"Oh, this is terrible!" wailed Emma. "I know I shall expire."
"Good! Then we shall have a little peace," retorted Hippy laughingly.
"Don't," begged Grace. "The poor girl really is suffering, but when she gets used to the heat and discomforts out here I think she will really enjoy it." Grace petted the wet neck of her pony and he nosed her cheek and nibbled at the brim of her sombrero. "How do you feel, Elfreda?"
"As if I had been wearing a mustard-plaster suit. I am burned from head to foot."
"Yes, that's the way I feel," cried Emma. "What is good for it, Grace?"
"Sand," interjected Miss Briggs, which sally caused a laugh and made the girls feel better.
At this juncture Hi Lang came up to them, walking briskly.
"Stake down and make camp," he ordered.
"You have water?" questioned Hippy.
"Yes. Ping! Hustle your bones. Get some firewood and make a blaze so we can see what we're doing. When that is ready, get supper ready, and then pitch the camp."
"Firewood!" scoffed Hippy. "I should like to know where you are going to find it?"
"Sagebrush! Plenty of that hereabouts."
Hippy could not understand how a fire could be made from green sagebrush, but he waited to be shown before making further comments. In a few moments the Chinaman had a little fire blazing, the guide and Hippy, in the meantime, having staked down the ponies and relieved the burros of their packs. The burros were left to roam where they would, Hi assuring his charges that the pack animals were too lazy to run away.
The girls, while Ping was preparing a light supper for them, set to work to pitch the tents. Carrying canvas buckets, Hippy and the guide then hurried to the water hole.
"It won't do to wait for the water, for it has a habit, in this country, of suddenly disappearing while you wait," explained Hi.
"Yes, but where's the water?" wondered Lieutenant Wingate, as Hi got down in a hole that he had opened by breaking down the crust with his boots.
"Give me that blanket and I'll show you," he said, reaching for a canvas square, which he spread out in the opening and pressed down with his hands.
In a few moments water began seeping up through the blanket, which was so placed that it was lower in the middle than at the sides.
"That beats me," marveled Hippy. "How did you know there was water here?"
"I didn't. I knew where I found it the last time I was this way, but that didn't mean it would be here this time. These desert underground streams shift their courses almost as often as the wind does. Hand me a bucket."
Two buckets were finally filled and passed up to Hippy.
"Water the ponies first. Give them only a little at first. They're too warm to drink their fill. When you come back bring the red buckets for water for us to drink," directed the guide.
Hippy, marveling at the ways of the desert, took the buckets and began watering the ponies. The two bucketfuls answered for four of them, and by the time he returned to the water hole Hi had two more bucketfuls ready for him. In this way all the ponies and the burros were supplied with water, and Hi, working as fast as he could, filled all the buckets for the night's use of man and beast, then scrambled out of the water hole.
"I hope we still find water here in the morning," he said.
"What if we do not?"
"Then we go without it, Lieutenant. One has to get used to thirst out here. You will see many a dry day before we finish our journey."
"Hm—m—m—m!" mused Hippy reflectively.
"Him come along," cried Ping Wing in a shrill voice, meaning that supper was ready, as the two men with their water buckets entered the camp.
"Four meals a day, eh?" grinned Hippy. "That is what I call the proper thing. I shall have to readjust myself so as to know how to live on four meals a day, but I am so hungry now that you can see right through me."
"We always could," teased Miss Briggs.
Now that the supper was ready, Ping piled more sagebrush on the fire and made a blaze that lighted up the little desert camp, its white tents standing out clearly defined in the light and appearing very small. Just beyond them the "crunch, crunch" of the ponies' teeth as they tore at the sage, which was to be their only food for a long time to come, could be heard, and it really was a soothing sound in this sea of silence and mystery.
There was bacon, biscuit with honey, and tea for their midnight luncheon. Emma and Hippy were first to try the bacon, but no sooner did they taste of it than they began to choke and sputter.
"Awful! What stuff are you feeding me?" cried Emma.
"Yes, some one is trying to poison us," groaned Hippy.
"What's the matter?" grinned the guide.
"It is the most awful stuff I ever put in my mouth, so bitter I simply can't eat it," complained Emma.
Grace smiled. She had nibbled at a slice of bacon and knew instantly what caused its bitter taste.
"Alkali," the guide told them. "Everything you eat and drink out here will taste bitter, but time you will not notice the bitter taste."
Emma uttered a suppressed wail. There were complaints from each of the other girls, except Grace, who, though she disliked that bitter taste as much as did her companions, was too plucky to voice her dislike.
"You must make certain that your tents are cleared of tarantulas before you take off your shoes, folks. If you get out of bed in the night be certain to put your shoes on first so you do not step on one of the pesky fellows," warned the guide.
"Any other cheerful little features about this camp that you can think of?" asked Hippy solemnly.
"Plenty, but I'll tell you about them some other time, unless you discover them for yourselves before then."
"I wish to goodness that I had gone to the seashore where the worst that can happen to one is to be pinched by a crab or to drown in the surf," complained Emma.
A laugh cleared the atmosphere, and the girls, immediately after supper, prepared for bed, which they welcomed eagerly; and soon after that the camp settled down for the night, enveloped in deep and profound silence. A gentle breeze, sweetly cool after the burning heat of the day, crept in and lulled the tired Overlanders to sleep.
Now and then the silence was broken by the far off echoing scream of a prowling coyote or the distant hoot of an owl. But the Overlanders did not hear. They were sleeping soundly, storing up energy for the coming day, a day that was destined to be filled with hardships and excitement and peril for them.
CALLERS DROP IN
Heat waves were shimmering over the eastern horizon when the Overland girls awakened next morning. The guide had been up since daybreak fetching "bitter water," as the girls called it, and serving it to the ponies and burros.
"Whew!" exclaimed Elfreda. "This looks like a warm day."
"Regular Russian bath day," agreed Anne Nesbit.
"I fear we girls will not have any complexions left after this journey," added Nora Wingate. "I wonder if that husband of mine is still asleep?"
"Hippy is always sleeping—when he isn't awake or eating," declared Emma ambiguously, causing a laugh at her expense.
"You folks made a mistake that time," chuckled Hippy from the adjoining tent.
"Everybody makes mistakes. That's why they put erasers on lead pencils," retorted Emma quickly.
"Good night!" they heard Hippy Wingate mutter, after which he relapsed into silence, while a shout of laughter greeted Emma's sally.
"Come, girls, turn out," urged Grace. "We have a day ahead of us."
Breakfast was ready when they emerged from their tents, and this time they ate without complaining of the bitter taste of food and water.
The sun came up while they were at breakfast, lighting up the cheerless landscape and whitening the sands. The mountain range where they first camped had disappeared in the distance and they were alone in the burning silence. Ahead, here and there, ugly buttes lay baking in the morning heat, some showing a variety of dazzling colors, others a dull leaden gray.
"How far do we go to-day, Hi?" questioned Lieutenant Wingate.
"Until we find water," was the brief, but significant reply.
After breakfast, and while Ping, singing happily, was striking camp and packing the equipment on the burros, Mr. Lang and Hippy brought in and saddled the ponies, turning each one over to its rider as it was made ready; then the start was made. Hippy Wingate, the girls observed, held a small package under one arm, which he guarded so carefully that it aroused the curiosity of his companions, but Hippy merely grinned in response to their questioning.
As the sun rose higher the heat became well nigh unbearable to some of the party, and especially to Emma, if one were to judge by her bitter complaints. Emma declared that she never could live through it, and Grace began to have doubts herself with reference to her little friend.
As they progressed, the landscape grew more and more desolate and forbidding. Gaunt ravens soared staring over the wan plains, hairy tarantulas now and then hopped from the path of the ponies, and the "side-winder"—the deadly horned rattlesnake, which gets its name from its peculiar side-long motion as it crawls across the burning sands—squirmed out of the way, following snorts of fear from the ponies.
They halted at noon, for a rest and a light luncheon, near one of the barren buttes. Grace asked if it would not be possible to find a resting place on the butte where they might shade under a rock. Hi Lang shook his head.
"Too many snakes up there," he replied. "Dangerous!"
"Br—r—r—r—r!" shivered Emma.
The water carried in canvas receptacles on the burros was apportioned among the horses and burros, but there was only a small quantity left for each animal, not more than a quart apiece. This, however, was enough to take the keen edge from their thirst.
Following the resumption of the journey, Hippy carefully unwrapped his package, eager eyes observing the operation. The girls gasped when he threw the wrapping paper away and revealed a dainty blue silk parasol, which he raised and held over his head.
"Every man his own shade tree," chuckled Hippy. "If any of you ladies find you are being overcome by the desert heat, you are at liberty to ride in the shadow cast by my Christmas tree."
"You are very considerate. We thank you," answered Anne.
"Selfish!" rebuked Emma.
Hi Lang laughed silently, but made no comment. Neither heat nor hardship appeared to affect him unpleasantly. Hi, Grace observed, appeared always to be in a listening attitude, as if he were expecting something or some one. Grace asked him why he did so, but the guide merely smiled and rode on with head slightly tilted to one side, listening, listening!
Early in the afternoon the guide began looking for water, now and then dismounting to search about for a tank, breaking in crusts of alkali, putting an ear to the ground to listen for the murmur of an underground stream, or feeling with his hands over several yards of hot sand in search of a cool spot that might indicate water.
