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"Well, doesn't that beat all!" marveled Tad.
"Certainly does," agreed Ned.
"Yes, but I don't understand--what does this mean?" exclaimed Walter.
"I'm a poor guesser," answered Ned.
"It means that we are all alone," replied Tad. "Beyond that I could not guess."
Chunky had been viewing the scene with solemn complacency.
"We've got the mules, anyway," he nodded.
"Precious lot of good they'll do us," returned Walter.
"And we've got the food and--and I don't have to build a fire, either," added the fat boy.
"Yes, we have some things to be thankful for, that's a fact," laughed Tad. "My idea is that the Professor, finding the men had just left here, has hurried on to overtake them. I don't think we have any reason to worry."
"Then we had better stay right here," answered Ned.
"Yes. That is all we can do for the present."
"Think we had better unpack?"
Tad considered the matter briefly.
"I think we had better wait a little while," he decided.
"I think you are right. I hope we don't have to. We have enough food in our pockets to keep us going until night and--"
"Don't we get anything to eat until night?" wailed Chunky.
"Not unless you can browse," retorted Ned. "There's plenty of green stuff hereabouts."
"You can eat with the mules if you wish to. I don't."
"Might as well keep the fire up," decided Tad, gathering up a fresh supply of green stuff which he dumped on the graying ashes. "The smoke will help the Professor to find us quickly when he comes back."
"What if he shouldn't come back?" asked Walter, with sudden apprehension.
"Oh, he will. Don't worry about that. You can't lose the Professor."
The boys laughed, then settled down to make the best of their situation, whiling away the time with jest and stories.
After a time, Tad left the party and strolled from the camp in an effort to determine which way the late occupants of the camp had gone. He was beginning to feel worried, but as yet had confided nothing of this to his companions.
Examining the ground closely he found four distinct trails leading from the abandoned camp. These trails were fresh, showing that ponies had only recently been ridden over them. They all looked alike, however, and he was unable to determine which of them had been made by Professor Zepplin's pony.
"Evidently the party, whoever they were, split up after leaving here," thought the lad aloud. "I'd like to follow out the trails, but I don't dare do so. The Professor would be liable to return while I was away. Then again I might lose the trail and my own way at the same time. I've caused this outfit enough trouble as it is."
With this, Tad slowly turned back toward the camp.
He found a growing sense of uneasiness among his companions there.
"What did you discover?" asked Ned rather more solemnly than was his usual wont.
Tad told him.
"Then, there's no use trying to follow?"
"What time is it?"
"Half-past three," announced Tad after consulting his watch.
"Huh!" grunted Ned. "I guess the Professor has gone and done it himself this time."
"We'll wait," answered Tad easily.
After piling fresh fuel on the fire Tad went over and sat on the bluff overlooking the eastern slope of the range of mountains which they were traversing. Chunky lay stretched out sound asleep, untroubled by the series of disasters that had overtaken them.
Tad after running over in his mind many plans, none of which seemed practicable, also lay down for a nap, and in a few moments the tired boys were all sound asleep, including the pack mules.
When they awakened the sun had been down all of half an hour. Tad was the first to awake. He started up guiltily, and looking around found that he was not the only one who had napped.
"Hallo, the camp!" he shouted.
The other boys sat up suddenly, rubbing their eyes.
"Time to go to bed. Get up!" laughed Tad.
"Nice way to put it," growled Ned. "Tell a fellow to get up because it's time to go to bed."
"Wat'cher wake me up for?" demanded Chunky. "I was sleeping."
"So were all of us. First time I ever heard you object to being called to eat."
"Eat? Eat? Who said eat?" cried the fat boy, struggling to his feet with difficulty, his head whirling from the effort of pulling himself awake so suddenly.
"I did. It's night."
"You don't say," wondered Ned, looking around in surprise. "I--I thought I was back home in Chillicothe."
"Dreams, dreams," muttered Stacy. "No Professor yet, eh?"
