The Pony Rider Boys in New Mexico by Frank Gee Patchin
Chapter VI. The Fire Dance of the Red Men
The Indians made a sudden move to pursue the lad who had done so daring a thing. One of their number restrained them, pointing to the fallen brave, as much as to say, "Revenge is for him!"
With a shrug of their shoulders the Indians sank down and resumed their game as stoically as before. They gave no further heed to the unconscious Apache, who still lay just outside the circle where he had been knocked out by Tad's blow.
"Hurry! Hurry!" commanded the lad, fairly dragging his companion along. "They'll be after us in a minute."
Yet before the minute had elapsed Tad had halted suddenly, his wondering eyes fixed upon the scene that was being enacted before him.
About a pit of red hot coals, naked save for the breech clouts they wore, swayed the bodies of half-a-dozen powerful braves.
They were the fire dancers and Tad was gazing upon a scene that probably never will he seen again in this country-- the last of the fire dances-- a secret dance of which it was to be supposed the Government agents knew nothing.
Back and forth waved the copper-colored line, right up to the edge of the pit of glowing coals, uttering a weird chant, which was taken up by others who were not in the dance.
The voices of the chanters grew louder, their excitement waxed higher, as the thrill of song and dance pulsed through their veins.
All at once, Tad was horrified to see one of the dancers leap into the air, uttering a mighty shriek. While still clear of the ground the dancer's body turned, then he dove head first into the bed of hot coals. He was out in an instant.
The chant rose higher as the remaining dancers followed the leader into the burning pit and out of it. So quickly did they move that they seemed not to feel the heat, and from Tad's point of vantage, he was sure that none was burned in the slightest.
Juan tried to pull away. But Tad held him in a firm grip.
Now that the dancers had passed through the fire unscathed, others followed them, some no more than touching the live coals, then bounding out on the other side of the pit; others remaining long enough to roll swiftly across the glowing bed.
Excitement was rapidly waxing higher and higher. The red men were in a dangerous mood. It boded ill for the paleface who sought to interfere with their carnival at this moment.
"Come!" whispered Tad in a low, tense voice. "We've got to get out of this mighty quick! Chunky's probably half scared to death, too."
Tad did not go far. He had scarcely taken half a dozen steps when a frenzied yell, a series of shrill shrieks sounded in the air. The sounds seemed to come from all directions at once.
"Me not know."
"Somebody's running a pony. I hear it coming. It's headed right for that bunch of crazy savages. Probably an Indian gone mad."
It was not an Indian who was the cause of this new disturbance, as the lad discovered almost immediately afterward.
"Yip, yip! Y-e-o-w! W-o-w!"
The yells were uttered in the shrill voice of Stacy Brown.
"It's Chunky!" groaned Tad. "Here's trouble in earnest!"
They never knew just how it happened, and Chunky could not tell them, but in all probability the excitement had been too much for the fat boy!
He had moved closer when the dancing began, and the fever of it got into his veins until his excitement had reached a pitch beyond his control.
With a series of howls and yells, the fat boy drove the rowels of the spurs deep into his pony's aides.
The animal dashed forward at a break-neck pace.
Stacy headed straight for the glowing pit, yelling with every leap of the pony.
Tad gazed spellbound. He seemed powerless to move. He had been deeply affected by the scenes he had seen; but this was different. The lad held his breath.
Reaching the edge of the pit, Stacy's pony rose in the air, clearing the bed of coals in a long, curving leap.
Two red men had just risen from their fiery bath. The hind hoofs of the pony caught and bowled them over.
"Run to the camp and get help! Take my pony! Ride for your life! Don't lose a second!" gasped Tad, giving the lazy Mexican a shove that sent him stumbling until he had measured his length upon the ground.
Juan picked himself up slowly; and, crawling away into the bushes, lay down to rest or hide.
Stacy's pony landed fairly in the center of a bunch of half-clothed savages; some of whom went down under the pony when it landed on them so unexpectedly.
The next instant the fat boy had been jerked from the animal's back, to which he was clinging desperately.
With a yell the redskins hurled him toward the fire. But the force of the throw had not been quite strong enough. Stacy landed on the edge of the pit, rolling half into it, the upper part of his body being on the ground to which he was hanging, yelling lustily. His shod feet were in the fire, however, but as yet he did not realize that his clothes were burning.
Tad Butler sprang quickly from his hiding place.
"Crawl out!" he roared. "You'll be burned alive!"
