"When are you going to teach me?" returned Grace smilingly.
"That's the talk. We'll begin right now. Get your rope."
Grace was instructed first how to coil the rope, how to make the loop and to properly grasp it by its hondo, or knot, before throwing; then the real lesson began.
It was sorry work for her at first, but by the time Ping uttered his shrill call for supper, Grace had learned to throw the rope and let the loop drop to the ground without destroying the form of the loop. Hi announced that, on the morrow, she should be able to hit a mark on the ground but that considerable practice would be necessary before she would be able to rope an object that was in motion.
Supper was followed by an interesting evening, during which Hi Lang told the Overland girls more of the desert secrets.
"We are now in the skunk country," he said, as they were about to turn in.
"The what?" demanded Emma Dean.
"I do not mean the sort you probably are familiar with in the east. The desert skunk is an entirely different animal. He bites, and his bite is supposed to produce hydrophobia, which means death out here. He is, therefore, known as the hydrophobia skunk. Go into any desert camp just before turning-in time and you will hear the desert wanderers speaking of rattlesnakes and skunks. Every man who knows those two pests is actually afraid of them."
"This is a fine time of day to tell us," complained Nora.
"That's what I say," wailed Emma. "Why didn't you tell us after breakfast instead of after supper?"
"Yes. I know I shall dream of snakes and skunks and other creeping, crawling things to-night," added Anne.
Hi laughed silently, masking his mouth with a hand.
"String a rope all the way around your tent on the ground. No snake will go over that, especially a horsehair rope. Your lasso is the thing for that, Mrs. Gray. I will have Ping keep the fire going and that will keep the skunks away. The insects and other creeping things we can't stop, so we shall have to take our chances with them. Sorry, but it was necessary to tell you. If you are going to be desert travelers you must learn the desert."
"You are perfectly right, Mr. Lang," nodded Grace. "I am very glad you have told us so much to-night, especially about skunks and snakes. I will lay my lasso around the tent and sleep in perfect security. Girls, let's turn in."
Emma dreamed of snakes that night and had nightmare, crying out in her sleep and getting a violent shaking from Elfreda Briggs as her reward. Otherwise, the night was peacefully passed.
Early on the following morning, before any of the outfit was awake, except Ping, who seemed never to sleep, Hi Lang had caught up his pony and ridden out on the desert and on to the spot at which the girls had seen the mysterious horseman the day before. Hi readily found the hoof-prints of the pony ridden by the man, and examined them with keen interest. He observed other features of the trail that might easily have escaped even a desert wanderer's observation, and that told him much.
"I reckon there's going to be some lively doings before we've got to the end of this journey," muttered the guide, assuming a listening attitude, with head tilted to one side, eyes fixed on the blue sky overhead. He stood motionless in that position for many minutes. Finally arousing himself from his reverie, Hi mounted his pony and galloped away towards the camp, reaching there some time before the Riders were awake. Grace Harlowe appeared about an hour later, and walked out over the desert a short distance, inhaling the sweet morning air in long, delicious breaths.
"What is it that smells so sweet?" she called to the guide, who was busying himself about the camp, for there was a new and strangely sweet fragrance in the air.
"That's another of the desert mysteries. Supposed to have been rain somewhere. It's like a breath straight from heaven. I love it!" Hi straightened up, and, throwing back his shoulders, inhaled deeply.
Grace was thoughtful as she returned to camp, but it was not of the desert she was thinking. Rather was it of the man who was guiding them. He was a poet by nature, but did not know it. He was intelligent and he possessed a mind and a power of reasoning far beyond what one might look for in a man of his calling.
"Was the morning perfume what induced you to take such an early ride, Mr. Lang?" asked Grace sweetly.
The guide gave her a quick glance.
"What makes you think I took a gallop this morning, Mrs. Gray?"
"In the first place your pony is not tethered where he was last night, and, secondly, your trail, going and returning, is plain out there," she said, with a gesture towards the desert.
"You're sharp," observed Hi briefly, and proceeded with his work without offering further information. Grace believed, however, that he had ridden out to look at the trail left by the solitary horseman who had been watching their camp, but asked no further questions. Hi would speak when ready to do so; that she knew.
The Overlanders moved at an early hour and made camp that night at the water hole found by the guide the day before. Several pairs of keen eyes frequently swept the horizon during the day, and again on the following morning, for the mysterious horseman, but it was three days later before he was again seen in the distance.
"What's the matter with my taking a shot at him?" demanded Lieutenant Wingate.
"No!" answered the guide with emphasis. "Give the calf enough rope and he'll hang himself. Saddle up and we'll ride that way and have a look at the trail again."
The watcher disappeared as the Overlanders were saddling their ponies. As before, the guide made no comment after he had examined the hoof-prints left by the observer's pony, and the journey was resumed.
The days drew on, and the Overlanders, now more used to the hardships and heat of traveling on the desert, began to take a real pleasure in the work, to enjoy the free life and the excitement that came to them in one form or another nearly every day. Now and then a day would pass without water, but they made the best of it, having confidence that Hi Lang would find it in time, no matter how dark the outlook. The mysterious horseman had appeared several times, always too far away to enable them to get a good look at him. Occasionally Hi would go out for a look at the pony's trail, but it was not until they were nearing the mountain ranges, after three weeks of journeying across the hot sands, that the guide gave a direct answer to a direct question as to whether or not he knew what the mysterious one was up to. Hippy had asked the question when they were at supper one evening.
"I don't know what he's up to, of course," replied Hi Lang. "I do know that he is the same fellow who left the range after we folks were shot at there, for the hoof-prints of his pony are the same. He is watching us, and we'll hear from him later," he declared impressively.
THE CROSS ON THE DESERT
"You should have let me take a shot at him when I had the chance," grumbled Hippy.
"Time enough to shoot when we are shot at," rebuked Grace. "We are not starting trouble, but when it comes we know how to meet it. Do we not, Mr. Lang?"
Hi Lang nodded enthusiastically.
