** transcription by Kent Fielden
THE PONY RIDER BOYS IN THE ROCKIES
BY FRANK GEE PATCHIN
THE LOVE OF A HORSE
"Oh, let me get up. Let me ride him for two minutes, Walter."
Walter Perkins brought his pony to a slow stop and glanced down hesitatingly into the pleading blue eyes of the freckle-faced boy at his side.
"Please! I'll only ride him up to the end of the block and back, and I won't go fast, either. Let me show you how I can ride him," urged Tad Butler, with a note of insistence in his voice.
"If I thought you wouldn't fall off——"
"I fall off?" sniffed Tad, contemptuously. "I'd like to see the pony that could bounce me off his back. Huh! Guess I know how to ride better than that. Say, Chunky, remember the time when the men from Texas had those ponies here—brought them here to sell?"
Chunky—the third boy of the group—nodded vigorously.
"And didn't I ride a broncho that never had had a saddle on his back but once in his life? Say, did I get thrown then?"
"He did that," endorsed Stacy Brown, who, because of his well-rounded cheeks and ample girth, was known familiarly among his companions as "Chunky." "I mean, he didn't. And he rode the pony three times around the baseball field, too. That broncho's back was humped up like a mad cat's all the way around. 'Course Tad can ride. Wish I could ride half as well as he does. You needn't be afraid, Walter."
Thus reassured by Chunky's praise, Walter dropped the bridle rein over the neck of his handsome new pony, and slid slowly to the ground.
"All right, Tad. Jump up! But don't hold him too tightly. He doesn't like it, and, besides, he has been trained to run when you tighten up on the rein, and father would not like it if we were to race him in the village."
"I'll be careful."
Tad Butler needed no second invitation to try out his companion's pony. With the agility of a cowboy, he leaped into the saddle without so much as touching a foot to the stirrup. In another second, with a slight pressure on the rein, he had wheeled the animal sharply on its haunches, and was jogging off up the street at an easy gallop, both boy and pony rising and falling in graceful, rhythmic movements, as if in reality each were a part of the other. Tad seemed born to stirrup and saddle.
Yet, true to his promise, the boy made no effort to increase the speed of his mount. Nor did he go beyoud the corner named. Instead, he circled and came galloping back, one hand resting lightly on the rein, the other swinging easily at his side.
As he neared the two boys, Tad checked his pony, but Walter motioned to him to continue. With a smile of keen appreciation, Tad shook out the reins, and pony and rider swung on down the village street.
The soft breeze bad by now fanned the bright color into the face of Thaddeus Butler, and his deep blue eyes glowed with excitement and pleasure; for, to him, there was no happiness so great as that to be found on the back of a swift-moving pony.
However, this was a pleasure that seldom came to Tad, for his lines had not fallen altogether in pleasant places. The boy was now seventeen, and from his twelfth birthday he had been almost the sole support of his mother. His time, out of school hours, was spent largely in doing odd jobs about the village where his services were in demand, and on Saturday afternoons and nights he delivered goods for a grocery store, for which latter service he earned the—to him—munificent sum of twenty-five cents. But all of this he accepted cheerfully and manfully. Now and then Tad was allowed to drive the grocer's wagon to the station for goods, and at such times his work was a positive recreation. Some day Tad hoped to have a horse of his own. He could imagine no more perfect happiness than this. He had determined, though, that when he did own one, it should be a saddle horse and a speedy one at that. Yet, at the present moment the realization of his ambition seemed indeed far away.
Walter Perkins was the son of a banker. He and Tad Butler had been born and brought up in the little village of Chillicothe, Missouri, where they still lived, and, despite the difference in their social positions, had been fast friends since they were little fellows.
Chunky was the son of a merchant in a small town in Massachusetts, and had been visiting an uncle in Chillicothe for nearly a year past.
Walter was a delicate boy, and, reared in luxury, as he had been all his life, he had sensed few of the delights of out-door life that were so apparent in the face of his nimble friend, Tad. It was this delicate physical condition that had brought about the gift of the pony. The family physician had advised it in order that the boy might have more out-door air, and on this May morning Walter had brought the pony out to show to his admiring friends.
"Tad's a good rider. Isn't he a beauty?" breathed Chunky, as they watched the progress of boy and horse down the street.
"Who, Tad?" asked Walter, absorbed in the contemplation of his new possession.
"Tad! Pooh! No; the pony, of course. I don't see anything very fetching about Tad, do you? But I should be willing to be as freckled as he is if I could stick on a pony's back the way he does."
"Yes, he does know how to ride," agreed Walter. "And, by the way, father is going to get a horse for Professor Zepplin, my tutor; then we are going off on long rides every day, after my lessons are done. The doctor says it will be good for me. Fine to have a doctor like that, isn't it?"
"Great! Wish I could go along."
"Why don't you?" asked Walter, turning quickly to his companion. "That would be just the idea. What great times we three could have, riding off into the open country! And we could go on exploring expeditions, too, and make believe we were cowboys and—and all that sort of thing."
Chunky shook his head dubiously. "I haven't a pony. But I wish I had. I should like to go so much," replied the boy wistfully.
"Then, why not ask your uncle to get one for you? He will do it, I know," urged Walter brightly, brimming over with his new plan. "Why, I'll ask him myself."
"Wouldn't he do it?"
"No. Uncle said I was too young, and that the first thing I would be doing would be to break my neck. If father was here and gave his permission, why, that would be different. Uncle said it would take my mind off my school, besides."
"School? Why, school will not last much longer. It is May, now, and school will be over early in June. That isn't long to wait. You go right home, Chunky, and tell your uncle you must have a pony. Tell him I said so. If he refuses, I'll have my father go ask him. He won't refuse my father anything he asks. My father is a banker and everybody does everything he wants them to, because he lends them money," advised Walter wisely.
"My—my uncle doesn't have to borrow money. He's got money of his own," bristled Chunky.
"Yes, that's so. But you go ask him. Tell him about my pony and that we are all going off for a ride every day. Say that Professor Zepplin will be along to take care of us. And say! I'll tell you what," added the boy eagerly.
"Yes?" urged Chunky.
"We will form ourselves into a club. Now, wouldn't that be great?"
"Fine!" glowed Chunky. "But, what kind of a club? They don't have horses in clubs."
"We shall, in this one. That is, we shall be the club, and the ponies will be our club-house. When we are on our ponies' backs we shall be in our club-house. Maybe we can get Ned Rector to join us. He knows how to ride—why, he rides almost as well as Tad."
Chunky nodded thoughtfully.
"What shall we call it? We must have some kind of a name for the club."
"I hadn't thought of that. I'll tell you what," exclaimed Walter, brightening, after a moment's consideration. "We will call ourselves the Rough Riders. That's what we will do, Chunky."
"Yes, but we are not rough riders," protested Chunky. "We are only beginners; that is, all of us except Tad, and he can't join us—just because he's too poor to have a horse. As for us—humph! We'd be rough riders only when we fell off!"
Walter laughed heartily.
"No," he admitted. "I guess we are not rough riders yet; but we may be some day, after we've learned to ride better. I can't think of any other name, can you?"
"We might call ourselves the Wild Riders," suggested Chunky.
"No, that won't do, either. It's as bad as the other name. Father'd never let me go out at all if we called ourselves the Wild Riders, because he would think it meant we were going to be too much like cowboys. I guess we shall have to think it over some more. But here comes Tad back. Suppose we ask him? He'll know what to call the club."
Tad reigned in alongside of them and pulled the pony up sharply, patting its sleek neck approvingly, still loath to dismount.
"It's great, fellows. Wish I had a pony like him."
"So do I," echoed Chunky.
"Why, you don't have to touch the reins at all. I could ride him without just as well as with them. All you have to do is to press your knee against his side and he will turn, just as if you were pulling on the rein. He's a trained pony, Walter. Did you know that?"
"That's what the man said when father bought him. Jo-Jo can walk on his hind legs, too. But father said I mustn't try to make him do any tricks, for fear I might get hurt."
"Hurt nothing! He wouldn't hurt a baby," objected Tad in the little animal's defence. "I'll show you—I won't hurt him, don't be afraid," he exclaimed leaping to the ground, stripping the rein over the animal's head and holding it at arm's length. "If he knows how to stand up I can make him do it. I've seen them do that in the circus. Let me have your whip."
"I don't know about that," answered Walter doubtfully. "Yes, you may try," he decided finally, extending the whip that he had been idly tapping against his legging. "But don't hit him, will you?"
"Not I," grinned the freckle-faced boy, leading the pony further out into the street. "He doesn't need to be struck."
Tad first coaxed the pony by patting it gently on the side of the head, to which the intelligent animal responded by brushing his cheek softly with its nose.
"See, he knows a thing or two," cried Tad. "Now, watch me!"
Standing off a few feet, the boy tapped the animal gently under the chin with the whip.