"I-- I can't. I fell in," piped Stacy, all his bravery gone now.
Tad leaped across the intervening space and bounded to the side of his companion.
"Ouch! I'm on fire!" shrieked Stacy.
Tad grabbed and hauled him from his dangerous position. One of Tad's feet slipped in while he was doing so. By this time the clothes of both lads had begun to smoulder.
"Run for it! Better be burned than scalped!" shouted Tad.
Holding to Chunky's arm the Pony Rider Boy started to run. He was tripped by a moccasined foot before they had gone ten feet. Both boys fell headlong. Ere they could rise half a dozen mad savages were upon them.
The lads were jerked roughly to their feet, Chunky shivering, Tad pale but resolute. There was nothing that he could say or do to repair the damage that his companion had done.
One whom the lad took to be a chief, from his head-dress and commanding appearance, pushed his way into the crowd about the two boys, hurling the red men aside with reckless sweeps of his powerful arms.
"Ugh!" he grunted, folding his arms and gazing sternly at the two prisoners.
Tad explained as best he could.
"Why you do this?"
"My friend here got excited," Tad declared.
Tad's face burned. He could scarcely resist the impulse to resent the imputation that the savage had cast upon him. He conquered the inclination with an effort.
"Sir, we had no wish to interfere with you. We came here to get one of our men who had come here to gamble. If you will release us we will return to our camp and give you no further trouble. I promise you that."
"T-h-h-h-at's so," chattered Chunky.
"Keep still," whispered Tad. "You'll get us into more trouble."
The chief appeared to be debating the question in his own mind, when one of the men, whom Tad recognized as a member of the gambling circle, whispered something to the chief.
The chief's eyes blazed. Uttering a succession of gutteral sounds, he gave some quick directions to the red men near him.
"He makes a noise like a litter of pigs," muttered Chunky.
Acting upon the chief's direction two braves grabbed the lads, and hurried them away, Tad meanwhile watching for an opportunity to break away. Had he been alone, he felt sure he could do so safely. But he would not leave his companion, of course.
The Apaches took the boys a short distance from the camp, planked them down roughly with their backs to a rock.
"Now, I wonder what next?" muttered Tad.
While one of the braves stood guard over them, the second trotted back to the camp, returning after a few minutes with a third savage who carried a rifle.
The boys were sure then that they were to be shot.
"Huh! You run, brave shoot um!" warned one of the first pair, after which parting injunction the two captors strode away, leaving their companion to guard the boys.
For a few moments the Indian walked up and down in front of them, keeping his eyes fixed on the lads. Tad noted that he walked rather unsteadily. Finally, the guard sat down facing them, some ten feet away.
"Well, you've certainly gone and done it this time, Chunky," said Tad in a low voice. "What on earth made you do a crazy thing like that?"
"I-- I don't know."
"Well, it's too late for regrets. All we can do will be to make the best of our situation and watch for an opportunity to get away."
For several minutes the boys sat gazing at the stolid figure before them. Tad's mind was working, though his body was not.
"Make believe you're going to sleep, but don't overdo it," whispered Tad.
This was something that Stacy could do, and he did it with such naturalness that Tad could not repress a smile.
"That Indian is dazed from his excitement, and if we make him think we're asleep he's likely to relax his vigilance," mused Tad, as the two boys gradually leaned closer together, soon to all appearances being wrapped in sleep. Little by little the Indian's head nodded.
Finally he toppled over to one side, the rifle lying across his feet.
Tad and Chunky remained motionless.
The Indian snored.
The boys waited. Soon the snores became regular. The moment for action had arrived.
Tad pinched Chunky.
"Huh! Wat'cher want?"
The fat boy had in reality been asleep.
"For goodness sake, keep quiet!" begged Tad in a whisper. "Don't you know there's an Indian with a gun guarding us? He's asleep. Come, but be quiet if you value your life at all. Anyway; remember that I want to save mine."
Stacy was wide awake now. Together the lads crawled cautiously away, every nerve on the alert. Over by the pit of live coals the uproar was, if any thing, louder than before.
The boys gave that part of the camp a wide berth.
"Now get up and run!" commanded Tad. "Raise your feet off the ground, so that you won't fall over every pebble you come to."
Tad and Chunky clasped hands and scurried through the bushes, making as little noise as possible, and rapidly putting considerable distance between them and the sleeping red man who had been set to watch them.
"Having lots of fun, ain't we, Tad?"
