Chapter XI. Caught in a Living Rope
 

"Quick! Peg out the mules!" cried San Pedro, after one look at the onrushing horses. "Drive the stakes well down! Tie them fast and then get behind those rocks! Lively!"

He cried his orders to the natives in Spanish, at the same time motioning to Tom and Ned.

"Get off your mules!" he went on. "Peg them out. Peg out the others, and then run for it!"

"Run for it?" repeated Tom, "Do you think I'm going to leave my outfit in the midst of that stampede?" and he waved his hand toward the thundering, galloping wild horses which were coming nearer every moment. "Get out the electric rifles, and we'll turn that stampede. I'm not going to run."

"Bless my saddle!" cried Mr. Damon. "This is awful! There must be a thousand of them."

"Nearer two!" cried Ned, who was struggling to loosen the straps that bound his electric rifle to the side of his mule. Already the pack animals as well as those ridden by the members of the giant- hunting party were showing signs of excitement. They seemed to want to join the stampeding horses.

"Peg our animals out! Peg them out! Make them so they can't join the others!" yelled San Pedro. "It's our only chance!"

"I believe he's right!" cried Mr. Damon. "Tom, if we wait until those maddened brutes are up to us they'll fairly sweep ours along with them, and there's no telling where we'll end up. I think we'd better follow his advice and tie our mules as strongly as we can. Then we can go over there by the rocks, and fire at the wild horses. We may be able to turn them aside."

"Guess that's right," agreed the young inventor after a moment's thought. "Come on, Ned. Peg out!"

"Peg out! Peg out!" yelled the natives, and then began a lively scene. Pegging stakes were in readiness, and, attached to the bridle of each mule was a strong, rawhide rope for tying to the stake. The pegs were driven deeply into the ground and in a trice the animals were made fast to them, though they snorted, and tried to pull away as they heard the neighing of the stampeding animals and saw them coming on with an irresistible rush.

"Hurry!" begged San Pedro, and hurry Tom, Ned and the others did. Animal after animal was made fast--that is all but one and that bore on its back two rather large but light boxes--the contents of the case which Tom had rescued from the fire in the hold.

"What are you going to do with mule?" asked Ned, as he saw Tom begin to lead the animal away, the others having been pegged out.

"I'm going to take him over to the rocks with me. I'm not going to take any chances on this mule getting away with those things in the boxes. Give me a hand here, and then we'll see what the electric rifles will do against those horses."

But the one mule which Tom had elected to take with him seemed to resent being separated from his companions. Bracing his feet well apart, the animal stubbornly refused to move.

"Come on!" yelled Tom, pulling on the leading rope.

"Bless my porous plaster!" cried Mr. Damon. "You'd better hurry, Tom! Those wild horses are almost on us!"

"I'm trying to hurry!" replied the young inventor, "but this mule won't come. Ned, get behind and shove, will you?"

"Not much! I don't want to be kicked."

"Beat him! Strike him! Wait until I get a club!" yelled San Pedro. "Come, Antonia, Selka, Balaka!" he cried, to several of the natives who had already started for the sheltering rocks a short distance away. "Beat the mule for Senor Swift!"

Ned joined Tom at the leading rope, and the two lads tried to pull the animal along. Mr. Damon rushed over to lend his aid, and San Pedro, catching up a long stick, was about to bring it down on the mule's back. Meanwhile the stampeding animals were rushing nearer.

"Hold on dere, Massa Tom!" suddenly called Eradicate. "Yo'-all done flustered dat mule, dat's what yo' done. Yo'-all am too much excited 'bout him. Be calm! Be calm!"

"Calm! With that bunch of wild animals bearing down on us?" shouted Tom. "Let's see you be calm, Rad. Come on here, you obstinate brute!" he cried, straining on the rope.

"Let me do it, Massa Tom. Let me do it," suggested the colored man hurrying to the balky beast.

Then, as gently as if he was talking to a nervous child, and totally oblivious to the danger of the approaching horses, Eradicate went up to the mule's head, rubbed its ears until they pointed naturally once more, murmured something to it, and then, taking the rope from Ned and Tom, Eradicate led the mule along toward the rocks as easily as if there had never been any question about going there.

"For the love of tripe! How did you do it?" asked Tom.

"Bless my peck of oats!" gasped Mr. Damon. "It's a good thing we had Rad along!"

"All mules am alike," said the colored man with a grin. "An dish yeah one ain't much different from mah Boomerang. I guess he's a sorter cousin."

"Come on!" yelled San Pedro. "No time to lose. Make for the rocks!"

Tom, Ned and Mr. Damon sprinted then, and there was need to, for the foremost of the galloping horses was not a hundred feet away. Then came Eradicate, leading the mule that had at last consented to hurry. The natives, with San Pedro, were already at the rocks, waiting for the white hunters with the deadly electric rifles.

"If they stampede our mules we'll be in a pickle!" murmured Ned.

"I guess those ropes will hold unless they bite them through," remarked Tom.

"Yes, they sure hold," cried San Pedro, and indeed one had to shout now to be heard above the thundering of the horses. Now the tethered mules were lost to sight in the multitude of the other steeds all about them.