"Up, Jo-Jo! Up!" he urged, lifting the whip into the air insistently. At first, Jo-Jo only swished his tail rebelliously, shaking his head until the bit rattled between his teeth.
But Tad persisted, gently yet firrnly urging with voice and whip. Jo-Jo meanwhile pawed the dirt up into a cloud of dust that settled over the boys, finally causing a chorus of sneezes, until Tad felt sure he observed a twinkle of amusement in the eyes of the knowing little animal.
"Up, Jo-Jo!" he commanded almost sternly, bringing the whip sharply against the side of his own leg.
The pony, recognizing the voice of a master, hesitated no longer. Half folding its slender forelegs back, it rose slowly, up and up.
"Walter Perkins and Stacy Brown broke into a cheer. But Tad, never for an instant removing his gaze from Jo-Jo, held up a warning hand, leaned slightly forward and fixed the pony with impelling eyes.
Then Tad backed away slowly. To the amazement of the others, Jo-Jo, balancing himself beautifully on his hind legs, followed his new-found master in short, cautious steps, the animal's head now high in the air, its nostrils dilated, and every nerve strained to the task in hand.
"Beautiful," breathed Walter and Chunky in chorus.
"He's a regular brick," added Chunky.
"How'd you do it, Tad!"
Before replying, the boy lowered the whip to his side, motioning to the pony that his task was done. Jo-Jo dropped quickly on all fours, and, walking up to Tad, rubbed his nose against the lad's cheek again.
"Good boy," soothed Tad, returning the caress, his eyes swimming with happiness.
But as Tad stepped back Jo-Jo insistently followed, alternately pushing his nose against the boy's face and tugging at his shirt.
"He wants to do it again, Tad," cried Chunky, enthusiastically.
The freckle-faced boy grinned knowingly.
"Got any sugar, Walter?" he asked.
Walter thrust a hand into a trousers pocket, bringing up a handful of lumps that were far from being their natural color. But Tad grabbed them, and an instant later Jo-Jo's quivering upper lip had closed greedily over the handful of sweets.
"That's what the little rascal wanted," breathed Tad with a pleased smile. "I could teach that pony to do 'most anything but talk, fellows. I'm not so sure that he couldn't do that in his own way, after a little time. What did you give for him?"
"Father paid the man a hundred and fifty dollars."
Tad uttered a long-drawn whistle; his face sobered. It was more money than he ever had seen at one time in his life. Would he ever have as much as that? The freckle-faced boy doubted it.
"We fellows were talking about getting up a club," spoke up Walter.
"Club? What kind of a club?" asked Tad absently.
"Oh, some sort of a riding club. Chunky is going to ask his uncle to buy him a pony; then we are going out with my tutor on long rides in the country.
Tad eyed them steadily.
"Somehow we can't just decide on the name for the new club. I thought maybe we would call ourselves the Bough Riders. Chunky doesn't like that name. We had an idea that, perhaps, you could give us one. What do you say, Tad?"
"Chunky's uncle is going to get him a pony?" asked Tad a bit unsteadily.
"We hope so," nodded Walter. "And that's not all. We are going to get Ned Rector to join the club. He already has a pony. Wish you might come in with us, Tad."
"Wish I might," answered Tad wistfully.
"Of course, we know you can't really, but you belong to us just the same. You can be a sort of—of honorary member. We will let you ride our ponies sometimes when we are in town, though, of course, when we go out for long trips we can't take you along very well. You understand that, don't you, Tad?"
Tad inclined his head.
"And now about the name. Got anything to suggest?"
The freckle-faced boy walked over to the pony and laid his cheek against its nose, which he patted softly, his head averted so that the others might not see the pain in his eyes.
"You—you might call yourselves 'The Pony Rider Boys,'" suggested Tad, controlling his voice with an effort.
THE PONY RIDER BOYS' CLUB ORGANIZBD
The Pony Rider Boys, as a club, met for the purpose of organization, with headquarters under a tent in Banker Perkins's orchard. It was the tent in which Walter, under orders from the family physician, had been sleeping during the spring. Over the entrance the boys pinned a strip of canvas on which they had printed in red letters, "Headquarters Pony Rider Boys' Club."
"Now they will know who we are," explained Walter, standing off to view their handiwork. "You see, people can read that from the street. Everybody who passes will see it."
"Yes," replied Ned Rector, who already had been enrolled as a charter member. "But I hope they won't think it's a blacksmith shop over here, and drive in to get their horses shod."
The boys laughed heartily.
"The next question is, whom shall we have for president of the club?" asked Walter. "I suppose we ought to elect one to-day so we can be regularly organized."
"Yes, that's so," agreed Chunky. "What's the matter with having Tad Butler for president? He knows all about horses, even if he has none himself."
"But he's not a member of the club," objected Ned.
"No," agreed Walter, "but I had thought we might make him an honorary member. We ought to take him in, someway, for I know he's anxious to join us."
"Then, I would suggest that we organize first," advised Ned, who possessed some slight knowledge of parliamentary law. "You can choose one of us for temporary chairman, and then we will go ahead and form our organization just like a regular club."
"That's a good plan. Will you be the chairman, Ned?"
"No, Walt. I think I should prefer to be on the floor, where I can talk. Neither the chairman nor president has the right to argue, you know. I'm afraid I shouldn't be of much use to the club if I couldn't talk," laughed Ned. "I propose Mr. Stacy Brown, otherwise known as 'Chunky, ' for temporary chairman. Chunky is fat, and can appear very dignified when he wants to, even if he doesn't feel that way."
"That's the idea," agreed Walter.
"Now, all in favor of Mr. Chunky Brown for presiding officer of the first meeting of the Pony Rider Boys manifest it by saying 'Aye.'"
Ned and Walter voted in the affirmative.
"All opposed, say 'Nay.'"
"Nay!" voted Chunky in a loud voice.
"The Ayes have it. Mr. Stacy Chunky Brown has been duly chosen temporary chairman of the Pony Rider Boys. Mr. Chairman, will you please take the chair and call this meeting to order?" invited Ned Rector, escorting Stacy to a chair which had been placed at one end of the tent for the purpose of receiving him.
Chunky sank into the seat, gazing helplessly about him.
"Well?" urged Ned.
"Do something," laughed Walter.
"Yes, but what shall I do?"
"Call the meeting to order, of course. What do you think we elected you for? Not to sit up there and look pretty. Call it to order."
"Help!" pleaded Ned Rector, weakly. "See here, that's not the way to do it. Is this the first time you have presided at a meeting?"
Chunky, by a nod, informed them that it was.
"Humph!" grunted Ned witheringly. "Then say after me, 'I now call the meeting of the Pony Rider Boys to order. What is your pleasure, gentlemen?'"
The chairman haltingly repeated the words.
"Now, that's the way to do it," approved Ned. "I shouldn't be surprised to see you President of the United States some day. I now move, Mr. Chairman, that Tad Butler be made an honorary member of the club, as well as riding master and manager of the live stock."
"Second the motion," added Walter quickly.
The motion was carried with much enthusiasm. Then the club voted to make Chunky Brown its permanent presiding officer, and this in spite of the winner's vigorous objections. Walter was made treasurer because, as Ned expressed it, Walter's father was a bank president. Ned Rector was chosen secretary.
"I now move," proposed Ned Rector, "that this club direct its secretary to write to the uncle of its president, pointing out to him the advisability of providing a pony for said president to ride; said president being so heavy as to make walking to the meetings of this club a burden to himself and to the club members who have to wait for him."
This motion was adopted with a shout of laughter.
After having directed the secretary, at his own suggestion, to notify Tad Butler of his election, the club adjourned to meet on the following morning for field practice. In other words, the club's two ponies, with Walter Perkins and Ned Rector upon them, were to be taken out for exercise about the village and in nearby roads.
The next day being Saturday, Tad Butler found himself too busy to devote much time to brooding over his troubles. As a matter of fact, the boy was little given to this sort of thing; he was too much a man. His was a wholesome, confident nature, and the same indomitable courage and determination that had enabled him to stand next to the head of his class in the high school filled him with a resolution to possess a pony of his own. Nor did he permit the receipt of a letter that morning, informing him of his honorary election to the Pony Riders Club, to cast him down, even though, for want of a pony, he could not enter into full membership.
Instead, with flashing eyes, his clean-cut jaw set more firmly than usual, Tad went about his duties of the day cheerfully, his active mind running over this and that plan through which he might possibly gratify his longings.
Late that same afternoon, on his way driving out to deliver a package of goods to a summer residence just outside the town, he came upon Walter and Ned, returning on their ponies from a short jaunt into the country.
The two boys hailed him joyously.
Tad grinned and waved his hand.
"Hello! Aren't you going to stop to tali with a fellow?" called Ned, as the riders came abreast of the grocery horse and pulled up.
Tad shook his head.
"Oh, come on; hold up a minute."
