For the Liberty of Texas/Chapter 13
A FIGHT WITH A PUMA.
"By George! Something is wrong now!"
It was Dan who uttered the words, as he again drew rein, followed by Ralph. They had passed along a distance of less than quarter of a mile, and the end of the forest was still a goodly distance ahead.
A fierce howling had arisen, followed by a snarling and a snapping which caused the hearts of both boys to beat violently. The mustangs trembled, and acted as if they wished to turn and run.
"It's a wildcat or a painter, or something, and he's got into a fight with the wolves," continued Dan, as he strained his ears to catch the sounds of the encounter. "They are having a lively tussle, aren't they?"
"Let them fight it out," answered Ralph, with something of a shudder. "I hope they all kill each other, too," he added.
The howling and snapping and snarling continued for several minutes, then gradually died away in the distance. Still listening, they heard some large beast trailing through the brush to one side of them. They turned in the direction, and levelled their guns, but the animal did not show itself.
Darkness was now coming on, and the boys wished themselves safe at the ranch. It was one thing to ride through the timber in the daylight; it was quite another to do so at night, and especially when the wild animals were on the move.
"The worst of it is, one wild beast sets the other to fighting," said Dan.
"And it's so dark a fellow can't see fifty feet ahead of him."
What to do was indeed a question, but neither of the lads wished to remain in the timber all night, and, after another consultation, they decided to rush their ponies along until the next burn was gained.
"If we go fast enough, no wild animal will have time to organise an attack," said Ralph.
The wind was coming up, setting the dying leaves to scattering in all directions. As the wind increased, the boughs of the trees swayed violently over their heads.
Suddenly Dan, who was ahead, set up a shrill cry of alarm. He had seen two eyes glaring down at him from the branches of a tree he was just passing. He tried to pull back his mustang, and on the same instant a huge puma, or, as he is commonly called in the southwest, a painter, landed almost directly on his pony's neck.
The attack was a fierce one, and had it not been for a lucky accident either Dan or his steed must have been killed within a few seconds, for the puma is a heavy-built and powerful beast, and its bite, or a stroke of its huge paw, is generally meant to be deadly.
But, as mentioned before, Dan held his gun over his saddle, and as the painter came down the weapon went off, and the beast received the full charge in the upper part of his left shoulder. The wound did not kill him, or even seriously wound him, but it shocked and surprised the beast so much that he fell back, and tumbled to the ground.
"Oh, Dan, look out!" shrieked Ralph, and pulled in his own steed. Then, as his brother's mustang reared to one side, and the puma prepared to make a second leap, he endeavoured to get a bead on the beast.
The puma had struck on his back. Now he had turned over and was crouching down, like a cat getting ready to pounce upon a bird, his bushy tail sweeping the grass with quick, nervous motion.
Bang! Ralph's gun spoke up just as the painter was in the act of springing for Dan, and the shot took the beast in the stomach, making a jagged and ugly wound. Again the beast dropped back, uttering a mingled snarl of rage and pain. The snarl was exactly like that the boys had previously heard, and they felt that this must be the beast that had gotten into the fight with the wolves. Probably the wolves had gotten away from him, and this and the taste of their blood had angered him into making the present attack.
Both mustangs were now kicking and plunging, and the boys had all they could do to keep their seats. The steeds backed away from the wounded painter, and then Dan's mustang started to bolt. His course was under a tree with low branches, and in a second the youth was brushed from his back, and sent spinning to the ground.
Half stunned by his fall, Dan had yet sense enough left to know that he must get away at once or the painter would be on him to rend him to pieces. He leaped up, and as the fierce beast came on, grabbed the nearest tree limb, to which he clung with might and main.
"He's coming!" roared Ralph. "Pull yourself up!" And he started to reload with all possible speed, no light task while on the back of a mustang that was so nervous and inclined to bolt.
