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CHAPTER XXI


A WILDCAT AMONG THE HORSES


The bringing down of the grouse filled the boys with satisfaction, and they inspected the game with much interest.

"They'll make fine eating," declared Roger.

"Let us see if we can't get some more," pleaded Phil. The "fever" of hunting had taken possession of him.

"We'll not find much in this neighborhood," said Dave. "But I am willing to go a little further," he added, seeing how disappointed the shipowner's son looked.

Placing the game over their shoulders, they reloaded their weapons and continued on through the forest, taking a trail that seemed to have been made by wild animals. Twice they had to cross a winding brook, and at the second fording-place Dave, who was in the rear, called a halt.

"What do you want?" questioned Roger, as he and Phil turned back.

"I want you to look at these hoofmarks," answered Dave, and he pointed up the stream a short distance.

All passed to the locality indicated, and each youth looked at the hoofmarks with interest. They were made by a number of horses, probably six or eight, and though the marks were washed a little, as if by rain, they could still be plainly seen.

"Do you think they were made by the horses that were stolen, Dave?" questioned Phil.

"I don't know what to think."

"The horse-thieves might easily have come this way," said the senator's son. "They would be more apt to go away from the ranch than towards it."

"Maybe they stopped here during the big blow," said Phil.

"I think you are right, for here are marks where the animals were tied to trees," went on Dave. "I wonder—well, I declare!"

Dave stopped short and picked up a bit of a leather halter lying on the ground. It was of curious Mexican design, having a light leather thong entwined in a dark one.

"I don't know that I have ever seen a halter like that before," mused Roger, as he took the bit of halter from Dave, and then passed it to Phil.

"I have," answered Dave.

"So have I!" cried the shipowner's son. "Link Merwell's horse had one on, the day we met on the trail!"

"Just what I was going to say," added Dave. "I noticed it particularly."

"Then this must belong to Link," came from the senator's son.

"Perhaps not," answered Dave, slowly. "There may be other such halters around. We'll have to give Link the benefit of the doubt, you know."

"See here!" burst out Phil. "You may think as you please, but I have always thought that Link had something to do with the taking of our horses."

"Do you think he would deliberately steal six horses, Phil?"

"Well, maybe not deliberately steal them, but—but—I think he took them, anyhow."

"He may have taken them intending to drive them to our ranch, and perhaps the horses got away from him in the storm," suggested Roger.

"That may be true—it would be just like one of Link's mean tricks," answered Dave.

"I think we ought to tax him with it," said Phil.

"He'd deny it point-blank if you did," returned the senator's son. "This bit of halter is no proof against him. No, you'd only get into hot water if you accused him without proofs."

"What Roger says is true," declared Dave. "We'll not say a word against Link, or accuse him, until we have some good proof that he is guilty."

Taking the bit of halter with them, the three chums continued on their way along the trail. They covered another quarter of a mile, but saw no game excepting some birds on which they did not care to waste powder and shot.

"We'll have to go back, I suppose," said Phil, with a sigh. "Gracious, I wish we'd see a bear, or something!"

"How would an elephant and a few lions do?" quizzed Roger, with a grin.

"Or a couple of man-eating tigers," suggested Dave.

"I don't care! You can make fun if you want to, but I came out to this ranch to have some hunting," said Phil, stubbornly. "I'm going to the mountains and get something worth while some day."

"So are we all going, Phil," answered Dave, quickly. "I want to bring down some big game just as much as you do."

"Sid Todd said he'd take us," said Roger. "We'll make him keep his word."

They took a look around the locality where they were standing, and then turned back to where they had left their horses. They were still some distance from the animals when they heard one of the steeds give a sudden snort of alarm. Looking through the trees, they saw Phil's horse leap and plunge, and then the others did likewise, as if trying to break from their halters.

"Something is wrong!" cried Dave. "Come on, before the horses break away!"

"Something has scared them," put in Roger. "Keep your guns ready for a shot. It may be a bear!"

"No such luck!" declared Phil. Nevertheless, he swung his shotgun into position for firing, and his chums did likewise.

As the boys entered the opening where the horses were tied, Dave caught sight of what was causing the disturbance. Out on the branch of a tree, directly over the animals, was a chunky and powerful looking wildcat, commonly called in that section of the country a bobcat. Its eyes were gleaming wickedly, its teeth were exposed, and it acted as if ready to leap at the throat of one of the horses.

"Look!" cried Dave, and then, as quickly as he could, he leveled his shotgun, took aim, and fired. The report of the firearm was followed by a blood-curdling cry from the wildcat, and down from the tree limb it tumbled, to roll over and over on the ground between the horses.