"Fun! You're lucky if you get off with a whole scalp--"
"Wow!" exclaimed Stacy.
The lads brought up suddenly.
At first they were not sure what had disturbed them, that is, Tad was not. This time Stacy had seen more clearly than his companion.
"Ugh!" grunted a voice right in front of them, and there before their amazed eyes stood an Indian. To their imaginations, he was magnified until he appeared nearly as tall as the moonlit mountains in the background.
For one hesitating instant the lads stood staring at the figure looming over them.
With an angry growl the red man bounded toward them. He had recognized the boys and was determined that they should not escape him.
It was Stacy Brown's wits that saved the situation this time. As the Indian came at them the fat boy dived between the savage's naked legs, uttering a short, sharp yelp, for all the world just like that of a small dog attempting to frighten off a bigger antagonist.
There could be only one result following Chunky's unexpected tactics. Mr. Redskin flattened himself on the ground prone upon his face. Somehow the fellow was slightly stunned by the fall, not having had time to save himself from a violent bump on the head.
"Run for it, Chunky! He'll be after us in a second."
The lads made a lively sprint for the open. In a moment, observing that they were not being followed, they halted, still in the shadows of the bushes. All at once Tad stumbled over an object in the dark. At first he thought it was another Indian, and both boys were about to run again, when the voice of the prostrate man caused them to laugh instead.
"Si, si, seņor," muttered the fellow.
"Juan? It's Juan! Get up! You here yet?"
They pulled the lazy guide to his feet, starting off with him, when all at once Tad happened to think that one of the ponies was back there somewhere among the Indians.
"You stay here, and don't make a fool of yourself this time!" commanded Tad.
"Where are you going?"
"After your pony. You hang on to Juan. I'll hold you responsible for him, Chunky."
"Guess I can take care of a lazy Mexican if I can floor a redskin," answered Stacy proudly.
But Tad was off. He had not heard the last remark of his companion. In picking his way carefully around the camp to where he had seen a lot of ponies tethered, Tad found a Navajo blanket. He quickly possessed himself of it, throwing it over his head, wrapping himself in its folds.
He was now in plain sight of the wild antics of the dancers, who, still mad with the excitement of the hour, were performing all manner of weird movements. For a moment, the lad squatted down to watch them. He had been there but a short time when a voice at his side startled him, and Tad was about to take a fresh sprint when he realized that it was not the voice of a savage.
"Young man, you'd better light out of here while you've got the chance," said the stranger.
Turning sharply, Tad discovered a man, who, like himself, was wrapped in a gaudy blanket. He was unable to see the man's face, which was hidden under the Navajo.
"Who are you?" demanded the lad sharply.
"I'm an Indian agent. I only got wind of this proposed fire dance late this afternoon. These men will all be punished unless they return to their reservations peaceably. If they do, they will be let go with a warning."
"Do they know you're here?"
"They? Not much," laughed the agent.
"But supposing they ask you a question?"
"I can talk all the different tribal languages represented here. You'd better go now. Where are you from?"
Tad explained briefly.
"Well, you have had a narrow escape tonight. If they catch you again they'll make short work of you."
"They won't catch me. Thank you and good-bye."
"Don't go that way. Strike straight back; then you will have an open course."
"I'm going after my companion's pony. I think I know where to find it," answered Tad, wrapping the blanket about himself and stealing across an open moonlit space without attracting attention.
The Indian agent watched him curiously for a moment; then he rose and followed quickly after Tad.
"That boy is either a fool-- which I don't think-- or else he doesn't know the meaning of the word 'fear.'"
Tad did not find Stacy's pony where he had expected. Indian ponies were tethered all about, singly and in groups, while here and there one was left to graze where it would.
"What sort of a looking pony is yours?" questioned the agent, coming up to him.
"Then I think I know where he is. He was not like the horses in this vicinity, which attracted my attention to him."
The agent led the way, in a roundabout course, to the south side of the camp, where they began looking over the animals. Occasionally a redskin would pass them, but no one gave either the slightest heed.
"Here he is," whispered Tad."
"Lead him off. Don't mount just yet."
Tad did as the agent had suggested. But all at once something happened. Tad's blanket had dropped from his shoulders, revealing him in his true colors. An Indian uttered a yell. Tad sprang into his saddle and put spurs to the pony. In a moment more than a dozen redskins had mounted and started yelling after him, believing he was stealing a pony.
Tad headed away to the south to give his companions a chance to get out of the way, and the savages came in full cry after him.