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   Chapter 2 BETWEEN TWO FIRES.

The Motor Rangers Through the Sierras By John Henry Goldfrap Characters: 13548

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


Snarling in very much the manner of an angry cat, the lion, which had appeared at the mouth of the cave, began to come forward more rapidly. At the same instant, as if by mutual consent, his mate started to advance from the rear of the cave. It was evident that if they did not wish to be seriously injured, perhaps killed, the Motor Rangers would have to act, and act quickly.

But what were they to do? Nat it was who solved the question. The floor of the cave was littered with boulders of various sizes, ranging from stones of a pound or so in weight, up to huge rocks beyond a boy's power to lift.

Stooping down swiftly Nat selected a stone a little larger than a baseball, and then throwing himself into a pitching posture, awaited the oncoming cougar, approaching from the cave mouth.

The boy had been the best pitcher the Santa Barbara Academy had ever produced, and his companions saw in a flash that he meant to exercise his skill now in a way of which he had little dreamed when on the diamond. His hand described an evolution in the air, far too quick to be followed by the eye. The next instant the stone left his grasp, and swished through the atmosphere.

Straight and true it sped to its mark.

And it struck home none too quick. The lion had already crouched for a spring on the defenseless lads, who stood between himself and his mate, when Nat's missile was discharged.

Crack!

The sharp noise of the stone's impact with the skull of the crouching feline sounded like a rifle shot.

"Bull's-eye!" yelled Joe excitedly.

And bull's-eye it was. The rock had a sharp edge which Nat, in his haste, had not noticed. As it struck the lion's head it did so with the keen surface foremost. Like a knife it drove its way into the skull and the lion, with a howl of pain and fury, turned, stumbled forward a few paces, and then rolled over.

Before the others could stop him, Ding-dong Bell, entirely forgetting the other lion, dashed forward to examine the fallen monster. The result of his action was that his career came very near being terminated then and there. The cougar had only been stunned, and as the stuttering boy gave one of its ears a tug, it leaped erect once more and struck a blow at him with its chisel-like claws that would have torn him badly had they struck.

But Ding-dong, though deliberate in his speech, was quick in action. He leaped backward like an acrobat, as he saw the mighty muscles tauten for action, and so escaped being felled by the blow. He could feel it "swish" past his nose, however, and entirely too close to be pleasant.

In the meantime, Nat, realizing that his best move would be to get to their arms, had made a flying leap for the auto and seized an automatic rifle of heavy calibre. As Ding-dong leaped back he aimed and fired, but in the darkness he missed, and with a mighty bound the wounded cougar leaped out of the cave and dashed off through the storm into the brush on the hillside above.

"One!" exclaimed Nat, like Monte Cristo in the play.

The others gave a low laugh. They could afford not to worry so much now. True, there was one of the cougars still back in the cave, but with their rifles in their hands the lads had little to fear.

"I felt for a minute, though, like I did that time the Mexican devil sprang on me near the gulf village," said Nat, recalling one of his most perilous moments in Lower California.

But there was little time for conversation. Nat had hardly uttered his last remark before the cougar at the rear of the cave began to give signs that it too was meditating an attack. There are few animals that will not fight desperately when cornered, even a rat making a formidable foe sometimes under such conditions, and cornered the cougar unquestionably was.

"She's coming," warned Joe in a low voice, as a rumbling growl resounded above the roar of the storm outside.

"L-l-let her c-c-come," sputtered Ding-dong defiantly.

"Better climb into the car, boys," said Nat in a whispered tone, "we can get better aim from an elevation."

Accordingly they clambered into the tonneau of the motor vehicle, and kneeling on the seat awaited the onslaught which they knew must come in a few seconds.

"I've half a mind to let her go, if we can without putting ourselves in danger," said Nat, "it doesn't seem fair somehow to shoot down a poor brute in cold blood."