"Can't. I'm on business, you know," answered the boy, smiling pleasantly. "I am working all day to-day for Mr. Langdon, and I mustn't stop. I have a lot of goods to deliver before night."
"Then what do you say to our riding out and back with him, Walt?" suggested Ned.
"All right. I guess we shall have plenty of time to do that and get back for supper. Tad won't stay long. He's in too big a hurry," answered the banker's son, bringing his pony about, and galloping up beside the wagon, which had continued on its way during the conversation.
This gave Tad an opportunity to gaze admiringly at the sleek ponies on which the boys were mounted, as well as at the nickel trimmings of bridles and saddles, which glistened brightly in the sunlight.
"Wish you had him, don't you?" laughed Ned, noting Tad's gaze fixed on his own well-groomed mount.
To Ned's surprise, Tad shook his head negatively.
"Mean to tell me you don't want a pony like this?"
"I didn't say so, Ned. No, I wouldn't say that, because it isn't true. You asked me if I didn't wish I had him. Of course, I want a pony more than anything else in the world. But I want my own, not yours. That is different, you see. Much as I want one, I don't covet either yours or Walt's."
"Well, you are a funny fellow. I never did understand you," marveled Ned. "But, I guess he's about right, eh, Walter? Don't you think so!"
"Yes. And I have been thinking, since our meeting yesterday, that perhaps it might be fixed. I wasn't going to say anything about it," answered Walter, meditatively.
"Thinking about what?" demanded Ned.
"About Tad's not having a horse, and no way to get one. I tell you, it's mighty tough——"
"Well, he is a member of the club, and as fellow members of the Pony Riders, we are bound to stand by one another."
"That's right," agreed Ned. "That's what we're going to do, too. But what are you getting at, Walt?"
Tad's blue eyes were fixed inquiringly on Walter's face. He, too, was at a loss to understand what it was that his delicate young friend was planning. Still, he would not ask, knowing full well that it was of him they were thinking.
"Simply this. Tad has got to have a pony."
Ned uttered a long-drawn whistle, while the boy on the grocery wagon suddenly straightened up.
"I agree with you there, Walt," Ned remarked. "Yet, how is he going to get one? That's what I should like to know—and it's a question that the Pony Riders will have a hard time in answering. Now, it is different with Chunky. Chunky's uncle has money. He can well afford to buy his nephew a pony. When I went to ask him to-day he said he would see about it. That means Chunky will have one."
"Why do you think that?"
"Because my father is a lawyer, and he says when a fellow doesn't know his own mind, you can make him agree to 'most any old thing," answered Ned with a laugh.
By this time they had reached their destination. Though keenly interested in the conversation of his companions Tad leaped to the ground, tying his horse without an instant's delay, and proceeded to the house to deliver his merchandise.
The boys watched him disappear around the corner of the house before resuming their conversation.
"I'll tell you, now," began Walter. "I didn't want to explain before him. Tad is the best rider in town, you know, Ned——"
"Next to me," added Ned humorously.
"Yes, next ahead. And he is the second best scholar in the high school. Nothing could stop him from heading the class if he had the time to devote to his studies, so Professor Zepplin tells me. I like him, Ned——"
"Since he fished you out of the mill pond, when you fell through the ice there last winter, eh!"
"Yes, partly. But, I liked him just as well before that. Do you know," continued Walter after a moment of silence, "I never told my father that Tad did that for me?"
"You didn't? Why not?" asked Ned, his face reflecting his surprise.
"Because Tad made me promise I wouldn't. He's such a modest chap that he didn't want father to thank him, even. So I never did——"
"He is a queer lad——"
"That is, I did not until last night," corrected Walter thoughtfully.
"Oh! Then you told him? What did he say?" questioned Ned, now keenly interested in the narration.
"He said Tad was a brave boy, and that he wanted to do something for him. I told him there was one thing he could do that would please me, at the same time making Tad the happiest boy in Chillicothe—yes, happier than any other boy in the state of Missouri."
"Father laughed and asked me what it was that Tad desired so much." Walter glanced up at his companion, a queer smile playing about his lips.
"Well, what did you tell him!"
"That Tad wanted a pony."
The boys gazed into each other's eyes.
"Good for you," breathed Ned. "You are the right sort, even if you are weak. I always said you were. But did your father say he would get Tad a pony?"
"Well, not exactly. He wanted to know how I thought Tad could take care of a pony when he got it—said the boy would have no place to keep it, nothing to feed it on——"
"Yes, that's so."
"But, I told him Tad might stable his pony with Jo-Jo in our barn."
"Sure thing. That's fine. Did he agree?"
"He said for me to bring Tad in to see him."
"But you did not?"
"No; I haven't had a chance. I'm going to try to get him to stop on the way back, if he will. All three of us will stop off at the bank Father usually stays late on Saturdays to go over the books all by himself——"
Further conversation was interrupted by the return of Tad. Acting upon a knowing look from Walter, Ned maintained a discreet silence on the subject. And, if Tad's keen glance, which searched their faces, as he clambered aboard the grocery wagon, gave him the slightest inkling as to what they had been discussing, he made no effort further to gratify his curiosity.
"What are you going to do when you get back, Tad?" asked Walter by way of directing the conversation to the subject of which he was at that moment so full.
"Going back to the store. Why?"
"Oh, nothing much. Father wanted you to step in some time this afternoon," answered Walter as carelessly as he could.
"He wishes to talk with you about something. You can stop off as we go by. It will take only a few minutes of your time."
Tad shook his head emphatically. Nothing could deter him from doing what he considered was his full duty to his employer.
"Then I shall go over to the store with you myself and see Mr. Langdon," announced Walter firmly. After that, the conversation drifted into a discussion of the respective merits of the two ponies that Ned and Walter were riding.
Arriving at the store, Walter dismounted, and, tossing the reins to Ned, ran up the steps into the store, while Tad began methodically to haul the market baskets from the wagon, piling them together on the sidewalk.
In a moment Walter came hurrying out.
"It's all right," he called from the top step. "Mr. Langdon says hitch your horse here, while you go over with me to see father."
"Very well," replied Tad, as, with evident reluctance, he followed his friend to the hank, half a block up the street.
Mr. Perkins greeted his young guest with marked courtesy.
"Walter delayed telling me of your heroic conduct in saving his life until last night, Thaddeus. I am sorry. But, according to the old saying, 'it is never too late to mend.' Therefore, I want to thank you now."
Mr. Perkins grasped the lad's hands in a firm grip, while Tad, hiding his embarrassment as best he could, gazed with steady eyes into the face of the banker.
"I'm sorry he told you, sir. I just pulled him out — that was all."
The banker laughed.
"Yes, fortunately that was all. But there surely would have been more if you had not, Walter would have drowned. How you managed to get him out, without both of you going down, is more than I can understand."
"He dived in and swam out with me," Walter informed him.
"Quite so. And you wished my son to say nothing about it?" added the banker with a twinkle in his eyes, not wholly lost on the boy who was standing so rigidly before him, steeling himself to the most trying ordeal he ever had experienced.
"I did, sir."
"Walter respected your wishes in the matter. But something came up last evening that induced him to make a clean breast of the whole affair. And I am very glad he did so."
"Walter tells me you are a great lover of animals, especially horses."
"I am more fond of them, sir, than of anything else in the world, save my mother," answered the boy, his eyes growing bright.
"And he also has told me about this new club of which I most heartily approve. It will be an excellent thing for Walter. But of course you will not he able to go out with the boys, not having a pony of your own."
"No, sir," answered Tad in a firm voice.
"I take it you would be very happy to be able to join them on their outings?"
"Indeed I should, Mr. Perkins."
"Well," glowed the banker, "at Walter's suggestion I have arranged it so that in the future you shall not be denied this pleasure. Do you happen to know where there are any ponies for sale at this moment?"
"Yes, sir. They have several at the McCormick farm about three miles from town. They are very fine ponies, too, sir. One of them, I think, would make an excellent mate for Jo-Jo, if you are considering getting another one for Walter to drive or ride."
"No, I was not thinking of doing that at present. I will tell you what I propose to do, however."
"I propose to send you out to the McCormicks' this afternoon, if you can spare the time. When you reach there you will pick out what you consider is the best pony in the lot, and bring him back to town. They will let you have him upon presentation of the letter I shall give you before you leave," smiled the banker.
"I—I don't quite understand, sir. I—I— what is it you wish me to do with the pony?" stammered Tad.
Banker Perkins rose, laying a hand on the boy's shoulder.
"Take him home with you—he is yours, Tad."
A sudden rush of color flashed into the face of Tad Butler and crept up to the roots of his hair, his eyes holding those of the hanker in an unflinching gaze.
"I—am sorry, sir; but I cannot accept it."
"What?" exclaimed Mr. Perkins.
"I thank you very much. Believe me, I do. But I could not accept a gift like that from you. You will understand me, won't you? I couldn't—I couldn't do it; that's all."
"I do, my lad. I understand you perfectly," answered the hanker slowly, grasping the lad's hand and gripping it until Tad winced.
