The Pony Rider Boys with the Texas Rangers or On the Trail of the Border Bandits
By Frank Gee Patchin
CHAPTERS I. Excitement on the West Fork II. A Mysterious Attack III. In a Bad Man's Power IV. Tad Butler Makes a Discovery V. When the Tables Were Turned VI. The Camp in an Uproar VII. Receiving a Late Visitor VIII. A Much-Wanted Desperado IX. Showing Good Generalship X. The Pony Rider Boys Initiated XI. Bag-Baiting the 'Possums XII. Insects Win the Battle XIII. An Inquisitive Visitor XIV. When the Air Grew Chill XV. Making a Starting Discovery XVI. Joining Out With the Rangers XVII. Fun on the Mountain Trails XVIII. One Hiss Too Many XIX. Surrounding the Enemy XX. Learning Some Fancy Shots XXI. A Hole in the Mountain XXII. The Cave of the Bandits XXIII. In a Perilous Position XXIV. Conclusion
EXCITEMENT ON THE WEST FORK
Leaving the main branch of Delaware Creek, a broad, sluggish stream that slowly made its way toward the muddy Pecos River, a party of horsemen turned up the west branch.
Horses and men alike were wearied, dusty, perspiring and sleepy under the glare of a midsummer Texas sun. Little had been said for some time. None felt like talking. For hours they had been working south by west, urged on by the green of the foliage that they could see a short distance ahead. At least it had seemed a short distance for the last five hours, but the green trees now appeared to be just as far away as when the party had first sighted them early in the morning.
At the head of the line rode a grizzled, stern-faced man, sitting on his pony very stiff and erect. Just behind him was a young man, slender, fair haired and smiling, despite the discomfort his red face showed him to be suffering. Still back of them rode three other young men, the last in the line being a disconsolate fat figure of a boy who slouched from side to side in his saddle, each lurch threatening to precipitate him to the ground. The boy's pony was dragging along with nose close to the earth, the bridle rein slipping lower and lower over the animal's neck. The fat boy was plainly asleep. He had been slumbering in the saddle for more than an hour, and occasional mutterings indicated that he was dreaming.
"Professor, don't you think we had better make camp and take a rest?" asked the first boy in the line, addressing the grizzled leader.
Professor Zepplin cast a critical glance down the line of jaded horses and riders, a faint smile twitching the corners of his mouth.
"All tired out, eh, Tad?" he questioned.
"Yes, I'll confess that I am for once. Of course I can stand it as long as the next one, but there's no use in wearing out the stock," answered Tad Butler. "Chunky's asleep. Ned and Walter will be in a few minutes more."
"Very good; call a halt. We will ride into the bushes over there on the other side of the stream. The water cannot be deep. Some hot coffee will wake us all up."
"Hoo—-oo!" cried Tad, interrupting the professor. "Wake up, fellows, and make camp!"
"Wha—-what's up?" demanded Ned Rector, straightening in his saddle.
"Nothing's up, except ourselves, and we'll all be down in a minute. We're going to ford the stream and make camp on the other side."
"Is this the Guadalupe range?" asked Walter Perkins sleepily.
"This is the loop all right, but not the Guadalupe," laughed Rector. "Hullo, Chunky's in the Land of Nod."
"Wake him up, Ned," nodded Tad.
"Not much. Let him wake himself up."
"His pony has gone to sleep, too," added Walter.
"Yes, they are a couple of sleepy heads, Tad."
As the lads turned to gaze at the fat boy, they could not repress a shout of laughter. Stacy Brown's pony now stood the picture of dejection, its nose clear to the ground. Chunky had settled in his saddle until it seemed that the boy was less than half his natural height. His body had fairly telescoped itself. The fat boy sat leaning forward, his sombrero tipped forward until it covered his face, leaving only the point of the chin exposed.
By this time Professor Zepplin had driven his own pony into the creek, the others following, where the horses drank greedily. Stacy and his mount were still on the bank, too sound asleep to think of either water or food.
"Stacy!" shouted the professor.
"Oh let him sleep," begged the boys.
"Too bad to disturb his infantile slumbers," jeered Ned Rector.
"But he will fall off."
"It wouldn't be the first time," laughed Tad. "Gid-ap!"
The ponies climbed the opposite bank, the tired Pony Riders throwing themselves off and quickly stripping the equipment from their mounts. They then led the animals farther into the bushes, where the ponies were tethered until they should be wanted again.
Chunky still slumbered on.
In the meantime Tad was carrying water from the creek, while the other two boys were starting a fire on the bank, the smoke from which was already curling up lazily into the still, hot air. But not much of a meal was cooked. It was too hot to eat or to cook. The boys sat down to their little meal, almost choking with laughter every time they glanced across the stream toward the sleeping pony and its sleeping rider.
"Most remarkable," nodded the professor. "Surely the smell of food ought to awaken him if nothing else does."
"He's just as much of a sleeper as he is an eater, Professor," declared Rector.
"That would be impossible," objected Tad. "As an eater he is a champion, as a sleeper he is just above the average. You're the champion sleeper of this outfit, Ned."
"It's too hot to resent your unseemly remarks, Tad. I'll take that matter up when we get to the mountains. By the way, how much farther is it to the mountains?"
"Just as far as it was this morning. How about it, Professor?"
"We ought to reach them this afternoon. According to my understanding, we were a little more than forty miles from them this morning. Since then we have gone a good twentyfive miles."
"Then we will camp there to-night?" questioned Walter.
"Yes, I hope so."
"What are we going to do about Chunky?" demanded Walter.
All eyes were directed toward the sleeping fat boy and his slumbering pony. The latter was now beginning to show some signs of life. It had lifted one foot, then another, until it had taken two steps toward the creek. But the rider was as soundly asleep as before. Nothing seemed to disturb Chunky when he was having a nap.
"He will fall off. Wake him up!" commanded the professor.
"Oh, please don't bother him. We want to see what he will do," begged Walter.
"I think you will see, all right," chuckled Tad. "You will see what you shall see, and—-"
"There he goes!"
The pony had taken three or four more steps toward the stream. Now its eyes were partly open. It saw the rest of the party on the other side of the creek.
The cool water completed the awakening process for the horse. It drank freely then started for the other side, Chunky still sleeping. All at once the pony stepped into a deep hole in the creek. The animal went down on its nose with a mighty splash. Stacy shot over the disappearing head, then boy and pony vanished under the waters of Delaware Creek while the others of the party bowled with delight.
"Oh, wow!" howled Stacy, coming to the surface and making for shore with mighty splashes, coughs and chokings. "Oh, wow!"
Walter ran down to the water's edge, lending the unfortunate fat boy a helping hand. The pony in the meantime had clambered up the bank and was trotting off to join its fellows.
"What—-what—-who did that?" demanded Stacy belligerently.
"Did what?" replied Ned.
"Who threw me in?"
"I reckon you threw yourself in," answered Tad.
"The pony did it for you. Don't be a goose," commanded Ned.
"Yes, you went to sleep. You've been asleep for the last ten miles or so," nodded Butler.
"I'm all wet," wailed Stacy.
"You will be dry in a few moments in this hot sun," interposed the professor.
"I don't want to be dry."
"Then jump in again," suggested Butler. "Anyhow, you've missed your dinner."
"Missed your dinner."
Chunky's gaze wandered from the camp fire to the dishes and provisions that already were being packed preparatory to moving on.
"I want my dinner," he wailed.
"Dinner is finished, young man," replied the professor severely. "You should be on hand when meals are being served. There is no second table in this outfit, except for good and sufficient reasons."
"My reasons are good. I—-I fell in, I did. And—-say, why didn't you fellows wake me up?" demanded the fat boy, a sudden suspicion entering his mind. He began to understand that a trick had been played upon him. "What'd you let me sleep for?"
"Because you were sleepy," answered Ned Rector solemnly.
"That's a mean trick. I wouldn't play that on a horse," answered Stacy indignantly.
"But you did play it on a horse," spoke up Tad. "The horse went to sleep with you, out of sheer sympathy I should say."
"I should think he would have. Anything would go to sleep with Chunky on hand," declared Ned.
"You fellows are too funny! I don't care what you think. I'm going to have something to eat. Where's the biscuit?"
"Then we'll unpack them again. I guess I've got as much right to the grub of this outfit as the next one."
With that Stacy helped himself to such of the food as he was able to find. In order to get what he wanted he was obliged to undo three of the large packs. Once undone no one would help him lash them together again, so grumbling and growling, the fat boy tugged with the ropes until he had taken a secure hitch about each of the three packages. They made him tie the three before they would allow him to eat the biscuit and cold bacon that he had got out.
