Chapter XIX. A Clever Capture
 

His plan had been conceived in a flash and executed almost as quickly.

The rawhide rope squirmed through the air. He could not be sure of his aim in the darkness, but the stranger was so close that Tad did not believe he could miss. He knew that if he did, he would find himself in a serious predicament.

He heard a sudden startled exclamation.

At that instant, Pink-eye, alarmed by the unusual movement on his back, awakened and leaped lightly to one side.

"I've got him," breathed the boy, feeling the line draw tight under his hand. "I've caught a man I----"

Pink-eye had discovered the presence of strangers now and with a snort he changed his position by again leaping to one side. Tad heard the man strike the ground with a grunt. He took a turn of the lariat around the saddle pommel, drawing it taut.

"Who are you!" demanded the lad.

A snarl of rage and a struggle over there on the ground was his only answer.

"Get up, if you don't want to be dragged. If you make a loud noise it will be the worse for you," announced the boy sternly.

He clucked to the pony, which started forward suddenly, throwing a strain upon the rope.

"Steady, Pink-eye. We don't want to hurt him," he cautioned, slowing the animal down to almost a walk.

"Are you on your feet back there?"

"Y-y-y-yes."

There came a sharp jerk on the line. The boy knew that the man he had roped, pinioning his arms to his side had managed to get his hands up and grasped the line. In a moment he would free himself.

Tad pressed the rowels of his spurs against Pink-eye's sides. The animal sprang forward, but the boy quickly checked him, pulling him down into a jog trot that was not beyond the endurance of a man to follow for a short distance.

"Remember if you allow yourself to fall down I'll drag you the rest of the way in," warned Tad Butler. "I won't hurt you if you behave yourself."

"Le--le--let me go. I--I--I--I--aint't done n-n-nothing."

"We'll decide that when I get you back to camp," answered Tad. "And don't let me hear you raising your voice again or I'll put spurs to the pony. Do you understand?"

"Y-y-y-e-s."

On the soft ground the footfalls of the pony made no sound that could be heard any distance away. On ahead of him the lad saw the dim light of a lantern, which he knew was at the camp and his heart leaped exultantly at the thought of what he had accomplished. He wondered if the others or any of them had done as well.

"Won't Mr. Simms be surprised?" he glowed.

"Wait, I--I--I'm going to drop," came a voice from behind him. It sounded far away and indistinct.

"You'd better not unless you want to go the rest of the way lying on your back," called back the lad. However, he slackened the speed of his pony a little, thinking that perhaps his prisoner might be in distress. Tad was too tender hearted to cause another to suffer, even if it were an enemy.

The lad kept his left hand on the rope. In this way he was able to judge how well the man was following. Now and then a violent jerk told Tad that he was experimenting to see if he could not get away. The fellow might have braced his feet and possibly snapped the line, but he evidently feared to do this lest he be thrown on his face and dragged that way, for the noose of the lariat had, by this time, so tightened about his body as to bind his arms tightly to his side.

Tad uttered a warning whistle.

Instantly he noted figures moving about the camp. His call had been heard. The camp-fire was stirred to give more light, and as its embers flared up, Tad Butler and his prisoner galloped in.

At first they did not observe that he had a man in tow.

Old Hicks hobbled forward with a growl and a demand to know what the row was about.

"What is it, boy? What is it? Are they coming!" exclaimed Mr. Simms, running toward him.

"I've got a man. I can't stop. Grab him!" cried Tad in an excited, triumphant tone.

Mr. Simms saw. The others observed at the same time. They made a concerted rush for the lad's prisoner.

"Stop!" commanded the rancher.

Tad drew up instantly. As he did so three of them grabbed the man at the other end of the lariat, throwing him on the ground flat on his back.

"All right?" sang back Tad.

"Yes."

The boy unwound the rope from his saddle pommel and casting the end from him, rode back and dismounted. Yes, he had caught a cowman, but the fellow sullenly refused to answer a question that was put to him.

The prisoner was glaring up at him with eyes so full of malignant hate that Tad instinctively shrank back.

