Chapter XIV. When the Air Grew Chill
 

"I'm a Ranger, too," confided the visitor.

"What, you a Ranger?" exclaimed the professor.

"Of Captain McKay's band?"

"You've hit it, pard."

"Well, well, this is indeed a pleasure. We have not had the honor of meeting Captain McKay as yet, but we hope to do so, ere long. He had promised to meet us last night, but I understand was called away on some business pertaining to his calling."

"You would like to meet Captain McKay?"

"Indeed I should. I understand he is a most remarkable man, that he has performed many deeds of valor."

"Pray stop!" laughed Conway. "You actually make me blush."

The outfit gazed at the visitor inquiringly.

"Now that you have said so much I am going to confide another little secret to you. I'm McKay."

"What? Not Captain McKay, the leader of the Rangers?"

"The same."

Professor Zepplin thrust a brown hand across the table, grasping the hand of their visitor.

"Well, this is indeed a surprise. I can't begin to tell you how glad we are to see you," answered the professor with enthusiasm.

"Same to you, pardner," grinned the captain. "You see I didn't want to open up too freely until I was sure to whom I was talking. Of course if you and Withem are cahoots, it's all right."

"It certainly is all right. We had the pleasure of being of some service to Lieutenant-----"

"Ouch!" howled Stacy. Tad had tipped the pot of hot coffee into the fat boy's lap, and for a few moments confusion reigned.

"Don't talk too much," whispered Butler leaning over to brush away some drops that had fallen on the professor's shirt.

"Eh? Eh? What's that?"

Tad was embarrassed. He began speaking of something else. Professor Zepplin did not repeat his question.

"I understand my men picked up a fellow named Dunk Tucker a night ago?" asked the captain.

"Yes, yes, indeed. Mr. Butler there is the one who is really responsible for the capture of Tucker, however."

"You don't say!" wondered the visitor.

"Exactly. Tad, will you tell the captain how you came to capture the man Tucker?"

"If you will pardon me, I would rather not."

"He's too modest. I'll tell you about it," chimed in Stacy Brown. Stacy, once wound up, would continue to operate until he had run down. He told the whole story from beginning to end, including the fact that he himself had been wounded twice, ere he stopped.

"Fine, fine!" The captain leaned back and laughed uproariously. "You are a funny boy. I wish I had you with me. I could teach you a lot about dodging bullets."

"I'm a pretty good dodger already or I shouldn't be here at this minute," answered the fat boy pompously.

"Where did they take the prisoner? Are you informed as to that?" asked the captain.

"They took him to El Paso, I believe," replied Professor Zepplin. "I thought you were aware of what had been done."

"I got wind of something of the sort. You see I have been away in another part of the state on a secret mission for the Governor."

"Exactly."

"Did my men say where they were going before they left you this morning?"

"No. As I have said, they left most mysteriously."

"Which direction did they take?"

"We do not know that either. They disappeared utterly."

"Just like Withem," nodded the guest, smiling. "But I'll pick him up some time to-night. I suppose they are on the track of some of the fellows who have been raising trouble around these parts of late."

"Yes, that's what the lieutenant said. They are after what they call the Border Gang. But I have no need to tell you about it. You surely are familiar with the subject."

"I reckon I know all about it, Professor. Was it some of my men who shot up the bandits the other night and---"

"No, that was us fellows," interjected Stacy suddenly. "We did give them the run. And they thought it was the Rangers too. Oh, that was a good joke. I nearly laugh myself sick every time I think about that funny scrape. We bluffed them and they ran away."

For the briefest part of a second the eyes of the visitor darkened. They grew almost filmy, then the old sparkle came into them and a grim smile appeared on the face of their owner.

"You sure are a fine crop of youngsters. You probably will be claiming the reward for the capture of Tucker, eh?"

"Not at all, not at all," protested Professor Zepplin. "My young men are not looking for rewards. It is reward enough that they were able to serve the authorities in the capture of a very bad man. We shall do whatever we can in our small way to help the Rangers round up the rest of this disreputable gang."

"Of course, of course," answered the captain reflectively.

Tad had taken no part in the conversation. He did not like this freedom of speech on the part of the professor. What they had learned were better kept to themselves according to Tad Butler's reasoning. Then again there was a faint suspicion in the mind of the Pony Rider Boy, that he could not clearly explain to himself. What did strike him as peculiar was that so much of the Rangers' movements should be unknown to their commanding officer. McKay had ever since coming into their camp been seeking information. Still, as he had said, he had been away. Tad knew that the Rangers took long rides, sometimes hundreds of miles, using relays of horses and making almost as good time as they could have done going by trains.

