Ere five minutes were over the little party, greatly heartened up by finding this unexpected way out of their difficulties, started once more, Roy encouraging Tumbu, who, in truth, seemed to feel his task quite a light one, while Foster-father, in his relief and gratitude, allowed Down, the cat, to creep once more inside his fur coat. Her weight made him sink a little farther into the snow, but he was strong, and felt he could have done more for the sake of the children’s safety.
On and on they went, the frost film giving firmer foothold on the top of the pass, while the chill which always precedes dawn took away still more from the difficulty of Tumbu’s task. In fact, the curved scabbards slipped over the hard snow as if it had been ice.
[Illustration: Ahead of them, a shadow showed, a shambling shadow! Tumbu ... with a bound was off full tilt after it.]
So they went on till a glimmer of dawn showed them that the summit had been reached, the downward slope begun. But still, far and near, nothing but snow was to be seen. Then suddenly, ahead of them, a shadow showed, a shambling shadow! Tumbu stopped dead, sniffed, then with a bound was off full tilt after it, the sledge, with the two children in it, flying behind him!
For an instant the others were too much astonished to speak. Then Roy, with frantic cries to Tumbu to come back, was off after them. In vain! As he crested a little rise he saw by the growing light a big brown Isabelline bear shambling along contentedly, seeming to go no pace at all, yet gaining steadily on the sledge that was giving chase.
“I will follow as fast as I can!” panted the Rajput lad breathlessly, as Foster-father, Meroo, and Old Faithful, hampered by their greater weight, ran up. “It is a bear; but they cannot catch it—and Tumbu will tire—then he always comes back. Follow you on my tracks with the women.”
With that he was off like an arrow from a bow behind the bear, Tumbu, the sledge, the Heir-to-Empire and the Princess Bakshee Bani Begum, who by this time had all disappeared behind the hilly horizon.
IN THE VALLEY
Roy ran and ran and ran until he was breathless; yet still he ran, until little by little he recovered his breath again as wild animals do. Every moment he hoped to see Tumbu either returning or standing still, panting and waiting for the others to come up. But he saw nothing save, stretching away as far as the eye could reach, a smooth, not over steep, snowy slope. So far there was little fear of the sledge being overset.
Then, after he had run a long way, he paused, for there were now two tracks instead of one. The marks of the bear went up a little side valley, the marks of the sledge went down the slope. What could have happened? Had Tumbu in his haste missed the bear’s trail? That was not likely. Having come so far, had he determined to go on? That was not likely either, unless the children had urged him forward. Knowing Mirak’s bold, adventurous spirit, this seemed possible, and Roy’s heart sank; but he started off running again, knowing that no matter what had happened he must follow his little master, and follow fast.