Chapter XVIII. On a Perilous Hide
 

"Grab him! Don't let him get by you!"

One of the ponies swept by Tad Butler like a black projectile. The boy's hand shot out, fastening itself in the pony's mane.

Tad's feet left the ground instantly, his body being jerked violently into the air, only to strike the earth again a rod further on. So rapidly was the pony moving, that the boy was unable to pull himself up sufficiently to mount it.

Almost in a twinkling Tad had been lifted out of the camp and whisked from the sight of his companions. The lad was taking what he realized to be the most perilous ride of his life.

As soon as he was able to get his breath, he began coaxing the pony, but the continual bobbing of his body against the side of the terrified animal outweighed the persuasive tones of his urging. With each bump, the little animal, with a frightened snort, would leap into the air and plunge ahead again.

Tad did not know to which of the ponies he was clinging. Nor did he find an opportunity to satisfy himself on this point.

His flesh was torn from contact with thorns, while his face was ribbed from the whipping it had received by being dragged through the thick undergrowth, until tiny rivulets of blood trickled down his cheeks and neck.

Yet Tad Butler clung to the mane of the racing pony with desperate courage. He had not the slightest thought of letting go until ho should finally have subdued the animal.

"Whoa, Texas! Whoa, Jimmie! Whoa, Jo-Jo!" he soothed, trying the name of each of the ponies in turn. But it was all to no purpose. Finally, the little animal slackened its speed, somewhat, as it began the ascent of a steep rise of ground. Tad took instant advantage of the opportunity, and, after great effort, succeeded in throwing his right hand over the pony's back. Then his right leg was jerked up. It came down violently on the animal's rump.

Startled, the pony sprang forward once more, causing Tad to slide back to his former unpleasant position. But the boy had succeeded in getting a mane-hold with his right hand as well. This was a distinct gain, besides relieving the fearful strain on his left hand, the fingers of which were now cramped and numb. Hardly any sense of feeling remained in them. Instead of being dragged along on his left side, the plucky lad was now able, with great effort, to keep his face to the front.

"If I could only get my hand on his nose and pinch it now, I'd stop him," breathed Tad Butler.

In the meantime, excitement at the camp was at fever heat. Lige had failed to bring down the cougar and every one of the ponies had disappeared.

"Bring torches!" commanded the guide calmly, not wishing to let the boys see that he was in the least disturbed. "We must try to round up some of the stock. One of you build up the fire."

"But Tad?" urged Walter. "Don't you know Tad's gone? He'll be lost. We must go after him at once."

"That's what I want you to start the fire for--so he can see it. He'll come back with the pony. No fear about that, for Tad Butler is not the boy to give up until he has accomplished what he's set out to do. One of you must remain here, though, while the rest of us go out to look for the stock. Will you stay, Ned?"

"I will," answered the boy, though far from relishing the task assigned to him.

"You have your rifle. Signal us by shooting into the air if anything happens. But be careful. Don't get the 'buck fever' and let go at us, or at Tad, if he should return before we get back."

"I'll be careful," answered the boy. "Please don't worry about me. Any danger of that cougar jumping down on me here?" he asked, glancing apprehensively at the rocks overhead.

"I think not. He's gone. We shall be more likely to see him than you will. It's the ponies the brute's after. And he may have gotten one of them before this," added the guide.

Ned pluckily took his station just outside the circle of light formed by the replenished fire, and sat down with rifle laid across his knees.

The guide, with Walter Perkins and Stacy Brown, set off at a trot in search of the stampeded ponies. At Lige's direction they spread out so as to cover as much ground as possible, the torches making it well nigh impossible for any of them to get lost.

"Call your ponies," advised the guide. "We may be able to pick up some of them in that way after they have spent themselves."

Yet, though the forest rang with their calls, no trace were they able to find of the missing animals.

"No use," announced Lige finally. "We shall only get lost ourselves. It will be better to return to camp and wait for daylight. If the cougar is going to eat any of them, he probably has them by this time. However, I think my shooting has frightened him off, and that he is several miles from here by now. That was my main object in wasting so much ammunition on the beast."

"Yes, but what are we going to do about Tad?" insisted Walter.

"If he has not returned, we can do nothing more than to keep the fire burning and discharge our guns now and then to let him know where we are. When daylight comes, I probably shall be able to follow his trail. But first of all we must get the ponies. We can do nothing without them."

"Do you think we ever shall find them?" asked Stacy.

"I most certainly hope so. At least, I expect to get some of them. If any are then missing, we can buy a couple at Eagle Pass, which is not very far. But you trust Master Tad to take care of himself. He'll get back somehow, My duty is to remain with you boys. We will look him up together when we get something to ride on."

The little band trudged ruefully through the dark forest on their return to camp, guided carefully by Lige, without whom they surely would have lost their way.

In the meantime, Tad had been dragged over an entire mountain range, the ranges in this case, however, being no more than a succession of summits of low peaks. The pony had reached the top of one of these when, without pausing in its mad course, it dashed on over the crest, and started down the opposite side.

All at once Tad realized that they were treading on thin air. The meaning of it all, smote him like a blow.

"We're over the cliff!" he groaned.