"Nothing doing yet," he announced. "There ought to be a tank about five miles further on."
However, they had journeyed on ten miles more before a promising spot was reached, and the guide and Hippy began to dig for the precious water that Hi said surely was somewhere below them.
They found it finally, but there was so little of it that he was not certain that they would get enough for their ponies. There was but little water left in the canteens, none at all in the bags, and it became necessary to find a supply sufficient for both ponies and riders.
"Every drop here is precious," warned the guide. "Be careful that you do not spill any."
Water was first carried to the ponies, small quantities being given to them as before, the girls assisting in the operation, and the supply was getting alarmingly low when Grace, returning from carrying a quart to Blackie, suddenly halted and gazed off across the desert.
A cloud of dust, that appeared to be approaching, had attracted her attention. The Overland girl wondered if it was a wind-squall, such as she had heard was quite common on the desert. After watching it for a few moments she decided to speak to the guide and call his attention to it.
"I see it. It's horses," said Elfreda, stepping up beside Grace.
"Do you think so?"
"I know it is."
"Then your eyes are better than mine," answered Grace. "I suppose it is some party headed for Elk Run. Mr. Lang!" she called.
"What is it?" demanded Hippy, who was standing over the hole in which the guide was working.
"A party of horsemen coming this way, sir!"
"You don't say! That's right, Hi," said Hippy, speaking to Mr. Lang. "Quite a bunch of them, too, I should say."
The guide's head appeared above the rim of the water hole and he gazed searchingly at the oncoming alkali cloud.
"Bunch of cowboys or wild horse hunters," he observed. "Anyway, we've got first claim on the water." Hi returned to his work and Hippy resumed passing water to the girls, but kept the approaching horsemen under observation, as did also Grace Harlowe.
"Those fellows are kicking up an awful lot of dust, it seems to me," observed Nora Wingate.
"Yes, I hope they slow down before passing us," answered Anne. "I have swallowed about all the dust to-day that I can digest."
Emma Dean, not to be outdone, declared that she too had swallowed a lot of dust—so much of it that a good wind would blow her away and sift her over the desert.
"You surely would be the plaything of the winds in that event," murmured Anne.
"They are heading directly for the camp," Hippy was saying to Hi Lang, but the guide gave no heed. He wished to get all the water out of the tank that he possibly could before the party reached them, knowing very well that they, the newcomers, would also want water.
A few moments later the desert riders galloped up on foaming ponies. They were not a prepossessing looking lot, and the eight men of the party carried rifles in their saddle boots and revolvers on their hips.
"Water!" shouted the one who appeared to be the leader.
"Here's water, old top, but pass it around. We haven't much, of the alkali beverage on hand this evening." Hippy handed up a partially filled bucket to one man and another to the rest until each man had been supplied.
"I'll take the buckets now," announced Hippy.
"Hey, you! Where you all headed for?" demanded Hi, straightening up and surveying the newcomers narrowly.
"Reckon we might ask the same question of you. Who's them gals?" questioned the leader.
"That is none of your business who they or we are!" retorted Hippy Wingate sternly.
"Say, you fellow! Looking for trouble?!" demanded Hi in an even voice.
"Pass that bucket to me!" commanded Hippy.
"Ye want thet bucket, hey?" leered the desert rider. Then, quick as a flash he emptied the contents of it over Lieutenant Wingate's head.
"Get ready for trouble," ordered Grace Harlowe sharply to Elfreda Briggs, at the same time raising her right hand above her head, a signal that Emma, Anne and Nora understood. It was the Overland Riders' signal of distress and meant that all hands should instantly prepare to defend themselves.
All the girls expected to see Hippy's revolver out of its holster after that insult. Instead, the desert rider was violently yanked from his saddle and stood on his head in the sand. So quick had Lieutenant Wingate been in unhorsing the man that the ugly visitor had not even time to draw his weapon.
Up to this juncture, Hi Lang had remained in the water hole, industriously dipping up water, at the same time keeping a wary eye on the progress of affairs above. He did not think best to take a hand until hostilities actually began, knowing that were he to spring out and draw his weapon, the desert riders would shoot before his revolver was out of its holster.
Peering out cautiously he saw that every man of the desert riders was resting a careless hand on the butt of his revolver. At the same time Hi observed something else in the opposite direction. Grace Harlowe and Elfreda Briggs had stepped up close to the water hole and each was standing with a hand on her hip.
The situation was resting on a hair trigger, and, even in the tenseness of the moment, Hi Lang found himself keenly interested in what he saw—the Overland Riders in action.
The leader of the newcomers sprang to his feet raging. Hippy Wingate, now close to the man, pushed the flat of his hand against the fellow's face.
"Get off my desert, you imitation rough-neck," invited Hippy sweetly. In the same breath he added in a savage tone: "Keep your hand away from that gun!" emphasizing his command by thrusting the muzzle of his own revolver against the desert rider's stomach.
The visitor's back was toward his companions, so that they did not get the full import of what was taking place, but they looked their amazement when they saw their leader turn his back on Hippy. They did not know that he was doing this in obedience to Lieutenant Wingate's order, nor that the leader's revolver at that moment was in Hippy's hand, Hippy having slipped it from its holster while still pressing his own weapon against the man who had ducked him.
"I told you to get off my desert," said Hippy, incisively. "I've changed my mind. I'm going to kick you off!"
Lieutenant Wingate retreated a step, sprang clear of the ground, and with a kick that had sent many a ball over the goal, he kicked the desert leader into the water hole. Hi Lang was not so considerate. As the fellow scrambled to his feet, Hi laid him flat on his back with a blow between the eyes that instantly put the fellow to sleep.
The battle between the two parties of desert travelers was on in a second.
PIRATES GET A HOT RECEPTION
The desert riders, who had been laughing over their leader's downfall after Hippy jerked him from his pony, suddenly awakened to a realization that the scene they had witnessed had ceased to become a joke.
The rider nearest to the water hole whipped out his revolver and fired, but the bullet went over Hippy's head for the very good reason that, expecting this very thing, he had ducked.
Hippy fired in return, hit the pony, and the rider tumbled off as the pony went down.
Hi Lang was out of the water hole in a twinkling.
"Keep your hands off your guns!" he shouted to the visitors, drawing his own weapon.
A bullet went through his hat. Another spun him around as it furrowed the fleshy part of his left arm, but the man who had fired the second shot got his reward in the next second. A bullet from Grace Harlowe's revolver went through his shoulder.
"Let them have it!" commanded Hi Lang. "They're out to do us!"
Two rifles, in the hands of Anne and Nora, banged from the tent in which they, with Emma Dean, were crouching, waiting for orders to take a hand in the battle. Bullets were flying rather thickly, but the desert riders' ponies, under the touching up they were getting from the revolvers of the defenders, were making careful shooting impossible for their riders. The defenders had the advantage of a steady footing under them, and they were shooting with extreme care, trying their best not to kill any one, but endeavoring to punish the attackers, and to keep themselves from getting killed.
The grilling fire was getting too hot for the desert ruffians, handy as they were with weapons and horses. Several, too, had been hit or unhorsed, though the Overland party did not really know how much damage they had done to the attackers.
"Shoot their ponies from under them!" commanded Hi Lang. "It's the only way."
"No, no! Please, not that," protested Grace. "The ponies haven't harmed us."
The guide shrugged his shoulders and, taking quick aim at a rider who was jerking his rifle from the saddle boot, shot the fellow out of his saddle.
Hi Lang's next shot downed a pony, its rider being thrown heavily to the ground, where he lay stunned from the fall. Four men were now down and a fifth, the leader of the party of ruffians, was still in the water tank where Lieutenant Wingate had kicked him and where the guide had then put him to sleep. The leader had long since recovered consciousness, but, being unarmed, he wisely decided to remain where he was, knowing very well that, were he to try to reach his companions or his mount, he would be shot down.
There were now only three mounted men of the attacking party left and these suddenly began galloping away from the water hole.
"Rifles!" called Hi.
Grace and Elfreda sped to their tent and quickly returned carrying four rifles and ammunition. The guide had instantly divined the purpose of the attackers in drawing off. They wished to get out of revolver range of the Overlanders and then use their rifles on them, but by the time the desert ruffians turned, facing the scene of their late battle, Hi, Hippy, Grace and Elfreda were shooting steadily with their rifles, pouring a hot fire into them.
One ruffian was seen to sway in his saddle and pitch to the ground. One of his companions gathered him up, then, with the wounded man across a saddle, the two remaining bandits galloped away, leaving their fellows to whatever fate might be in store for them.
"Cowards!" growled Hippy Wingate.
"No. Common prudence," answered the guide. "Help me get the fellows who are down. Look out that they aren't playing possum. Keep your gun in your hand and watch them. Mrs. Gray, will you follow a short distance behind us, so that you may have all the wounded men under observation?"
"Yes, Mr. Lang."
"If you see a suspicious move from any of them, shoot!"
"Yes, sir. Come along, Elfreda, your services probably will be needed. Mr. Lang, you were hit. May we not do something for you first?"
The guide shook his head and strode over to the water hole, into which he peered.
