Chapter XVIII. Tad Wins a Roping Contest
 

In their enthusiasm two of the ranchers hoisted Chunky to their shoulders and marched about singing. Others fell in behind them until fully half the spectators had joined the procession. Chunky leered down at his companions as he passed them and winked solemnly.

"I didn't suppose he could ride like that," marveled Tom Phipps.

"Neither did any of the rest of us," answered Walter.

"I never saw a more plucky piece of work in my life."

Tad came up to where they were, laughing heartily.

"Doesn't that beat all, Walt?"

"It certainly does."

"Our friends who were defeated do not seem to appreciate the humor of it, though," interjected the young engineer.

"No, not very sportsmanlike, is it? Who is that fellow with whom Chunky's competitors are talking?"

"Name is Cravath. Queer sort of a chap."

"Haven't I seen him about the Red Star?" asked Tad.

"Yes, no doubt. He is a checker at the mine. He and his wife and daughter have a cabin out near the Ruby Rock that you are so much interested in. I know very little about him--"

"Don't like his looks at all," decided Tad.

"No, I never warmed up to him very much myself. I understand he is not very popular among the men, either. But I guess that is because he wins their money in games of chance."

"A gambler?" questioned both boys in surprise.

"I wouldn't go far enough to say that. What are they going to do next here do you know?" asked the engineer, changing the subject.

"I believe it is to be a roping contest. That will be a lot of fun."

"You are not going in it, are you?"

"Of course. Why not? I don't know what they are going to rope, but I'll take my chance with the rest of them whatever it is. Guess I'll ride over and ask Mr. Jessup. I see him over there now."

Mr. Jessup when questioned informed the boy that it was to be a most realistic contest in which two men mounted were to try to rope each other. One of the rules of the contest was that the roper, when he caught his opponent, was to drop the lariat instantly so as not to pull his victim from the saddle.

As only two could meet for the prize it was decided that lots should be drawn from a hat. The two who drew slips of paper with the word "rope" written on them, were to have the honor of meeting in a test of skill.

The prize was a Mexican saddle, silver mounted, at which all the cowmen looked with covetous eyes.

"Think you want to take a chance for the saddle, boy?" asked Mr. Jessup.

"That I do," laughed Tad. "That's the saddle I want--I always have wanted one just like it. But I'm afraid I shall not get the opportunity to try for it."

"They are getting ready to draw. You had better go over," advised the rancher.

Tad found that they were not only getting ready, but that most of the men had already drawn. Only one "rope" slip had been taken from the hat, however, so there still was a chance.

He rode up to the foreman, who was holding the hat from which the drawing was being done.

"May I draw?" he asked.

"Do you know how to sling a rope, kid?"

"A little," answered Tad, with an embarrassed smile, for the cowmen were making uncomplimentary remarks about letting babies into a man's game. The boy's face burned, but he gave no heed to their ungentlemanly remarks.

The foreman held up the hat. Tad leaned over and drew from it a slip of paper.

"Next--who draws next?" demanded the foreman.

"If it will save you any trouble, I might suggest that it isn't necessary to draw further," Tad informed him, with the suspicion of a smile on his face.

"What's that?" asked the foreman sharply.

"I have the second slip," was the quiet reply.

The cowboys broke into loud exclamations of disapproval.

"Fair is fair, boys," warned Mr. Jessup. "You all had your chance and you lost."

"Yes, that's right," agreed the foreman. "You fellows will have to swallow your pills without making faces."

The man Cravath was now talking with the cowboy who had drawn the other slip. He was one of the men Chunky had won from, though Tad did not know it at the moment.

Tom Phipps pushing his way up to the lad informed him of this fact, and drawing Tad to one side whispered something to him.

"Is that so?"

"Yes, Cravath owns one of the ponies that came near winning the race. He is not a very good-natured man and I imagine they are putting up some plan to get even with you boys," warned Tom.

