Chapter XX. Thrilling Rescue of the Rancher
 

They're here," breathed the lad. "I wonder what's going to happen."

As if in answer to his question, a volley of pistol shots sounded to the west of him. Almost instantly following, guns began to pop to the north and south.

Shouts and yells sounded everywhere.

Startled, half a hundred sheep near him, scrambled to their feet.

"W-h-o-e-e-e," soothed Tad, turning toward them as he remembered that he had a duty to perform. "Come now, Pink-eye, never mind the shooting. Just you and I attend to our business. That's what we've got to do."

Yet Tad regretted that he was not over there in the thick of the fight. He gave a long whistle, hoping to find some one near him. The whistle was not answered, therefore he concluded that he was alone on that side of the herd. But where was Ned? He should be somewhere near by.

By this time the restless herd required his whole attention. Tad galloped up and down the line, speaking soothing words to the frightened sheep, whistling and trying to sing.

"Here, Barker," he cried, discovering that he was not alone in his efforts. One of the sheep dogs was trotting along by his side, uttering little encouraging yelps to assist in keeping the lines well formed. "That's a good dog. I guess you and I can handle this outfit, can't we, Barker?"

Barker barked as if in approval of the sentiment.

Tad called the animal to him and sent him back the other way, while he pressed on. The noise of the conflict seemed to be up that way and it was at that end that there would be more likelihood of disturbance to the sheep, he thought, urging his pony along a little faster.

All at once guns began to flash ahead of him.

"I believe they are in the flock already," he cried, putting spurs to Pink-eye and dashing on at top speed. "Yes, they are shooting into the flock. I can tell by the flashes of their guns. Oh, if I had a gun!"

The thought that they were slaughtering the innocent animals roused all the fighting blood in Tad Butler's nature.

But what could he, single-handed and unarmed, expect to do to stop the ruthless slaughter?

From the opposite direction, he heard a body of horsemen bearing down on the sheep killers.

In a moment more they too began to shoot. He noted quickly, however, that this latter body of men were not shooting down. They were shooting over the heads of the herd at the men who were killing the stock.

"Good! Good! Give it to them!" fairly screamed the lad, rising in his stirrups, waving his hat and continuing his words of encouragement to the men of Mr. Simms's outfit. What mattered it whether they could hear him or not? A rattling fire was running along both lines of men. But the sheep killers, now content to ride down the sheep, were shooting back at their assailants.

"Somebody will be killed, I know," cried Tad. "Who's there?" he roared, as he heard the hoof beats of a running pony behind him.

"It's me, Chunky," came the answer.

"Get out of here, boy. You will be killed."

"I can't. I'm afraid to stay back there in the camp all alone. Hicks has gone too and----"

"Then get back down the line and help me to hold these sheep. Don't give anyone a chance to say a Pony Rider Boy is afraid of anything. How'd you like to be over there where those guns are going off? Now, brace up. Look cheerful and tend to those sheep the same as Barker is doing."

Thus admonished, Stacy did brace up.

"All right," he said, pulling himself together and turning his pony about.

In the meantime the shouting had increased in volume and the shooting was more rapid. Tad had all he could do to hold the sheep in place. He knew that up above him they were rushing wildly here and there, and the wave of terror rolled over those in his immediate vicinity.

"They're beating them back!" cried the boy. "The cowboys are giving way. Hooray!"

This proved to be the case. The defense of the sheepmen was a surprise to the cowboys, where they had thought to surprise the sheep herders and stampede the herd before any opposition was offered.

With a yell of triumph the forces under Mr. Simms rode right over the scurrying sheep in their effort to drive the cowmen off.

At that moment the clouds parted and the full moon shone out, lighting up the scene brightly. Tad gazed in awe on the rushing ponies as he pulled his own to a stop. The cowmen, too, seemed to take courage from the moonlight. Some had started to retreat. These whirled about and returned to the charge.

"Oh, there goes Mr. Simms!" cried the boy.

He saw the rancher waver in the saddle, throw up his hands and slip sideways with head and arms hanging down.

"He's shot! He's shot! They don't see him!" shouted Tad. He cried out at the top of his voice to attract the attention of the ranchers, but in the uproar, no one heard him. His voice in that mad melee was a puny thing.

Fortunately the rancher's feet still clung to the stirrups, but his head was hanging so low that it appeared to be bumping along the ground with every leap of his pony, which was headed straight for the lines of the enemy.

"Oh, why won't they see him!" groaned the lad. "I can't stand it to sit here doing nothing and see a man lose his life that way--if he's not dead already."

Tad, acting upon a sudden resolve, shook out his reins, gave the pony a quick pressure with the spurs.

"Hi-yi!" he snapped.

Pink-eye leaped forward, with Tad urging him to renewed efforts by sharp slaps on the animal's thigh. The boy was not shouting now. He did not wish to attract attention to himself if it could be avoided. In order to head off the rancher's pony, Tad was compelled to follow an oblique direction which, if he continued it, would land him fairly in the center of the enemy's lines.

"I must beat him out. It's the only way I can do anything. Go, Pink-eye! Go!" And

Pink-eye did go as he had never gone before since Tad Butler had owned him.

Slowly but surely he was heading off the other horse. They saw him now and a few scattering shots were sent in his direction, but the lad heeded them no more than had they been rain drops. His mind was too fully absorbed with the task he had set for himself.

