Chapter V. The Pursuit of the Burning Bear
 

What is it?" cried Walter breathlessly, slowing up when he observed that the others were doing likewise. "It's a bear, I think," replied the Professor. "I only saw the head so I can't be sure. Keep away. Where is Stacy?"

"I--I think he's running, still," answered Ned, his voice somewhat shaky.

"There goes the other tent pole down!" shouted Tad.

"He's wrecking the place. That's too bad," groaned Walter.

"Are the provisions all in there?" asked the Professor anxiously.

"No, most of them are over in my tent, where I took them from the pack pony," Ned informed him.

"We are that much ahead anyway. I think we had better get a little further away, young gentlemen. We had better get near trees so we can make a fairly dignified escape if that fellow concludes to come out after us."

"He's too busy just now," announced Tad, with an attempt at laughter.

"Get the guns," ordered the Professor.

"I can't," cried Tad.

"Why can't you? I will get them myself."

"They are all in that tent there with the bear," groaned Tad.

"There's a box of shells in there, too," added Walter. "I put it there myself."

"Then, indeed, we had better take to the trees," decided Professor Zepplin.

"Wait," warned Tad. "He won't get out right away. See, he has pulled the tent down about him."

"Yes, he's having the time of his life," nodded Ned. "I hope he never gets out. If we had our guns now!"

And, indeed, Mr. Bruin was having his own troubles. Angry snarls and growls could be heard under the heaving canvas as the black bear plunged helplessly about, twisting the tent about him in his desperate struggles to free himself.

They could hear the clatter of the tinware as he threshed about, and the crash and bang of other articles belonging to their equipment.

"Look! What's that light?" exclaimed Walter.

"Fire!" cried the Professor.

"The tent's on fire!" shouted Tad.

"Quick, get water!" urged Ned.

"What for? To put out the bear?" laughed Tad.

"I had forgotten about the lantern. That's what has caused the fire. When the tent collapsed the lantern went down with it, and in his floundering about he has managed to set the place on fire," the Professor informed them.

"There goes the parlor tent. That settles it," said Walter.

The other two boys groaned.

"Has he-ha-ha-has he gone?" wailed Chunky, peering from behind a tree.

"No, he hasn't gone. He's very much here. Don't you see that tent! What do you suppose is making it hump up in the middle, if he isn't there? And the tent's on fire, too," answered Ned, in a tone of disgust. "This is a bad start for sure."

"I didn't fall in that time, did I? I fell out," interrupted Stacy. "Lucky for me that I did, too. I would have been in a nice fix if that tent had come down on me and that animal at the same time." He shivered at the thought. "What is it, a lion?"

"Lion! No, you ninny, it's a bear. B-e-a-r," spelled Ned, with strong emphasis. "Do you understand that?"

"Y-y-e-s. I-I-I thought it was a lion. I did, honest," he muttered. "And it tickled my neck with its paw, too. Wow!"

Stacy instinctively moved further away from the tent.

Disturbing as their situation was at that moment. the lads could not repress a shout of laughter over Stacy's funny words. But Stacy's face was solemn. He saw nothing to laugh at.

"Lucky for both of you that you didn't yawn. The bear might nave fallen in," jeered Ned.

"Might have been a good thing for us if Chunky had yawned. Maybe the bear would have got to yawning at the same time, and yawned and yawned until he was so helpless that we could have captured him," laughed Walter.

"Not much chance of that," answered Tad. "Bears don't yawn until after a full meal. I guess our bear over there hasn't had one lately or he wouldn't have been nosing about our camp when we were all there."

"Keep back there, boys. Please don't get too close. He is liable to break out at any time. He is a small bear, but there is no telling what he may do in his rage when he emerges," warned the Professor.

"We're not afraid," answered Ned.

The boys, having no weapons, had armed themselves with clubs, prepared to do battle with their visitor should he chance to come their way.

"What's that racket over there in the bushes?" demanded Ned, wheeling sharply.

"It's the ponies," answered Tad, darting away.

At last the little animals had discovered the presence of the bear in camp and were making frantic efforts to break their tethers.

"Come over here, some of you. The bronchos are having a fit. I can't manage all of them at once," called Tad in an excited tone.

"What's the matter--are they afraid?" called the Professor.

"I should say they are. They'll get away from me if you don't hurry."

Leaving the hear to his own desperate efforts, the boys rushed to the aid of Tad Butler. They were not quick enough, however.

