Chapter VI. The Capture of the Horse Thief
 

"There they are!" cried Ned Rector, a flash of lightning having disclosed the man kneeling over Tad Butler. "He's got Tad down!"

But Lige Thomas did not even hear the warning words. He, too, during the momentary illumination, had caught the significance of the scene.

With a mighty leap he hurled himself upon the body of the crouching mountaineer, both going down in a confused heap, with the unfortunate Tad underneath.

Ned Rector was only a few seconds behind the guide. While the two men were straggling in fierce embrace, he sprang to them, and, grabbing Tad by the heels, drew him from beneath the bodies of the desperate combatants. But Ned's heart sank when he saw Lige drop over backward, with the mountaineer on top.

With a courage born of the excitement of the moment, Ned clasped both hands under the fellow's chin, jerking his head violently backwards. So sudden was the jolt that the lad distinctly heard the man's neck snap, and, for the moment, believed he had broken it entirely.

However, the mountaineer's tough coating of muscle made such a result impossible. Yet he had sustained a jolt so severe that, for the time being, he found himself absolutely helpless, and wholly at the mercy of his antagonists.

Lige leaped upon the thief with the lightness of a cat, quickly completing the job which Ned Rector had begun. In a moment more the guide had thrown several strands of tough rawhide lariat about the body of the dazed mountaineer, binding the fellow's arms tightly to his side.

"I guess that will hold him for a while," laughed Ned. Then, bethinking himself of Tad, whom in the excitement of conflict he had entirely forgotten, Rector dropped down beside his comrade.

"Tad! Tad! Are you all right?"

Tad made no response. He told Ned afterwards that he had heard him distinctly, though to save his life he could not have answered.

Ned pulled him up into a sitting posture, and shook the boy until his teeth chattered. Tad gulped and began to choke, his breath beginning to come irregularly.

"How's the boy?" demanded the guide, rising after having completed his task of binding the captive.

"He'll he all right in a minute. Is there any water about here!"

"No; not nearer than the camp. Wait a minute; I'll bring him around without it," announced Lige.

In this case, however, Tad felt that the remedy was considerably worse than the disease itself. Lige brought his brawny hand down with a resounding whack, squarely between Tad's shoulders, which operation he repeated several times with increasing force.

"On--ouch!" yelled Tad, suddenly finding his voice under the guide's heroic treatment. "Wh--where am I?"

"You're in the woods. That's about all I know about it," laughed Ned, assisting his companion to his feet, and supporting him, for Tad was still a bit unsteady from his late desperate encounter. "You're lucky to be alive."

"What--what has happened!"

"That," answered Ned, pointing to Lige as the latter roughly jerked the captive mountaineer to an upright position.

"Find the ponies!" commanded the guide sharply. "I hear them in the bushes there. Will they come if you whistle!"

"Depends upon which ones they are. Mine will."

But, though Ned whistled vigorously, neither of the animals appeared to heed the signal.

"Jimmie isn't there. I'll go get them." And Ned ran off into the bushes, where they could hear him coaxing the little animals to him. In a few moments he returned leading them by their bridle reins.

"Whose ponies are they?" asked Tad, leaning against a tree for support.

"Texas and Jo-Jo. The fellow picked a couple of good ones. But then, all the ponies are worth having," added Ned, realizing that he was placing the others ahead of his own little animal. "What do you propose to do with that fellow over there, guide?"

"Depends upon you young gentlemen. Just now I am going to tie him on one of the ponies and take him back to camp. I suppose you know what they do with hoss thieves in this country, don't you?" asked Thomas.

"Never having been a horse thief, and never having caught one, I can't say that I do," confessed Master Ned. "What do they do with them?"

"Depends upon whether there are any large trees about," answered Lige significantly. "We must be getting back now. Master Tad, you get on your pony, and I will lead Jo-Jo behind with the thief."

The mountaineer had been securely tied to the back of Walter Perkins's mount, and the procession now quickly got under way, Tad riding ahead, Ned Rector bringing up the rear, that he might keep a wary eye on their prisoner on their way back to camp. Ned was armed with a club, a stout limb of oak, which he had picked up before the start, and which he covertly hoped he might have an opportunity to use before reaching camp.

However, no such chance was given him, and, after picking their way cautiously over the rocky way, for trail there was none, they at last reached their temporary home.

Ned gave a war whoop as a signal to the camp that they were coming, which was answered with a slightly lesser degree of enthusiasm by Stacy Brown.

The storm had died down to a distant roar and the camp was in darkness.

"Get a fire going as quickly as possible," directed the guide.

Ned quickly procured dry fuel, and in a few moments had a crackling fire burning.

Professor Zepplin and Stacy Brown now came forward into the circle of light. After the sudden departure of his tent the Professor had taken refuge in one of the other tents, where he had remained, not knowing exactly what had happened.

In the excitement of losing his own little home he did know that all the boys, save Stacy, had rushed out of camp, shouting about the theft of the ponies. Chunky averred that all the stock had run away. Still there seemed nothing left for the two to do except remain where they were until the return of the others of the party. They would have been sure to lose themselves had they ventured away from camp in the darkness.