While Stacy was munching his cold lunch the others were lashing the packs to the lazy ponies and preparing to start again, every one being anxious to reach the mountains before night fell. But the fat boy was surly as well as sleepy. He felt aggrieved. That his companions should sit down to a meal, leaving him asleep on his pony, filled Stacy with resentment and a deep-rooted determination to be even with them. He was already planning how he could repay his companions in their own coin.
"Better not try it," suggested Tad carelessly as he passed the fat boy on his way to get his pony.
"To get even," answered Tad laughingly.
"How do you know that I was thinking of such a thing?"
"Perhaps I read your mind."
"Humph! You better learn to read your own before you go prying into mine. I'll show you what I'm going to do."
"Cinch up," interrupted the voice of Professor Zepplin. "We have no time to waste."
Still grumbling, Stacy climbed into the saddle. He promptly fell off, having forgotten to cinch the saddle girth. Now the pony woke up and began to kick as the saddle slipped under its belly. Stacy moved more quickly than he had at any other time during the day. Over and over he rolled in a cloud of dust in his efforts to get out of the danger zone, while the pony kicked and squealed, the boys shouting with laughter.
"Whoa!" roared the fat boy, sitting up after he had reached a place where he considered it safe to do so. "Whoa! Catch him, somebody."
"Catch him yourself," retorted Ned.
Tad's rope wriggled through the air. It caught one of the flying hind feet of the pony. Then the little animal plowed the dirt with its nose, while Walter sprang forward, sitting down on the angry animal's head.
"Now get that saddle off," commanded Tad. "Come, Chunky! Do you think we are going to wait here all day for you?"
The fat boy reluctantly obeyed the command of Tad Butler. After some further trouble, Stacy's pony was properly saddled, but still stubborn and ready for further trouble. The lad got on this time without falling off, and with much laughter and joking, the party started off toward the blue haze in the distance, the dark ridge that marked the Guadalupes.
It was in "The Pony Rider Boys in the Rockies" that our readers first learned how this little private club of youthful horsemen came to be organized. The need of open-air life for the then sickly Walter Perkins was one of the great factors in the organization of this little band of rough-and-ready travelers. Our readers remember the adventures of our young friends in the fastnesses of the Rocky Mountains. These lads speedily fitted themselves into the stirring life of the big game land, and had other yet more startling adventures in which wild animals did not play so strong a part as did wild men. The story of the discovery of Lost Claim, with its accompanying battle with claim-jumpers, was fully told in this first volume.
It was in "The Pony Rider Boys In Texas" that we found the lads learning the first rudiments of the cattle business. The thrilling part that the young men took in the long cattle drive, with its stampedes, the fording of swollen rivers, the games of the cowboys and the tricks of the cattle thieves, is related in that second volume. How the boys improved their shooting and mastered the details of that fascinating sport of handling the lariat are all familiar to our readers.
In "The Pony Rider Boys in Montana" is told the story of the long and exciting ride over the old Custer Trail, famous in the tragic annals of our earlier days of Indian fighting. Here the boys found themselves drawn into the life of the sheep men, on those great ranges where the sheep men must still defend themselves from the prejudices, and sometimes from the extreme violence, of the cattle men. It was in this connection that Tad Butler and his friends discovered leading clues in the great conspiracy of certain cattle men against the prosperity and safety of the sheep men. This state of affairs led finally to an angry battle, at which the boys were present. Then, too, our readers all recall Tad Butler's capture by the Blackfeet Indians, and all that befell him ere he succeeded in escaping to his friends.
The next stage of adventures took our lads somewhat further east, as told in "The Pony Rider Boys in the Ozarks." It was a thrilling, desperate time when the boys, with their ponies stolen, found themselves facing actual starvation in the wilds. Tad Butler's perilous trip for assistance is bound to bring throbs of recollection to every reader of that volume. The imprisonment of the youngsters in a mine, following a big explosion, formed another interesting scene in the narrative brought forth in that fourth volume of the series. It was here that Chunky, as our readers know, displayed the splendid stuff that lurked under his odd exterior and behind his sometimes queer manners. How, in escaping from the mine, the Pony Rider Boys penetrated a mystery that had disquieted the dwellers near the Ozarks for a long time, was one of the most interesting features of the tale.
But such strenuous life proves the mettle of the right kind of young Americans. So, far from being discouraged, or sighing for the comforts of home, we next find our lads in Nevada, as related in "The Pony Rider Boys on the Alkali." Here they left grass behind for the glaring discomforts of the baked desert lands, where severe thirst was one of the least yet most constant perils. Roving from water hole to water hole, finding them all gone dry, nearly drove the youngsters mad. Then, too, the fight with the mad hermit, who seemed a part of the life of that bleak desert, helped to accustom the boys to the strenuous life of daily danger.
As our readers will recall, it was in the next volume, "The Pony Rider Boys in New Mexico," that the author described the events surrounding the first real acquaintance that our lads formed with the little that is left of the savage Indian to-day. It was here, too, that they beheld the fire dance of the Saboba Indians in all its ancient fury. The adventures of the young horsemen at this point became fast and furious. Between prairie fire and fight they had the most exciting time of their lives.
Later, after a rest at home, as described in "The Pony Rider Boys in the Grand Canyon," the boys visited the wonderful region of the Colorado. Here, as our readers will recollect, the lads were cut off from their trail by the falling of great masses of rock during a fierce storm. Apparently the boys were doomed to remain helpless on a narrow shelf of rock; our readers recall how Tad Butler, at the risk of his life, spent hours in the attempt to get them out of their dangerous situation. The mysterious circumstances that followed the boys all the way along on their journey through the great canyon form a most remarkable series of events.
Now, from Arizona, Tad and his friends had journeyed onward and into the Lone Star State. Here they looked forward only to a long, healthful ride, full of pleasures, yet devoid of anything like sensational excitement. Yet one never knows what the day may bring forth, and these young travelers of ours, though they did not suspect it, were on the threshold of the most exciting experiences that had yet befallen them. The blue mountain ridge in the near distance was teeming with the story that was to unfold before them. So far the ride had been lonely. Of late rarely had they come in sight of a building of any sort, for this part of the state was but sparsely settled. To meet a horseman was an event. In fact they had not met one since the early morning. The Pony Riders had no guide with them on this journey, believing that one would not be needed. Nor did they carry a pack train. One additional pony bore all their extra baggage, each mount being loaded with all that he could carry in addition to its rider. For tents they had brought one large enough to accommodate the entire party. This was in sections, carried on the different ponies.
Five o'clock had come and gone. The sun was partly bidden by the ridge of the Guadalupes towards which the Pony Rider Boys were slowly drawing. Ned called up to the professor who was riding at the head.
"Where are we going to make camp, Professor?"
"Tad will decide that," answered Professor Zepplin without looking back.
"Near a stream, of course," answered Butler.
"Any mosquitoes there?" demanded Stacy.
"No odds, if there are," retorted Ned. "They wouldn't bite you."
"Not if they had got at you first," returned Stacy solemnly. "There's a level place in there by the creek."
"I see it. I'll ride on and have a closer look at it."
Butler spurred his pony ahead of the others. Reaching the foothills of the range he shaded his eyes, gazing up into the cool, green valley or canyon that led into the mountains.
"I guess this will do very well, boys," he said. "I—-"
Stacy with a howl of terror slid from his pony, sending up a little cloud of dust as he collapsed on the plain.
"Wha—-what—-what——-" gasped the professor.
Professor Zepplin's sombrero was snipped from his head. Stacy lay groaning on the ground.
"Ride for the rocks!" shouted Tad as shot after shot began popping from somewhere in the mountains, the bullets screaming over their heads close to their ears or snipping up flecks of dust in the plain.
Tad drove his pony straight at Stacy Brown. He scooped the fat boy up by the collar and rode madly for the protection of the rocks, Chunky's heels dragging on the ground. The others rode madly after them, while the shots were still being fired at them. It was an exciting moment. No one knew what the shooting meant, nor did they know whether Stacy really had been hit or not. There was no time to stop to reason the matter out. It was a case of getting to cover as fast as horse-flesh would carry them.
A MYSTERIOUS ATTACK
"Pull in close!" cried Tad.
"Where is it coming from?" shouted Ned.
"I don't know. I haven't had time to look. Look out there!"
Professor Zepplin, somewhat slower than the others, had halted a little distance out from the foothills. A bullet threw up a little cloud of dust just to one side of where he was sitting on his pony, followed by a report somewhere up in the mountains.
"Stop that! Stop it, I tell you!" bellowed the professor, waving his sombrero. Almost ere the words were out of his mouth, the sombrero was shot from his hand and went spinning out to the rear. Professor Zepplin did not wait for further parley. He turned his horse, dashing for the protection of the foothills.
