Chapter XXI. A Cougar at Bay
 

The dogs did not succeed in picking up another trail that day, so, late in the afternoon, the guide directed them to make camp by a stream, under the tall, clustering spruces in a deep ravine.

Tired from their hard run, the hounds threw themselves down by the cool stream to satisfy their thirst. Mustard employed his time in licking his wounded nose, where the claws of the bob-cat had raked it. Altogether the two animals appeared more disappointed over the loss of their quarry than did the boys themselves. While responding to the caresses of their young masters, the dogs were irritable to the point of snapping angrily at each other whenever they approached one another close enough to do so.

"They don't seem to enjoy each other's company," said Stacy, observing the animals curiously.

"They're always that way after a chase," answered the guide. "They will be friendly to their masters, but extremely irritable to each other. By to-morrow morning the hounds will be bosom friends, you will find."

"Humph! I wouldn't like to belong to that family," decided Chunky.

Next morning, Lige decided that it would he best to move further north for cougar, they having failed to strike the trail of any on the previous day. Somehow, the dogs had lost the trail of the one that had so recently disturbed the camp, picking up the scent of the bob-cat instead.

This frequently was the case, as the guide informed them while they were riding along in the fresh morning air. The dogs had not been freed yet, Lige leading them along by the side of his pony on a long leash.

Tad was trailing along a few rods to the rear. A sudden exclamation from him caused the others to pull up sharply.

The lad's eyes were fixed on a tree a short distance ahead of him beneath which the party had just passed.

"What is it?" demanded Lige in a low voice.

As if in answer to his question, the hounds uttered a deep, menacing growl.

Tad made no reply, but signaled with his hand that they were to remain quietly where they were.

They saw him slip off the strap that held the rifle to his back and bring the weapon around in front of him. There he paused, holding the gun idly in one hand, his gaze still fixed on the top of the tree.

All at once the butt of the rifle leaped to his shoulder. There was a puff of smoke, a crash, followed by a loud squall, and a great floundering about among the branches.

Without lowering the weapon from his shoulder, the young hunter let go another shot.

The squalling ceased suddenly, but the disturbance in the tree continued, sounding as if some heavy body were falling through the branches.

This proved to be the case. In a moment more the animal he had fired at came tumbling down, landing in a quivering heap at the foot of the tree.

Tad lowered the muzzle of his smoking weapon, gazing in keen satisfaction at the victim of his successful shot.

"Good shot!" glowed Lige. "It's a cat." Yet, before he could dismount, the hounds had wrenched themselves free and pounced upon the body of the dead bob-cat. With savage growls they tore the sleek hide into ribbons, on one side, and were devouring the flesh of the animal ravenously.

The hide was ruined.

"Let them alone!" ordered Lige. "That's the only fun they get out of the game. They'll be keen to get on the track of a cougar, now that they have tasted blood." And so it proved.

With their first big game, on this trip, at their feet, the boys were eager to be off for the haunts of the cruel cougar. To their disappointment, however, they were able to sight nothing more interesting than a gaunt gray wolf, at which Ned took a long shot and missed.

"Might as well try to hit a razor's edge at that distance," said Lige. "They have no flesh on them at all, to speak of, now----"

"Will they bite?" asked Chunky innocently. "A pack of them would eat you, bones and all, in a few moments," grinned Lige.

Chunky shuddered.

"But the gray wolf, when taken young, makes an ideal pet. Some of the best cougar hounds I nave ever seen were trained wolves, working with a pack of regular hounds, of course," he explained. Leaving the carcass of the bob-oat for the ravens and magpies, which were already hovering about in the tall trees awaiting their turn at it, the hunters moved on.

No other game being found that day, the party turned eastward, where camp was made, this time on the flat top of a low-lying mountain. Nor was it until late the following afternoon that the dogs appeared to have struck a promising lead. From the way they worked Lige thought they were trailing a black bear.

Forcing the ponies into a brisk trot, the boys still found themselves falling behind the hounds. Then, at the guide's suggestion, they went in chase at a lively gallop.

The run continued for somewhat more than two hours, until the ponies began to lag, and until every bone in the bodies of the hunters seemed to be crying aloud for rest. The going had been rougher than any they had yet experienced.

Now they found themselves in a country differing materially from any they had yet explored. The hills were lower and thickly studded with trees, the whole resembling an exaggerated rolling prairie.

"They've got him this time," announced the guide.

"Got what?" demanded Chunky.