"No. I believe he is lost. He surely would have been back long before this."
"Maybe he's gone the same place the Indian went," ventured Walter.
"Where's that?" queried Stacy, at once interested.
"That's a conundrum. You dream over it to-night," jeered Ned.
"We had better unpack and make camp," advised Tad. "Chunky, Walt and I will do that if you will get the supper."
"All right. Somebody get me some water."
"I will," said Walter quickly. "Anybody know where I can find it?"
"There must be some near by. Those other fellows would not have made camp here and remained all night unless there was water near--"
"Unless they know no more about these confounded mountains than we do, you mean?" laughed Ned.
After some searching about, Walter found a spring. It was full of water that had a whitish tinge to it. The lad tasted it gingerly, then smiled knowingly. Filling his pail he returned to camp with it.
By this time Tad and Stacy had unloaded the mules. The three boys got to work at once putting up the tents. In the absence of Professor Zepplin, they concluded to erect only two, and by the time this had been accomplished, Ned was ready for them.
"Come and get it!" he bellowed.
There was no table cloth, no table, just the bare ground, and the boys sat down to eat in the fresh, bracing air.
"No one who has not been camping for a long time can appreciate smoke," announced Ned oracularly. "If I had to go without my supper I believe if I could breathe smoke for a few minutes, I could almost imagine I had a full stomach."
"Well, I couldn't. I've heard of smoke-eaters, whatever or whoever they are, but I want something a little more lasting," announced Walter Perkins. "No smoked smoke diet for me."
"Nor for me," agreed Tad.
"What's a smoke eater?" asked Stacy.
"I should say that a Pony Rider Boy named Ned Rector was one, according to his own admission," laughed Walter.
"Pass the water, please."
Walter filled Stacy's cup. The fat boy drank it down without taking a breath. No sooner had he swallowed the liquid than he hurled the cup from him and leaped to his feet coughing and making wry faces.
They could not imagine what had happened.
"Slap him on the back, he's choking," shouted Ned.
Walter Perkins, by this time, was laughing immoderately, while his companions were jolting Stacy between the shoulders and shaking him violently.
"Stop pounding me, d'ye hear? Stop it, I tell you," cried Stacy, wriggling from their grasp, red of face, an expression of great indignation in his eyes.
"Did you swallow a bone?" queried Ned.
"Then, please tell us the cause of all this unseemly disturbance. Your table manners are about the worst I ever saw, Stacy Brown."
"Water," gasped Stacy.
"Here," twinkled Walter, passing the pail.
"What's the matter with the water?" demanded Ned.
"Somebody's been putting old eggs in it. I believe you did that, Ned Rector, just to tease me."
Ned did not understand what the fat boy meant.
"Here, pass that pail. Is there anything the matter with that water, Walt? You got it."
"I think it is thoroughly good, wholesome water," replied Walter, holding his head low over his plate that they might not observe his amusement.
"Ugh!" exclaimed Ned, after tasting the liquid. He hurled the remaining contents of the cup full into the camp-fire.
"I told you so," nodded Stacy solemnly. "It's eggs and they weren't laid yesterday, either."
"You're right. Walt, where did you get that awful stuff?"
Tad and Walter were both drinking deeply of the liquid and apparently enjoying it.
"From the spring," gasped Walter, placing his cup on the ground.
"Don't drink that stuff. It'll make you all sick," commanded Ned.
"Don't be silly. That water is all right," laughed Tad.
"All right? Call that all right?" demanded Ned.
"Call that all right?" echoed Chunky.
"Of course it is. It is mineral water--sulphur water," spilling over his clothes the contents of the cup that he was carrying to his lips. Walter was laughing so that he finally let go of the cup itself and rolled over on his side, shouting with merriment.
"You can have it," announced Ned firmly.
"Yes, all of it," added Chunky. "I'll take my eggs hard boiled after this."
"Drink it. It will do you good, Chunky," urged Tad.