"You stay where you are!" he commanded sternly, to which there was no reply from the leader of the ruffians, who sat scowling up at him. "Mrs. Nesbit! Watch that fellow and if he tries to get out, drill him! He isn't fit to live anyway."
The two men, with Grace and Elfreda following, went out to disarm and examine the men who had been downed. They found that two had merely been stunned by falls, two others having been wounded in shoulders and arms, with numerous bullet holes through their clothing.
Elfreda examined their wounds and announced that none was seriously hurt, but that the men ought to be taken where they could have proper attention. Hi Lang laughed.
"Fiddlesticks!" he scoffed. "The only way you can kill this sort of critter is to kill 'em. We'll fix 'em up and send 'em on. The ones who got away will be waiting for 'em, so don't worry about that."
"I shall dress their wounds and give them whatever further attention I can before you send them away, Mr. Lang," replied Elfreda firmly.
Grace nodded her approval.
"Lieutenant, help me carry them in. It is wise to keep them well bunched, you know," advised the guide.
While he and Hippy were doing this, Grace watched the other men. Elfreda returned to camp with the first ruffian, and there dressed his wounds, gave the man water and made him as comfortable as possible. She treated the second wounded man with similar consideration.
"I do not see that there is anything at all the matter with these men," announced Elfreda after examining those who had been stunned by falls. "They should be able to take their wounded companions back with them. Are there enough ponies left to carry all?"
"I reckon. They're out yonder browsing on the sage. I'll catch them up and stake them down here. When you say the word, we will start these critters off, and good riddance it will be."
Just before dark Elfreda "discharged" her patients, as she expressed it, and they were led to their ponies, assisted to mount, and told to get out as fast as horseflesh would carry them. Not a word of information had the guide been able to get from any of them, not even their names nor why they were on the desert.
"I've seen that cayuse before," declared Hi, referring to the leader, and regarding the rapidly disappearing horsemen with a deep frown on his face. "I can't remember where, but one of these days I'll think of it. Too bad we can't turn them over to a sheriff, but we're too far out to go back now."
"That gang was looking for trouble when they rode up," averred Hippy.
"Yes, I reckon they were after us. Somebody sent them after us, too. Got any ideas on the subject, Mrs. Gray?"
"No, sir. I am thinking of you at the moment. Where were you hit?"
"Oh! Why didn't you say so?" cried Elfreda. "Here we have been wasting time on those ruffians and neglecting you. I'll have a look, if you please. Which shoulder?"
"Left. Nothing much, I reckon."
Elfreda bared the guide's shoulder and peered at the wound. She saw that it was merely a superficial flesh wound, but that unless it had attention it might prove to be more serious.
With skillful fingers Miss Briggs bathed the wound and dressed it, Hi Lang observing the professional manner in which she went about her work and nodding reflectively.
"Doctor?" he asked.
"No, lawyer," replied Elfreda with equal brevity.
"Huh!" grunted the guide.
"Were you hit anywhere else?"
"A few scratches, that's all."
Miss Briggs demanded that he show her, which he did. Both lower limbs were, as he had told her, scratched by bullets that had grazed them, and these surface wounds she also dressed.
"Anyone else needing surgical attention?" she demanded, smiling at her companions, shook their heads. "Grace Harlowe, how is it that you were not shot? I am amazed. You must have been in the water hole too, hiding from those ruffians."
"Mrs. Gray isn't of the hiding sort," spoke up Hi. "Reckon we better have supper and get set for the night," he said, turning abruptly toward the south and gazing off over the desert.
"Do—do you think those men will come back to-night?" questioned Emma, half fearfully.
The guide shook his head.
"Not to-night. We'll probably meet up with them again one of these days, and I hope we do," he replied, looking thoughtfully up at the sky. His survey took in all quarters of the compass, and when he turned to the Overlanders again, Grace thought he looked a little disturbed.
"What is it, Mr. Lang?" she asked.
"I reckon it's the desert this time," he replied.
"Rain?" questioned Grace innocently.
The guide grinned. "Nothing like that in these parts. Wind, Mrs. Gray. I reckon you'll meet one enemy that you can't drive off, before this night comes to an end. We better have chow now, then make the camp as secure as possible. Shall you tell the others?" he asked, nodding toward the Overland girls, who, after their exciting battle, were chattering and laughing as they assisted Ping Wing to prepare the supper.
"Yes. After we eat. They should know," replied Grace. "You see they are not at all upset over what occurred."
By the time they had finished supper, which had been eaten amid much teasing and laughter, some one discovered that the stars, before so near and brilliant, were now only faintly discernible, a veil of thin mist having intervened between them and the baking desert.
Elfreda Briggs regarded the overcast sky for a moment, then turned inquiringly to the guide.
"Fog?" she asked.
"No. Bad storm. Better go to bed with your clothes on to-night," advised the guide.
"Is it so serious as that, Mr. Lang?"
"It may be. Nobody can figure on anything on this desert—storms, water, everything here is as contrary as an outlaw bronco. Better turn in soon and have the others do the same, for you may not have long to sleep to-night."
"I would suggest that you do the same," advised Elfreda. "You need sleep and rest even more than we do. I hear Mrs. Gray telling our friends to prepare for bad weather, so I will run along and listen. Good-night, Mr. Lang."
The Overland girls, requested by Grace to turn in, after being told that a storm was in prospect, did so, but Hippy still remained up talking with Ping, who was scouring the cooking equipment and carefully stowing it in the packs so that it might all be in one place in the event that the storm was a severe one. Ping Wing had had experience with desert wind storms; he had learned to respect their tremendous force, and he too had read the danger signs in the heavens that night.
The guide being nowhere in sight, Hippy finally crawled into his tent and lay down with his clothes on, first, however, placing his revolver where it might be quickly reached in an emergency, but there was to be no use for his weapon that night. The enemy that he was to face later on would be proof against bullets, an enemy that no human courage, skill or ingenuity could stay.
Out by the water hole, Hi Lang sat keeping silent vigil, narrowly watching those film-mists overhead, his nerves on the alert to catch the first cooling breath, which he knew from past experience would be the vanguard of what he fully expected was in store for them.
WHEN THE BLOW FELL
A faint, cooling breath, wafted across the desert, fanned the cheek of Hi Lang. He inhaled deeply of it, not once, but several times.
"It is here!" he muttered, "I hope it may be a light one." Saying which the guide rose and walked briskly to the ponies' tethering ground. The animals were restive, they were stepping from side to side and an occasional snort was heard, but they quieted down when he went among them and spoke soothing words, petting an animal here, restaking another one there until he had spoken to each bronco in the outfit.
The guide's next move was to step to Hippy's tent and awaken him.
"What is it? Have the desert pirates returned?" questioned Hippy, sitting up and rubbing his eyes.
"No! Something worse is coming. Do not awaken the young ladies just yet. Come out I will show you a great sight."
Hippy sprang up and followed the guide. Hi paused by the embers of the camp fire long enough to stamp them out.
"So they do not blow about and set our equipment on fire," he explained.
"Where's the sight?" demanded the lieutenant.
"Look yonder!" directed Hi, pointing toward the western horizon.
The mist had disappeared from the sky like magic and the stars once more shone out with all their former brilliancy. Off to the westward, however, there were no stars to be seen. In their place, stretched clear across the horizon, lay a cloud, black as ink.
"Watch the upper edge of the cloud," said the guide in a low tone.
"It is rolling like the surf," exclaimed Hippy.
"Yes, and in that cloud are tons upon tons of sand that the cloud is carrying along with it. We'll lose a stretch of our desert here in a few moments."
"Is there nothing that we can do to protect ourselves, Hi?"
"Not a thing. The equipment has been securely packed. I had Ping put the rifles in a sack and stand them upright in a hole in the ground so we may find them after the storm. Without weapons we should be in a bad way, especially if our friends, the pirates, return, but I reckon that what's left of that crowd will be pretty well sanded. This storm is going to pile right up on the range that we left behind us."
A distant, menacing roar now became audible to the two men, such a roar as one can hear by placing an ear to the opening of a conch shell, but magnified perhaps a million times.
The cool breeze, that had shortly before warned Hi Lang, now became a chill blast, moderate, but plainly thrust ahead by a mighty force behind it.
"Good night!" exclaimed Lieutenant Wingate. "That breeze must have been born up in Iceland. Talk about your heat on the desert! Perhaps we shall have some cool weather here after the storm passes."
Hi Lang laughed.
"Don't fool yourself, Lieutenant. It will be hotter than ever to- morrow, blistering, sizzling hot; and the water courses probably will dive deeper into the earth and give us no end of trouble to find them. I—-"
"It is coming, isn't it?" questioned Graces who had been awakened by the breeze and had come up behind Hippy and Mr. Lang without their hearing her.
"It's well on the way, Mrs. Gray. Perhaps it might be well to awaken the young ladies. Knock down your tents and sit on them or you won't have any tents left. Reckon we'd better do the same, Lieutenant."
It was plain that the storm soon would be upon them and all haste was made to prepare for the blow. The tents were laid flat, weighted with such equipment as might be expected to hold them there, and the Overland Riders stood or crouched a little fearful in this new mystery of the desert.
"Getting closer!" announced the guide.
"What shall we do?" asked Hippy.
"Lie down when you can no longer stand up, and take pot luck."