Dan was doing as advised, when the puma limped up, his eyes blazing with a fury which is indescribable. He did his best to make the leap, and his teeth struck one of Dan's boot heels. But the boy kicked him away and drew himself still higher, and for the moment was safe.
The wounds of the painter were now beginning to tell upon him, and he could scarcely suppress a whine of pain. But his savage nature was not yet conquered, and, unable to leap directly into the tree, he sprang for the trunk and came up, slowly but steadily. When he was opposite to where Dan lay, he paused, as if uncertain what should be his next move.
If the puma was undecided, so was the youth. If he leaped to the ground again he was certain the beast would follow him, and he had no desire to face the painter at such close quarters, especially as he had no weapon of any kind with him, unless the jack-knife in his pocket might be brought into play.
Ralph settled the question, both for his brother and the puma. As the mustang refused to come closer, the youngest Radbury slipped to the earth and ran up directly under the bough upon which Dan rested. At this point he could get a fair view of the painter, and once more he blazed away, aiming for the beast's neck and head.
Ralph's shot was all that could be wished for, and it was lucky that, having fired, he leaped back, for, the instant after, the painter came tumbling down, with a thud that fairly shook the earth. The shock also brought down Dan, who landed just in front of the beast and lost no time in retreating to his brother's side.
"Good for you, Ralph!"
"Look out, he's not dead yet!" answered Ralph. "See, he is going to make another leap!"
But in this the youngest Radbury was mistaken. Fatally wounded, the painter was merely endeavour ing to get up on his legs, that he might crawl into the bushes. He stood for a moment, then stum bled and fell flat. Twice did he try thus to rise, then with a final whining growl he lay out, stretched himself, and gave a quiver or two—and all was over.
"He's dead," said Ralph, when he could collect himself sufficiently to speak. He was trembling like a leaf in a gale of wind.
"Don't be too sure,—they are as tough as a pine-knot," answered Dan. "Load up again," and he picked up his own gun, which had fallen when he was thrown from his saddle.
But the puma was dead, beyond a doubt, and they gradually drew closer to inspect the beast they had brought down. He was at least four feet long, and correspondingly tall and heavy, with a powerful tail and a rather small head. His colour was of a tawny tint, fading out to a dirty white between the limbs. The tip of the tail was black.
"He's a big fellow," remarked Ralph. "I wish we could get that skin home. It would make a splendid rug."
"That's true, Ralph, but do you want to stay here long enough to skin him?"
"No. But maybe we can tie him up in the tree and come back for him to-morrow or next day."
This was decided upon, and then Dan set about catching his mustang. The pony had run to a considerable distance, but he knew Dan's whistle well, and after this was repeated several times he came back timidly, although he would not go within a hundred feet of the dead puma.
Ralph carried a lariat, and this was tied to the dead beast and the carcass was swung to the breeze, so that the other beasts of prey might not get at it.
"Of course the vultures and hawks may attack him, but that can't be helped," said Dan.
The work finished, they lost no time in continuing on their way, riding rapidly, and keeping their eyes and ears on the alert as before. But nothing else happened to alarm them, and shortly before midnight they came within sight of the cabin.
"Home, sweet home!" cried Ralph. "I'll tell you I am glad to be back."
"And so am I," added Dan. "No more fights with a painter for me."
Pompey Shuck had heard them coming, and now ran out with a lantern to take care of the horses, just as he had been in the habit of doing for his master in Georgia, years before.
"I'se dun glad to see yo' back," he said, with a broad smile on his ebony face. "Did de sodgers git away?"
"Yes, they are off for San Antonio," replied Dan. And then he told of the adventure in the timber.
"A painter!" gasped Pompey. "I declar' to gracious, Mars' Dan, yo' an Mars' Ralph dun gittin to be reg'lar hunters, he! he! I'se glad dat beast didn't cotch dis chile!"
"I'm not anxious to hunt any more, at least for the present," said Ralph, soberly. "I'll go back for that skin, and then I'm going to work around the ranch, and wait for news from father and the army."