In the meantime, Tad Butler had leaped from his pony, placing Stacy on the ground. It was observed that there was blood on the fat boy's left cheek, but his eyes, wide and frightened, were staring up at the boys now gathering about him.
"Are you hurt?" demanded Tad breathlessly.
"Nonsense! It's only a flesh wound—-"
"Is—-is he shot?" stammered Walter Perkins.
"Of course I'm shot. Don't you see I am?" demanded Chunky with considerable spirit for a man who had been the mark of a bullet and who according to his own word was dead.
Tad half dragged the fat boy down to the creek where the blood was quickly washed from his cheek. It was then seen that a bullet had grazed Stacy's cheek, leaving a raw streak across it.
Professor Zepplin, now mindful of his duty, had hurried up to them, and down on his knees was examining the wound critically.
"Hm—-m—-m!" he muttered. "Bad business, bad business!"
"But—-what does it mean?" urged Walter.
"What does it mean? It means that the Germans have got us," wailed Stacy Drown. "Oh, I knew we should be in this war sooner or later, but I didn't think I should be the first man to get shotted up."
"It means some one has been trying to shoot us up," answered Rector.
"Trying!" exploded Chunky. "They did more than try. They succeeded. Don't you see this wound on my countenance? Wait till I get sight of the man who put that mark on my face. I'll bear the scar for life. I——-"
"It is my opinion that we are in a dangerous position," declared the professor, getting up and glancing about him apprehensively.
"We were. We are all right here for a little while," replied Tad. "But we shall have to seek other quarters, I am afraid, and that without delay."
"Surely, it must be a mistake," protested the professor. "Some one must have been shooting at us under a misapprehension that we were another party."
"It doesn't make any difference what their motive is, sir," answered Tad. "The fact remains that some one is trying to get us and we must look lively or they will pink one or more of us. Get up, Stacy! You are all right. Lead your pony in here while I take an observation."
Tad mounted his own horse and galloped along at the base of the rocks, well shielded from any one who might be hiding further back in the mountains. The Pony Rider Boy's mind was working rapidly. He was forming a plan of campaign. He was inclined to agree with the theory of Professor Zepplin. Still, theories would not help them at this critical moment. They must protect themselves and at once if they expected to get out alive. One course was plainly open to them. They could mount their ponies and ride out over the plains at a gallop and perhaps escape. However, this plan was rather risky. Besides, Tad did not like the idea of running away.
"No, we've got to do something else," he declared out loud. "I have it!" The boy brought his pony up standing and gazed off over the plain to a point about a quarter of a mile beyond, where the plain rolled into a hollow, a "hog hollow" as it was called down there.
Butler galloped back to where his companions were standing anxiously awaiting him.
"We are wasting time, Tad," cried the professor as the lad rode up. "It is my opinion that we had better ride into that canyon there and make camp in some secluded spot where we shall not be easily found."
"I am afraid that won't help us any, Professor," said Tad. "How could we expect to hide ourselves in there so completely that a mountaineer would not find us? No, sir, it is my opinion that our only safety lies out there in the open, at least for the rest of the afternoon and the night."
"What, ride out there to be shot up again?" demanded Stacy. "No, sir, not for Stacy Brown! I've been shot up once. I don't propose to make a bull's-eye of myself again."
"Stacy is right, boys. It would be foolishness to follow such a course and—-"
"Wait till you hear my plan, sir," urged Butler.
"We will hear it. Proceed."
"Out yonder about a quarter of a mile from the base of the rocks is a depression in the plain. If we can reach it we shall be safe—-"
"Yes, if we can reach it," repeated Ned.
"In doing so we should be shot in all probability," objected Professor Zepplin.
"I think not, sir."
"Explain what you mean?"
"From the position occupied by the man or men when they fired at us out there, I am sure they could not see us were we to follow the course I went out on just now. If you will ride down to the edge of the foothills with me and wait there, I will gallop out and prove my theory."
"What do you mean?" questioned the professor.
"I will see if I can draw their fire," answered Tad.
Professor Zepplin shook his head.
"It certainly is risky to stay here. Listen, sir. If that man wants to get us he surely will be creeping down on our position before long. We are in greater peril here, where we can't see anything on one side of us, than we would be out there where we have an unobstructed view on all sides. My plan is to make camp out in the hollow; then we will place a guard over the camp, keeping a sharp watch all through the night. By morning we'll be able to find out what is in the wind."
"I won't move a step," declared Stacy stubbornly.
"You will do whatever seems best to the rest of us," answered the professor sternly. Then, after a moment's thought, he added, "I am inclined, upon second thought, to agree with Tad. We will try the plan."
"Good. Follow me. Get that pony, Chunky. I told you once before to catch him. We'll be in a fine mess if you lose your mount."
"I'd rather lose my mount than to lose my precious life," answered the fat boy surlily.
By this time the others were taking to their saddles. The faces of all wore serious expressions. They had not looked for anything quite so lively as this. It was not the first time the Pony Rider Boys had smelled powder when the powder was being expended on them, but they liked it none the better for past experiences.
Stacy's cheek was bleeding again. He was holding his handkerchief to the wound and his face was a little paler than usual.
"Buck up!" commanded Ned. "You're not going to show the white feather, are you?"
"No, it's a red feather I'm showing," wailed the fat boy.
"Forward!" ordered Butler. "Get up, Chunky!"
The party moved off, keeping close to the rocks, Tad now and then casting apprehensive glances up to their tops. He was not wholly satisfied that they were out of range of the bullets. The man who had been firing at them, too, was practically a dead shot.
"Now spread out," commanded Tad after they bad reached the point where he previously had halted. "Don't shout, but when I wave my hand, ride fast for the hollow. I'll be all right; don't worry about me."
With that the lad galloped leisurely out on the plain, his back to the mountains. It was a bold thing to do. Deep down in his heart the Pony Rider Boy expected every second to bear a bullet scream over his head, providing he was fortunate enough not to stop the bullet with his body. Not a shot greeted his bold act.
Tad rode on, finally disappearing in the "hog hollow." A few moments later he rode up the ridge, waving his hands for them to come on. Professor Zepplin started out at once, followed by the others of his party, Stacy this time well up toward the front of the line. For reasons of his own he did not care to drag behind. If there was to be any shooting he wanted to be as far away from it as possible.
The trip was made at a fast gallop and without incident, the party reaching the hollow without having drawn a shot from the enemy.
"It is my opinion," declared the professor, "that, whoever our enemy may be, he has discovered that he has made a mistake."
Tad shook his head.
"I don't think we would be safe in taking that for granted. He did not see us, but he will be on hand before long. I'm going back there before he does see us. If he starts any more shooting you all lie low."
"Where are you going?" demanded the professor.
"On a scouting trip."
"I cannot consent to any such foolhardy business," answered Professor Zepplin sternly.
"It is not foolhardy. We've got to clear up this mystery. Don't you see, we shan't dare go any farther—-we simply cannot go into the mountains knowing there is some one there waiting to riddle us the first time he gets a clear sight at us?"
"But what do you propose to do?"
"I don't know, beyond finding out what is up."
"Yes, let him go," urged Stacy. "He's looking for trouble. I'm the only one who has had any experience thus far. It's time some one else made a mark of himself."
"I was thinking of taking you with me," laughed Tad.
"No, you don't! Not if I see you coming," objected Stacy.
"Yes, take him along," urged Ned.
"No, I think I'll take you, the Professor being willing," answered Tad nodding at Rector.
Ned stopped smiling, gazing at Tad to see whether the latter were in earnest. Tad was.
"All right, I'm willing, Tad."
"How about it, Professor?"
"Provided you do not go into the mountains I will agree to your plan. But I cannot consent to your taking further desperate chances."
"I hope you will not hold me to that, Professor."
"To what?" demanded Professor Zepplin shortly.
"To not going beyond the edge of the mountains."
"Plainly, what is it you are planning to do, Tad?"
"I want to find out who it is that is shooting at us and why. That is all, sir."
"You don't suppose it possibly could be the Germans attacking us, do you?" questioned Walter apprehensively.
The professor shook his head.
"If you will stop to think you will see how necessary it is for some one to do something," urged Tad Butler.
"Yes; don't let me do it all," urged Stacy. "I think I have done my share already. It is high time some one else got a move on. First thing we know we shan't know anything. We'll be dead ones, and—-"
"Very good. Go on. There will be no peace here unless you have your way. See to it that you are back here in an hour. If not we shall go after you. Do you understand?"
"Yes, sir, I will try to get back on time. If something should occur to keep us longer than that please don't worry. You know we might not be able to get away. If we get into trouble I will signal by firing three shots into the air. Are you ready, Ned?"
"Yes. Do we take our arms?"
"Better leave the rifles here. We don't want to be bothered with them. We'll take our revolvers. That will be sufficient."