"Thank you," murmured Tad, backing from the room, with as much composure as he was able to muster.
Reaching the street, the boy clenched his fingers until the nails dug into the palms of his hands. Then, with shoulders erect, he strode rapidly off down the street to continue his duties at the grocery store.
TAD GOES INTO BUSINESS
After supper, that night, Banker Perkins strolled leisurely across town to the cottage occupied by Tad Butler and his mother. The house lay on the outskirts of the village, surrounded by half an acre of ground, part of which the boy tilled, keeping the little family in vegetables a great part of the year. The rest of the plot had been seeded down, and was now covered with a bright green carpet of new clover.
Tad, being busy at the grocery store that night, did not return home for his supper, so that the banker's visit was all unknown to the boy who was going stoically about his duties over in the village. Yet, in his clear eyes there was nothing of regret at his own refusal to permit the desire of his life to be gratified.
Mr. Perkins remained at the cottage for nearly an hour and a half, and a quiet smile might have been observed hovering about his lips as he bade good-night to Mrs. Butler, whose countenance reflected something of his own satisfaction.
"I will attend to the matter on Monday morning," were his parting words, at which Mrs. Butler bowed and withdrew into the cottage.
All unmindful of the important conference, Tad returned home at ten o'clock. His mother was awaiting him. She greeted him with a hearty embrace and a kiss, which the boy returned with no less fervor.
"I have a nice, warm supper ready for you, Tad," she informed him. "You must have a man's appetite by this time, for you have had hardly anything to eat since your breakfast."
"It does put an appetite into a fellow, riding behind a horse, even if it is an old lame one," laughed Tad.
"I really believe you would find pleasure in driving a wooden horse, such as I have seen in harness shops," smiled Mrs. Butler. "You are so like your grandfather. He would miss a meal at any time for the sake of driving a horse or talking horse with a friend."
"Father didn't care so much about them, did he?"
"No, your father was not particularly interested in horses. He was in too poor health to be able to handle them after he reached a position where he might have afforded such a luxury."
Tad nodded reflectively.
"And you still want a pony, do you, my son?" asked Mrs. Butler, leaning forward with a twinkle in her eyes. But the boy's gaze was fixed steadily on his plate and he failed to note the expression.
"Yes, I do, mother. However, I don't allow myself to think much about it. I have got to take care of you, first. After I have made enough so that you can get along, then I shall have a horse. But not until then."
"Perhaps you may have one sooner than you know," breathed the mother, veiling her eyes with her hands, that he might not read what was plainly written there.
Tad shot a keen glance at her, then resumed his supper in silence.
The subject was not again referred to between them, and on Monday afternoon Tad Butler was again at the grocery store, prepared for work should there be any for him.
Mr. Langdon, the proprietor, was talking with one of the men from his farm just outside the village.
"You say the old mare is unfit for further service, Jim?"
"What do you advise doing with her?"
"Very well, take the old mare out in the swamp and put her out of her misery," directed Mr. Langdon after he had thought a moment.
"I beg pardon, Mr. Langdon," interrupted Tad Butler, who had been an interested listener to the interview.
"Yes, Tad; what is it?"
"Is it old Jinny that you are speaking of, if I may ask?"
"It is," smiled the grocer, good-naturedly.
"What's the trouble with her?"
"Trouble?" sniffed the farm-hand." Jinny's got the heaves that bad she blows like a blacksmith's bellows. Why, sometimes she even coughs the oats out of her manger before she's had the chance to eat them. And that ain't all that ails her, either. I——"
"Why do you ask, Tad?" said Grocer Langdon.
"What will you take for Jinny?" inquired the boy, the color flaming to his face as a bold plan suddenly occurred to him.
"Why, what could you do with an old, broken-down animal like that?"
"I don't know. But I should like to make a bargain with you——"
"Of course if you want her you may have her, provided you get her off the premises at once," answered the grocer." She'll die on our hands presently, anyhow."
"No; I don't want the mare that way. But, I'll tell you what I will do, Mr. Langdon."
"I will clean out your store every morning for a month in payment for the mare. Yes, I will make it two months. If two months is not long enough, I will work for you longer."
"Oh, very well. The mare's not worth it. However, if you wish to have it that way I am sure I ought to be satisfied," laughed the grocer.
"Then, will you write on a piece of paper that the mare is sold to me, and that I am to clean out the store every morning in payment for her?" asked Tad.
"Certainly, if you wish it. I wish you luck," smiled Mr. Langdon, handing the agreement over the counter after he had prepared it.
With the precious document in his pocket, Tad Butler sped homeward as fast as his legs could carry him. Mrs. Butler saw him coming and wondered what the boy's haste might mean.
"I've got a horse! I've got a horse!" shouted Tad, vaulting the fence lightly and bounding up the steps. "I surely have a horse at last, mother."
Grasping his mother about the waist with both arms, Tad whirled her dizzily, the full length of the porch and back, finally dropping her into a rocking chair with a merry laugh.
"Mercy!" gasped Mrs. Butler. "You have shaken all the breath out of me. What does this whirlwind arrival mean?"
"It means that I have a horse at last, mother. To be sure, it is not much of a horse; but it's a horse just the same. And it's all mine, too."
Mrs. Butler gazed up at him in perplexity. Tad sank down at her feet and explained the terms on which he had procured Jinny from Mr. Langdon.
"Well, now that you have her, what do you mean to do with her?" asked Mrs. Butler, a quizzical smile on her face.
"With your leave, I shall bring her home. Will you let me turn Jinny in the clover patch there, mother? There'll be enough grass there to keep her all summer, and as soon as she is able to work I can get odd jobs enough with her to pay for the oats that I shall need to keep her up on," went on the boy speaking rapidly.
"Very well, Tad; the place is as much yours as it is mine," agreed Mrs. Butler, indulgently.
"And I have been thinking of something else, too—something for you. But I shall not tell you about that now. I am going to keep it as a surprise for you when I get it ready," announced the boy mysteriously. "If you have nothing for me to do just now, I think I'll go out to Mr. Langdon's farm and bring the mare in. I shall want to spend the evening making her comfortable."
Mrs. Butler gave a ready permission, and Tad hounded away, running every foot of the mile and a half to the Langdon farm, where old Jinny was turned over to him, together with a brand new halter and an old harness which the grocer had directed his man to furnish with the mare.
Tad petted and fondled the wheezy old creature, who nosed him appreciatively.
"How old is Jinny?" he asked.
"Going on twelve," answered the farm-hand laconically.
Tad opened the mare's mouth, which he studied critically.
"Humph!" he grunted, flashing a glance of disapproval at the farm-hand.
"What's that, younker? I said as she was going on twelve."
"I guess you have dropped five years out of your reckoning somewhere," answered the boy. "Jinny is past seventeen. But it's all right. It is all the same to me. I don't care if she's a hundred," decided Tad, picking up the halter and leading the mare from the yard.
"Hope she don't run away with ye," jeered the farm-hand, as boy and horse passed out into the highway. But to this Tad made no reply. He was too fully occupied with his new happiness to allow so little a thing as the farm-hand's opinion to disturb him.
Once out of sight of the farm buildings, the lad pulled the mare to one side of the road, where he examined her carefully.
"Huh!" he exclaimed. "Heaves, ringbone and spavin. I don't know how much more is the matter with her, but that's enough. Still, I think she will wiggle along for some time and be of real service if I can fix up the heaves a little. They must have filled her up on dusty hay," he decided, examining the mare's throat and nostrils. "I'll get her home and look her over more carefully."
Tad's course led him through the principal residential street of the town. But he thought nothing of this, even though his new purchase was a mere bundle of bones and scarcely able to drag its weary body along.
"She's mine," he whispered, as the sense of possession took full hold of him. "Mine, all mine!"
Just ahead of him stood the home of Stacy Brown's uncle.
Chunky was standing in front of the gate, both hands thrust into his trousers pockets. He had observed the strange outfit coming down the street, but at first the full meaning of it did not impress him. Now he discovered that the procession consisted of Tad Butler and an emaciated, hesitating old horse.
Stacy's eyes gradually closed until they were mere slits, through which he peered inquiringly.
"Hullo, Tad," he greeted.
"Hello, Chunky," returned the freckle-faced boy with a grin.
"What you got there, a skeleton?"
"No; this is a mare. Her name is Jinny and she's mine."
"Huh! Skate, I call her. Where did you get her?"
"Bought her," answered Tad proudly.
Chunky emitted a long-drawn whistle.
"What are you going to do with her?" he demanded, a sudden suspicion entering his mind.
"First, I am going to doctor her up and make a real live horse of her. Then, perhaps, she will join the Pony Riders' Club."
"I said she might join the club," reiterated Tad.
"Then I resign," declared Chunky.
"All right," retorted Tad. "Jinny's better than no horse at all. And you haven't any."
