Chapter XVII. Fun on the Mountain Trails
 

Confident in the watchfulness of Captain McKay the Pony Rider Boys slept soundly all through that night. Even Chunky forgot to talk in his sleep, thus saving himself from sundry digs in the ribs from his companions.

But when the morning came again the lads were treated to still another surprise. Captain McKay was sleeping in front of their tent door, rolled in his blanket, using one arm for a pillow. Still further out lay three other men, with one sitting up. The latter was none other than Dippy Orell, one of the Rangers. A second glance showed the boys that the other three men were also of the Ranger band.

"Hullo, Bugs," greeted Dippy upon catching sight of the fat boy.

"Hullo. You here?" demanded Stacy.

"I'm here, what's left of me."

"Bring any 'possum for breakfast?" grinned Chunky.

"No, but I've a rod in pickle for you."

"All right. Keep it in pickle for yourself. I don't like sour stuff."

"Hey, there, Bugs!" greeted another Ranger sitting up.

"My name's Brown," Stacy informed him with dignity. "When did you come in?"

"We blew in with the dawn," answered Dippy.

"And we're going to blow out with the sun," added Polly Perkins.

"Say, Kid," growled Cad Morgan, rubbing his eyes sleepily as he sat up blinking.

"His name is Bugs," interrupted Dippy.

"All right. Say, Bugs, I've got some news for you."

"I don't care about any news you've got to give out It's probably got a bullet in it somewhere. I'm sick of bullets. What I need is a little rest from chunks of lead. I'm coming down with nervous prostration as it is. Everything seems to happen around me. No matter what I do, I always get the worst of it. Why, that reminds me---"

"Is Chunky going to tell a story?" cried Ned, stepping over the sleeping captain as he came out.

"It sounds that way," laughed Tad. "Go on the Rangers are here to protect us if you tell another watch story. I reckon they'll arrest you if you try anything like that on them."

"As I was saying that reminds me of a couple of years ago when my uncle bought a lawn mower because the grass was getting so long in our front yard that the cats couldn't chew it---"

"Cats chew it?" jeered Dippy.

"Yes, before a rainstorm. They always do."

"Go on, go on. I'm pretty tough," urged Polly. "But don't drive me too far or I'll buck."

"As I was about to say---"

"You said that once before."

"I offered to run the lawn mower. Uncle thought that was fine. You see work and I never had hitched very well together. But I thought that would be some fun. So I started in mowing the yard the next morning," finished Chunky thoughtfully.

"Well, what happened?"

"Would you believe it, be---before I'd been at work half an hour, the town constable came up and arrested me for exceeding the speed limit. Now---now wasn't that hard luck?"

The Rangers gazed at each other hopelessly. No one laughed, though Walter Perkins was heard to chuckle under his breath.

"If it might be proper, I reckon I'd like to ask what being arrested for exceeding the speed limit has got to do with catching bugs in a 'possum bag?" demanded Dippy Orell.

"Why---why---the---the constable came up in a buggy, don't you see? Ha, ha. Don't laugh. It might hurt your countenance. I'm used to laughing at my own jokes and---"

"Hee---haw, hee---haw!" wheezed Polly in imitation of a donkey. "What'd we better do with him, fellows?"

"I reckon I'd better tell him the news I was going to," answered Morgan.

"I reckon that'll take the starch out of him right smart," nodded Polly.

"Dunk Tucker has got away, Bugs."

"Em" Chunky was interested at once.

"Don't make me say it so many times. It hurts me. I said that Dunk Tucker has got away. He 'busted' out of the calaboose over at El Paso some time yesterday morning and he's on the warpath."

"G---g---g---got away?" gasped Chunky.

"Yep, and he's heading in this direction to get even with you fellows for taking him up. What d'ye think of that, Bugs?"

"Oh, help!" groaned the fat boy.

"Is this right?" questioned Tad. "Has Tucker really escaped?"

The Rangers nodded.

"That's what we're here for, to catch him up when he makes connections with his crowd again. I reckon he'll be on the trail of this outfit, first of all, before he joins out with his own outfit. He'll never rest till he puts a bunk of cold lead under the skins of the fellows who got him."

"This is where I---I get shot again," wailed Stacy. "I knew it. I knew something else would come along to spoil all my fun!"

"No use trying to sleep in this bedlam," cried Captain McKay springing to his feet. "Saddle up. I want to make the Ten-Mile cross-trail before noon. We'll find two men waiting there for orders. Professor, can you get under way at once?"

"Of course we can," answered Tad for the professor.

"Don't we get any breakfast?" cried Chunky.

"Yes, but you'll eat it cold this morning."

"Oh, pooh!"

"If you are going to be a Ranger you must be willing to take a Ranger's fare," smiled the captain.

"I haven't said I wanted to be a Ranger. I don't. I want to be a peaceful citizen."

"With four square meals a day and a whole pie thrown in," suggested Tad.

"Something like that," smiled Stacy.

The tent was already coming down. The Pony Rider Boys showed the Rangers that they were used to quick work. Twenty minutes later the boys were ready. The Rangers had watched their preparations with interest.