"Now, Tad, be prudent," begged the professor. "I know you have a level head or I should not permit you to get out of my sight under the circumstances."
"We will be prudent, sir. Come on, Ned; we mustn't waste a moment now. If we are seen to leave the camp we'll fail."
For answer Ned swung himself into his saddle, after first having taken the rifle from the saddle boot and fastened it to one of the packs.
"Don't pitch the tent yet. We must be in marching order," directed Butler, after leaping into his saddle. "And don't worry about us, for we'll be all right."
Nodding to Ned Tad started off at a fast gallop. But despite Tad's cheerfulness he realized that he had taken upon himself a serious piece of work, one that might be the death of both. Still, he was nothing daunted. He was determined to go to the bottom of the mystery, whatever the cost might be to himself.
Tad knew also that he could depend upon Ned Rector, for Ned was brave and resourceful, a boy who would keep his head in an emergency.
They made the trip to the mountains without incident. There Tad pulled up for a conference.
"Now tell me what your plan is?" said Ned.
"First we will ride on a little further along the base here. I see a place where I think we can hide our ponies. I don't want to go back to the point where we first started to make camp. That is the place where our enemy will be looking for us first. But when he gets there we'll be somewhere in the vicinity."
Ned wheeled his pony without further comment and followed Tad at a slow trot along the base of the foothills. The boys were engaged on a more desperate mission than they knew.
IN A BAD MAN'S POWER
Having secreted their ponies in a dense growth of scrub oak, Tad laid out his plan as follows:
"You, Ned, will go straight in from here until you've got about a quarter of a mile directly inland. When you have done so turn due west. I don't think you can lose your way for you can see out every little while and thus get your bearings."
"Where are you going?"
"Back to the point where we first decided to make camp. I shall have easier going than you will, but I shall be in more risk."
"What's the rest?" asked Ned with a short laugh.
"It is my idea to close in on the right fork of the stream there in the foothills. I'll come up from the west and you from the east. In that way we shall close in, you see, covering roughly the greater part of the territory."
"Then you think we shall find our man there?"
"I am sure he will get there eventually, provided he has not seen our movements out there. He will go to the stream and from there he will quickly locate our camp. Understand?"
"As far as it goes, yes. But what are we going to do if we find him?"
"Watch him. Find out what he is up to, then from that on be guided by circumstances. But whatever you do, Ned, don't use your revolver unless it be to save your own life."
"No, I'm not aching to shoot any one. Do you know, Tad, I'm thinking you and I are biting off a bigger mouthful than we will know how to chew?"
"We will manage it somehow."
"What do you think this fellow is trying to do?"
"It looked very much as if he were trying to kill us," smiled Tad.
"It did. But what for?"
"I have an idea the professor was right when he said the fellow mistook us for some other party."
"And he's likely to do it again, if that's the case."
"He may have already discovered his mistake, Ned. You observe he hasn't fired a shot since?"
Rector nodded thoughtfully.
"Well, we must be on the move. We don't want to be caught out here after dark, you know, Ned. Remember, the right fork, where it enters the hills, is the point we have agreed upon meeting. You will strike the stream farther back, then follow it, but be very careful. Be an Indian, Ned. If you are a white man you're likely to lose your identity. We don't want to stop any bullets. Chunky has done quite enough of that for one day."
"I'll watch out—-never you fear, old man."
"Then here we go."
Tad crept silently away, hugging the base of the rocks so that it would have been difficult for one at the top to have seen him at all Ned, obeying his instructions, found a canyon up which he crawled, neither boy making a sound. They had agreed upon the two-shot signal to call each other, three shots being a warning to the rest of their party that they were in need of assistance.
Neither lad saw or heard anything of a disturbing nature on his way out. Ned found no difficulty in making his way into the range of mountains, but as he proceeded and found no one there he grew more bold. Not that he was particularly careless, but he unconsciously relaxed a little of his former caution.
In the meantime Tad Butler had crept on past the place where the party had first planned to go into camp. Not a sign of a human being greeted Tad's watchful eyes. The lad climbed the side of the rocks, keeping his body hidden in the foliage as much as possible. He had got about half way up when he paused to take a look over the plain beneath him. The Pony Rider Boy could faintly make out the place where his companions were in camp awaiting the result of his mission.
"I believe there's Chunky standing on that rise," muttered Tad. "Yes it must be Chunky. I'll bet the professor doesn't know the boy is out there. Chunky evidently is getting anxious about us."
The shot sounded some distance to the eastward of where Tad was secreted. Instinctively the lad glanced toward the camp again. Stacy Brown no longer was to be seen. Tad Butler could not repress a laugh. He had a pretty clear idea as to what had caused Chunky's sudden disappearance. It did not occur to him that possibly Stacy had been bit. As a matter of fact the unknown marksman's bullet had grazed the head of the fat boy, instilling in that young gentleman a more thorough respect for the mountaineer's marksmanship.
But now Tad's mind turned to the object of his visit to the mountain range. He was there looking for the man who had fired the shot. Ned Rector had heard the shot also. Both boys were making their way toward the spot whence the shot had seemed to come. Ned had located the sound much nearer than had Tad. The latter struck off in a southeasterly direction which carried him still farther into the hills. He had reasoned that the shooter was occupying a high point of vantage somewhere farther in, whence he was taking pot shots at the camp of the Pony Rider Boys. In this Tad was mistaken. The mountaineer was much nearer the plains than Tad thought.
Ned started on a trot immediately after having heard the shot.
"I've got him this time!" exulted Rector. "I've got a chance to show the fellows what sort of a trailer I am. They don't think I'm any good, except Tad, and he knows better."
Tad, as he skulked along, was wondering if Ned had heard the shot and hoping that his companion would make no false moves. Each boy was determined to round up the man who had winged Stacy Brown and narrowly missed killing the others of the party.
Night was coming on rapidly and it behooved the lads to make haste. In the first place they did not know these hills, and, in the second, the professor would become alarmed and come in search of them were their return delayed too long. This was not desirable. It might mean the undoing of the entire party unless Tad and Ned succeeded in rounding up their enemy first.
Ned, in his excitement, had a mishap. While creeping along the upper rim of a galley he stepped on a round stone. Ned fell crashing into a heap of rotting limbs and went floundering from there to the bottom of the incline, making a racket that must have been heard clear out on the plain.
The lad got up, his clothing torn, his face scratched, very much chagrined over his blundering fall.
"I guess I'm not so much of a scout as I thought I was," he muttered. "Chunky could have done no worse and for a blundering idiot he's always held the cup up to the present time. I'm glad no one saw me make such an exhibition of myself. But what if that fellow heard me? No, he couldn't. He is too far away."
In this Ned was wrong. The "man" was not so far away as the Pony Rider Boy thought. The fellow, while watching for another opportunity to shoot, had caught the distant sound of crashing twigs. It might have been a falling tree, it might have been an animal. At any rate it put the fellow instantly on his guard. Lowering his rifle he began skulking in the direction of the racket.
By this time Ned was walking ruefully down the galley looking for a convenient trail up the side to the ridge. Not that he could not have made the ascent anywhere, but that he did not wish to raise any more disturbance than be already had done. At last, finding what seemed to him to be a path, Ned began climbing the side of the galley. Had the boy first taken a survey of the ground at the top of the rise, he might possibly have made a discovery, and then again he might not. Crouched behind a rock was a man. The fellow was fingering his rifle suggestively. Twice he raised it to a level with his eyes and drew a bead on the advancing form of Ned Rector, and as many times lowered it.
The watcher observed that Ned carried no rifle, only a revolver slapping against his thigh in its holster as the boy stumbled on up the mountain side. The mountaineer evidently changed his mind about shooting, for he changed ends with the gun and sat waiting. A few moments later Ned stepped up beside the rock where he stood listening and looking about him. The Pony Rider Boy looked everywhere except in the right place.
Suddenly there was a crackling of twigs behind him. Ned turned just in time to see the figure of a man leaping upon him. The boy went down under the crushing weight, the cry that rose to his lips smothered by a stinging blow in the face.
Ned lost consciousness. Everything turned suddenly black about him.
TAD BUTLER MAKES A DISCOVERY
Dusk was already settling over the mountains when Ned Butler fell beneath the powerful onslaught of the mountaineer. Without an instant's hesitation the fellow picked up the boy, starting down the side of the galley with his burden. The man ran along carrying the lad as easily as if he had been a child.
Reaching a secluded spot near the west fork the fellow put his burden down, then built a little fire under a thick growth of pines, whose tops served to break up the smoke and scatter it, thus greatly lessening the chances of discovery.
