Chapter XX. The Dogs Tree a Cat
 

Walter and Chunky finally made out Tad, tattered and torn, but riding his pony proudly, approaching the camp. It was a warm welcome that the two boys extended to the returning horsemen, after they had finally dismounted and staked down their ponies. The plucky lad was kept busy for some time telling them of his thrilling experience on the wild ride of the night before.

"And now, I guess we had better lay up for the day," decided the guide. "You must be pretty well tired out after your little trip. The rest of us didn't get much sleep last night, either."

"No," protested Tad. "I never was more fit in my life. I am crazy to start on our hunting trip."

"So are we," shouted the boys in chorus.

"All right, then. Pack up while Tad is getting something to eat. He must have a large-sized appetite by this time," smiled Lige Thomas.

"If I had a chunk of that bear meat that we got the other day, I'd show you what sort of an appetite I have," laughed Tad. "There's something about this mountain air that would lead a man to sell his blouse for a square meal. Where's my rifle?"

"Over there by your bunk," answered Walter. "You go ahead and eat. We'll pack the pony for you while you are breakfasting."

Tad did so, and an hour later the Pony Riders were once more in the saddle.

"I think I'll put the dogs on the trail of the fellow that upset our plans so thoroughly last night," decided Lige. "He probably is a long way from here by this time, but it will be a good trail to warm the hounds up on."

Bidding the boys draw down the valley half a mile or so, where he said he would join them, Lige went in the opposite direction, and, picking his way along a ledge, sent the dogs on ahead of him. The hounds soon scented the trail, though on the bare rocks they had considerable difficulty in picking it up.

After watching them for a few moments, Lige urged them out into the brush, where he thought the scent might be more marked. His judgment was verified when, a moment later, a yelp from Mustard told him the faithful animal had picked up the trail at last.

Turning back, the guide hastened to the foot of the mountain, whence he galloped down the valley to join the boys, who, having heard the deep baying of the hounds, were restless to be off.

"What are they doing?" called Walter, observing Lige approaching.

"They're after the cougar. Set your horses at a gallop."

The Pony Riders needed no urging, for they were keen for the excitement of the chase. The hounds, by this time, had obtained quite a lead on them, though the boys still could hear their hoarse voices.

"They are following the ridge yet," decided Lige. "The fellow ought to cross over pretty soon. I think if we will turn to the left, here, and climb the mountain, we may be able to save some distance. But don't speak to the dogs if they pass anywhere near you. It might throw them off the scent."

Half an hour after they had turned off, they were rewarded by seeing the dogs racing down the opposite hill, in great leaps and bounds, crossing the valley a short quarter of a mile ahead of the party.

The ponies, which had been walking since they turned off, were now sent forward at a slow gallop again, soon falling in close behind the hounds.

"They've got him!" cried Lige.

"Got who?" asked Chunky.

"I don't know. The cougar, I presume. Don't you hear them?"

"I hear the dogs barking, that's all," replied Ned.

"And I hear more than that," said the guide, with a peculiar smile. "Don't you distinguish a difference in the tone of one of the dogs' bark?"

"No, I don't," snapped Chunky. "All barks sound alike to me."

"Mustard is baying 'treed,'" said the guide. "Hurry, if you want to be in at the death. If you don't the dogs either will kill him or get killed before we can reach them."

Putting spurs to their mounts, the hunters set off at a livelier gallop, and soon the deep tones of the hounds began to grow louder. Now, too, the boys were able to catch a new note--a note almost of triumph, it seemed to them, in the dogs' hoarse baying.

"Stick to your ponies. Don't leave them. If it's a cougar, he is liable to stampede them again. And don't any of you shoot until I give you the word."

"There he is!" cried Tad, pointing to a low-spreading pinyon tree. "I can see him moving around in the top there. May I take a shot at him, Mr. Thomas?"

"No; do you want to kill the dogs?"

"The dogs?"

"Certainly. That is one of the dogs up there. Probably Mustard," said the guide.

"What's that? Dogs climb trees?" demanded Chunky, laughing uproariously.

"Keep still! Do you want to spoil our fun?" growled Ned.

"The idea! Dogs climb trees!" And Chunky Brown went off into a paroxysm of silent mirth, his rotund body convulsed with merriment.

"Mustard can climb a tree as well as you can, if not better," answered Lige sharply. "Use your eyes, and you will see for yourself. That is one of the dogs that you see in the tree there-- not a cougar. Ah! There goes the other one!" he cried, pointing with his rifle.

