Chapter XIV. Against Big Odds
 

"What is it, Chunky?"

"There!"

Tad jerked his companion flat on the ground, flattening himself beside Stacy at the same instant.

What had caused their sudden alarm was the sight of two Indians, sitting on their ponies without saddles, some distance out on the open plain. The redskins were wrapped in their brightly colored blankets, which enveloped them from head to knees. Even the hands were invisible beneath the folds of the blankets.

"D-d-do you think they saw us, Tad?"

"I don't know. It's safe to say they did. Indian eyes don't miss very much. You ought to know that, by this time. I wish we could make that pony lie down."

"Why don't you?"

"He's too afraid of the ground-- thinks it's still hot, and I don't blame him. The fire has singed him pretty well as it is.

The Indians sat their mounts as motionless as statues, the ponies headed directly toward where the two lads were lying.

"I'll bet they're got guns under those blankets," decided Tad. "You can't trust an Indian even while you are looking at him."

"Anybody'd think you'd been hunting Indians all your life," growled Stacy.

"They've been hunting me mostly," grinned Tad.

"And usually caught you," added Chunky.

"I don't like this lying here as if we were scared of them."

"But, what else can we do, Tad?"

"I don't know."

"Neither do I. Wish I had a shirt. I'll spoil my complexion clear down to my waist. Resides, I'm not fit to be seen."

"You're lucky to be alive," growled Tad. "I'm going to get out of this."

"How?"

"Listen, and you'll know. I'm going to get on the pony; then, as soon as I'm in the saddle, you jump up behind me and we'll start back to camp."

"Not-- not through that fire?" protested Stacy.

"No; I don't dare try it. I'm afraid we'd get lost in the smoke and perhaps get burned as well. We'll ride out some distance, then turn to the left and try to go around the burned district."

"What if the Indians chase us?"

"I don't believe they will. They'll hardly dare do that. And, besides, these may be friendly Indians."

"Huh!" grunted Stacy. "They look it."

Tad got up boldly, and without even looking toward the silent red men, began fussing about his saddle, cinching the girths, and straightening the saddle. His last act before mounting was to see that the coils of his lariat were in order.

"All right," announced the lad, vaulting into the saddle.

Stacy scrambled up behind him without loss of time, and they rode out into the open, the fat boy peering apprehensively over his companion's shoulder.

"You keep watch of them, Chunky, but don't let them see you doing it. I won't look at them at all. We don't want them to think we're afraid."

Stacy fidgeted.

"You bet I'll watch 'em. Wish I had my rifle."

"I don't."

"Huh!"

"You have distinguished yourself quite enough with that rifle as it is. We don't want any more of your fancy shooting."

"There they go," warned Stacy.

"I see them." Tad had been cautiously observing the horsemen out of the corners of his eyes. "Moving in the same direction we are. I don't like the looks of it. Still, if they don't get any nearer we may be thankful."

The pony carrying the boys was walking easily, and the mounts of the Indians were doing the same.

"Jog a little," suggested Stacy.

"That's a good idea. It will tell us quickly whether they are trying to keep up with us."

He touched the pony lightly with his spurs. The little animal switched its tail, for its sides were tender, and started off.

"There they go, Tad! Jogging the same gait as ours!"

Tad's face took on the stubborn look it always wore when he had determined upon a certain course of action.

"I'll beat them yet, even if there are only two of them. I wish there weren't two of us on this nag."

"I'll get off and walk," suggested. Stacy.

"You'll do nothing of the sort. That would be a nice thing to do, wouldn't it? They'd round you up quicker'n they could a lame burro."

"Say, Tad."

"What?"

"I've got an idea."

"What is it?"

"You know that sage hen we had?"

"Yes, what's that got to do with our present predicament?"

"I was wondering why there aren't any sage roosters?"

"You'll be a sage rooster, with your head off, first thing you know," snapped Tad in disgust. "Can't you be serious for a minute? Don't you see we are in a fix?"

"Uh-huh!"

"There, that fellow is trying to head us off."

One of the Indians had shot away from his companion, running obliquely toward the point to which Tad was headed.

The red man had gotten quite a start before the boys caught the significance of his manoeuvre.

Tad dug in the spurs.

At that instant the fat boy's hands had been removed from Tad, to whose body they had been clinging.

The pony leaped forward, and Stacy slid over its rump, hitting the ground with a jolt that jarred him.

"Wow!" howled Stacy.

Tad, instantly divining what had happened, pulled up sharply; wheeled and raced back to where his companion was still complaining loudly and rubbing his body.

"Get up!" roared Tad, leaning over and grasping Stacy by the hair of his head.

The fat boy was jerked sharply to his feet.

"Quick! Quick, climb up here!"

With the help of his companion, the lad scrambled up behind Tad again, muttering and rubbing himself.

