Chapter XVI. Joining Out with the Rangers
 

Exclamations of amazement greeted the announcement of the Ranger captain.

"Willie Jones!" gasped the professor.

"That is the man. You see what a sharp fellow he is. I suppose he pumped you gentlemen pretty thoroughly?"

"I guess he learned all he wanted to know," replied Tad, flushing. "I don't recall much of anything that he missed."

Professor Zepplin wiped the perspiration from his forehead.

"This is most disturbing, sir. I see now that Tad was right. He counseled caution. I gave no heed to his words of warning."

"Master Tad is a very shrewd young man, Professor. I guess I shall have to take him in with us."

"Impossible! Impossible!"

"Why impossible?"

"I could not permit it."

"Let me tell you something. Willie Jones now knows all about the part you and your young men have played in capturing Dunk Tucker. He knows that it was your party that drove off his men when they were trying to get Lieutenant Withem. Do you think Willie will overlook that? Not Willie! Willie will be on your trail from now on. He will watch his opportunity and when he thinks he is safe from the Rangers he will strike---he or his men. Then you young men will need to be resourceful, indeed, if you get off with whole skins."

"Oh, wow!" groaned Stacy. "I'll get it! I'll stop some more bullets. I'm the mark for all the lead that's flying around in these parts, I am!"

"I am of the opinion that we had better leave the border then," declared the professor.

"Oh, don't do that, don't do that," begged the boys. "We never ran away yet. Let's not do it now. We have taken care of ourselves before this and we can do so again."

"Of course I do not wish to influence you. It is for you, Professor, to do what seems best to you. If you decide to remain I think I shall be able to protect you."

"What would you suggest, sir?"

"I was about to ask if you look to spend most of your time in the mountains here?"

"That was our intention, later journeying down to the Rio Grande."

Captain McKay nodded reflectively.

"That will suit my plans very well. I have come to the conclusion, from certain things that have come under my notice, that the headquarters of this band of Border Bandits is here in the Guadalupes. Search as we might we have been unable to locate their cache."

"You mean where they hide?"

"Yes, that and something else. You see their plan of operation is this. These men indulge in various forms of rascality. In the first place they steal stock when possible. This they drive over the border and exchange for Mexican goods, which they smuggle across the river and store away until such time as they are able to dispose of it. Of course there are some people higher up who are receiving and disposing of these goods. We are on their track, but we haven't sufficient evidence to convict any of them. The first thing to be done is to capture Jones and his band. When they are safely behind the bars the traffic will stop short. Perhaps when we get them all in limbo one or another of the newer ones will confess. That will make our work easier. In fact it is what we are depending upon at the present time."

"I understand. But will there not be danger in our remaining here?"

"Perhaps. There's always more or less danger, and Jones will never let up on you until either he gets you or we get him."

"I think I understand," nodded Tad. "You think we shall be able to assist you?"

"Exactly."

"Will you please explain?" begged Professor Zepplin.

"You can help us a great deal, by remaining here. It is safe to suppose that the band will devote no little effort toward getting even with you. That means that they are quite likely to hover about in your vicinity. That will narrow down our field of operations considerably. We shan't be faraway from you at any stage of the game; in fact, I think it might be well to have two or three of our men in your party all the time. Do you understand?"

"I begin to," nodded the professor.

"That will be fine," answered Tad with glowing face.

"Then we will be Rangers, too," exclaimed Walter.

"Yes, you will be Rangers, too," laughed the captain. "You are pretty good rangers already. By assisting in rounding up these men you will be serving your country, for, if we can put these Border Bandits out of business, we shall be destroying some of the Kaiser's worst trouble makers on the border."

"And get shot full of holes," added the fat boy.

"That will do you good. It will give you an appetite," jeered Rector.

"He doesn't need a tonic," spoke up Tad. "His appetite is quite enough for this outfit now. It's all we can do to keep enough supplies to keep him going. My, it's an awful thing to have such an appetite."

"Well, Professor, what do you say?"

"I am agreeable, if the boys are."

"Hurrah!" shouted the Pony Rider Boys.

"Of course, with the understanding, Captain, that you will see that we are properly protected?"

"You shall be. Of course there may be occasions when you will be going on alone. You will expect that. Generally we shall be somewhere in the vicinity. When we are all away it will mean that your enemies are also away."

"The man Tucker is safe behind the bars, is he not?"

"He was at last accounts," smiled the captain. "I am sorry Jones knows what happened to Dunk. I had hoped to keep him in ignorance of that until we had rounded up the rest of the gang. However, what's done cannot be undone."

"Where is your horse?" asked Tad.

"A little way down the creek. He's all right. Don't worry about him."

"By the way, when shall we see your men?" asked the professor.

"You should see some of them soon now. They know where I am, and a half dozen or so will be riding this way before morning, I think."

"You will remain with us to-night, of course?" urged Tad.

"If you insist," smiled the Ranger captain.

