Chapter XIV. Bunted by a Merino Ram
 

The Simms outfit breathed a sigh of relief when daylight came again. There had been nothing more disturbing than Stacy Brown's yawns in the early part of the night.

So persistent had been these that the Professor and Mr. Simms found themselves yawning in sympathy. Old Hicks, who was sitting up to prepare hot coffee for any of the sheepmen who might come in, was affected in a like manner. Had it not been for the presence of the owner of the herd Hicks might have adopted heroic measures to put a stop to Stacy's yawns. As it was, he threatened all sorts of dire things. At breakfast time the cook seemed to be in a far worse humor than ever when he gave the breakfast call.

"Come and get it. And I hope it chokes you!" he bellowed, voicing his displeasure at everything and everybody in general.

Tad rode in as fresh as if he had not had a sleepless vigil. His rest of late had been more or less irregular, but it seemed to have not the slightest effect either on his spirits or his appetite.

All felt the relief from the strain of the night's watching and it was a more sociable company that gathered at the table than had been the case on the previous evening.

"Well, how do you like being a sheepman?" asked Mr. Simms jovially.

"It's better than being lost in the mountains and being shot at by cowmen," averred Tad.

"Perhaps you'll have a chance to enjoy the latter pleasure, still," said Mr. Simms. "I do not delude myself that we are out of danger yet; it may be that they have taken warning and given it up."

"What are the plans for to-day?" asked Ned Rector.

"The herd will graze on, and later in the day we shall move the camp five or six miles up the range. See any Indians last night?"

"No," answered the boys, sobering a little.

"Old Hicks is authority for the statement that they were hovering somewhere near during the night."

"How does he know?" asked Tad.

"You'll have to make inquiry of Hicks himself if you want to find out," laughed the rancher. "Probably the same way that he knows we are talking about him now."

All eyes were directed toward the cook.

Hicks was limping around the mutton kettle, shaking his fist at it and berating it, though in a voice too low for them to hear.

"That's one of your cattle men for you," chuckled Mr. Simms. "I think he would take genuine pleasure in boiling a sheepman in his pot. But he takes the money," added Mr. Simms significantly. "By the way, where's your chum?"

"Whom do you mean?" asked Walter, glancing about the table.

"Chunky, I believe you call him."

"That's so, where is he?" demanded Tad, laying down his fork.

"Probably fallen in somewhere again," growled Ned.

"Did not Master Stacy come in with you, Ned?" asked the Professor hurriedly.

"No, sir."

"He was with you last night?"

"No, not all the time. He went out with me, but I saw him only twice during the early part of my watch."

Mr. Simms looked serious. "I hope nothing has happened to him. See here, Luke. They tell me Master Stacy has not been seen this morning. Know anything of it?"

"Why, no. Are you sure? Have you looked in his tent?"

"Excuse me, I'll go see if he isn't there," said Tad, rising from the table and hurrying to the tent occupied by his companion.

"No," he said as he returned; "evidently he has not been there since we went out at midnight."

"Ask Old Hicks if he has seen him come in," directed Mr. Simms.

The cook said he had not set eyes on the fat boy, adding that he didn't care a rap if he never came back.

The boys looked at each other with mute, questioning eyes.

"We must go in search of him at once," decided the Professor.

"Yes, don't worry, Professor," calmed the rancher. "He has probably strayed off by himself and is unable to find his way back. Luke will round him up in short order. Finish your breakfast, everybody, then we will see that the young man is brought back. Funny he should have gotten away without any one's having noticed it."

"He's always getting himself into trouble," declared Ned.

"I thought I was the only one that did that," retorted Tad, with an attempt at gayety.

"That's different. I know what I'm talking about. Something is sure to happen to that boy before we are ready to go back home."

"Begins to look as if something had already happened," said Walter.

A wild yell startled the sheepmen at the table. It seemed to come from some distance away.

Everybody started up, some reaching for their guns.

"We are attacked!" cried one.

"No, but we're going to be!" shouted another. "There comes one of the boys on a pony giving the alarm."

"Get ready, everybody!"

The camp was in instant confusion. In their haste to prepare for action, the table was upset and its contents piled in a confused heap. Old Hicks was roaring out his displeasure, the foreman was shouting out his orders, while Professor Zepplin was seeking to make himself heard in an effort to give directions to his charges.

Suddenly the voice of the foreman was heard above the uproar.

"Hold on!" he shouted. "It's one of our own --it's------Oh, bah!"

"What is it? What is it!" cried Mr. Simms, unlimbering his weapon.

"It's Chunky," snorted Ned Rector disgustedly. "The fat boy has been falling in again or I'll eat mutton all the rest of my natural life."

"It sure enough is he," answered Tad, gazing off at the horseman who was riding at top speed and trying to urge his pony on still faster. "I wonder what he has been getting into this time. Hope it's nothing serious."

"Not to him, anyway, judging by the way he is riding," replied Walter.

"Something has given him a mighty good start, anyhow," shrewdly decided the foreman.

"I know what it is--I know what he's in such a hurry about," said Ned.