Grace had been practicing persistently with her Mexican lasso, and was now beginning to learn to rope a pony. That is, she had succeeded, when riding alongside a trotting pony who objected to being caught, in casting the lasso over its head, but so far as catching the hind foot of a moving bronco with her loop, that was far beyond her. Grace doubted if she ever would gain sufficient skill to do that.
Elfreda, too, was an apt pupil and not far behind her companion in casting the rope. She was glorying in the life of the west, which was becoming more and more alluring to her as the days passed.
"Two days more and we'll be in the foothills of the Specters. Maybe you will be able to rope a wildcat there," said the guide, smiling at the two girls.
"Four-or two-legged?" inquired Hippy.
"Possibly both. After we get cooled off in the mountains, if you folks think you wish to go on down into the Colorado Desert, I will show you some real desert heat. By comparison, this desert is as cool as a summer resort."
Grace said they would discuss their future movements after they had rested up a bit in the mountains. All the girls were looking forward to the mountains where shade, spring water and cooling breezes awaited them. Some of them were filled with curiosity as to what else awaited them there, having in mind the prophecy of the desert rider whom they had succored.
It was with thoughts of the mountains, and with eager eyes searching the horizon ahead, that the Overland Riders set out for their day's journey on the following morning. A brief stop was made at noon for a cup of tea and biscuits, after which the daily search for a water hole was begun. As night approached, the search became more intensive, but it was not until after nightfall that a tank was found.
A full moon hung in the heavens and the night was a beautiful one, a peaceful, restful desert night. Camp was quickly made a short distance removed from the water hole, and, after water had been supplied to the ponies, and the water bags and pails filled, the party sat down to supper and to a discussion of the topic uppermost in their minds—the attack that had been made on them, and the mysterious horseman.
"What is that I see out there?" suddenly demanded Nora Wingate, pointing to an object out on the desert, some fifty or sixty yards from where she was sitting.
"It looks like a cross tilted on its side," said Anne.
"That's what it is," nodded the guide.
"A cross? What for?" questioned Emma.
"Some poor desert traveler who couldn't find a water hole," replied Hi Lang reflectively.
"Did you know that thing was there?" demanded Emma.
"Yes, of course."
"And yet you camped right here? I shan't sleep a wink to-night."
"Don't be foolish, Emma. Let it be a reminder to us to be prudent with our water supply," soothed Grace. "I do not suppose this water hole existed at that time; did it, Mr. Lang?"
"It may have. Travelers have been known to give up and die of thirst when water was almost within reach of their hand. You will see more such as that as we get south," said Hi, nodding in the direction of the leaning cross.
"I suppose that, in most instances, they were persons who did not know the desert well," suggested Grace.
"Just so," agreed the guide. "Shall we go out and look at it?"
"Not to-night, thank you. The morning will do for that. It is not a pleasant thought to take to bed with one."
Hi got up and strode out to look at the cross, followed by Hippy. The guide believed in investigating everything. It was a precaution that he had learned after many journeys across the Great American Desert. It might not mark the resting place of a lost traveler at all; the cross might be a guide to water, or it might mean nothing at all. In any event Hi's curiosity must be satisfied.
"What do you find?" questioned Hippy, as he joined the guide by the leaning cross.
"The stones that held it up have been moved, as you see. They are scattered, some half covered with sand. Windstorm did that in all probability. Queer thing, but I don't see any indications of anything but wind having disturbed the place."
"Hand me a stone and I'll prop it up," requested Hippy. The guide did so, and Lieutenant Wingate dropped the stone beside it, after straightening up the crude cross.
Both men heard a metallic sound as the stone struck the ground. The quick ear of Hi Lang told him that something other than desert sand lay there at the foot of the crossed sticks.
"See what it is," urged Hi.
Grace had been observing the movements of the two men and her curiosity was rapidly getting the better of her.
"Come, Elfreda, let us go out and see what those two men are so deeply interested in," she urged, rising and starting towards them, followed by Miss Briggs.
"Looks like a tin box," answered Hippy. "There's only a corner of it sticking above the sand."
Hi got down on his knees and peered at the object, then, lighting a match, looked it over more closely.
"Reckon it's a cracker box. Pull it out."
"I wouldn't do that," protested Grace, who now saw what had so interested Hippy and the guide. "It seems like a sacrilege to disturb it."
"On the desert, Mrs. Gray, one's life may depend upon the thoroughness with which he investigates everything that he was not before familiar with—anything unusual. This is unusual."
"I know, but—-"
"Out she comes," answered Hippy.
"Oh!" exclaimed Grace Harlowe under her breath.
"Another match, please, Hi."
By the light of the flickering match the men and the two girls peered at the object that Lieutenant Wingate took from the sand and held up for their inspection.
"It isn't a cracker box at all. It looks more like a safe deposit box," he declared. "What shall I do with it, Hi?"
"Take it into camp and open it, of course."
Grace protested again, but not so insistently as before. The guide said he had a theory about the cross and the supposed grave, a theory which he proposed to prove or disprove before leaving that night's camping place.
"I know what it is," volunteered Miss Briggs. "I have one like it to keep my private papers in, except that this one shows wear and has lost most of its enamel, I suppose from the action of sand and weather."
"What is it? What is it?" cried Emma, unable longer to restrain her curiosity. Following her, as she came running to the scene, were Anne and Nora.
"We don't know yet. It is a box, but we haven't opened it," Grace informed her.
"Who found it?" demanded Emma.
"Mr. Lang and Hippy."
"Do—do we get what is in it?" persisted Miss Dean.
"This is an Overland affair, Emma," said Hippy. "Mr. Lang is an Overlander so far as this party is concerned, and, as a matter of fact, he discovered the box."
"You mean you did, Lieutenant," corrected the guide.
"We discovered it. That, I think, is the best way to settle it. However, we are counting our chickens before they are hatched. Let's go in by the fire where we can see."
Hippy carried the box under his arm, followed by the entire Overland party, their curiosity being intensified by his delay in opening it. Observing this, Lieutenant Wingate took his time, helped himself to a drink of water, discussed their find with Hi, then shifted the box to the other arm and began, discussing the weather.
"Are you ever going to open that thing?" cried Emma. "You are so aggravating."
