Chapter XIX. Outwitting the Redskins
 

Kris Kringle moved away without another word. His abrupt departure was the signal for the Pony Rider boy to start, which he did instantly.

In a few minutes Tad was skulking along the top of the mountain, when he ran into the guide again.

Just then the report of a rifle sounded down below them.

"Are they shooting at us?" whispered Tad.

"No; the boys have lighted the fire in the cave. Our friends down below took a pot shot at the blaze. Hope they didn't hit anybody."

"Chunky would be the only one to get in the way, and I imagine the others would hold him back."

"Come this way; we'll go down by a different trail. The redskins are watching the fire in the cave, but they may be keeping an eye on the trail at the same time."

Silently the man and the boy took their way along the rough, uneven path, slowly working down into the valley. They soon reached this, for the range was low there.

Reaching the foothills, the two scouts once more fell into single file, Tad Butler to the rear. He knew that the guide's rifle ahead of him was ready for instant use, and at any second now Tad expected to see the flash of a gun.

The lad was not afraid, but he was all a-quiver with excitement. This stalking an enemy in the dark, not knowing at what minute that enemy might make the attack, was not the same as a stand-up fight in broad daylight. Tad wondered why the guide had not permitted the rest of the party to escape while they had the opportunity. He did not know that Kris Kringle fully expected an ambush, nor that two would stand a better chance to get through and out-wit the savages than would half a dozen of them. The pair had approached nearly to the camp, for which the guide was heading, when suddenly a hand was laid on the boy's arm in a firm grip. Tad knew the guide had seen or heard something.

"What is it?"

"There!"

In the faint light of the camp-fire the lad, gazing where Kris Kringle had pointed, was astonished to see a figure seated at their table. From his motions it was evident that the intruder was stowing away the stolen fool at a great rate.

"Is that one of them?"

"Yes."

"He'll have indigestion, the way he's eating. Hope he doesn't swallow the dishes, too."

"I'm going to find the other one. You crawl as close to the camp as you can with safety. If you hear a disturbance, dive for the tents the instant that fellow starts. He'll move if he hears any noise. Get a gun and hurry to me, but be quiet about it."

"Yes."

"Remember your instructions. I may be able to handle both of them, but if I don't get the missing one at the first crack I shan't be able to take care of them both. You'll have to help me. Got the nerve?"

"I'm not afraid," whispered the boy steadily. "And I've got some muscle as well."

"That's evident. I'm off now."

Tad was left alone. This time he could feel the guide's movements, as the latter slipped away on the soft earth. But in a moment all sound was lost,

"I think I'll crawl up nearer, so as to be handy if anything occurs," decided the lad, creeping along on all fours. He could not see the light in the camp now, but he reasoned that the man at the table was sitting with his back to it, as near as Tad could judge of direction in the dark. The Indian seemed not to fear a surprise.

"That's what comes from overconfidence," grinned the lad.

"I wish I had something to defend myself with," he added after a pause.

Tad had no sooner expressed his wish, than his fingers closed over some object on the ground. He grasped it with about the same hopefulness that a dying man will grasp at a straw.

What he had found was a heavy tent stake, one that Kris Kringle had dropped from his bundle on the way to the cliff dweller's home.

The lad breathed a prayer of thankfulness and crept on with renewed courage.

He proceeded as far as he dared; then, lay still, listening for the noise of the expected conflict between the guide and the other red man.

It came. The sound was like that of a body falling heavily.

Once more the Indian at the table turned his head, listening inquiringly. He made a half motion to rise, glanced at the table, then sat down again and began to eat.

"His appetite has overcome his judgment," grinned Tad. The lad could hear the faint sound of conflict somewhere to the rear of him. He was getting uneasy and began to fidget.

All at once the red man sprang up, starting on a run, trailing Stacy's rifle behind him. He was headed directly for the place where Tad lay flattened on the ground, though the lad felt sure his enemy did not see him.

But when the Indian suddenly sprang up into the air to avoid stepping on the object that lay there, Tad knew that further secrecy was useless. The redskin had jumped right over him, dropping Chunky's rifle as he leaped. The gun fell on the Pony Rider boy and for a second hindered his movements.

But Tad was up like a flash, while the Indian whirled no less quickly, knife unsheathed, ready for battle.

