Chapter XIII. An Inquisitive Visitor
 

Breakfast the plans for the day were discussed. The professor was for remaining in camp, hoping that the Rangers might return later in the day. Tad did not believe this would be the case. He reasoned that the men had been summoned some time during the night to go on a hike, and that they might not return at all; therefore the Pony Rider Boys would be losing time, whereas they might be exploring the Guadalupe range, which stretched away for a hundred miles.

"Still, I can't understand this mysterious departure of our friends, the Rangers," persisted Professor Zepplin.

"Perhaps it was the bugs," suggested Stacy wisely.

"The bugs?" questioned the professor.

Chunky nodded. Tad eyed the fat boy suspiciously.

"Look here, what have you got up your sleeve, Stacy?" he demanded.

"Nothing, I hope. But some of the fellows did."

"Did what?" cut in Rector.

"Did have."

"Did have what?" urged Walter. "A fellow has to have a map to follow you."

"Did have something up their sleeves."

"What was it you think they had up their sleeves?" asked Tad, eyeing the fat boy with growing suspicion.

"Oh, I don't know. Maybe it was insects."

"Stacy!" rebuked the professor sternly. Tad recalled that he had discovered thousands of insects crawling over the burlap sack when he came out in the morning. The lad's mind began to unravel the mystery. He thought he understood Chunky's references now, but Tad only smiled. He made no effort to explain, but instead, changed the subject.

"Do we start, or do we remain here, Professor?" he asked.

"It shall be as you boys wish. All in favor of going on will say 'aye.'"

"Aye!" howled the Pony Rider Boys, a shout that caused the browsing ponies to look up in mild surprise.

"Then we move. I will say, however, that I don't exactly approve of the situation."

"What situation, Professor?" questioned Butler.

"There are too many rough men in these parts. I had no idea we were going to meet with any such condition of affairs in this enlightened state."

"That's nothing. We have had some experience. Experience is what we are looking for."

"But the Rangers were not," asserted Stacy thickly, his mouth full of biscuit. "They got it, though."

"I feel sorry for you," said Tad leaning over to Stacy.

"Sorry for what?"

"For what you'll catch when they get hold of you again."

"They'd better not. I've got something up my sleeve, or I will have, I mean. They'd better keep away from me."

"Come, fellows, are you going to strike camp while I clear away the breakfast things?" called Tad.

"Let Chunky do it. He hasn't done a thing this morning," cried Ned.

"Yes, I have, too."

"What have you done?"

"I've done two things this morning."

"That's news," grinned Walter.

"Yes, name them. We don't want to do you an injustice, you know," urged Rector sarcastically.

"I made a discovery---I discovered that we had been basely deserted."

"Well, that's only one thing. You said you had done two things," persisted Ned.

"Then I ate my breakfast. That's two things."

The boys groaned.

"He ate his breakfast. Most remarkable," scoffed Rector, imitating the professor's voice and manner, whereat the professor himself grinned broadly.

Tad, giving up expecting the others to do anything, was rapidly gathering their equipment together. The tent came down. He divided it into sections, placing the sections in piles preparatory to forming them into bundles to be packed on the ponies.

"Have you the map, Professor?" he called.

"In my saddle bag."

"I want to study it a minute before we start. We don't know anything about the trails here and we have no guide to direct us. We've got to make our way the best we can."

"We can't get lost," chimed in Chunky.

"Why can't we get lost?" snapped Ned turning on the fat boy.

"Because we don't know where we are anyway."

"Horse sense," laughed Tad.

"Fat-boy drivel," jeered Ned.

"Come, come, young men. You are not making much headway."

Stacy dragged his pack by the rope, over to his pony, instead of carrying the bundle as he should have done, Professor Zepplin observing the boy with disapproving gaze.

"Is that the way you have been taught to pack your pony, sir?"

"No. I've never been taught. What I know I've had to pick up. Nobody ever tries to teach me anything."

Scolding, joking, having all manner of sport with one another, the Pony Rider Boys finally completed their tasks. The ponies were loaded, the pack pony was piled high so that its head and legs were about the only parts of its anatomy visible, and the boys climbed into their saddles, Tad first having given the trail map a brief scrutiny.

They started off up the canyon. For a little way the trail appeared to be no trail at all. The ponies threshed through the bushes, the sharp limbs smiting the riders in the faces, making disagreeable traveling. But the young men were used to this sort of thing. They did not appear to mind it at all.

Reaching a higher altitude they found the trail to be fairly good. From there they got a good view of the yellow plains below, that stretch away many miles to the northward. To the southwest, peaks that they judged must be all of four or five thousand feet high, towered blue and hazy in the yellow light. Birds were singing, the air was soft and balmy and a gentle breeze stirred the foliage about them lazily.