"Any orders, Mr. Lang?" called Grace Harlowe.
"Yes. Lie down facing the storm and wind your blankets about you. Be sure to keep your heads covered. If you find that the sand is piling up on your backs, shake it off."
"If you get buried perhaps you may find a tank down there," suggested Hippy, but no one laughed at his sally. "There goes that crazy Chinaman again. I hope he chokes."
"He will if he keeps his mouth open much longer."
Ping had broken out in song, which the wind was not yet strong enough to smother.
"Sometim' you look-see piece sand he walkee mountain high, Jist t'hen wind knock top-side off an' blow 'um up to sky. Jist so my heart walk up inside—befo' he sinkee down—"
That was the last heard of Ping Wing for some time, the concluding words of his song having been lost in a burst of wind that drowned out every other sound.
"Down! Everybody down!" yelled the guide just before the blast struck them.
The sandstorm swooped down on them suddenly, bringing with it black night, a roaring, booming, hideous thing. Sand rained on the blankets, covering the girls of the Overland Riders, and now and then some heavier object, they knew not what, struck one or more of them, adding to the terror of the moment.
Emma Dean struggled and moaned in her fright. Her blanket, loosened by her movements, was whisked into the air and out of sight in a twinkling. She screamed for help, but no one heard her, and Emma threw herself down in the sand, or was blown over when she struggled to a sitting position. There she lay, her face buried in the sand, sobbing and moaning.
Not a sound had been uttered by any of the other girls. They were listening, listening, wondering how much longer they would be able to endure the terrific strain under which they were laboring.
Such wind no person there, except Hi Lang, had ever dreamed could be possible. Grace found herself wondering if the Arabian simoon, of which she had read, could possibly be deadlier. She doubted it.
By now the girls were fighting to keep from being buried alive, and in their choking, suffocating condition they tried to sit up for air. All lost their blankets instantly. The sand beat on their faces and heads like sharp-pointed tiny hailstones. Their eyes were blinded by it, and their bodies burned as if they had been rubbed with sandpaper, but there was nothing that could be done to relieve their suffering because no person could stand up against the mighty force of the wind.
The storm, it seemed to them, lasted for hours, though as a matter of fact it had blown itself out within fifteen minutes from the time it struck them.
"Backbone of the storm is broken," yelled the guide in Hippy's ear, both being under the same blanket.
"So is mine," Hippy howled back. "There's a ton of sand, if there is a pound on it, this very minute. Hope the girls are safe. Can we get out?"
"No. The wind is too strong. It will die out in a few moments. I'll go out the minute I can crawl."
The men waited several minutes, during which the gale was steadily decreasing. The guide finally poked his head from under the blanket, shading his eyes with a hand to keep the blowing sand out, before opening them.
"Cover your eyes and come on," he said, crawling out and starting to beat his way against the gale toward the spot where the Overland girls were supposed to be.
They were huddled together, with their arms about each other to keep from being blown away, every head resting on an arm as they lay face down on the ground.
"Stand up, but protect your eyes," shouted Hi. "Gale's almost over and done for."
"So—o—o are we," gasped Grace, staggering to her feet, and almost instantly landing on her back on the ground where the wind had hurled her.
Hi assisted her to her feet, Grace laughing and choking at the same time. The others, in turn, were lifted up by Hi and Hippy, all leaning against the wind, clinging to each other, and, with handkerchiefs in their mouths, breathing what air they could get in this way without taking in any more sand than they could help.
The wind stopped with a suddenness that left every one of the party unprepared. The result was that they fell forward on their faces, and for a few moments there was a mixup that, in ordinary circumstances, would have brought merry peals of laughter, but there was no laughter this time.
The eyes of the Overland Riders were so filled with sand that they were too blinded to see the stars that once more were shining "just above them."
"Wet your handkerchiefs with water from your canteens and wipe your eyes," suggested Grace.
"Go easy on the water," commanded the guide. "Let's see where we are at before we use water."
"You are right, sir. I had not thought of that," agreed Grace.
"Our buckets are full, aren't they?" questioned Anne.
"Yes—of sand," spoke up Elfreda.
"The first thing to do is to settle the water question. Ping!"
Ping Wing came running up, his white suit the color of the landscape, for Ping had been rolled in the sand to his utter undoing.
"Go see how many horses we have left."
"Me savvy. Tlee."
"Three? That is better than I hoped for," chuckled the guide. "With three we can reasonably look forward to finding the others somewhere on the desert, but we can't do much to improve our situation until daylight. No use to search for our equipment before then. I will look into the water question, however, right now."
"This is the most violent landscape that it has ever been my misfortune to gaze upon," declared Elfreda Briggs, tossing her fallen hair up and down to shake the sand out of it, a proceeding that was followed by each of the girls.
"At least we have one thing to be thankful for," observed Anne. "I thank my stars that it is so dark that we cannot see how really tough we do look."
"If I look as bad as I feel I must be a terrible sight," wailed Emma. "Here comes Hi. Have we water?"
"Not a drop except what you have in your canteens. The water hole is buried so deep that we have lost it. Guard every drop. We are in a serious situation."
FACING A NEW PERIL
"Aren't the water bags safe?" asked Hippy.
"They're gone," said the guide.
"Everything but the sand seems to be gone," observed Miss Briggs. "I suppose we should thank the kind fates that we still have plenty of sand."
"Plenty of some things is too much," declared Nora Wingate. "Hippy, my darlin', you weren't hurt, were you?"
"Yes, I was killed, but I have come to life again. Hi, what is the next thing to be done?"
"Kill time until daylight!"
That was practically what the Overland Riders did, but with the first streaks of dawn the barren spot assumed an appearance of activity.
"Lieutenant, we'll go out and look for the horses," announced the guide.
"Is Blackie still here?" questioned Grace.
"No, but there are three ponies left, as you know. Wish to go along?"
Ping was directed what to do, and Miss Briggs was left to see that the orders of the guide were carried out during his absence. Hi, Hippy and Grace then mounted the remaining ponies and started away, working back toward the range that they had left two days before. The wind had blown in that direction and it was reasonable to suppose that the lost animals had been driven before it.
"Spread out, but keep within sight of the lieutenant, who will be middle man," directed the guide.
When they had finally taken up their positions, some three miles separated Grace Harlowe and the guide, with Hippy a mile and a half from each of the two outside riders.
The sun was not yet up, and the morning, while not uncomfortable, gave promise of what Hi Lang had said it would be—a sizzler.
The three had ridden for a full hour, when off to her right Grace discovered what she thought was one of their ponies. Urging her mount forward, she galloped rapidly in that direction, but after riding for some time she was amazed to find that the animal seemed to be as far away as when she had started toward him.
"I hope to goodness the pony I see isn't a desert mirage," muttered Grace. "Mirage or no mirage I am going to run it to earth."
She galloped on at a more rapid pace, but it was a long time, it seemed to Grace, before she saw that she really was nearing the little animal, who was browsing on desert sage, or what few scraps of it remained after the storm.
Hoping fervently that it was her own little spirited Blackie, Grace urged her mount forward at a lively clip and bore down on the bronco who began edging off when he saw her heading for him.
"It's Elfreda's pony!" cried Grace. "Here, boy; here, boy!" she called.
The "lost" animal kicked up its heels and started away at a gallop, with Grace Harlowe in full pursuit.
"How provoking!" cried Grace as the bronco kept galloping from her with aggravating persistence. The Overland girl rode and coaxed until she tired of it, then, touching her mount lightly with the crop, she dashed straight for the tantalizing roamer.
It was a race for a little while, the runners steadily drawing away from Hippy Wingate and Hi Lang, but to this Grace gave no thought. Once she nearly got her hand on the bridle of Elfreda's mount, but the little fellow dodged her at the critical moment.
"Oh, for a rope and the skill to throw it. I'll learn to throw a lasso at once. I see it is necessary out here. Whoa, boy!" she commanded sharply.
The runaway bronco stopped short, and, with feet spread apart, stood gazing at her as if daring the Overland girl to come and catch him. Grace decided to try new tactics. Dismounting, and slipping her bridle rein over one arm, she walked slowly toward the animal, plucking a bunch of sage as she went, and holding it out toward him.
The pony looked interested, his ears sloped forward and he took a step or two towards her. Grace walked up to him confidently, gave him the handful of sage and, after petting him, grasped the lead rope and then the bridle.
"All of which goes to prove the assertion that it is easier to catch flies with molasses than with vinegar. Now be a good boy, and we will jog back home to Elfreda," she soothed to the captured pony.
Mounting, and attaching the end of the lead rope to the pommel of her saddle, Grace started for camp. At least she thought that was what she did. Instead she was headed for the range of mountains on which they had first made camp. After a little the Overland Rider came to a realization that the guide and Hippy were nowhere in sight. Still, she was not greatly disturbed, but she was thirsty. A few drops of water from her canteen was all that she dared allow herself.
Grace had been traveling for the better part of an hour, from time to time glancing up at the glaring sun that was just rising, when she suddenly brought her pony up short.
"Do you think you can find the way back if I give you the rein?" she asked, petting her mount.
The pony pawed the dirt and whinnied, but his rider knew that it was because he too was thirsty, instead of being an answer to her question.
