"Young feller, we usually git wet," snapped Curley Adams, his mouth so full of potatoes that they could scarcely understand him.
"He means where do we sleep?" spoke up Tad.
"Oh, in the usual place," answered the foreman. "The only difference is that the bed is not quite so hard as at other times."
"How's that, Mr. Stallings?" inquired Walter.
"Because there's usually a puddle of water under you. I've woke up many a morning on the plains with only my head out of water. I'd a' been drowned if I hadn't had the saddle under my head for a pillow. However, it doesn't matter a great sight. After it has been raining a little while a fellow can't get any wetter, so what's the odds?"
"That's what I say," added Ned Rector.
Stacy Brown shook his head, disapproval plainly written on his face.
"I don't agree with you. I have never been so wet that I couldn't be wetter."
"How about when you came out of the river at the end of a cow's tail this afternoon? Think you could have been any more wet?" jeered Ned.
"Sure thing. I might have drowned; then I'd been wet on the inside as well as the outside," answered the fat boy, wisely, his reply causing a ripple of merriment all around the party.
"I guess the gopher scored that time, eh?" grinned Big-foot.
That night Stacy was sent out on the second guard from ten-thirty to one o'clock. They had found him asleep under the chuck wagon, whence he was hauled out, feet first, by one of the returning guards.
Tad had turned in early, as he was to be called shortly before one to go out with the third guard and to remain on duty till half-past three.
For reasons of his own the foreman had given orders that all the ponies not on actual duty, that night, were to be staked down instead of being hobbled and turned out to graze.
Tad heard the order given, and noting the foreman's questioning glances at the heavens, imagined that it had something to do with weather conditions.
"Do you think Mr. Stallings is worried about the weather?" asked the lad of Big-foot Sanders, as he rode along beside the big cowman on the way to the bedding place of the herd.
"I reckon he is," was the brief answer.
"Then you think we are going to have a storm?"
"Ever been through a Texas storm?" asked Big-foot by way of answering the boy's question.
"Well, you won't call it a storm after you have. There ain't no name in the dictionary that exactly fits that kind of a critter. A stampede is a Sunday in a country village as compared with one of them Texas howlers. You'll be wishing you had a place to hide, in about a minute after that kind of a ruction starts."
"Are they so bad as that?"
"Well, almost," answered the cowman. "I've heard tell," he continued, "that they've been known to blow the horns off a Mexican cow. Why, you couldn't check one of them things with a three inch rope and a snubbing post."
Tad laughed at the quaintness of his companion's words. The sky near the horizon was a dull, leaden hue, though above their heads the stars twinkled reassuringly.
"It doesn't look very threatening to me," decided Tad Butler, gazing intently toward the heavens.
"Well, here's where we split," announced the cowboy, riding off to the left of the herd, Tad taking the right. Shortly after the lad heard the big cowman break out in song:
"Two little niggers upstairs in bed, One turned ober to de oder an' said, How 'bout dat short'nin' bread, How 'bout dat short'nin' bread?"
Tad pulled up his pony and listened until the song had been finished. It was the cowpuncher's way of telling the herd that he had arrived and was on hand to guard them against trouble.
"Big-foot seems to have a new song to-night," mused Tad.
Now the lad noticed that there was an oppressiveness about the air that had not been present before.
A deep orange glow showed on the southern horizon for an instant, then settled back into the prairie, leaving the gloom about the young cowboy even more dense than it had been before.
"Feels spooky," was Tad's comment.
Not being able to sing to his own satisfaction, Tad shoved his hands deep into his trousers pockets and began whistling "Old Black Joe." It was the most appropriate tune he could think of.
"Kind of fits the night," he explained to the pony, which was picking its way slowly about the great herd. Then he resumed his whistling.
The guards passed each other without a word, some being too sleepy; others too fully occupied with their own thoughts.
The night, by this time, had grown intensely still, even the insects and night birds having hushed their weird songs.
A flash more brilliant than the first attracted the lad's attention.
"Lightning," he muttered, glancing off to the south. "I guess Mr. Stallings was right about the storm." Yet, directly overhead the stars still sparkled. In the distance Tad saw the comforting flicker of the camp-fire, about which the cowmen were sleeping undisturbed by the oppressiveness of the night.
"I guess the foreman knew what he was talking about when he said we were going to have a storm," repeated Tad. "I wonder how the cattle will behave if things get lively."
As if in answer to his question there came a stir among the animals on the side nearest him.
Tad began whistling at once and the cows quieted down.
"They must like my whistling. It's the first time anything ever did," thought the lad.
Far over on the other side of the herd Big-foot crooned to his charges the song of the "Two little niggers upstairs in bed."
"Sanders' stock must be walking in their sleep, too. I wonder——"
A brilliant flash lighted the entire heaven, causing Tad Butler to cut short the remark he was about to make.
A deep rumble of thunder, that seemed to roll across the plain like some great wave, followed a few seconds later.
The lad shivered slightly.
He was not afraid. Yet he realized that he was lonely, and wished that some of the other guards might come along to keep him company.
Glancing up, Tad made the discovery that the small spot of clear sky had disappeared. By now he was unable to see anything. He made no effort to direct the pony, leaving it to the animal's instinct to keep a proper distance from the herd and follow its formation.
The thunder gradually became louder and the flashes of lightning more frequent. The herd was disturbed. He could hear the cattle scrambling to their feet. Now and then the sound of locking horns reached him as the beasts crowded their neighbors too closely in their efforts to move about.
Tad tried to sing, but gave it up and resumed his whistling.
"I'm glad Chunky is not out on this trick," thought the boy aloud. "I am afraid he would be riding back to camp as fast as his pony could carry him."
No sooner had the words left his mouth than a flash, so brilliant that it blinded Tad for the moment, lighted up the prairie. A crash which, as it seemed to him, must have split the earth wide open, followed almost instantly.
Another roar, different from that caused by the thunder, rose on the night air, accompanied by the suggestive rattle of meeting horns and the bellowing of frightened cattle.
By this time Tad had circled around to the west side of the herd. The instant this strange, startling noise reached him he halted his pony and listened.
Off to the north of him he saw the flash of a six-shooter. Another answered it from his rear. Then a succession of shots followed quickly one after the other.
The lad began slowly to understand.
He could hear the rush and thunder of thousands of hoofs.
"The cattle are stampeding!" cried Tad.
CHASED BY A STAMPEDING HERD
The long soothing cry echoed from guard to guard.
It was the call of the cowman, in an effort to calm the frightened animals. Here and there a gun would flash as the guards shot in front of the stampeding herd, hoping thereby to turn the rush and set the animals going about more in a circle in order to keep them together until they could finally be quieted.
It was all a mad chaos of noise and excitement to the lad who sat in his saddle hesitatingly, not knowing exactly what was expected of him under the circumstances.
Off toward the camp a succession of flashes like fireflies told the cowpunchers on guard that their companions were racing to their assistance as fast as horseflesh could carry them.
The storm had disturbed the herd from the instant of the first flash of lightning, and, as other flashes followed, the excitement of the animals increased until, at last, throwing off all restraint, they dashed blindly for the open prairie.
Desperately as the guards struggled to turn the herd, their efforts had no more effect than if they had been seeking to beat back the waves of the sea.
Tad was recalled to a realization of his position when, in a dazzling flash of lightning, he caught a momentary glimpse of Big-foot Sanders bearing down on him at a tremendous speed. Tad saw something else, too—a surging mass of panic-stricken cattle, heads hanging low, horns glistening and eyes protruding, sweeping toward him.
"Ride! Ride!" shouted Big-foot.
"Wh—where?" asked Tad in as strong a voice as he could command.
"Keep out of their way. Work up to the point as soon as you can and try to point in the leaders. We've got to keep the herd from scattering. I'll stay in the center and lead them till the others get here. Bob will send along some of the fellows to help you as soon as possible."
While delivering his orders Big-foot had turned his pony, and, with Tad, was riding swiftly in advance of the cattle, in the same direction that they were traveling. To have paused where they were would have meant being crushed and trampled beneath the hoofs of the now maddened animals.
Tad pulled his pony slightly to the right.
"Use your gun!" shouted Big-foot. "Burn plenty of powder in front of their noses if they press you too closely!"
He had forgotten that the lad did not carry a gun, nor did he realize that he was sending the boy into a situation of the direst peril.
Tad, by this time, had a pretty fair idea of the danger of the task that had been assigned to him. But he was not the boy to flinch in an emergency.
Pressing the rowels of his spurs against the flanks of the reaching pony and urging the little animal on with his voice, Tad swept obliquely along in front of the herd.
Now and then a flash of lightning would show him a solid mass of cattle hurling themselves upon him. At such times the lad would swerve his mount to the left a little and shoot ahead for a few moments, in an attempt to get sufficient lead of them to enable him to reach the right or upper end of the line.
In this way Tad Butler soon gained the outside of the leaders. By dropping back and working up the line, he pointed them in to the best of his ability.
The lightning got into his eyes as he strained them wide open to take account of his surroundings. He would pass a hand over his face instinctively, as if to brush the flash away, groping for an instant for his bearings after he had done so.
He remembered what Bob Stallings had said in speaking of a stampede.
"Keep them straight and hold them together. That's all you can do. You can't stop them," the foreman had said.
The lad was doing this now as best he could, yet he wondered that none of the cowmen had come to his assistance.
Again and again did Tad Butler throw his pony against the great unreasoning wave on the right of the line, and again and again was he buffeted back, only to return to the battle with desperate courage.
All at once the lad found himself almost surrounded by the beasts. A lightning flash had shown him this at the right time. Had it been a few seconds later Tad must have gone down under their irresistible rush.
The pony, seeming to realize the danger fully as much as did its rider, bent every muscle in its little body to bear itself and rider to safety.
Yet try as they would, they were unable to get back to the right point to take up the turning work again.
