Chapter VIII. A Daring Rescue
 

Lige thrust the excited boy to one side. Running to the edge of the cliff, he leaned over and listened intently.

A moment more and he too caught the plaintive cry for help from below.

It was the first time thus far on the journey that Lige Thomas had manifested the slightest sign of excitement. Just now, however, there could be no doubt at all that he was intensely agitated.

"Keep back! Keep back!" he shouted, as the boys and Professor Zepplin began crowding near the masked edge of the cliff. "You'll all be over if you don't have a care. We've got trouble enough on our hands without having the rest of you jump into it."

"What is it?" demanded the Professor breathlessly.

"It's Master Walt," snapped the guide. "Stand still. Don't move an inch. I'm going back for a torch," he commanded, leaping by them on his way to the camp fire.

"Where--is--he?" stammered the Professor, not observing that the guide had left them.

"Down there, sir," explained Tad, pointing to the ledge of rock over which Walter had fallen.

"I know--I know--but----"

"I heard him call. Walt's alive! Walt's alive! But I don't know how we are going to get him."

The shout of joy that had framed itself on the lips of Ned Rector and Stacy Brown died out in an indistinct murmur.

"Is it possible! What are we going to do, Thomas--how are we to rescue the boy?"

Lige Thomas made no reply to the question as he ran past them, and, dropping down, leaned over the cliff, holding the torch he had brought far out ahead of him.

"See anything?" asked Tad tremulously, creeping to his side.

"Looks like a clump of bushes down there. But I ain't sure. Can you make it out?"

"No. All I can see is rocks and shadows. Where is it that you think you see bushes?"

"Over there to the right, just near the edge of the light space made by the torch light," answered the guide.

"Yes," agreed Tad, "that does look like bushes. I'll call to Walter and tell him we are coming. Hey, Walter! Where are you?" "H--e--r--e," was the faint response. "All right, old man. Stick tight and don't get scared. We'll have you out of that in no time."

"Don't move around. Lie perfectly still," warned the guide. "Are you hurt?"

To this question Walter made some reply that was unintelligible to them.

"Now, what are we going to do, I'd like to know?" asked Ned.

"I don't know," answered Lige, frowning thoughtfully. "It's a tough job. If I had a couple of mountaineers who knew their business, we'd stand a better chance of pulling him up."

"Why not get a rope and let it down to him," suggested Tad.

"Yes, that's the only way we can do it. Run over to the cook tent and tell Jose to give you those rawhide lariats that he will find behind his bunk. Hurry!"

Tad was off almost before the words were out of the mouth of the guide, and in the briefest possible time came racing back with the leather coils, which he tossed to Lige before reaching him, that there might not be even a second's delay.

The mountaineer quickly formed a loop in one end of the rope, making it large enough to permit of its slipping over the shoulders of a man. This he dropped over the brink, after splicing two lariats together, and directing Ned Rector to make the other end fast about the trunk of a tree by giving it a couple of hitches.

"Hello, down there! Let me know when the rope reaches you. Can you slip it over your shoulders and under your arms?" called the guide.

There was no response.

"I say, down there!" shouted Lige.

"That's funny," wondered Tad. "H-e-l-l-o-o-o-o, Walt!"

But not a sound came up from the black depths in answer to the boy's hail. They gazed at each other in perplexity.

"Has--he---gone?" asked the Professor weakly.

"No. We should have heard him if he had," answered Lige. "If I could see him I'd lasso him and haul him up. But I don't dare try it. Then again, these roots on a wall of rock ain't any too strong usually. I don't dare try any experiments."

"What do you think has happened to him?" asked Tad in a troubled voice.

"Fainted, probably. He ain't very strong, you know. And that tumble's enough to knock the sense out of a full grown man. Ain't no use to expect him to hook himself onto the line, even if he does wake up," decided the guide with emphasis, beginning to haul up the lariat, which he coiled neatly on the rock in front of him.

"Then what are we going to do? We've got to get Walt up here, even if I have to jump over after him," said Tad firmly.

"Right you are, young man. But talking won't do it. Something else besides saying you're going to will be necessary."

"What would you suggest!"

"One of us must go down there," was the guide's startling announcement. "That's the only way we can reach him," explained Lige, dangling the loop of the lariat in his hands as he looked from one to the other.

"D--do--down in that dark place? Oh!" exclaimed Chunky.

"In that case, you will have to go yourself, Thomas," decided the Professor sharply. "I could not think of allowing any of my charges to take so terrible a risk, and----"

"Let me go, Mr. Thomas," interrupted Ned Rector, stepping forward, with almost a challenge in his eyes.

"No; I am the lighter of the two," urged Tad. "I am the one to go after Walt, if anyone has to. I'll go down, Mr. Thomas."

"Master Tad is right," decided the guide, gazing at the two boys approvingly. "It will be better for him to go, if he will----"

"And he most certainly will," interrupted Tad, advancing a step.

"I protest!" shouted the Professor. "You yourself should go, Lige. You are----"

"I am needed right here, sir," replied the guide, shortly. "You'd have both of us at the bottom if I left it to you to take care of this end."

"I'm ready, sir when you are," reminded Tad.

The guide, without further delay, and giving no heed to Professor Zepplin's nervous protests, slipped the noose over Tad's shoulders, and, drawing it down and up under his arms, secured the knot so that the loop might not tighten under the weight of the boy's body.