"Yes, but my uncle is going to get me one next week. He's going to buy the handsomest one he can find out at the McCormick ranch," chortled the fat boy.
"Gid-ap!" commanded Tad, his face sobering. "I don't care. I'll show them yet," he gritted, urging old Jinny along with sundry coaxes and promises of a real meal upon their arrival home.
Though the boy tried to keep his purchase a secret until he should have conditioned the mare a little, Stacy Brown lost no time in informing the other members of the club, and through them the news soon became the property of the village. As a result, Tad was the butt of many jokes and jibes, to all of which he returned a quiet smile, registering a mental promise to "show them."
In two weeks time he had worked a marvelous change in Jinny. One who had seen her on the day the boy brought her home, would scarcely have recognized in her the old, wind-broken skeleton that she had appeared two weeks previously.
By this time, Tad was beginning to use her to haul up wood which he had gathered in a patch of forest below the village. He would first gather and pile the poles; then, wrapping a rope about all he thought the mare could draw, would make her haul them home. Here he sawed the poles to stove lengths in preparation for the winter. This work Mrs. Butler had always been obliged to hire done, and the saving now was of no small moment to her.
One hot afternoon, however, Tad had left Jinny in the shade of the trees to rest, while he wandered out to the highway and sat down to think.
He had been there not more than fifteen minutes when the faint chug, chug of a motor car was borne to his ears. It was still some distance away, but from the sound he knew the car was approaching rapidly.
"If they keep on at that gait, something surely will happen," decided Tad, being fully aware of the dangers that lay in the stretch of road between himself and the oncoming car.
A few moments later he saw the car round the bend in the road just beyoud him. It came tearing along, swerved unsteadily from one side of the road to the other, then was brought to a sudden, grinding stop, narrowly missing a plunge into the roadside ditch.
"The steering gear has gone wrong. I think the ball has been wrenched from the socket," announced the driver of the car, disgustedly. "I wish I could see a horse."
"What are you grinning at, you young ape?" snapped the driver, voicing his increasing irritation. "You seem to think this is some kind of a joke."
"I am not laughing at you, sir," answered Tad respectfully.
"You'd better not," growled the driver. "How far is it to Chillicothe, kid?"
"About a mile and a half," replied the boy.
"Can I get a horse anywhere around here?"
"I reckon you can. I've got a horse."
"You? Where is it?" demanded the autoist doubtfully.
"In the bushes, back here a piece. What'll you give me to pull you in?"
"I'll give you five dollars," announced the driver eagerly. "But be quick about it."
Tad rose slowly and stretched himself.
"I'll do it for two," he announced, to the surprise and amusement of the occupants of the car.
In a few moments Jinny had been led out, Tad taking along the rope that he used in hauling the wood. One end he fastened securely to the front axle of the car, attaching the other to the whiffletree that he had made to use in the woods.
"Now, if you will start your engine and give me just a little lift, I think I can draw you in. Can you steer the car enough to keep it in the road, do you think?"
"I will try," answered the driver. "But if I find I can't, I'll toot my horn, which will be the signal for you to stop."
It was all the old mare could do to draw the heavy car over the slight rise of ground that lay just beyoud where the automobile had been stalled; yet, with the aid of the power of the car itself, they managed to make the hill all right. At last the boy pulled the car and its occupants up in front of the blacksmith shop in the village, collecting his fee with the air of one used to transacting similar business every day.
Tad, however, did not return to the woods that day. Instead, he turned old Jinny toward home, which he made all haste to reach.
Arriving there he placed the money he had earned in his mother's hands.
"Just earned it with Jinny," he explained proudly, in answer to her surprised look. "I'll get the wood to-morrow, and maybe I'll catch another automobile."
However, Tad's luck deserted him next day, though three days later he earned a dollar and a half towing in a disabled car.
This led the lad to ponder deeply, the result being a hurried trip to the store, followed by sundry mysterious preparations in the stable at the rear of the house.
Tad's early mornings were devoted to cleaning up the store, so that he had no time then to give to his own affairs. Late one afternoon in the middle of the following week, Tad Butler, driving Jinny and with a parcel under his arm, moved down the street toward the woods.
Arriving at the woods he tied Jinny to a tree and walked on around a bend in the highway, where he unrolled his parcel. A coil of clothes line dropped from it.
The bundle, which proved to be a long strip of canvas, Tad stretched out, tying an end of the clothes line on either side.
The boy's next move was to climb a tree at one side of the road, and make fast one of the lines. Descending, he did the same on the opposite side of the highway.
By this time, Tad's clothes were in a sad state of disorder. But to this he gave no heed. He was bent on accomplishing a certain purpose, and all else must give way before it.
Hauling down on the rope which he had made fast to the second tree, be caused a banner to flutter to the breeze directly over the highway. On it in big red letters had been painted:
AUTOS TOWED IN. IF YOU DON'T SEE ANY ONE, YELL FOR TAD OR CALL AT LANGDON'S STORE. TOW YOU IN FOR TWO DOLLARS.
"I guess that's high enough to clear a load of hay," decided Tad, standing off and critically, surveying his work.
A SURPRISE, INDEED
That makes fifteen dollars, mother. Tad Butler, with flashing eyes and heightened color, laid two crisp new one dollar bills in his mother's hand, and nervously brushed a shock of hair from his forehead.
"My, that car was a big one," he continued." Jinny couldn't quite pull it, so I had to get behind and push. But we made it."
Mrs. Butler patted the disorderd hair affectionately.
"Need a comb, don't I?" he grinned. "Now, I am going to tell you about the surprise I promised you, Mother. I've pieced together that old broken down buggy out in the barn, and, when I can afford to buy some paint for it, you will have a carriage to ride in. You needn't be ashamed of it, for it's a dandy. Nobody will know it from a new one. Then, when I am at school, you and Jinny can go out for a drive every day. Come out and look at it, Mother, please."
Proudly escorting his mother to the stable, Tad exhibited the vehicle that he had spent many nights putting together. It was truly a creditable piece of work, and Mrs. Butler made her son happy by telling him so.
Tad's business venture had proved more profitable than even he had dreamed, and the owners of cars breaking down on the rough road made frequent use of the invitation extended on the sign. Soon, however, there were so many calls during the day, when the young man was at school, that he was considering the advisability of taking in a partner who would attend to the towing when he was not available. The only reason Tad hesitated was because he feared his assistant would not be considerate of Jinny. Yet this, he told himself, should not deter him from making the move the moment he found the right sort of a boy to go in with him.
During the past week there had been frequent conferences between Mrs. Butler and Banker Perkins, and on several occasions Tad's mother had called at the hank in person. Of all this the young man knew nothing. But one afternoon something did occur to stir him more profoundly than he ever had been stirred before.
Ned Rector had called a meeting of the Pony Rider Boys, and the word was passed that important business was coining up for discussion.
Tad said he could not spare the time from his business down the road.
"I wish you would take the afternoon off," advised his mother. "You have been working hard of late, and I imagine the boys will have something to discuss that will be of great interest to you," added Mrs. Butler with a knowing smile.
"W-e-l-l," answered Tad. "If you think I ought to, of course I will. "What are you going to do?"
"I am going out to take tea with Mrs. Secor. I will leave your supper in the oven and you can help yourself. Besides, it will do Jinny fully as much good as it will you to have a rest. Have you seen Mr. Perkins to-day?"
"He said something about wanting you to drop in soon, when I saw him downtown this morning," answered Mrs. Butler softly. "Now, run along and attend your important meeting, my boy."
"All right," answered Tad cheerily, after a second's hesitation. He ran lightly from the house, whistling a merry tune as he went.
Arriving at the headquarters of the club, he found all the members there awaiting him.
"Hello! How's the skate!" they cried in chorus.
"Howdy, fellows," greeted the freckle-faced lad with a pleased smile. "Jinny goes when the automobile doesn't. Give me a horse every time. How's the new pony, Chunky? Been too busy to drop in to look him over."
"I fell off yesterday," replied Stacy Brown with a sheepish grin.
"That's no news," jeered Ned Rector. "I guess we'll have to get a net for Chunky to perform over. However, fellows, as the notice stated, we have some very, very important matters to talk over to-day. President Brown will please take his chair and call the meeting to order. That is, if he is able to sit down. If not, I think there will be no objection to his standing up," announced Ned, amid a general laugh.
The president rapped sharply on the floor with his foot, and the members of the club settled down to the keenest attention. Anticipation was reflected on each smiling face. Tad instinctively felt that there was something behind all of this that he knew nothing about. But he bided his time.
"What is the pleasure of the meeting?" asked the president.
"I move," said Ned Rector, "that our friend and fellow member, Walter Perkins, now take the floor and outline the plans which I understand he has in mind. I think none of us know what they are, beyoud the fact that some sort of a trip has been planned for us. We are all ears, Mr. Perkins."
Walter rose with great deliberation, a smile playing over his thin, pale features, as he looked quietly from one to the other of his young friends.