The cattle had closed in about the lad in almost a crescent formation, Tad's position being about the center of it.
"Whoa-oo-ope! Whoa-oo-ope!" shouted Tad, taking up the cry that he had heard the cowboys utter earlier in the stampede.
His voice was lost in the roar of the storm and the thunder of the rushing herd.
Tad realized that there was only one thing left for him to do. That was to keep straight ahead and ride. He would have to ride fast, too, if he were to keep clear of the long-legged Mexican cattle.
They were descending a gradual slope that led down into a broad, sandy arroyo where still stood the rotting stumps of oak and cottonwood trees that once lined the ancient water course.
By this time the main herd lay to the rear nearly two miles, the cattle having separated into several bands. However, the lad was unaware of this.
Suddenly, in the darkness, rider and pony crashed into a dense mesquite thicket.
There was not a second to hesitate, for they were already in. The leading cattle tore in after Tad with a crashing of brush and a rattle of horns—sounds that sent a chill up and down his spine in spite of all the lad's sturdy courage.
The herd was closing in on him, leaving the boy no alternative but to go through the thicket himself, and to go fast at that.
Tad formed his plan instantly. He made up his mind to ride it out and let his pony have its own way. Yet the boy never expected to come through the mesquite thicket without being swept from his pony and trampled under the feet of the savage steers.
He gave the pony a free rein, clutched both cantle and pommel of the saddle and braced himself for the shock that he was sure would come. The cow pony tore through the growth at a fearful pace, while the boy's clothes hung in shreds where they had been raked by the mesquite thorns.
All at once Tad felt himself going through the air with a different motion. He realized that he was falling. The pony had stumbled and with its rider was plunging headlong to the ground. The cattle were thundering down upon them.
A MIRACULOUS ESCAPE
"That settles me!" said the lad bitterly.
The next instant he hit the ground with a force that partially stunned him. His pony, whose nose had ploughed the ground, was up like a flash. Realizing its danger, the little animal gave a snort and plunged into the mesquite, leaving its rider lying on the ground with a fair prospect of being crushed to death beneath, the hoofs of the stampeding steers.
Tad recovered himself almost instantly. His first instinct was to run, in the hope of overtaking the fleeing pony.
"That'll be sure death," he told himself.
The cattle were almost upon him. If he were to do anything to save himself he would have to act quickly.
It came to him suddenly that what the pony had fallen over might be made to act as a shield for himself. The boy sprang forward, groping in the dark amid the roaring of the storm and the thunder of the maddened herd. His hands touched a log. He found that it had so rotted away on one side as to make a partial shell. It was not enough to admit a human body, but it served as a sort of screen for him. Tad burrowed into it as far as he could get.
"I hope there are no snakes in here," he thought, snuggling close.
Yet between the two he preferred to take his chances with snakes, at that moment, rather than with the crazy steers.
The leaders of the steers cleared the log, just grazing it with their hind feet as they went over, sending a shower of dust and decayed wood over Tad.
The cattle immediately following the leaders did not fare so well. A number of them, leaping over the log at the same instant, fell headlong as the pony had done before them. However, the steers were less fortunate. Before they were able to scramble to their feet, others following had tumbled over on top of them, and Tad Butler found himself wedged in behind a barricade of bellowing cattle, whose flying hoofs made him hastily burrow deeper into the decayed log.
This obstruction soon caused the main body to swerve. Their solid front had been broken at last, yet they continued on as wildly as before, bellowing and horning one another in their mad flight.
The rain, which had held back during the brilliant electrical display, now came down in drenching torrents, packing down the sand of the plain which the wind, before, had picked up and tossed into the air in dense clouds.
Tad was soaked to the skin almost instantly. But he did not mind this. His thought, now, was to get out of his perilous position and follow the herd.
The cattle that had fallen so near him, were now one by one extricating themselves from their predicament, each one giving vent to a bellow as it did so and dashing after its companions.
The lad was not slow to crawl from his hiding place the moment he considered it safe to do so. As it was, he got away before the snarl of steers had entirely unraveled itself.
What to do Tad did not know. His pony gone, and, with no sense of direction left, he was in sore straits.
"I'll follow the cattle," he decided. "Besides, it's my business to stay with them if I can. I'll do it as long as I've got a leg to stand on," he declared, cautiously working around those of the cattle that were leaping from the heap and running away.
The mesquite was still full of stragglers dashing wildly here and there. In the darkness, the boy was really in great danger. There were no large trees behind which he could dodge to get out of the way of the animals as they rushed toward him, nor was he able to see them when they did get near him. He was obliged to judge of their direction by sound alone. This was made doubly difficult since the rain had begun to fall, for now, young Butler could scarcely distinguish one sound from another.
Once a plunging steer hit the lad a glancing blow with its great side, hurling him into a thicket of bristling mesquite. The thorns gashed his face and body, almost stripping the remnants of his tattered clothes from him.
Still, with indomitable pluck, the lad sprang to his feet, stubbornly working his way through the thicket.
He came out finally on the other side and floundering about for a time, found himself once more on a plain, which he had observed in the light from a flash of lightning extended away indefinitely. Off to the west, he plainly made out a large body of cattle. Apparently they were now headed to the northwest.
It was almost a hopeless task for one to expect to be able to overhaul them on foot, and even were he to do so he could accomplish nothing after reaching them.
But Tad kept on just the same, with the rain beating him until he was gasping for breath, the lightning playing about him in lingering sheets of yellow flame.
He had run on in this way for fully half an hour when a flash disclosed an object to the right of him. It was moving, but Tad was sure it was not a steer.
The boy changed his course somewhat and trotted along with more caution, shading his eyes with a hand that he might make out what it was when the next flash came.
"It's a pony!" he shouted. "It's my pony!"
The animal was standing with lowered head, gazing straight at the boy.
Tad whistled and called with a long drawn "Whoa-oo-ope!"
The pony made no move to approach, nor did it attempt to run away. But Tad had had experience enough with the cow ponies by this time to know that the animal was not likely to stand still and permit him to come up with it. At any moment it was likely to kick its heels in the air and dash away.
"I've got to make a run for him," decided the lad, stepping cautiously forward, making a slight detour that he might come up from the animal's left instead of approaching him directly from the front.
After having done this, Tad waited, crouching low. He chuckled to himself as he observed that the pony was looking straight ahead, not having discovered his master's new position.
The boy was not more than two rods from him.
Measuring the distance with his eyes, he waited until the lightning flash died out, then ran on his toes straight for where he believed the horse was standing. It was Tad's purpose to grab the animal about the neck.
Instead he ran straight against the pony's side with a resounding bump.
The pony uttered a grunt of fear, springing straight up into the air.
"Whoa, Barney!" coaxed the lad. But Barney had no idea of obeying the command at that moment. It is doubtful if, in the fright of the sudden collision, he even understood what was wanted of him.
Tad's hands had missed the neck. Instead they had grasped the pommel and cantle of the saddle, so that when the pony leaped, Tad's feet were jerked clear of the ground.
As the animal came down on all fours, Tad threw himself into the saddle.
Instantly the pony's back arched, and, with a cough, it went off into a series of bucks, twisting, whirling and making desperate efforts to unseat its rider.
For the first few minutes the lad could do no more than hold on. At the first opportunity, however, he let go of the pommel long enough to reach forward and pick up the reins, which hung well down on the pony's neck.
"Now, buck, Barney, you rascal!" shouted Tad gleefully, giving a gentle pressure with the spurs.
Barney at once decided to stop bucking.
Tad clucked to him and shook out the reins.
Away they went on the trail of the cattle, heading to the northwest, where the lad could plainly see them running.
At the pace the pony was going they were able to overhaul the herd in a short time. Tad had clung to his quirt when he was thrown. Reaching the head of the line of charging beasts, he rode straight at the leaders, bringing the quirt again and again across the noses of those nearest to him. This treatment served to deflect the line a little; yet, try as he would, Tad seemed unable to turn the bunch toward home. Yet he kept steadily at his work, "milling" the steers, as the turning process is called, until pony and rider were well-nigh exhausted.
Tad knew he was a long way from camp and alone with the herd. After a time the animals seemed to him to be slackening their speed. Discovering this, he untied the slicker or rubber blanket from the saddle cantle, and, riding against the leaders again, flaunted the slicker in their faces, shouting and urging at the same time.
"If I had a gun I believe I could stop them right away," he said. "But I'm going to turn them if it's the last thing I ever do."
The fury of the storm was abating and the lightning flashes were becoming less frequent.
Now that he had succeeded in turning the point of the herd, it proved much easier to keep them under control. Besides, it gave both boy and pony a breathing spell. The hard riding was not now necessary.
Round and round young Butler kept the herd circling for nearly an hour. The steers, moving more and more slowly, Tad concluded wisely that they were growing tired of this and that they would quiet down. His judgment proved correct. The storm passed. He could hear it roaring off to the northwest where the lightning flamed up in intermittent flashes.
"Wonder what time it is," queried Tad aloud, searching about in his clothes for his watch.
"Pshaw, I've lost it," he exclaimed. "Well, it is not so much of a loss after all. I paid only a dollar for it and I've had more than a dollar's worth of fun to-night. I wonder what I look like. I must be a sight."
It now lacked only an hour of dawn, but, of course, the boy did not know this. In the darkness preceding the dawn he had no idea of the size of the bunch of cattle that he had led out over the plain. He knew it must be large, however.
At last daybreak was at hand, the landscape and the herd being faintly outlined in the thin morning light. Tad was surprised to find that he had milled the cattle into a compact bunch. Now the boy began galloping around the herd, speaking words of encouragement to the animals as he went, whistling and trying to sing, until finally he was rewarded by seeing some of them begin to graze.
"I've done it," shouted Tad gleefully. "I've bagged the whole bunch. I wonder what Mr. Stallings will say to that. I don't believe Big-foot Sanders could beat that. The next question is, where am I? I don't know. I guess I'm lost for sure. But I've got lots of company."