"Certainly we insist," emphasized the professor.

"Of course we do," added Chunky. "Maybe if there are any bullets flying about you will stop them instead of my doing it. I'm tired of stopping bullets. It hurts."

"Having stopped a few in my time I think I know all about it, young man."

They could not believe that this sunny-tempered, soft-spoken young fellow was the most dreaded of all the officers of the law who hunted down the desperadoes of the border. It was also difficult to believe that Captain McKay was a marked man who had been condemned to death by these same desperate characters. Something of the resourcefulness of the man was shown to the boys in a most marked manner later in the evening.

All hands had been sitting about the fire, the boys trying to draw out Captain McKay to tell of his experiences, which the Ranger was loth to do. What experiences he did tell them were such as chiefly concerned others than himself. According to his version Captain McKay had played a most inconspicuous part in the splendid work of the Texas Rangers. Not once did he refer to the fact that he was the terror of every evil-doer in the State of Texas.

Finally it came time to turn in for the night. The captain lazily rose and stretched himself. The others were still seated, but were preparing to rise and prepare for bed when the interruption came.

A flash and a report from the bushes toward which the Ranger's back was turned caused every one of the boys to jump. Tad had his wits about him.

"Down!" he commanded.

"Oh, wow! There it goes again," moaned Stacy. "They're shooting at me again!"

Professor Zepplin had rolled into a depression in the ground, thus concealing his body from the unseen shooter. But in the meantime Captain. McKay had not been inactive. It seemed as if the bullet that had been fired at him from the bushes had barely shrieked past his ear, when the captain wheeled. His revolver---two of them---had appeared in his hands as if by magic.

Bang, bang! crashed the captain's weapons as he whirled. A yell sounded off there. Captain McKay dashed toward the spot, followed by Tad on the jump.

"Stay back!" shouted the Ranger, but Tad did not obey. He proposed to have a share in whatever trouble was before the brave Ranger captain. Chunky had taken to the bush. The others were lying flat on the ground.

As the captain ran he let go two more shots. This time there was no answering yell from the bushes. But he distinctly heard a crashing in there and drove in two more shots. He charged the bushes utterly regardless of the peril to himself, with Tad Butler close behind him. Tad had his revolver in hand, but he was cool headed enough not to indulge in any indiscriminate firing.

It was evident that either more than one man had been in the attacking party or else one who had been wounded had not been badly enough hurt to prevent his getting away. Not a sign of a human being was the Ranger able to find, though his keen eyes soon picked up the trail. He followed it a short distance, finally having reached soft ground, getting down on his knees and examining it critically.

When he looked up he found Tad standing over him.

"I thought I told you to stay back, young man?" he said sharply.

"I don't like to stay back when there's anything going on. What do you find?"

"There were two of them. Here's where they mounted their ponies. I wish I knew who they are. You see those fellows are watching."

"Watching you?"

"No. They came here to clean out the Pony Rider Boys, I reckon," laughed the Ranger. "They didn't expect to find me here. But when they saw me they couldn't let the opportunity go without taking a pot shot at me. I moved---I stretched---just at the right second, or I'd have been a dead man before now."

"The cowards!" breathed Tad, his eyes glowing angrily.

"Oh, yes, they're all of that. They shoot when the other fellow isn't looking, and they shoot to kill. But we might as well go back. I could follow them, but it hardly is worth while. They will be hidden long before we can run them down. They'll leave a blind trail pretty soon after they get far enough away to make it safe for them to stop and cover their tracks."

"But, will they not come back again?" urged Butler.

"Not to-night. They know I am on my guard now. They will put off their attack on you until some other time. Lucky I chanced to be here when they first came. I hope they don't take the alarm and keep away from you now."

Butler grinned. He hoped so too, though the others of his party might not share this hope with him, especially Professor Zepplin who was getting rather more excitement out of this journey than he had looked for.

By the time the two had returned to the campfire the others had mustered courage enough to stand up. The professor, his whiskers bristling, had crawled from the depression into which he had rolled at the first sign of trouble, and Chunky was making his way cautiously from the bushes.

"Captain McKay, how much of this sort of thing shall we have to face?" demanded the professor.

"You might have had to face a good deal more of it, had I not been here," answered the Ranger shortly.

"What do you mean?"

"That had I not been here you would have got the bullets fired at me. As I have already said to Butler, those men were after your party. When they saw me they knew they would not dare to waste a shot on any one else."

"While they were shooting you up, they knew my arsenal would get into action. They figured on killing me the first shot. But they didn't," added the captain with a mirthless grin.

"I don't like this at all," declared Professor Zepplin with a slow shake of the head.

"Neither do I," agreed Chunky. "I'd as soon be shot to death as scared to death. I'll bet my hair is turning gray already. Oh, wow!"

"All hands, turn in," commanded the Ranger briskly. "I will stand watch over the camp for the rest of the night, though you will not be disturbed."