Chapter XII. The Dash for Life
 

The shouts of the Pony Rider Boys and of the guide were swallowed up in the roar of the flames."

"They'll be burned alive!" whispered the lad.

Then, all at once he realized that he himself was in dire peril.

"I'll have to go the other way and be quick about it at that," he decided, making a dash for the pony, that already was whinnying with fear and tugging at its tether.

Tad did not wait to untie the stake rope. With a sweep of his knife he severed it and vaulted into the saddle.

Whirling the animal about he headed to the west. To his alarm he suddenly discovered that the prairie fire was rapidly encircling him, the flames running around the outer edge of the bottoms with express train speed, threatening to head him off and envelop him. Had it not been for the long grass, which, tangling the feet of the pony, made full speed impossible, the race with the flames would have been an easy one to win. As it was, Tad knew that the chances were against him.

But the dire peril in which he found himself did not daunt the Pony Rider Boy. Perhaps his face had grown a shade paler underneath the tan, but that was all. His senses were on the alert, his lips met in a firm pressure and the hand gripped the bridle rein a little more firmly, perhaps, than usual.

Uttering a shrill cry to inform his companions that be was alive to his peril, and at the same time to encourage the broncho, Tad dug in the rowels of his spurs.

The frightened pony cleared the ground with all four feet, uttering a squeal, and launching itself at the rapidly narrowing clear space ahead of him; and urged to greater and greater endeavor at every leap by the short, sharp "yips" of his rider.

For all the concern that showed in his face, Tad Butler might have been running a horse race for a prize rather than fleeing for his life.

"If I make it I'm lucky,"-- commented Tad grimly. He found himself wondering, at the same time, how the fire had started. He knew that the flames first showed themselves midway between where he was at work and the place where his companions were engaged at the water hole.

He could not understand it. Fire was necessary to use to start fire, and he knew that none of them had been foolish enough even to light a match in the dry bunch grass of the prairie.

The flames were reaching mountain high by this time, great clouds of smoke rolling in on the breeze and nearly suffocating him.

At times Tad was unable to see the opening ahead of him. When, however, the smoke lifted, giving him a momentary view, he saw that the gap was rapidly closing.

All at once his attention was drawn from the closing gap.

"Yeow ! Yeow! Yeow! Y-e-o-w!"

A series of shrill, blood curdling yells from out the pall of smoke and flame at the rear, bombarded his ears.

At first he thought it was Indians; then the improbability of this being the case came to him.

"Yeow! Yeow! Yeow!" persisted the voice behind, and it was coming nearer every second.

Tad slackened the speed of his pony ever so little, despite the peril of his position.

"There's somebody in there behind me, and, he'll never get out alive if he loses his way."

The moment this thought occurred to him, Tad began to yell at the top of his voice.

Suddenly from out the thick veil of smoke burst a pony with a mighty snort, coming on in bounds, each one of which cleared many feet of ground. On the pony's back was Stacy Brown, hatless, coatless, his hair standing up in the breeze, his face as red as if it had come in actual contact with the flames.

"Yeow!" he roared, as his pony shot past Tad as if the latter's mount were standing still. Where Stacy had come from, how he had passed through that wall of flame, Tad had not the slightest idea.

As a matter of fact the explanation was simple enough. The guide had sent Chunky out to assist Tad in bringing in the rip-rapping material. Stacy had made a detour from the camp, having gotten just inside the danger zone when the fire broke out. Guided by the butte where he knew his companion must be, Stacy headed for that point. There he came upon Tad's trail, and began yelling to attract his attention. He had heard Tad's answering cry, and this inspired the fat boy to renewed efforts.

Stacy, now that he had passed Tad, slowed up ever so little. He had passed his companion so swiftly that he was unable to determine whether or not Tad were in distress.

The latter came up, overhauling Stacy in a few moments. Both ponies were steaming from the terrific gruelling they were giving themselves.

"What you doing here?" exploded Tad.

"Same thing you are."

"What do you mean?"

"Trying to save myself from being burned alive--"

"Don't slow up! Don't slow up!" shouted Tad. "Keep going!"

"I am. Wat's matter with you?"

"I don't see what you had to come tumbling into this mess for," objected Tad.

"Didn't tumble in. Rode in. Came to help you--"

"Precious lot of help you'll be to me. Lucky if we're not both burned with our boots on. See! The flame's narrowing in on us. More steam, Chunky! More steam!" urged Tad.

"Can't. Blow up the boiler if I do," Stacy could not be other than humorous, even under their present trying situation.

"That's better than burning out your fires, and it's quicker too--"

All at once, Chunky uttered a terrible howl. His pony had stepped into a hole and gone down floundering in the long grass, Chunky himself having been hurled over the animal's head, landing several feet in advance.

"Help! Help!"