"Oh, yes, the box," exclaimed Hippy. "Come over by the fire where we can see what we are about."
Hippy sat down, held the box up to his ear and shook it.
"Yep! Something in it. Sounds like gold rattling about in there, but the box is locked. Get a hammer so I can break it open."
"I do not like the idea at all," objected Grace somewhat severely. "It is not our property and we have no right to—-"
"Everything on the desert is any man's property," corrected the guide. "Further, it is our duty to open the box. We do not know but it may contain the last request of some unfortunate desert traveler, and if that is so it may lay in our power to do him a great service. Of course, if you say we must not open it, we will respect your wishes in the matter."
"You may do as you wish," answered Grace.
The guide produced his heavy clasp-knife, provided with a can- opening attachment, and pried the cover loose.
"Do you wish to open it, Brown Eyes?" asked Hippy, holding the box up to Grace.
She shook her head.
"Then here goes for better or for worse," announced Lieutenant Wingate, throwing open the cover and revealing the contents of the box to the eager gaze of the Overlanders.
ANOTHER MYSTERY TO SOLVE
"Fiddlesticks! Nothing but paper," wailed Emma Dean, peering into the mystery box.
"No. There is something more." Hippy lifted out the paper, a folded paper, and placed it on the ground. "Here is a gold watch and a handful of gold. Let's see how much there is." He counted out a hundred dollars, which, with some silver and a plain gold ring, and the paper first removed, made up the contents of the box.
"Not much of a find, is it?" smiled Anne.
"No. It's a shame, too, after our expectations had been worked up to concert pitch," declared Nora. "Hippy Wingate, this is your doings."
"Blame the fellow who put the things in the box. I only took them out," grumbled Hippy. "Guess that's about all, Hi," he added, looking up sheepishly at the guide.
"You haven't looked at the paper," reminded Elfreda.
"It's only a piece of wrapping paper," returned Hippy. "What do I want to look at that for?"
Grace Harlowe stooped over, picked up the paper and felt it gingerly.
"There IS something here!" she exclaimed. "The wrapping paper evidently has been folded over as a protection to what is inside." Grace thereupon opened the wrapper, revealing a tightly folded package of heavier paper. The rubber band that held the inner package together fell apart as she placed a finger on it to remove it.
The eyes of the party were instantly centered on Grace Harlowe, who carefully unfolded the paper and held it down so that the light from the campfire might shine on it.
"It is a map," she said. "It is a map, drawn with pen and ink. This looks promising," she added, spreading the map out on the ground. "What a queer thing to bury, and who did it? Surely not the man who lies there under the cross."
"I should not take that for granted," observed Hi Lang quietly.
"Please let me see it," requested Miss Briggs.
Grace handed the map to her, and Elfreda studied it frowningly.
"It means nothing in particular, I should say. It might be a map of a scene in Switzerland for all we know," declared Nora. "Hippy, you are a champion finder. I wonder if they give medals for persons who find things—who make great finds."
"Nora dear, if I had found one of the Egyptian pyramids out here on the American Desert, you would blame me for not handing out the Sphinx at the same time," protested Hippy.
"It may mean a great deal," said Grace.
"I agree with you," nodded Elfreda, who was still studying the map. "It is a mystery map, and it plainly meant something to its possessor or he would not have brought it out here and buried it. By the same token, I should say that it applied to something in this part of the country. I am inclined to believe that it does. There is a name here. Mr. Lang, do you know of any person of the name of Steve Carver?"
"No, Miss Briggs. May I have a look?"
"Oh, pardon me," begged Elfreda, handing the map to the guide. Hi studied it for several minutes, then returned it.
"It's not a picture of anything that I ever saw, I reckon," he said.
"What shall we do with it?" asked Miss Briggs.
"I would suggest that we make a copy of it, returning the map to the box and burying the box by the cross where we found it," replied Grace.
"Yes, but what about this gold, Brown Eyes?" demanded Hippy.
"Put that back, too. It doesn't belong to us, Am I not right, Mr. Lang?" she asked.
"I reckon you are," agreed the guide, nodding his approval of the suggestion.
"What's the use in finding things?" grumbled Hippy, permitting the gold to slip through his fingers into the metal box.
Elfreda, on a piece of wrapping paper, made a careful copy of the map, then returned it to Lieutenant Wingate, who placed it in the box and slammed down the cover.
"I'll bury the old thing, of course, but some one else will dig it up. That's why I should advise keeping the whole business," said Hippy, rising and walking over to the cross with the box under his arm. They heard him working out there and, in a few moments, he returned. "Deed's done," he informed them. "What are you going to do with the copy of the map, J. Elfreda?"
"Entertain myself in studying it. Nothing may come of that, of course, but, like Emma, a mystery does appeal to me."
"So it does to me," agreed Grace. "Were it not for the fact that my intuition tells me that the map is going to play an important part in our journey, I should not have been in favor of making a copy of it, so take good care of the copy, Elfreda dear."
The rest of the evening was spent in discussing their mysterious find and all sorts of theories were advanced for the box being buried by the leaning cross. Hi Lang listened to all of this, but made no comment. He had his own ideas on the subject.
Next morning Hi was out long before the others were awake, making an investigation on his own account. He had barely begun this when, upon glancing up, he saw the solitary horseman far out on the desert, sitting motionless, apparently observing the camp of the Overland Riders.
The guide took his time at what he was doing, at the same time keeping a watchful eye on the distant horseman.
"I thought so!" exclaimed Hi Lang. "I think I'll give that fellow a run," he decided after a moment's reflection, during which he observed the watcher narrowly.
Catching up his pony, the guide quickly saddled, and, mounting, started across the desert at a brisk gallop. Five minutes later the solitary horseman turned his pony about and dashed away. Hi threw up his rifle and sent a bullet after the man, continuing to fire until the magazine of his rifle was emptied.
After reloading Hi thrust the rifle into its saddle boot and rode on until he reached the point from which the horseman had been observing. Hi Lang got down and again examined the hoof-prints of the watcher's pony.
