Chapter V. Tad Lends Helping Hand
 

"What is it? What is it?" cried the other boys, getting free of their blankets and in the confusion rolling and kicking about in the cinders.

"What is it?" shouted the Professor, very much excited.

Ned, dragging his blanket after him, had started to run about, not knowing which way to turn nor what had occurred. In the meantime the guide and Tad had started in the direction from which the yells had seemed to come.

"It was this way," shouted Tad.

Ned headed them off running toward the west edge of the crater. All at once a new note sounded. With an unearthly howl Ned Rector disappeared. They heard his voice growing fainter, too, just as Stacy's had done.

"They've fallen in!" cried Tad.

"Everybody stand still!" commanded Dad.

Recognizing that he was right, the others obeyed, with the exception of Tad Butler, who crept cautiously forward, feeling his way with the toes of his boots, that he too might not share the fate of his two companions.

Dad, from somewhere about his person, produced a bundle of sticks which he lighted. He was prepared for just such an emergency. A flickering light pierced the deep shadows, just enough to show the party that two of their number had disappeared.

"There is the place," cried Tad. "It's a hole in the ground. They've fallen in."

"Chunky's always falling in," laughed Walter half hysterically.

With his rope in hand, Tad sprang forward.

"Light this way, please," called Butler. "Hello, down there!" he cried, peering into the hole in the ground.

"Hello!" came back a faint answer from Ned Rector. "Get us out quick."

"What happened?"

"I don't know. Chunky fell in and I fell on him."

"Is he hurt?"

"I don't know. I guess I knocked the wind out of him."

"How far down are you?" demanded Dad peering in, holding his torch low, exposing a hole about six feet square at the top, widening out as it extended downward.

"I---I don't know. It felt like a mile when I came down. Hurry. Think I want to stay here all night?"

"If Stacy isn't able to help himself, tie the rope around his waist and we will haul him up," directed Tad.

"Serve him right to leave him here," retorted Ned.

"All right, we will leave you both there, if you feel that way," answered Nance grimly.

"He doesn't mean it," said Tad. "Ned must have his joke, no matter how serious the situation may be." Tad lowered his rope, loop first. "Well, how about it?" he called.

"I've made it fast. Haul away." Chunky was something of a heavy weight. It required the combined efforts of those at the top to haul him out. Dragging Stacy to the surface, Tad dropped beside the fat boy, giving him a shake and peering anxiously into his eyes, shouting, "Stacy! Stacy!"

Chunky opened one eye and winked knowingly at Tad.

"Oh, you rascal! You've made us pull until we are out of breath. Why'd you make a dead weight of yourself?"

"Is---is he all right?" inquired Professor Zepplin anxiously.

"He hasn't been hurt-----"

"Yes, I have. I'm all bunged up---I'm all shot to pieces. The---the mountain blew up and-----"

"Well, are you fellows going to leave me down here all the rest of the night?" demanded the far-away voice of Ned Rector.

"Yes, you stay there. You're out of the wet," answered Stacy.

"That's a fine way to talk after I have saved your life almost at the expense of my own."

"Pshaw! Saved my life! You nearly knocked it all out of me when you fell on top of me."

"Here comes the rope, Ned," called Tad. "If you can help us a little you will make the haul easier for us."

"I'll use my feet."

"Better take a hitch around your waist in case you should slip," advised Butler.

Ned did so, and by bracing his feet against the side of the rock he was able to aid them not a little in their efforts to haul him to the surface. Ned fixed Stacy with stern eye.

"Were you bluffing all the time?" he demanded.

"Was I bluffing? Think a fellow would need to bluff when a big chump like you fell in on him? I thought the mountain had caved in on me, but it was something softer than a mountain, I guess," added Stacy maliciously.

"What did happen?" demanded Ned, gazing at the hole wonderingly.

"It's one of those thin crusts," announced the guide, examining the broken place in the lava with critical eyes, in which occupation the Professor joined.

"Yes, it was pretty crusty," muttered Chunky.

"You see, sir, this occurs occasionally," nodded the guide, looking up at the grizzled face of Professor Zepplin. "One never knows in this country when the crust is going to give way and let him down. I guess the rain must have weakened the ground."

"And I fell in again," growled Stacy.

"You were bound to fall in sooner or later," answered Tad. "Perhaps it is just as well that you fell in a soft place."

"A soft place?" shouted Stacy. "If you think so, just take a drop in there yourself."

