Chapter XIV. A Narrow Escape
 

The Pony Riders awoke full of enthusiasm for the work of the day. Thus far, each day had held a new and wonderful experience for them, while those to come were destined to be even more full of stirring incidents.

Most of all, the boys looked forward to the hunting trips that had been promised. Next to that came the exploration of mountain caves. It was enough to gladden the heart of any boy.

Immediately they had arisen, they descended upon the guide in a body, demanding to know if they were to hunt that day.

"Depends upon Ben Tackers," answered Lige. "You remember what I told you last night. He'll let us know when it's time for our little excursion. I think we had best have another hour of target practice this morning."

This plan suited the boys so exactly that, after breakfast, they set to work cleaning their rifles. A dozen rounds of ammunition were placed in their cartridge belts, after which, the boys announced their readiness for practice.

"Get the ponies," directed the guide.

"Ponies? What for? We're not going to shoot the ponies, are we?" asked Ned Rector.

"I wouldn't advise it," grinned the guide. "I'll show you what I want after we have reached the range. I suppose you know that hunting in this country is quite generally done on horseback, so you will have to get used to that way of shooting. Also your ponies must become accustomed to the firing from their backs. Snap shooting on horseback is a trick you will have to learn. It may be the means of saving your lives some time when you are after wild game."

The boys made a rush to the spot where the ponies were staked. The little animals looked up in mild protest as their owners hastily threw on saddles, cinched the girths and slipped the bits into unwilling mouths.

Leading their ponies into camp, each boy, with gun slung over his shoulder, stood at the left of his mount, awaiting the command of his leader.

"Ready," announced Tad.

Four right hands grasped the saddle pommels, the left hands the manes.

"Mount!"

Four enthusiastic lads swung lightly into their saddles, gathering up the reins, and on the alert for the next command.

"Forward!" ordered Tad.

The Pony Riders clucked to the little animals and in single column filed slowly up the mountain pass.

The place that Lige Thomas had chosen for the target work was not an ideal one, being rough and uneven. Yet, as he explained to them, it represented general hunting conditions in the Rockies.

However, the boys did not care. Their ponies were sure-footed enough now, they thought, to warrant being trusted under ordinary conditions, while the boys themselves had no fear of their own ability to stick to their saddles.

Lige picked out a stump for the first target, on which he pinned a torn piece of newspaper.

This the boys were to shoot at with their ponies at the gallop. They were first to ride to the upper end of the range, after which, they were to gallop down the field, keeping to the right of the target, firing at will at any time before reaching a certain point designated by a handkerchief tied to a bush.

It was a proud and happy band that thundered down the field on the fleet-footed ponies, one at a time, discharging their weapons as they came bravely on.

At first the little animals objected, in no uncertain manner, to the crashing of the heavy guns over their heads. Chunky's horse reared and plunged until the boy was forced to drop his rifle and hang on desperately, while the pony tore about the field. The young man undoubtedly would have come to grief had not Tad Butler, observing that his companion had lost control of the animal, put spurs to Texas, and reining alongside of Stacy, grasped the pony by the bit, subduing it only after a lively struggle. During this contest Chunky had let go of the reins entirely, and was clinging to the pommel of the saddle with both hands.

"You take Texas and let me ride your pony for a couple of rounds," suggested Tad. "I'll see if I can't trim him into shape."

Stacy willingly relinquished his horse, and Tad, mounting the stubborn little animal, treated the party to as entertaining a bit of horsemanship as they ever had witnessed. After Tad had finished with the pony the animal, thoroughly subdued, made no further objections to the discharge of weapons all about and over him.

"Now, go ahead, Chunky," advised Tad. "If he cuts up any more just take a tight rein and give him the spur. But I think he'll be good without it."

Stacy had no further trouble with the pony after that. In fact, all the ponies soon accustomed themselves to the noise of the firing and the attendant excitement.