"Huh!" he grunted. "That cayuse will keep on until something hits him—hits him hard. I reckon I begin to smell a mouse, and I think Mrs. Gray does, too. Hope she didn't hear me shooting back there. But none of that outfit is so sleepy or thick-headed that they don't see or hear pretty much everything that's going on about them."
Having freed his mind, Hi remounted and rode slowly back towards the camp. The Chinaman was getting breakfast when Mr. Lang rode in and tethered his pony.
"Pack up right after breakfast. We've got a long journey to-day," he directed.
Ping nodded his understanding and went on with his work, humming to himself. Half an hour later the Riders began to appear, each with a cheery good morning for their guide and adviser.
Grace and Elfreda came out together. Miss Briggs paused to chat with the guide, Grace walking on and strolling about to get an appetite, as she nearly always did in the early morning.
Hi Lang observed her narrowly when Grace halted by the cross and stood gazing down at it thoughtfully.
"I wonder who you are, unhappy traveler?" she was murmuring. "I wonder, too, if there are any who are wondering where you are?" Grace observed that the ground had been disturbed since last she saw it, but she made no comment when, a few moments later, she joined Mr. Lang and Elfreda.
"Grace, I was just asking Mr. Lang who it was that was shooting this morning," greeted Elfreda.
"I presume he told you it was a mirage of your dreams, did he not?" smiled Grace teasingly.
"It was Mr. Lang who did the shooting," replied Elfreda. "Grace, our mysterious horseman was on the job again this morning."
"Did you hit him?" questioned Grace.
Hi Lang shook his head.
"Too far away. Knew I couldn't get him. All I expected to do was to give him a polite hint that his attentions were displeasing to us. It was the same man that has been following us all along, Mrs. Gray. It was the same hoofprints, too, that I found up in the range where we first made camp. If that critter and I ever get close enough to see each other's eyes there's going to be a shooting match. When we get to the hills he will have the advantage of us, because he can get closer without being seen."
"Please don't worry, Mr. Lang. We will meet that emergency when we come face to face with it. Perhaps by then I may have skill enough with the lasso to practice on a real live man," laughed Grace.
"I reckon you could get most anything you cast for already."
"Thank you! When do we start?"
"Right away. Just as soon as we finish breakfast. Ping is packing up and we will be off in no time."
Breakfast had been eaten, and in something less than twenty minutes from that time, the party was well on its way, and the sun, red and angry, was showing its upper rim above the sands of the desert.
"A hot time on the old desert to-day," observed Hippy. "Emma, how would you like a dish of strawberry ice cream for luncheon?" he teased.
"I think you are real mean," pouted Emma.
Grace, at this juncture, galloped up beside the guide to ask him about the water hole that they were hoping to reach, that day, but from his shake of the head she knew that he was not particularly hopeful about finding water there.
"It should be easy for you to nose out a water tank, Mr. Lang," she said, smiling over at him.
"You are so successful in unraveling the mysteries of nature that you surely should be able to discover water even where there isn't any."
"What are you driving at, Mrs. Gray?"
"I have an idea that you solved at least one mystery this morning."
Hi Lang flushed a little under his tan and shook his head.
"There's no use trying to keep anything from you, and there's no reason that I know of, why I should. No one is buried in that place where we found the box. The cross was set up to keep people away so they wouldn't find the box with the gold and the map. It was my idea that we should find it to be so. How did you know?"
"I saw what you had been doing," answered Grace. "What do you think is the most important contents of the box, the gold?"
"No. I reckon the map might be a sight more valuable than the handful of gold if one knew where to find the place that the map pictures. There's a heap of bad actors down this way, Mrs. Gray. They are regular land pirates. We call them desert pirates. They'd murder a man for two bits, and I reckon that maybe they had something to do with that place back there, and that the fellow who owned the map, when he saw the pirates coming, buried it so they shouldn't find it."
"Then this is another mystery for us to solve, Mr. Lang—the mystery of the buried map. I suppose you have discovered that the girls of the Overland Riders are possessed of the usual curiosity of their sex, have you not?"
Hi laughed silently.
"You've got a poser this time. 'Fraid your curiosity won't be gratified, so far as that map is concerned, but I reckon you'll find so much doing before long that you will forget all about this particular mystery. We are not being watched out of mere curiosity, Mrs. Gray," declared the guide.
"I am well aware of that, Mr. Lang," replied Grace Harlowe gravely.
AN OLD INDIAN TRICK
It was the most trying day of their journey that the Overlanders were experiencing, because of the heat and the fact that they were getting further and further below sea level. The heat was a lifeless heat, and the members of the outfit found themselves nodding and swaying in their saddles, keeping awake only by much effort.
"Water only five miles away," called Hippy Wingate late in the afternoon in a cheerful voice. "Wake up, Overlanders! Hi says we will be there before sundown."
A little later the party broke into a gallop, leaving Ping Wing and his lazy burros far to the rear of them. They were now crossing that arid region known as the Pahute Mesa, and, just over the horizon, lay a series of broken mountain ranges, wild, cut off from civilization, and shunned by all save those whose duty, fancy or love of adventure called them there. On beyond these the desert again took up its monotonous reach, hotter, more deadly than before. Just now, however, the thoughts of the Overland Riders were on the water hole for which they were heading, and, next in importance, the cool mountain ranges. Hi Lang beckoned to Grace to ride up to him.
"What is it, Mr. Lang?" she asked.
"Please caution the young ladies to be sparing of the water."
"Why, it isn't possible that we are short of water," protested Grace.
"We may be."
"Will you please explain? Your words intimate that you may have discovered something."
"I saw dust rising from the desert over yonder, a short time ago. It moved along in a little cloud to the westward and finally disappeared."
"Do you think it was our mysterious horseman?" asked Grace.
"Maybe. There was more than one horse, as I could tell from the dust kicked up."
Grace asked what relation that had to the shortage of water.
"Just this, Mrs. Gray. That cloud rose—and I saw it the instant it appeared—from about where the tank that we are heading for should be. That's all. Of course I don't know what those folks were doing there, but I am warning you to go easy on the water."
