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CHAPTER XXIII


DAVE ON A BRONCO


Dave had his doubts about doing any "bronco-busting" on his own account, but he did not say anything to Roger and Phil about it. He was not afraid, but he knew Jessie would be greatly worried if he attempted anything dangerous.

However, his chums got him up early the following morning, and, directly after breakfast, Roger led the way down to the corral.

"I am going to try it, even if you are not," said the senator's son, and insisted upon it that one of the unbroken ponies be brought forward. The saddle was adjusted by Sid Todd, who held the animal while Roger leaped into the saddle.

The experience was not as exciting as had been anticipated, for the reason that the animal chosen by Todd was somewhat tame. The cowboy was attached to the boys, and did not wish to see any of them run the risk of breaking his neck.

After Roger came Phil, and he was timid enough to ask for a horse "that didn't look as if he wanted to eat somebody up." Phil had more of a time of it than Roger, but managed to keep in the saddle and ride around the corral several times.

"It's not so hard as I supposed," said the shipowner's son, as he leaped to the ground, and the pony, freed of the saddle, galloped off. "I thought I'd be half-killed."

"Those ponies were not so wild as those used yesterday," answered Dave. "Not but that they were bad enough," he continued, with a smile.

Sid Todd had remained to hold the pony ridden by Phil and had then been called away to attend to some business at another part of the ranch. He had told Yates to help the boys.

Now, as it happened, Yates was full of fun and always up to practical jokes. It had disgusted him to see Todd bring out such comparatively safe ponies as those ridden by Roger and Phil. He had been told to bring out a certain animal for Dave, but instead led forth a bronco that was as wild and fiery as any used the day previous.

"If he rides that beast, he's a good one," Yates murmured to himself, and then he beckoned to some other cowboys to watch the fun. Half a dozen quit work to draw closer, each with a broad grin on his sunburnt face. They expected to see Dave get the shaking-up of his life and felt positive he would not be able to stay on the bronco's back two minutes.

"He certainly is a wild one," said Dave, as he advanced and eyed the pony.

"Oh, he's no worse than the others," answered Yates, smoothly, and then he rolled his eyes and winked at the other cowboys.

Dave looked critically at the saddle and saw to it that it was properly buckled. Then he flung his cap to Roger.

"Say, Dave, that pony looks half-crazy," said Phil. "You be careful."

"He certainly does look wild," added Roger.

"Well, I'm going to ride him anyway—or know the reason why! " cried Dave, and a look of strong determination came into his face. "Get around there!" he called sharply to the pony, and then, with a quick leap, he gained the saddle and dug his knees into the pony's sides. "Let him go!"

Yates released his hold and everybody in the crowd backed away. For a moment the bronco stood stock-still, his eyes gazing straight ahead. Then he gave a vigorous shake and took a few steps forward.

"Hurrah! see him ride!" shouted Yates, and winked again at the other cowboys, who grinned more than ever.

Five steps forward and the bronco halted. Then up in the air he went, a distance of six or eight feet. He came down "on all fours," good and hard, and had Dave been resting in the saddle he would have had the wind knocked out of him completely. But the youth was standing in the stirrups, and he allowed his body to spring with that of the animal he hoped to conquer.

Three times the bronco tried this trick, and the third time Dave came close to falling off. Then the bronco gave a dart forward, like an arrow from a bow.

"There he goes!" yelled the senator's son, but the words were not yet out of his mouth when the bronco stopped short. Dave slid to the animal's neck, but there he clung, his face pale and determined, and his teeth set.

"Hi! hi! what's this!" shouted a voice, and, turning, the crowd saw Sid Todd approaching on the run. "Yates, what do you mean by letting him git up on that critter?" he demanded, indignantly.

"Ain't that the bronco you wanted him to try?" asked the other cowboy, innocently.

"No—an' you know it!" stormed Todd. "Do you want him to break his neck? Hi, Dave, jump down! You can't tame that beast, nohow!"

"I—I'm all—ri—right!" jerked out Dave, between his teeth. "Ke—keep away," he added, as Todd came closer, to lend his assistance.

"He's a bad one, boy—one o' the worst on the ranch. Yates had no call to offer him to you."

"Ke—keep away," was all Dave replied. He could not say more, for the bronco claimed all his attention.

"Yates, if that boy is hurt, you'll have an account to settle with me," said Sid Todd, and shook his fist at the other cowboy.

"I—er—I was sure you wanted me to bring out that beast fer him," murmured Yates, uneasily. He was sorry now that he had played the trick on Dave.

The bronco had taken another run, coming to as sudden a halt as before. Dave slid up almost to the animal's ears, but still clung on, and quickly regained his seat in the saddle. Then, without warning, the pony dropped to the ground and started to roll over.

"Look out! you'll have your leg broken!" yelled Phil. But Dave was on his guard, and, as the pony dropped, he leaped away to safety. Then, as the animal arose once more, the youth grabbed the saddle and vaulted into the seat.

"Say, that's goin' some, I tell you!" roared one of the cowboys in delight. "He ain't givin' in yet, he ain't!"

