Chapter XIV. The Dogs Pick Up a Trail
 

The man in charge of the pack train having deserted them before the travelers got back from the rim, Dad picked up a half breed whom the boys named Chow, because he was always chewing. If not food, Chow was forever munching on a leaf or a twig or a stick. His jaws were ever at work until the boys were working their own jaws out of pure sympathy.

The march was taken up to Bass Trail, which they reached about noon of the second day and started down. No unusual incident occurred during this journey. They found the trail in good condition, and though steep and precipitous in places, it gave the Pony Rider Boys no worry. After having experienced the perils of the other trail, this one seemed tame.

From Bass Trail they worked their way down and across into Bright Angel Gulch, where they made camp and awaited the arrival of Chow and the mules with their tents and provisions.

Chow arrived late the same day. Tents were pitched and settled. It was decided for the present to make this point their base of supplies. When on short journeys they would travel light, carrying such equipment as was absolutely necessary, and no more.

This gulch was far from the beaten track of the ordinary explorer, a vast but attractive gash in the plateau. In spots there was verdure, and, where the water courses reached in, stretches of grass with here and there patches of gramma grass, grease wood and creosote plants with a profusion of flowers, mostly red, in harmony with the prevailing color of the rocks that towered high above them. At this point the walls of the Canyon reached nearly seven thousand feet up into the air.

Down there on the levels the sun glared fiercely at midday, but along toward night refreshing breezes drifted through the Canyon, making the evenings cool and delightful. But there were drawbacks. There were snakes and insects in this almost tropical lower land. The boys were not greatly disturbed over these things. By this time they were pretty familiar with insects and reptiles, for it will be remembered that they had spent much time in the wilder places of their native country.

For the first twenty-four hours of their stay in "Camp Butler," as they had named their base in honor of Tad himself, they did little more than make short excursions out into the adjoining canyons. The Professor embraced the opportunity to indulge in some scientific researches into the geology of the Canyon, on which in the evening he was wont to dwell at length in language that none of the boys understood. But they listened patiently, for they were very fond of this grizzled old traveler who had now been their companion for so long.

The third night the dogs appeared restless. They lay at the end of their leashes growling and whipping their tails angrily.

"What is the matter with the dogs?" demanded Tad Butler.

"I think they must have fleas," decided Chunky wisely.

"No, it isn't fleas," said Dad, who had been observing them for the past few minutes. "It's my opinion that there's game hereabouts."

"Deer?" questioned Ned.

"No. More likely it's something that is after the deer."

"Lions?" asked Tad.

"I reckon."

"Have you seen any signs of them?"

"What you might call a sign," Nance nodded. "I found, up in Mystic Canyon this afternoon, all that was left of a deer. The lions had killed it and stripped all the best flesh from the deer. So it's plain enough that the cats are hanging around. I thought we'd come up with some of them down here."

"Wow for the king of beasts!" shouted Chunky, throwing up his sombrero.

"Nothing like a king," retorted Jim Nance. "The mountain lion isn't in any class with African lions. The lion hereabouts is only a part as big. A king---this mountain lion of ours? You'd better call the beast a dirty savage, and be satisfied with that."

"But we're going to go after some of them, aren't we?" asked Ned.

"Surely," nodded Nance.

"When?" pressed Walter.

"Is it safe?" the more prudent Professor Zepplin wanted to know.

"Safe?" repeated Jim Nance. "Well, when it comes to that, nothing down in this country can be called exactly safe. All sorts of trouble can be had around here for the asking. But I reckon that these young gentlemen will know pretty well how to keep themselves reasonably safe---all except Mr. Brown, who'll bear some watching."

Even long after they had turned in that night the boys kept on talking about the coming hunts of the next few days. They fairly dreamed lions. In the morning the hunt was the first thing they thought of as they ran to wash up for breakfast. In the near distance could be heard the baying of hounds, for Dad's dogs were no longer chained up.

"I let the dogs loose," Nance explained, noting the eager, questioning glances. "The dogs have got track of something. Hustle your breakfasts! We'll get away with speed."

Breakfast was disposed of in a hurry that morning. Then the boys hustled to get ready for the day's sport. When, a few minutes later, they set off on their ponies, with rifles thrust in saddle boots, revolvers bristling from their belts, ropes looped over the pommels of their saddles, the Pony Rider Boys presented quite a warlike appearance.