Grace thanked him and rode over to her companions to caution them to be sparing of the water, saying that it were possible that they might be short of it, though Grace confessed to herself that she did not see how even a visit of the desert "pirates" to a water hole possibly could prevent her outfit from getting sufficient water for their use. Of course, if there were but little water in the tank it might take a long time to get enough for the ponies.
"Something has occurred, has it not?" questioned Elfreda in a tone barely loud enough for Grace to hear.
"Mr. Lang saw a cloud of dust that aroused his suspicion. The guide has something of an imagination," added Grace, smiling at her perspiring companion.
After a little Hi Lang ordered the party to drop into a slower pace, saying that he wished to save the ponies so far as possible.
"Dismount, but wait before you unpack," directed the guide, when the party arrived at the water hole.
"Girls, please stay where you are for the present," called Grace.
"What's the big idea?" demanded Hippy Wingate.
"Mr. Lang wishes to see if any one has been here. He thought he saw a dust cloud in this direction this afternoon and desires to have a look around, so don't stamp about and destroy the trail, if there is such a thing," admonished Grace.
Hi Lang got down in the water hole, and for a few moments was out of their sight. He rose finally and clambered out, his face wearing a stern expression, and Grace saw at once that the guide was trying desperately to control his temper.
Without so much as looking at the Overlanders, Hi Lang began nosing about, now and then bending over to peer at the ground, stepping cautiously, following a crooked course, all of which excited Hippy Wingate's merriment.
"He works just like a dog does when the rabbit season opens," declared the lieutenant. "What's he up to?"
"Looking for trouble," suggested Emma.
Hi followed the trail he had picked up some little distance out on the desert, which the light of the full moon enabled him to do. He then stood up and gazed at the sky for a brief moment.
"Unsaddle and make camp," he directed tersely.
"Did you find what you expected?" asked Grace.
"Yes. I'll tell you about it as soon as we make camp."
"How's the water?" called Hippy.
"There isn't a drop in the tank, Lieutenant. Ping, you will give the ponies about a quart apiece from our supply, no more. We will stake down now."
Camp was quickly made and the bacon was frying over a small, flickering cook-fire a few moments afterward. Efforts to be merry at supper that night were a failure, and Hi Lang was unusually taciturn.
"May we hear the worst now, Mr. Lang?" asked Grace as they finished the meal.
"As I told you, there is no water in the tank, but the sand is still moist, showing that there was water there a short time since."
"Some one must have been rather dry," observed Hippy, but no one laughed at his humor.
"There probably was not much water left there after the party before us finished helping themselves, but there would have been sufficient for us if they had left the tank alone. They tampered with it, folks!"
"How do you mean, Hi?" questioned Lieutenant Wingate.
"By digging in and poking about in the tank they have managed to start the water seeping deeper into the ground until it finally found a new course and disappeared. It's an old Indian trick they've worked on us."
"Is it possible that men can be so desperate?" wondered Anne Nesbit.
"Men!" exploded the guide. "They're not men. They're low-down hounds!"
"Why should they wish to do these things to us?" demanded Nora, flushing with resentment.
"There were three men in the party this time, one being the same fellow that has followed us most of the way out here. I don't know who the others are. It isn't so much the water that's bothering me as it is that they don't come out and face us if they have a grudge to settle with us. I'm ready to meet them and I reckon you folks are too."
"I think it would be a relief to have them do so," agreed Elfreda Briggs. "This constant tormenting gets on one's nerves after a time."
"What is your plan? I know you have one, Mr. Lang," spoke up Grace.
"The clouds are making up in the south, and in a couple of hours they will hide the moon. It isn't advisable to do anything until the night gets good and dark, so I suggest that you folks lie down and get some rest, for we have a long, hard ride ahead of us."
"To-night? Ride to-night?" questioned Emma.
"Yes. Ride and ride hard. Even the lazy burros have got to get a move on. We must ride all night to-night, and when day dawns we must be in or near Forty-Mile Canyon. Then let those pirates find us if they can. They will find us sooner or later, in all probability, but by that time we shall be doing some stalking on our own account. You see, they will be expecting to find us here in the morning, but we shall be far on our journey by then," said the guide.
"What! Ride all night?" demanded Emma. "I'll die! I surely will."
"And probably all day to-morrow," nodded the guide. "I will start the Chinaman on his way the moment the sky becomes overcast, and we will follow an hour or so later. You folks will have that much longer to sleep. Good-night, folks." Hi got up abruptly and walked away to give his orders to Ping Wing.
"This is where we link arms with trouble," observed Miss Briggs, with a shake of the head.
"Stick by me. I have a rope and I know how to throw it, J. Elfreda dear," replied Grace Harlowe laughingly.
"Turn out!" It was Hi Lang's voice that summoned the girls from their tents, and a far from welcome summons it was, for they were sleeping soundly.
"Lieutenant, the ponies are saddled and ready," said the guide, halting at Hippy's tent. "Please give the Riders the tent equipment to carry and assist them to lash the stuff on. Everything else has gone forward."
"All right, old ma-an. Can't give me five minutes for a cat-nap, can you?" begged Hippy.
"Turn out!" Hippy yawned and got up. The night was now pitch dark, and Lieutenant Wingate fell over tent stakes and ropes and whatever else was handy for him to catch his toes on, as he staggered about aimlessly.
Bethinking himself of the guide's orders, Hippy suddenly began pulling up the stakes from the girls' tent and let it down on their heads. Emma Dean cried out, which brought a stern command for silence from Mr. Lang. Following that, there was not a sound in the camp during the next fifteen minutes.
"Packs lashed to ponies behind saddles," announced Hippy. "Party ready to move."
"Mount and follow me. No loud talking, please; light no matches. You understand why I am so strict?" said the guide in an apologetic tone.
"We understand fully, Mr. Lang," replied Grace in a low voice.
"Start!" he commanded.
The start was made at a jog-trot, which, after a few minutes, was changed to a gallop. This pace was continued for some time, but finally the guide slowed down and began peering into the darkness, looking for Ping and his burros. Elfreda marveled at the almost uncanny instinct of their guide, and how Ping could lay a course that could be followed in the dark was a mystery to her. She asked Hi Lang how it was done.
