Chapter XI. A Race Against Time
 

But to return to Tad and his experiences in seeking to elude his pursuers. The boy saw that it was a question of a few moments only before they would surely overhaul him. Already the bullets from their revolvers were making their presence known about him.

"Getting too warm for me," decided the lad coolly.

It occurred to him to leave the pony and take his chances on foot. The animal did not belong to him and he would have to abandon it sooner or later.

A volley closer than the rest emphasized his decision. The lad freed his feet from the stirrups and slipped from the saddle, at the same time giving the pony a sharp slap, uttering a shrill little "yip!" as the animal dashed away.

After this, Tad did not wait a second. He ran obliquely away from the pony. This he thought would be better than turning sharply to the left or right. The next moment he came into violent contact with the base of a tree. He noted that it's trunk was a sloping one, and without pausing to think of the wisdom of his act, the lad quickly scrambled up it.

To his delight he found himself amid the spreading branches of a pinon tree. He wriggled in among the foliage, stretching himself along a limb, where he clung almost breathless. He had no sooner gained that position than the pony went down under the fire of his pursuers.

"Too bad," muttered Tad. "It's a shame I had to desert the broncho. He did me a good service."

The men galloped by a few feet from the boy's hiding place and came to a halt beside the prostrate pony. His straining ears caught their every word.

When they began to shoot, Tad flattened himself still more, instinctively. Some of the bullets passed close beneath him, and he wished that he might have chosen a higher tree in which to hide.

Bang!

It seemed to have cut the leaves just behind his head.

Tad repressed a shiver and shut his lips tightly together. He was determined not to permit himself to feel any fear.

At last the men joined each other right under the tree in which he was hiding. Tad fairly held his breath.

"Well, what do you think, Cap?"

"Don't think. I know. The cayuse has given us the slip."

"No, not much use looking for him. Better wait here till morning then try to trail him down, if we don't find him laid out somewhere in the bushes round here," suggested one.

"Yes, we might as well go back to camp. We can't spend much time looking for him in the morning. We've got other work to do. I wish I knew just how much that fellow overheard. Queerest thing I ever come across, and I don't like it a little bit."

They removed the saddle and bridle from the dead pony, after which they started slowly away.

Tad breathed again. Yet he still lay along the pinon limb, every sense on the alert. He was not sure that it was not a trick to draw him out. He already was too good a woodsman to be caught napping thus easily.

After a time, however, deciding that all the men had left, the lad cautiously began to work his way down the sloping tree trunk. His feet touched the ground, his arms still being about the pinon trunk. In that position he lay for several minutes.

"I guess it's all right," decided Tad, straightening up. "The question is, which way shall I go? I've got to be a long ways from here by daylight or that will be the end of me. It would be just my luck to run right into that gang again."

After pondering a moment he decided that, knowing the direction the men had taken, there was only one thing for him to do. He would strike out in the opposite direction.

He did so at once, first standing in one spot for some time to get his bearings exactly. Then, the lad started away bravely. At first he moved cautiously and as he got further away, increased his speed and went on with less caution.

He kept bearing to the right to offset the natural tendency to stray too far the other way, which is usual with those who are lost in the forest.

Tad was tired and sore, but he did not allow himself to give any thought to that. His one thought now, was to get out of the forest and give the alarm to the owner of the ranch against whom he had heard the men plotting.

Hearing water running somewhere near, Tad realized that he was very thirsty, and after a few minutes' search, he located a small mountain stream. Making a cup of his hands he drank greedily, then took up his weary journey again. Forcing his way through dense patches of brush, stumbling into little gullies, becoming entangled amongst fallen trees and rotting brush heaps, boy and clothes suffered a sad beating.

Day dawned faintly after what had seemed an endless night. The sky which he could faintly make out through the trees above him, was of a dull leaden gray, which slowly merged into an ever deepening blue. Off to his right he caught glimpses of patches of blue that were lower down.

"I must be up in the mountains," said Tad aloud. "I wonder how I ever got up here."

This was a certain aid to him, however. He reasoned that if the valley lay to his right, he must be going nearly northward. That would lead him toward the place where he believed the Simms ranch lay, and at the present moment that was Tad Butler's objective point. It might be losing valuable time were he to try to find his way back to camp.

"I'll get down lower," he decided, turning sharply to the right and descending the sloping side of the mountains.

Reaching the lower rocks, he found that he was more likely to lose his way there than higher up. He was now in the foothills. There, all sense of direction was lost. So Tad, began ascending the mountain. He went up just far enough to enable him to see the blue sky off to the right again, after which he forced his way along the rocky slope. It was tough traveling and he felt it in every muscle of his body.

After plodding on for hours, he paused finally and listened.

"Thought I heard a bell tinkle," he muttered. "I've heard of people hearing such things when they were nearly crazed with hunger and fatigue on the desert. I wonder if I am going the same way. Oh, pshaw! Tad Butler, you could keep on walking all day. Don't be silly," he said to himself encouragingly.

The tinkling bell was now a certainty.

"I know what it is!" exclaimed the lad joyously. "It's sheep! I've heard them before. I'm near sheep and that means there will be men around. It's sheepmen that I am looking for now."

With hat in hand, the boy dashed off down the mountain side, leaping lightly from rock to rock, his red neck-handkerchief streaming in the breeze behind him, as he followed an oblique course toward the foothills.