This was where Tad's tent stake came in handy. Without it he would have been in a much more serious fix. It was bad enough as it was.

Without an instant's hesitation the lad brought the stake down on the wrist of the hand that held the knife. The knife fell to the ground, while the Indian, with a half-suppressed howl, sprang at the slender lad. Though the fellow's wrist was well-nigh useless at that moment, he was as full of fight as ever.

Tad stepped nimbly aside and tried to trip his adversary, but the Indian was too sharp to be caught that way.

"If he ever gets those arms around me I'm a goner," thought Tad, taking mental measure of his antagonist.

Suddenly the Indian swooped down, making a grab for the rifle that he had dropped.

As the redskin stooped, Tad hit him a wallop on the head with the tent stake. It must have made the savage see a shower of stars.

At least, it staggered him so he was glad to let the weapon remain where it was. For a few seconds the air was full of flying legs and arms, during which the boy landed three times on the red man, being himself unhurt.

Then the Indian succeeded in rushing into a clinch, and Tad found himself gripped in those arms of steel. Wriggle and twist as be would he could not free himself from their embrace. His adversary, on the other hand, found himself fully occupied in holding on to his slippery young antagonist, giving him neither time nor opportunity effectually to dispose of the slender lad.

Tad was unusually muscular for his years, to which was added no little skill as wrestler. The Indian soon discovered both these qualities. And, at about that time, the lad was resorting to every trick he knew to place the Indian in a position where he could be thrown.

The moment came with disconcerting suddenness, and Mr. Redman uttered a loud grunt as he landed on the ground, flat on his back. With a spring he lifted himself up, and the next instant he had thrown the slight figure of the Pony Rider Boy so heavily that everything about Tad grew black. He felt himself going. Then all at once he lost consciousness.

When finally he awakened, Tad found a figure still bending over him.

Quick as a flash the boy's arms went up, encircling the neck of the man kneeling by him. The next instant the fellow was on his back, with Tad sitting on his chest.

"Here, here! What's the matter with you?" gasped a muffled voice, which Tad instantly recognized.

"Kris Kringle!" he gasped.

"Yes; and you nearly knocked the breath out of me," grinned the guide, struggling to his feet. "Well, you certainly are a whirlwind."

"I-- I thought you were the Indian," mattered Tad in a sheepish tone.

"If it had been, there would have been no need for my interference."

"Where is he?"

"Over there, tied up. Both of them are. We'll decide what to do with them when we get the party together."

"Tell me what happened," begged Tad.

The other fellow was so busy watching the cave that he forgot to keep his ears open. I was able to approach him without being detected. When I got near enough I laid the butt of my rifle over his head. No, I didn't hurt him much. Just made him curl up on the ground long enough to enable me to tie his hands and feet.

"About that time I caught the sound of something going on over here. I made a run, suspecting that you were mixing it up with the other redskin. Guess I was just in time, too, for he had you down and was reaching for something--"

"His knife," nodded Tad. "It's somewhere around here now."

"Well, I gave him the same medicine that I had given the other. Now we'd better go and call the others."

"Thank you. I'd have been in a bad fix, if you hadn't come as you did."

"So might I, had you not stopped the second one. We're quits then," said the guide, extending his hand, which Tad grasped warmly.

"I'll call the others, if you wish."

"Yes."

Tad ran over to the base of the cliff, and shouted loudly for his companions. In half an hour the party had gathered about the camp fire, engaged in an animated discussion over the stirring experiences of the evening.

It was decided that the Indians should be placed on their ponies, to which they were to be tied, with hands free and provisions enough to last them until they reached their reservation in the northern part of the state;

The guide restored their rifles to them after first taking their ammunition and transferring it to his own kit.

"I've wasted nearly that much on you," he said. "And, if ever you ride across my trail again, I'll use your own lead on you in a way that will stop you. You won't need bullets like these in the Happy Hunting Grounds, where you'll be going. Now, git!"

And they did. The redskins rode as if a ghost were pursuing them.

"That's the last, we shall see of those gentlemen," laughed Kris Kringle. "To-morrow morning we shall be on our way in peace."

But the trail of the Pony Rider Boys was not to be all peace. Before them-- ere they reached the end of the Silver Trail-- they were to find other thrilling experiences awaiting them.