"See that red star over on the horizon, Miss Briggs? Ping is instructed to keep that star between the ears of his burro and not to wobble. By keeping the same star between the ears of my bronco I am bound to overhaul Ping, provided he has held to his course. I am, however, allowing for some deviation and keeping a close lookout."
It was not more than ten minutes after that when Mr. Lang discovered the Chinaman and his burden bearers plodding along less than a hundred yards to the right of the course that the Overland Riders were following. Ping, though he had heard the party coming up, held to his course until directed to fall in behind them.
"A mariner following a compass course could do no better than that," declared Grace Harlowe.
"It really is marvelous, though Mr. Lang doesn't think so," replied Elfreda.
From that point on the journey was slow and wearisome. No one complained, however, and the ponies with their riders moved through the night like specters of the desert.
The first leaden streaks in the sky in the east next morning found the Overland Riders still a long distance from their objective, the clouds not having darkened the moon as early in the evening as Hi Lang had hoped they might do, thus delaying the start.
"I see nothing to interest us," announced Grace after a survey of the desert with her glasses.
"Neither do I. Reckon that spy will be surprised when he makes his morning call and finds us gone," chuckled the guide. "Yonder are the mountains where we turn in," he added, pointing.
"I thought that was a cloud on the horizon," said Miss Briggs. "How far is it from here?"
"About five miles. We'll be there in two hours. Mrs. Gray, will you use your glasses occasionally as we go ahead? Stop now and then and take your time in making observations. You can catch up with us without straining the pony, I reckon," grinned the guide.
"Don't we stop for breakfast soon?" begged Emma.
"Tighten your belt," answered the guide. "It may be some hours before we can settle down for rest and food."
Emma groaned dismally, and Hippy looked serious. Missing a meal meant taking a good part of the joy of living from his day.
Sweltering heat followed the rising of the sun, and, as it lighted up the desert with its glare, Grace stopped and began her survey of the horizon as requested by the guide. She sat her pony until she had carefully examined it all the way around.
"All clear, so far as I can see, Mr. Lang," she said, riding up to him.
Hi nodded, but made no comment, for he could read the desert better than could Grace Harlowe with her powerful binoculars.
It was eight o'clock in the morning when finally they turned into Forty-Mile Canyon and began picking their way over the rough ground. The desert heat followed them until the walls of the canyon rose sheer for several hundred feet, and they came to a cascade that, falling into the canyon, became a mountain brook. Here there was a marked change in the temperature.
"Dismount and water the horses; then we will press on," directed the guide. "Drink cautiously yourselves. This water is too cold to be gulped down and will chill your blood if you take too much of it. Do not let the ponies have all they want, either."
"You mean to say that we will go on after breakfast, do you not?" questioned Lieutenant Wingate.
"No. We move in ten minutes."
"Humph! France in wartime was living. This is—well, I don't believe my vocabulary is quite equal to the occasion," declared Hippy.
"Do we go the entire length of this canyon, Mr. Lang?" asked Grace.
"No. There are several trails leading out of it, but I shall not take the first one. I prefer to take the second or third trail, perhaps just before night. Whoever is interested in us will surely find our trail leading into Forty-Mile Canyon and will follow it, but by the time they reach, say the second turning-off path, the canyon will be as dark as a dungeon. They will then either make camp for the night or turn back, believing that we are going all the way through the canyon."
Elfreda nodded her appreciation of the guide's reasoning.
"With the easier traveling on the desert, which they probably will follow, they will be able to take their time, knowing that they can head us off at the lower end of the canyon. You see, a straight line isn't always the shortest distance between two points so far as time is concerned," smiled Hi Lang.
"But we won't come out at the lower end, eh?" nodded Hippy.
"You said it, Lieutenant."
"I always say something rather brilliant before mess," observed Hippy airily.
"Yes, but after mess you are afflicted with what might be called a 'fat mind,'" interjected Emma Dean.
Hippy grinned and took up another hole in his belt.
From that point on, the ponies traveled in the mountain stream.
"There's no need to be quiet here. Make all the noise you wish," suggested the guide.
"May I scream?" called Emma.
Hi Lang nodded, and Emma uttered a wild cowboy yell which so startled her pony that the little fellow jumped, and, losing his footing on a slippery rock, went down on his nose. Emma landed in the stream, and for a few moments there was excitement among the Overland Riders, Hippy and Grace succeeding in rescuing Emma and holding her pony before serious results could follow. Emma, however, was soaked to the skin; her hair was wet and tumbled, and in a short time her face took on a bluish tinge from her ducking in the icy cold stream.
"Serves you right," declared Hippy Wingate. "Anybody who can make a noise like that before breakfast ought to be ducked."
"Were it not that the water is so cold, I should be inclined to agree with you," laughed Grace.
After the girls had walked Emma about to get her blood circulating, a fresh start was made. Thereafter the journey was uninterrupted until darkness began to settle over the canyon. In passing, the guide had pointed out in turn three trails leading up the mountainside, but the Overlanders were unable to see anything that resembled a trail in any one of them. When they reached the fourth trail Hi ordered a halt while he investigated it.
"We shall leave the canyon by this trail. You will have to climb the mountain and lead your ponies," directed the guide on his return. "It will be a hard climb, but it has to be made. I'll lead the way. Dismount and follow me."
Night had fully fallen when, after a desperately hard climb, the top of the mountain was reached. The Overlanders were tired and hungry, but they were not to have their supper yet. Hi pushed deeper into the mountains before he found a place to his liking. Then they had supper and soon after were sound asleep.
Before sunrise the next morning the journey was resumed. Their objective was the Specter Range, still a four-days' journey distant.
When they at last reached the range they pitched their camp on the western edge, overlooking an arid desert to the south, broken mountain ranges in all other directions.
"Did you see any trail marks at the point where we entered the Specters, Mrs. Gray?" asked the guide of Grace.
"No. Should I have seen something?"