To add to his perplexity, a light fog was drifting over the plain from the southeast, shutting out what little view there was in the early morning light.
The cattle were now grazing as contentedly as if they never had known such an experience as a stampede. It was useless, however, to attempt to drive them, for he might be leading them away from camp instead of toward it.
Tad was wet and hungry, and now that he was able to get a look at himself, he discovered that his belt was about the only whole thing left of his equipment. Scarcely a vestige of his trousers remained; his shirt hung in ribbons, his hat was lost and his leggins had been stripped off clean.
Tad laughed heartily as he surveyed himself.
"Well, I am a sight! I guess I shall need a whole new harness before I drive cattle much more."
All he could do now was to wait for the sun to rise. Then, he might be able to determine something about his position.
But the sun was a long time in making its appearance that day.
THE VIGIL ON THE PLAINS
"I wish I had a drink of water," said Tad after some hours had passed. Instead of drifting away, the fog had become more dense. He could see only part of the herd now. However, as they showed no disposition to run, Tad felt no concern in that direction. He was obliged to ride around the herd more frequently than would otherwise have been the case, in order to keep the straying ones well rounded in.
The hours passed slowly, and with their passing Tad's appetite grew. He sat on his pony, enviously watching the cattle filling their stomachs with the wet grass.
"I almost wish I were a steer," declared Tad. "I could at least satisfy my hunger."
Then the lad once more took up his weary round.
Off to the eastward, all was still excitement. The herd had broken up into many parts during the stampede and the cowmen were having a hard time in rounding up the scattered bunches.
A few of them had succeeded in working some of the animals back to the bedding ground of the previous night, where the animals were left in charge of one man.
With the coming of the morning and the fog, which blanketed everything, their work became doubly difficult. The storm had wiped out almost all traces of the trail made by the different herds in their escape, until even an Indian would have been perplexed in an effort to follow them.
"Who is missing?" asked Stallings, riding into camp after a fruitless search for his cattle.
"Tad Butler, for one," answered Walter Perkins.
"Let's see. He was on guard with Big-foot Sanders," mused the foreman. "Big-foot has not shown up, so the young man probably is with him. No need to worry about them. Big-foot knows this country like a book. You can't lose him. Then there's Curley Adams and Lumpy Bates to come in yet. I can see us eating our Thanksgiving dinner on the trail if this thing keeps up much longer."
Yet, despite these discouragements, the foreman kept his temper and his head.
"Is there nothing we can do toward finding the boy?" asked Professor Zepplin anxiously.
"Does it look like it?" answered Stallings, motioning toward the fog that lay over them like a dull, gray, cheerless blanket.
Late in the afternoon Curley and Lumpy came straggling into camp with the remnants of the herd, with which they had raced out hours before. An hour afterwards, Big-foot Sanders drove in with a bunch of two hundred more.
"Where's the Pinto?" asked Stallings as Big-foot rode up to the trail wagon and reported.
"The Pinto? Why, I haven't seen the kid since the bunch started on the rampage last night. I thought he was with me on the other end of the herd. Hasn't he come in yet?"
"Then the kid's lost. All the cows back?"
"I don't know. I'll look over the herd and make an estimate. You come along with me."
Together the foreman and the big cowman rode out to the grazing ground, where they circled the great herd, glancing critically over them as they rode.
"What do you think?" asked Big-foot as they completed the circuit of the herd.
"I should say we were close to five hundred head short," decided the foreman. "How does it look to you?"
"I reckon you're about right. Suffering cats, but that was a run! Never saw a bunch scatter so in my life."
"Couldn't be helped. The night was so dark you couldn't tell whether you had a hundred or a thousand with you. Did you strike any cross trails while you were coming in!"
"Nary a one—not in the direction I came from. If I'd kept on last night, at the rate I was going, I'd have rounded up in Wyoming some time to-day I reckon. Sorry the Pinto's strayed away. He'll have a time of it finding his way back. Reckon we won't see the kid again this trip," decided Big-foot.
"We've got to," answered the foreman sharply. "We don't move from this bed till he's been picked up, even if it takes all summer."
"You—you don't reckon he's with that other bunch, do you?"
"I shouldn't be surprised. The boy has pluck and I have an idea that if he got in with a lot of cows he'd stick to them till the pony went down under him."
"More'n likely that's what happened. I'll tell you what we had better do——"
"Get all the boys together who are not needed on guard," interrupted Stallings. "Let them circle out to the west and southwest and shoot. Have each man fire a shot every five minutes by the watch as they move out. That will keep them in touch with each other, and will act as a guide to the kid if he happens to be within hearing."
"How far shall we go?"
"Half an hour out. It's not safe to leave the herd any longer unless the fog clears away. As soon as that goes we'll organize a regular search. I want those cows, and I want to find the boy."
The men quickly mounted their ponies and disappeared in the fog, following the orders given by the foreman. After a time those in camp could faintly hear the distant cracks of the cowpunchers' pistols as they fired their signals into the air.
In the meantime Tad Butler was keeping his lonely vigil on the fogbound plains many miles away.
The fog was still hovering over the herd as the afternoon waned, and the lad's body was dripping wet from it. Occasionally he brushed a hand across his face, wiping away the moisture.
Darkness settled down earlier than usual that night. Yet, to the boy's great relief, the fog lifted shortly afterwards and the stars came out brightly.
With the skill of an old cowman Tad had bedded down the herd and began to ride slowly about them, whistling vigorously. His face ached from the constant puckering of his lips, and his wounds gave him considerable pain. Yet he lost none of his cheerfulness.
At times Tad found himself drooping in his saddle as his sleepiness overcame him. But he fought the temptation to doze by talking to himself and bringing the quirt sharply against his legs.
"Tad Butler, don't you dare to go to sleep!" he warned himself. "It's the first real duty you have had to perform, so you're not going to make a mess of it. My, but I'm hungry!"
From that on the boy never allowed his eyelids to drop, though at times they felt as if weighted down with lead.
After what seemed an eternity, the gray dawn appeared on the eastern horizon. Immediately Tad began routing out the cows that they might have an opportunity to graze before the rising of the sun. It was his intention to point them toward where he believed the camp to be the moment they had grazed to their satisfaction. Until then it would not be wise to start the animals on their course.
About six o'clock, deciding that they had eaten enough, Tad began galloping up and down, shouting and applying his quirt here and there to the backs of the cows. It was slow work for one lone horseman to start five hundred cattle on the trail. Yet, after half an hour of effort, he had the satisfaction of seeing them begin to move.
"Whoop!" shouted the boy. "I'm a real cowboy this time!"
Yet his task was more difficult than he had imagined it could be. While he was urging on one part of the herd, the others would lag by the wayside and begin to graze.
Constant effort and continual moving about at high speed on his part, were necessary to keep up any sort of movement among the cattle.
The lad headed as nearly as possible for the southeast, believing that he had come from that direction.
At the same time a party had set out from the camp in search of young Butler. They had laid their course more toward the southwest. Holding these directions the two parties would not come within some miles of each other.
Tad's eyes were continually sweeping the plains in hope of discovering a horseman or some signs of the main herd, which he was sure must have been rounded up long before. Not a trace of them could he discover.
Once the boy straightened up in his saddle believing he had heard the report of a gun. After listening for some time he came to the conclusion that he had been in error.
"I guess it's my stomach imagining things," grinned Tad Butler.
He had now been out for two nights, and was now well along on the second day. During all that time he had not had a mouthful to eat. His lips were dry and parched; his throat burned fearfully. Still, he kept resolutely on. About two o'clock in the afternoon the herd came upon a clump of trees. Tad at sight of it, spurred his pony on, attracted by the greenness of the grass about the place, hoping that he might find a spring.
But he was doomed to disappointment. There was no sign of water to be found. With almost a sob in his throat the boy swung himself into his saddle again.
"Barney, you and I ought to be camels. Then we could carry all the water we need," he told the pony. "If we don't find some pretty soon I reckon we'll dry up and blow away. Gid-ap, Barney!"
Once more the lad began his monotonous pounding back and forth along the side of the herd which was now spread out over a full half mile of territory, urging with all his strength in order to get the animals to quicken their pace.
In the camp, Stallings and the others had begun to show their worriment. Not a trace had been found of boy or herd. The main hope of the foreman was that Tad might come upon a ranch or a town somewhere, in his course, and in that way get help to direct him back to camp. As for the cattle, he feared that they had become so split up that it would be well-nigh impossible to get them together again.
During the whole afternoon, Bob Stallings had been riding about his own herd, sweeping the plain with a pair of field glasses.
A speck of dust far to the northwest suddenly attracted his attention. Stallings halted his pony, and, sitting in his saddle almost motionless, gazed intently at the tiny point that had come within range of his vision.
"I wonder what that is," mused the foreman. "It can't be any of our party, for they would not be likely to be away off there—that is, unless they have rounded up the bunch."
Stallings, after a while, wheeled his pony and dashed back to camp.
"If any of the men come in, tell them to head northwest and come on as fast as they can."
"Do you see anything?" asked the Professor anxiously.
"I don't know. I hope I do," answered the foreman, leaping into his saddle and putting spurs to his mount. "It may be some other herd crossing the state," he muttered, keeping his eyes fixed on the speck that was slowly developing into a miniature cloud.
The foreman urged his pony to its best pace, and, in the course of half an hour he was able to make out a herd of cattle. That was all he could tell about it. However, it was not long before he discovered a lone horseman working up and down the herd.
Stallings was in too great a hurry to use his glasses now. He was driving his pony straight at the yellow mark off there on the plain, without swerving or appearing to exert any pressure at all on the bridle rein.
"It's the Pinto, as I'm alive!" he breathed.
The horseman with the herd saw him now, and rising in his saddle, waved a hand at the foreman.
In a few moments Stallings came rushing up with a shout of joy.