"I'm not afraid. They won't let them do anything unfair," said Tad. "Besides, I ought to be able to take care of myself, by this time, though I haven't been doing much with the rope of late. Is that chap an expert roper?"

"I couldn't say as to that. But he's big and strong--"

"Which doesn't count for very much in this sort of a contest," laughed the boy.

"Very well, you know best. But keep your eyes on him."

"Are you gentlemen ready to begin?" called the rancher.

"I must go now," said Tad hurriedly.

"Good-bye and good luck," breathed Mr. Phipps, as the lad rode away at the same time straightening out his rope which he allowed to drag behind his pony while he recoiled it, working it in his hands to limber the rawhide.

"It's a good rope," decided Tad.

The foreman halted them for final instructions.

"Now, gentlemen, understand that the rope must go over the head and be drawn taut, after which you are to let go of it. You are to take your places some distance apart--I'll place you--and start at the crack of the pistol, not before. Understand?"

Tad and the cowman opposed to him nodded, the latter with a sarcastic grin on his face.

The miner had lost the rifle which he coveted, and the cowboy did not propose to have the same luck in the case of the saddle, which was very valuable.

The cowboy had his rope in hand ready to begin, while Tad's had been hung over the saddle horn. The lad was sitting in his saddle easily, with a quiet smile on his face, and the spectators noted that he was not in the least nervous.

"I guess that boy knows his business," muttered Mr. Jessup, who had been observing him keenly. "At least he's got the pluck and will give a good account of himself, though he never will be able to win against a professional rope thrower."

In the meanwhile, the foreman had started to place the contestants. Tad had the sun in his eyes, but he made no protest, knowing that he could change his position as soon as they got the word to go.

"Are you ready?"

"All ready," answered Tad cheerfully.

"Yes," said the cowboy shortly.

Tad's rope was now held in his right hand. Both men put spurs to their mounts almost before the report of the revolver had died way. The ponies leaped forward and the two opponents rode straight at each other.

They passed at racing speed, neither making an attempt to cast.

No sooner had they cleared each other, however, than the cowboy pulled up his horse sharply, wheeled and dashed after the Pony Rider Boy. Tad, having foreseen the movement, had likewise stopped his mount, and turned about. But instead of spurring on, he stood still.

The cowboy had hoped to come up behind Tad and rope him as he raced away. He was slightly disconcerted when he noted Tad's position. But the smiling face of the boy angered him, and the cowman's rope squirmed through the air.

Tad ducked, allowing the lariat to shoot on over him. It fell harmlessly on the other side of his pony and a quick pressure of the spurs took boy and pony from under it.

With a "yip-yip" Tad rushed at his opponent. The latter had had no time to gather in his own lariat, but he began shortening it up intending to swing it from where it lay on the ground.

His opponent gave him no time for this.

Tad made a quick cast. The cowboy threw himself to one side, but the loop of the lariat that had been thrown true reached his broad sombrero, neatly snipping it from his head.

The spectators uttered a yell of approval. They shook out their revolvers, sending a rattling volley up into the air.

Tad Butler had scored first.

His opponent was angered almost beyond control. That a mere boy could thus outwit him, which Tad had neatly done, was too much for his fiery temper.

With a growl of rage he drove his horse straight at the lad. It was plain that it was the fellow's intention to ride him down, which Tad circumvented by standing still until the man was nearly upon him, and then driving his pony out of the path of the oncoming horseman.

Each began a series of manoeuvres, the purpose of which was to place the rider behind his opponent, but each proved too wary to be caught in any such way.

The contest was growing hotter every moment, and the spectators were getting worked up to a high pitch of excitement. They had never seen a more interesting roping exhibition than this, and that a boy was one of the contestants gave their enthusiasm an added zest.

The two were, by this time, working far out on the field. Tad realized this and sought to get back nearer to their starting point. He did not, however, understand that his adversary had any object in getting so far away, though the man had a distinct purpose in so doing, as Tad eventually learned.