And, sure enough, it was.

"It's Ginger!" exclaimed Walter in amazement.

The hound was creeping cautiously up the sloping trunk of the spreading tree, following in the wake of his companion, whose presence in the tree was indicated only by the movement of the slender limbs which he fastened upon to keep from losing his balance.

"What are they after?' asked Ned. "Perhaps a cougar. I can't tell, yet," replied the guide, keeping his eye fixed on the tree.

A yelp of pain and anger followed close upon his words, and a dark object came plunging from the tree.

"There goes one of the dogs!" shouted Lige. "That's too bad."

The hound had approached too close to the animal in the tree, and a mighty paw had smitten it fairly on the nose, hurling it violently to the ground.

Mustard, nothing daunted, scrambled to his feet with an angry roar, the blood trickling from his injured nose, and pluckily began digging his claws into the bark of the pinyon tree, up which he slowly pulled himself again.

"Well, if that doesn't beat all!" marveled Chunky. "He is climbing that tree!"

"He surely is," agreed Walter, his eyes fairly bulging with surprise at the unusual spectacle. "And there's the other one away up in the top there. Why doesn't he fall off?"

"He prefers to remain up a tree, I imagine," laughed Ned Rector, without withdrawing his gaze from the unusual exhibition.

A squall of rage from the tree top caused the boys to draw their reins tighter, the ponies champing at their bits and pawing restlessly. The ugly sound thrilled the lads through and through. The deep, menacing growl of the dog that was crawling up the sloping trunk voiced his anxiety to take part in the desperate battle that was being waged above them.

"Ginger's got hold of him!" shouted the guide.

"Got hold of who?" demanded Chunky.

"You'll see in a minute," growled Ned.

"Look out! There he comes!" came the warning voice of the guide. "Back, out of the way!"

From the dense foliage, as if suddenly projected from a great bow, leaped the curving body of the animal that the dogs had been harassing.

With a snarl of rage it landed lightly, almost at the feet of the assembled Pony Riders.

Stacy chanced to be nearest to the spot where the beast struck the ground. As it did so, his pony rose suddenly into the air. The boy, so intently watching the battle, had carelessly allowed his reins to drop from his hand to the neck of his mount.

"I'm going to fall off!" yelled Stacy, grabbing frantically for the pommel of his saddle.

He missed the pommel and slipped from the leather. Striking the smooth back of the horse, he tobogganed down and over the pony's rump in a flash, sitting down on the ground with a suddenness that caused him to utter a loud "Ouch!"

"He-help!" gasped the boy.

Before the snorting pony's fore feet had touched the earth. Tad made a grab for the bit, and was jerked from his own pony as a result. But still he clung doggedly to his own bridle rein with one hand, hanging to the other plunging animal with the other.

The others of the party were having all they could do to manage their own horses, and hence were unable to offer Tad any assistance at that moment. So mixed in the melee of flying hoofs and plunging bodies was Tad Butler, that for a few seconds the onlookers were quite unable to tell which was pony and which was boy.

Yet the lad was amply able to fight his own battles, and he was doing so with a grim determination that knew not failure. The ponies already were lessening their frantic efforts to get away.

"It's a bob-cat!" shouted Lige, as soon as he had succeeded in swinging his horse about so he could get a good view of the animal, which was now bounding away.

Throwing his rifle to his shoulder, the guide took a snap shot at the fleeing cat, which now was no more than an undulating black streak. His bullet kicked up a little cloud of dirt just behind the bob-cat, which served only to hasten its pace. A moment more and the little animal had plunged head first into a depression in the ground and quickly crawled into a hole, probably its home.

"Too bad," groaned Ned Rector. "Now, we've lost him."

"Never mind," soothed Lige. "There are more of them in the mountains. Besides, it's a good experience for you, before we tackle bigger game. We'll see if we can't bag a cat before the day is over."

Chunky pulled himself up ruefully, rubbing his body and pinching himself to make sure that no serious damage had been done. Satisfying himself on this point, he straightened up, gazing from one to the other of his companions pityingly.

"You fellows make me weary," he growled.

"The whole bunch of you can't do with guns what I did with a little stick. Gimme my pony."

"It occurs to me," retorted Tad, after having subdued the ponies, "that you weren't doing much of anything, either. If I remember correctly, you were sitting on the ground during most of the circus."