Chapter XII. Insects Win the Battle
 

The Rangers, slapping, scratching and fighting against the armies of insects that were crawling over them, had finally got out of bed and gone out of doors to sleep. But there was no rest there either. Their bodies were covered with ants and fleas, all with well-developed biters---and they bit!

At first the Rangers did not realize the trick that had been played upon them. One who went back to the tent for his hat discovered the burlap sack that had been used in the 'possum hunt. He brought it out, holding it up before his companions. The Rangers eyed the bag, then gazed at each other solemnly.

"Stung!" groaned Dippy.

"Bitten, you mean," answered Cad Morgan.

"Which one played that low-down trick on us?" demanded Pete Quash angrily.

"I reckon it was Fatty," said Polly. "He's the one that would have thought of a thing like that. I reckon there must have been a million of those bugs crawling over me."

"I'll tell you what, fellows. Let's get Fatty out and tie the sack over his head. We'll give him a dose of his own medicine," proposed Dippy. "We can't stand for anything of this sort."

"Look here, boys," spoke up Cad. "Are you welchers? Can't you take your medicine without squealing?"

"What do you meant" demanded Polly.

"I mean that we fellows put up a job on the kids. The fat baby turned the joke on us, and right smart at that. We're It. We're full of bugs---the worst biters anywhere between the Rio Grande and the northern border. Are we going to squeal? I reckon we aren't. We're going to stand here and let the biters do their worst. I'm mighty near eaten alive, but I'm taking my medicine and I reckon I'll be taking a lot more of the same dose before morning."

"Wal," drawled Polly, "I reckon you're right at that, Cad. But I'd like to wring that little cayuse's neck just for luck."

The "little cayuse" referred to was sleeping sweetly in his tent, untroubled by the distress of the Rangers.

All that night the Rangers walked up and down, slapping their thighs, scratching their legs, for the older the night grew the harder did those fleas seem to take hold.

"I reckon their bills will be so dull by morning, after drilling our tough hides all night, that we won't feel them at all," observed Polly.

A low growl from Dippy Orell was the only reply to the remark. Now and then a man would throw himself down hoping to get a brief nap, but a few moments later he would be up stamping and scratching and growling deeply, threatening vengeance on the boy who had played the trick on them.

Next morning, Stacy Brown, for reasons best known to himself, got up ahead of the others of his party. Stacy took his time in dressing, then strolled out.

"Hullo, I guess the crowd is sleeping late this morning," he muttered. Then he halted. His eyes rested on the 'possum sack that he had left in the tent of the Rangers the night before. A broad grin spread over his face.

"I guess they won't be playing monkeyshines on Stacy Brown right away. I wonder if they got bitten much? I'm all swelled up where the insects made a meal on my skin. Hullo! Hi, fellows!"

Tad Butler and Ned Rector appeared at the door of their tent almost at once.

"Can't you let a fellow sleep?" demanded Ned. "What's the row about? Got a 'possum for breakfast?"

"No, but I've got something else for you."

"What's that?" questioned Butler.

"A surprise."

"What kind of a surprise?"

"Just a surprise surprise, that's all. What do you think?"

"Too early to think. I'm going back to bed," growled Rector. "And don't you dare wake me up again."

Tad stepped out.

"The crowd has given us the slip," announced Stacy.

"What---why they've gone!" exclaimed Tad.

"Yes, they've gone. Gone where there aren't any Pony Rider Boys to make life miserable for them."

Tad was mystified. The Ranger company had disappeared utterly. They had slipped away silently and mysteriously. Even the chuck wagon had disappeared.

"Why, what can it mean?" marveled Tad Butter.

"You may search me. I don't know."

"Hey, Ned!"

"Well, what is it?" growled Rector appearing at the tent opening again.

"They've gone and left us and without even saying good-bye," called Tad. "Shake out the others."

The professor and Walter, having been awakened by the talking, now appeared. They were quickly informed that the Rangers had left, at which they wondered not a little.

"I guess they got tired of our company. I'm going to start breakfast," declared Butler.

"This is most remarkable," bristled the professor. "I should have thought they would have left some word."

"How about that 'possum, Chunky?" jeered Rector.

"You better ask the Rangers. They'll tell you about that," answered the fat boy with a grin. "There's the sack in which I fetched the animals back to camp."

"What, did you catch any?" demanded the professor.

"Oh, I got some game, all right. I'm the champion hunter, I am. Say, I wish I could cook like you," said Chunky gazing admiringly at Tad, who was confidently making some biscuit for breakfast. "I never could cook unless I had everything all down in writing before me. How do you do it?"

"Oh, he cooks by ear," scoffed Ned. "That's why there's so many discords in our digestive apparatus."

The Pony Rider Boys groaned dismally.