At last he and the rancher's pony were converging on a single point. Mr. Simms's pony reached it first with Tad only a few feet away. They were fairly between the lines now and bullets were flying about them. Tad could hear their whut! whut! as they sped past him.

He had lost the race. But there still remained one more resource. His rope was in its place. Tad slipped it from the saddle horn and made a quick reach for the rancher.

He groaned when he saw that he had missed his aim.

Yet, instead of giving up the battle, the lad was more determined than ever to rescue the owner of the herd that he had cast his fortunes with. The rowels were dug into the sides of the pony with a firmer pressure than before, and Tad began rapidly to haul in the lariat with one hand. When once he felt the knot at his finger tips he began whirling the loop over his head, leaning well forward in his saddle, riding at a tremendous pace on the fleet-footed little pony.

He cast. This time the loop fell true.

"Steady! steady! Pink-eye," he cautioned, taking a quick turn about the pommel. To stop too suddenly might throw the other pony on its side and crush the rancher.

The lariat had dropped over the other animal's neck and was quickly drawn down. Pinkeye stopped, braced himself as he felt his fellow slowing down under the pressure of the loop on his neck.

"Whoa!" commanded Tad sharply, leaping from the saddle and taking up on the lariat as fast as he could.

A shrill yell from the cowmen told him they would be upon him in a moment. They understood now what he was trying to do.

Tad worked with feverish haste to release Mr. Simms from the stirrups. Yet when he had finally accomplished this, his work was not yet half done. He did not know whether the rancher was dead or alive, nor had he the time to satisfy himself on this point.

Grasping Mr. Simms under the arms, the lad dragged him over to Pink-eye, and with a strength born of the excitement of the moment, succeeded in throwing the rancher's body over the back of his own pony.

The lad was panting in short, quick breaths. He had barely enough strength left to crawl on Pink-eye's back. Once there, he fairly fell across Mr. Simms's body, clinging to it with one hand, the other gripped on the pommel.

Pink-eye seemed to know what was expected of him, for straightway he got under motion, trotting off toward the lines of the sheepmen.

The cowboys turned their guns on the little outfit, but the sheepmen now discovering what was going on, gave a mighty yell and swept down on their enemy.

The cowboys gave way before the resistless rush, and whirling their ponies, raced for the foothills, with the pursuers shooting and yelling as they lashed and spurred their ponies after them.

Tad was almost overwhelmed as the sheepmen rushed by him. But he had saved Mr. Simms and he did not care if the jostling ponies of his friends had almost run him down in their mad rush.

The lad now gaining in strength, pulled himself to a sitting posture and hurried Pink-eye along at a little faster gait. They were headed for the camp, which they reached in a few minutes.

Tenderly the lad lifted the rancher from the saddle, stretching him out on the grass. His first care was to determine whether the man were alive or dead.

"He's alive!" cried Tad exultingly. "He's only stunned."

A bullet had grazed the rancher's head, ploughing a little furrow as it passed, but there was nothing more. Had Tad not reached him in time no doubt he would have been killed.

Getting water from the chuck wagon, Tad bathed the wound and dashed water into the rancher's face until signs of returning consciousness were evident. After a little while Mr. Simms opened his eyes and asked what had happened.

Tad told him, leaving out his own part in the rescue entirely, save that he had brought him in.

The lad, after telling Mr. Simms that the cowboys had been driven off, helped the rancher to his tent and put him to bed, or rather induced him to lie down on his cot, for Mr. Simms's head was whirling.

No sooner had Tad done this than he heard a galloping pony rapidly approaching the camp. The lad stepped out as the horseman pulled up. It was the foreman. He threw himself from his mount and started on a run for Mr. Simms's tent.

"Hello!" he exclaimed, bringing up short. "Where's the boss? Is he hurt? What happened to him?" he demanded excitedly, without giving Tad a chance to answer between questions.

"I think he is all right, Mr. Larue. He had a close call"----

"Was he shot?"

"A bullet grazed the side of his head, and then his pony ran away. I guess that came nearer killing him than did the bullet."

"He owes his life to you, and that's no joke," answered the foreman shortly. "We didn't see that he was in trouble till one of the boys discovered you chasing his pony. Then we saw you rope the critter and pack the boss on your own cayuse."

"Was--was anybody killed?" asked Tad hesitatingly.

"No. Mary got a bullet through the calf of his right leg, and Bat Coyne lost a piece of an ear. Guess that's about all."

"Yes; but what of the others? Were any of the cowmen killed?"

"No such luck," growled the foreman. "We pinked a few of them, but they're too tough to kill. We come mighty near having a fight, however," he mused.

"Near!" exploded the boy. "I should say. you were right up to it."

"We've lost a lot of sheep, boy; that's of more consequence."

"How many?"

"No telling. Can't tell till morning. It'll take all day to round up the scattered bunches-- those that were not killed."

"Where are the boys--Ned and the rest of them?" asked Tad, suddenly bethinking himself of his companions.

"Oh, that's what I came back here for--one of the things. They're all right. That is, they're out there with the bunch, except Phil. Have you seen him?"

"Phil? No. Where is he?"

"He was with me, but he got away somewhere."

"Phil gone?"

"It seems so."

"Oh, that's too bad. What shall we do?"

"Go hunt for him. Do you want to join me?" asked the foreman, with sudden energy, leaping into his saddle again.

"Of course I do," answered Tad Butler, running for his own pony and following the foreman out of camp at a quick gallop.