It was a few minutes later that Ned regained consciousness. His captor, watching him narrowly, had placed Ned against a tree, passed a piece of rope about the boy's body, pinioning his arms to his sides, securing the rope at the other side of the tree. Then the fellow had squatted down with rifle across his knees.
Ned saw a powerfully-built, wiry man, whose lean face and deep-sunken eyes created a most unfavorable impression. Even under more pleasing circumstances this man would have caused Ned to give him a wide berth. Discovering that he had been bound Ned's face flushed angrily. Even then he did not realize that his position was a perilous one.
"You untie me and let me go, or it'll be the worse for you," threatened Rector.
"I reckon I've got you this time," grinned the mountaineer.
"I know you. You're the fellow who has been shooting at us. You will get what is coming to you when my friends find out what you have done to me. What do you think I am anyway?"
"That's what I reckoned to find out," answered the man. "Who be you?"
"That's what I am asking you."
"I reckon I ain't answering fool questions."
"Why did you shoot at us?"
"You know you did." z "What's your name?" asked the mountaineer, evading the question.
"My name is Rector—-Ned Rector."
"Where you from?"
"What you doing here?"
"Maybe I am traveling for my health," answered Ned with a half sneer. He was not advancing his own cause by his attitude.
"I reckon you'll answer my questions and without putting on any trimmings either," announced the fellow, shifting his rifle around so that the barrel lay along his right leg, the muzzle pointing straight at Ned. The latter was not greatly disturbed at this. He did not think, for a moment, that the man would dare to shoot him. Ned did not realize what a desperate character he was facing.
"I will answer what I choose. You can't make me answer any questions that I don't want to," declared Rector defiantly.
"I reckon you'll change yer mind before I git done with you. Anybody with you?"
"No, not exactly here," answered Ned quickly, a sudden line of conduct occurring to him. "Unfortunately for me, and fortunately for you, I am all alone. But when my friends do find out what has happened you'd better look out. You'll be riddled so full of holes that the wind will sigh through your body as if it were a sieve."
"How's Captain Billy?" demanded the man sharply.
"Captain Billy?" wondered Ned.
"Yes. You needn't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about."
"I most certainly do not. Who is Captain Billy?"
"Know Joe Withem?"
"I do not. Some friend of yours, I suppose?"
An angry exclamation escaped the lips of the mountaineer.
"I reckon they're no friends of mine. I reckon, too, that you'll be answering my questions or you'll be hiking for the Happy Hunting Grounds in about ten minutes from now. I haven't got all night to sit here talking with you. I've got to git through with you; then I'm going to finish the rest of your crowd. You fellows thought you'd play a sharp trick on me, eh?"
"You are mistaken. We did not even know of your existence until you began shooting at us. Why did you do that?"
"If you don't know, I reckon you'll have to guess. Bill McKay must think we're easy down here, to try a game like that."
"I'll tell him when I see him," nodded Ned.
"I reckon you won't see him right smart. When I git through with you I'm going to send a bullet through your head. Maybe they'll find you here. If they do they'll know what it means, I reckon."
Ned's face paled slightly. There was that in the eyes of the man before him which, all at once, told Ned Rector that the fellow meant what he said.
"Who do you think we are?" demanded the boy earnestly.
"You're part of the Ranger gang."
"The gang known as the Texas Rangers."
"You've got it wrong this time. We are not Texas Rangers. We are known as the Pony Riders and we are out for our health and as good a time as we can have."
"Ye can't fool me. That line of talk don't go down at all I'll tell you what. Bill McKay thought to trap some folks by getting in a bunch that wasn't known down in these parts. I had his little game sized up the minute I set eyes on your bunch. But I'll clip your claws. I'll show McKay that we ain't so easy. Now you out with the whole story. If you tell it straight, I may think about letting you go. If you lie it's the end of you. I'd as lief shoot you full of holes as I would a yellow dog. Now what's your orders?"
"I haven't any orders, I tell you."
"What did Bill McKay reckon you would do down here?"
"I don't know Bill McKay, I don't know any Texas Rangers, and if they are anything like you and your kind, I don't want to know them. But I do want to tell you that if you don't let me go—-that if you heap any more insults on me—-it is you who will get a bullet through your miserable hide. I'm getting mad, Mr. Man."
"Oho! Ye be, eh?"
"Yes, I am."
"Then I reckon there's only one thing to do to put ye in a better frame of mind," answered the mountaineer, shifting his rifle about suggestively. "Now I'll give ye two minutes to open up and tell all ye know," was the stern announcement.
In the meantime Tad Butler had not been idle. As the reader already knows, Tad had been deceived as to the location of the shot. He had gone a long distance out of his course. After a time he realized this and at once started back toward the plain. It was his intention to make the opening where they had first sought to make camp, as it was there or in that vicinity that he was to meet Ned Rector.
The lad settled down to a trot. Every faculty was on the alert, for Butler was a natural woodsman, added to which was an experience of some two or three years in mountain and on plain until Tad was familiar with many of the tricks of the mountaineer.
Suddenly the boy halted and stood with head thrown back sniffing the air.
"Smoke!" breathed Tad. "There is a fire somewhere near here. That means some one is in camp here. I can't be far from the edge now. I must find out where the fire is."
After a few moments of sniffing the lad decided that smoke lay off obliquely to the right of him. Having decided upon this he started in the direction named, but proceeded with much more caution than before as he did not wish to stumble upon strangers until he had first determined whether they were friends or enemies.
At last he saw a faint flicker of light.
"It's there," muttered the boy. "Now we'll see. I hope nothing has happened to Ned. Still, he would have fired his revolver had he got into trouble. He may be waiting for me down by the creek. But I must find out what's going on here before I take time to look him up. I hope the others don't come and blunder in."
Tad paused in his reflections as the sound of voices reached his ears. Young Butler, crouching low, crept cautiously through the bushes, each foot being placed on the ground as softly as an animal stalking its prey could have done. Not a sound did the young woodsman make. Of course his progress was slow, but it was silent, which was much more to be desired.
Some fifteen minutes elapsed before Tad reached a point where he could get a view of the fire. He was obliged to crawl some three or four rods from that point ere he found a position where he could see the men who were near the fire.
The first to attract Tad's attention was the mountaineer, squatting down with head thrust forward, his rifle held across his chest, the man's hand over the trigger-frame. Butler knew that the first finger of the right hand was toying with the trigger. His glances followed the direction indicated by the muzzle of the weapon. Then Tad's face flushed hot all over. There, back to a tree, a rope twisted twice about his body sat Ned Rector, defiance in face and eyes. Ned was looking straight at his captor. The situation was strained. To Tad, it was maddening.
"What is it you want me to tell you?" demanded the prisoner.
"I've told you that already. What are your orders?"
"And I have already told you, I have no orders from any one."
"How many are in your party?"
"Five, not including the horses."
"I wasn't asking about the cayuses. Who is in charge of you?"
"You wouldn't know if I told you."
"I'm asking you!"
"His name is Zepplin, Professor Zepplin."
"One of them scientific shooters, eh?"
"I don't know about his being a shooter. He is scientific, all right. But what's that got to do with you and me?"
"Did this—-this perfesser get his orders from Bill McKay?"
"I should say not," answered Ned with a mirthless laugh.
"Who was it you was to look up?"
"I don't know what you mean."
"Yes you do. Don't try to make a monkey of me. You'll be willing to answer right smart after I've fanned you with a forty-four. Who is it you and your bunch are after?"
"We are after no one. Can't you understand English?" replied Rector with some heat, "I have told you that we are here on a trip for pleasure and nothing else."
"You said you was here for your health, a little time ago," grinned the mountaineer.
"Well, what if we are?" snorted Ned.
"Nothing only that I'm going to drill you full of holes. The two minutes is about up. You've lied to me pretty near every word you've said. You said you didn't know Bill McKay when I know you do. You've said he hadn't given you any orders. You've—-"
"You're crazy," scoffed Rector.
"I reckon if I am that you're more so if you think I am going to gulp down all them fairy stories. You're young. Mebby you don't know the kind of a game you've stacked up against, but—-"
"I ought to have some idea about it by this time," returned Ned. "Everything you have said is a lie and you know it. I don't know you, nor do I want to, being somewhat particular about the people I know. And now once more, are you going to let me go?"
A sudden note of triumph had leaped into the tone of Ned Rector. Ned had seen something that sent the blood coursing through his veins madly. That something was a figure that for a few seconds had been outlined in the faint light of the fire.
The mountaineer caught the change of tone on the instant. His suspicions were aroused. His eyes narrowed. He slowly straightened up until he had risen to his full height. Now the rifle came up to position, ready for work. It was at his chest again. The mountaineer had no need to bring the weapon to a level with his eyes. He could shoot equally well from almost any position.