"Several horsemen passed that way only a short time before we arrived, but, from the glance I got of the trail, I don't think the fellow who's been dogging us was among them."
"Who could they have been?"
"Wild horse hunters, maybe. There're plenty of them and they're usually a tough bunch. I'll scout about and see what else I can discover."
Mr. Lang discovered nothing of importance, nor was the camp disturbed that night.
Early next morning Grace went out to familiarize herself with their surroundings and also to try to shoot some game, for the party needed fresh meat. She had gone only a short distance when, her gaze focused on a yucca tree ahead. Fastened to the tree was a sheet of paper, evidently recently put there, and on this was a crudely drawn heart with a bullet hole through it. Beneath the heart were scrawled the words:
TAKE NOTICE HI LANG AND YOUR FRESH KIDS!
Grace stared in amazement for a moment, then removed the paper from the tree and flattened it out on a rock. Taking a pencil, she drew a smaller heart below the one already there and filled it in entirely in black. She put the paper back in place and, drawing her revolver, put a bullet hole through the center of the black heart.
"I hope they'll take the hint," she muttered, and turned back toward the camp, knowing that the sound of her shot would cause anxiety.
"What were you shooting at?" cried Hippy, who had started to run toward the sound.
"At a mark," replied Grace truthfully.
"Oh, all right. Breakfast's ready."
Grace went to the stream that flowed from the foot of the waterfall near by. The stream followed a shallow ravine for a short distance then disappeared in a crevice in the rocks. As she was washing her face, Grace straightened up to throw her hair out of the way. She gasped in amazement:
"Gracious, I'm getting nervous! I thought I saw a face peer out from behind the waterfall!"
Hi came in, stating that he had shot a bear.
"It's a small one, and after breakfast I'll have him over here and we'll have bear steak."
"Did you get anything else, Mr. Lang?" asked Elfreda.
"Well, I learned that we were not trailed here, but were headed off. I think that's Alkali Pete's—otherwise known as Snake McGlory—work. Then, too," and he turned his eyes on Grace, "I saw a black heart."
"A black heart!" was the cry.
After the story was told Anne asked:
"Do you know what it means?"
"No, Mrs. Nesbit. But keep away from the yucca tree. A gun may be trained on the spot. Never be without your weapons in this country," he warned, "and keep eyes and ears open." Then he left them, to go for the bear.
Grace walked to the waterfall with Elfreda.
"Grace Harlowe Gray, I've been studying that map," Elfreda said. "Look here. I think this is the very place meant."
"Oh, Elfreda, I believe you're right!" cried Grace after studying the map, which Elfreda put before her, for a moment. "There's the pyramid rock and the waterfall. Yonder are the three rocks designated as 'the three bears,' and there's the trunk of what was a yucca tree, and the stream disappears just a few yards beyond us—'stream's end,' as it says on the map! Elfreda—-"
"Grace, look! A rag doll over there on that boulder!" interrupted Elfreda.
The two girls went over. The doll was soiled, but had evidently not lain out in the weather.
"Shall we take it in?" asked Elfreda.
"No; leave it where the child put it. But we'd better keep watch on the place. It's queer to find a child's toy here, and while it may mean little, it may mean much."
When the two girls returned to camp they found that Hi was just back with the bear.
"Oh, girls! Hippy! Mr. Lang!" and the two in chorus fairly spilled out the story of the face seen by Grace back of the waterfall and the doll and their belief that the map was of the place on which they now camped.
Hi Lang took the map and studied it intently.
"It surely is," he finally announced.
"What does the map mean?" questioned Anne.
"Oh, I guess there'd been rumors of gold or silver, and some one, believing the stories, made a map, maybe by hearsay, maybe at first hand. Maybe he talked too much, and some other fellow knocked him on the head and took it."
"Don't you think there's anything in it?" inquired Emma Dean disappointedly.
"Oh, maybe so, maybe not. Can't say."
After lunch Grace donned hip boots and went down toward the fall. Seeing Elfreda there intent on the map, she announced:
"I'm going wading, Elfreda. Want to come?"
"Emphatically not. Do your boots leak?"
"I'll tell you in a moment," laughed Grace, stepping into the water. "All right, so far," she called, wading toward the fall.
Grace thrust her bare arms through the sheet of water pouring from above, groping for the rocks behind.
Sharp screams, at first loud and piercing, an instant later muffled and seeming far away, brought Elfreda to her feet. Grace was nowhere to be seen.
"Help! Grace has gone in!" shouted Elfreda, plunging into the cold water.
Hippy heard. Hi, farther away, heard. Both ran through the bushes. Anne, Nora, and Emma sped to the stream.
Hippy and Elfreda were searching the bottom of the stream, which was not more than three feet deep. Hi stopped them and asked Elfreda to tell what she knew.
"Both hands were thrust through the fall like this," and Elfreda thrust her own hands through the sheet of water. "I was looking at the map when I heard her scream. Looking up, she had disappeared."
Lang nodded and plunged through the waterfall. Those on the outside heard a shot, followed almost instantly by a second one. At the sound Elfreda and Hippy plunged through the fall. Near the base of the fall was no wall of rock behind the water. Instead, a tunnel-like cave led into the mountain. Elfreda gasped and Hippy looked in amazement. Grace lay on the floor of the cave and Hi Lang had a man flown and was beating him, while a little girl was trying to aid the man by striking Hi over the head and shoulders with a stick.
Wingate snatched the stick from her. The child shrank back, and Hi, realizing that he was going too far, ceased beating the man.
"The fellow struck Mrs. Gray with the butt of a revolver, I reckon, then shot at me. I put a bullet through his shoulder and we clinched. How's Mrs. Gray, Miss Briggs?"
"I'll have her around in a few minutes," answered Elfreda confidently. "Who's the man and what is he?"
"Some crazy loon. Strong as a giant, too. Here, you!" to the child reaching toward the man's revolver that lay on the floor. "I'll take that. Is this man your father?"
The child nodded.
"What's your name, kid?"
"He grabbed my hands and jerked me into the cave. Then he struck me," explained Grace, who had opened her eyes and now sat up.
