Chapter X. The Pony Rider Boys Initiated
 

It was rather a solemn party that took its way slowly back to the Pony Rider Boys' Camp in the mountains. The boys realized that they had taken a rather active part in what might prove for them a serious affair. If, by any chance, the bandits learned who had interfered with them, it might be necessary for Professor Zepplin and his charges to make lively tracks for the border and seek other fields of adventure.

The same thought was in the minds of all except Chunky, who held his head erect, his chest swelled out. He was full of their great achievements and was telling what he would do if any of the bandits came to visit their camp.

"I think we will put you on guard to-night, seeing that you are such a brave young man," said the professor with a twinkle.

"On guard?"

"Yes."

"Yes, that's the idea. Let him take the watch," approved Rector.

"You forget that I'm a wounded man. You forget I've been shot twice to-day. Huh! Some of you children take the trick. I've got to take care of my health."

"I guess if we expect to get any sleep we had better let some one else do it," agreed Tad. "Chunky will have us out on false alarms all night long."

They were agreed upon this, and by common consent Butler was given the watch for the night. The boys slept with their rifles beside them that night.

The night passed without incident, Tad Butler keeping a vigilant watch all during the dark hours of the night. He had plenty of time to think matters over. He realized that Dunk Tucker, the prisoner, had overheard all that had been said during their talk with Withem out on the plain. Tad knew that if Dunk ever got into communication with his fellows it would go hard with the Pony Rider Boys.

Soon after daybreak, Tad awakened his fellows. He already had a brisk fire going, but before lighting it, the lad had walked down to the edge of the canyon for a survey of the plain. He saw a solitary horseman far out over the rolling plain. After some study he made up his mind that the man was going away instead of coming toward them.

Breakfast finished the party packed their belongings and started out for their long ride to join the Rangers sometime late in the day.

About noon they made camp for dinner and a rest, not taking up their journey until about four o'clock in the afternoon. Darkness overtook them, finding them still without sight or sound of the Spring where Withem said they would find the Rangers' camp. A consultation was held and it was decided to continue on until they picked up the party.

About half an hour after night had fallen, they were riding along when suddenly they were stopped by a stern command.

"Halt! Hands up! Every man of you is covered!"

"Oh, wow!" gasped Chunky. "They've got us again."

"Who are you?" demanded the voice.

"Who are you?" returned Tad boldly.

"I reckon my question gits the first answer, seeing as I've got the drop on you."

Tad all at once realized that the sound of falling water was in the air. With it came the thought that these must be the Rangers.

"We're the Pony Rider Boys," he said, speaking confidently.

"The which?"

He repeated his answer.

"Wait a minute. Send for Joe," said the man in a lower tone. "You fellows stay just as you are if you don't want some daylight let through you."

"I---I wish we did have a little daylight," stammered Chunky, which elicited a short laugh from his companions. "Yeow!" bowled the fat boy as a figure appeared beside him and a pair of iron arms grasped his hands pulling him down, nearly unseating him. "Yeow! Let go!"

"It's all right, boys," spoke up the familiar voice of Lieutenant Withem. "I'd know this fellow in the dark as well as in the light. I'm Withem."

At the lieutenant's reassuring words the Rangers---for the boys had stumbled upon the camp of the men of Captain McKay's command---crowded forward, talking and laughing, three of them taking the horses as the party dismounted, then leading the way into the bushes and in among the rocks where the lads came upon a campfire, around which were seated five or six other Rangers.

Withem introduced the professor and his charges. There were, besides the Lieutenant, Pete Quash, "Dippy" Orell, Cad Morgan, Bucky Moore, "Polly" Perkins and several others, all of whom were introduced in turn, the Rangers solemn as owls, making low bows, sweeping the ground with their sombreros, causing Stacy to open his eyes in wonderment. Lieutenant Withem made the party feel at home at once.

"Just in time to have chuck with us. You see we have our chuck wagon here. Of course we don't carry it wherever we go. We usually have some central point where we make headquarters. But we have to keep changing these headquarters for reasons you understand."

All hands sat down to the evening meal after the men had washed up, in most instances without removing their hats. This attracted the attention of the fat boy.

"Say, do you fellows sleep in your hats as well as wash and eat in them?" he demanded.

"Do you sleep in your skin?" retorted Dippy.

"Yes, unless it has been all skinned off from me. When I was fighting Indians up in the Grand Canyon---"

"Chop it!" commanded a Ranger. "Men have been known to meet their death for less in this country."

"Can't I say what I've got to say?" demanded the fat boy indignantly.

"Are you going to brag about yourself?" demanded Polly.