"I thought it was the softest thing I ever fell on," grinned Rector, whereupon the laugh was on Stacy.

There was no more sleep in the camp in the crater of Sunset Peak that night. Nor was there fire to warm the campers. They walked about until daylight. That morning they made a breakfast on cold biscuit and snowballs at the rim of the crater. But as the sun came out they felt well repaid for all that they had passed through on the previous night. Such a vista of wonderful peaks as lay before them none of the Pony Riders ever had gazed upon.

To the west lay the San Francisco Peaks, those ever-present landmarks of northern Arizona. To the south the boys looked off over a vast area of forest and hills, while to the east in the foreground were grouped many superb cinder cones, similar to the one on which they were standing, though not nearly so high. Lava beds, rugged and barren, reached out like fingers to the edge of the plateau as if reaching for the far-away painted desert.

"Where is the Canyon?" asked Tad in a low voice.

"Yonder," said Dad, pointing to the north over an unbroken stretch of forest. There in the dim distance lay the walls of the Grand Canyon, the stupendous expanse of the ramparts of the Canyon stretching as far as the eye could see.

"How far away are they?" asked Tad.

"More than forty miles," answered Dad. "You wait till we get to the edge. You can't tell anything about those buttes now."

"What is a butte---how did they happen to be called that?" asked Walter.

"A butte is a butte," answered the guide.

"A butte is a bump on the landscape," interjected Stacy.

"A butte is a mound of earth or stone worn away by erosion," answered the Professor, with an assurance that forbade any one to question the correctness of his statement.

"Yes, sir," murmured the Pony Rider Boys. "A wart on the hand of fair Nature, as it were," added Chunky under his breath.

"Come, we must be on our way," urged Dad. "We want to make half the distance to the Canyon before night. I reckon the pack train will have gone on. We'll have to live on what we have in our saddle bags till we catch up with the train, which I reckon we'll do hard onto noon."

No great effort was required to descend Sunset Mountain. It was one long slide and roll. The boys screamed with delight as they saw the dignified Professor coasting and taking headers down the cinder-covered mountain.

By this time the clothes of the explorers had become well dried out in the hot sun. When they reached the camp they found that the pack train had long since broken camp and gone on.

"Where are the ponies?" cried Walter, looking about.

"I'll get them," answered Dad, circling the camp a few times to pick up the trail.

It will be remembered that the animals had been hobbled on the previous afternoon and turned loose to graze. Dad found the trail and was off on it running with head bent, reminding the boys of the actions of a hound. While he was away Tad cooked breakfast, made coffee and the others showed their appreciation of his efforts by eating all that was placed before them and calling loudly for more. Dad returned about an hour later, riding Silver Face, driving the other mustangs before him. When the boys saw the stock coming in they shouted with merriment. The mustangs had been hobbled by tying their fore feet together. This made it necessary for the animals to hop like kangaroos. The boys named them the kangaroos right then and there.

Tad had some hot coffee ready for Nance by the time Dad got back. The guide forgot that he had declared against eating or drinking anything cooked by the Pony Rider Boys. He did full justice to Tad's cooking, while the rest of the boys stood around watching the guide eat, offering suggestions and remarks. Dad took it all good-naturedly. He would have plenty of opportunities to get back at them. Dad was something of a joker himself, though this fact was suspected only by Tad Butler, who had noted the constantly recurring twinkle in the eyes of the guide.

"We shall hear from Dad one of these days," was Butler's mental conclusion. "All right, we deserve all we get and more, I guess."

Shortly afterwards the party was in the saddle, setting out for their forty-mile ride in high spirits. They hoped to reach their destination early on the following morning. Some of the way was dusty and hot, though the greater part of it was shaded by the giant pines.

They caught up with the pack train shortly before noon, as Nance had said they would. A halt was made and a real meal cooked while the mustangs were watered and permitted to graze at the ends of their ropes. The meal being finished, saddle bags were stocked as the party would not see the pack train again until some time on the following day. Then the journey was resumed again.

The Pony Rider Boys were full of anticipation for what they would see when they reached the Canyon. Dad was in a hurry, too. He could hardly wait until he came in sight of his beloved Canyon. But even with all their expectations the lads had no idea of the wonderful sight in store for them when they should first set eyes on this greatest of Nature's wonders.

That night they took supper under the tall trees, and after a sleep of some three hours, were roughly awakened by the guide, who soon had them started on their way again.