The foreman was shouting a warning to them, which Tad tried to heed, although his adversary prevented his doing so by blocking the way each time.

Whenever the opportunity presented itself the cowboy would bump his pony violently against the one that Tad Butler was riding, in an effort either to so jar the boy that he could rope him or else possibly to unhorse the lad.

"See here, you stop that!" shouted Tad after the third attempt. "What are you trying to do to me?"

"I'll show you, you freckle-faced tenderfoot!" yelled the cowboy, making a vicious rush. At the same time his rawhide shot out.

Tad narrowly missed being caught that time, and in turn the cowboy was nearly caught by Tad's loop. A lucky sweep of his arm brushed I the lariat away not a second too soon.

Tad observing that his adversary, who was about to cast again, had him at a dangerous advantage, threw himself down on the side of the pony's neck. Both animals were running almost neck and neck at the moment.

With a whoop the cowboy let go. His loop closed around the boy's ankle which from his position on the pony's side, was sticking well up in the air. Tad's opponent, suddenly braced his pony, while the boy's mount raced straight ahead.

The result of this move was that Tad Butler was torn from his saddle, fetching away the stirrup box on one side with him. He struck the ground violently, and for a moment lay still, while the cowboy sat grinning, making no effort to learn how badly his adversary was hurt.

The foreman and several others were rushing to the scene. By the time they reached it, Tad was scrambling to his feet.

"I roped the kid," announced the cowboy, as if it were all finally settled.

"You roped me by the foot," retorted Tad.

"Yes, that was a foul," said the foreman. "I saw it myself. How'd you come to do that, Bob?"

"Mistake," answered the cowboy, thus admitting that they were right.

Tad turned on him sharply.

"Did you say it was a mistake?" he asked with a world of meaning in his tone.

"We will award the prize to you, Butler," announced the owner of the ranch. "That's the usual way when a foul has been committed."

The cowboy glowered angrily.

"I couldn't think of accepting it, Mr. Jessup," answered Tad, straightening to his full height. "I'll go on with the contest, but he mustn't do that to me again or there will be trouble."

Some of them laughed at the boy's veiled threat.

"There certainly will be trouble," agreed Mr. Jessup--"trouble with me. I want you two to keep up the field further so we can see what is going on. Are you hurt, boy?"

"Shaken up a little that's all. Guess my saddle was worse used than I was."

The contestants lined up for another bout, amid the most intense excitement. So closely had the spectators gathered about them that the ropers had no room in which to work, and the foreman found it necessary to urge them back before giving the word to start.

The Pony Rider Boys could scarcely contain themselves. They, too, were worked up to a high pitch of excitement. But Tad Butler, dirty, with clothes torn and grimy, appeared to be the coolest one in the crowd. If he was angry no one would have imagined it from the pleasant expression of his face and almost laughing eyes.

"All ready! Go!"

They went at each other again, the cowboy ferociously--Tad easily, but keenly on the alert, narrowly watching every move of his opponent.

Round and round circled the pair, neither making an effort to cast for at least ten minutes, ducking, side stepping, or as near to this latter as a pony could get, and with movements much like those of boxers in a ring.

The crowd was offering advice and suggestions freely, but both men turned a deaf ear to all of this. Their whole beings were centered on the work in hand.

Once both men cast and their lariats locked, the cowboy's loop having slipped over Tad's.

The foreman called a halt while he untied the tangle. The instant this had been accomplished, Tad drew in his with one hand, coiling it at the pony's side.

"Remember, I haven't called time," warned the foreman. "You are still roping."

Tad knew that, but he did not wish to take an unfair advantage.

The cowboy looked up with a startled expression on his face, but nodded and began hauling in his rope when he noted that Tad was making no move.

His rope was in.

"All ready," he said.

So was Tad. The boy's lariat shot gracefully through the air, landing neatly over the cowman's shoulders where it was quickly jerked taut before the other fully realized what had happened.