Chapter III. The Boys Rescue Each Other
 

Ned swung around the bend at a tremendous pace. He was able to see little about him, though as he once more reached the bank he could tell where the river lay, because the river gorge lay in a deeper shadow than did the rest of the landscape about him.

"Oh, Tad! Tad!" he shouted.

A faint call answered him. He was not quite sure that it was not an echo of his own voice.

"Tad! T-a-d!"

"Hurry!"

It seemed a long distance away--that faint reply to his hail.

"That you, Tad!"

"Y-e-s."

"Where are you!"

"Here."

"Where? I don't see you."

"In the river. Just below the bend."

Hurriedly dismounting and making a quick examination of the banks he discovered that they were so nearly straight up and down that it would be impossible to get his companions out at that point.

"I can't get you out here. You'll have to wait a few moments. Are you swimming?"

"No, I am holding to a rock. It's awful slippery and I'm freezing too."

"All right. Is Stacy with you?"

"Yes, I've got him. "

"Good! Have courage! I'll be with you," said Ned encouragingly.

"You'll have to hurry. I can't hold on much longer. The falls are just below here and if I have to let go it's all up with us."

Ned had no need to be told that. He could almost feel the spray from the falls on his face, so close were they to him and their roar was loud in his ears, so that he was obliged to raise his voice in calling to his companions.

Leaping to the back of Bad-eye, Ned was off like a shot, tearing through the brush, headed toward camp. On the way he passed Professor Zepplin and Walter, nearly running them down in his mad haste.

"Got a rope?" he shouted in passing. "No," answered Walter. "Then get one and hurry around the bend. You'll be needed there in a minute. I'm going down into the stream from the camp."

The Professor, seeming to comprehend what Ned had in mind, turned and ran back to the camp.

Without an instant's hesitation, Ned Rector, upon reaching their camping place, put his pony at the bank where the two boys had gone over.

The little animal refused to take it. He bucked and the lad had a narrow escape from following where Tad and Chunky had gone a short time before.

"I've got to have a saddle. That's the only way I can stick on to drive him in, and we'll need it to hold to as well," he decided.

Every moment was precious now. Whirling the animal about, Ned drove him into the thicket where the saddles lay folded against trees.

It was the work of seconds for him to leap off and throw the heavy saddle on Bad-eye's back. The boy worked with the speed and precision of a Gattling gun. Yet he groaned hopelessly when he realized that his delay might mean the death of two of his companions.

Professor Zepplin arrived at the camp just as Ned had finally cinched the girths and swung himself into the saddle.

"Where--where is he?" gasped the Professor, now breathing hard.

"Below the bend. Get back there with a rope and be ready to toss it to him if he lets go."

Ned and his pony crashed through the brush. He had no spur with which to urge on the animal, but Ned had thoughtfully picked up a long, stout stick, and once more they drove straight at the high bank.

"Stop! I forbid it!" thundered the Professor.

Ned paid no more attention to him than had he not spoken. It was a time when words were useless. What was necessary was action and quick action at that.

"Hurry with that rope!" commanded Ned.

The pony slowed up as they approached the bank of the river, but Ned was in no mood for trifling now. He brought down the stick on the animal's hip with a terrific whack.

Bad-eye angered by the blow, squealed and leaped into the air with all four feet free of the ground.

"Hi-yi!" exclaimed the Pony Rider sharply, again smiting the animal while the latter was still in the air.

Ned's plan was to enter the stream at that point and swim down with the pony until they should have reached the boys and rescued them from their perilous position. While the bluff was sandy at the point where they had fallen in, down below, where Tad was now desperately clinging to the rock, the stream wound through a rocky cut, whose high sides were slippery and uncertain, especially in the darkness of the night.

Bad-eye needed no further goading to force him to do his master's bidding. With another squeal of protest the little animal plunged for the bank. No sooner had his forward feet reached over the edge of it than the treacherous sands gave way beneath them.

The pony pivoted on its head, landing violently on its back. Ned had dismounted without the least effort on his part, so that he was well out of the way when his mount landed. He had been hurled from the saddle the instant the pony's feet struck the unresisting sand.

But Ned clung doggedly to the bridle reins. He, too, struck on his back. He heard the squealing, kicking pony floundering down upon him, its every effort to right itself forcing it further and further down the slippery bank. Now on its back, now with its nose in the sand, Bad-eye was rapidly nearing the swiftly moving creek. Ned had all he could do to keep out of the way, and on account of the darkness he had to be guided more by instinct than by any other sense. However, it was not difficult to keep track of the now thoroughly frightened animal.

Ned leaped to one side. An instant later, and he would have been caught under the pony.

The animal hit the water with a mighty splash, with Ned still clinging to the reins. As the pony went in, Ned was jerked in also, striking the water head first.

He could have screamed from the shock of the icy water, which seemed to smite him like a heavy blow.

For a moment boy and pony floundered about in the stream. It seemed almost a miracle that the lad was not killed by those flying hoofs that were beating the water almost into a froth.

As soon as he was able to get to the surface Ned exerted all his strength to swim out further toward the middle of the stream. Even when he was under water, he still kept a firm grip on the rein. To let go would be to lose all that he had gained after so much danger in getting as far as he had.

