Chapter XV. Making a Startling Discovery
 

Stacy Brown looked from one to the other of his companions in disgust.

"Ho, ho! ho, ho!" he exploded. "Hard luck when a fellow's company is so thick that he has to laugh at his own jokes. Ho, ho, ho! Ha, ha, ha! It is to smile, but nobody smiles. You make me tired."

"As I have already observed, I think it is going to rain," said Tad.

"Must be getting warmer, then. A minute ago you said it was going to snow. It's my private opinion that you don't know what you think. Ned doesn't know any more. The professor is the only one in the outfit who has a sense of humor. He knows when it's time to laugh. Ha, ha!"

Professor Zepplin was smiling broadly. Stacy's joke was just dawning upon the professor. But Tad's mind at that juncture was in another direction. The lad had raised his head in a listening attitude, his glance fixed keenly on the other side of the camp ground.

"Did you see something?" whispered Walter.

Tad shook his head.

"You heard something?"

"Never mind. Go on with the fun. Get Chunky to tell you when it is time to laugh."

About this time Stacy got up, still chuckling to himself, and started for a cup of water.

"Time to laugh. Ha, ha! What! Ha, ha; ho, h---"

The fat boy paused abruptly. He was down on his knees about to dip up a cupful of water when chancing to raise his eyes he saw something that caused the word to die on his lips.

A man stood just on the other side of the stream, lounging against a tree, observing the fat boy with an amused smile.

"Oh, wow!" howled the fat boy, in such a tone of alarm that the rest of the outfit sprang up and ran toward him. "Wow! Look!"

At this juncture the stranger leaped the narrow stream and was standing beside Stacy facing toward the camp when the others came up.

"I suppose I should introduce myself before matters go any further," smiled the newcomer. "I know you, but you do not know me. You are the Pony Rider Boys. I am Captain Billy McKay of the Rangers."

Stacy uttered a shrill laugh, whereat the captain shot an inquiring glance at him.

"You---you are---are Captain McKay?" stammered Professor Zepplin.

"Yes. I had hoped to see you when you camped with Lieutenant Withem---"

"Yes, we were with 'em," muttered Stacy. "And I guess we've got 'em now."

"Unfortunately I was called away on that occasion. I promised myself that I should look you up at the first opportunity. I got on your trail this afternoon and as you were going in my direction I considered this an excellent opportunity to make your acquaintance. So here I am."

"But---but---" stammered the professor.

Tad was smiling, the others gazing at the newcomer blankly.

"Well, sir, what is it? One would think you had seen a ghost," laughed the captain.

"But, sir, you are the second man who has introduced himself to us as Captain McKay of the Ranger troop, to-day."

The captain's blue eyes twinkled.

"Indeed! Then I must have a double. I should like to meet him."

"You look like the real thing," observed Stacy.

"Thank you. Then the other man did not?"

"He did not---to me," answered Tad Butler.

"How are we to know that you are the captain in person?" asked the professor suspiciously.

"I wear the badge and then here's my open countenance," answered the Ranger with another hearty laugh.

"Professor, there can be no doubt that this is Captain McKay. I should know him now from the description given to me by Lieutenant Withem. Won't you join us? We have just about finished the grub, but there is more. I'll cook something for you," proposed Tad.

"I'll join you in a cup of coffee, thank you," replied Captain McKay.

"Lucky for him that Ned didn't make the coffee for supper," muttered Stacy, but so low that the captain did not hear the remark.

Captain McKay, the real Captain McKay this time, was almost boyish in appearance. He was of about the same build as the other man who had declared himself to be the captain, but the real captain had light hair and laughing blue eyes, as opposed to the dark hair and eyes of the other man. The captain's skin was fair. It seemed not to have suffered from exposure to the sun and storm of the plains.

Tad led the way to the camp, followed by the visitor and the rest of the Pony Rider outfit.

"Most remarkable, most remarkable," muttered the professor, taking keen sidelong glances at Captain McKay.

"You are Butler, aren't you?" called the captain.

"Yes, sir," answered Tad, glancing back.

"I knew you the instant I set eyes on you. You're a sharp young man. You discovered me before I got into your camp."

"Discovered you?" exclaimed the professor.

"Yes. He heard me. I stepped on a stick that bent down under my foot. The stick didn't snap and how that young scout ever caught the faint sound is more than I can explain."

"So, that was what you were looking at?" laughed Ned.

"Tad's got ears in the back of his head," added Stacy.

"I observe that all of you have pretty keen senses," smiled the Ranger captain. "Something smells good."

"It's the coffee that Tad's making for you," answered the fat boy solemnly. "How's the going?"

"Pretty fair. How is it with you?" returned the captain.

"So, so," answered Stacy carelessly. "You heard about my getting shot, didn't you?"

"Oh, yes, I heard all about it."

"I got wounded in the fracas, I did. I'm going to France one of these days to fight the Huns. Then I suppose I shall get shotted up some more. You take it from me, though, I'll put some of those savages on the run before they get me," declared Chunky belligerently.

"Perhaps you will explain why your men ran away from us the other night, sir?" spoke up Walter.

"They were called away. I guess the 'possum hunt was too much for them," answered the Ranger with twinkling eyes. "You rather put it over my boys, young man," he said nodding at Stacy, whose face flushed a rosy red.

"What's that?" demanded the professor.

"Drove them out of their tent by unloading a bag of fleas on them. Ha, ha, ha! I guess you got revenge on them, young man. By the way, you're Brown, aren't you?"

"I was done brown down there in the bush that night. Mosquitoes were worse than a volley of rifle bullets."

"But---I don't understand," protested the professor.

Captain McKay laughingly explained. He told them how the Rangers had been so pestered by the fleas and other insects that Stacy had captured in the 'possum bag that the men were forced to get up and walk all the rest of the night, until a messenger had come from their commander, ordering them to go on a hurry scout some forty miles from where they were camped.

The Pony Rider Boys laughed uproariously at this. Once more they sat down with a captain, but the same thought was in the mind of each---who was the first man who had passed as Captain McKay? McKay himself did not appear to be over curious as to this. However, after the meal was finished he turned to the professor.

"Now tell me about my double," he said.

"I don't know what to tell you except that he was about your age and build, dark hair and dark eyes, a very pleasant gentleman, I should say."

"Did behave a scar on his left ear lobe?"

"I must say that I did not notice."

"Yes, he had," spoke up Tad. "It looked as if he had been shot there."

"Exactly, young man. You are very keen. I put a bullet through that ear myself, more than a year ago. I suppose you do not know who the gentleman is whom you entertained?"

"No, sir," chorused the boys.

"That, my friends, was the infamous Willie Jones, one of the most desperate characters on the Texas border."