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"Well," grunted Ned Rector, as he served the meager breakfast, "at this rate there soon will be nothing left of the Pony Rider Boys except the skeletons of two mules."
Chunky, solemn-visaged, was munching his hard boiled egg slowly, in an effort to make it last as long as possible.
"This all I get to eat to-day?"
"Eat? No, certainly not. I'm going to cook all the rest of the day for you. Let's see, you shall have a porterhouse steak, fried potatoes, some nice fresh salad and a soup plate of ice cream and--"
"And a finger bowl," finished Chunky, without the suspicion of a smile.
"Yes, with egg water in it," added Ned.
It was the longest day they had ever put in. There was no difference of opinion on that point when the day was ended. They had hoped to hear from Tad before nightfall. He did not return, however, and they had little hopes of his doing so now that the darkness was coming on.
There was no merriment in the camp that night. By dint of careful management they had saved enough out of their supplies to give them a light breakfast on the following morning, After that they had no idea how they should manage, providing no assistance came to them.
The mules were the only indifferent ones in the party. They munched the green leaves contentedly, sleeping when they were not eating. Near the middle of the night one of the animals set up a loud braying which brought the boys from their cots in quick alarm. At first they could not imagine what it was. They tumbled out, shouting to each other.
"What is it, Indians?" cried Stacy, dancing about in his pajamas.
"No, it's nothing but a mule with an overloaded stomach," answered Ned turning back to his tent growling his disgust.
"Wish it wouldn't dream quite so loudly," grumbled Chunky.
When morning came, and still no tidings from either the Professor or Tad, the boys began to realize the seriousness of their position.
"Something's got to be done, fellows," announced Ned Rector.
"I wonder if we could not shoot some game," suggested Walter.
"That's a good idea. But, is there any game here?"
"I heard an owl last night," said Stacy.
"We haven't got down to owls yet. We may when we get hungry enough," returned Ned. "I think I'll take my rifle and go out gunning."
"Do you think the Professor would like you to do that?" questioned Walter.
"I am sure he would not wish us to starve. There must be some kind of game in these mountains that's fit to eat. I'll shoot almost anything that comes along."
"Don't you get lost, now," cautioned Walter.
"No danger. And I'll bring back something to eat, you take my word for that."
Ned, with rifle thrown over his left arm, stepped boldly from the camp, heading west, reasoning that this direction would take him into the heart of the mountains where he would be more likely to find game.
An hour passed; then they heard a gun.
"He's shot something," exulted Walter.
"At something, you mean," corrected Chunky.
A second shot followed quickly on the first, then a third one.
"Guess you're right, Chunky," smiled Walter.
Later on they heard three more shots.
"That sounded a long way off," mused Walter. "I'm afraid he is getting too far from camp."
Chunky nodded thoughtfully.
"He thinks he can shoot, but he can't. I wish I had a fish line. I'd go down to the river in the gorge there and see if I couldn't catch a fish. Maybe I can fix up something that will--"
"No, you don't, Stacy Brown. You stay right here. You would get lost before you got out of sight of the camp. I don't want to be left alone here, with nothing but a pair of long-eared mules for company."
Stacy shrugged his shoulders and began idly cutting his name in the bark of a tree with his knife.
"Funny we haven't heard Ned shoot in some time," said Walter after a long interval of silence. "He must be working his way back. Think so?"
"Nope," answered Stacy, still engaged with the knife.
"You don't? Why not."
"Hasn't got any more shells, that's why."
"I don't understand."
"He shot six times, didn't he?"
"Let's see--yes, I believe he did."
"Well, that's all the bullets he had in the gun. He'll have to throw stones if he sees anything else to shoot at."
A startled expression appeared on Walter Perkins's face.
"You're right, Chunky. But why don't he come back, then?"
"Lost, I guess," replied Stacy, not appearing to be in the least disturbed by his own announcement.
Walter started up in alarm.
"You don't--you don't think--"
"No, I'm just guessing."
"If--if Ned should get lost, too, it would be awful."
Stacy nodded indifferently, Walter meanwhile pacing restlessly back and forth.
The lad's face wore a troubled look. With the Professor and all his companions save Stacy, gone; with no food left in camp, Walter Perkins had reason to feel alarmed.
Chunky, however, whittled on undisturbed.
"Are you hungry, Chunky?" asked Walter, pausing in his walk, later on.
The day had worn along well into the afternoon and neither of the boys had had anything to eat since early morning. Their appetites were beginning to assert themselves.
"I'm going to get some mineral water. It surely will help some. Come on, it won't hurt you."
Stacy turned a pair of resentful eyes on his companion.
"No egg water for me. I'll starve first," he answered, with more spirit than usual.
While Walter went to the spring to help himself to the sulphur water, Stacy stood off to view his artistic work on the bark of the tree.
"Guess--guess they'll know I've been here, anyway," he mumbled.
"That's real good stuff," announced Walter, as he returned. "I do not feel nearly so hungry as I did before. Better try some."
Stacy made no reply to the suggestion.
When twilight came on, Walter Perkins was more alarmed than ever. There could be no doubt now that Ned Rector had missed his way. Stacy remained unmoved. He bedded down the mules. When he returned from this duty he carried something bright in one hand. Walter's eyes caught it at once.
"What have you there?" he demanded.
"Can of orange marmalade," replied Chunky, with a twinkle. "Guess it must have been dropped out when we unloaded the pack. Good thing there's only two of us to eat it."
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