"Fellow members," he began.
"Hear, hear!" muttered Ned.
Stacy Brown dug his heel into the floor for order.
"As brother Rector already has said, we are soon to take a trip. The matter has all been arranged. In the first place, our doctor says that I must spend the summer in the open air — that I must rough it, you understand. The rougher the life, the better it will be for me. He didn't say so to me, but I overheard him telling father that I was liable to have consumption, if I did not ——"
"You don't mean it?" interrupted Ned with serious face.
"Yes. That's what he said. So they have planned a trip for me and all of you boys are to go along."
"Hooray!" shouted Chunky.
Ned fixed him with a stern eye.
"A president never should forget his dignity," he warned. "Mr. Perkins will now proceed."
"We all now have our ponies, except Tad Butler, and when we get ready to start we shall have nothing to do but go. Professor Zepplin is to accompany us. Father has bought him a big new cob horse. The professor was once an officer in the German army, and he knows how to ride—that is, the way they ride over there. He reminds me of a statue on horseback, when he's up. Anyhow, he will go along to see that we are taken care of."
"When do we go?" asked the president.
"As soon after your school closes as is possible."
"I am afraid our fathers and uncles will have something to say about that," said Chunky with a wry face. "Uncle never would let me go off like that. It's all very well for you, but with the rest of us it's different."
Walter smiled knowingly.
"That has all been taken care of, fellows. Tour fathers, as well as mine, know all about it."
"You don't mean it?" marveled Ned.
"Is Tad Butler going on that old skate of his?" bristled Chunky.
"I can't say as to that," answered Walter.
"Well, if he does, it's me for home. Why, we never would get beyoud the water works station, he would he so slow. Does my uncle know about Tad's old mare?"
"Never mind about the mare," growled Ned Rector. "We have other and more important matters to attend to just now."
"Yes, and we shall have to settle among ourselves what we are to take along, though father said he had a man who would look out for all that. We are going to rough it, you understand, so we shall have to leave behind all our fine clothes. And sometimes we may go without meals, even. But we all will sleep out-of-doors, most likely, every night after we get started. In the meantime, I would suggest that we practice riding—that is, form ourselves into a sort of company with a regular captain. I move that Tad Butler be made captain, and he can drill us."
"You don't need to make that motion," announced Ned, springing to his feet, full of excitement. "He will be our captain without being elected. He already is master of horse. It's now up to Tad to get busy and drill us. We will begin to-morrow afternoon."
Tad, who had taken no part in the conversation, now shook his head slowly, which caused the others to shout in chorus:
"Of course I will drill you, if you boys wish it. But, you know I can't go with you. Therefore, you had tetter make some one of you three fellows the captain."
"Why can't you go?" demanded Ned Rector. "Of course you are going."
"In the first place, I am too busy," answered Tad with a wan smile. "Then there are other reasons. I can't afford it. I must stay at home and earn money this summer. Then, again, I have no pony."
"Oh pshaw!" growled Ned. "That's too bad. I would rather stay at home myself."
Tad flashed an appreciative glance at him.
"Thank you. But I would rather you went, Ned. I'll drill you willingly if you boys want me to."
"That's right," approved Walter. "Perhaps something may turn up in the meantime, so you can go with us. It really will spoil our trip if you don't go along."
"Nothing will turn up. Nothing can turn up. I tell you, I must stay at home with my mother. But I don't even know where you are going. I can drill you to better purpose if I know what sort of riding you expect to do."
"Yes! Where are we going?" demanded Chunky, with quickened interest.
"That's so. I hadn't thought of that. Where did your father say we were to ride to? We must be going quite a distance away, judging by all the preparations," besought Ned Rector. "And, by the way, are you sure you are right about this business, Walt?"
"There is no doubt," smiled Walter Perkins good-naturedly. "That is what this meeting was called for—to tell you about it. It was left to me to announce it to you boys, because it is my party, if you want to call it that. And you want to know where you are going?"
"Yes, of course we do," they shouted.
"Boys, we are going to the Rocky Mountains! We are going over the roughest and wildest part of them. Perhaps we shall go where no white man's foot ever has trod. We shall be explorers. What do you think of it?"
For a full moment no one spoke.
Each was too full of the wonderful news to do more than gape at the speaker. Only the sound of their labored breathings broke the stillness.
"Will—will there be bears and things there?" asked Stacy, hesitatingly.
"I presume so," smiled Walter.
"Ugh! And snakes?"
"Rattlers. I've read about them out there," added Ned.
"I—I guess I'll stay home," stammered the president.
"Don't be a baby," jeered Ned. "I rather think you'll be able to stand it if the rest of us can. And, besides, Walt's professor will be along. He'll fix the animals and reptiles with, his cold, scientific eye till they'll be glad to run away and leave us to ourselves."
"You boys are to come over to my house tomorrow night, when father is going to tell you more about it. He has not told me everything yet. But he directed me to give you the main points of the plan, which I have done."
"I propose three cheers for Walter Perkins and his father," cried Ned, springing to his feet. The boys joined in the cheers with a will, Tad no less loudly than the rest, though there was no joy in his face now. The boy's disappointment was keen, yet he determined that his friends should not see it. And, as quickly as he could do so, Tad slipped away and went home to fight out his boyish sorrow all alone.
Tad's mother found him out in the barn half an hour later, vigorously grooming the old mare. Mrs. Butler smiled to herself as she observed that he studiously managed to keep the mare between himself and her as he worked.
"Do you want to sell Jinny?" she asked after a little.
Tad was all attention now.
"I said, do you want to sell your horse?"
"No. That is, I might if I got enough for her. But I can't say that I am anxious to. Why, I am making plenty of money with her," answered Tad coining out from behind the mare. "What made you ask that question, Mother?"
"I didn't know but you might be willing to part with her. And then, with the money you might be able to purchase a better one—a horse that you would be able to earn more money with."
Tad studied his mother's face a moment inquiringly.
"Not with any money that I could get for Jinny."
"How much do you think you could get for her?"
"Not more than ten dollars. I doubt if any one would be willing to pay that, even. Who wants to buy her?"
"Yes; Mr. Secor, the butcher, spoke to me about it while I was at his house this afternoon. His delivery horse broke a leg yesterday and they had to shoot the animal to-day."
"Too bad," muttered Tad.
"He thought Jinny was just the horse he wanted, because she is so gentle and will stand without hitching. It takes too much time to hitch a delivery horse at every stop, you know!"
Tad nodded his understanding.
"Did you tell him what ailed Jinny?" asked Tad.
"Yes, as well as I could. But he said he knew all about her, and was willing to take all chances. Mr. Secor said he believed Jinny was good for ten years yet, with the kind of work he would require of her."
"Make an offer?" asked Tad, with an eye to business.
"W-h-e-w! He must be crazy. All right, he can have her so far as I am concerned. I'll go over to see him this evening."
That night Tad Butler came home with twenty-five dollars in his pocket, which, added to what he already had earned, made the tidy sum of forty dollars—a little fortune for him.
He dropped the handful of bills into his mother's lap, and, going out to the porch, sat down with his head in his hands, to think. Mrs. Butler followed him after a few moments.
"Do you think you would like to go with the boys on their jaunt this summer?" she asked, innocently enough, it seemed.
"Yes, but I can't."
"Why not, my boy?"
"First place, I've got no pony."
"Don't be too sure about that"
"What do you mean, Mother!"
"Run out to the stable and see," smiled Mrs. Butler.
Wonderingly, Tad did as she had directed. And there in a stall stood a sleek Indian Texas pony, quite the finest little animal he had ever seen.
"Wh—whe—where did he come from!" gasped the astonished boy.
"You earned him, Tad, and the money you brought home this evening will complete the purchase price. You shall accompany the Pony Riders on their trip to the Rockies——"
"Mr. Perkins has arranged to have you go with Walter to look after him. You will be his companion, and for this service Mr. Perkins agrees to pay you the sum of five dollars a week and all expenses. Understand, you are not going as a servant—he wished that made very clear—but as the young man's companion. You can easily get someone to do your work at the store for another month, when your agreement will be worked out."
"Yes—but—but you, Mother?"
"I am invited to spend the summer with Aunt Jane, so you need have no concern whatever about me."
Tad's eyes grew large as the full significance of it all was home in upon him.
"Mother, you're a brick," he cried, impulsively throwing his arms about Mrs. Butler.
But Tad had no thought of the thrilling experiences through which he was destined to pass during the coming eventful journey.
IN A DESPERATE CONFLICT
A sudden bright flash lighted up the camp, throwing the little white tents into hold relief against the sombre background of the mountains. It was followed after an interval by a low rumble of distant thunder that buffeted itself from peak to peak of the Rockies.
The Pony Riders stirred restlessly on their cots and tucked the blankets up under their chins.
Close upon the first report followed another and louder one, that sent a distinct tremor through the mountain.