"Look out that he don't bang you into a fence, or one of the buildings!" yelled Sid Todd. He was alarmed, yet delighted at the manner in which Dave clung to his difficult and dangerous undertaking.

With Dave once more on his back, the pony tried new tactics. Around and around he went in a circle, sending the dust of the corral flying in all directions. Then, like lightning, he reversed, nearly breaking his own neck, and causing Dave to slip far down on the outer side. But the youth hung to the saddle, and, leaning forward, slapped the bronco a smart crack on the neck. This he followed up with a blow on the head.

The effect was just what the boy desired. The pony forgot all his tricks, and leaping high into the air, he shot off like a streak toward the corral gate. Once outside, he headed for the open plains, going with the speed of a racer on the track.

"They're off!" cried Roger.

"Don't let him throw you!" yelled Todd.

"Can't we ride after 'em?" queried Phil.

"Sure we can ride after 'em," responded Todd. "An' we better do it, too, fer there ain't no tellin' what that pony will do to Dave," he added, anxiously, and with a black look at Yates, which made the other cowboy cast his eyes to the ground.

On and on sped the bronco, with Dave sitting firmly in the saddle. So long as the pony kept going, the lad felt he had nothing to fear. But he was on the alert, for he did not know but that the animal would play another trick at any instant.

"Go on, old boy!" he muttered. "We've got miles and miles of prairie ahead of us. Run till you are tired! But remember, you've got to carry me back," he added, grimly.

Soon the ranch house and the corral were mere specks in the distance, and then even these faded from view. The pony kept to the open country, and not once did he slacken his speed.

"I guess he'll drop into a walk when his wind is gone," thought Dave. But the pony's breathing apparatus showed no sign of giving out. Dave allowed his eyes to turn back, and calculated he had gone two or three miles. "Maybe we had better turn back now," he murmured, and tried to guide the steed in a circle. But this was a failure. The pony kept straight ahead, running due eastward, as the youth could see by the sun.

"All right, go as far as you please," said Dave, grimly. "If you can stand it, so can I," and he settled in the saddle.

Another two miles were covered, and then the bronco commenced to slacken his speed. Dave was on guard at this, and it was well to be, for, a second later, the pony once more tried the trick of flinging his rider over his head. But the effort was a failure, and in return Dave dug his knees deeply into the steed's ribs. Then off went the pony on a run again.

This time the bronco did not cover over a mile before dropping into a walk. Then Dave tried again to turn the animal, but without success.

"Don't want to go back, eh?" said the youth. "Well, you've got to, and that is all there is to it!" And he hit the pony a sharp slap on the neck and dug his kneees into the animal's ribs as before.

The bronco was now losing courage. He commenced to run, but did not keep it up for more than a hundred yards. But when he dropped into a walk, Dave urged him up, and again he ran, but now only a dozen steps. Then the youth pulled on the left rein, and the bronco came around with scarcely any trouble.

"You aren't mastered yet, but you're pretty close to it," said the boy. "We are going home, understand, home!"

The bronco moved forward about a hundred feet. Then he deliberately dropped on the prairie and lay on his side, as quiet as a lamb.

"Want to rest, eh?" said Dave. "Well, not out here. You brought me here and you've got to take me back. Get up!"

He gave the animal a prod in the side. The bronco kicked out. Then Dave gave a harder prod. This the pony would not stand, and up he came with surprising agility. He tried to bolt, but Dave caught the saddle and clung there. They headed again eastward, away from the ranch.

"All right, now run for it, and keep it up as long as you please!" cried the boy, and urged the steed forward. Over the prairie the pony sped, as if he had just started in the race. Thus another mile was covered, and now Dave calculated he must be six or seven miles from Star Ranch. The country about him looked strange, and he wondered where he was. Nothing in the shape of a trail had come to view during the last run.

When the bronco stopped his racing, the youth turned him around again. He now showed signs of fatigue, but Dave urged him on, digging his knees into the animal's ribs as tightly as ever. Dave was almost "used up" himself, but he resolved to make the bronco take him back to the corral or die in the attempt.

"They shan't have the laugh on me," he argued. "It's back to the ranch or nothing!"

Dave steered the best course he could for the corral, but with nothing to guide him he did not know if he was moving exactly in the right direction or not. He kept on, with his eyes trying to look beyond the wide-stretching prairies.

Presently he saw in the distance what looked to be a row of low buildings. He headed in that direction, and then saw that the objects were moving towards him.

"They can't be buildings, for buildings don't move like that," he mused. "Must be cattle, or horses. Cattle, most likely."

To avoid the cattle, he turned slightly southward. But the animals kept coming closer, and now he saw that they were running in something of a semicircle.

"Can anything be wrong with them?" he asked himself, and watched the approaching herd with interest. The bronco, too, pricked up his ears, and gave a sudden snort of alarm.

Then to Dave's ears came the thunder of the herd's hoofs, and he saw that the cattle were on a mad run. He drew rein and stood up in his stirrups.

The sight that met his gaze was truly alarming. At least a thousand head of steers were coming toward him, running swiftly, and with their horns bent low.

"They have stampeded!" he gasped. "And they are coming straight this way! What shall I do to escape them?"