Chapter XVIII. The Unwilling Guest Departs
 

Jim Nance didn't say much, but from the way he looked at Tad Butler, a quizzical smile playing about the corners of his mouth, it was plain that he was filled with admiration for the young Pony Rider who could take a lion practically single-handed.

As yet the story of the capture had not been told. Their prize must first be taken care of. This part of the affair Nance looked after personally. He found a few strands of wire in his kit and with these he made a collar and a wire leader that led out to where the tough lariat began. To this the lion was fastened, his forefeet left bound, the hind feet being liberated In this condition he was tied to a tree in the camp in Bright Angel Gulch.

Chunky was not sure that he liked the arrangement. He was wondering whether lions were gifted with the proverbial memory of elephants. If so, and if the big cat should get loose in the night, Chunky knew what would happen to himself. The boy determined to sleep with one eye open, his rifle beside his bed. He would die fighting bravely for his life. He was determined upon that.

Around the camp fire a jolly party of boys gathered that night after supper, their merry conversation interrupted occasionally by a snarling and growling from the captive.

"Now, young gentlemen, we are anxious to hear the story of the capture," said the Professor.

"Oh, it was nothing," answered Stacy airily. "It was nothing for us. Shooting cats is too tame for such hunters as Tad and me. We just saw him up a tree---that is, I saw him, and-----"

"Where were you?" interrupted Nance.

"I was up the same tree," answered Stacy.

"I'll bet the cat treed him," shouted Ned Rector. "How about it, Tad?"

"Chunky's telling the story. Let him tell it in his own way."

"I'll tell you about it, fellows. I was up a tree looking for lions. I found one. He was sitting in the same tree with me. He was licking his chops. You see, he wanted a slice of me, I'm so tender and so delicious-----"

"So is a rhinoceros," interjected Ned.

"If the gentleman will wait until I have finished he may have the floor to himself. Well, that's about all. I yelled for Tad. He came running, and he roped the cat."

"Then what did you do?" questioned Walter.

"Oh, I fell out of the tree. Look at this!" shouted Stacy as soon as he was able to make himself heard above the laughter, pointing to his ripped clothes. "That's where the beast made a pass at me. I'm wounded, I am; wounded in a hand-to-hand conflict with the king of the canyon. How would that read in the Chillicothe 'Gazette' I'm going to dash off something after this fashion to send them: 'Stacy Brown, our distinguished fellow citizen, globe-trotter, hunter of big game and nature lover, was seriously wounded last week in the Grand Canyon of Arizona-----'"

"In what part of your anatomy is the Grand Canyon located?" questioned Ned Rector. "I rise for information."

"The Grand Canyon is where the Pony Rider Boys store their food," returned Stacy quickly. "Where did I leave off?"

"You were lost in the Canyon," reminded Walter.

"Oh, yes. 'Was seriously wounded in the Grand Canyon in a desperate battle with the largest lion ever caught in the mountains. Assisted by Thaddeus Butler, also of Chillicothe, Mr. Brown succeeded in capturing the lion alive, after his bloodstained garments had been nearly stripped from his person.'"

"The lion's bloodstained garments?" inquired Walter mildly.

"No, mine, of course. 'Mr. Brown, it is said, will recover from his wounds, though he will bear the scars of the conflict the rest of his life.' Ahem! I guess that will hold the boys on our block for a time," finished Chunky, swelling out his chest. "Yes, that'll make them prisoners for life," agreed Ned Rector.

"I think I shall have to edit that account before it goes to the paper," declared Professor Zepplin.

"How can you edit it when you didn't see the affair?" demanded Chunky.

"Editors are not supposed to see beyond the point of the pencil they are using," answered Ned. "But they know the failings of the fellows who do the writing."

"What do you know about it? You never were an editor," scoffed Stacy.

"No, but I'd like to be for about an hour after your article reached the 'Gazette' office."

"How about giving that cat something to eat, Mr. Nance?" asked Tad, thus changing the subject.

The guide shook his head.

"He wouldn't eat; at least not for a while."

"What do lions eat?" asked Walter.

"That one tried to eat me," replied Stacy. "I don't like the look in his eye at all. It says, just as plain as if it were printed, 'I'd like to have you served up a-la-mode.'"