All at once he burst out on to a broad, green mesa, and there, before his delighted eyes was a great herd of snowy-white sheep grazing contentedly. Off on the further side of the flock he descried a man lazily sitting in his saddle while a dog was rounding up a bunch of stray lambs further to Tad's right.

The man was watching the work of the dog, so that he did not discover the lad at once.

Tad decided that he would go around the herd to the left. That appeared to be the shortest way to reach him. He did not wish to try to go straight through the herd.

He had gone but a little way before he saw that the man had observed him and was now riding around the upper end of the flock to meet him.

"Hello, what do you want?" shouted the fellow.

"I want to find Mr. Simms's ranch. Is it anywhere near here?"

"Two miles up that way. Where'd you come from?"

"I don't know. I've been lost in the mountains. I must see Mr. Simms at once."

"Guess you've got a long walk ahead of you then," laughed the sheepman. "Boss Simms is up to Forsythe."

"Is his family at the ranch?" asked Tad.

"I reckon the women folks is. You seem to be in a hurry, pardner."

"I am. I must hurry."

Wondering at the haste of the disreputable looking youngster, the sheepman watched him until he had gotten out of sight. Finding the footing good and encouraged by the knowledge that he had but two miles to go, the lad dropped into a lope which he kept up until the white side of the Simms ranch buildings reflected back the morning sun just ahead of him.

Tads legs almost collapsed under him as he staggered into the yard and asked a boy whom he saw there, for Mrs. Simms.

He was directed by a wave of the hand to a near-by door, on which Tad rapped insistently.

"I wish to see Mrs. Simms, please," he said to the servant, who responded to his knock.

"I am Mrs. Simms. What is it you wish?" answered a voice somewhere in the room. It was a pleasant voice, reminding Tad much of his mother's, and a sense of restfulness possessed him almost at once. He felt almost as if he were at home again.

"I would like to speak with you, alone, please."

"Who are you?"

"I am Tad Butler from Missouri. I----"

"Oh, yes, nay husband told me you were expected," she said cordially, extending her hand.

"I owe you an apology for appearing in this shape, but I have been lost in the mountains and seem to be rather badly in need of a change of clothes," smiled the lad.

"Come right in. Never mind the clothes. Perhaps I may be able to help you. You say you have been lost?"

"Yes."

"Where are your companions?"

"I don't know. I left them in camp somewhere, I am not sure where."

"Oh, that is too bad. If you will remain until night perhaps we can spare one of the herders to help you find them----"

"Pardon me, but it is not for that that I came here," interrupted the lad. "It was on a far more important matter."

"Yes?"

"It is a matter that concerns your husband very seriously."

"Tell me about it, please?" said Mrs. Simms anxiously.

"Have you anyone that you could send to Forsythe at once with an urgent message for your husband?" he asked.

"There is no one. The herders would not dare to leave their flocks--that is not until the sheep were safe in their corral to-night."

"That will be too late. I'll have to go myself. Have you a spare pony that I could ride!"

"Of course. That is if you can rope one out of the pen and saddle it yourself."

"Certainly. I can do that," said the boy quickly. "But I shall probably ride him pretty hard and fast. I do not think Mr. Simms will object when he learns my reasons."

"Is it so serious as that?"

"It seems so to me. Last night while lost in the mountains I overheard some men plotting against your husband. They said he was expecting a large number of sheep that were being brought in on a drive."

"Yes, that is true."

"They were planning to attack the herd, to stampede it and kill all the animals they could----"

"Is it possible?" demanded the woman, growing pale.

"They mean it, too. I think I will get the pony and start now," decided Tad, rising.

"You are a brave boy," exclaimed the banker's wife, laying an impulsive hand on Tad's shoulder. "I wish you did not have to go. You are tired out now. I can see that."

"I'll be all right when I get in the saddle again," he smiled. "Thank you just as much."

"You shall not leave this house until you have had your breakfast. What can I be thinking of?" announced Mrs. Simms. "You are doing us all a very great service and I am not even thoughtful enough to offer you something to eat though you are half starved."

"I had better not spare the time to sit down," objected Tad. "I must be going if you will show me the way."

"Not until you have eaten."

"Then, will you please make me some sandwiches? I can eat them in the saddle, and I shall get along very nicely until I get to town. I'll eat enough to make up for lost time when I get at it," he laughed.

He was out of the house and running toward the corral, to which Mrs. Simms had directed him. Tad hunted about until he found a rope; then going to the enclosure scanned the ponies critically.

"I think I'll take that roan," he decided. "Looks as if he had some life in him."

The roan had plenty, as Tad soon learned. However, after a lively little battle he succeeded in getting the animal from the enclosure and saddling and bridling him.

Tad could find no spurs, but he helped himself to a crop which he found in the stable, though, from what he had been able to observe, the pony would require little urging to make him go at a good speed.

Mrs. Simms was outside when Tad rode up. She had prepared a lunch for him, placing it in a little leather bag with a strap attached for fastening the package over his shoulder.

"Please say nothing about what I have told you," urged Tad. "I don't want them to know we understand their plans. That is the only way Mr. Simms will be able to catch them."

"Of course, I shall not mention it. Good-bye and good luck."

Tad mounted his broncho and was off, head-ding directly for the town of Forsythe.