"If you were half as fierce as you look I'd run," declared Dad, with a grin.

"Which way do we go?" questioned the Professor.

"We'll all hike up into the Mystic Canyon. There we'll spread out, each man for himself. One of us can't help but fall to the trail of a beast if he is careful."

After reaching the Mystic they heard the dogs in a canyon some distance away. Ned and Walter were sent off to the left, Tad to the north, while the rest remained in the Mystic Canyon to wait there, where the chase should lead at some time during the day.

"Three shots are a signal to come in, or to come to the fellow who shoots," announced the guide. "Look out for yourselves."

Silence soon settled down over Mystic Canyon. Chunky was disappointed that he had not been assigned to go out with one of his companions, he found time hanging heavily on his hands with Nance and the Professor, but he uttered no complaint.

The Professor and guide had dismounted from their ponies and were seated on a rock busily engaged in conversation. Chunky, after glancing at them narrowly, shouldered his rifle and strolled off, leaving his pony tethered to a sapling.

He walked further than he had intended, making his way to a rise of ground about a quarter of a mile away, with the hope that he might catch a glimpse of some of his companions. Once on the rise, which was quite heavily wooded, he seemed to hear the hounds much more plainly than before. It seemed to Stacy that they were approaching from the other side, opposite to that which the rest were watching. He glanced down into the canyon, but could see neither of the two older men.

"Most exciting chase I've ever been in," muttered the fat boy in disgust, throwing himself down on the ground with rifle across his knees. "Lions! I don't believe there are any lions in the whole country. Dad's been having dreams. It's my private opinion that Dad's got an imagination that works over time once in a while. I think-----"

The words died on the fat boy's lips. His eyes grew wide, the pupils narrowed, the whites giving the appearance of small inverted saucers.

Stacy scarcely breathed.

There, slinking across an open space on the rise, its tail swishing its ears laid flat on its cruel, cat-like head, was a tawny, lithe creature.

Stacy Brown recognized the object at once. It was a mountain lion, a large one. It seemed to Chunky that he never had seen a beast as large in all his life. The lion was alternately listening to the baying of the hounds and peering about for a suitable tree in which to hide itself.

Stacy acted like a man in a trance. Without any clear idea as to what he was doing, he rose slowly to his feet. At that instant the lion discovered him. It crouched down, its eyes like sparks of fire, scintillating and snapping.

All at once Stacy threw his gun to his shoulder and pulled the trigger. At least he thought he did. But no report came.

A yellow flash, a swish and the beast had leaped clear of the rise and disappeared even more suddenly than he had come.

"Wha---wha-----" gasped Chunky. Then he made a discovery.

Chunky was holding the rifle by the barrel with the muzzle against his shoulder, having aimed the butt at the crouching lion. Chunky had had a severe attack of "buck fever."

With a wild yell that woke the echoes and sent Jim Nance and Professor Zepplin tearing through the bushes, Stacy dashed down the steep slope, forgetting to take his rifle with him in his hurried descent.

He met the two men running toward him.

"What is it? What's happened?" shouted the Professor.

"I saw him! I saw him!" yelled Stacy, almost frantic with excitement.

Nance grabbed the boy by the shoulder, shaking him roughly.

"Speak up. What did you see?"

"I su---su---saw a lu---lu---lion, I di---did."

"Where?" demanded Nance.

"Up there."

Chunky's eyes were full of excitement.

"Why didn't you shoot him?"

"I---I tried to, but the gu---gun wouldn't go off. I---I had it wrong end to."

Dad relaxed his grip on the fat boy's arm and sat down heavily.

"Of all the tarnal idiots---of all! Professor, if we don't tie that boy to a tree he'll be killing us all with his fool ways. Why, you baby, you ain't fit to carry a pop-gun. By the way, where is your gun?"

"I---I guess, I lost it up---up there," stammered Stacy.

Dad started for the top of the rise in long strides, Chunky gazing after him in a dazed sort of way.

"I---I guess I did make a fool of myself, didn't I, Professor?" he mourned.

"I am inclined to think you did---several different varieties of them," answered Professor Zepplin in a tone of disgust.