"Oh, what a savage beast!" gasped Phil, and for the instant he was so taken aback that he did not know what to do.

"He'll drive the horses crazy!" shouted Roger. "Oh, if I could only get a shot at him!"

What the senator's son said about the horses was true. The wildcat had been badly, but not mortally, wounded, and now it was rolling and twisting on the ground, sending the dirt and leaves flying in all directions. The steeds were in a panic, and leaped and plunged hither and thither, doing their best to break away.

"I should have waited until we all had the chance to shoot," said Dave. "If I can catch my horse——"

He got no further, for just then Roger, seeing a chance, rushed in between two of the steeds and pulled both triggers of his shotgun in quick succession. His aim was true, and, hit in the side, the wildcat rolled over and then started to crawl back into some bushes.

"He is going!" shouted Dave.

"I must have a shot!" put in Phil, recovering somewhat, and now he blazed away. When the smoke rolled off, the boys saw that the wildcat had disappeared.

"Where is he?"

"He went into yonder bushes!"

"Is he dead, do you think?"

"I don't know. Be careful, or he may leap out at us."

Such were some of the remarks made as the three boys reloaded, in the meantime keeping their eyes on the spot where the wildcat had last been seen. The horses were still plunging, but gradually they quieted down.

"I am going to see if the wildcat is really dead," said Dave, boldly. "Even if he's alive, I don't think there is much fight left in him."

"You be careful!" warned Phil. "A wounded beast is always extra savage. He may fly at your throat, and then it will be all up with you."

"I guess we plugged him pretty well," said Roger.

With great caution Dave approached the bushes into which the wildcat had disappeared, and rather gingerly his chums followed him. They could see a trail of blood, which led to the bottom of a hollow between some rocks. Here they beheld the wildcat, stretched out on its side.

"Dead as a stone!" announced Dave, after a brief examination.

"Are you sure?" questioned Phil. "He may be shamming—some wild beasts do, you know."

"No, he's dead,—you can see for yourself."

"What shall we do with him?" questioned Roger, after all were convinced that the wildcat was really dead. "He isn't good for much."

"We could keep the skin—or have him stuffed," suggested Phil.

"Let us take him back to the ranch—so that the folks can see we really killed him," said Dave. "Then we might have him stuffed and sent to Oak Hall, to put in the museum."

"Just the thing!" cried the senator's son. "That will please Doctor Clay, I am sure."

They dragged the wildcat out into the open, and laid it where the horses might see that it was dead. As soon as they were aware of this, the steeds quieted down completely, and the boys had no more trouble with them. Dave and Phil carried the grouse and the fish, and Roger slung the wildcat up behind his saddle, and then off they set for Star Ranch at a gallop.

"Here come the fishermen!" cried Laura, who was out in front of the ranch house. "I hope you had luck!"

"We did," answered Dave, gayly. "How is that?" and he held up a string of fish.

"Splendid, Dave!"

"And how is that?" he went on, holding up two of the grouse.

"I declare, some game, too! Why, you've had good luck, haven't you!"

"Let me see!" said Belle, as she appeared, followed by Jessie.

"And how is this?" asked Phil, showing his fish and the rest of the game.

"Oh, how grand!" murmured Belle.

"What is that Roger has?" questioned Jessie.

"A wildcat!" cried the senator's son, and, leaping down, he brought the dead beast into full view. All the girls shrieked, and Jessie started to run back into the house. Hearing the commotion, Mrs. Endicott appeared, and then her husband.

"A bobcat!" cried the railroad president. "I didn't know there were any near this place. A big fellow, too," he added, as he inspected the animal.

"Did you shoot him, Roger?" asked Laura.

"We all had a hand in it," answered the senator's son. "Dave gave him the first dose of shot, and then Phil and I got in our work. It was a hard job to kill him, I can tell you," and then Roger told of how the wounded beast had fallen down among the horses.

"You can be thankful your horses didn't get away," said Mr. Endicott. "I knew of a horse once that was scared by a bear and he ran several miles, and wasn't caught until the next day."

"Oh, Dave, weren't you scared when you saw him on the tree?" whispered Jessie. She felt proud to think her hero had been the first to shoot at the beast.

"I didn't give myself time to get scared," he answered. "I just fired as quickly as I could."

"But supposing the wildcat had jumped on you!" And the girl shivered and caught him by the arm.

"I should have defended myself as best I could, Jessie."

"You—you mustn't take such risks," the pretty girl whispered, and looked wistfully into Dave's eyes. "I—I can't stand it, Dave!" And then she blushed and turned her face away.

"I'll be very careful after this, Jessie—for your sake," he answered, softly and tenderly.