The rest was lost as the fat boy's face plowed the earth filling mouth, eyes and nostrils.

Tad did not lose his presence of mind, though events had been following each other in such quick succession.

Changing the reins to his right hand and bunching them there, he grasped the pommel of the saddle, driving his own pony straight at the kicking, floundering Chunky.

The pony swerved ever so little, Tad's body swept down, and when it rose, his fingers were fastened in the shirt collar of his companion, with Chunky yelling and choking, as he was being dragged over the ground at almost a killing pace.

Tad had no time to do more than hold on to his friend. He dared not stop to lift him to the saddle just then. The flames were roaring behind them and on either side, leaving a long, narrow lane ahead, through which lay their only hope of safety.

"Buck up! Buck up, Chunky!" shouted Tad, himself taking a fresh brace in the stirrups, for the weight of the fat boy's dragging body was slowly pulling Tad from the saddle.

Stacy was howling like an Indian, not from fear, but from anger at the rough usage to which he was being subjected. He did not stop to think that it was the only way his life might be saved-- nor that his own pony lay back there in the bunch grass amid the flame and smoke.

Tad knew it.

Now, by a mighty effort Tad righted himself again, and, leaning forward, threw one arm about the pony's neck, trusting to the animal to follow the outward trail to safety of its own accord.

Tad felt a sudden jolt that nearly caused him to slide from his pony on the side opposite Chunky. At the same time, the strain on the lad's arm was suddenly released.

Tad was up on his saddle like a flash. His right hand held the fat boy's shirt, while a series of howls to the rear told him where the owner of the shirt lay.

Tad groaned. Pulling his pony fairly back on its haunches, he dashed back where Stacy lay kicking, entangling himself deeper and deeper in the bunch grass.

Had Tad not had presence of mind they both might have perished right there. He was off like a flash. With supreme strength, he grasped the body of his fallen companion, raising him into the saddle.

"Hold on!" he shouted. "Don't you dare fall off!"

Stacy clung like a monkey to a pony in a circus race.

"Y-i-i-p!" trilled Tad. He had no time to mount. Already he could feel the hot breath of the flames on his cheek.

The broncho was off with a bound.

"Tad! Tad!" cried Chunky in sudden alarm, now realizing that he was alone. "Whe-- where are you?"

"H-h-h-h-e-r-e!"

"W-w-where?"

"H-h-h-holding to the b-r-r-oncho's t-tail."

"Wow!" howled Stacy, as, turning in the saddle, he discovered his companion being fairly jerked through the air, holding fast to the pony's tail, the lad's feet hardly touching the ground at all. The broncho, that ordinarily would have resented such treatment, too fully occupied in saving his own life from the flames, gave no heed to the weight he was dragging, and it is doubtful if he even realized there was any additional weight there.

With a final, desperate leap, the broncho shot out ahead of the narrowing lane. Like the jaws of some great monster, the two lapping lines of fire closed in behind them, roaring as if with deadly rage.

The pony dashed out into a broad, open water course, whose dry, glistening sands would prove an effectual barrier to the prairie fire.

Tad, though everything was swimming before his eyes, realized quickly that they were now well out of danger.

"St-t-t-top him. I c-c-c-an't let go if you d-d-don't."

"Whoa! Whoa! Don't you know enough to quit when you're through?" chided Chunky, tugging at the reins. The broncho carried them some distance before the lad was able to pull him down. Finally he did so.

"Leggo!" he shouted, at the same time whirling the pony sharply about, fairly "cracking the whip" with Tad Butler.

Chunky's clever foresight probably saved Tad Butler's life, for, instantly the pony found itself free, it began bucking and kicking in a circle, kicking a ring all round the compass before it finally decided to settle down on all fours. Finishing, it meekly lowered its nose to the ground and now, as docile as a, kitten after having supped on warm milk, began dozing, the steam rising in a cloud from its sides.

"Well, of all the fool fools, you're the champion fool!" growled Stacy, slipping from the saddle and surveying the broncho with disapproving eyes. "Hah! I guess we'd been done to a turn by this if it hadn't been for you, just the same. Hello, Tad!"

Tad had doubled up in a heap where the tail of the broncho had flung him. He was well-nigh spent, but he smiled back at his companion, who stood on a slight rise of ground, almost a heroic figure.

Chunky's shirt was entirely missing, his skin red from the heat, ridged with scratches where he had come in violent contact with cactus plants, his hair tousled and gray with dust.

"Well you are a sight," grinned Tad.

"You wouldn't take a prize at a baby show yourself," retorted Stacy, spicily.

Tad's clothes were torn, and his limbs were black and blue all the way down where the hoofs of the broncho had raked them again and again.

"My arms feel a foot longer than they did. What are you looking at?"

Stacy's eyes grew large and luminous as he gazed off over the plains.

"Look! Look, Tad!" he whispered.