplies, arms, ammunition and the like. Into this shack the Indian slipped. Tad edged closer.

"I wonder what he's after this time?" whispered the lad. Tad thrilled with the thought that it had been left for him to solve the mystery.

His question was answered when, a few moments later, the silent figure of the Indian appeared creeping from the opening. He had something in his hands.

"I actually believe the fellow is carrying away our extra rifles," muttered the boy.

That was precisely what the redskin was doing. After glancing cautiously about, he started away in the same careful manner. Tad could have shot the man, but he would not do it, instead, he raised the rifle.

"Halt!" commanded the Pony Rider boy sharply.

For one startled instant the Indian stood poised as if for a spring. Then he did spring. Still gripping the rifles, he leaped across the opening and started away on fleet feet. He was running straight toward where the ponies were tethered.

Tad fired a shot over the head of the fleeing man, then started in pursuit. The Indian slashed the tether of Buckey, Stacy Brown's mustang, and with a yell to startle the animal, leaped on its back and was off.

"That's a game two can play at," gritted the Pony Rider, freeing his own pony in the same way and springing to its back.

The shot and the yell had brought the camp out in a twinkling. No one knew what had occurred, but the quick ears of the guide catching the pounding hoofs of the running mustangs, he knew that Tad was chasing someone.

"Everybody stay here and watch the camp!" he roared, running for his own pinto, which he mounted in the same way as had the Indian and Tad Butler.

Tad, in getting on Silver Face, had fumbled and dropped his rifle. There was no time to stop to recover it if he expected to catch the fleeing Indian. Under ordinary circumstances the boy knew that Silver Face was considerably faster than Buckey. But pursuit was not so easy, though the Indian, for the present, could go in but one direction.

The spirited mustang on which Tad Butler was mounted, appearing to understand what was expected of him, swept on with the speed of the wind. Small branches cut the face of the Pony Rider like knife-blades as he split through a clump of junipers, then tore ahead, fairly sailing over logs, boulders and other obstructions.

The Pony Rider boy uttered a series of earsplitting yells. His object was to guide Jim Nance, who, he felt sure, would be not far behind him. The yells brought the guide straight as an arrow. Tad could plainly hear the foot beats of Buckey as the two riders tore down the Canyon, each at the imminent risk of his life.

"If he has a loaded gun, I'm a goner," groaned the lad. "But the ones he stole are empty, thank goodness! There he goes!"

The Indian had made a turn to the left into a smaller canyon. By this time the light was getting stronger. Tad was able to make out his man with more distinctness. The boy urged his pony forward with short, sharp yelps. The Indian was doing the same, but Tad was gaining on him every second. Now the boy uttered a perfect volley of shouts, hoping that Nance would understand when he got to the junction of the smaller canyon, that both pursued and pursuer had gone that way.

Nance not only understood, but he could hear Tad's yells up the canyon upon arriving at the junction.

"Stop or I'll shoot!" cried the boy.

The Indian turned and looked back. Then he urged Buckey on faster. That one act convinced Tad that the redskin had no loaded rifle, else he would have used it at that moment.

With a yell of triumph the boy touched the pony with the rowels of his spurs. Silver Face shot ahead like a projectile. He was a tough little pony, and besides, his mettle was up. Now Tad gained foot by foot. He was almost up to the Indian, yelling like an Indian himself.

The redskin tried dodging tactics, hoping that Tad would shoot past him. Tad did nothing of the sort. The boy was watching his man with keen but glowing eyes. The call of the wild was strong in Tad Butler at that moment.

Suddenly the boy drew alongside. Utterly regardless of the danger to himself, he did a most unexpected thing. Tad threw himself from his own racing pony, landing with crushing force on top of the Indian.

Of course the two men tumbled to the ground like a flash. Then followed a battle, the most desperate in which Tad ever had been engaged. The boy howled lustily and fought like a cornered mountain lion. Of course his strength was as nothing compared with that of the Indian. All Tad could hope to do would be to keep the Indian engaged until help arrived.