"What's that?" whispered Stacy Brown, reaching from his cot and grasping Tad Butler by the shoulder.
"A mountain storm coming up," answered the boy, who for some time had lain wide awake listening to the ever increasing roar. "Go to sleep."
Yet, instead of following his own advice, Tad lay with wide-open eyes awaiting the moment when the storm should descend upon their camp in full force.
He had not long to wait.
With a crash and a roar, as if the batteries of an army had been suddenly let loose upon them, the elements opened their bombardment directly over the camp.
"Ugh!" exclaimed Chunky in a muffled voice, as he crawled further down under the blanket to shut out the glare of the lightning.
For a few moments the boys lay thus. Then Tad, rising, slipped to the opening of the tent and looked out wonderingly upon the impressive scene. Each flash appeared to light up the mountains for miles around, their crests lying dark and forbidding, piled tier upon tier, the blue, menacing flashes hovering about them momentarily, then fading away in the impenetrable darkness.
The camp appeared to be wrapped in sleep, and, by the bright flashes, Tad observed that the burros of the pack train were stretched out sound asleep, while, off in the bushes, he could hear the restless moving about of the ponies, their slumbers already disturbed by the coming of the storm.
The Pony Riders had been out three days from Pueblo, to which point they had journeyed by train, the stock having been shipped there in a stable car attached to the same train. In the city of Pueblo they found that all preparations for the journey had been made by Lige Thomas, the mountain guide whom Mr. Perkins had engaged to accompany them.
Besides the four ponies of the boys there were the Professor's cob, Thomas's pony and a pack train consisting of six burros, the latter in charge of Jose, a half-breed Mexican, who was to cook for the party during their stay in the mountains.
It was a brave and joyous band that had set out from the Colorado city in khaki trousers, blue shirts and broad-brimmed sombreros for an outing over the wildest of the Rocky Mountain ranges.
By this time the boys had learned to pitch and strike camp in the briefest possible time—in short, to take very good care of themselves under most of the varying conditions which such a life as they were leading entailed.
They had made camp this night on a rooky promontory, under clear skies and with bright promise for the morrow.
Tad gave a quick start as a flash of lightning disclosed something moving on the far side of the camp.
"What's that!" he breathed.
With quick intuition, the boy stepped back behind the flap of the tent, and, peering out, waited for the next flash with eyes fixed upon the spot where he thought he had observed something that did not belong there.
"Humph! I must be imagining things tonight," he muttered, when, after three or four illuminations, he had discovered nothing further.
Tad was about to return to his cot when his attention was once more attracted to the spot. And what he saw this time thrilled him through and through.
A man was cautiously leading two of the ponies from camp, just back of Professor Zepplin's tent.
The boy paused with one hand raised above his head, prepared to pull the tent flap quickly back in place in case the stranger chanced to glance that way, all the while gazing at the man with unbelieving eyes.
Was he dreaming? Tad wondered, pinching himself to make sure that he really was awake.
Once more, impenetrable darkness settled over the scene, and, when the next flash came the camp had resumed its former appearance.
Tad Butler hesitated only for the briefest instant.
"Ahoy, the camp!" he shouted at the top of his voice, springing out into the open. "Wake up! Wake up!"
As if to accentuate his alarm, a twisting gust of wind swooped down upon the white village. Accompanied by the sound of breaking ropes and ripping canvas, the tent that had covered Professor Zepplin was wrenched loose. It shot up into the air, disappearing over a cliff.
Now the lightning flashes were incessant, and the thunder had become one continuous, deafening roar.
Stoical as he was, the Professor, thus rudely awakened, uttered a yell and leaped from his cot, while the boys of the party came tumbling from their blankets, rubbing their eyes and demanding in confused shouts to know what the row was about.
But Lige, experienced mountaineer that he was, instinctively divined the cause of the uproar, when, emerging from his tent, he saw Tad darting at top speed across the camp ground.
"The ponies! The ponies!" shouted the boy, as he disappeared in the bushes, regardless of the fact that he was clad only in his pajamas, and that the sharp rocks were cutting into his bare feet like keen-edged blades.
"What about the ponies?" roared Ned Rector, quickly collecting his wits and following in the wake of the fleeing Tad.
"Stolen! Two of them gone!" was the startling announcement thrown back to them by the freckle-faced boy.
By this time the entire camp, with the exception of Professor Zepplin and Stacy Brown, had set out on a swift run, following on the trail of Tad.
Ahead of him, the boy could hear the ponies' hoofs on the rocks, and now and then a distant crash told him they were working up into the dense second growth that he had seen in his brief tour of inspection earlier in the evening. He realized from the sound that he was slowly gaining on the missing animals.
Tad's blood was up. His firm jaw assumed the set look that it had shown when he won the championship wrestling match at the high school.
The shouts of the others at his rear, warning him of the danger and calling upon him to return, fell upon unheeding ears. So intent was the boy upon the accomplishment of his purpose that he gave no heed to the fact that the sounds ahead had ceased, and that only the soft patter of his own feet on the rocks broke the stillness between the loud claps of thunder.
Yet, even if Tad had sensed this, its meaning doubtless would have been lost upon him, unused as he was to the methods of mountaineers. So the boy ran blindly on in brave pursuit of the man who had stolen their mounts while the Pony Riders slept.
Suddenly, without the slightest warning, Tad felt himself encircled by a pair of powerful arms, and, at the same time, he was lifted clear of the ground.
But even then the lad's presence of mind did not desert him, though the vise-like pressure about his body made him gasp.
All his faculties were instantly on the alert. But he realized now that his only hope lay in attracting the attention of the others of his party, who could be only a short distance away, for he could still hear their shouts.
Tad's shrill voice punctuated a momentary lull in the storm.
"Coming!" answered the voice of the guide, its strident tones carrying clearly to Tad, filling him with a feeling as near akin to joy as was possible under the circumstances.
With a snarl of rage the boy's captor suddenly released his hold around the waist and grasped Tad quickly by the knees. So skilfully had the move been executed that Tad Butler found himself dangling, head down, before he really understood what had occurred. His head was whirling dizzily. He felt his body swaying from side to side, his head describing an arc of a circle, as he was rapidly being swung to and fro.
"Where are you, Tad?"
"Here!" came the muffled voice of the boy, too low for the others to catch.
Tad knew that they would have to hurry if they were to save him, for as soon as the dizzy swinging of his body began he had understood the purpose of his captor. At any second the boy might find himself flying through space— perhaps over a precipice. It plainly was the intent of the man to hurl the boy far from him, as soon as Tad's body should have attained sufficient momentum to carry it.
However, before the fellow was able to put his desperate plan fully into execution, Tad, with the resourcefulness of a born wrestler, suddenly formed a plan of his own.
As his body swung by that of his captor, the boy threw out his hands, clasping them about the left leg of the other and instantly locking his fingers.
It seemed as if the jolt would wrench his arms from their sockets. Yet Tad held on desperately. And the result, though wholly unexpected by the mountaineer, was not entirely so to Tad. He had figured—had hoped—that a certain thing might occur. And it did.
The man's left leg was jerked free of the ground, and before he was able to catch his balance the fellow fell heavily on his side. Tad, with keen satisfaction, heard him utter a grunt as he struck. But before the boy could release himself he was grabbed and pulled up over his adversary by the latter's left hand, his right still being pinioned under his own body. Yet the mountaineer's move had not been entirely without results favorable to his captive.
"I'll kill you for this!" snarled the man, fuming with rage.
Tad, groping for a wrestler's hold, felt his hand close over the hilt of a knife in the man's belt. And, as the boy was hauled upward, the blade came away from its sheath, clasped in Tad's firm grip.
But not even with this deadly weapon in hand did Tad Butler for a second forget himself. He flung the knife as far from him as his partly pinioned arms would permit, and, with keen satisfaction, heard it clatter on the rocks several feet away.
"You'll do it without that cowardly weapon, then!" gasped the boy.
Though thoroughly at home in a wrestling game, Tad knew that he would he no match for the superior strength of his antagonist. So, resorting to every wrestling trick that he knew, he sought to prevent the fellow from getting the right arm free. However, the most the lad could hope to accomplish would be to delay the dreaded climax for a minute or more.
With an angry, menacing growl, the mountaineer threw himself on his hack, hoping thereby to free the pinioned arm.
"Now, I've got you, you young cub!"
Instantly, both of Tad's knees were drawn up and forced down with all his strength on his adversary's stomach. From the growl of rage that followed, Tad had the satisfaction of knowing that his tactics had not been without effect.
"You—you only think you have," retorted the boy, breathing heavily under the terrible strain.
The mountaineer might now have hurled the boy from him. To do this, however, would have been giving Tad an opportunity to escape, of which he would have been quick to take advantage; and so, gulping quick, short breaths, and struggling with his slightly built adversary, Tad's captor finally managed to throw the lad over on his back.
So heavily did Tad strike that, for the moment, the breath was fairly knocked from his body.