"We'll know soon," answered Lige directing the boys to urge their ponies along, and at a rapid pace they came up with the hounds some twenty minutes later.

They were fighting some animal in a dense copse. It was a dinful racket they made in their desperate battle.

"It's a cougar," explained Lige. "No cat would make such a rumpus. Look out for yourselves. I guess you had better lead the ponies off to the right, there, and stake them securely, for we may have a fight on our own hook before we have finished here. Hurry if you want to see the fun."

The boys were back in a twinkling.

"Fix them so they can't get away?"

"Yes."

"Then all of you line up here on this side so we won't be shooting each other when the brute makes his attempt at a get-away, as he surely will, when the dogs give him a chance. Two of them can't hold him long. We ought to have a pack."

They could hear the battle waging desperately in the bushes, which were being rapidly trampled down by the dogs and their victim, amid screams of rage from the animal and menacing, deadly growls from the hounds.

Soon the young hunters were able to make out the combatants, as the beast worked its way little by little to its right in an effort to get within reaching distance of a tree that it espied near by. But the dogs fought valiantly to outwit this very move.

"We've got a cougar this time!" shouted Lige triumphantly. "Look out for him!"

They could see the fighters plainly now. It was dangerous to fire for fear of hitting the hounds. Already they were bleeding where the fangs or claws of the ugly beast had raked them.

However, the dogs were working with keen intelligence. One would nip at a flank while the other played for the head of the cougar, in hopes of getting an opening.

Snarling, pawing, grinning, its ugly yellow teeth showing in two glistening rows, the beast fought savagely for its life.

Despite the guide's warning, Tad Butler and Ned Rector had drawn closer that they might get a better view of the sanguinary conflict.

"I'm afraid they'll never make it," groaned Lige. "It's fearful odds. Everybody stand ready to let him have it when he breaks away. But keep cool. And be careful that you don't hit the dogs. Might better let the cat get away. There he goes!"

The huge beast leaped clear of the pocket into which the dogs had backed him.

"Don't shoot!" ordered the guide, observing one of the boys swinging his rifle down on the struggling animals.

As the big cat leaped, Mustard fastened his fangs into the beast's left leg, and was carried along with the cougar in its mighty spring. They could hear the hones grind as the iron jaws of the hound shut down on them.

With a scream of rage, the maddened animal came to a sudden stop. Its cruel yellow head shot out, jaws wide apart, aimed straight for Mustard, who was still hanging with desperate courage to the beast's leg.

Yet the momentary hesitation, the few seconds lost in stopping in its rapid flight and reaching back for Mustard, proved the cougar's undoing.

With a snarl that sent a shiver up and down the backs of the Pony Riders, Ginger threw himself at the head of the beast. The hound's powerful jaws closed upon it with a snap.

Over and over rolled the combatants, the dogs without a sound--the cougar uttering muffled screams, its great paws beating the air. One stroke reached Mustard, hurling him fully a rod away, where he fell and lay quivering, a dull red rent appearing in his glossy coat.

The cougar, in an effort to throw Ginger off, was shaking his head, as a terrier would in killing a rat.

"Ah! He can't make it," cried Lige.

"Hang on, Ginger! Go it, Ginger!" encouraged the boys, now wild with excitement.

But the hound was fast losing his hold, and the hunters groaned in sympathy with him as they observed this.

Mustard, understanding this too, perhaps, struggled to his feet and staggered into the arena to assist his mate, only to meet a repetition of the calamity that had befallen him a few minutes before. Ginger's hold was broken at last. One great paw felled him to earth, and the cougar's yawning jaws closed over his head with crushing force.

Tad Butler's blood was coursing through his veins madly. He could endure it no longer. A second or so more and the faithful dog's life would be at an end. With a cry of warning to the others not to shoot, Tad leaped into the fray, Mustard, at the same time, hurling himself at the beast's throat, where he fastened and clung.

As Tad sprang forward, his hunting knife flashed from its sheath, and with a movement so quick that the eyes of the spectators failed to catch it, the boy drove the keen blade into the cougar's body, just back of the right shoulder.

At that instant the beast succeeded in freeing itself from the weakened hounds, and, straightening up with a frightful roar, leaped into the air, one huge paw catching Tad Butler and hurling him to the ground.

Tad shuddered convulsively, then lay still.

Lige Thomas's rifle roared out a hoarse protest, and at the end of its leap the cougar lurched forward and fell dead.