The lad decided that he was unduly suspicious. Suddenly, as McKay was talking, a shot sounded somewhere off on the plains. The Ranger sprang to his feet, his eyes darkened.

"Is---is something wrong?" stammered the professor.

"There may be. I must investigate. You will say nothing about having met me," commanded the stranger sternly.

"Certainly not, certainly not."

"I will bid you good day. I'll see you again when I may have something more to say."

With that McKay ran to his pony, and leaping into the saddle tore through the brush at a perilous pace. Tad observed what the others failed to see. He noted that the Ranger had returned in the direction from which he had come, rather than riding off toward the direction from which the shot had sounded. This struck Tad as a peculiar thing for a Texas Ranger to do.

"That's queer," muttered Butler.

"What is queer, Tad?" questioned the professor.

"The way he went."

"His leave taking was rather abrupt. But we know that is a way these Rangers have. Besides he thought there was trouble in the air," guessed the professor.

"Yes, but then why did he run away from it?" urged Butler.

"That's so, he did go the wrong way," wondered Ned.

"Maybe he's going to take a roundabout course," suggested Stacy.

"Exactly. You do think now and then, don't you?" smiled the professor. "However, it is not for us to criticize. Captain McKay knows his business perhaps much better than do we. And now, if you are ready we had better be on our way. We have lost no little time here."

The packing up was not a long job for not much of their equipment had been unloaded. The rest of the day passed uneventfully, the Pony Rider Boys continuing along the range of mountains.

About five o'clock they decided to make camp in a valley, beside a stream of clear, cold water. The place was thickly covered with brush and small trees, excepting for a small open space on which the grass grew high and green.

They pitched their tent near the stream. This done the boys began gathering dry wood for the campfire which would need a lot of it before the evening came to an end. Wood was scarce and darkness had overtaken them ere they succeeded in getting enough for their needs. In the meantime the professor had been laboring with the tent. He had finished his job quickly, rather to the surprise of the boys, who were chuckling over the mess Professor Zepplin would make of it. The professor, however, was far from helpless. He might not be suspicious of every one he met, but he was a man of brains. He knew how to get along with his young charges, as perhaps few men would have done. And he did get along, without friction, retaining the love of every one of the Pony Rider Boys. They were always ready to play pranks on the professor, yet there was not a lad of them but would have laid down his life, if necessary, for him.

He insisted on getting the supper, "just to keep my hand in," as he expressed it. No one offered strenuous objection to this, though no cook ever had a more appreciative audience. The professor's biscuits were beautiful to behold, but when the boys came to sample them they shouted.

"Too much soda, Professor," cried Tad.

"No, baking powder," corrected Ned.

"Wow! I know what you're trying to do. You're trying to blow us up!" howled Stacy. "Why don't you use dynamite in the biscuit while you are about it? I think I'll go out and browse with the ponies. It's much safer and I'll bet will taste better."

"Young man, if you don't like the cooking, you don't have to eat, you know," rebuked Professor Zepplin.

"Yes, I do, too. What, not eat, and with an appetite like mine? Why, I'd eat my pistol holster if I couldn't get anything else. Speaking of eating that reminds me of a story---"

"Will some one please muzzle the fat boy?" begged Ned.

"You can go out and hide in the bushes while I'm telling the story," returned Chunky. "This is a nice ladylike story. It's about a fellow---a clerk who was out with a party of surveyors, running a line across the desert. The water holes had gone dry and they were choking for water when the clerk saved them and---"

"Ring the bell! Ring the bell!" shouted Ned Rector.

"Yes, you have told us that story twice to my positive knowledge," spoke up the professor.

"Of course he has," agreed Walter. "The clerk found water for them and they were saved," added Tad, laughing immoderately.

"Did he?" demanded Chunky eyeing them soulfully.

"Yes, of course he did. You ought to remember the story. You have told it often enough."

"How did he save them?"

"He had a fountain pen, of course, silly! Have you forgotten your own story?" scoffed Tad.

"He didn't have anything of the sort. This was another clerk. This one had a watch."

Stacy glanced around expectantly. Not a face was smiling. All were as solemn as owls.

"He had a watch," nodded Rector.

"He had a watch," added Tad.

"I wonder if the watch was running?" piped Walter.

"No, it was stagnant," retorted Stacy.

"Young gentlemen, for the sake of bringing a long-winded discussion to a close, I will offer myself as---as what you call a 'mark.' What had the watch to do with their thirst?" asked the professor gazing sternly at Stacy.

The boys shouted.

"Come down with the answer, Chunky."

"The watch had a spring in it," answered the fat boy solemnly.

"I think it's going to snow," observed Tad consulting the skies reflectively.

"Yes, the air is very chill," returned Ned Rector solemnly. "Shouldn't be surprised if some one perished in this outfit."