Grace paused to reflect over her situation, to consider what was the wise thing to do, finally deciding that she would follow her trail back to the spot at which she captured the pony.
"From there it should be easy for me to find my original trail; then all I shall have to do will be to follow it to the camp. We must go back," decided Grace, turning about and starting away at a trot, finding no difficulty in making out the tracks of the two ponies.
The spot at which she had found the lost bronco was reached at last. Grace sat for some moments, staring at the landscape, turning in her saddle until she had looked all the way around the compass, then, clucking to the two animals, trotted away, following her original trail.
As she progressed, the trail grew fainter, a desert breeze having almost obliterated the tracks her pony made on the way out with Hi Lang and Hippy Wingate. To make certain that she was on the right road, Grace got down and compared her mount's footprints with those that she was following.
"Yes, I am positive that I am right," she decided and once more set out. "Hark!" she exclaimed sharply.
Three faraway shots had been fired. Grace waited, and in a few moments the shots were repeated. She raised her revolver and fired three signal shots in return. She did this twice, then reloaded and thrust the revolver into its holster.
"It is doubtful if my shots can be heard, but I have the satisfaction of knowing that some one probably is out looking for me. We'll go in under our own power. They shan't say that we could not find our way home in broad daylight."
The rifle signal shots were repeated shortly after Grace got started again. She answered them, but was unable to tell from which direction the signals had come, though the shots sounded off to the right of her, but she decided to continue on in the direction she had chosen however, believing that she was headed towards the camp.
It was nearly noon when Grace discovered a horseman far to the right. He was too far away to be recognized, and, evidently, he had not seen her.
The Overland girl fired three shots into the air, which were answered by a similar signal, then the distant rider was seen to turn and gallop towards her. Grace headed for him, riding more slowly than she had been doing, and finally discovering that the horseman was Hi Lang.
Despite the confidence that Grace had felt in her ability to find her way in, she experienced a sense of relief. Now he would compliment her on her ability to find her way on a trackless waste such as this.
"Where have you been?" shouted Hi when near enough to make his voice heard.
"I went after Miss Briggs' pony, then got on the wrong trail, if there be such a thing as a trail on this landscape," answered Grace.
"We've been worrying about you. Did you get lost?"
"Well, not exactly. I was puzzled at first, but I was following my trail back towards the camp when you discovered me, or when I discovered you, to be exact."
"Hm—m—m—m!" mused the guide. "Do you know where you were headed for when I first saw you?"
"Why, yes. I told you. For the camp, was I not?"
Hi shook his head.
"If your canteen and rations had held out, and you'd kept on going the way you were headed, eventually you would have landed in Death Valley," the guide informed her.
"But I followed the tracks left by the pony I was riding," she protested.
"I reckon you followed some other pony's tracks, for I was on the trail of the bronc' you are riding."
"Mr. Lang, as a plainswoman I fear I am a miserable failure," complained the Overland girl.
"On the contrary you are very much of a success. You did not get panic-stricken when you found you had lost us, but you used your head. You found and followed a trail that would have fooled me as it did you."
"Thank you! How many of the ponies did you find?"
"All of 'em, lacking the one you have here; also found one that didn't belong to us. We sent him adrift."
"Oh, I am so glad. Then you have Blackie."
"Yes. Let's be going. Things at the camp are not very encouraging. Much of the equipment has been blown away or buried, but that isn't the worst of the situation."
"You mean water?" questioned Grace, regarding him inquiringly.
"Yes. We haven't been able to locate a tank to-day, and there isn't more than a quart altogether left in the canteens."
"What are we to do now?" asked Grace.
"We've got to pull up stakes and move. All hands must search for water—search until water is found, and keep moving forward at the same time. If we don't find it by night—-" The guide shrugged his shoulders and clucked to his pony. Grace, her face reflecting the concern she felt, followed at a gallop and they were soon raising a cloud of dust on the baking desert.
A BITTER DISAPPOINTMENT
A wan and considerably mussed up party of girls met Grace and the guide when the two rode into what was left of their camp.
"Well, here we are at last," cried Grace cheerily.
"We thought you were lost. How could you have missed such an opportunity?" wondered Miss Briggs.
"I did not miss it, Elfreda dear. I got beautifully lost and didn't know it. Most persons when they get lost are very much alive to the fact, but I traveled on in blissful ignorance of the fact that I was headed straight for Death Valley."
"I wish you wouldn't talk about it. Death Valley reminds me of the experience we had last night," complained Emma.
"Oh, then you have been to Death Valley?" questioned Anne.
"No, I said—I mean I said—I mean I meant to have said that—-"
"Let it go at that. You will get tongue-tied if you keep on," warned Hippy Wingate. "We have something more serious on hand than to listen to your—"
"Yes, girls," interrupted Grace. "Mr. Lang tells me that we MUST move on immediately, that we MUST find water, and that, too, without delay. What shape are we in with regard to equipment?"
"We have our tents," answered Elfreda.
"Some cooking utensils, and our food, which Ping had the foresight to take to bed with him," said Anne Nesbit whimsically.
"Were the rifles saved?"
"All secure, and the ammunition too," replied Lieutenant Wingate. "I believe that a few blankets were blown away and lost, together with numerous odds and ends that weren't nailed down. What could you expect with a wind strong enough to blow our horses far out on the desert. Got any water?"
"I have some. Do you mean to tell me, Hippy Wingate, that an old campaigner like yourself has drunk up all the water he had in his canteen, and in the face of a great drouth?" demanded Grace, trying hard not to smile.
"Every last drop of it," admitted Hippy. "But what's a fellow to do when he is thirsty and his throat is cracking open?"
"Use the precious stuff sparingly. Here! Take a sip from my canteen. Only a sip, Lieutenant."
With the eyes of the entire party on him, Hippy dared not take more than enough water to moisten his throat. Grace then took the canteen from him, passing it to Emma.
"The same holds good for you, Emma," she said, "Take a sip and pass it along. What water is there may have to be our only supply all the rest of the afternoon."
"That's right, Mrs. Gray," spoke up Hi Lang. "Ping!"
"Are you all packed and ready?"
"Me belongee chop-chop," answered Ping, meaning that he was ready to move.
"Follow along behind us, but make those lazy burros keep close up. We don't want to lose you and have to look all over the desert for you. Now, folks, please listen carefully to what I have to say. While I do not wish to alarm you, it is well that you thoroughly understand what our situation is. We must find water. You will all spread out with an interval of a hundred yards, say, between ponies, and scrutinize every foot of ground on either side."
"Who goes where?" interrupted Emma.
"Please be quiet," rebuked Grace.
"I am coming to that," resumed the guide. "Two things I wish you to look for, alkali crusts that may cover a tank, and discolorations on the desert. That is, if you find a spot darker than the prevailing color of the ground, that discoloration may be the result of moisture. Do you get me?"
"Yes," answered the Overlanders in chorus.
"In the event of such a discovery, shout, or if I am too far away to hear your voice, fire one shot into the air. About the crusts that I spoke of, when you find one, hop off and break it in. You probably will not see water, even though it is there, but, after you have broken open the crust, thrust your head into the opening and sniff the air."
"What we need is a thirsty bird dog in this outfit," observed Hippy, without the suggestion of a smile on his face.
Hi Lang permitted himself a brief silent laugh.
"What are we to sniff for?" questioned Emma in all seriousness.
"For a damp odor. The air under the crust, too, will be perhaps a degree cooler than the outer air. If it is a dry tank you will get a dry, earthy odor that you cannot mistake. The one who finds water will, as I have suggested, shout or shoot. The others will hold their positions until I have investigated.
"Another thing. Ponies familiar with desert conditions, as most of ours are, sometimes can smell water when they can't see it. If one of your animals suddenly bolts in a direction that you think he should not go, give him his head for a little way. He may lead you to water."
"Why didn't I think to put a divining rod in my pocket?" chuckled Hippy.
"You brought a sweet little parasol, that blew away on the wings of the storm," reminded Nora. "Why didn't you bring something useful while you were about it?"
"Nora darling, didn't I bring you along? What, tell me, could be more useful to this outfit than your own beautiful little self?"
"Go on, go on with ye! If there were a Blarney Stone here I'd throw it at ye!" rebuked Nora, laughing in spite of her effort to be stern, joined in her merriment by the other girls of the outfit.
"Take your positions!" ordered the guide. "The lieutenant will take the center. To the right, Miss Dean, Miss Briggs. Left, Mrs. Nesbit, Mrs. Wingate and Mrs. Gray. I will take the extreme right. You, Mrs. Gray, will look after the extreme left. Keep your formation as well as you can so that we do not straggle too much. All ready!"
The Overland Riders swung themselves to their saddles and moved to the positions assigned to them, then started away, walking their ponies. Their line looked like a troop of cavalry going into action, except that the horses moved listlessly.
Emma found the first alkali tank, and getting off, broke the crust and thrust her head in the opening.
"What do you find?" called Hippy.
"Ugh! It smells like a rummage sale," answered Miss Dean.
"Dry!" announced Hippy. "Move along."
All along the line the girls were trying to make merry, trying to forget the terrible heat, a deadly burning heat, but their efforts in this direction were not very successful.
Heat waves shimmered over the white sands of the desert with not a breath of air stirring to relieve the deadly monotony. It did not seem possible to Elfreda Briggs that human beings long could endure such heat, and she wondered at the cheerfulness of her companions.