"Good for you, kid! How are you?"
"Baked to a turn," answered Tad hoarsely, but with face lighting up joyously. "I never was so thirsty in my life."
"What? Haven't you had anything to drink?"
"Not a drop in two days."
"Great heavens, boy! You head that pony for camp mighty quick. Ride for it! You will have no difficulty in following my trail back. Don't drink much at a time. Take it in little sips," commanded the foreman in short, jerky sentences.
"Yes, but what about the herd?" asked Tad Butler.
"Never you mind the herd. I'll see to them. You move!"
Stallings noticed that the boy sat in his saddle very straight, and he knew well enough the effort it cost him to do so.
"I think I'll stay," answered the lad after a moment of indecision.
Tad shook his head.
"I've pulled them through, even if I have had quite a time of it. Now I'm going to stay with them. I guess I can stand it as well as any of your men could under similar circumstances. They wouldn't desert the herd, would they?"
Stallings glanced at him sharply.
"All right," he said. "If you insist upon it. By good rights I ought to order you in. But I understand just how you feel, kid. Here, take a drink of this brandy. It will brace you up," said the foreman, producing a flask from his pocket. "I keep it for emergencies, as the men are not allowed to use it while on duty."
"Thank you," answered the boy, with an emphatic shake of the head. "I don't drink."
"I understand. But this is medicine," urged the foreman. "It will set you right up."
"I haven't the least doubt of it," grinned the boy. "But I don't want to be set up that way. You'll excuse me, Mr. Stallings. Don't urge me, please."
The foreman replaced the flask in his pocket, a queer smile flickering about the corners of his mouth.
"You are the right stuff, kid," he muttered. "If you stayed in this business you'd be a foreman before you knew it. You are a heap sight better than a lot of them now. Fall in. I'll ride around on the other side of the herd, and urge them along from the rear. You ride up to the right of the line and keep them pointed. Follow our trail. You will make out the main herd very soon."
With renewed strength, Tad went at his work, though it was with an effort that he kept his saddle. He was afraid he must collapse before reaching the camp, and his straining eyes kept searching for the herd and the white-topped wagon that he knew held what he needed most of all at that moment—drink and food!
Soon Tad and the foreman made out a rising cloud of dust approaching them at a rapid rate. Stallings waved his hand toward the cloud and nodded to Tad, being too far away to call.
The lad shook his head in reply. He understood what the foreman meant. Men were coming to their assistance and the boy was to push on for camp alone.
The cowpunchers began to laugh as they rode up and observed the boy's tattered condition.
"So the Pinto got a dose this time, eh?" jeered Lumpy Bates.
"You shut up!" snarled Big-foot Sanders, turning on him menacingly. "He's brought them cows back, and I'll bet a new saddle it's more'n you could have done. Don't you see the kid's near all in? Here you, Pinto, you hike for camp!" he shouted.
"I'm staying with the cattle," announced Tad, firmly.
"Cattle nothing. It's the camp for yours and mighty quick!"
Without waiting for argument Big-foot grasped the reins of Tad's bridle and whirling his own mount about, galloped away, fairly dragging Tad Butler and his tired pony after him.
With no reins in his hands the boy was powerless to interfere. All he could do was to sit in his saddle and be towed into camp.
"Please don't take me in this way. Let me ride in," he begged as they neared the camp.
"All right," laughed Big-foot, slacking up and tossing the reins back over the pony's neck. "It's a terrible thing to be proud, when a fellow's down and out. But I want to say one thing, kid."
"There ain't a gamer critter standing on two hoofs than you—bar none. And that goes."
Tad laughed happily.
"I haven't done anything. I——"
"Haven't done anything?" growled Big-foot, riding close and peering down into the boy's scarred and grimy face. "Say, don't pass that out to the bunch. Lumpy'll say you're fishin' for compliments. I don't want to thump him, but, if he passes out any talk as reflects on what you've done for this outfit, I'll thrash him proper."
They were now so near to the camp that the Professor and the boys were able to recognize the horsemen.
They set up a great shout.
"Meet me with a pail of water," yelled Tad. "I'm hot."
Pong heard him and almost immediately emerged from the chuck wagon with a tin pail full of water.
"Throw it on me, quick," commanded the lad, leaping from his pony.
Pong tipped the pail and was about to dash it over the lad when Big-foot suddenly freed a foot from the stirrup. He gave the pail a powerful kick sending it several feet from him, its contents spilling over the ground.
"You idiot! You fool heathen!" roared Big-foot. "The Pinto didn't say he wanted boiling hot water thrown on him. He said he was hot. If you wasn't the cook of this outfit, and we'd all starve to death without you, I'd shoot you plumb full of holes, you blooming idiot of a heathen Chinee!"
"Allee same," chuckled Pong, showing his gleaming teeth.
"What! You climb into that wagon before I forget you're the cook!" fumed Big-foot, jumping his pony threateningly toward the Chinaman. Pong leaped into the protection of his wagon.
"Boys," said the big cowman, "the Pinto has come back with the crazy steers. He's rounded up the whole bunch and never lost a critter. Look at him, if you don't believe me. Ain't he a sight?"
Tad smiled proudly as he sipped the water which one of the boys had brought to him.
"Any man as says he ain't a sight has got a fight on with Big-foot Sanders. And that goes, too!" announced the cowman, glaring about him.
"Three cheers for Tad Butler, champion cowpuncher!" cried Ned Rector.
"Hooray!" bellowed Big-foot. "Y-e-e-e-o-w!"
"Hip-hip, hooray!" chorused the boys, hurling their sombreros into the air. Their wild yells and cat calls made the cattle off on the grazing grounds raise their heads in wonder.
"Allee same likee this," chuckled the grinning Chinaman from the front end of the chuck wagon, at the same time making motions as if he, too, were cheering.
The boys roared with laughter.
Big-foot Sanders grunted and turned his back on the grinning face of Pong.
"One of these days I sure will forget that heathen's the cook," he growled.
UNDER A STRANGE INFLUENCE
"We will move to-morrow shortly after daybreak," announced the foreman at supper that night.
"Will you put me on the fourth guard this evening, Mr. Stallings?" asked Tad Butler.
"You take the fourth guard? A cowpuncher who hasn't had a wink in more than two days? Why, I wouldn't ask a steer to do that! No kid, you roll up in your blankets and sleep until the cook routs you out for breakfast."
"I'll take my trick just the same. I can sleep at home when I get back. I don't want to miss a minute of this fun," returned Tad.
"Fun—he calls it fun!" grunted Lumpy.
"It's just the beginning of the fun," answered Big-foot. "I knew things would begin to happen when we got near the Nueces."
"Why?" asked Ned Rector.
"I don't know. There seems to be some queer influence at work round these parts. Last time I was over this part of the trail we had a stampede almost every night for a week. Two months ago I heard of an outfit that lost more'n half its stock."
"How about it, Mr. Stallings?" laughed Tad. "Are you superstitious, too?"
The boys noted that the foreman frowned and would not answer at once.
"Not exactly. Big-foot means the adobe church of San Miguel."
"What's that?" interrupted Chunky.
"An old Mexican church on the plains. Probably hasn't been used for a hundred years or more. You boys will have a chance to explore the place. It's not far from the Ox Bow ranch, where we take in another herd. We shall be there a couple of days or so until the cattle get acquainted. Besides, we shall have to buy some fresh ponies. Four of ours broke their legs in the stampede and had to be shot."
"Oh, that's too bad," answered Tad. "I'm sorry. I don't like to see a horse get hurt."
"No more do I, Master Tad. But in this business it is bound to happen. I think we shall be able to get some green bronchos. They usually have a bunch of them at the Ox Bow ranch. You will see some fun when we break them in," laughed the foreman.
"I think I should like to take a hand in that myself. But I am anxious to hear more about the haunted church."
"Who said anything about a haunted church?" demanded Stacy Brown.
"The gopher is right. The church isn't haunted. It just happens that cowmen fall into a run of hard luck in that neighborhood now and then."
"Do you believe in spooks, Mr. Stallings!" asked Walter.
"Never having seen one, I don't know whether I do or not. Were I to see one I might believe in them," laughed the foreman.
"I saw a ghost once," began Stacy Brown.
"Never mind explaining about it," objected Ned. "We'll take your word for it and let it go at that."
Tad Butler had gotten into a fresh change of clothes after having taken a bath in a wash tub behind the trail wagon. His wounds pained him, and he was sleepy, so the lad turned in shortly after his supper, and was soon sound asleep.
Nothing occurred to disturb the camp that night, and when finally Tad was awakened to take his watch, it seemed as if he had been asleep only a few minutes. However, he sprang up wide awake and ready for the work ahead of him. As usual, he went out with Big-foot. A warm friendship had sprung up between the big cowboy and Tad Butler. They were together much of the time when their duties permitted.
"Is there any truth in that spook story?" asked Tad, as the two rode slowly out to where the herd was bedded down.
"You can call it whatever you want to. I only know that things happen to most every outfit that gets within a hundred miles of the place. Why, out at the Ox Bow ranch, they have the worst luck of any cattle place in the state. If it wasn't for the fact that they keep their cows fenced in with wire fences, they wouldn't have a critter on the place."
"But, I don't understand," protested Tad. "I don't seem to get it through my head what it is that causes all the trouble you tell me about."
"No more does anybody else. They just know that hard luck is lying around waiting for them when they get near and that's all they know about it."
"When shall we be near there?" asked Tad Butler.
"We are near enough now. Our troubles have begun already. Herd stampeded. Ponies broke their legs and had to be shot. Nobody knows what else will break loose before we get a hundred miles further on."
"I am anxious to see the place," commented Tad.
"You won't be after you've been there. I worked on a cow herd near the place two years ago."
"Well, I got out after I'd been pitched off my pony and got a broken leg. That was only one of the things that happened to me, but it was enough. I got out. And here I am running my head right into trouble again. Say, kid!"