"But that poor brute would attack you without hesitation if you lay injured on a trail," Joe reminded him; "these cougars, too, kill hundreds of sheep and young calves, just for the sheer love of killing, for half of what they kill they never touch."

"That's right," agreed Nat, "still fair play is a jewel, and--"

Further words were taken out of his mouth by something that occurred just at that instant, and settled the fate of the cougar then and there.

Ding-dong Bell, whose unlucky day it seemed to be, had, in his excitement, been leaning far over the back of the tonneau, peering into the darkness at the rear of the cave. He was trying to detect the shadowy outlines of the cougar. A few seconds before Joe Hartley had said:-

"Look out, Ding-dong, or you'll go overboard."

The stuttering youth's reply had been a scornful snicker. But now, however, he craned his neck just a bit too far. His upper quarters over-balanced his stumpy legs and body, and with a howl that rivalled the cougar's, he toppled clean over the edge of the tonneau.

The floor of the cave sloped steeply toward the rear, and when Ding-dong struck it he did not stop. Instead, the momentum lent him by his fall appeared to propel him forward down the sloping floor. He yelled for help as he felt himself rapidly and involuntarily being borne toward the hidden cougar.

By some mysterious combination of misfortune, too, the carbide in the lamp, which had not been renewed since they left Santa Barbara, gave out with a flicker and a fizz at this moment. The cave was plunged into almost total darkness. Nat's heart came into his throat as he realized that if the cougar was not killed within the next few seconds, Ding-dong's life might pay the forfeit.

"Good gracious!" shouted Joe above poor Ding-dong's cries, "how are we going to see to shoot?"

"Aim at the eyes," grated out Nat earnestly, "it's our only chance."

As he spoke there came an angry snarl and a hissing snort. It mingled with a shout of alarm from Ding-dong, who had now stopped rolling, but was not yet on his feet. The she-cougar had seen his peril and had taken the opportunity to bring down at least one of her enemies.

Straight up, as if impelled by a powerful steel spring, she shot. But even as she was in mid-spring two rifles cracked, and with a convulsive struggle the great tawny body fe

ll with a thud to the floor of the cave, clawing and scratching and uttering piercing roars and cries.

"Put her out of her misery," said Nat, as Ding-dong, having regained his feet, darted at the top of his speed for the mouth of the cave.

Once more the rifles blazed away at the two green points of fire which marked the wounded cougar's eyes. This time dead silence followed the reports, which reverberated deafeningly in the confines of the cave. There was no doubt but that the animal was dead. But where was Ding-dong?

His companion Motor Rangers looked anxiously about them, but could see nothing of him. In the excitement they had not noticed him dart by. Presently, however, a slight noise near the cave month attracted their attention. There was Ding-dong out in the rain, and drenched to the skin, peering into the cave.

"C-a-can I c-c-c-come in?" he asked hesitatingly.

"Yes, and hurry up, too," ordered Nat in as stern a voice as he could command. "Your first duty," he went on, "will be to dig down in the clothes chest and put on dry things. Then you will refill the lamps with carbide, which you ought to have done two days ago, and after that you may patch up the tear the wind made in our shelter hood."

"And-phwit-after that?" inquired Ding-dong with so serious an aspect that they had to laugh.

"I'll think up something to keep you out of mischief," said Nat finally.

While Ding-dong set about his tasks after investing himself in dry clothes, the others skinned the cougar and kindled a fire with some driftwood that lay about the cave. Hot coffee was then brewed, and some of the stores opened. After imbibing several cups of the steaming mixture, and eating numerous slices of bread and butter, the Motor Rangers felt better.

By this time, too, the storm had almost passed over, only a slight drizzle remaining to tell of the visit of the mountain tempest. An investigation of the cave failed to show any trace of a regular den in it, and the boys came to the conclusion, which was probably correct, that the cougars had merely taken to it for shelter from the storm. However that was, all three of them felt that they had had a mighty narrow escape. Ding-dong inwardly resolved that from that time on he would take care to have the lamps packed with carbide, for Nat's relation of how nearly the sudden cessation of the light had cost him his life gave the stuttering youth many qualms.