Hi Lang rode around behind the line of riders to see what it was that Emma Dean had discovered, but he paused at the dry water hole for but a moment, then hurried back to his position. Now and then one of the riders would dismount and examine a patch of ground, only to meet with disappointment.
They had come up to a vast cup-like depression in the desert, white with the alkali crust that covered its bottom, when Hi fired a signal shot to indicate that they were to halt for a rest.
"What is that big hole?" called Lieutenant Wingate.
"A prehistoric lake, in whose alkaline dust no plant, not even sage-brush, can grow, and upon which a puddle of rainwater becomes an almost deadly poison. This is one of the most thoroughly hated spots on the desert, hated and shunned by most of those who travel this way."
"Is there not water under the crust at the bottom?" asked Miss Dean.
"Not a drop. There probably has not been in centuries. No water is known to have been found within a few miles of this spot either, but, as I have said, one never knows, and the traveler must take nothing for granted."
"Fine place for a summer outing," observed Hippy.
"Probably there is on all the globe no other spot more forbidding, more desolate, more deadly," added the guide. "We must be going. Move on!"
All that afternoon the Overland Riders plodded wearily along, now and then hopes suddenly raised being dashed to earth by dry water holes. At the next halt, Hi passed along the line, giving each rider a sip of water from the slender supply in his canteen, Grace smilingly declining to drink.
"Have you any left in your canteen?" he asked.
"A few drops, but I am saving them until I am thirsty. I have been sucking the cork for the last hour." Grace then asked about the dry lake, and the guide repeated what he had said to Emma and Hippy.
"How are the girls standing the strain?" she questioned.
"Very well indeed. I hope they hold out as well until we find water."
"Now that there is no one but ourselves present, please tell me what the prospects are?" requested Grace.
"I can't, Mrs. Gray, for the very good reason that I don't know. Of course water we must have or we shall perish, and so will the ponies. As a last resort we can head for the nearest mountain range, but it would take us nearly two days to make it with ponies and riders in good working condition."
"Then the situation really is serious!" asked Grace.
"No, not yet, but we are on the verge of a serious situation. Yes, that about expresses it. However, I have hopes that we may find a tank about ten miles from here, one that I have never failed to find some water in, though at times it has been a mighty slow process to get it. I must get to the other end of the line now. Good luck."
Several tanks were found during the next few hours, but not a drop of water in any of them. It fell to Emma Dean to make a discovery, however, that thrilled all within sound of her voice.
"Water!" she screamed. "Water!"
"I believe you are right. Hooray!" shouted Hippy Wingate.
"I know I am. It's a lake, a lake full of beautiful blue water!" cried Emma. "Quick! Shoot to let the others know."
Instead of the agreed-upon single shot as the signal that water had been found, Hippy Wingate emptied his revolver into the air, then, urging on his weary pony, rode on ahead, with Emma following, shouting and urging her pony to go faster that she and Hippy might reach the precious water ahead of the others. Even Hippy was excited at the sight that had burst so unexpectedly on his smarting eyes, for there, a mile or so ahead, surely was a body of water that the guide himself had not known of or he surely would have told them.
Attracted by the shots, Hi Lang looked, first in the direction from which the shots had come, then off across the desert. What he saw led him to head towards Hippy and Emma, who themselves were traveling as fast as they could make their ponies go.
Some of the other Overland Riders had followed Emma and Hippy, they too having discovered the blue lake in the near distance.
The guide fired into the air, to recall the excited riders, but they gave no heed to his signal.
"Stop!" he shouted when near enough to make himself heard. "Stop, I say! You'll run your ponies to death."
"Water! Don't you see it?" cried Emma.
"No! That isn't water. Stop, I say!"
"The heat has gone to Hi's head," laughingly confided Hippy to Emma. "All right, old man, just trail along behind us and we'll show you," he flung back.
"Stop, Lieutenant! Listen to reason, won't you? What you see is a desert mirage. There isn't a lake within a hundred miles of us."
Hippy Wingate brought his pony to a slow stop, and Emma, who had heard, stopped about the same time.
"Mirage?" wondered Hippy stupidly.
"M—m—mister Lang, do—do you me—ean that wha—at we see isn't wa—ater at all?"
"It's a mirage, I tell you. Get back to your positions!"
A STARTLING ALARM
Elfreda Briggs and Grace Harlowe did not give way to the panic that had seized their companions. Both had seen the mirage, each knew instinctively what it was, but when they saw Hi Lang overhaul the two leaders, Grace and Elfreda hurried in from their positions and joined their companions.
"Grace! Oh, Grace," moaned Emma as her friend rode up to them. "Give me water or I shall die."
"Have courage, Emma dear. We are all suffering from thirst. Hand me your cup and I will give you a swallow. I don't dare trust you with the canteen."
Grace poured out about a tablespoonful of water, which Emma drank in one choking gulp. Each of the others got about the same quantity, but it was not much of a relief.
"Shall I return to my position now, sir?" questioned Grace of the guide. "Yes, please. I have told the others to do so at once. Hereafter, in no circumstances are you people to run away as you did just now. We must go on as rapidly as is consistent, until dark. I wish to reach a certain point before we stop for the night. We may find some relief there unless the storm has buried everything so deep that we cannot find the place," said Hi Lang.
"Do you mean water?" asked Elfreda.
"I am in hopes that it may be so, Miss Briggs."
"Alors! Let's go!"
The party broke up at once and rode to their positions, Emma Dean, red of face, her hair down her back, tear drops still trickling down her cheeks, leaving little furrows behind them, summoning all her courage and doing her best to regain control of herself.
The mirage had disappeared by the time the start was made, and did not appear again to tantalize the suffering Overland Riders. All the rest of the afternoon, eager eyes, reddened by the glare of the sun on the white desert, sought for water holes. None were found, not even dry tanks, but when darkness settled over the desert a faint breeze sprung up. They drank it in eagerly, taking long, deep breaths and uttering sighs of satisfaction.
Hi called the party together with a signal shot.
"How long before we make camp?" called Grace as she rode up.
"About five miles if my reckoning is right," answered the guide. "No need to look for water holes now that it is dark. We shan't find any unless we accidentally fall into one."
"You are about the most cheerful prophet I've ever known," declared Lieutenant Wingate. "Glad you weren't with us in the war."
"At least, Mr. Lang has made good all his forecasts. You must admit that," reminded Miss Briggs.
"He has, bad luck to him!" growled Hippy, which brought a grin to the thin, bronzed face of the desert guide.
It was nearly ten o 'clock when Hi finally ordered a halt. The Riders, upon looking about them, observed that there was considerable vegetation there, sage, cactus, dwarfed trees and shrubbery, scattered, twisted, misshapen things, all of them.
"Turn the ponies loose immediately," directed the guide. "They will get a little moisture from the green stuff. Never mind staking down. They will not run away. Ping, start a fire and cook something. Sorry, folks, but it will have to be a dry supper this time."
"Where is that relief you were promising us a century or so ago?" demanded Nora Wingate.
"Yes, Mr. Lang. We have been patient and borne our thirst uncomplainingly. Now, we MUST have relief. I don't want a dry supper, I want water!" cried Emma.
Anne said she feared that she too had about reached her limit.
"Be patient, girls. Mr. Lang is doing the best he can," urged Grace.
"Yes, don't we know that?" agreed Miss Briggs. "He is splendid. I hope these unsolicited compliments do not turn your head, Mr. Lang," teased Elfreda.
The guide laughed silently.
"Come with me. We can pitch our tents later on," he directed, striding away. He led them through mesquite bushes, finally halting before a patch of odd, pumpkin-shaped cactus, that, with its grotesque shape, its spines and fishhooks, was far from being attractive-looking.
Hi's knife was out as he halted, and, with it, he laid open a cactus plant, revealing to the eager eyes of his charges a silver- white pulp glistening with water.
"This will relieve your thirst," he said, handing the white, moist mass to Emma.
"Oh—h—h—h!" gasped Miss Dean. "This is heavenly."
To each of the others Hi gave a handful of pulp.
"Nectar straight from Heaven," murmured Elfreda at her first taste. "Who would think that so much heavenliness could come from such a hideous plant, so hideous that, were I alone, it would give me the shivers to look at?"
Uttering exclamations of satisfaction and delight, the Overland girls ate and ate, soothing their throats and satisfying their thirst.
"Please tell us what this is, Mr. Lang," asked Grace.
"It is the bisnaga, sometimes called the 'niggerhead,' belonging to the cactus family, a plant that is ever hailed with joy by the thirsty traveler."
"It's a life saver," agreed Lieutenant Wingate. "Where is that Chinaman? Doesn't he ever get thirsty?"
"Don't worry about him. He is out there in the bushes now, swallowing 'niggerheads' as fast as he can gulp them down. This is one of the secrets of the desert. There are others—but a man must know them before he can take advantage of them."
"Tell us about them. I just dote on secrets," exclaimed Emma, her good nature now fully restored.
"They might answer for an emergency, but nothing short of real food would answer for me," declared Hippy.
"Just the same a man might live on what we see before us here for a long time," replied the guide. "If you will examine those mesquite bushes you will find a bean pod on them. It is a rich and nourishing food. Then there are the pears of the tuna and the fruit of the sahuaro or giant cactus."