"You'd better ask the Herr Professor to let you carry a gun. You'll need it."
"What for—to lay ghosts with?" laughed the boy.
"Well, mebby something of that sort."
"Don't need it. I guess my fists will lay out any kind of a ghost that I run against. If they won't, no gun will do any good. I don't believe in a boy's carrying a pistol in his pocket. It will get him into more trouble than it will get him out of."
"Well, that's some horseback sense," grunted Big-foot. "I never built up against that idee before, but I reckon it's right. We don't need 'em much either, except to frighten the cows with when they start on a stampede, and——"
"It doesn't seem to stop them," retorted Tad, with a little malicious smile. "It strikes me that a boy without a gun can stop a runaway herd about as quickly as can a cowboy with one."
"Right again, my little pardner. Scored a bull's-eye that time. I guess Big-foot Sanders hasn't any call to be arguing with you."
"We were talking about spooks," the boy reminded him. "I am anxious to see that church. I've wanted to see one all my life——"
"What? A church?"
"No; a spook."
"Oh! Can't promise to show you nothing of the sort. But I'll agree to stack you up against a run of hard luck that will make you wobbly on your legs."
"That will be nothing new, Big-foot. I've had that already."
"Sure thing. That's the beginning of the trouble. As I was saying before, we don't need the guns for any other reason unless it's against cattle rustlers. Sometimes they steal cattle these days, but not so much as they did in the early days of the cattle business."
"Think we will meet any rustlers?" asked Tad, with sudden interest.
"Nary a rustler will tackle this herd. First place, we are not yet in the country where they can work profitably——"
"Oh, anywhere where there's mountains for them to hide in. I'll show you where the rustlers used to work, when we get further along on the trail. But, as I was saying, there are no rustlers hereabouts."
"Oh," answered Tad Butler, somewhat regretfully.
"You never mind about hunting trouble. Trouble is coming to this outfit good and plenty, and I reckon a kid like you will be in the middle of it, too. You ain't the kind that goes sneaking for cover when things are lively. I saw that the other night. Stallings is going to write to Boss Miller about the way you stuck to the herd when it ran away."
"I dunno. Guess 'cause he knows it'll make the old man smile. We boys will come in for an extra fiver at the end of the trip, for saving the herd, I reckon."
"That's where you have the best of me," laughed Tad. "No fives for me. I get my pay out of the fun I am having. I think I am overpaid at that. Well, so long, Big-foot," announced the lad as they finally reached the herd.
"So long," answered the cowman, turning his pony off to take the opposite side of the sleeping cattle. In a few moments Tad heard his strident voice singing to the herd again.
The hours passed more quickly than had been the case the last time Tad was on guard, for he had much to think of and to wonder over.
Daybreak had arrived almost before he knew it and the call for breakfast sounded across the plain.
As soon as he had been relieved, Tad Butler galloped back to camp, bright-eyed and full of anticipation, both for the meal and for the ride that was before them that day.
Corn cakes were on the bill of fare that morning and the Pony Riders shouted with glee when they discovered what Pong had prepared for them.
"Bring on the black strap," called Stallings.
Stacy Brown glanced at the foreman suspiciously.
"Why do you want a black strap for breakfast?" he demanded.
"To put on the corn cakes of course, boy," laughed Stallings.
"I've heard of using a black strap to hitch horses with——"
"And to correct unruly boys," added Professor Zepplin.
"But I never did hear of eating it on corn cakes."
Everybody laughed at Chunky's objection.
"You will eat this strap when you see it," answered Stallings, taking a jug from the hands of the Chinaman and pouring some of its contents over the cakes on his plate.
"What is it!" asked Ned Rector.
"Molasses. It's what we call black strap. Help yourselves. Never mind the gopher there. He never eats black straps for breakfast," the foreman jeered.
"Here, I want some of that," demanded Stacy, half-rising and reaching for the jug. "My, but it's good!" he decided with his mouth full.
"That's all right," answered Walter. "But please do not forget that there are some others in this outfit who like cakes and molasses. Please pass that jug this way."
"Yes, the pony won't be able to carry him to-day if he keeps on for ten minutes more, at the rate he's been going," laughed Ned Rector. "I never did have any sort of use for a glutton."
"Neither did I," added Chunky solemnly, at which both Pony Riders and cowboys roared with laughter.
"Going to be another scorcher," decided the foreman, rising and surveying the skies critically. "We shall not be able to make very good time, I fear."
"When do you expect to reach the Nueces River?" asked the Professor.
"I had hoped to get there by to-morrow. However, it doesn't look as if we should be able to do so if it comes off so hot."
"Is the Nueces a large river?" asked Walter.
"Sometimes. And it is a lively stream when there happens to be a freshet and both forks are pouring a flood down into it. We will try to bed down near the river and you boys can have some sport swimming. Do all of you swim?"
"Yes," they chorused.
"That's good. The cowpunchers will have a time of it, too."
"I can float," Stacy Brown informed him eagerly.
"So could I if I were as fat as you. I could float all day," retorted Ned Rector. "You couldn't sink if you were to fill your pockets with stones. There is some advantage in being fat, anyway."
"He didn't seem to float the day he fell in among the steers," said one of the cowboys.
"That isn't fair," interrupted Stallings. "The steers put the gopher under, that day. Any of you would have gone down with a mob of cows piling on top of you."
"The river is near the church you were telling me about, isn't it?" inquired Tad of Big-foot in a low tone.
Sanders nodded solemnly.
Tad's eyes sparkled eagerly. He finished his breakfast rather hurriedly and rose from the table. As he walked away he met the horse wrangler bringing the day ponies. The lad quickly saddled his own mount after a lively little struggle and much squealing and bucking from the pony.
Tad was eager to reach the river and get sight of the mysterious church beyond. Yet, he did not dream of the thrilling experiences that were awaiting them all at the very doors of the church of San Miguel.
CHUNKY ROPES A COWBOY
"Wow! Help! Help!"
The herd had been moving on for several hours, grazing comfortably along the trail, when the sudden yell startled the entire outfit.
The cowboys reined in their ponies and grasped their quirts firmly, fully expecting that another stampede was before them.
Instead, they saw Stacy Brown riding away from the herd, urging his pony to its best speed. Right behind him, with lowered head and elevated tail was a white muley, evidently chasing the lad.
What the boy had done to thus enrage the animal no one seemed to know. However, it was as pretty a race as they had seen thus far on the drive.
"Point him back! He can't hurt you!" shouted the foreman.
Instead of obeying the command, Stacy brought down his quirt on the pony, causing the little animal to leap away across the plain in a straight line.
The cowboys were shouting with laughter at the funny spectacle.
"Somebody get after that steer!" roared the foreman. "The boy never will stop as long as the critter keeps following him, and we'll have the herd following them before we know it."
"I'll go, if you wish," said Tad Butler.
"Then go ahead. Got your rope?"
"It'll be good practice for you."
Tad was off like a shot, leaving a cloud of dust behind him.
"That boy's got the making of a great cowpuncher in him," said the foreman, nodding his head approvingly.
Tad's pony was the swifter of the two, and besides, he was riding on an oblique line toward the runaway outfit.
It was the first opportunity the lad had had to show off his skill as a cowman, for none had seen his pointing of the herd on the night of the stampede. He was burning with impatience to get within roping distance of the steer before they got so far away that the cowmen would be unable to see the performance.
"Pull up and turn him, Chunky," called Tad.
"Why not? Turn in a half circle, then I shall be able to catch up with you sooner."
"Can't. The muley won't stop long enough for me to turn around."
Tad laughed aloud. He now saw that it was to be a race between the steer and his own pony. The odds, however, were in favor of the steer, for Stacy Brown was pacing him at a lively gait, and Tad was still some distance behind.
The latter's pony was straining every muscle to overhaul the muley. Tad finally slipped the lariat from the saddle bow. Swinging the great loop above his head, he sent it squirming through the air. At that instant the muley changed its course a little and the rope missed its mark by several feet. Now it was dragging behind the running pony.
By this time Tad had fallen considerably behind. He took up the race again with stubborn determination.
Coiling the rope as he rode on, he made another throw.
The noose fell fairly over the head of the muley steer, this time. Profiting by a previous experience, the lad took a quick turn about the pommel of the saddle. The pony braced itself, ploughing up the ground with its little hoofs as it did so.
A jolt followed that nearly threw Tad from his saddle. The muley steer's head was suddenly jerked to one side and the next instant the animal lay flat on its back, its heels wildly beating the air.
"Whoop!" shouted Tad in high glee, waving his hat triumphantly to the watching cowpunchers.
The steer was up in a moment, with Tad Butler watching him narrowly.
"Cast your rope over his head, Chunky."
Chunky made a throw and missed.
The angry steer rose to its feet and charged him.
Stacy Brown held the muleys in wholesome awe, though, having no horns, they were the least dangerous of the herd.
"Yeow!" shrieked Chunky, putting spurs to his pony and getting quickly out of harm's way.
The steer was after him at a lively gallop, with Tad Butler and his pony in tow. Tad had prudently shaken out the reins when he saw the animal preparing to take up the chase again.
Waiting until the steer had gotten under full headway, the lad watched his chance, then pulled his pony up sharply.
This time the muley's head was jerked down with such violence that it turned a partial somersault, landing on its back with a force that must have knocked the breath out of it.
Again and again did Tad repeat these tactics, the pony seemingly enjoying the sport fully as much as did the boy himself. After a time he succeeded in getting the unruly beast headed toward the herd.
Once he had done that he let the animal have its head and they sailed back over the trail at a speed that made the cowboys laugh. Tad seemed to be driving the steer, with Stacy Brown riding well up to the animal's flanks, laying on his quirt to hasten its speed, every time he got a chance.
As they neared the herd, Tad in attempting to release the rope from the pommel let it slip through his hands.