"The scoundrel!" exclaimed Hi, jerking the man to his feet.
At Hi Lang's suggestion, Hippy and the two girls went up to the camp. It was an hour later when the guide joined them.
"The fellow's name is not Silver. He's Steve Carver," Hi informed his hearers. "He's loony. He didn't say so, but he thinks he has a claim that's valuable. He declared, too, that we're here to rob him and threatened to get us if we didn't move on at once."
"Was it he who put the paper on the yucca tree?" questioned Elfreda.
"No, he didn't do that."
"Then we have other foes," said Grace slowly.
"What a shame to let Lindy live like a wild animal," broke in Elfreda.
"Perhaps we can do something for her," responded Grace.
Just then a revolver, fired close at hand, sent a bullet a few inches from Nora's head. Then came a rattling fire of rifle shots. The rifle bullets were going high, possibly due to the fact that they were being fired from a point higher than the camp.
The men, armed only with revolvers, had gone from the camp at the revolver shot.
"Quick, Elfreda!" cried Grace. "Rifles and ammunition for all. For Hi and Hippy, too. We're being attacked!"
"Him come along," chirped Ping Wing, trotting up to Elfreda with a rifle in either hand and two belts of ammunition.
"Take them to the men," ordered Elfreda.
Grace took command of her Overland Riders and placed them at advantageous points out of sight behind rocks and bushes. From her own position Grace saw a head and a pair of shoulders above them on the ridge and a rifle aimed toward the spot where Anne was stationed.
Before the fellow could fire there was a report near at hand.
"Got him!" exclaimed the guide.
"Now we'll get it!" muttered Grace.
They did. Bullets from the ridge above them rained on the foliage and the rocks about the campers, but so far none was hurt, though they could tell that several of the attackers received bullet wounds when raising their own rifles in order to fire.
Creeping closer to Hi Lang, Grace held a whispered consultation, suggesting to him that they try to flank their opponents and to drive them toward the camp where it would be possible to capture them. This was agreed to, but at Elfreda's suggestion they decided to wait until darkness fell.
When night came there was shooting from the ridge, but the return fire came only from one rifle, that of Ping Wing. Even this ceased in about half an hour, but by that time the Overlanders met in the rear of the party on the ridge. Here they spread out and began to move cautiously toward the camp, hoping to come upon their attackers, either singly or together, and drive them before them.
Grace had gone a short distance when she saw a man rise suddenly about ten feet in front of her. Without a sound she rose and, slipping her revolver to her left hand, grasped her lasso with her right. It was a true throw, and the rope fell over the man's shoulders, pinning his arms to his sides. Without a moment's hesitation, the girl snubbed the lasso about a tree and, holding it firmly, fired three signal shots into the air.
The man was heavy, and the best Grace could do was to keep the rope taut, taking up the slack when the fellow tried to roll toward her to loosen the strain.
"I'll get you for this!" raged the ruffian.
"Keep quiet or I'll get you first."
Rifles began to bang toward the camp. Three sides were engaged, so it seemed to Grace, judging by the sound. What was the meaning of that?
The sound of voices presently reached her ears. The prisoner heard, too, and began, to stir.
"Keep quiet!" ordered Grace. "One sound from you and I will shoot. Understand?"
"Yes," he muttered, and sank back.
Grace strained her ears. Were the men of her party or of that of the roped villain? To her relief the men—apparently only two of them—passed by without discovering her and her prisoner, and he, intimidated, kept quiet.
Suddenly a loud, penetrating "Coo-e-e-e-e!" woke the echoes of the mountains. It was the call of the cowboy, a friendly, thrilling sound.
A moment of silence, then "Overla-a-a-and!"
"Overla-a-a-and!" cried Grace joyfully. "Careful, man. I can yell and shoot at the same time," she told her prisoner, who had moved.
Two men came running over the rocks.
"Mrs. Gray!" shouted the guide.
"Here! Careful! I have a prisoner!"
"Hullo, kid," cried a familiar voice.
"That's Bud Thomas's voice! The man who gave me this lasso," answered Grace, laughing joyously, if a bit hysterically.
"Sure, it's me. And a lot of the other boys!"
The two men came over to Grace's side.
"Hello, kid. You're a smart one. That fellow's Snake McGlory, the hombre we boys came out to get."
The fighting was over, for the members of McGlory's gang, for such they were, were captured, some of them wounded.
"Steve Carver got his," said Lang, on the way back to camp, the two men seeing that McGlory went quietly. "He was the fellow who shot at us and some of this man's gang got him, probably thinking he was one of our outfit."
"Oh, poor little Lindy!" murmured Grace.
Back at the camp Grace had to tell her story.
"And I caught him because you boys gave me that lasso. Wasn't I thankful that I had the rope and had learned to use it! But how did you boys happen to come along?"
It seemed, according to Bud's story, that Belle Bates, the wife of the bandit whom Grace had wounded when he attacked the Overland Riders on the Apache Trail the summer before was the sister of Snake McGlory. It was she, bent on vengeance, who had instigated the trailing of the party and the attack on them. Snake and his gang were delighted with their task. Through a girl of Shoshone Pete's whom Belle liked and confided in, the cowboys had learned of the plan and set forth to prevent its accomplishment.
The prisoners were taken to the county seat, and in time received prison sentences for their many crimes in the countryside.
Hi Lang spent some hours in the cave, and when he came back told the girls that Carver had not been "loony" after all, for in the cave he found silver, and, time proved, a considerable vein.
Lindy grieved over her father's death. But the Overland Riders took her in charge, first registering the mine in her name, inducing HI Lang to see to it that it was later worked. The child was sent to school, the Overland Riders being appointed her guardians by the court.
"But now we are to head for home," said Grace, leaning over her camp outfit.
"Ping Wing is pleased over that prospect. Listen to his song," laughed Elfreda.
All stopped their work to watch the Chinaman pack his stores, singing as he did so:
"Supposey you makee listen to my singee one piecee sing. Me makee he first-chop fashion, about the glate Ping Wing; He blavest man in desert side, or any side about; Me bettee you five dolla', HAI! ha blavest party out."