"No, thank you. I wouldn't offer it to a mule."
"So I see," flung back Ned, with a malicious little grin appearing in the corners of his mouth. "But speaking of mules, I wonder if it has occurred to anyone that our mules might be wanting a drink, too."
"Haven't they had any water to-day?" asked Tad.
"Haven't seen them drink since we left Springfield."
"Why, of course they have had water every day. They could not live without it."
"If they're like me they could--if they had to drink egg water," grumbled Stacy amid a loud laugh from his companions.
"I'll attend to them right after supper," decided Tad. "But just now we had better talk over our own situation. It is plain that something has happened to the Professor. How much longer will our provisions last, Ned?"
"Well, on a rough guess, I should say not beyond to-morrow."
"Then I should say in the first place that it would be wise to put the outfit on half rations beginning to-morrow morning--"
"No, no, no," protested Chunky, springing up and waving his plate excitedly.
"You won't have anything before you know it, young man," warned Ned.
"Yes, but we may have to stay here a week, if the Professor does not return. I do not see what good it will be to begin starving us until it is necessary," objected Walter.
"It will be necessary to-morrow," replied Tad.
"And after to-morrow what?"
"I shall hope to have some provisions here by that time, Ned."
Ned Rector laughed.
"Yes, I can almost see it now. How do you propose to get them, may I ask?"
"Go after them."
"Where?" queried Walter.
"Red Star mining camp. It cannot be so very far from here."
"Going to drag the mules after you?" asked Ned in a half sarcastic tone.
"No, I'm going on foot."
"What!" exclaimed the boys in one voice.
"You heard me. If Professor Zepplin has not returned by to-morrow morning I'm off for assistance and a fresh supply of food."
"And leave us here alone?" cried Chunky.
"Don't you see, fellows," continued Tad, "the Professor undoubtedly is in a worse fix than we are. He may wander about the mountains until he starves. I've simply got to stir somebody up to start out hunting for him. By remaining here we are only getting deeper into trouble. Don't you understand that?"
"Yes," admitted Ned. "But, then, why not let us all go with you?"
"Yes, that's the idea," interjected Walter.
"No, that is not good judgment."
"In the first place some one must remain here to watch our outfit. We don't want to lose anything more than we have."
The boys nodded.
"Secondly, the Professor might possibly find his way back here, and the chances are he would lose himself again trying to find us."
"That's so," chorused the boys.
"And thirdly, as the Professor says, I can get along a lot faster alone than if you are all with me."
"Fellows, I understand why our friend Tad Butler wears a hat a size and a half larger than any of us--his head's bigger. Yes, you're right, Tad."
"Yes, yes," shouted Walter and Stacy, "that's the reason."
"And don't I get all I want to eat until he-he--until Tad gets back?"
"That depends upon how much you want. Judging from past experience, I should say you wouldn't," replied Ned.
"But what will happen to us if you get lost, Tad?"
"Yes, yes, that's what I want to know?" questioned Ned.
"I'll see that I don't."
"This time I am going to blaze every tree I pass, with my hunting knife. It will enable me to get back if I fail to find the way, and it also will serve to guide the men here, if I find any to return with me."
"I take off my hat to you," exclaimed Ned.
"How many eggs have we left, Ned?"
"A dozen hard boiled ones, I think."
"Then I'll take three. I'll eat one for breakfast and carry the other two with me. That will leave three apiece for the rest of you."
"Oh, take a drink of water from that--that spring and save your egg till you need it," suggested Chunky.
"I'm going to start early in the morning, so I guess I'll turn in now. Remember, you are not to leave this place till I get back--that is, unless the Professor should return in the meantime."
"We promise," answered the lads together.
After putting the camp in shape for the night and attending to the mules the boys turned in and slept the night through without further incident.
Next morning when they turned out, Tad Butler had gone. On a piece of paper pinned to a tree they found a note reading: "I'm off, fellows. Bye."
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