The lad was chagrined beyond words.
"Rope him quick, Chunky!" he cried.
Lumpy Bates, observing the mishap, had spurred toward the running steer, intending to cast a lariat over one of the animal's feet and throw it so they could remove the lariat from its neck.
Just as the cowboy wheeled his mount in order to reach one of the steer's hind feet, Chunky clumsily cast his own rope.
Instead of reaching the muley steer, the loop caught the left hind foot of the cowpuncher's galloping pony.
"Cinch it!" called Tad as the loop followed an undulating course through the air.
Chunky did cinch it gleefully about his saddle pommel. At the same time he cinched something else.
The cowpuncher's mount went down, its nose burrowing into the turf. Lumpy was so taken by surprise that he had no time to save himself. He shot over the pony's neck, landing flat on his back several feet in advance of the pony's nose.
The watching cowboys set up a jeering yell.
Lumpy scrambled to his feet, his face purple with rage.
"You tenderfoot!" shrieked Curley Adams. "To let the gopher rope you like a yearling steer!"
Chunky sat on his mount with blanched face, now realizing the enormity of his act.
"I—I didn't mean to do it," he stammered.
At first Lumpy did not know what had caused his pony to fall. But no sooner had he gotten to his feet than he comprehended. With a savage roar he sprang for the fat boy with quirt raised above his head, prepared to bring it down on Stacy Brown the instant he reached him.
The blow would have been bad enough had it been delivered in the ordinary way. The cowboy, however, had gasped the quirt by the small end and was preparing to use the loaded butt on the head of the boy who had been the cause of his fall.
Tad had halted upon observing the accident, laughing uproariously at the spectacle of Lumpy Bates being roped by Stacy Brown.
When he saw the quirt in the hands of the cowpuncher, however, and realized what his purpose was, the laughter died on the lips of Tad Butler.
"Drop that quirt, Lumpy!" he commanded sternly.
Lumpy gave no heed to the command, but broke into a run for Stacy.
Tad, who was a few rods away, put spurs to his pony, at the same time slipping off the lariat from the other side of his saddle.
"The Pinto's going to rope him," gasped the cowboys. All were too far away to be of any assistance. Stallings was with another part of the herd, else he would have jumped in and interfered before Tad's action had become necessary.
Tad's pony leaped forward under the pressure of the spurs. The boy began spinning the noose of the lariat above his head.
The cowboys were watching in breathless suspense.
Tad sent the loop squirming through the air, turning his pony so as to run parallel with the one on which Stacy was sitting, half paralyzed with fear, as he gazed into the rage-contorted face of Lumpy Bates.
As the quirt was descending, Tad's rope slipped over the cowboy's head and under one arm. This time, however, the lad did not cinch the rope over his saddle pommel. He held it firmly in his hand, with a view to letting go after it had served its purpose, having no desire to injure his victim.
Lumpy Bates went over as if he had been bowled over with a club, and before he had realized the meaning of it he had been dragged several feet.
Tad jerked his pony up sharply and slowly rode back to where his victim was desperately struggling to free himself.
"Y-e-e-e-o-ow!" screamed the cowboys, circling about the scene, their ponies on a dead run, discharging their six-shooters into the air, giving cat calls and wild war-whoops in the excess of their joy.
Big-foot Sanders, however, had not joined in their merriment. Instead, he had ridden up within a couple of rods of where Lumpy Bates was lying. Big-foot sat quietly on his pony, awaiting the outcome.
At last Lumpy tore off the lariat's grip and scrambled to his feet. He glared about him to see whence had come this last indignity.
"I did it, Lumpy," announced Tad Butler quietly.
"Wait a minute before you tell me what you are going to do," commanded Tad. "Chunky did not mean to throw you. He was trying to rope the steer. He'll tell you he is sorry. But you were going to hit him because you were mad. If you'd struck him with the butt of that quirt you might have killed him. I had to rope you to prevent that. Is there anything you want to say to me now?"
"I'll show you what I've got to say," snarled the cowboy, starting for Tad.
"Stop! Lumpy Bates, if you come another foot nearer to me I'll ride you down!" warned Tad, directing a level gaze at the eyes of his adversary.
The cowboy gazed defiantly at the slender lad for a full moment.
"I'll fix you for that!" he growled, turning away.
At that moment Big-foot Sanders rode in front of him and pulled up his pony.
"What's that ye say?"
"Nothing—I said I'd be even with that cub."
"I reckon ye'd better not try it, Lumpy. The kid's all right. Big-foot Sanders is his friend. And that's the truth. Don't let it get away from you!"
ON A WILD NIGHT RIDE
"Your fat friend, over there, is making queer noises, Master Tad. Must be having a bad dream."
Big-foot had reached a ponderous hand from his blankets and shaken Tad roughly.
"Mebby the gopher's having a fit. Better find out what ails him."
The rain was falling in torrents. The men were soaked to the skin, but it did not seem to disturb them in the least, judging by the quality of their snores.
Tad listened. Stacy Brown surely was having trouble of some sort. The lad threw off his blankets and ran over to where his companion was lying.
"Chunky's drowning," he exclaimed in a voice full of suppressed excitement.
Big-foot leaped to his feet, hurrying to the spot.
Stacy was lying in a little depression in the ground, a sort of puddle having formed about him, and when Tad reached him the lad had turned over on his face, only the back part of his head showing above the water. He appeared to be struggling, but unable to free himself from his unpleasant position.
They jerked him up choking and coughing, shaking him vigorously to get the water out of him.
"Wha—what's the matter!" stammered the boy.
"Matter enough. Trying to drown yourself?" growled the cowboy.
"Di—did I fall in?"
"Did you fall in? Where do you think you are?"
"I—I thought I fell in the river and I was trying to swim out," answered the boy, with a sheepish grin that caused his rescuers to shake with merriment.
"Guess we'll have to get a life preserver for you," chuckled Big-foot. "You ain't safe to leave around when the dew is falling."
"Dew? Call this dew? This is a flood."
"Go find a high piece of ground, and go to bed. We haven't got time to lie awake watching you. Be careful that you don't step on any of the bunch. They ain't likely to wake up in very good humor a night like this, and besides, Lumpy Bates is sleeping not more'n a rope's length from you. You can imagine what would happen if you stepped on his face to-night."
Chunky shivered slightly. He had had one experience with the ill-natured cowpuncher that day and did not care for another.
"I'll go to bed," he chattered.
"You'd better. What's that?" exclaimed the cowpuncher sharply, pausing in a listening attitude.
"Some one coming," answered Tad. "They seem to be in a hurry."
"Yes, I should say they were. I reckon the trouble is coming, kid."
A horseman dashed up to the camp that lay enshrouded in darkness, save for the lantern that hung at the tail board of the chuck wagon.
"Roll out! Roll out!"
It was the voice of Curley Adams.
The cowpunchers scrambled to their feet with growls of disapproval, demanding to know what the row was about.
"What is it, a stampede?" called Big-foot, hastily rolling his blankets and dumping them in the wagon.
"No; but it may be. The boss wants the whole gang to turn out and help the guard."
"The cows are restless. They're knocking about ready to make a break at any minute."
"What? Haven't they bedded down yet?" asked Big-foot.
"No, nary one of them. And they ain't going to to-night."
"I knew it," announced the cowman, with emphasis.
"Knew what?" asked Tad.
"That we were in for trouble. And it's coming a-running."
By this time the horse wrangler had rounded up the ponies, and the cowboys, grumbling and surly, were hurriedly cinching on saddles. A few moments later the whole party was riding at full gallop toward the herd.
"Where's the gopher?" inquired Big-foot, after they had ridden some distance. "Did we leave him behind?"
"I guess Chunky is asleep," laughed Tad.
"Best place for him. He'd have the herd on the run in no time if he was to come out to-night. Never knew a human being who could stir up so much trouble out of nothing as he can. We're coming up with the herd now. Be careful where you are riding, too."
All was excitement. The cattle were moving restlessly about, prodding each other with their horns, while guards were galloping here and there, talking to them soothingly and whipping into line those that had strayed from the main herd.
Bunches of fifteen or twenty were continually breaking through the lines and starting to run. Quirts and ropes were brought into use to check these individual rushes, the cowmen fearing to use their weapons lest they alarm the herd and bring on a stampede.
"What's the trouble!" demanded Big-foot as they came up with the foreman.
"I don't know. Bad weather, I guess. The evil one seems to have gotten into the critters to-night. Lead your men up to the north end of the line. We will take care of these fellows down here as best we can."
The men galloped quickly to their stations. Then in the driving rain that soaked and chilled them the cowmen began their monotonous songs, interrupted now and then by a shout of command from some one in charge of a squad.
There was no thunder or lightning this time. The men were thankful for that; it needed only some sudden disturbance to start the animals going.
The disturbance came after an hour's work. The cowmen had brought some sort of order out of the chaos and were beginning to breathe easier. Stallings rode up to the head of the herd giving orders that the cattle be pointed in and kept in a circle if possible. To do this he called away all the men at the right save Tad Butler and Big-foot Sanders. As it chanced, they were at the danger spot when the trouble came.
Chunky had been awakened by the disturbance in camp, not having fully aroused himself until after the departure of the men, however. He sat up, rubbing his eyes, grumbling about the weather and expressing his opinion of a cowpuncher's life in no uncertain terms.
Finding that all had left him, the lad decided to get his pony and follow.
"What's the matter, Pong?" he called, observing the Chinaman up and fixing the curtains about his wagon.
"Allee same likee this," answered Pong hopping about in imitation of an animal running away.
"He's crazy," muttered Chunky, going to his pony and swinging himself into the saddle.
Chunky urged the animal along faster and faster. He could hear the cowboys on beyond him though he was able to see only a few yards ahead of him. However, the boy was becoming used to riding in the dark and did not feel the same uncertainty that he had earlier.
"I'll bet they are getting ready to run away," he decided.