Rector shot a quick glance over the mountaineer's shoulder. He could not resist one more look in Tad's direction. But that look was fatal. With a roar the fellow wheeled like a flash.
The shots were fired with such suddenness that Ned did not realize the fellow had turned until after the rifle had spit two charges of fire and lead. Ned's head dropped. Everything grew black about him again. The lad was in a fainting condition. It was all up with him now.
Ned had tried to cry out, but the words would not come. He could not utter a sound if his very life depended upon so doing.
Ned found his voice at last. It rose in a mighty yell for help, a yell that carried far beyond the spot where those exciting scenes were being enacted.
WHEN THE TABLES WERE TURNED
At the instant when Ned had shot his quick glance at the wondering Tad, the latter with quick instinct, realizing that Ned had made a serious mistake, threw himself flat on the ground.
That move undoubtedly saved Tad Butler's life. At least, two bullets went ripping through the foliage over his head. The move served the further purpose of hiding him from the man who was shooting at him. The mountaineer had not even caught a sight of Butler, quick as had been his turn about. The fellow swung to the right letting go two more shots, evidently believing that he had not fired in the right direction.
In Tad Butler's right hand was gripped a piece of rock that he had grabbed when he threw himself to the ground. The boy came to his feet as if propelled by a spring. At that second the eyes of the mountaineer were fixed on a point several yards to the left of Tad.
Without a sound Tad let go the rock. But the movement caught the eyes of the ruffian. He swung toward Butler at the same instant pulling the trigger of his rifle.
Once more the rifle roared its savage protest. But that was its last roar for the time being. Almost at the instant when he pulled the trigger the mountaineer received Tad's rock in the pit of his stomach. With such force had the missile been hurled that the fellow staggered back, the rifle falling from his hands, both of which were suddenly clasped over the part of his anatomy that had been struck.
The fellow uttered a howl of pain. He swayed and staggered then fell over a dead limb, landing flat on his back with a crash.
Tad, without an instant's hesitation, sprang forward. The eyes of the plucky Pony Rider Boy were flashing. Tad had not even thought to draw his revolver. But his anger was kindled. He was dangerous in his present mood. He did not pause to think what a terrible chance he was taking in thus rushing forward. Fortunately for Tad, however, the mountaineer was suffering such agonies that he either gave no thought to the revolver that was hanging at his side, or else he was too weak to draw it. He staggered to his feet, swaying, groaning, shoulders hunched forward, chin on his breast.
Young Butler was upon him like a whirlwind.
Tad's fist caught the mountaineer squarely on the point of the jaw as the man raised his head half defiantly, one hand groping awkwardly for his pistol.
The fellow went down in a heap.
"Whoop!" howled Ned Rector. "That's the blow that put the finishing touches to father. Cut me loose! Cut me loose! Quick, Tad! He'll be up in a minute!"
Butler had no need to be told this. He knew the first thing to be done was to secure the prisoner. Ned could wait. The danger lay with the man stretched out there on the ground. Tad worked rapidly. His rope was jerked free from his belt. Three swift turns were made about the body of the prostrate man, binding the fellow's arms firmly to his sides.
Next Tad jerked the mountaineer's revolver from its holster and cast it into the bushes. Then he tied the man's ankles together, after which he straightened up and wiped the sweat from his face and forehead.
"Whew! Warm, isn't it, Ned?"
"Rather," drawled Rector. "Warmer for some folks than others. It came near being pretty warm for you. Are you going to cut me loose, or am I to stay tied to this tree for the rest of the night?"
"I guess we will let you up now. We shall have to wait until our friend there comes to his senses before going farther. Tell me how you got into this mess."
"The same way Chunky gets into trouble. I blundered into it." Ned then went on to relate briefly how he had been jumped on by the mountaineer and made prisoner.
"What was he trying to get you to tell him?"
"He accused me of being a Texas Ranger, a member of some fellow's band, a fellow named McKay."
"The band or the man?" questioned Tad.
"That was the man's name. Billy McKay. He's a captain of Rangers, or something of the sort, it doesn't matter much what."
"I rather think it does," answered Butler dryly.
"Why, don't you see, it means that if the Texas Rangers are after this fellow he must be wanted for something very serious. Who is he?"
"You may search me. Stacy may be right after all. There are plenty of Germans in Mexico, so why not some of them up here to stir up trouble? He looks like pictures I have seen of some of those Hun assassins," declared Ned Rector.
"I think I will search him. He may have some more weapons about his person."
Tad found a bowie knife in the mountaineer's boot, but that was the only weapon left on his person. Tad threw the knife away. About this time the prisoner began to show signs of returning consciousness.
"You must have hit him an awful wallop," wondered Ned, standing over the man and eyeing him narrowly.
"I did. I hit him first with a stone, then with my fist. I skinned my knuckles, too."
"I'd hate to have you land on me that way. That surely was a sockdolager. He has his eyes open."
"Oh, hullo!" greeted Butler. "We rather turned the tables on you, didn't we?"
"I'll kill you for this!" growled the prisoner hoarsely.
"I don't think you will kill anybody to-night. What I would like to know is what you mean by trying to shoot us up."
"I'll shoot up the rest of you before I get through with you, you and your whole gang. You can tell Bill McKay what I say and—-"
"We don't know Bill McKay. We have nothing to do with any of you people down here. We are here for pleasure."
"That's what the other cayuse said. Looks like you wuz, hey?"
"You alone are to blame for present conditions. We were not looking for you. You began shooting at us before we got into the foothills. Who were you shooting at the last time? I mean before you tried to pot me just now."
A growl was the only answer.
"The question is, what are we going to do with this fellow, Tad?" asked Ned. "Surely it won't be safe to let him go, and we can't leave him here to starve to death."
"No. I'll tell you what. We will fix up a litter—-by the way, fellow, are there any more of your kind fooling about here?"
"You'll find out whether there are or not," grunted the prisoner.
"Thank you. You have answered my question. I now know you are alone. Ned, can you cut down a couple of saplings?"
"Where do you want to carry him?"
"Down to the fork."
"Then let's drag him. Dragging is good enough for that ruffian—-too good for him. He ought to be shot, then rolled down the hill."
"Don't be bloodthirsty. Prisoners of war should be treated with the utmost courtesy and consideration. I guess perhaps we had better not take the time to make a litter. We can carry him down to the fork. Take hold of the feet. I'll take the heavier end. And you, fellow! You will get along much better if you keep quiet. Remember, no yells nor struggles, else I shall be obliged to put you to sleep as I did a short time since. Do you understand?"
There was no reply to the question.
"All right. Pick him up, Ned," directed Tad.
"Are you going to take his rifle?"
"Yes, I guess perhaps it would be best. The rifle is good evidence," decided Butler.
Tad strapped the weapon to his own back. He did not bother to pick up the revolver or the bowie knife. The rifle was the evidence that he wanted to take with him. Then they gathered their prisoner up. He proved a heavy burden, though fortunately the distance was short to the fork where Tad had decided to carry the man. The fellow had nothing to say, but the expression in his eyes made up for what his lips did not utter. The two boys were glad enough when finally they reached their destination and dropped their burden, though none too gently at that.
"Now what?" demanded Ned.
"I want you to hurry over to where the ponies are tethered, then ride to the outfit. Tell them to pack up and move over here at once."
"Give me a signal before you come into the gulch here. I'll answer it if all is right. Then you may come in without fear."
"What are you going to do?"
"I am going to stay here to keep our friend company. He might get lonesome if we were to leave him alone," chuckled Tad. "Get back as soon as you can. I'll have a fire built, then we'll get supper. Did you know this fellow took another shot at Chunky?"
"No. Was that what he shot at?"
"That was it."
"I hope he didn't hit him."
"I guess not."
"Chunky seems to be getting more than his share of lead to-day," answered Rector with a chuckle. "Serves him right. It'll teach him to be more prudent."
"I don't think you are exactly in the position to say much yourself," replied Tad, his eyes twinkling mischievously.
Ned flushed to the roots of his hair.
"For goodness' sake, don't tell the crowd how I got jumped on. I am as easy as a baby. I'll never call myself a mountaineer again."
"Never mind. You showed your grit at any rate. You didn't appear to be the least bit scared."
"I wasn't. But honest, Tad, now that I've had time to think it all over, I'm scared stiff right this minute. I believe he would have shot me."
"There is no doubt of it in my mind. So he thinks we are Rangers?"
"Who are the Rangers, anyway?"
"The Rangers are a body of men who did much toward clearing this state of the bad men that infested it for a long time."
"They don't seem to have got them all," replied Rector.
"No, there are some near the border still. The Rangers are a sort of police who range over the state wherever their services may be needed. I understand they are paid by the state. I guess there are not many of them left. The necessity for Rangers is not what it was a few years ago."