"There goes one of them!" cried Tad.

A pony had broken the rope and with a snort, had bounded away. Tad, leaped on the bare back of his own pony, first having caught up his lariat, and set out after the fleeing animal.

Luckily the runaway broncho had headed for the open and Tad was able to overhaul him before they had gone far from the camp.

Riding up beside the little animal it was an easy matter to drop the loop over his head and bring him down.

"There, that will teach you to run away," growled the boy, cinching the rope and dragging the unruly pony back to camp.

In the meantime the others, after considerable effort, had succeeded in securing the other plunging bronchos, more rope having been brought for the purpose, while Tad, breathing hard, staked down the frightened animal he had roped.

"Now we'll see how Mr. Bear is getting along," announced the Professor, as they turned back toward the camp, where the bear was still fighting desperately with the smouldering tent.

As they reached the scene they observed Professor Zepplin hurrying to his tent. He was back again almost at once.

"Just happened to think of my revolver," he explained.

"Think you can kill him with that?" asked Tad.

"I don't know. I can try. It's a thirty-eight calibre."

"Won't even feel it," sniffed Ned. "I've read lots of times that it takes a lot to kill a bear."

The Professor raised his weapon and fired at the spot where the tent appeared to be most active.

Though he had pulled the trigger only once a series of sudden explosions followed, seemingly coming from beneath the tent itself.

"What's that!" demanded the Professor, lowering his own weapon, plainly puzzled.

"Guess the bear's shooting at us," suggested Chunky wisely.

"No. I know what it is," cried Tad.

"You know?" demanded Ned.

"Sure. It's our cartridges exploding. The fire from the lantern has got at those pasteboard boxes in which we carried the shells."

Now they were popping with great rapidity, and instinctively the boys drew further away from the danger zone, though the Professor told them the bullets could not hurt them, there being not sufficient force behind to carry them that distance.

The Professor stood his ground as an object lesson and again resumed his target practice. The tough canvas resisted the bear's efforts, and the fire was burning slowly. However, the tent seemed to be ruined and the boys feared their rifles would share a similar fate.

"He's breaking out!" yelled Chunky, who was some distance to the right of the others, now dancing up and down in his excitement. "Look out for him!"

With a last desperate effort, the animal had succeeded in forcing his way through the stubborn canvas.

"Look, look!" yelled Walter Perkins, greatly excited.

The spectacle was one that for the moment held the boys spellbound. A mass of flame separated itself from the ruins of the tent. With snarls of pain and rage the mass ambled rapidly away in a trail of fire.

"The bear's on fire!" shouted Ned Rector.

"Help!" screamed Chunky.

Blinded by the pain and the flames that had gotten into its eyes, the animal not seeing the lad, lurched heavily against him and Stacy Brown went down with a howl of terror.

The boy, who had not been harmed, was up like a flash, running from the fearful thing as fast as his short legs would carry him.

"Oh, that's too bad!" exclaimed Tad.

He did not refer to the accident to his companion, which he considered as too trivial to notice, but rather to the sufferings of the animal. Tad felt a deep sympathy for any dumb animal that was in trouble, no matter if it were a bear which would have shown him no mercy had they met face to face.

"Professor, let me have your revolver please," he cried.

"What for?"

"I want to put the brute out of his misery. Please do!"

"There are no more shells in it."

"Then load it. I'm going to get Pink-eye. Hurry, hurry! Can't you see how the miserable creature is suffering?"

The lad darted away for his pony, while Professor Zepplin, sharing something of the boy's own feelings, hurried to his tent and recharged his weapon.

He had no more than returned when Tad came dashing up on Pink-eye.

"Where is he? Do you see him?"

"Over there, I can see the fire in the bushes," answered Ned Rector.

"Quick, give me the gun," demanded Tad.

"Wait, I'll go with you," said Ned.

"No, remain where you are," ordered Professor Zepplin. "Some of you will surely be shot. Thaddeus, remember, you are not to go far from camp.

Tad was off in a twinkle. Putting the spurs to Pink-eye, the animal leaped from the camp and disappeared among the trees.

"I am afraid I should not have allowed him to go," announced the Professor, with a doubtful shake of his head. But it was too late now for regrets.

Tad found the going rough. He soon made out the flaming animal just ahead of him. The beast was down rolling from side to side in a frantic effort to put out the fire that was burning into his flesh.