"Know him!" asked Mr. Simms sharply.

"Not by name. He's one of the men I saw over at the Corners. He was the worst one of the lot, except the boy they called Bob."

No amount of questioning, however, would draw the fellow out. They had bound him hand and foot and straightened up to view their work.

"There's no use in wasting time," decided Mr. Simms. "Drag him over to my tent and throw him in. Did you hear anybody besides this man"

Tad told him about the owl calls. The rancher pondered a few seconds.

"That sounds to me more like an Indian trick. But I am satisfied we are going to be attacked tonight. You had better go back to your post. Can you find the way?"

"Yes, I think so," answered the lad.

"Boy, you've done a great piece of work. I'll talk with you about it when we have more time. I must hurry out and find Luke. The rest of you stick by the camp until you know that the cowmen are here; then sail in. There'll likely be some shooting."

"Any further instructions?" asked Tad, bunching the reins in his hand preparatory to mounting.

"Nothing. That is, unless you find you can rope some more of these cayuses. I'd like to have them all tied up here for a while. I've got a few things to say to them. They'd have to listen whether they wanted to or not if they were all in the same fix that fellow is," he added with a short, mirthless laugh.

Tad swung himself into the saddle, first having coiled his rope and hung it in its place.

"Good-bye," he sang out, starting out at a gallop and disappearing in the night.

As Tad drew near the scene of his recent experience, he slowed the pony down to a walk, moving on with extreme caution. He did not want to fall into the trap that the cowboy had only a short time before.

After groping about in the darkness some time, he finally came upon the very tree that had sheltered him before.

Tad uttered a low exclamation of satisfaction, once more taking up his position under its spreading branches. He had been there but a short time when the foreman rode up, giving a low whistle so that the boy would know who it was.

"Anything develop?"

"Yes."

"What?"

Tad told him briefly of the capture of the cowboy.

"Good boy," glowed Luke, reaching over and slapping Tad on the back approvingly. "I guess we made no mistake in giving you this post. But there's not likely to be any more of them come through this way. I am going to send you down nearer the center. We are going to have all the fun we want before morning. So I wish you would move down nearer the herd. When the racket begins, if it does, we shall need all the sheepmen to help drive off the raiders. You will relieve one of them and look after the sheep. I have told your friend Ned the same thing. He's down there now."

"Where are the sheep?"

"Head just a little to your left and ride straight, on till you come up with them. But be sure to give the whistle now and then so our men will know who you are if they chance to hear you coming. Did anybody know the fellow you roped?"

"No. I saw him at the store yesterday, though."

"Guess you've made no mistake then. Well, so long."

Tad missed his way in the darkness, and had roamed about for some time before finally coming up with the herd. Even then he was at a part of the line where there seemed to he no one on guard.

He whistled and waited. After a little the signal was answered It was then only a matter of a few moments before he had joined the herder and delivered his message.

The man rode away to take up his new position and Tad settled down to tending sheep. There was little for him to do, the animals being sound asleep, but he rather enjoyed the relief from the strain that he had been under while watching for intruders off yonder under the tree.

Dismounting, the boy sat down on the ground, having stripped the reins over the pony's neck so that he could keep them in his hand. Pinkeye nibbled at the grass a few seconds. It did not seem to satisfy the animal, for the sheep had worked it pretty well down ahead of him. So Pink-eye went to sleep, and Tad found himself nodding so persistently that he forced himself to get up and walk back and forth a few paces each way.

"I am getting to be as much of a sleepy head as Chunky is," he smiled. "That goat ride was the funniest thing I ever saw. I wonder where Billy took himself to. He's a wise goat. I actually believe he had more fun out of putting the camp to the bad than the rest of us experienced in watching him."

Pink-eye woke up and rubbed his nose against the boy's coat sleeve.

A shrill whistle trilled out off to the west. It was followed by another and another, until the air seemed full of them.

Tad paused abruptly in his walk and listened.

A pistol spat viciously. He caught the flash faintly in the distance.

Tad threw the reins over Pink-eye's neck and vaulted into the saddle. Boy and pony were both wide awake now.