Chapter XVI. A New Way to Hunt Lions
 

Long before they reached the meeting point they heard the long-drawn "Woohoo!" of Jim Nance calling them in. They were the only ones out at that time. Tad set up a series of answering "woos-hoos" that caused Silver Face to wiggle his ears disapprovingly, as if this were some new method of torture invented for his special benefit.

As they got in sight of the rest of the party, the boys set up a shout. Their companions, about that time, discovered that Tad was carrying something before him on the pony. Chunky and Ned started on a run to meet Tad and Walter. How Chunky did yell when he discovered what that something was.

"They've got a cat! They've got a cat!" he howled, dancing about and swinging his arms. "I tell you, they've got a cat!"

Tad rode into camp smiling, flinging the lion to the ground, which caused Tad's pony to perform once more.

"Who shot him?" cried the Professor, fully as excited as the boys.

"This is a partnership cat," laughed Tad. "We both have some bullets in him. How many did you fellows get?"

"Well, I had one, but he got away," answered Stacy, his face sobering instantly. "And---and he carried off my rifle too."

"What's that?" demanded Tad.

Chunky explained briefly. But he had little opportunity to talk. Dad, who had been examining the dead lion, straightened up and looked at Tad.

"Good job, boys. It's a dandy. Must weigh nigh onto three hundred pounds. Have much of a tussle with him?"

"Not any. He was dead when he got down to us."

"Very fine specimen," decided the Professor, examining the dead beast from a respectable distance. "You lads are to be congratulated."

"Say, I'm going with you to-morrow," cried Stacy. "These folks don't know how to hunt lions."

"Do you?" demanded Nance witheringly.

Stacy colored violently.

"At least I know how to stalk them," he answered. "If I lose my gun in the excitement that doesn't mean that I'm not a natural born lion chaser. Anybody can shoot a lion, but everybody can't sit still and charm the lion right up to him."

They admitted that the fat boy was right in this assertion. Chunky had done all of that. Upon their return to camp, Walter and Tad had asked numerous questions about the loss of the gun. There was little additional information that either Stacy or the two men could give them. The gun had most mysteriously disappeared, that was all. Nance was more puzzled than any of the others and he groped in vain for an explanation of the mystery, but no satisfactory explanation suggested itself to his mind.

After supper the guide cut some meat from the cat and fed it to the weary dogs, who had not succeeded in treeing a single lion, though they had come near doing so several times. But they had sent the cats flying for cover, which had given Chunky and the other two boys opportunity to use their guns, though Stacy Brown, in his excitement, had failed to take advantage of the opportunity offered to him.

It was decided that the hunt should be taken up again on the following morning. Nance said Stacy might go with Tad this time, Nance taking charge of the other three boys. This was satisfactory to Chunky and Tad.

The morning found the camp awake at an early hour. Chunky and Tad set off together, the former having been equipped with a rifle from the extra supply carried by the party, the guide having administered a sarcastic suggestion that Chunky tie the rifle to his back so that he would not lose this one.

Chunky made appropriate reply, after which they rode away. The early part of the day was devoid of success. They did not even hear the bay of a hound all the forenoon. Tad took their quest coolly, undisturbed. He had already gotten one lion and could well afford not to get one this time. It was different with Stacy. He was anxious to distinguish himself, to make amends for his blunders of the previous day.

About an hour after they had eaten their lunch they heard the bounds for the first time. Tad listened intently for a few minutes.

"I think they are coming this way, Chunky."

"If they do, you give me the first shot. I've simply got to meet another cat."

"You shall have it, providing you are on the job and ready. These cats don't wait around for a fellow to get ready to shoot, as you have no doubt observed."

"Don't remind me of disagreeable things, please," growled Stacy. "I've had my chance and I lost it. Next time I see a cat I'm going to kill him on the spot. Wait; I'm going to take an observation."

"Don't go far," warned Tad.

"No, I won't. Just want to have a look at the landscape," flung back Stacy, hurrying away, while Tad stretched out for a little rest, well satisfied to have Stacy do the moving about until there was something real to be done, when Tad would be on hand on the jump.

Stacy had not taken his gun. In fact, he wholly forgot to do so, not thinking for an instant that he would have opportunity to use it. This was where the fat boy made another serious mistake. A hunter should never be beyond reaching distance of his gun when out on the trail for game. It is a mistake that has cost some men their lives, others the loss of much coveted game.

Choosing a low, bushy pinyon tree as best suited to the purposes of a lazy climber, Stacy climbed it, grunting and grumbling unintelligibly. He had hopes that he might discover something worth while, something that would distinguish him from his fellows on that particular day.

"I feel as if something were going to happen," he confided to the tree, seating himself in a crotch formed by a limb extending out from the main body of the tree, then parting the foliage for a better view. "It's funny how a fellow feels about these things some times. Hello, there, I actually believe those are deer running yonder. Or maybe they're cows," added Stacy. "Anyhow I couldn't shoot them, whichever they are, so I won't get excited over them."

Chunky fixed his eyes on the opposite side of the tree a little above where he was perched.