At first none of the boys seemed able to hit even the stump. Presently, though, little black patches began to appear on the white paper as the marksmen dashed by, each successful shot being greeted by a cheer of approval from the spectators.

"Those boys have the right stuff in them," said the guide to Professor Zepplin. "They shoot and ride like old hands already, though they don't hit the mark every time they shoot"

They are young Americans," smiled the Professor. "No other country in the world produces such types. As a foreigner I can appreciate that."

While they were talking, Tad was taking his turn at the target.

"Just look at that boy ride. That proves it," said the Professor.

Tad had dropped the bridle rein over the saddle bow as he neared the shooting mark. Rising in his stirrups, riding there as if he were a part of the animal itself, he was holding the bobbing rifle easily, eyes fixed on the mark that hung gleaming in the sunlight.

Suddenly the butt of the rifle sprang to his right shoulder, a flash of smoke and flame leaped from the muzzle of the gun, and a tiny black patch appeared, like magic, fairly in the center of the target.

Dropping to his saddle, half-turning his body, Tad Butler sent back a second shot hard on the report of the first one, once more planting a leaden pellet in the now well-riddled paper.

The boys sent up a whoop of approval.

"I guess that will do for to-day," decided the guide. "Got any charges left in your magazines?"

"I have," answered Chunky.

"Draw them, then."

"Yes," said Ned Rector. "Even though Chunky is beginning to get his eyes open, I don't consider myself safe so long as he has a loaded gun in his hands. What we shall do with him when we get after real game, and can't watch him every second, I don't know."

"Don't you bother about me. You've got enough to do looking after yourself," retorted Stacy sharply, much to the discomfiture of his tormentor.

The boys now turned campward, well satisfied with the morning's practice and with keen appetites for the noonday meal. Nothing had been seen of Ben Tackers, so their hopes for going hunting that day were shattered.

Yet they were given no opportunity to brood over their disappointment. Professor Zepplin and Lige Thomas still had a few surprises in store for them. Very cleverly, they had pieced these surprises along instead of giving them all to the lads at the beginning. Thus each day held its new interest, different from any that had preceded it.

"We will call this our shooting day, eh, Thomas?" smiled the Professor significantly.

"It has been."

"Then, perhaps you had best get out the other implements of warfare for our young gentlemen. It will keep them busy until supper time, furnishing something new as well."

With a knowing grin, Lige went to the cook tent, soon returning with an armful. At first the boys glanced at the bundle curiously, then with more interest as it began to assume shape and form to their eyes.

"What---what----" stammered Tad.

Stacy, whose eyes were wide open, was the first to recognize the articles, and as he did so, Lige dumped them on the ground.

"Bows and arrows," cried the boys, performing a grotesque war dance about the weapons.

"We'll be real Indians now, won't we?" chortled Chunky.

"They are only playthings," sniffed Ned. "What good are they when we have real rifles?"

"You'll find these bows and arrows real enough," answered the guide. "They were made by Indians, and some of them have been used by Indians, not only for hunting, but against men as well. A shot from one of those arrows might put an end to any one of you fully as quickly as would a bullet from one of your thirty-eights."

"Shall we help ourselves?" asked Ned.

"Wait. I'll divide them according to your size and strength. These two are war bows. I think I'll give them to Master Tad and Ned Rector. It takes a strong arm to pull them, and you'll want to be careful which way you shoot."

"I'll show you fellows how to shoot," averred Stacy. "I can beat any boy in the bunch with the bow and arrow. I learned the trick up in New England, where I come from. My ancestors learned it from the Indians, who used to shoot them up, and the trick has been handed down in my family. Somebody throw up his hat and see me pink it," he directed, stringing his bow skilfully.

The boys could not repress a smile at Chunky's self-praise.

"Here you go," said Ned, sending his sombrero spinning high in the air, hoping thereby to take Stacy so much by surprise that he would be unable to draw a bead on it.

But Chunky demonstrated that, however slow he might be in some other things, he could twang a bow with remarkable skill.