By this time, both boy and pony had drifted down stream several rods.

The pony righted himself and struck out for the bank. Ned was by his side almost instantly, being aided in the effort to get there by having the reins to pull himself in by.

Bad-eye refused instinctively to head down stream. There was only one thing to do. That was to climb into the saddle and get him started. Ned did this with difficulty. His weight made the pony sink at first, the animal whinnying with fear.

Fearing to drown the broncho, the boy slipped off, at the same time taking a firm grip on the lines.

Bad-eye came to the surface at once. Ned's right hand was on the pommel, the reins bunched in his left. He brought his knee sharply against the animal's side.

"Whoop!" he urged, again driving the knee against the pony's ribs.

Under the strong guiding hand of his master, the animal fighting every inch of the way, began swimming down stream.

"I'm coming!" shouted the boy.

Before that moment he had not had breath nor the time to call.

"I'm coming!" he repeated, as they swung around the wide sweeping curve.

"Are you there, Tad?"

"Yes," was the scarcely distinguishable reply. "I've got to let go."

"You hold on. Bad-eye and I will be there in a minute and the Professor is hurrying down along the bank with a rope."

"I'm freezing. I'm all numb, that's the trouble," answered Tad weakly.

Ned knew that the plucky lad was well-nigh exhausted. The strain of holding to the slippery rock in the face of the swift current was one that would have taxed the strength of the strongest man, to say nothing of the almost freezing cold water, which chilled the blood and benumbed the senses.

"You've gone past me," cried Tad.

"I know it. I'm heading up," replied Ned Rector.

Ned had purposely driven his pony further down stream so that he might the easier pick them up as he went by on the return trip.

"Are you all right down there?" called the Professor, who had reached a point on the bank opposite to them.

"Yes, but get ready to cast me a rope," directed Ned.

"I'm afraid I cannot."

"Then have Walter do it."

"He is not here. I directed him to remain in camp in case he was needed there."

"All right. You can try later. I'll tell you how. I'm busy now."

"Don't run me down," warned Tad Butler.

"Keep talking then, so I'll know where you are. Just say yip-yip and keep it up."

Tad did so, but his voice was weak and uncertain.

Ned swam the pony alongside of them, pulling hard on the reins to slow the animal down without exerting pressure enough to stop him.

"Is Chunky able to help himself?"

"Yes, if he will."

"Then both of you grab Bad-eye by the mane as he goes by. Don't you miss, for if you do, we're all lost."

"The pony won't be able to get the three of us up the stream," objected Tad.

"I know it."

"Then, what are we going to do?"

"I'll stay here and hang on. You send Walter back with the pony as soon as you get there. Better call to him to get Pink-eye or one of the others saddled as soon as you can make him hear. We'll save time that way. I'm afraid Bad-eye won't be able to make the return trip."

"Now grab for the rock," cried Tad.

Ned did so, but he missed it.

Tad still clinging to Chunky fastened his right hand in the broncho's mane. All three of the boys were now clinging to the overburdened animal. Ned began swimming to assist the pony, for he realized that they had dropped back a few feet in taking on the extra weight.

"Work further back and get hold of the saddle," Ned directed.

Tad followed his instructions.

"I'm afraid he'll never make it," groaned Ned. "I----"

At that instant his hand came in violent contact with a hard, cold object. It was the slender, pillar-like rock that Tad had been clinging to for so long in the icy water.

"I've got it," exclaimed Ned.

He cast loose from Bad-eye and threw both arms about the rock. The pony freed from a share of his burden, struck off up stream against the current, making excellent headway.

"I don't like to do this," Tad called back. "I wouldn't, were it not for Chunky. He couldn't have stood it there another minute."

"You can't help yourself now. How's the kid?" called Ned.

"He's all right now."

"Professor, are you up there?"

"Yes."

He had heard the dialogue between the boys, and understood well what had been done.

"That was a brave thing to do, Master Ned."

"Thank you, Professor. Suppose you try to cast that rope to me. I'm afraid I shall never be able to hold on here alone as long as Tad did. B-r-r-r, but it's cold!" he shivered.

The Professor tried his hand at casting the lariat.

"Never touched me," said Ned, more to keep up his own spirits than with the intent to speak slightingly of the Professor's effort.

"Take it up stream throw it out, then let it float down," suggested Ned.

Professor Zepplin did so, but the rope was found to be too short to reach, and at Ned's direction, he made no further attempt.

Soon Ned heard some one shouting cheerily up the stream. It was Tad Butler. He had dashed up to camp immediately upon reaching shore, and the exercise restored his circulation. Walter, who was in camp had Pink-eye ready and saddled for an emergency, and Tad mounting the pony, forced him to take to the water. He was now returning to rescue his brave friend, who was clinging to the rock. He had been unwilling to trust the perilous trip to anyone else.

"I was afraid Walt would go over the falls, pony and all," he explained, wheeling alongside Ned Rector and picking him up from the rock.

"I'll run a foot race with you when we get ashore," laughed Tad.

"Go you," answered Ned promptly. "The one who loses has to get up and cook the breakfast."