Tad could not understand why the fur should make so much flame. He spurred the pony as near to the animal as he could get. Then he saw that the bear had become entangled in the guy ropes, and that he was pulling along with him portions of the burning canvas, attached to the ropes. It was this which made the animal a living torch.

The pony in its fright was rearing and plunging, bucking and squealing so that the lad had difficulty in keeping his seat.

"Steady, steady, Pink-eye," he soothed.

For an instant the broncho ceased its wild antics and stood trembling with fear.

"Bang!"

Tad had aimed the heavy revolver and pulled the trigger.

Instantly the pony went up into the air again and the lad gripped its sides with his legs, giving a gentle pressure with the spurs.

"Whoa, Pink-eye! I hit Mm, I did. I aimed for his head, but I must have merely grazed it. I wish I could kill the brute and put him out of his misery," said the lad more concerned for the suffering animal before him than for his own safety.

No sooner had he fired the first shot, than the bear sprang to its feet and sped away up a steep bank. Tad noticed that the bear's rolling had extinguished some of the fire, but he knew that it was still burrowing in the beast's fur, causing him great agony.

"I am too far away to hit him. I've got to get closer," decided the boy. "Pink-eye, do you think you can make that climb?"

The pony shook its head and rattled the bits in its mouth.

"All right, old chap, try it."

A cluck and a gentle slap on the broncho's flanks sent him straight for the steep bank. At first his feet slipped under him; he stumbled, righted himself and digging in the slender hoofs fairly lifted himself up and up. In the meantime Mr. Bruin was making better progress. He seemed unable to escape from the fire, but he could get away from this new enemy, the gun in the hands of the boy on the horse.

Every little while as he found he had gained on his pursuer the bear would throw himself down, and with snarls and angry growls, take a few awkward rolls; then be up and off again.

Once more the lad thought he was near enough to take another shot.

Releasing the reins and dropping them to the pony's neck, he steadied the hand that held the gun with the left and fired.

"Oh, pshaw, I missed him!" he groaned. "That's too bad. I'm only adding to his misery. Next time I'll get nearer to him before I try to shoot."

He went at Pink-eye, applying every method with which he was familiar to increase the pony's speed. Pink-eye responded as best he could, and began climbing the hill that had now developed into a fair sized mountain, making even more rapid headway than the bear himself.

"Good boy," encouraged Tad. "We'll overhaul him if you can keep that up. Steady now. Don't slip or you'll tumble me down the hill and yourself, too. Steady, Pink-eye. W-h-o-e-e!"

"Bang!"

The bear was running broadside to him and the lad could not resist taking another shot at it. Like the previous effort, however, he had failed.

Tad tittered an exclamation of disgust and put spurs to the pony.

"I never did know how to handle a revolver," he complained. "I'll begin to practise with this gun to-morrow if I get out of this scrape safely."

He had failed to take into consideration that a bear was an extremely difficult animal to kill, and that frequently one of them could carry many bullets in its body without seeming to be bothered at all.

But the lad was determined to get this one. He had not thought of where he was going nor how far from camp he had strayed. His one desire now was to get the animal and put a quick end to it.

This time Tad was enabled to get closer to Bruin than at any time during the chase. He drove the pony at a gallop right up alongside of the animal.

Leaning over he aimed the gun at the beast's head, holding it firmly with both hands.

Tad gave the trigger a quick, firm pressure. A sharp explosion followed.

At the same instant, Pink-eye in a frightened effort to get clear of the bear, leaped to one side. The lad, leaning over from the saddle, was taken unawares, and making a desperate effort to grasp the saddle pommel, Tad was hurled sideways to the ground.

"Whoa, Pink-eye!" he commanded sharply as he was falling. But Pink-eye refused to obey. The pony uttered a loud snort and plunged into the bushes. There he paused, wheeled, and peered out suspiciously at the boy and the bear.

Tad's shot had gone home. His aim had been true. Yet the sting of the bullet served only to anger the bear still further. With an angry growl, it turned and charged the lad ferociously.

In falling, the plucky boy had struck on his head and shoulders, the fall partially stunning him. For an instant, he pivoted on his head, then toppling over on his back, he lay still.

Powerless to move a muscle, the lad was dimly conscious of a hulking figure standing over him, its hot breath on his face. His right hand clutched the revolver, but he seemed unable to raise it.

A loud explosion sounded in Tad Butler's ears, then sudden darkness overwhelmed him.