Recovering himself with an effort, he raised a piercing call for help.
All grew black about him. He no longer saw the brilliant flashes of lightning that at intervals lighted up the scene, nor heard the voices of his companions frantically calling upon him to come back. The mountaineer's sinewy fingers had closed in an iron-grip over Tad Butler's throat.
THE CAPTURE OP THE HORSE THIEF
"There they are!" cried Ned Rector, a flash of lightning having disclosed the man kneeling over Tad Butler. "He's got Tad down!"
But Lige Thomas did not even hear the warning words. He, too, during the momentary illumination, had caught the significance of the scene.
With a mighty leap he hurled himself upon the body of the crouching mountaineer, both going down in a confused heap, with the unfortunate Tad underneath.
Ned Rector was only a few seconds behind the guide. While the two men were straggling in fierce embrace, he sprang to them, and, grabbing Tad by the heels, drew him from beneath the bodies of the desperate combatants. But Ned's heart sank when he saw Lige drop over backward, with the mountaineer on top.
With a courage born of the excitement of the moment, Ned clasped both hands under the fellow's chin, jerking his head violently backwards. So sudden was the jolt that the lad distinctly heard the man's neck snap, and, for the moment, believed he had broken it entirely.
However, the mountaineer's tough coating of muscle made such a result impossible. Yet he had sustained a jolt so severe that, for the time being, he found himself absolutely helpless, and wholly at the mercy of his antagonists.
Lige leaped upon the thief with the lightness of a cat, quickly completing the job which Ned Rector had begun. In a moment more the guide had thrown several strands of tough rawhide lariat about the body of the dazed mountaineer, binding the fellow's arms tightly to his side.
"I guess that will hold him for a while," laughed Ned. Then, bethinking himself of Tad, whom in the excitement of conflict he had entirely forgotten, Rector dropped down beside his comrade.
"Tad! Tad! Are you all right?"
Tad made no response. He told Ned afterwards that he had heard him distinctly, though to save his life he could not have answered.
Ned pulled him up into a sitting posture, and shook the boy until his teeth chattered. Tad gulped and began to choke, his breath beginning to come irregularly.
"How's the boy?" demanded the guide, rising after having completed his task of binding the captive.
"He'll he all right in a minute. Is there any water about here!"
"No; not nearer than the camp. Wait a minute; I'll bring him around without it," announced Lige.
In this case, however, Tad felt that the remedy was considerably worse than the disease itself. Lige brought his brawny hand down with a resounding whack, squarely between Tad's shoulders, which operation he repeated several times with increasing force.
"On—ouch!" yelled Tad, suddenly finding his voice under the guide's heroic treatment. "Wh—where am I?"
"You're in the woods. That's about all I know about it," laughed Ned, assisting his companion to his feet, and supporting him, for Tad was still a bit unsteady from his late desperate encounter. "You're lucky to be alive."
"What—what has happened!"
"That," answered Ned, pointing to Lige as the latter roughly jerked the captive mountaineer to an upright position.
"Find the ponies!" commanded the guide sharply. "I hear them in the bushes there. Will they come if you whistle!"
"Depends upon which ones they are. Mine will."
But, though Ned whistled vigorously, neither of the animals appeared to heed the signal.
"Jimmie isn't there. I'll go get them." And Ned ran off into the bushes, where they could hear him coaxing the little animals to him. In a few moments he returned leading them by their bridle reins.
"Whose ponies are they?" asked Tad, leaning against a tree for support.
"Texas and Jo-Jo. The fellow picked a couple of good ones. But then, all the ponies are worth having," added Ned, realizing that he was placing the others ahead of his own little animal. "What do you propose to do with that fellow over there, guide?"
"Depends upon you young gentlemen. Just now I am going to tie him on one of the ponies and take him back to camp. I suppose you know what they do with hoss thieves in this country, don't you?" asked Thomas.
"Never having been a horse thief, and never having caught one, I can't say that I do," confessed Master Ned. "What do they do with them?"
"Depends upon whether there are any large trees about," answered Lige significantly. "We must be getting back now. Master Tad, you get on your pony, and I will lead Jo-Jo behind with the thief."
The mountaineer had been securely tied to the back of Walter Perkins's mount, and the procession now quickly got under way, Tad riding ahead, Ned Rector bringing up the rear, that he might keep a wary eye on their prisoner on their way back to camp. Ned was armed with a club, a stout limb of oak, which he had picked up before the start, and which he covertly hoped he might have an opportunity to use before reaching camp.
However, no such chance was given him, and, after picking their way cautiously over the rocky way, for trail there was none, they at last reached their temporary home.
Ned gave a war whoop as a signal to the camp that they were coming, which was answered with a slightly lesser degree of enthusiasm by Stacy Brown.
The storm had died down to a distant roar and the camp was in darkness.
"Get a fire going as quickly as possible," directed the guide.
Ned quickly procured dry fuel, and in a few moments had a crackling fire burning.
Professor Zepplin and Stacy Brown now came forward into the circle of light. After the sudden departure of his tent the Professor had taken refuge in one of the other tents, where he had remained, not knowing exactly what had happened.
In the excitement of losing his own little home he did know that all the boys, save Stacy, had rushed out of camp, shouting about the theft of the ponies. Chunky averred that all the stock had run away. Still there seemed nothing left for the two to do except remain where they were until the return of the others of the party. They would have been sure to lose themselves had they ventured away from camp in the darkness.
Both paused suddenly when they observed the figure of a man tied to the back of Jo-Jo.
"What's this? What's this?" demanded the Professor in puzzled accents. "A man tied to a horse? What is the meaning of this, sir?"
Lige Thomas smiled grimly.
"That's our prisoner," declared Tad, who, sitting upon his horse in his bedraggled, torn pajamas, presented a most ludicrous figure.
"You certainly are a sight, sir," declared Professor Zepplin, surveying the boy with disapproving eyes. "What is the meaning of all this disturbance? First, my tent goes up into the air; then you all disappear, though where I am not advised. And now, you return with a man tied to a pony."
"The man's a thief—" began Ned.
"It was this way, Professor," Tad informed him. "I saw some one walking away with Jo-Jo and Texas. I ran after and caught up with the fellow. Then the others came and we nabbed him. That's all."
"Yes, sir; if it hadn't been for Master Tad's quickness we might have lost both the ponies," added the guide. "He caught the fellow and handled him as well as a man could have done until we got there. When you get your full strength, you'll be a whirlwind, young man," glowed Lige.
Blushing, Tad slipped from his pony.
"The man is a thief, you say, Thomas?"
"Well, well; I am surprised. I should like to take a look at him."
Thomas dumped the prisoner on the ground in the full glare of the torches, still leaving his arms bound, and taking the further precaution of securing the fellow's feet.
"Who are you, my man!" demanded the Professor sternly, peering down into the prisoner's dark, sullen face.
There was no response.
"Humph! Can't he talk, Thomas?"
"I reckon he can, but he won't," grinned Lige. "There ain't no use in asking him questions. He knows we've caught him in the act, and he knows, too, what the penalty is."
"The penalty—the penalty? You refer to imprisonment, of course?"
"No; that ain't what I mean."
"Then, to what penalty do you refer?" inquired the Professor.
"We usually hang a hoss thief in this country," replied the guide, grimly. "But, of course, it's for you and the boys to say what shall be done."
"Hang him? Hang him? Certainly not! How can you suggest such a thing? We will turn him over to the officers of the law, and let them dispose of him in the regular way," declared the Professor with emphasis.
"That's all right, but where are we going to find any officers?" asked Tad. "They don't seem to be numerous about here."
"The young gentleman has hit the bull's-eye, sir. It's sixty miles, and more, to a jail. You don't want to go back, do you?"
"That's how we men of the mountains come to take the law into our own hands, sometimes. We have to be officers and jails, all in one," hinted the guide significantly.
"Then, there remains only one thing for us to do, regrettable as it may seem," decided the Professor after a moment's thought.
"Let the fellow go, but with the admonition not to offend again."
"Heap he'll care about that," he retorted, his, face growing glum.
However, at the Professor's direction, the prisoner was liberated. No sooner was this done than the fellow leaped to his feet and started to run.
"Catch him!" roared Lige.
Tad promptly stuck out a foot. The mountaineer tripped over it, measuring his length on the ground. Lige jerked the fellow to his feet and stood him against a tree, the thief becoming suddenly meek when he found himself looking along the barrel of a large six-shooter.
"I reckon you can run now, if you want to," grinned the guide suggestively.
"Admonish him," urged the Professor.
"Now, you see here, fellow," said Lige in a menacing tone, "you've struck a rich find tonight. Next time, I reckon you won't get off so easy. I've got you marked. I'll find out what your brand is, then I'll tell the sheriff to be on the lookout for you. Now, you hit the trail as fast as your legs'll carry you. If I catch you up to any more tricks—well, you know the answer. Now, git!"