Even before the hat had spent its upward flight, Stacy Brown's bowstring sang, a slender dark streak sped through the air, its course laid directly for the hat of which its owner was so proud.

"Hi there! Look out! You're going to hit it!" warned Ned.

That was exactly what Stacy had intended to do, though none had had the slightest idea that he could shoot well enough to accomplish the feat.

To their astonishment, the keen-pointed arrow went fairly into the center of the hat, coming out at the crown, its feathered butt tearing a great rent in the peak of the sombrero as it passed through.

Ned groaned as he witnessed the disaster that had come upon his new hat. But he got no sympathy from the rest of the boys.

"I'll trade with you. You can wear mine," consoled Chunky, observing his companion's rueful countenance as he picked up the sombrero, sorrowfully surveying the rent in its peak. "I'll do nothing of the sort," snapped Ned. "I told you to shoot at it. It serves me right and I'll take my medicine like a man. If it rains, I'll stuff the hole full of leaves," he added humorously. "Then my umbrella will be just as good as yours."

"That's the talk," approved the boys. "Anybody else want to offer his hat to the sacrifice!" grinned Chunky.

"I think hereafter you had better use the blunt arrows unless you are shooting at game," advised the guide. "Those flint arrow heads are dangerous things for work such as yours. I'll pack them away, so there will be no danger of an accident."

After having practiced in camp for a time, the boys strayed off, hoping for a chance to try their skill on some live thing. To this the Professor made no objection, for they were now becoming so used to the mountains as to be quite well able to take care of themselves, unless they got too far from camp, which they were not likely to do.

Tad soon strolled away by himself, taking a course due south by his pocket compass. This led him directly over the range where they had been shooting earlier in the day, and the boy smiled with pride as he passed the target and counted up the bullet holes that his own rifle had made. He then pressed on, intending to enter the cedar forest that crowned a great ridge some distance beyoud him.

Before reaching there, however, Tad sat down in a rocky basin, to enjoy to the fullest the sense of being alone in the mountain fastness. His quiver was full of arrows, and the strong, business-like looking bow lay across his knees.

"If I could see a bob-cat now, I'd have something real to interest me," Tad confided to himself.

But not a sign of animal life did he observe anywhere about him.

Tad's right hand was resting on a small jagged stone beside him. It felt cool under his touch, and, after a little, the boy carelessly picked it up and looked at it. As he gazed, his eyes took on a different expression. The stone, in spots, sparkled brilliantly in the sunlight. He turned it over and over, examining it critically.

"I wonder if it is gold?" marveled the boy, his eyes growing large with wonder. "I'll take it back to camp and ask Lige."

Tad scrambled to his feet, but ere he could carry out his purpose of starting for camp, an unexpected and startling thing happened.

There was a whir, as of some object being hurled through the air. The boy experienced a stinging sensation on his right cheek, as the missile grazed it, and a stone the size of a man's hand clattered to the rocks several feet ahead of him, rolling over and over, finally toppling from a small cliff.

Some one had thrown the stone at him. Had it hit the boy's head fairly it almost surely would have killed him. Tad Butler needed no other evidence than that afforded by his own senses to tell him the missile was intended for him.

He whirled sharply. But not a person was in sight. All at once, however, the keen-eyed boy discovered a slight movement in the sage brush, a few rods to the rear of where he had been sitting.

Like a flash he whipped a blunt arrow from the quiver.

The bow twanged viciously, and the arrow sped straight into the sage brush. A yell of rage and a floundering about in the bush as if someone were running, told the boy that his shot had reached a human mark.

Pacing the sage, Tad had become conscious of the fact that before him lay a large black hole in the rocks, and he dimly realized that he had come upon a cave. But he gave the matter no further attention at that moment, his first thought being that he must get back to camp as quickly as possible.

Stringing his bow, Tad hurled another arrow into the brush, then bounded away, wondering vaguely who his mysterious enemy might be.