"Good work," said Captain McKay approvingly.

"Anybody'd think you had traveled with a one-hoss circus," grinned Dippy.

"We've got some of the animals left yet," laughed Tad.

"The Fattest Boy on Earth and---" began Polly when Chunky shied a tent stake at the head of the Ranger, thus sharply ending the discussion. A few moments later they were on their way. The boys had to ride rather fast to keep up with their escort, for the Rangers were rapid riders under all circumstances. A great deal of their success was due to their ability to cover long distances between daylight and dawn or sunrise and sunset, appearing in localities where they were not in the least expected. In this way they had been enabled to make many important captures. But the riders did not move so rapidly in this instance that they were not able to poke fun at the fat boy. Stacy was the butt of almost every joke.

To all of this Stacy Brown did not give very much heed. He was planning how he could turn the tables on the Rangers again, amusing himself with whistling, making queer noises in his throat, trying to imitate birds that he passed.

But all at once there came a sudden end to his practice. Stacy's pony suddenly leaped to one side, planting its front feet firmly on the ground and arching its back like an angry cat at bay. Stacy did a beautiful curve in the air, landing on his shoulders on the hard ground. He had a narrow escape from breaking his neck.

The Rangers howled. They were still bowling when Stacy, getting his breath back, sat up, bunching his shoulders to get the kink out of them, and rubbing himself gingerly. The pony stood looking at its young master sheepishly.

"What's the trouble, Stacy?" cried Tad riding back.

"I---I fell off."

"I know you did. There couldn't be any mistake about that, but what caused him to throw you?"

"I---I don't know."

"That pony was frightened at something. What was it?" demanded the captain of Cad Morgan.

"I'm blest if I know, Captain. There wasn't anything that I saw."

"Take a scout around through the brush, you and Polly. There may be some one taking a parallel trail."

"Yes, there may be some German raiders hiding out there in the bush, laying for us. We ought to have some bombs. They would clean those fellows out in short order," declared Stacy.

The two men trotted from the line and disappeared among the trees, while the fat boy got back in his saddle, somewhat more sad, but no wiser than before. But he was thinking a great deal.

"He must have got scared at some of my imitations," decided the lad. "I don't blame him."

"But which one was it? I'll see if I can do them again."

Letting his horse drop back a few rods behind the others, Chunky went over his list of accomplishments in the imitation line, trying each one cautiously, keeping a watchful eye on the ears of the pony.

All at once the eyes of the fat boy lighted up. Something struck him as funny. He laughed aloud.

"Chunky's got them again," chuckled Ned Rector.

Stacy waited until all hands were looking ahead when he tried the imitation that he believed had caused his mount to halt. His success was instantaneous. The pony leaped clear of the ground, coming down with a jolt that made the boy's head ache.

"What's the matter with that horse?" called Captain McKay.

"Guess he's feeling his oats," flung back Chunky. The boy hugged himself delightedly. What he had done was to give a trilling tongue movement accompanied by a hiss. It was a perfect imitation of the trilling hiss of the rattlesnake. When Stacy had first given the imitation he did not realize what he was doing. He had fooled his pony. The Pony Rider Boy was delighted. He tried it again with equal success, though this time he was thrown forward on the neck of his mount. This jolt nearly broke Stacy Brown in two.

"That was the blow that near killed papa," grinned the lad. "I never knew I could do that. I reckon. I'll be having some fun with this outfit. Yes, I'll try it on right now."

Stacy spurred his pony close up to the leaders. The lad's face was solemn, but it shone like an Eskimo's after a full meal of blubber. Ned Rector was next ahead of the fat boy. Chunky pretended not to see Rector. Riding close up to him, the fat boy softly gave his rattlesnake imitation.

Ned Rector made a high dive, landing head first in a thicket of mesquite brush, while his pony was left kicking and bucking on the trail. Stacy was having more trouble with his own pony.

"Whoa, there, you fool! Whoa! What's got into this beastly pinto?" howled the fat boy.

"That's what I'd like to know too," snapped the captain, wheeling his horse, giving the fat boy a quick, sharp glance.

Ned, having picked himself out of the mesquite bush, was limping back.

"You hit him, Stacy Brown!" shouted Rector.

"I never touched him. What's the matter with you?" protested Chunky indignantly.

"No quarreling, boys," warned the professor.

"Well, he doesn't want to be poking my pony!"

"Well, he doesn't want to be accusing me of poking his old bundle of bones."

"Pretty lively critter for a bundle of bones, I should say," answered the captain grimly.

"Nobody trailing," announced the scouts returning a few minutes later. The captain may have had a suspicion, but if so he kept it to himself, making no reply to the report of his two scouts.

For reasons best known to himself Stacy did not give his rattlesnake imitation again. But every little while a broad grin would grow on his countenance, which the fat boy would suppress as quickly as possible.

"This is too good a thing to be nipped in the bud," he muttered. "No, sir, I don't give my secrets away yet awhile. Mebby I never shall."

Stacy well knew that swift punishment would be meted out to him if the others caught him at his new trick, so the fat boy kept silent, looking the picture of innocence.