"This is what I call fine," cried Tad.

"Good place for a nap," agreed Chunky.

"Are you in need of sleep?" asked the professor.

"I'm in a trance, sir."

"You always are," laughed Tad Butler. "I think we had better take a rest here. The animals are tired after the climb. Suppose we lie off for an hour?"

The boys were all agreed on this, so the pack pony was unloaded. It now being near midday it was decided to wait for dinner before pressing on. A meal was a "dab" down there and the boys had fallen naturally into the vernacular of the men of the plains.

It was Ned's turn to cook the "dab," a task that never appealed to him. Chunky at such times was always on hand while Ned was getting the meal, that he might offer suggestions and make uncomplimentary observations. Rector's method of making coffee came in for considerable criticism. He never could be induced to make coffee after the more approved methods. Ned's way was to put a pint of coffee beans in a two-quart coffee pot and boil for half an hour. He made it the same way on this occasion.

"That stuff would eat a hole through a piece of sheet iron if given half a chance," declared Stacy.

"Don't worry. It won't hurt you," retorted Ned. "Your stomach is tough enough to withstand anything."

"I guess it is or I'd have been dead long ago eating your dab," flung back Stacy.

They had to wait quite a time for the coffee, but at last the call to dinner was sounded in the usual way, the long-drawn cry of, "Come and get it!"

They had just sat down when they were startled by a voice calling from somewhere off in the bushes to the northward of them.

"Hoo-ee!"

The boys started up, thinking that perhaps some of the Rangers had returned. Instead of the Rangers a stranger rode in on a wiry little pony. He doffed his sombrero gracefully and sat regarding them smilingly.

"Howdy, pardners," greeted the newcomer. "Got a smack for a hungry man?"

"Certainly, certainly. Come right over, my friend," answered the professor cordially.

Ned stepped forward politely to take the stranger's horse.

"Never mind, lad. I'll look after the cayuse. He isn't over-fond of strangers. You're all strangers down here, eh?"

"Yes, yes. We are," admitted the professor. "You are just in time. We are ready for dinner and there's plenty to go round."

"I'll promise not to eat you out of house and home," laughed the stranger. Without taking off his broad-brimmed Mexican sombrero he threw himself down by the piece of canvas on which the dinner had been laid, helping himself to a slice of bacon which he ate from his fingers in a most democratic fashion. "My name's Conway. Bill Conway. What's yours?"

Professor Zepplin introduced himself and the boys, which Conway acknowledged by polite bows. The man was easy in manner, and his smiling face led the boys to warm to him at once---all save Tad Butler, who, without appearing to do so, was observing the visitor keenly.

The man was slight, almost boyish in figure. His hair was dark, as were his eyes, the latter having a trick of growing suddenly darker than their natural color, seeming to sink further back in his head under some sudden stress of emotion. The brown fingers were slender and nervous in their movements.

"I'll bet he would be quick on the trigger," was Tad's mental conclusion.

"Are you from these parts?" asked the professor by way of starting the conversation.

"El Paso, when I'm at home. And you?"

"From the north."

"Down here for your health?"

"Partly. Mostly for an outing."

"Just so. I reckon I've heard something about you."

"Maybe it was I whom you heard about," suggested Chunky.

"Can't say as I have," answered Conway, directing a quick glance at the fat boy.

"You don't know what you've missed," answered Stacy solemnly, helping himself to five slices of bacon.

"You didn't happen to meet with any of the Rangers this morning, did you?" questioned Professor Zepplin.

It was the professor's turn to get a sharp look now.

"Rangers? No. Why do you ask?"

"Because we were looking for some of them."

"What for?"

"We wanted to see them about a little matter," hastily interposed Tad Butler.

"What matter?"

There was no stopping the professor.

"Why, we camped with a body of them last night. With Lieutenant Withem, a most affable gentleman. They ran away and left us early this morning. However, I suppose they had good reasons."

"Joe Withem, eh?"

"Yes, that was the man."

"How many Rangers did behave with him?"

"Twelve, wasn't it, boys?"

"Something like that," replied Tad, observing their visitor narrowly. "However, Professor, I hardly think we should speak of them. You see they were on some secret mission and---"

"It's all right, young man. You are safe in confiding in me. In fact, I am going to confide a little secret to you to show you that you have made no mistake."

"We shall preserve your secret, sir," answered the professor with great dignity.

"I thought you would. Lean closer and I'll tell you," almost whispered the visitor.