The act was tinder to powder. The boys gave rowel to their mounts, shook out their ropes, raised the long yell, and started the loose horses in a mad dash for home. It was ten long miles to headquarters, and their mounts, already fagged by carrying heavy saddles and the day’s work, were none too fresh, while the Indians rode bareback and were not encumbered by an ounce of extra clothing.
The boys led the race by fully five hundred yards. But instead of taking to the divide, the Indians bore down the valley, pursued and pursuers in plain sight of each other. For the first mile or so the loose horses were no handicap, showing clean heels and keeping clear of the whizzing ropes. But after the first wild dash, the remuda began to scatter, and the Indians gained on the cavalcade, coming fairly abreast and not over four hundred yards distant.
“They’re riding to cut us off!” gasped Dell. “They’ll cut us off from headquarters!”
“Our horses will outwind their ponies,” shouted Joel, in reply. “Don’t let these loose horses turn into the valley.”
The divide was more difficult to follow than the creek. The meanderings of the latter were crossed and recrossed without halting, while the watershed zigzagged, or was broken and cut by dry washes and coulees, thus retarding the speed of the cavalcade. The race wore on with varying advantage, and when near halfway to headquarters, the Indians turned up the slope as if to verify Dell’s forecast. At this juncture, a half-dozen of the loose horses cut off from the band and turned down the slope in plain sight of the pursuers.
[Illustration: THE FIRST ROUND-UP OF THE DAY]
“If it’s horses they want, they can have those,” shouted Joel. “Climbing that slope will fag their ponies. Come on; here’s where we have the best of it.”
The Indians were not to be pacified. Without a look they swept past the abandoned horses. The boys made a clear gain along a level stretch on the divide, maintaining their first lead, when the pursuers, baffled in cutting them off, turned again into the valley.
“It isn’t horses they want,” ventured Dell, with a backward glance.
“In the next dip, we’ll throw the others down the western slope, and ride for our lives,” answered Joel, convinced that a sacrifice of horses would not appease their pursuers.
The opportunity came shortly, when for a few minutes the brothers dipped from sight of the Indians. The act confused the latter, who scaled the divide, only to find the objects of their chase a full half-mile in the lead, but calling on the last reserve in their fagged horses. The pursuers gradually closed the intervening gap; but with the advantage of knowing every foot of the ground, the brothers took a tack which carried them into the valley at the old winter corral. From that point it was a straight stretch homeward, and, their horses proving their mettle, the boys dashed up to the stable, where Sargent was found at work among the other horses.