By this time the leading horseman had wholly outdistanced them, and his pony was now loping along easily, while the second Indian appeared to be riding directly toward them, at right angles to the direction in which they were traveling.

All at once the two Indians began riding about the boys in a circle, uttering short little "yips," intended to terrify the lads, but not loud enough to be heard any great distance away.

"Hang on! We're going to ride for keeps now!" warned Tad.

The fat boy threw both arms about his companion's waist as the pony let out into a swift run. At first Tad thought he had gotten safely out of the circle, only to discover that they had headed him again.

The circle was narrowing, and the Indians were gradually drawing in on them.

Stacy's eyes were growing larger every minute, perhaps more from astonishment than from fear. Then, too, he could not but admire the riding of their pursuers. Even the blankets of the Indians appeared not to be disturbed in the least by their rapid riding, the horsemen sitting a little sideways on the ponies' backs, the reins bunched loosely in their left bands.

"They've got us, Tad."

"They shan't get us!" retorted Tad stubbornly. "If they don't use their guns-- and I don't believe they will-- we'll beat them yet."

If Stacy was doubtful he did not say so.

"If they get close to us, you be ready to let go of me when I give the word," cautioned Tad.

"What for? What you going to do?"

"I don't know yet. That depends upon circumstances. I'm not going to let them have it all their own way while I've got a pony under me. We may get help any minute, too, so the longer we can put off a clash the better it will be for us."

"Who you mean-- Santa Claus?"

"Yes."

"They're closing in now," said Stacy.

"Take your hands away from my waist."

"But I'll fall off, Tad."

"Slip one hand through under my belt and take hold of the cantle with the other. Sit as low as you can so as not to get in my way."

Stacy obeyed his companion's directions without further comment, but he was all curiosity to know what was going to happen next.

The Indians were drawing nearer every second now. The boys could see the expressions on their evil faces, intensified by the streaks of yellow and red paint.

"They look as though they'd stuck their heads in a paint pail," was Chunky's muttered comment.

The blankets fell away from the racing savages, flapped on the rumps of the bobbing ponies for a few seconds and then slipped to the ground.

A rifle was reposing in each man's holster, as Tad observed instantly. He was thankful to note that the guns were not in the hands of the Indians.

The lad's right hand had dropped carelessly to the saddle horn, the fingers cautiously gathering in the coils of the lariat that hung there. The red men did not appear to have observed his act.

"Lie low!" commanded Tad, scarcely above a whisper.

Stacy settled down slowly so as not to attract attention.

One horseman shot directly across Tad's course, striking the lad's pony full in the face as he did so, and causing the animal to brace himself so suddenly as to nearly unseat both boys.

Tad's rope was in the air in a twinkling.

A warning shout from the second Indian, who was just to the rear of them, came too late. The rope shot true to its mark and the first savage, with back half-turned, had failed to observe it coming.

The great loop dropped over his head. The pony braced itself and Tad took a quick turn of the rope about the pommel of his saddle.

The result was instantaneous. The Indian was catapulted from his saddle with arms pinioned to his aide.

"Ye-ow!" howled Chunky; unable to restrain his enthusiasm.

Tad did not even hear him.

"Look out! Here comes the other one!" warned the fat boy.

But Tad was too busily engaged in keeping the line taut about the roped Indian. The fellow was struggling on the ground, fighting to free himself, while the boy with the rope was manoeuvring his pony in a series of lightning-like movements that made the fat boy's head swim.

"Take care of him, Chunky!! I can't," gasped Tad.

Stacy's eyes took on a belligerent expression as the second savage bore down upon them, with knees gripped tightly against the side of his pony, half raising himself above the animal's back, reins dropped on the pony's neck. The Indian was guiding his mount by the pressure of legs and knees alone.

The angry redskin was making futile attempts to get into a position where he might grab the active Tad. He did not seem to take into account the cringing figure behind the boy who had roped the other Indian.

All at once, at the opportune moment, his pony forging ahead, the Indian's hand shot out. The red, bony fingers were closing upon Tad Butler's right shoulder, when all at once something happened.

The cringing fat boy rose. The right hand that had been clinging to the cantle was launched out. His body, thrown forward at the same time, lent the blow added force.

Chunky's fist came into violent contact with the Indian's jaw. Mr. Redman disappeared from the back of his pony so quickly that, for a second, Stacy could scarcely believe his eyes.

"Y-e-o-w! W-o-w!" howled the fat boy. "Beat it for the tall grass, Tad!"

A quick glance behind him, revealed the true state of affairs to Tad Butler. He dug in the spurs, clinging to the lariat for a few feet, then suddenly releasing it, as the pony leaped away under the stinging pressure of the spurs.

"Duck! Duck! They're going to shoot!" shouted Tad.