"What?" asked Walter.

"Breakfast. He's just found out it's breakfast time," jeered Ned.

"Can't have no breakfast," growled Old Hicks. "Breakfast is et."

"Excepting what's on the ground," added Mary Johnson. "What's he yelling about?"

"Something's gone twisted," decided Champ Blake. "Think so, Noisy?" "Uh-hu," agreed the silent one. All eyes were fixed on Chunky. He was gesticulating wildly and pointing back to the hills from which he had just come.

"I believe they are after us, and in broad daylight, too," snapped Mr. Simms. "Get your ponies. Be quick! Ride fast. Don't let them get near the sheep."

Thus admonished, the sheepmen sprang for their saddles. The boys followed suit at once, leaving only the Professor and Old Hicks to look after the camp.

A bunch of sheep had trotted to a water hole hard by the camp, a faithful shepherd dog following along after them to see that they returned to the main flock as soon as they should have satisfied their thirst. The sheep were now between Chunky and the camp. So intent was he on attracting the attention of the men that he failed to observe the small flock in his path.

Neither did the sheepmen notice it. If Old Hicks did, he did not care what happened either to the sheep or to the boy to whom he had taken such a violent dislike.

"Wow! Wow! Wow!" screamed the boy in a shrill, high-pitched voice.

"What's the matter?"

"Where are they?"

"How many of 'em?"

These and other questions were hurled at Chunky as he dashed straight toward the camp.

He pointed back to the foothills.

"They're there, he says," shouted the foreman. "Come on. Spread out so as to cover the herd. Don't you let a man get through our lines."

Their ponies were stretched out with noses reaching for some unseen object, as it seemed. They swept past the lad within hailing distance, riding hard, while he continued to reach for home.

Stacy had turned to look back at the racing sheepmen, when his pony drove biting and striking right into the flock crowded about the water hole, for the ponies liked the sheep no more than did the cook.

The broncho went down like a flash, hopelessly entangled with the bleating, frightened animals. But Stacy did not stop. That is, he did not do so at once. The lad had shot neatly over the broncho's head, describing a nice curve in the air as he soared.

Pock!

His head landed with a muffled sound.

"Ouch! Help!"

A loud, angry bleat followed his exclamation. The lad's head had been driven with great violence against the soft, unresisting side of a Merino ram.

The Merino went down under the blow. But his soft fleece had saved the boy from serious injury, if not from a broken neck.

"I fell off," cried Stacy, struggling to his feet, running his fingers over his body, as if to determine whether or not he had been hurt. "I --I didn't see them. Th--they got in my way."

Whether he had or not was not now the question, at least so far as the Merino was concerned.

The ram was angry. He resented being bunted over in any such manner.

The animal, scrambling to his feet, uttered a bleat, at the same time viciously throwing up his head, landing lightly, for him, on Chunky's leg.

"Stop kicking me! I say you stop that you----"

He did not finish what he had started to say. The Merino, finding the mark a satisfactory one, had backed quickly off. With head well down, eyes on the boy who had been the cause of his downfall, he charged with a rush.

Just at the instant when he delivered the blow, the tough, horned head was raised ever so little.

"Ye-o-ow!" shrieked the boy as he felt himself suddenly lifted from his feet and once more propelled through the air head first. It seemed in that brief interval of sailing through space as if every particular bone in his body had been jarred loose from its fastenings. Chunky felt as if he were all falling apart while making his brief second flight.

He was headed straight for the muddy water hole, and the ram was charging him a second time. The lad did not know this, however.

Just at the edge of the water hole the Merino caught him again, neatly flipping him in the air and landing the boy on his back, with a mighty splash, right in the middle of the pool.

Yet the force of the ram's charge had been so great that he was unable to stop when he discovered the water at his feet. In endeavoring to do so, his strong little feet ploughed into the soft turf. The Merino did a pretty half somersault and he too landed in the mud pool on his back.

Unfortunately, he struck in the identical spot that Chunky had, and for a moment there was such a threshing about, such a commotion there as two monsters of the deep might have made in a battle to the death.

Old Hicks was hammering a dishpan on a wheel of the chuck wagon, regardless of the damage he was inflicting on the pan, and screaming with delight.

Professor Zepplin as soon as he could recover his wits, rushed to the rescue and from the flying legs and horns managed to extract Stacy Brown and drag him up to the dry ground.

The lad was a spectacle. Mud was plastered over him from head to foot, while the muddy water was dripping from hair, mouth, ears, eyes and nose.

"I--I fell in, didn't I?" he gasped. "Wh-- who kicked me?"

"Who kicked him?" jeered Old Hicks. "Oh, help, help!" he cried, rolling with laughter.

Stacy began to sputter in an uncertain voice.

Professor Zepplin shook him roundly.

"Why didn't you get out of it? The water wasn't over my head, you Chunk," roared Old Hicks.

Chunky eyed him sadly.

"It was the way I went in," he said, breathing hard as he wrung the water from his trousers by twisting them in his hand.

At that the irrepressible Hicks went off into another paroxysm of mirth.