"I'm telling you, and---"

"Well, don't tell us. We don't want to have to take you out and tie you to a tree. Say, will you get wise to the dude with the red necktie?" scoffed the Ranger, pointing to Ned, who, in the place of the bandanna handkerchief, had put on a flowing tie of brilliant red, tying it about his neck, with the ends carelessly thrown over the left shoulder.

"Don't you like it?" asked Ned, flushing.

"Like it? Why, it's the hottest thing that ever crossed the Staked Plains since the Apaches came down in---"

"Why don't you look the other way then?" interjected Stacy.

"Oho! Listen to the human monstrosity---the monstrosity as wide as he is long and as fresh as he is stale. What you got to say about it, young man?" demanded Dippy, glancing at Tad Butler, who was smiling.

"I haven't said anything yet."

"But you're going to?"

"I may."

"Can we stand for any more remarks, boys?" asked Dippy.

"No, we can't stand for any more," chorused the men, the professor and the lieutenant being too busy with a discussion to pay any heed to what was going on about them.

"Then he shall be washed clean so that he may take a fresh start?"

"That's the idea!"

"Will you go peaceably or must we drag you?"

"I reckon you'd better drag me. If you're going to have fun with me you'll have to earn it. I don't propose to help you out."

"Do you hear?" demanded Dippy in a deep, hoarse voice.

"We hear."

"Then do your duty!"

Two men grabbed the Pony Rider boy up, Tad making no resistance whatever, a little to the surprise of the men who had taken hold of him. They expected the boy to resist, which would have given them still further excuse to handle him roughly. But Tad was used to dealing with the rough and ready characters of plain and mountain. He didn't care particularly what they did. The other boys were delighted that Tad was to be made the mark this time. They followed along laughing and jeering at their companion.

The Rangers fell in behind the two who were carrying Butler, in solemn procession. To look at their faces one would have thought they were performing a solemn duty. The boys wondered where it was going to end. They discovered a few minutes later. Tad was taken out where the gentle murmur of the Spring falling over the rocks could be heard when the Pony Rider Boys were not making too much noise.

"Do you withdraw the flippant words you used to a member of this august body?" demanded a deep voice.

"No!" cried Tad Butler. "Never! I'll die first!"

"Then take your punishment!"

With that they gave the boy a swing, one holding to the feet the other the shoulders of the lad. When they let go, Tad sailed several feet through the air. Quick as a cat in his movements Tad turned over before he landed, going down on all fours. He thought he was going to strike on the hard ground. Instead he landed at the bottom of a deep pool of water cold as ice it seemed to him. He went in all over. Not expecting anything of this sort the boy was not holding his breath. The result was that he got a mouthful of water. He came up choking, then pretended to go down again. Instead he crawled up to the bank, under which he hid.

A moment passed and the Rangers began to be alarmed. Dippy stepped to the edge of the pool and leaning over peered down somewhat anxiously.

Quick as a flash a pair of arms encircled his neck. Dippy plunged in head first. He did not even have time to cry out. The others, discovering that Dippy had fallen in, rushed to the edge shouting and laughing. Two of them went the way of their companion, Tad having jerked their feet from under them. Within sixty seconds from that time half of the crowd were threshing about in the cold waters of the pool, while Tad, who had crawled out, sat on the bank dripping, watching their struggles.

Stacy Brown was rolling on the ground, howling with delight. All at once he was picked up in a pair of strong arms and tossed in bodily. Stacy howled lustily. Clambering out he squared off for fight, but the only fight he got was another ducking in the pool.

"You---you----you fellows ought to be ashamed to pick on a wounded man that way. Don't you know I've been shot?"

"Shot?"

"Yes, shot."

"He's been shot," chorused the boys and the Rangers together.

"Any of the rest of you kiddies been wounded in the fracas?" demanded Folly.

"No, but you've overlooked two of us," announced Ned stepping out. "We haven't had our baths yet and I reckon we need them."

Without a word, two of the Rangers got up and threw the two remaining boys into the pool. Ned went in with a mighty splash, Walter Perkins landing on top of him, nearly taking away the breath of Rector. They had a rough and tumble scrimmage in the cold water, coming out choking, dripping and laughing.

All this made a favorable impression on the Rangers. Boys who could take rough handling such as this, without losing their tempers or even offering any objection, surely must be worth while. Then, too, there was the story about Tad and Ned having captured the desperado, Dunk Tucker, who was now well on his way to the calaboose in El Paso.

"I reckon you kin go back and dry off now," drawled Dippy. "Anything else you cayuses reckon you want?"

"Yes, you might fetch me a piece of soap," answered Butler laughingly.

"I reckon you'll use sand, young man," answered Orell witheringly.

The Pony Rider Boys made their way back to the camp, wet but happy, the only dissatisfied one in the crowd being Stacy Brown. But their troubles for the night were not wholly over yet. Their initiation was not yet complete. The Rangers had still other plans for their visitors.