"Now, be very careful. Make no sudden moves. And, if you meet with anything unlooked for, let me know at once. You know, you will have to stay down there while we are drawing the boy up. But, before removing the rope from your own body, make sure that you are safe. If you find the support too weak to bear your weight, let me know. I'll send down another rope to which you can tie yourself until we get Master Walter to the top. Be sure to fasten him securely to the loop before you give the signal to haul up," warned the guide. "Here, put my gun in your pocket."

"I understand." "Are you ready?"

"Yes."

Tad tossed away his sombrero and sat down on a shelf of rock at the edge of the cliff, his feet dangling over.

The lad's face was pale, the lines on it standing out in sharp ridges; but not by so much as the flicker of an eyelid did he betray the slightest nervousness. Yet Tad Butler realized fully the perilous nature of his undertaking, and that the least mistake on his part or on the part of those above him might mean a sudden end to his earthly ambitions.

Lige shortened the hitch about the tree, until the line drew taut. After winding the end tightly about his own arm, he handed a lighted torch to Tad.

It was a trying moment for all of them, and naturally more so for the boy who was about to descend into the unknown depths of the mountain canyou.

"Right!" announced the guide in a reassuring voice.

Tad made no reply, but, turning so that he faced them, let himself carefully over the ledge, his right hand holding the torch, his left firmly gripping the ledge so that there might be no jolt on the line by a too sudden stepping-off.

"Good!" approved Lige encouragingly, beginning to let the rawhide slip slowly around the trunk of the tree. As he did so, Tad felt himself gradually sinking into the sombre depths.

He tilted his head to look up. The movement sent his body swaying giddily from side to side.

Cautiously placing a hand against the rocks to steady himself, Tad wisely concluded that hereafter it would not pay to be too curious.

"Hold a torch over the edge of the cliff, Master Ned," directed the guide. "Better lie down so you, too, don't take a notion to fall off. Keep your eyes shut till I tell you to open them."

Slowly, but steadily, the slender line was paid out, amid a tense silence on the part of the little group at the top of the canyou. After what seemed to them hours, a sharp call from the depths reached their ears.

Lige quickly made fast the line to a tree.

"Yes? Got him?" he answered, leaning over the cliff.

"I see him," called Tad, his voice sounding hollow and unnatural to those above. "He's so far to the right of me that I can't reach him. Will it be all right for me to swing myself?"

"Where is he?"

"Lodged in the branches of a pinyon tree, I think it is. But he doesn't answer me."

"Wait a minute," cautioned the mountaineer.

Lige searched until he found a limb some three inches in diameter, and this he placed under the rope so as to relieve the strain of the rock upon it, that there might be no danger of the leather being sawed in two by contact with the ledge.

"All right. Now try it."

The creaking of the rawhide told them that Tad Butler was swaying from side to side, fifty feet below them, at the end of a slender line. Lige, leaning over the brink, was able to follow the boy's movements by the aid of the thin arc of light made by the torch in Tad's hand.

At last, the thread of light contracted into a point, and the watching guide knew that the courageous boy had finally reached the pinyon tree.

Then followed a long period of suspense. But from the cautious movements of the light far below them, the guide understood that the lad was at work carrying out his part of the task of rescue to the best of his ability.

"Why doesn't he say something?" cried the Professor, unable to restrain his impatience longer, bis overwrought nerves almost at the breaking point.

"Keep still! Don't bother him. The boy's doing the best he can. Mebby you think he's having some sort of a picnic down there, eh?" glared Lige.

"A--l--l right!"

Tad's voice, now strong and clear, rose from the depths of the canyou.

"Shall we haul up?" asked Lige, making a megaphone of his hands.

"Yes; haul away. Tell them Walt's all right. He can talk now," was the answer that carried with it such a note of gladness that Ned and Stacy were unable to resist a shout of joy.

"Lend a hand here," commanded Lige, taking firm hold of the line, and stepping to the edge that he might command both ends of the operation. "Are you all safe down there, Tad?"

"Sure thing!" answered the boy.

Very slowly, restraining their inclination to haul the rope in with all speed only because the warning eyes of the guide were upon them, the two boys, assisted by Professor Zepplin, began hoisting Walter Perkins toward the top.

In a few moments the sinewy hands of the guide gripped Walter by an arm and dragged him safely to the table rock.

Walter had fully regained consciousness by this time, and a brief examination showed that he had sustained no serious injury, he having struck on the yielding branches of the pinyon, which broke his fall and saved his life. Beyond sundry bruises, a black eye and a thin crimson line on the right cheek where a branch had raked it, Walter Perkins was practically unharmed after his perilous experience.

But it was a trying moment for Tad Butler, down there alone in the branches of the pinyon tree, with fifty feet of nothingness beneath him and a sheer wall that extended an equal distance above him.

Nor was his sense of security increased when, in shifting his position, the torch fell from his grasp, the fagots scattering as they slipped down between the limbs of the tree and whirling in ever-diminishing circles until finally he heard them clatter on the rocks below.

The boy could not repress a shudder. Closing his eyes, he clung to the slender support with grim courage until a hail from above told him that the rawhide loop was rapidly squirming down toward him.

This time Lige had allowed for his mistaken reckoning when Tad had first descended, and the boy grasped eagerly at the leather as he felt it gently slap against his cheek.

A few moments more, and he, too, had been hauled safely to the top, amid the wild cheers of his companions and the congratulations of the guide and Professor Zepplin.