In that, Stacy was right. Before he realized where he was he had driven his pony full into the rear ranks of the restless cattle.
Chunky uttered a yell as he found himself bumping against the sides of the cows and sought to turn his pony about.
The startled steers nearest to him fought desperately to get away from the object that had so suddenly hurled itself against them. Instantly there was a mix-up, with bellowing, plunging steers all about him.
"Help! Help!" shouted the boy.
Now his pony was biting and kicking in an effort to free itself from the animals that were prodding it with horns and buffeting it from side to side.
Only a moment or so of this was necessary to fill the cattle with blind, unreasoning fear. With one common impulse they lunged forward. Those ahead of them felt the impetus of the thrust just as do the cars of a freight train under the sudden jolt of a starting engine.
"What's up?" roared the foreman.
"They're off!" yelled a cowman.
"Can't. They're started in the center of the herd."
With heads down, the entire herd was now charging straight ahead. Big-foot Sanders and Tad Butler, nearly half a mile ahead, felt the impetus, too.
"Keep your head, boy," warned the cowpuncher. "We are in for a run for our money, now."
It came even as he spoke. With a bellow the cattle started forward at a lively gallop.
"Whoa-oo-ope!" cried Big-foot, riding in front of the plunging leaders.
He might as well have sought to stay the progress of the wind. The leaders swept man and boy aside and dashed on.
"Better keep them straight and not try to stop them, hadn't we?" shouted Tad, with rare generalship.
"That's the trick! Can you hold your side?" roared Big-foot in reply.
"I'll try," answered the boy, riding so close to the leaders that they rubbed sides with his pony. The latter, understanding what was wanted of him, pushed sturdily on holding the cattle with his side, leaning toward them to give the effort the benefit of his entire weight.
One end of Tad's neckerchief had come loose and was streaming straight out behind him, while the broad brim of his sombrero was tipped up by the rushing breeze.
It was a wild and perilous ride. Yet the lad thought nothing of this. His whole thought was centered on the work in hand, that of keeping the cattle headed northward. Tad was unable to tell whether they were going in a straight line or not, but this time he had the big cowman to rely upon.
"Give way a little!" warned Big-foot.
"Right!" answered the lad, pulling his pony to one side, then straightening him again.
"We'll hit the Injun Territory by daylight if we keep on at this gait! You all right?"
"Yes. But I think the herd is spreading out behind me," answered Tad.
"Never mind that. They'll likely follow the leaders."
Off to the rear they could hear the sharp reports of the cowboys' revolvers as they sought to stay the mad rush. Big-foot, however, had thought it best not to resort to shooting tactics. They were making altogether too good headway. If only they were able to keep the cattle headed the way they were going the herd would be none the worse off for the rush and the outfit would be that much further along on the journey. The thundering hoof-beats behind them as the living tide swept down upon them, was not a pleasant sound to hear. Yet Big-foot and Tad were altogether too busy to be greatly disturbed by it.
They had gone on for fully half an hour, after that, with no apparent decrease in the speed of the stampede. The ponies were beginning to show their fatigue. Tad slowed down a little, patting his faithful little animal to encourage it and quiet its nerves.
As he did so, the boy's attention was again called to the fact that a solid wall of cattle had apparently closed in behind him.
"Big-foot!" he shouted.
"Yes?" answered the cowboy, in a far away voice, for some distance now separated the two.
"It looks to me as if they were closing in on us. What do you think?"
"Wait! I'll see."
The cowboy pulled up a little and listened.
"Right you are. They have spread out in a solid wall."
"What shall we do?"
"Ride! Ride for your life!" came the excited reply.
"To your right. Don't let them catch you or you'll be trampled under their feet. They'll never stop, now, till they get to the river."
"Is it near here?"
"Only a few miles ahead. I can hear it roar now. A flood is coming down it. Hurry!"
Tad had barely heard the last word. Already he had swung his pony about and was galloping with all speed to the right in an effort to get free of the herd before they crowded him and his pony into the turbulent, swollen river.
FORDING A SWOLLEN RIVER
The first light of the morning revealed to Tad Butler the narrow escape he had had. He had barely passed the outer point of the stampeding herd when the cattle rushed by him.
On beyond, less than half a mile away, he made out the river in the faint light. His companion was nowhere to be seen. However, that was not surprising, as the cattle now covered a large area; so large that Tad was unable to see to the other side of the herd.
As the day dawned the cattle began to slacken their speed, and, by the time the leaders reached the river bank, the rush was at an end. Some of the stock plunged into the edge of the stream where they began drinking, while others set to grazing contentedly.
As the light became stronger, the lad made out the figure of Big-foot Sanders approaching him at an easy gallop.
"We did it, didn't we, Big-foot?" exulted Tad Butler.
"That we did, Pinto. And there comes the rest of the bunch now," Big-foot added, pointing to the rear, where others of the cowboys were to be seen riding up.
Stallings was the first to reach them.
"Good job," he grinned. "We are at the river several hours ahead of schedule time. Doesn't look very promising, does it?"
"River's pretty high. Are you thinking of fording it this morning?" asked Big-foot, looking over the swollen stream.
"We might as well. The water will be higher later in the day. We may not be able to get across in several days if we wait too long."
"What do you think started the cattle this time?" asked Tad.
"I don't think. I know what did it."
"It was that clumsy friend of yours."
"The gopher?" asked Big-foot.
"Allee same, as Pong would say. That boy is the limit. Is he always falling into trouble that way?"
"Yes, or falling off a pony," laughed Tad.
"There he comes, now."
Stacy rode up to them, his face serious and thoughtful.
"Well, young man, what have you to say for yourself?" asked the foreman.
"I was going to ask you, sir, where we are going to get our breakfast?"
Stallings glanced at Tad and Big-foot, with a hopeless expression in his eyes.
"Go ask the Chinaman," he answered rather brusquely.
"I can't. He isn't here."
"Well, that's the answer," laughed the foreman, riding to the river bank and surveying the stream critically.
Tad and Big-foot Sanders joined him almost immediately.
"Think we can make it, chief?"
"I think so, Sanders. One of us had better ride over and back to test the current."
"I'll try it for you," said Tad.
"Go ahead. Sanders, you ride back and tell Lumpy to return to camp and bring on the outfit. They can't reach us until late in the afternoon, as it is. I presume that slant-eyed cook is sitting in his wagon waiting for us to come back. Hurry them along, for we shall be hungry by the time we have finished this job."
Tad promptly spurred his pony into the stream. After wading out a little way he slipped off into the water, hanging by the pommel, swimming with one hand to relieve the pony as much as possible.
The boy made the crossing without mishap, Stallings observing the performance to note how far down the stream the pony would drift. Tad landed some five rods lower down. On the return, the drift was not quite so noticeable.
"We'll make it," announced the foreman. "If you want to dry out, ride back and tell the bunch to crowd the cattle in as rapidly as possible. The faster we can force them in the less they will drift down stream."
"Very well, sir," replied the boy, galloping off to deliver his message.
With a great shouting and much yelling the cowboys began their task of urging the cattle into the river. Not being over-thirsty, it was no easy task to induce the animals to enter the water, but when the leaders finally plunged in the rest followed, fairly piling on top of one another in their efforts to follow the pilots of the herd. Above and below, the cowboys who were not otherwise engaged were swimming the river endeavoring to keep the animals from straying one way or another.
Tad Butler and his companions were aiding in this work, shouting from the pure joy of their experience, and, in an hour's time, the last steer had swum the stream and clambered up the sloping bank on the other side.
"There!" announced the foreman. "That's a bad job well done. I wish the trail wagon were here. A cup of hot coffee wouldn't go bad after an hour in the water."
"After several of them, you mean," added Tad. "You know we have been out in the rain all night."
"Yes, and you did a bang-up piece of work, you and Big-foot. How did you happen to lead the cattle straight ahead, instead of turning the leaders?"
"It was the kid's suggestion," answered Big-foot Sanders. "He's got a man's head on his shoulders that more'n makes up for what the gopher hasn't got."
"It does, indeed," agreed Stallings.
"How are we going to get that trail wagon over when it comes up!" asked one of the men.
"That's what's bothering me," answered the foreman. "Perhaps our young friend here can give us a suggestion. His head is pretty full of ideas," added the foreman, more with an intent to compliment Tad than in the expectation of getting valuable suggestions from him.
"What is your usual method?" asked the boy.
"Well, to tell the truth, I've never had quite such a proposition as this on my hands."
"I guess you will have to float it over."
"It won't float. It'll sink."
"You can protect it from that."
"How?" asked the foreman, now keenly interested.
"First take all the stuff out of it. That will save your equipment if anything happens to the wagon. Ferry the equipment over on the backs of the ponies. If it's too heavy, take over what you can."
"Well, what next?" asked Stallings.
"Get some timbers and construct a float under the wagon."
"Where you going to get timber around these parts?" demanded Big-foot.
"I see plenty of trees near the river. Cut down a few and make a raft of them."
"By George, the kid's hit it!" exclaimed Stallings, clapping his thigh vigorously. "That's exactly what we'll do. But we'll have to wait till the wagon gets here. The axes are all in the wagon."
"Mebby I'm particularly thick to-day, but I'd like to inquire how you expect to get the outfit over, after you have the raft under it?" demanded Shorty Savage. "Answer that, if you can?"
"I think that is up to the foreman," smiled Tad. "Were I doing it I think I should hitch ropes to the tongue and have the ponies on the other side draw the wagon across. Of course, you are liable to have an accident. The ropes may break or the current may tip your wagon over. That's your lookout."
"Now will you be good?" grinned the foreman. "You know all about it, and it would be a good idea to let the thought simmer in your thick head for a while. It may come in handy, some day, when you want to get across a river."
Shorty walked away, none too well pleased.
About three o'clock in the afternoon the wagon hove in sight, and the boys rode out to meet it.