"I guess the storm is about over," said Joe, looking out of the cave while holding a tin cup of coffee in his hand.

"I see enough blue sky to m-m-m-make a pair of pants for every s-s-s-s-sailor in the navy," remarked Ding-dong, who had joined him.

"That's a sure sign of clearer weather," said Nat, "come on, boys, pack up the cups and get the car ready and we'll go ahead."

"Where are we going to stop to-night?" asked Joe. "I guess we can't be many miles from Lariat, can we?"

"I'll see," rejoined Nat, diving into his breast pocket and pulling out a map stoutly mounted on tough linen to prevent tearing. He pored over it for a moment.

"The map puts Lariat about fifteen miles from here," he said.

"What sort of a p-p-p-lace is it?" Ding-dong wished to know.

"A small post-office station," rejoined Nat. "I don't imagine that there is even a hotel there."

Ding-dong, who didn't object to the luxuries of life, sighed. Somehow, he had been looking forward to stopping at a hotel that night. He said nothing, however, well knowing how his complaints would be received.

The auto was soon moving out of the cave in which they had had so exciting an encounter. Nat was at the wheel and his two companions in the tonneau. The faces of all were as beaming as the weather had now turned out. These boys dearly loved the sensation of taking to the road and proceeding on into the unknown and adventurous.

The rough strip separating the road, as we must in courtesy call it, from the steep rock-face in which the cave lay, was speedily traversed and the auto's nose headed north. For some time they bowled along at a slow speed, the track growing rapidly rougher and rougher, till it seemed that nothing on wheels could get over it.

"What's the m-m-m-matter?" asked Ding-dong suddenly of Joe Hartley, who for a bumpy mile or two had sat with his head cocked on one side as if listening intently for something.

"I'm listening for a puncture," grinned Joe, resuming his posture of attention.

As the road grew rougher the walls of the valley began to close in. They grew more lofty as the pass grew narrower, till only a thin strip of blue sky showed at the summit. The rugged slopes were clothed with a sparse growth of pine timber and chaparral. Immense faces of rock cropped out among these. The whole scene had a wild and savage aspect.

Suddenly they reached a spot where the road took an abrupt dip downward. From the summit the descent looked as steep as the wall of a house. Fortunately, they carried an emergency brake, so that the steepness of the declivity did not alarm them. Without hesitating Nat allowed the car to roll over the summit and begin the drop. The exhilaration of the rapid motion made him delay applying his emergency just as soon as he should have, and the car had been running at considerable speed when there came a sudden shout from Joe:-

"Look, Nat! Look!"

The boy, who had been adjusting his spark lever, looked up suddenly. They were just rounding a curve, beyond which the road pitched down more steeply than ever.

At the bottom of the long hill stood an obstacle. Nat at a glance made it out as a stage coach of the old-fashioned "thorough-brace type." It was stationary, however, and its passengers stood about it in scattered groups, while, so far as Nat could see, no horses were attached to it.

"Better go slow. There seems to be something the matter down there at the bottom of the grade," the boy remarked.

At the same instant his hand sought the emergency brake lever and he pushed it forward.

There was a loud crack as he did so, and an alarmed look flashed across his face as the lever suddenly felt "loose" in his hand. The car seemed to give an abrupt leap forward and plunge on more swiftly than ever.

Below him Nat could see the scattered figures pointing upward excitedly. He waved and yelled to warn them that he had no control over the car which was tearing forward with the speed of the wind. The ordinary brake had no effect on it under the speed it had now gathered. Lurching and plunging like a ship at sea, it rushed onward.

Directly in its path, immovable as a rock, was the stage coach. All three of the Motor Rangers' bronzed, sunburned faces blanched as they rushed onward to what seemed inevitable disaster.

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