"So I should judge from what has just happened," answered Ned somewhat ironically.
"Come, are you going to get started tonight?" demanded Tad with a laugh.
"I'm off this very minute."
Ned hurried away laughing. He bore evidences of his recent encounter with the mountaineer, but all this was forgotten now that the man had been taken and was safely tied up back there in the canyon with the ever vigilant Tad Butler on guard over him.
A short time after that Ned was riding his pony over the plain toward the camp at a fast gallop. He shouted as he neared the camp, where no fire had been lighted, uttering a subdued whoop as he rode in. Chunky and the professor met him a few rods from the camp.
"I—-I got shot again!" cried Chunky.
"Where is Tad?" called the professor.
"Over on the fork waiting for us. You are to pack up and return with me at once."
"But—-but, the danger," protested Professor Zepplin.
"The danger is past. I don't believe you will have to worry."
"Explain what you mean!"
"I'll leave that for Tad to do after we get over there. Are you all ready?"
"Is Tad all right?" demanded Perkins.
"Fit as a fiddle. You can't put Tad out of business for any length of time. You are to fetch everything. We are going into camp where we originally planned to spend the night," advised Rector.
The professor, very much relieved to learn that the boys had met with no harm, but still somewhat nervous from the hours of fretting he had passed when the lads failed to return, now hastened to get ready to accompany Ned. On the way he explained bow Stacy Brown had been fanned by another bullet when the fat boy indiscreetly showed himself on the rise of ground between the camping place and the foothills of the mountains.
"Maybe you'll learn something one of these days," scoffed Ned.
"I—-I've learned something to-day."
"Well, what have you learned?"
"That these fellows down here can shoot to beat the band."
"I have observed something of the same sort myself," muttered Ned, with the memory of the mountaineer's bombardment of Tad Butler.
The party had set out at a slow trot with Ned leading the way. Ned's confidence assured them that all was as it should be, but the young man turned a deaf ear to all their questions, replying only now and then with the remark that Tad would tell them all that was to be told when they got to the camping place.
In the meantime Tad had built up a fire, mainly for the reason that he wanted to keep his prisoner well in sight all the time. Butler knew that the man was a tough customer and that were he to get free it would be a sad night for Tad Butler, and so, too, perhaps, for the rest of the party.
The prisoner had nothing to say, nor did Butler seek to draw the fellow into conversation. But the man was watching every move of the young rider who had so cleverly outwitted and captured him. The mountaineer now believed more firmly than before that these two young men were carrying out the orders of Captain Billy McKay of the Texas Rangers. He swore to be revenged on every man of them when once he had gained his freedom. At present that hour of revenge was a long way off.
Suddenly a loud "Yip! Yip! Yahee!" sounded off on the plain. Tad smiled broadly.
"That's Stacy Brown, I'll wager my hat. I'll bet Ned is scolding him, too."
Ned was. He was at that instant threatening to break Chunky's head if he opened his mouth again before they reached the camping place. Shortly after that Butler's keen ears caught the sound of hoofbeats. He stepped back into the shadows, the prisoner eyeing him inquiringly. Tad did not take the trouble to explain. Let the prisoner think what he might. Then the party rode in in single file. Tad was not in sight. He was hiding in the bushes.
Professor Zepplin pulled up short when his glances finally came to rest on the bound form of the mountaineer; Stacy Brown's eyes grew large and Walter Perkins gasped.
THE CAMP IN AN UPROAR
"Tad! Where is Tad? What does this mean?" demanded the professor.
"Hullo, boys," cried Butler stepping out into the light. "Did you think that was myself tied up there?"
Chunky, in the excitement of the moment, forgot to tell Tad that he had stopped another bullet out on the plain.
"What do you think of our prisoner, Professor?"
"Tad, will you be good enough to explain what this means?"
"Yes, sir. To be brief that's the fellow who shot at us. He tried to kill us both up here in the mountains."
"Are you sure?"
"I guess I ought to know," grinned Rector, "He jumped me, tied me to a tree, then was about to blow my head off when Tad appeared just in time to save my precious life."
By this time Stacy had slipped from his saddle and striding over to the prisoner stood looking down at him. "So, you're the fellow who potted me twice to-day, are you?" demanded the fat boy sternly. The prisoner made no reply, but he gazed up at his tormentor so savagely that Stacy instinctively took a step backward.
"He is the man, but we landed him," answered Rector proudly.
"Is there any objection to my giving the ruffian a good hard kick for luck?" asked Stacy.
"There certainly is objection to your doing anything of the sort," returned Tad sharply. "We have not come to the point where we treat our prisoners of war the way the Germans do theirs. You let the man alone or I'll have something to say to you."
"Stacy!" rebuked Professor Zepplin sternly.
"You will keep away from the prisoner. Tad, I want to hear all about this."
"There is not much to tell, except that we got him, though he nearly got us. He caught Ned napping. I should have fallen just the same had I been in Ned's place, for this fellow is a bad man. Ned has told you what happened to him, else I shouldn't have said anything about that part of the affair. While Ned was trying to find where the shot came from that caught Stacy last, this fellow spotted and captured him. I was hunting for the source of the shot at the same time, but went astray. I was finally attracted by the smell of smoke. I arrived on the scene about the time that fellow was getting ready to take Ned's life. At least, that was the way it seemed to me."
"Yes, he was," interjected Rector.
"You were an easy mark!" jeered Stacy.
"At least I didn't stop two bullets," answered Ned witheringly.
"The fellow caught Ned looking at me and knowing instantly that something was wrong he whirled and shot at me. He missed, then I shied a stone into his solar plexus," said Tad.
"That sounds like astronomy," ventured Stacy.
"You're wrong; it's geography," chuckled Rector. "I'll finish the story. The ruffian fired twice more after the first two shots at Tad; then he went down as the stone landed on him. By the time he had got up, Tad was on the job and punched him in the jaw."
"Boys, boys!" rebuked Professor Zepplin. "One would think this was a prize fight you were describing."
"It's the truth," protested Ned.
"Of course it is," laughed Tad.
"That may be. But be good enough to moderate your language. You can describe the scene without using questionable language."
"Yes, it's disgraceful," added Stacy, whereat Ned gave the fat boy another withering look.
"As I was about to say," continued Rector, "this gentleman of the mountains had got to his feet when Tad gently smote said gentleman on the tender part of his chin. The gentleman fell down and went to sleep like a little child after a full meal. When the gentleman woke up we had him hog-tied—-"
"During which time our friend Ned remained tied to a tree," chuckled Butler.
"Pshaw! I thought so," grunted Stacy. "Brave man is Ned Rector! If you were a scarred veteran like myself then you'd have a right to swell out your chest," added the fat boy, gingerly stroking the bullet mark on his cheek. "Well, go on. We're listening."
"That's all there is to tell, Professor, except that we carried the man down here and there he is."
Professor Zepplin stroked his bristling whiskers reflectively.
"What is your name, my man?" he asked stepping up to the prisoner. But the fellow made no reply.
"I said what is your name?" repeated Professor Zepplin.
"What's that to you, old Whiskers?"
The professor started, a faint touch of color showing under his tan, while audible chuckles might have been heard from the boys in the background.
"Such language will not help you. What is your name?"
"Yours will be Mud when I git out of this, you old scarecrow! Don't you stand there jawing over me. I don't like it," added the prisoner, so savagely that the professor shrank back a little.
"It's no use to question him, professor," spoke up Tad. "He won't answer questions."
"I question our right to hold him," said Professor Zepplin. "We have no proof that he is the man who shot at us."
"I've got proof that he assaulted me," bristled Ned.
"And I that he shot at me four times," added Tad. "I should think that were proof enough. What would you do, Professor?"
"I was thinking that we should let the man go with an admonition."
"No, no, no," protested Chunky. "I don't want to be shot up again to-day."
"Don't be afraid, little boy," urged Rector. "We are not going to let the man go—-not if I have to fight for it."
"Professor, this fellow thought us Rangers," began Tad.
"Yes. He admitted in his questioning of Ned that he thought we were Rangers, or that we had been employed by the Rangers to run him down. That is why he sought to kill us."
"But surely you assured him we were not," protested Professor Zepplin.
"Little stock did he take in our assurances," scoffed Ned. "You might as well talk to the wind."
"But what are we going to do with him, boys?"
"I have thought of that," replied Tad. "It is my idea that he is a bad man. He must be, else the Rangers would not be looking for him. He has proved that he is a dangerous customer to be at large—-"
"Yes, he's large, all right," mumbled Stacy. "As I was saying, it seems to me to be our duty to turn him over to the officers of the law."
"I don't know. Is there any town near here?"
"Some twenty miles to the southeast, I believe," answered the professor.