Help did arrive within two minutes; help in the shape of Jim Nance, who, with the thought of his slain hounds rankling in his mind, was little better than a savage for the time being.

"Here!" shouted Tad. "Take him---hustle!"

Then young Butler drew back, for Nance, seeing things red before his eyes, was hardly capable of knowing friend from foe.

Whack! bump! buff!

How those big fists descended!

For three or four seconds only did the redskin make any defense. Then he cowered, stolidly, taking a punishment that he could not prevent.

"Don't kill the poor scoundrel, Dad!" yelled Tad, dancing about the pair.

But still Nance continued to hammer the now unresisting Indian.

"Stop it, Dad---stop it!" Tad called sternly.

Then, as nothing else promised to avail, Tad rushed once more into the fray.

Dad was weakening from his own enormous expenditure of strength.

"Don't go any farther, Dad," Tad coaxed, catching one of Nance's arm and holding on.

"I guess I have about given the fellow what he needed," admitted the guide, rising.

As he stood above the Indian, Dad saw that the man did not move.

"I hope you didn't kill him, Dad," Tad went on swiftly.

"Why?" asked Jim Nance curiously.

"I don't like killings," returned Tad briefly. He bent over the Indian, finding that the latter had been only knocked out.

"We'd better take the redskin back to camp, hadn't we?" queried Tad, and Jim silently helped. In camp, the Indian was bound hand and foot. The camp fire was lighted and Tad went to work to resuscitate the red man.

At last the camp's prisoner was revived.

"Now, let's ask him about the thieveries that have been going on," suggested Ned Rector.

"Humph!" grinned Dad. "If you think you can make an Indian talk when he has been caught red-handed, then you try it."

Not a word would the Indian say. He even refused to look at his questioners, but lay on the ground, stolidly indifferent.

"He's a prowling Navajo," explained Nance. "You may be sure this is the fellow, Brown's 'spirit,' behind all our troubles. He's the chap who stole Brown's rifle, who raided this camp, who set the lion free and who poisoned my dogs---so they wouldn't give warning."

"But why should he want to turn the lion loose?" Tad wanted to know.

"Because the Navajo Indians hold the mountain lion as sacred. The Navajo believes that his ancestors' spirits have taken refuge in the bodies of the mountain lions."

"I believe there must be a strong strain of mountain lion in this fellow, by the way he fought me," grimaced Tad.

"What shall we do with this redskin?" Chunky asked. "Shall we give him a big thrashing, or make him run the gauntlet?"

"Neither, I guess," replied Jim Nance, who had cooled down. "The wisest thing will be for us to take him straight to the Indian Agency. Uncle Sam pays agents to take care of Indian problems."

It was late that afternoon when the boys and their poisoner arrived at the Agency.

"I'll talk to him," said the agent, after he had ordered that the Indian be taken to a room inside.

An hour later the agent came out.

"The Navajo confesses to all the things you charge against him," announced the government official. "I thought I could make him talk. The redskin justifies himself by saying that your party made an effort to kill Navajo ancestors at wholesale."

"Humph!" grunted Jim Nance.

"What happens to the Navajo?" Walter asked curiously.

"He'll be kept within bounds after this," replied the agent. "For a starter he will be locked up for three months. Some other Navajos were out, but we got them all back except this one. Going back into the Canyon?"

Indeed they were. Late that afternoon the Pony Rider Boys began their journey of one hundred miles to the lower end of the Canyon.

From that latter point they were to go on into still newer fields of exploration, in search of new thrills, and were far more certain than they realized at that time of experiencing other adventures that should put all past happenings in the shade.

For the time being, however, we have gone as far as possible with the lads. We shall next meet them in the following volume of this series, which is published under the title, "The Pony Rider Boys With The Texas Rangers; Or, On the Trail of the Border Bandits."

A rare treat lies just ahead for the reader of this new narrative, in which acquaintance will also be made with one of the most famous bodies of police in all the world, the Texas Rangers.

THE END