"We saw a forest of them on the Apache Trail," Grace informed him.
"Yes, I know. You will find all of these nourishing foods about you here, hideous, some of them, but furnishing food and water that have saved the lives of many desert travelers.
"Besides these food plants of the desert, we have the cat's-claw, mesquite and cholla shrubs for fuel; the bear-grass and yuccas for camp-building. Better than a mirage, is it not, Miss Dean?"
"I don't know about that. The sight of that lake that wasn't a lake made me forget for the moment that I was thirsty," answered Emma spiritedly.
The Chinaman's shrill call for supper sounded while they were still talking. The girls, now greatly refreshed, turned campward and sat down on the ground to eat "poisoned pig," as Hippy Wingate had named the bacon with its bitter alkaline taste.
"I fear we are forgetting that we still are without water," reminded Grace after they had finished their supper, feeling more like themselves than at any time in the last two days.
"Don't throw a monkey-wrench in the machinery," begged Hippy. "Let's live while the living is good, and die when we haven't anything else to do."
"Grace is quite right," agreed Anne. "I am worrying about to- morrow myself."
"I have been thinking it over," spoke up Hi Lang. "I believe I will go out early in the morning and ride until noon. I can cover a lot of ground in that time, and if I do not find water, the chances are against our getting any in the direction we are going. In that event we will head for the mountains and fight our way through. I never knew so many water holes to fail, but the storm is largely responsible for that condition."
"Why didn't we bring an artesian well with us? I have heard that one could have water anywhere with one of those. Are they very heavy to carry?" asked Emma innocently.
A shout greeted her question, and the guide brushed a hand across his mouth to hide his silent laughter.
"What's the matter? Have I said something funny?" demanded Emma, bristling.
"That would be impossible," answered Hippy. "No, Emma Dean, an artesian well would be no burden to carry at all if one were able to solve the problem of how to carry it. All the makin's are right here, too. Hi, why didn't you bring a medium-sized artesian well with you! I am amazed that you would neglect to find a way to bring one along," rebuked Hippy.
"You are all making fun of me. I think you are real mean," pouted Emma.
"We're not," protested Hippy.
"Yes, he is, dear. Hippy, stop teasing Emma. She is worn out and irritable. By the way, Mr. Lang, what is an artesian well?" asked Nora, which brought down another shout of laughter, this time at her expense.
"I'm not irritable," objected Emma.
"An artesian well is a hole in the ground, Miss Dean," the guide gravely informed her.
"I'm going to bed!" announced Emma, getting up. "Am I to sleep in the open, or do we have tents to cover us to-night?" she asked with much dignity.
"Ping will pitch the tents. He is getting out the canvas now," replied Grace. "Before I turn in I am going out to eat some more 'niggerheads.' Any one going with me?"
All signified their desire to have more of the luscious white pulp, and in a few moments they were gorging themselves among the bisnagas.
The moon was now well along in its first quarter, and in the cool of the evening the Overland girls were in a frame of mind to appreciate and enjoy the scene.
"The desert has a strange and beguiling beauty all its own," murmured Grace.
"Yes," agreed Elfreda. "Such an evening as this makes one forget the awful heat, and lays hold of one's spirit. Then the silence— no whistling of wind, no rustling of leaves. Why, I find myself holding my breath so as not to break the silence."
"I had not observed it," retorted Grace, presenting a smiling face to her companion. "The camp should be ready by now. I move we go back and turn in."
"The mystery of it all, too," added Elfreda, turning to walk to the camp.
The guide told them not to be concerned at his absence if he did not get in until late on the following day, and the Overland Riders sought their blankets for a rest which all needed.
The night passed without one of the girls moving, so far as any of them could remember, when they were rudely awakened next morning.
Shouts and yells from Hippy Wingate, and a scream from Emma Dean, brought Grace, Elfreda, Anne and Nora to their feet, hurriedly throwing on sufficient clothing to make themselves presentable.
"Girls! Hurry, hurry!" shrieked Emma.
"Coming! Hold fast!" shouted Elfreda Briggs, running out ahead of the others.
THE MYSTERIOUS HORSEMAN
"For mercy sake, what is it?" cried Elfreda.
Emma was dancing about in a high state of excitement.
"Hippy's gone down! Hippy's gone down!" she cried.
"Gone down where?" demanded Grace, appearing on the scene at that juncture.
"He must have gone very suddenly, for I surely heard him yell less than five minutes ago," averred Elfreda.
"Look, look!" urged Emma, pointing to Hippy's tent, only the top of which was visible above the ground.
Grace was already running towards the tent, believing she knew just what the trouble was.
"Hippy, are you there?" she called.
"I am that, what's left of me," answered a voice that sounded some distance away.
"Are you hurt?"
"No, Brown Eyes, I am not hurt. Please clear away the wreckage, so we can see what we have here."
Grace and Elfreda hauled the tent out of the hole in the alkali crust and peered in. Hippy was sitting at the bottom, about five feet below the surface, and the instant Grace thrust her head into the opening she uttered a cry.
"Water!" she exclaimed. "I smell it!"
"I tasted it when I landed on my head in the wet sand," answered Hippy. "It was good, but I'd a heap sight rather drink my water standing. One doesn't take in so much sand that way."
"Wa—ater!" gasped Emma Dean. "And it isn't another mirage?"
"It is water, my dear, but how much of a supply there is remains to be seen. What were you doing out so early?"
"I was going out to get some water food from that horrible looking pumpkin plant, or whatever it is."
"Ping! Oh, Ping! Fetch the water buckets. Hurry! Mr. Lang has gone, so we must do what is to be done before the water disappears. What happened, Hippy?" asked Grace.
"This did, Brown Eyes. I turned over on my blanket, then the earth yawned and swallowed me down. I slid in head first."
"Here are the buckets and the canvas. I think I will get down there and assist you. Girls, drink your fill, then water the ponies. No, you carry the water out and let Ping do the watering."
Hippy assisted Grace down. She dropped to her knees and immediately began digging in the sand, which was wet and sticky. With Hippy's aid, she patted the canvas blanket down as she had seen Hi Lang do it, and in a moment the water began seeping through. Grace observed that it seeped much more rapidly than when the guide had performed a similar operation.
"Buckets!" demanded Hippy.
They were lowered, and, in a few moments, half a dozen of them were filled and handed up to the outstretched hands waiting to receive them.
"This is splendid! I wish Mr. Lang were here. Too bad," said Grace.
"Might it not be a good idea for us to fire signal shots to recall him? He may be within hearing. Sound carries a long distance on the desert," suggested Miss Briggs.
"Fine, J. Elfreda. Will you fire the shots?"
Miss Briggs said she would, and, in a few moments, three interval shots rang out. Elfreda fired the signal six times, listening after each signal for a reply. None was heard, however, and Grace suggested that she wait half an hour or so, then try it again.
The baling went on, but the ponies and burros drank the water faster than Grace and Hippy could get it out of the tank and pass it up to those who were carrying water to Ping who was giving it to the horses, singing as he worked. This was the happy refrain he sang:
"Look-see you bucket, 'fore you tly, Got lopee (rope) 'nuf to pump 'um dly. One piecee mouse can dlink at liver, But let he mousey tly for ever, All he can do top-sidee shore Is squinch (quench) he t'hirst an 'nuffin more."
"Every 'r' is an 'l' with a Chinaman," laughed Anne.
"That is what makes their pidgin English so quaint," answered Miss Briggs.
"Ping says the horses don't care for any more water," announced Nora, returning with two empty buckets.
"Pass them down," directed Hippy. "We will fill everything in camp, including ourselves."
When, they had finished with their work, the familiar, "Him come along," in Ping Wing's shrill voice, brought Hippy out of the water hole in a hurry.
"Are you going to leave me down here, Hippy Wingate, or are you going to assist me out?" reminded Grace.
"A thousand pardons! The thought of food drives every other thought from my mind." Hippy reached down and gave Grace a hand.
"Please fire another set of signal shots," suggested Grace, shaking out her skirt to free it from the damp sand. "Mr. Lang will be surprised when he finds that we have a water tank right here in camp. I hope he hears our shots."
Elfreda, having shot into the air six times, put down her rifle and joined her companions.
"Oh, doesn't that coffee smell good?" she cried. "A warm drink is even more necessary out here than it is in the city. I hope we never have another such a dry time as we have just experienced."
"Listen!" warned Grace, holding up a hand for silence.
The reports of two rifle shots were faintly borne to their ears.
"That's a signal. I heard the first a second before I spoke. Answer them, Elfreda."
Miss Briggs sprang up and fired the rifle three times. An answer came in the form of three reports that plainly were from a long distance away.
"That must be Mr. Lang. I am glad," said Grace, her face lighting up in a pleased smile.
"Him come along," announced Ping a few moments later, using the elastic expression that stood for the dinner call, as well as to indicate that some one was approaching.
The Overland girls stood up and, shading their eyes, gazed off over the desert. They saw a horseman approaching, but the pony he was riding appeared to be almost dragging himself along.
"That isn't Lang," exclaimed Hippy.
"I see it isn't," agreed Grace.
Being a lone rider the Overlanders knew they were safe from trouble so far as he was concerned, but they observed the rider narrowly as he neared the camp.