It was decided to camp on the river bank until after they had eaten their evening meal, after which there would still be time to ferry over. While the meal was being cooked Stallings sent some of the men out to cut down four small trees and haul them in.
They grumbled considerably at this, but obeyed orders. Tad went along, at the suggestion of the foreman, to pick out such trees as he thought would best serve their purpose.
The trail wagon's teams were used to haul the logs in and by the time the work was finished a steaming hot supper had been spread by the smiling Chinaman.
Professor Zepplin had come along with the wagon. He said he was a little stiff from the wetting he had received, but otherwise was all right.
"Now, young man, I'll let you boss the job," announced Stallings as Tad rose from the table. "I give you a free hand."
With a pleased smile, Tad set about constructing his raft. Ned Rector swam the river with the ropes, and fastened them to trees so they would not be carried away by the current. The wagon was then run down into the water by hand, the ropes made fast, and all was ready for the start.
"What are you going to do about the drift?" asked the foreman, who had been interestedly watching the preparations.
"We are going to tie ropes to the two wheels on the upper side. One is to be held on this side of the river, the other from the opposite side. I think the kitchen will ford the river as straight as you could draw a chalk line," announced Tad.
"I guess it will," answered the foreman, with a suggestive glance at Professor Zepplin.
"All right when you get ready over there," called Tad to the waiting cowboys on the other side.
They had taken firm hold of the ropes with their right hands, their left hands holding to the pommels of their saddles.
"Ready!" came the warning cry from the other side.
"Haul away!" shouted Tad.
The ropes secured to the tongue of the trail wagon straightened, and the wagon began to move out into the stream.
"Be careful. Don't pay out that rope too fast," directed Tad to the man on his side of the stream.
The trail wagon floated out easily on the swiftly moving current. It was greeted by a cheer from the Pony Rider Boys. Those of the cowboys who were not otherwise engaged joined with a will.
"There's that fool Chinaman," growled Stallings, observing the grinning face of Pong peering from the tail of the wagon. "Look out, the dragon will get you, sure, if you fall out!" he warned. "I don't care anything about you, but we can't afford to be without a cook."
"There goes the fool!" cried Big-foot. "Now we sure will starve to death."
As the wagon lurched in the current, the Chinaman had plunged overboard and disappeared beneath the surface.
A BRAVE RESCUE
"Save him, somebody! The fool's fallen overboard!" roared the foreman. "I can't let go this rope!"
Tad had not seen the cook take his plunge, so, for the moment, he did not realize what had occurred.
"Who's overboard," young Butler demanded sharply.
"The cook," answered Stallings excitedly. "Can't any of you slow pokes get busy and fish him out?"
"Pong!" cried Tad as the head of the Chinaman appeared on the surface.
Without an instant's hesitation the lad leaped into his saddle.
"Yip!" he shouted to the pony, accentuating his command by a sharp blow with the quirt.
The pony leaped forward.
"Here, he's not up there; he's in the river I tell you!" shouted the foreman.
Tad had driven his mount straight up the bank behind them. He paid no attention to the warning of the foreman, having already mapped out his own plan of action.
Reaching the top of the sloping bank, Tad pulled his pony to the right and dashed along the bluff, headed down the river.
"Watch your lines or you'll have the wagon overboard, too," he called back. "I'll get Pong out."
Big-foot Sanders scratched his head reflectively.
"Ain't the Pinto the original whirlwind, though?" he grinned. "I never did see the like of him, now. He'll get that heathen out while we are standing here trying to make up our minds what to do."
"Yes, but I'm afraid the Chinaman will drown before Tad gets to him," said the foreman, with a shake of his head. "Here, don't let go of this rope while you are staring at the kid. I can't hold it alone."
Tad drove his pony to its utmost speed until he had reached a point some little distance below where the head of the Chinaman had last been seen.
All at once the lad turned sharply, the supple-limbed pony taking the bank in a cat-like leap, landing in the water with a splash.
Tad kept his saddle until the pony's feet no longer touched the bottom. Then he dropped off, clinging to the mane with one hand. The cook was nowhere to be seen, but Tad was sure he had headed him off and was watching the water above him with keen eyes.
"There he is below you!" shouted a voice on shore. "Look out, you'll lose him."
Tad turned at the same instant, giving the pony's neck a sharp slap to indicate that he wanted the animal to turn with him.
The lad saw the Chinaman's head above the water. Evidently the latter was now making a desperate effort to keep it there, for his hands were beating the water frantically.
"Keep your hands and feet going, and hold your breath!" roared Tad. "I'll be——"
Before he could add "there," the lad suddenly discovered that there was something wrong with his pony. It was the latter which was now beating the water and squealing with fear.
One of the animal's hind hoofs raked Tad's leg, pounding it painfully. Tad released his hold of the mane and grasped the rein.
Throwing up its head, uttering a snort, the pony sank out of sight, carrying its master under. Tad quickly let go the reins and kicked himself to the surface.
The pony was gone. What had caused its sudden sinking the lad could not imagine. There was no time to speculate—not an instant to lose if he were to rescue the drowning cook.
Throwing himself forward, headed downstream, Tad struck out with long, overhand strokes for the Chinaman. Going so much faster than the current, the boy rapidly gained on the victim.
Yet, just as he was almost within reach of Pong, the latter threw up his hands and went down.
Tad dived instantly. The swollen stream was so muddy that he could see nothing below the surface. His groping hands grasped nothing except the muddy water. The lad propelled himself to the surface, shaking the water from his eyes.
There before him he saw the long, yellow arms of the Chinaman protruding above the surface of the river. This time, Tad was determined that the cook should not escape him. Tad made a long, curving dive not unlike that of a porpoise.
This time the lad's hands reached the drowning man. The long, yellow arms twined themselves about the boy, and Tad felt himself going down.
With rare presence of mind the boy held his breath, making no effort to wrench himself free from the Chinaman's grip. He knew it would be effort wasted, and, besides, he preferred to save his strength until they reached the surface once more.
Half a dozen cowpunchers had plunged their ponies into the river, and were swimming toward the spot where Tad had been seen to go down, while the foreman was shouting frantic orders at them. The wagon had been ferried to the other side, and Stallings had run to his pony, on which he was now dashing madly along the river bank.
"Look out that you don't run them down!" he roared. "Keep your wits about you!"
"They're both down, already!" shouted a cowboy in reply.
"We'll lose the whole outfit at this rate," growled another. Yet, not a man was there, unless perhaps it may have been Lumpy Bates, who would not have risked his own life freely to save that of the plucky lad.
After going down a few feet, Tad began treading water with all his might. This checked their downward course and in a second or so he had the satisfaction of realizing that they were slowly rising. The current, however, was forcing them up at an angle.
This, to a certain extent, worked to the boy's advantage, for the Chinaman was underneath him, thus giving Tad more freedom than had their positions been reversed.
"There they are!" cried Big-foot Sanders as the Chinaman and his would-be rescuer popped into sight.
"Go after them!" commanded Stallings.
Urging their ponies forward by beating them with their quirts, the cowboys made desperate efforts to reach the two.
Tad managed to free one arm which he held above his head.
"The rope! He wants the rope! Rope him, you idiots!" bellowed the foreman.
Big-foot made a cast. However, from his position in the water, he could not make an accurate throw and the rope fell short.
Tad saw it. He was struggling furiously now, ducking and parrying the sweep of that long, yellow arm, with which Pong sought to grasp him.
A quick eddy caught the pair and swept them out into the center of the stream, around a bend where they were caught by the full force of the current. This left their pursuers yards and yards to the rear.
Tad saw that they would both drown, if he did not resort to desperate measures. Drawing back his arm, the lad drove a blow straight at Pong's head, but a swirl of the current destroyed the boy's aim and his fist barely grazed the cheek of the Chinaman.
Quick as a flash, Tad Butler launched another blow. This time the Chinaman's head was jolted backwards, Tad's fist having landed squarely on the point of the fellow's jaw.
But Pong was still struggling, and the lad completed his work by delivering another blow in the same place.
"I hope I haven't hurt him," gasped the boy.
Tad threw himself over on his back, breathing heavily and well-nigh exhausted. He kept a firm grip on the cook, however, supporting and keeping the latter's head above water by resting the Chinaman's neck on his arm as they floated with the current.
In the meantime, Stallings was dashing along the bank roaring out his orders to the cowboys, calling them ashore and driving them in further down. Yet, each time it seemed as though the floating pair drifted farther and farther away.
But Tad Butler was still cool. Now that he was getting his strength back, he began slowly to kick himself in toward shore, aiding in the process by long windmill strokes of his free arm.
He did not make the mistake of heading directly for the shore, but sought to make it by a long tack, moving half with the current and half against it. The lad had made up his mind that the cowboys would never reach them and that what was to be done must be done by himself.
"Can you make it?" called Stallings.
"Yes. But have some one—on the other side—toss me a rope—as soon as possible. I don't know—whether Pong—is done for—or not," answered the boy in short breaths.
Stallings plunged his pony into the current and swam for the other side. Reaching there, he galloped at full speed toward the point for which Tad seemed to be aiming.
The foreman rode into the water until it was up to his saddle and where the pony was obliged to hold its head high to avoid drowning.
There the foreman waited until the lad had gotten within roping distance.
"Turn in a little," directed Stallings. "You'll hit that eddy and land out in the middle, if you don't."
A moment more and the foreman's lariat slipped away from the circle it had formed above his head.
Tad held an arm aloft, and the loop dropped neatly over it. Stallings pulled it and Tad grasped the rope after the loop had tightened about his arm.
"Haul away," he directed.
The foreman turned his pony about and slowly towed cook and boy ashore.
The cowboys, observing that Tad was being hauled in, headed for the shore. Reaching it, they put spurs to their ponies and came down to the scene at a smashing gait.
Leaping off, they sprang into the water, picking up Tad and the Chinaman and staggering ashore with them.