Both paused suddenly when they observed the figure of a man tied to the back of Jo-Jo.

"What's this? What's this?" demanded the Professor in puzzled accents. "A man tied to a horse? What is the meaning of this, sir?"

Lige Thomas smiled grimly.

"That's our prisoner," declared Tad, who, sitting upon his horse in his bedraggled, torn pajamas, presented a most ludicrous figure.

"You certainly are a sight, sir," declared Professor Zepplin, surveying the boy with disapproving eyes. "What is the meaning of all this disturbance? First, my tent goes up into the air; then you all disappear, though where I am not advised. And now, you return with a man tied to a pony."

"The man's a thief--" began Ned.

"It was this way, Professor," Tad informed him. "I saw some one walking away with Jo-Jo and Texas. I ran after and caught up with the fellow. Then the others came and we nabbed him. That's all."

"Yes, sir; if it hadn't been for Master Tad's quickness we might have lost both the ponies," added the guide. "He caught the fellow and handled him as well as a man could have done until we got there. When you get your full strength, you'll be a whirlwind, young man," glowed Lige.

Blushing, Tad slipped from his pony.

"The man is a thief, you say, Thomas?"

"Yes, sir."

"Well, well; I am surprised. I should like to take a look at him."

Thomas dumped the prisoner on the ground in the full glare of the torches, still leaving his arms bound, and taking the further precaution of securing the fellow's feet.

"Who are you, my man!" demanded the Professor sternly, peering down into the prisoner's dark, sullen face.

There was no response.

"Humph! Can't he talk, Thomas?"

"I reckon he can, but he won't," grinned Lige. "There ain't no use in asking him questions. He knows we've caught him in the act, and he knows, too, what the penalty is."

"The penalty--the penalty? You refer to imprisonment, of course?"

"No; that ain't what I mean."

"Then, to what penalty do you refer?" inquired the Professor.

"We usually hang a hoss thief in this country," replied the guide, grimly. "But, of course, it's for you and the boys to say what shall be done."

"Hang him? Hang him? Certainly not! How can you suggest such a thing? We will turn him over to the officers of the law, and let them dispose of him in the regular way," declared the Professor with emphasis.

"That's all right, but where are we going to find any officers?" asked Tad. "They don't seem to be numerous about here."

"The young gentleman has hit the bull's-eye, sir. It's sixty miles, and more, to a jail. You don't want to go back, do you?"

"Certainly not."

"That's how we men of the mountains come to take the law into our own hands, sometimes. We have to be officers and jails, all in one," hinted the guide significantly.

"Then, there remains only one thing for us to do, regrettable as it may seem," decided the Professor after a moment's thought.

"Yes, sir?"

"Let the fellow go, but with the admonition not to offend again."

Lige laughed.

"Heap he'll care about that," he retorted, his, face growing glum.

However, at the Professor's direction, the prisoner was liberated. No sooner was this done than the fellow leaped to his feet and started to run.

"Catch him!" roared Lige.

Tad promptly stuck out a foot. The mountaineer tripped over it, measuring his length on the ground. Lige jerked the fellow to his feet and stood him against a tree, the thief becoming suddenly meek when he found himself looking along the barrel of a large six-shooter.

"I reckon you can run now, if you want to," grinned the guide suggestively.

"Admonish him," urged the Professor.

"Now, you see here, fellow," said Lige in a menacing tone, "you've struck a rich find tonight. Next time, I reckon you won't get off so easy. I've got you marked. I'll find out what your brand is, then I'll tell the sheriff to be on the lookout for you. Now, you hit the trail as fast as your legs'll carry you. If I catch you up to any more tricks--well, you know the answer. Now, git!"

And the late prisoner did. One bound carried him almost out of camp. The boys shouted derisively as they heard him floundering through the bushes as he hastily made his escape.

"Where is Walt? Did he go hack to bed?" asked Tad, after the excitement had subsided.

"To bed? No; he followed you," replied Stacy Brown.

"Followed us? You are mistaken. Did you see anything of Walter Perkins, Mr. Thomas?"

The guide shook his head.

"Did not go with you? I think you must be in error," spoke up the Professor, with quick concern.

"He certainly was not with us," insisted Ned. "I did not even see him leave his tent."

"Why, he must have gone. With my own eyes I saw him running after you," urged Professor Zepplin in a tone of great anxiety.

"Guide, get torches at once. The boy surely is lost."

Alarmed, the boys needed no further incentive to spur them to instant action. Grasping fagots from the fire, they lined up, standing with anxious faces, awaiting the direction of Lige Thomas, to whom they instinctively looked to command the searching party.

"Wait a minute," commanded Lige in a calm voice. "Which way did you see him go, Professor?"

"Let me reflect. I am not sure--yes, I am. I distinctly remember having seen him run obliquely to the left there. It was just after I had lost my tent----"

"Over that way?" asked Lige, pointing.

"Yes, that was the direction. I am positive of it now. But, if he went that way, he didn't follow you?" added the Professor hesitatingly.

"Do you know what lies there, less than ten rods away?" asked the guide, gravely.

"I don't understand you."

"There's a cliff there that drops down a clear hundred feet," answered Lige, impressively.

A heavy silence fell over the little group.