At this juncture, Jim Nance walked over; with a burning brand in hand, to look at the cat's fastenings. The lion jumped at him. Jim poked the firebrand into the animal's face, which sent the cat back the full length of his tether. After examining the fastenings carefully, Nance pronounced them so secure that the beast would not get away.

The ponies had been tethered some distance from where the prize was tied, the dogs being placed with the ponies so that they might not be disturbed by the captive during the night and thus keep the camp awake with their barks and growls.

After a time all hands went to bed, crawling into their blankets, where they were soon fast asleep. Late in the night Nance sat up. He thought he had heard the lion growl. Stepping to the door of the tent he listened. Not a sound could be heard save the mysterious whisperings of the Canyon. Jim went back to bed, not to awaken until the sun was up on the following morning.

Tad Butler, hearing the guide rise after daylight, turned out at the same time. Tad stepped outside, his first thought being for the captive. The Pony Rider boy's eyes grew large as he gazed at the tree where the cat had been left the evening before. There was no lion there.

"Hey, Mr. Nance, did you move the cat?"

"No. Why?"

"He isn't where we left him last night."

"What?" Nance was out on the jump. "Sure as you're alive he's gone. Now doesn't that beat all?"

Tad had hurried over to the place where he stood gloomily surveying the scene.

"I wonder where the rope and wire are?"

"That's so. He must have carried the whole business with him."

"How could he? How could he have untied the wire from the tree? There is something peculiar about this affair, Dad."

Whatever Dad's opinion might have been, he did not express it at the moment. Instead he got down on all fours, examining the ground carefully, going over every inch of it for several rods about the scene.

"Well this does git me," he declared, standing up, scratching his head reflectively.

By that time the rest of the party had come out.

"The lion's gone," shouted Tad.

"What, my lion got away?" wailed Chunky. "And he didn't take a chunk out of me to carry away with him?"

"I had no idea we could hold him. Of course he gnawed the rope in two," nodded the Professor.

"He didn't get loose of his own accord, sir," replied the guide.

"Then you don't mean to tell me that some person or persons liberated him?"

"I don't mean to tell you anything, because I don't know anything about it. I never was so befuddled in my life. I'm dead-beat, Professor."

Tad was gloomy. He had hoped to take the lion home with them, having already planned where he would keep the beast until the town, which he thought of presenting it to, had prepared a place for the gift. Now his hopes had been dashed. He had no idea that they would be able to get another lion. It was not so easy as all that. But how had the beast gotten away? There was a mystery about it fully as perplexing as had been the loss of Stacy's rifle. Tad was beginning to think, with Dad, that mysterious forces were, indeed, at work in the Grand Canyon.

While he was brooding over the problem, Chunky, emulating the movements of the guide, was down on hands and knees, examining the ground.

"Find any footprints?" called Ned in a jeering voice.

Stacy did not reply. His brow was wrinkled; his face wore a wise expression.

"Look out that you don't get bitten," warned Walter mischievously.

"By what?" demanded Stacy, glancing up.

"Footprints," answered Ned.

"Could any person have gotten in here and let the cat go without our having heard him, Mr. Nance?" asked Tad Butler.

"I reckon he couldn't."

"Did you hear anything in the night, Nance?" questioned the Professor.

"Come to think of it, I did get up once. I heard the cat growling, or thought I did, but after I had looked out and seen nothing, nor heard anything, I went back to bed again and didn't know anything more till sun-up. I guess I'm pretty slow. I'm getting old for a certainty."

"No; there is something peculiar, something very strange about this affair, Professor," spoke up Tad.

"Due wholly to natural causes," declared the Professor.

"No, I reckon you're wrong there, Professor," said Nance. "I'd have understood natural causes. It's the unnatural causes that gets a fellow."

"I've spotted it, I've spotted it! I know who freed the lion!" howled Stacy.

All hands rushed to him.

"Who, what, how, where, when?" demanded five voices at once.

"Yes, sir, I've found it. That lion-----"

"Don't joke," rebuked the Professor.

"I'm not joking. I know what I'm talking about. That cat was let go by a one-legged Indian. Now maybe you won't say I'm not a natural born sleuth," exclaimed the fat boy proudly.