"Then that is where we must take him."
"We may find, then, that we have made a mistake," objected the professor, still doubtful about the wisdom of the course proposed by Tad Butler.
"Then we will make a complaint against him ourselves," answered Tad firmly. "I don't propose to let him off after what he has done. Why, were we to let that man go our lives wouldn't be worth a cent. He would shoot us before the night was over. No, Professor, he must be held prisoner until we can get him to town."
"But we can't go on to-night."
"No. The morning will be time enough. We will give him some food."
"Let me feed the animal," urged Stacy.
"You have steady business performing that office for yourself," retorted Ned Rector.
"In the morning we will take him to town. Shall we get some supper now?"
"Yes. I will think over your proposal in the meantime. Stacy, you might gather some more wood for the fire. Ahem! This has been a most remarkable proceeding all the way through."
"You would have thought so if that fellow had jumped on you as he did on me," growled Ned Rector. "I thought the mountain had fallen down on me. He is bad medicine."
Tad by this time was getting out the things for supper. They were late with this meal owing to circumstances over which they had not had full control, though matters were now pretty well in the hands of the Pony Rider Boys.
"You had better tell us who and what you are. You have heard what has been said here, my man," said the professor returning to the prisoner.
"I reckon I've heard enough. I reckon, too, that you've made a mistake. I ain't what you think. I'll tell you, now that the fresh young feller isn't listening."
"Do so," urged Professor Zepplin, preparing to listen.
"Lean over so the others won't hear."
"You're a right smart old party and I don't mind talking to you, for you've got right smart sense and you'll understand what I'm getting at."
"Say what you have to say, my man. I am listening."
"Between you and me I'm an officer. I'm looking for some parties that have been cutting up didoes down in these parts of late. When I saw your party I thought you were the lawbreakers, so I up and let go. I saw that there were too many for me and it was the only chance I had to—-"
"But surely you didn't have to kill us."
"I didn't kill you, did I?"
"I was telling you, I thought you were they and I let go a few shots, just as a tickler. You see, I could have picked you off one at a time just as easy as eating pie. I'm a dead shot, I am."
"Then you only sought to drive us off?" questioned the professor.
"Yes, that's it. You're a wise old party. They're a bad lot, you know."
"But what about this assault on my boys?" demanded the professor.
"Same thing. I thought they were them."
"Your grammar is shocking, my man, but what you say is deserving of careful consideration. You say you took us to be bad men?"
"Sure I did."
"Who did you think we were?"
"Tuck O'Connor and his crowd."
"Who are they?"
"Well, you see, they do some smuggling over the Rio Grande. Then again, they are up to a few other tricks that the public hasn't got on to yet. What I want to do is to get away from here, quiet-like, so the youngsters won't get wise in time to cut up. Of course I ain't afraid of them. I don't want to hurt them, you see."
"I see," observed the professor dryly.
"I've got to get away to-night. If I'm held till morning I'll have to take you all in. You'll all have to go back with me to State Line and you'll be locked up for interfering with an officer."
"How comes it that you feared we were Rangers then, if this be true?"
"Aw, I was jest bluffing. I wanted the youngsters to give theirselves away, you see."
"I see," reflected the professor.
"Then you'll let me out?"
"I am afraid I can't do that."
"Then lean over here and I'll tell you a secret that'll make you change your mind."
The professor leaned closer. The man's hands, free from the wrists, were moving cautiously. All at once Professor Zepplin's revolver was snipped from its holster and a bullet tore through his clothes, taking some of the professor's skin with it. The professor fell back, staggering to one side out of range where he sank down to the ground holding a hand to his side.
RECEIVING A LATE VISITOR
So unexpected had been the shot that, for a few seconds, the boys stood dumbfounded.
"I'm shot! I'm shot!" yelled the professor.
A bullet whistled close to the head of Tad Butler. Stacy Brown, who was just coming into camp with an armful of dry wood for the campfire, dropped his burden and with a howl made for shelter. Tad and Ned had sprung to one side so as to be out of range, while Walter Perkins had flattened himself on the ground.
"Lie still!" commanded Tad sternly as the professor started to get up from where he had sunk down. "Are you much hurt?"
"I—-I don't know."
"Drop that pistol, you!" commanded Tad, glowering at the prisoner.
The man laughed.
"I've got you children now," he sneered. "I'll pick you off unless you do as I tell you. Now you come over here. Walk straight, one hand out. Leave your guns behind. Cut me loose or you're a dead one," commanded the prisoner.
"Oh, am I?"
Tad glanced around to make sure that all the boys were out of range. Then with a quick leap he got entirely out of range of the revolver in the hands of the prisoner. Tad had thought he was out of range before, but the man on the ground had twisted the weapon about until its muzzle was pointing in Butler's direction.
But this time the lad got out of range without question. But he was no better off than before. Reaching for his revolver he made the discovery that he had thrown off his belt with revolver and cartridges before beginning to get supper. The others were in no better shape. Not a boy had his revolver on, and the professor's weapon was in the hands of the prisoner.
"I know a trick. I've played it once to-day and I can play it again," declared Tad, searching for a stone, while the others got well out of the way, watching T. Butler. In an emergency they always looked to him to get them out of their difficulties.
"Professor, you lie still. Don't move. I'll fix this fellow. You had better get a good bit farther off," advised the lad, observing a movement on the part of the mountaineer.
Suddenly the latter braced his head and digging his heels into the ground ran around, pivoting on his head. Tad anticipated the movement by running a few seconds in advance. For a few moments it was a race of wits. The lad as yet had not found a stone suited to his immediate requirements. He was using his eyes in this direction as well as watching the prisoner. Once the latter tried a shot at the boy. The bullet passed Butler rather too close for comfort, but the Pony Rider Boy appeared not to have heard the shot.
Not a word was being said by the lad's companions. The professor lay where he had fallen, the perspiration streaming from his face and body up the side of the canyon the big eyes of Chunky might have been seen peering through between the bushes at the exciting scene below. All at once Tad stooped over. When he straightened up with a bound that carried him several feet to one side, he held a good-sized stone in his right hand.
"Now will you drop that pistol?" demanded the Pony Rider Boy.
"I'll drop you!" roared the enraged enemy.
No sooner had he uttered the words than Tad, with a well-directed toss, dropped the stone fairly on the stomach of the man on the ground.
The prisoner uttered a yell that might have been heard a quarter of a mile away. Ere the yell had died out another stone landed nearly in the same place. The weapon dropped from the hands of the fellow, falling between his legs where he could not reach it without changing his position materially. This he tried to do in a series of quick twists and wriggles, though the boys knew from the expression on his face that he was suffering great pain. It was not surprising, in view of the fact that two rocks, each weighing from eight to ten pounds, had been dropped on his stomach.
The fellow found no opportunity to recover the lost weapon. Tad was upon him with a rush. Grabbing the mountaineer's feet he dragged the man roughly to one side.
"I guess that will be about all for you, my man. You may push us too far. I shan't promise to let you off so easily if you try any more tricks. Professor, are you much hurt?"
"I—-I don't know. I'm bleeding."
"Let's see what he did to you."
A quick examination developed the fact that the professor had sustained merely a flesh wound. It was bleeding very little now. Tad, at the professor's direction, washed and dressed the wound, binding a piece of cloth firmly about the waist.
"There, I guess you will be all right now. You may come down, Chunky. The fun is all over for the present. How did he happen to get you that way, Professor?"
Professor Zepplin explained how the prisoner had tricked him, declaring his belief in Tad Butler's statement that the prisoner was a bad man. The professor no longer urged the release of their prisoner. Tad smiled mirthlessly. Perhaps it was better that the professor should have had an object lesson. He would take no further chances with the fellow after that. As for the prisoner, he was fairly frothing at the mouth with rage.
Now that the excitement had come to an end for the moment Stacy Brown went about his task of gathering more wood for the fire. This time he went quite a distance down the canyon, carrying a torch that he might the better find that for which he was in search.
Stacy was busy gathering wood, muttering to himself as was his habit, when all of a sudden he straightened up, conscious that some one was standing beside him. As he rose the fat boy's nose nearly bumped into the muzzle of a revolver. The revolver was backed by a not unpleasant, but stern face.
"Wha—-wha——-what—-" stammered the fat boy. "Wh—-wh—-who—-"
"Not a sound, young man, if you value your life. Who and what are you?"
"I—-I'm a Pu—-Pu—-Pony Rider Boy."
"A Pu—-Pony Rider Boy."
"What are you doing here?"
"Who is your party?"
"Pro—-professor Ze—-Zep—-Zepplin and the boys," stammered the fat boy, trembling at the knees. "I haven't done anything, but I'm a bu—-bu—-bad man when I get ma—-mad."