Chapter IX. Tad Outwits His Pursuers
 

Tad was lithe and supple. As the champion wrestler of the high school, back in his home town in Missouri, he was possessed of many tricks that had proved useful to him on more than one occasion since the Pony Riders set out on their summer's jaunt.

"Y-e-o-w!" yelled the lad in a high-pitched, piercing voice, intended to confuse his enemy. And it served its purpose well.

As the men leaped upon him, Tad raised himself to all fours, his back slightly arched. In this position he ran on hands and feet like a monkey, darting straight between the legs of the man with the beard.

The big man flattened himself on the ground face downward, while Tad, who had tripped him, was well outside the ring. In an instant the leader's fellows had dropped on him and the four men were floundering helplessly, in what, to all appearances, might have been a football scrimmage.

Tad was not yelling now. He was fairly flying, running on his toes and seeking to do so without making the slightest sound.

The men quickly untangled themselves and with yells of rage bounded from their camp in search of the one who had caused so much disturbance. It had all happened so quickly that they had not succeeded in getting a good look at their tormentor.

"It's a boy!" roared Bluff. "Catch him. No, shoot! Don't let him get away!"

"Where is he!"

"I don't know. Fan the bushes, fan everything. We've got to get him!"

"Keep it up. Do you see him?"

"No."

As Tad heard the bullets snipping the leaves over his head, he instinctively ducked and, turning sharply to the left, skulked through the trees. By the flickering light of the camp fire he had seen something that gave him a sudden idea.

"Watch out. There he is?"

"Where, where?"

"There, by the ponies. Give it to him!" cried Jake.

"Stop, you fools!" thundered the leader. "Do you want to kill the bronchs? Get after him. What are you standing there like a lot of dumbheads for?"

"I see him. I kin pink him," yelled one of the four.

"I said go after him. Not a shot in that direction!" commanded Bluff.

Tad bad caught a glimpse of the ponies.

"I'm going to try it," he breathed.

No thought of wrong entered his mind. He was about to take a horse that did not belong to him. He knew his life was at stake and that having overheard their plans he would be sure to suffer were he to fall into their hands.

"It's not stealing. It's just fighting them on their own ground," gasped the boy, tugging desperately at the stake rope in an effort to free the first pony he came to.

The leash resisted all his efforts.

Out came the lad's jack knife. One sweep and the rope fell apart. They had discovered him. Every second was precious now. He was thankful that the men had removed neither bridles nor saddles, though he knew the bit was hanging from the animal's mouth.

But Tad cared little for this. He could manage the pony, he felt sure. With a yell of defiance he leaped into the saddle and dug his fist into the animal's side, uttering a shrill, "yip-yip!"

The pony, responding to the demands of its rider, sprang away through the forest, putting the lad in imminent peril of being swept off by low hanging limbs.

"He's getting away. He's got one of the ponies. Give it to him now, but don't hit the rest of the cayuses!" yelled the leader in high excitement.

Tad had it in mind to liberate the other animals and start them off on a stampede. It was the fault of the outlaw cowboys that he did not. They discovered his whereabouts sooner than he had hoped they might. It was all he could do to get one pony free and mount in time, for they were running toward him at top speed.

Instantly, upon their leader giving them the order to fire, the men raised their weapons, taking quick, careful aim, and pulled the triggers.

Their bullets whistled far above the head of the fleeing boy, as the ground was sloping and he was traveling downward rapidly.

"Keep it up. You may get in a chance shot. No, stop. Take to the ponies."

Three of them, including the leader, cast loose the remaining animals, and springing upon their backs, spurred the bronchos into a run. They were in hot pursuit of the lad now, with freshly loaded guns ready to fire the instant they came within range of him.

Tad's pony was crashing through the brush, making such a racket that there could be no trouble about their keeping on the trail. They needed no light by which to follow it unerringly.

The boy soon came to a realization of this. Then again the men were so much more familiar with mountain riding that he felt sure they would eventually overhaul him. Even now they were gaining. There could be no doubt of that.

"I'll ride as long as I can, then I'll try to get away from them some other way," he decided.

The moment was rapidly approaching when he would be forced to resort to other tactics. Just what these should be he did not know. He would either be shot or captured in the event of his being unable to devise some other method of escape.

Tad Butler was resourceful. He had no idea of giving up yet. He was determined above all, to defeat the desperate purpose of these men and save Mr. Simms from the loss of his flock.

"We're gaining on him!" cried one of the pursuers. "I can hear the pony plainer now."

"Yes, I kin hear him snort," added another.

"You'll hear that cub doing some snorting on his own account in a minute," snarled Bluff, applying the spurs mercilessly.

"Shall we shoot, Cap!"

"I'll let you know when to shoot. No use filling all the trees in the range full of lead. We'll be up with him in a few minutes now and there'll be things doing. He can't get away. We've got him to rights this time."

"He's a slick one whoever he is. Think he heard us?"

"Can't guess. Don't make any difference anyhow. He won't have a chance to use the information, if he did hear."

"We're coming up on him," cried Jake.

"Halt!" bellowed the leader.

The pony in the lead did not slacken its speed in the least.

Bluff repeated his command, but still without perceptible result.

"Halt or we shoot!"

Tad Butler made no reply. He was leaning far over on the pony's neck now. In this position he was less likely to be swept off by limbs, and, again, were they to fire on him as they had threatened, there was a much better chance of the shots going harmlessly over, instead of through him. Thus far their marksmanship had been poor.

This was the second time the lad had been under fire, the first having been in the battle of the mountaineers, when the Pony Riders were in the Rocky Mountains, on which occasion Tad had conducted himself with such coolness and bravery.

Tad realized no fear, however. It thrilled him. A strange sense of elation possessed him. He felt strong and resourceful--he felt that he would be willing to do or dare almost anything.

"Let him have it!" commanded the leader sternly.

The men obeyed instantly.

Their weapons sent a rattling fire in the direction of the fleeing broncho.

"Halt! Will you halt!"

The pony still plunged on.

"Once more!"

The men fired again, two rounds each.

This time they heard the pony plunge crashing to the ground. His rapid course had come to a sudden end.

The pursuers set up a yell of triumph.

"He's down! He's down! We've got him!"

"Give him another one!"

To make sure that their man should not escape they fired their weapons again.

The pursuers dashed up with drawn revolvers, ready to shoot at the least sign of resistance.

Bluff leaped from his pony and struck a match.

Tad's mount lay dying in the brush.

"There's no one here," said Bluff, his face working nervously.

Of Tad Butler there was no sign. He had disappeared utterly.