Chapter XIX. Lost in the Mountains
 

Fortunately, however, their fall proved to be a very short one, though to Tad it seemed as if they had been falling for an hour. Boy and horse landed on a soft, mossy bank, rolling over and over, the pony kicking and squealing with fear, until, finally, both came to a stop at the bottom of the hill.

Tad was unharmed, save for the unmerciful treatment he had received during his record-breaking journey. Yet, he proposed to take no further chances of losing his horse, if he had the good fortune to find the animal still alive. Tad came up like a rubber ball. With a quick leap, he threw himself fairly on the pony's side. The impact made the little horse grunt, his feet beating a tattoo in the air in his desperate struggles to free himself.

"Whoa!" commanded Tad sharply, sliding forward and sitting on the animal's head, which position he calmly maintained, until the pony, realizing the uselessness of further opposition, lay back conquered.

Yet the boy did not rise immediately. Instead, he patted the pony's neck gently, speaking soothing words and calming it until the animal's quivering muscles relaxed and it lay breathing naturally.

"Good boy, Jimmie," he said, recognizing the pony as Ned's. "Now, after you have rested a bit we'll see what we can do about getting back to camp. If I'm any judge, you and I are not going to have a very easy time of it on the back track, either, Jimmie."

Without a compass, with only a hazy idea of the direction in which they had been traveling, Tad's task indeed was a difficult one.

"I think we'll walk a bit, Jimmie," he confided to the pony, and, taking the little animal by the bridle, began leading it cautiously up the slope, which he ascended by a roundabout course, remembering the jump they had taken on the way down. Tad was not likely to forget that.

The boy's eyes were heavy for want of sleep and his wounds pained him beyoud words. After somewhat more than an hour's journey he pulled up, looking about him.

"I am afraid we two pards are lost, Jimmie."

The pony rubbed its nose against him as if in confirmation of the lad's words.

"And the further we go, the more we shall be lost. Jimmie, the best thing for you and me to do will be to go to bed. Lie down, Jimmie, that's a good boy."

As Tad tapped the pony gently on the knees the little animal slowly lowered himself to the ground, finally rolling over on his side with a snort.

"Good boy," soothed Tad. Then snuggling down, with the pony's neck for his pillow, the bridle rein twisted about one hand, Tad went as sound asleep as if he had not a care in the world, and without thought of the perils which the mountains about them held.

Yet some good fairy must have been watching over Tad Butler, for not a sound broke the stillness until a whinny from Jimmie at last disturbed his slumbers.

The boy opened his eyes in amazement. It was broad daylight.

Tad's first care was to tether the pony to a sapling, after which he searched about until he found a mountain stream, in which he washed, feeling greatly refreshed afterward. He then treated the pony as he had himself, washing the animal down, and allowing it to quench it's thirst in the stream.

"Not much of a breakfast, is it, Jimmie? But you can help yourself to leaves. That's where you have the best of me. Not being a horse, I can't eat leaves. I wonder where I am!"

Gazing about him inquiringly, the boy failed to recognize the landscape at all. In fact, he did not believe he ever had seen it before. When the sun rose he declared to himself that it had come right up out of the west. What little sense of direction he might have had left was entirely lost after this, and Tad sat down to think matters over.

Once he raised his head sharply and listened. He was sure that he had heard a shot, far off toward the rising sun.

Tad wished with all his heart, that he had his rifle with him, for he realized that with it he might be able to attract attention.

"I certainly cannot sit here and starve to death," he decided after Jimmie had satisfied his own hunger from the fresh green leaves. "Come on, Jimmie; we'll go somewhere, anyway.

Saying which, Tad methodically patched the broken bridle rein together, mounted the pony's bare back and set off to climb the low mountain that loomed ahead of him.

He had gone on thus for nearly two hours, without finding any trace of either the camp or his late companions, when a sound off in the bushes to the right of him caused him to pull Jimmie up sharply. Jimmie pricked up his ears and whinnied.

"That's strange," muttered Tad. "He wouldn't be likely to do that if it was a wild animal over there. Judging from past experiences, he'd run."

Once more did Jimmie set up a loud whinny, and to Tad's surprise and delight, the signal was answered by a similar call off in the sage brush.

"It's a horse. I believe it's one of the ponies," cried Tad, turning his mount in the direction from which the sounds had seemed to come, and galloping rapidly toward the place. Next, the boy uttered a shout of joy.