"Ping! Fetch water!" ordered Grace incisively. "That man and horse are exhausted."
"Water!" cried the man hoarsely as he rode up to them and would have fallen from his saddle had Hippy not sprung forward and grabbed him. He placed the exhausted man on the ground, and raising the rider's head, held a canteen to his lips.
"Take it easy, old top. Don't choke yourself. We have plenty, but you mustn't try to drink it all at once," admonished Lieutenant Wingate.
"Get food," directed Grace. "Coffee and whatever else you think he can eat."
Ping glided away to prepare the food, Nora and Anne, in the meantime, having brought water for the traveler's pony.
In a few moments the man sat up, holding his head in his hands.
"Here, bathe your face. It will cool you off," urged Elfreda. The traveler did so, and, by the time the coffee was ready, he was able to stand.
Ping had fried some bacon, and, with the coffee and biscuit, the traveler had a meal the like of which he had not eaten for many a long day. As yet, the man had spoken only one word—"water"—but he regarded the outfit with wide, inquiring eyes, as he ate greedily of the food placed before him.
"Where going?" he asked after finishing.
"Specter Range, I believe. Perhaps taking in the Shoshones. I am not certain. Our guide, Hi Lang, is not here just now."
"Bad gang there. Drove me out. Will drive you out." He would say no more, shaking his head when Grace pressed him for an explanation. After an hour's rest, during which the caller drank water until they feared for its effect on him, he filled his water bags from the water hole and lashed them to his pony and mounted. Elfreda handed him a chunk of bacon, which he acknowledged with a nod, and stuffed it into his kit.
The traveler now threw back his shoulders and peered at each member of the outfit in turn as if to impress their faces on his mind, then swept off his sombrero.
"Thankee, folks," he said, and, putting spurs to his pony, galloped away.
"There is one man to whom it would be perfectly safe to entrust a secret," declared Miss Briggs with emphasis.
"What a strange character," murmured Anne, as she gazed after the galloping pony. "I wonder who he can be."
"I am curious to know what he meant by warning us against the mountains," interjected Elfreda Briggs.
"And I am rather concerned about Mr. Lang," added Grace. "He must be a long way from here, else he would have heard our signal shots. I have an idea that our late caller must have heard them and that it was he who answered. That must be it. If so I am glad, for the poor fellow was ready to drop and so was his horse. Shall we fill the buckets?"
They did. The ponies were thirsty again, and it required several bucketfuls to satiate thirst, after which everything fillable was filled with water. Grace, to pass away the time, got out her lasso and tried to throw it, but she made a complete failure. In turn, each of the others tried their hand at throwing the rope, but with no better success. Ping offered himself for a mark, chattering like a magpie as, each time, the loop of the lasso collapsed before reaching him.
"What for you makee so fashion?" he cried between laughs, chuckles and grimaces.
"Never mind, Ping. You will not talkee 'so fashion' one day. When I learn to throw the rope, which I shall, I will rope you when you are not looking," threatened Grace.
"No can do," grinned the Chinaman. "HAI YAH! Man b'longey top-side horse," he cried, pointing off over the desert.
Looking in the direction in which he was pointing, the Overland girls saw in the far distance a horseman, sitting his mount so motionless that at first they were not positive whether it were a horseman or a distorted cactus plant.
Grace ran for her binoculars and for some minutes studied the stranger.
"That's our caller," suggested Hippy.
Maybe he has decided to hang around for another meal. I don't know that I blame him."
"No, it is not the same man, at least not same pony," answered Grace, snapping glasses shut. "The man yonder is riding a black pony. The one who called on us rode a nearly white animal. I can't imagine why he is so interested, but he is surely watching us. However, we won't worry so long as we have a water tank at hand."
At four o'clock in the afternoon the mysterious stranger was still in practically the same place. He appeared to move only when his pony stepped forward a few paces for more sagebrush.
"Man b'longey top-side horse!" cried Ping, again pointing in another direction.
The Overlanders saw a cloud of dust rolling toward them over the desert, ahead of the cloud being a horseman riding at a swift gallop.
"This would seem to be our day at home, judging from the number of callers who are dropping in," observed Elfreda.
Grace threw up her glasses and took a quick look.
"I can't make him out," she said. "It can't be Mr. Lang, for this man is coming from a direction different from the one he took, if the footprints of his pony leading out of this camp are any indication."
"Man b'longey horse hab go chop-chop!" volunteered Ping.
Looking quickly toward the west the Overlanders were amazed to find that the silent horseman who had had them under observation for hours was no longer in view. Though not more than two or three minutes had elapsed since Grace Harlowe last saw him, he had disappeared as suddenly as if the sands of the desert had opened and taken him in.
"Maybe he has fallen into a tank, just as I did," suggested Hippy.
"Mr. Lang is coming. It is he, after all," cried Grace joyously, as she gazed at the swiftly moving cloud of dust that Ping had called her attention to some moments before.
THE GUIDE READS A DESERT TRAIL
"Did you shoot?" called the guide, pulling his pony down sharply.
Both pony and rider were gray from the desert dust, and the guide's face was lined with perspiration streaks. It was plain that he had ridden hard and long.
"Yes. Did you find water?" cried Emma.
"I did, twenty miles or nigh that, from here. What's that?" he demanded, pointing to the water hole.
"We have water, Mr. Lang," Grace told him, "Mr. Wingate fell through a crust and discovered a tank. There is water in plenty. We are so sorry that you had all that journey for nothing. Ping! Water for Mr. Lang and a bucketful for his pony. How long since did you hear our signal shots?"
"More'n an hour ago. I wasn't certain, but I thought I heard three shots. My journey was not for nothing, for I have found a tank and there we will make our next camping place." The guide paused to lift the bucket that Ping had fetched, and to drink deeply from it.
"Who's been here?"
"What makes you think anyone has?" teased Emma.
"Plain as daylight. I followed a pony's trail in for more than two miles. There's the tracks where he went away," answered the guide quickly.
"You surely have sharp eyes," nodded Elfreda.
"He was one of those sphinxes, like some other deserts have. This one was not stuck fast to the ground like a regular sphinx, but his tongue must have been stuck to the roof of his mouth, for he couldn't say any more words than a ten-month-old baby," declared Hippy Wingate.
"Tell me about him," urged Hi, turning to Grace.
The guide nodded understandingly after Grace had told him in detail of the arrival of the stranger, choking for a drink, and half famished from hunger.
"That's like him."
"Like whom?" questioned Hippy.
"Like the desert traveler. He is just one of those brainless fellows like myself, who would rather be out here, suffering, choking, dying by inches, than be at home surrounded by all the comforts that a home gives a man. Didn't say what his name is, did he?"
"No, sir. Let me see," reflected Grace. "He said, 'Water!' Then, later, after asking where we were going, and being informed that we expected to visit the Specter Range and perhaps the Shoshones, he replied, 'Bad gang there. Drove me out. Will drive you out.' As he left he said, 'Thankee, folks.' To the best of my recollection he opened his mouth at no other time, except to eat and drink."
"Hm—m—m—m," mused the guide. "In the Specters, eh?"
"I don't know whether he referred to them or to the Shoshones," answered Grace.
"Didn't say where he was going?"
"No, sir. Can you tell us, Mr. Lang, why it is that desert lovers like yourself, and like the stranger who was here, as a more extreme case are so silent, so taciturn and ever listening for something? What is it they are listening for?"
"I reckon they take after nature herself out here. When a man is alone on this big desert he feels very small, and speaking out or raising a fellow's voice seems as much of a sacrilege as speaking out loud in church when the preacher's praying. As for listening, I don't know, but maybe we listen for the sounds that we are so used to hearing at home, the rustle of leaves, the song of a bird, but all we ever hear out here in the daytime is now and then the buzz of a rattler's tail. We don't always shoot 'em because we sort of hate to make so much noise. I reckon that isn't much of an explanation, but—-"
"I call it very fine," nodded Elfreda. "By the way, Mr. Lang, we had another caller, a distant caller to-day. He didn't come near the camp, but sat his pony for several hours apparently observing us. Perhaps he was resting."
Hi Lang's face showed his interest. He asked questions and frowned thoughtfully, requesting that they point out as closely as possible the spot at which the man had been seen.
"You say he disappeared suddenly?"
"Yes, Mr. Lang," answered Grace.
"Was that when I was coming up?"
"He evidently saw me and ducked. There's a high ridge of sand over there where you saw him. He was on that ridge or you wouldn't have seen him, and when he discovered me he just naturally slid his pony down the other side and walked away under cover of the ridge or else got down and peeked over the top of it. I don't like that. You weren't thinking of going on to-night, were you?"
"Not unless you think best, Mr. Lang," replied Grace.
"Then I reckon I'll ride over there in the morning and see what his tracks look like. To-morrow night we'll make camp by the water hole I found to-day, unless some other party comes along and dips the water all out or it disappears between now and then."
"Did you answer our signal shots that you say you thought you heard?" asked Hippy.
"Of course I did, though I didn't think you would hear them, being as there was a gentle breeze from this direction against me. I staked the ponies down before I went away this morning, and that black bronco of yours gave me some trouble, Mrs. Gray. I had to lasso him. When are you going to learn to throw the rope?"