"I thought I saw something move there. Hello, I hear the hounds again. They've surely gotten on track of something. And-----"

Once more the fat boy paused. He saw something yellow lying along a limb of the tree, something at first sight that he took to be a snake. But he knew of no snakes that had fur on their bodies. The round, furry thing that he thought might be a snake at first now began whipping up and down on the limb, curling at its end, twisting, performing strange antics.

What could it mean? Stacy parted the foliage a little more, then once again, as had been the case on the previous day, his eyes opened wide.

He saw now what was at the other end of the snake-like appendage. And seeing he understood that he was in a predicament. But Chunky's voice failed him.

There on the opposite limb of the tree, less than ten feet away, crouched the biggest mountain lion Stacy Brown ever had seen. And it grew larger with the seconds. The beast was working its tail, its whiskers bristled, its eyes shone like points of steel. It seemed as if the beast were trying to decide whether to attack the boy within such easy reach or to leap to the ground and flee. The deep baying of the dogs in the distance evidently decided the cat against the latter plan. Then, too, perhaps the howls that Chunky now emitted had something to do with the former question.

Tad Butler, stretched out on the ground, found himself standing bolt upright as if he had been propelled to that position by a spring. The most unearthly howls he had ever heard broke upon the mountain stillness.

"Wow! Ow-wow-wow! Tad! Help, help, help! Quick!"

Tad was off like a shot himself, not even pausing to snatch up his gun which lay so near at hand. And how he did run!

"Where, Chunky? Where are you? Shout quick!"

"Wow! Ow-wow-wow!" was the only answer Stacy Brown could make, but the sound of his voice unerringly guided Tad to the location. But Stacy could not be found.

"In the name of-----"

"Wow! Ow-wow-wow!" howled the agonized voice of the fat boy from the branches of the pinyon tree.

Tad peered up between the branches. He saw Stacy looking down upon him with panic stricken gaze.

"For the love of goodness, what's the matter, Stacy? You nearly frightened me to death."

"Look out!" The words, shouted at the top of the fat boy's voice, were so thrilling that Tad leaped back instinctively.

"See here, don't make a fool of me, too. What's the matter with you? Come down out of that."

"I can't. He'll get me."

"What will get you? Nothing will get you, you ninny!"

"The lion will get me."

"Have you gone raving mad on the subject of lions?" jeered Butler.

"Look, if you don't believe me. He's up here. He's trying to get a bite out of me. Shoot him, as you love me, Tad; shoot and shoot straight or I'm a dead one."

For the first time since his arrival on the scene Tad began to realize that Stacy was not having fun with him. Something really was up that tree---something besides a Pony Rider boy.

"You don't mean to tell me there's a cat up there-----"

"Yes, yes! He's over there on the other side. Shoot, shoot!"

"I haven't my gun with me."

The fat boy groaned helplessly.

"I'm a dead one! Nothing can save me. Tell them I died like a man; tell them I never uttered a squeal."

Tad had sprung around to the side of the pinyon tree indicated by Chunky. Up there on a bushy limb, clear of the heavier foliage, lay a sleek, but ugly looking cat, swishing its tail angrily. First, its glances would shoot over to Stacy Brown, then down to Tad Butler. The lion, as Tad decided on the spot, had gone into the tree to hide from the dogs as had the one that had been shot on the canyon wall the previous afternoon. This time the proposition was a different one. Both boys were in dire peril, as Tad well knew. At any second the cat might spring, either at him or at Stacy. And neither boy had a gun in his hands.

Tad's mind worked with lightning-like rapidity. It was a time for quick thinking if one expected to save one's skin from being torn by those needle-like claws. Butler thought of a plan. He did not know whether there were one chance in a million of the plan working. He wanted that lion a great deal more than the lion wanted him. He was going to take a desperate chance. An older and more experienced man might not have cared to try what Tad Butler was about to attempt.

The Pony Rider boy's hand slipped down to the lasso hanging from his belt. He was thankful that he had that. The lasso was always there except when he was in the saddle, when it was usually looped over the pommel.

"Chunky, yell! Make all the noise you can."

"I am. Wow-ow-wow. Y-e-o-w wow!"

"That's right, keep it up. Don't stop. Make faces at him, make believe you're going to jump at-----"

"Say, anybody would think this were a game of croquet and that I was trying to make the other fellow miss the wicket. Don't you think-----"

"I'm trying to get you to attract his attention-----"

"I don't want to attract his attention. I want the beast to look the other way," wailed the fat boy. "I want to get out of here."

"Well, why haven't you?"

"I dassent."

While carrying on this conversation with his chum, Tad was watching the cat narrowly. The animal was showing signs of greater excitement now. The boy decided that the beast was preparing to jump one way or another---which way was a matter of some concern to both boys at that particular instant.

The cat took two long paces in Stacy's direction. Stacy emitted the most blood-curdling yell Tad had ever heard. It served Butler's very purpose. The beast halted with one hind foot poised in the air, glaring at Stacy, who was howling more lustily than ever.

Swish!

Tad's lariat shot through the air. His aim was true, his hand steady and cool.