"Come on, Ned!" yelled Tom, as he sighted his rifle. "Pump it into them! We must turn them, or they may come over this way, and if they do it will be all up with us."

"Shoot to kill?" asked Ned, as he drew back the firing lever of his electric rifle.

"No, only a stunning charge. Those horses are valuable, and there's no use killing them. All we want to do is to turn them aside."

"That's right," agreed Mr. Damon, forgetting in the excitement of the moment to bless himself or anything. "We'll only stun them."

The rifles were quickly adjusted to send out a comparatively weak charge of electricity, and then they were trained on the dense mass of horses, while the three marksmen began working the firing levers.

At first, though horse after horse fell to the ground, stunned, there was no appreciable effect on the thousands in the drove. The poor mules were hidden from sight, though by reason of divisions in the living stream of animals it could still be told where they were tethered, and where the horses separated to go past them. Fortunately the ropes and pegs held.

"Fire faster!" cried Tom. "Shoot across the front of them, and try to turn them to one side."

From the rocks, behind which the natives and our friends crouched, there came a steady stream of electric fire. Horse after horse went down, stunned but not badly hurt, and in a few hours the beasts would feel no ill effects. The firing was redoubled, and then there came a break in the steady stream of horseflesh.

Some hesitated and sought to turn back. Others, behind, pressed them on, and then, as if in fear at the unknown and unseen power that was laying low animal after animal, the great body, of horses, suddenly turned at right angles to their course and broke away. There were now two bodies of the wild runaways, those that had passed the tethered mules, and those that had swung off. The stampede had been broken.

"That's the stuff!" cried Tom, jumping up from behind the rocks, and swinging his hat. "We've turned them."

"And just in time, too," added Ned, as he joined his chum. Then all the others leaped up, and the sight of the human beings completed the scare. The stampeding animals swung off more than before, so that they were nearly doubling back on their own trail. The others thundered off, and the ground was strewn with unconscious though unharmed animals.

"One mule gone!" cried San Pedro, hastily counting the still tethered animals which were wildly tugging at their ropes.

"Never mind," spoke Tom, "it's the one with some of that damaged bartering stuff I intended for trading. We can afford to lose that. Rad, is your animal all right?"

"He suah am, Massa Tom. Dish yeah mule am almost as sensible as Boomerang, ain't yo'?" and Eradicate patted the big animal he was leading.

"I'll send a man down the trail, and maybe he can pick up the missing one," said San Pedro, and while the other natives were quieting the restless mules, one tall black man hastened in the wake of the retreating horses.

He came back in an hour with the missing animal, that had broken its tether rope and then, after running along with the wild horses had evidently dropped out of the drove. Aside from the loss of a small box, there had been no damage done, and the cavalcade was soon under way once more, leaving the motionless horses to recover from the effects of the electricity.

"Bless my saddle pad!" cried Mr. Damon. "I don't think I want to go through anything like that again."

"Neither do I," agreed Tom. "We are well out of it."

"How much you take for one of them rifles?" asked San Pedro admiringly.

"Not for sale," answered Tom with a laugh.

They camped in a fertile valley that night, and had a much-needed rest. As yet Tom had made no inquiries as to the location of giant land from any of the natives of the villages or towns through which they passed. He knew as soon as he did begin asking questions, his own men would hear of it, and they might be frightened if they knew they were in an expedition the object of which was to capture some of the tall men.

"We'll just go along for a few days more," said Tom, to Ned, "and then, when I do spring my surprise, they'll be so far from home that they won't dare turn back. In a few days I'll begin making inquiries."

They traveled on for three days more, ever heading north, and coming more into the warmer climate. The vegetation began to take on a more tropical look, and finally they reached a region infested with many wild beasts and monkeys, and with patches of dense jungle on either side of the narrow trail. Fruits, tropical flowers and birds abounded.

"I think we're getting there," remarked Tom, on the evening of the third day after his talk with Ned. "San Pedro says there's quite a village about half a day's march ahead, and I may learn something there. I'll know by to-morrow whether we are on the right trail or not."

The natives were getting supper, and Eradicate was busy with a meal for the three white hunters. Mr. Damon had strolled down to the bank of a little stream, and was looking at some small animals like foxes that had come for their evening drink. They seemed quite fearless.

Suddenly something long, round and thick seemed to drop down out of a tree close to the odd gentleman. So swift and noiseless was it that Mr. Damon never noticed it. Then, like a flash something went around him, and he let out a scream of terror.

San Pedro, who was nearest to him, saw and heard. The next instant the black muleteer came rushing toward the camp, crying:

"He is caught in a rope! Mr. Damon is caught in a rope!"

"A rope!" repeated Ned. not understanding.

"Yes, a rope in a tree. Come quickly!"

Tom caught up one of the electric rifles and rushed forward. No sooner had he set eyes on his friend, who was writhing about in the folds of what looked like a big ship cable, then the young inventor cried:

"A rope! Yes, a living rope! That's a big boa constrictor that has Mr. Damon! Get a gun, Ned, and follow me! We must save him before he is crushed to death!"

And the two lads rushed forward while the living rope drew its folds tighter and tighter about the unfortunate man.