His delight was great, after he had penetrated the sage, to come suddenly upon a pony contentedly munching a mouthful of green leaves, and gazing at him with great wondering eyes.

"Texas!" shouted the boy.

Tad had indeed come upon his own faithful little pony.

"Texas, you rascal, you come right here. What do you mean by running away from me like this?"

Texas swished his tail, shaking his head and stamping his feet as if in mute protest at his owner's chiding.

Yet the pony made no attempt to run away as his master rode up beside him. Leaping to the ground, Tad petted the animal, throwing his arms about its neck, as if he had found a long lost friend. The two ponies, too, rubbed noses, and in other ways expressed their satisfaction at once more being together.

Now, reassured, and almost as well satisfied as if he had eaten a hearty breakfast, Tad mounted his own pony, and, taking Jimmie in tow, pressed on once more, hoping eventually to come out somewhere near the camp.

But the boy's companions had not been idle. Lige had prepared their breakfast without waking them. When he called them they sprang up, rubbing their eyes, and a few minutes later gathered around the hot meal.

"What is the first thing this morning?" asked Ned after learning that Tad had not yet returned.

"Breakfast," answered the guide. "Next, we'll look for the ponies, then go after Master Tad."

More fortunate in their search than they had hoped for, the party within the hour succeeded in rounding up all the ponies save Jimmie and Texas. One of the two they knew Tad had gone away with, so, after a council, it was decided to take the animals they had captured and make an effort to find Tad Butler.

"I'm going to try an experiment," announced Lige, after they had returned to camp with the stock.

Calling the hounds, Ginger and Mustard, to him, the guide allowed them to sniff the saddles and saddle cloths of Jimmie and Texas. After that, he showed them Tad Butler's hat.

The intelligent animals, after sniffing attentively at the articles, looked up at the guide as much as if to say: "Well, what about it?"

"Go after them! Fetch them, Ginger and Mustard!" he urged.

With noisy barks, the dogs began running about the camp with noses to the ground, sniffing at the ponies again and again, the little party in the meantime, watching them with keen interest.

All at once, with a deep bay, Mustard struck out for the bushes, followed an instant later by Ginger.

"They've got it! They've got it!" shouted Lige. "That's the way Tad went. Now, if those brutes don't get sidetracked on the trail of a bob-cat, we ought to round up some of our missing friends."

Lige bade Ned to accompany him on Jo-Jo, and directed the others to remain in camp--not to move from it until their return. Then the two horsemen set off at a gallop, following the swiftly moving dogs.

Lige knew that he was on the right track, for Tad, as he was dragged through the bushes, had left a plainly marked trail--that is, plain to the experienced eyes of the mountain guide, who nodded his head with satisfaction as he noted the course the dogs were taking.

Tad pulled up his pony, and, leaning forward, listened intently.

He faintly caught the distant baying of a hound.

Placing a hand to his mouth, he gave a long, piercing war whoop.

The dogs' baying seemed to come nearer. Now and then, as the animals sank into a ravine, the sound would be lost momentarily, only to be taken up again with added force when the crest of the hill was reached.

Once more, Tad sent out his long, thrilling war-cry.

It was answered by a rifle shot, but from the perplexing echoes he was unable to place it. The ponies now pricked up their ears inquiringly. Jimmie snorted, and, for the moment, acted as if he were ready to bolt again. Tad slapped him smartly on the flanks, sternly commanding him to stand still.

"There they are!" cried the boy, as the dogs, stretched out to their full lengths, with tails held straight out behind them, swept down a gentle slope on the other side of the valley, and, taking the hill on his side, rose rapidly to the pinnacle where he was sitting on his pony.

"Ginger! Mustard!" was the glad cry uttered by Tad Butler, as the dogs, yelping with joy at the sound of his voice, came bounding to him, while the ponies reared and plunged in the excess of their excitement.

Tad leaped from his mount, petting and fondling the hounds, hugging them as they leaped upon him, and shouting at the top of his voice, as he heard still another shot on the other side of the hill.

A few moments later, he made out the figures of two horsemen on the opposite ridge, following on in the trail of the dogs. They were Ned Rector and the guide, Lige Thomas.

The two set up a glad shout as they made out Tad, waving his arms and gesticulating.

"Come on, doggies! It's breakfast for us, now!" cried Tad, leaping to Texas' back, leading Jimmie dashing down the hill to meet the oncoming horsemen.

"Hooray!" welcomed Ned Rector.

And amid the shouts of the boys and the barking of the dogs, rescuers and rescued drew swiftly toward each other.