Chapter XVIII. One Hiss Too Many
 

The Ten-Mile cross trail was made about half past one o'clock in the afternoon. Walter Perkins entered the camp on his head, Tad Butler hanging to the mane of his bucking pony, both feet out of the stirrups, Stacy Brown making desperate efforts to quiet his own mount.

The ponies had heard the soft hiss of a rattlesnake, but the ears of Rangers and Pony Riders had failed to catch the sound. Perhaps it was the yell that the fat boy had uttered instantly after giving the imitation that had too suddenly attracted the attention of the party.

"What's the matter with those fool cayuses?" shouted Dippy Orell. "What---"

Dippy did not finish his remark. He landed on his back thoroughly shaken down. He was up with a roar, starting for the pony with blood in his eye.

"That'll do, Dippy!" commanded the leader sternly. "If you'd been riding as you should have, you never would have fallen off. Now you're off, stay off." The captain uttered a bird-call which was answered in kind. The boys understood at once that the Rangers were exchanging signals. A few moments later, a bronzed, weather-beaten Ranger rode into camp. He held a few moments' conversation with the captain, after which he rode away.

"Anything doing, Cap?" asked Morgan.

The leader shook his head.

"Something may turn our way to-night. Joe has been detained. I don't know what is keeping him. But we'll wait here till he comes in. Professor, it is possible that we may have to make a hard night ride to-night. Do you wish to go along?"

"Of course we do!" shouted the boys. "We don't want to miss a single thing."

"No, we don't want to miss a thing," agreed Chunky solemnly. "I see I've been missing a great deal lately. I don't propose to miss another thing as long as I'm out on this cruise."

"He thinks he's on a canal boat," jeered Dippy.

"Maybe if I do it's because we've got some mules to pull it," retorted Stacy.

"Ouch! But that one landed below the belt!" exclaimed Dippy.

"Our fat friend has a sharp tongue," observed Polly.

"I guess we'll have to file it. Might hurt himself on it if he happened to stumble over a root and fall," added Cad Morgan.

"Chunky, are you going to get busy and help settle this camp?" demanded Tad.

"I don't have to work. I'm a guest of the management," answered Stacy.

"The management disowns you. You're out in the cold world," laughed Butler.

"All right. That's good. Then I don't have to work."

"No, he doesn't have to work," agreed the professor. "Nor does he have to eat. No work, no eat, is the motto of this outfit."

Chunky got busy at once. Captain McKay had little to say. He was very thoughtful, evidently perplexed by some word that his scout had brought him. The other men made no further effort to learn what was disturbing their chief. They knew he would tell them if he wanted them to know. At McKay's suggestion, nothing was unpacked save the stuff necessary for their meal. Of course all the packs were removed from the ponies to give the little animals a rest. The ponies apparently had ceased from their tantrums and were as docile as if they had never known what it was to buck off a rider.

Polly was getting the dinner while Tad and Ned were starting and keeping up the fire. The others occupied themselves with various duties about the camp, all save the captain who sat on a rock some little distance from the scene of operations.

Suddenly Captain McKay leaped from the rock, taking a long spring away from it, at the same time drawing a revolver and whirling. Chunky, who was passing at the time, was bowled over by the captain's sudden spring.

"Look out for the rattler!" commanded the Ranger sharply.

"Oh, wow!" howled Chunky springing back apparently in great terror. "Snake, snake!" he cried waving his arms to the others near the campfire. "Look out for the snake!"

McKay saw no snake to shoot at. Deciding that the reptile must have squirmed away, the captain, his face wearing a sheepish smile, shoved his weapons back into their holsters and strode back to the camp, where Stacy had preceded him.

There were no further indications of the presence of rattlers, and in a few moments the adventure was wholly forgotten. Shortly after dinner the captain sent his men out on a long scouting expedition, himself riding from the camp, taking Tad Butler with him. Tad was proud to be thus singled out. While they were on their ride, some twelve miles to the southward, the Ranger captain taught the northern lad many things about trailing human beings. This was all new to Tad. He listened with rapt attention, though he hoped it never might fall to his lot to have to trail men for a livelihood. The captain also told him many things about the bad men of the Texas border in the old days. Captain McKay was a lad then, but he was out with his father much of the time, the father also having been a Ranger, having been killed in a battle with a desperado whom he had been sent to capture. Captain McKay's two brothers had shared a similar fate. Now there remained only Captain Billy.

"And I expect one of them will get me one of these days," he concluded steadily.

"Why not stop then before they do get you?" questioned Tad.

"A fellow's got to die some time, hasn't he?"

"I suppose so."

"And he won't die till his time comes, will he?"

"I couldn't say as to that, sir. I guess we are not supposed to know about those things here on earth."

"No, a fellow doesn't go till his time's come," answered the Ranger with emphasis. "So what's the use in dodging? Why, if my time had come and I had quit and gone to the city to live I'd most likely be run over by a trolley car or something of that nature. I'd a sight rather die in a gun fight with a real man than to get bucked over by a hunk of wood and iron and lightning, called a trolley car. No, I'll take my medicine, as I always have and---But let's go back."

"Still it is no worse than fighting the Germans," observed Tad. "I have wondered why you have not enlisted and gone to France, you and your men? What splendid fighters you would make."

"Every man of them wants to go---I want to go. I can hardly hold myself down, Kid. Every one of us has offered his services, but the government would not hear to it. Because of the activity of the Kaiser's agents in Mexico and on the border, Uncle Sam decided that we could best serve him right here on the border, and here we are," answered the Ranger thoughtfully.

"Have you found what you came out here for?" asked Butler.

"Surely I have," smiled the captain. "Haven't you?"

"I haven't found much of anything unless you mean that a couple of horsemen crossed back there some few hours ago."

"How'd you know that?" exploded the captain.

"I saw the trail they left."

"Shake!" cried the captain leaning from his saddle. "You're the alfiredest sharp youngster I've ever come up with. Oh, it's too bad that you have to waste your talents in a city! Too bad, too bad! You ought to be out here on the plains and in the mountains where one's manhood counts for something."

"Did you come out to pick up that trail, sir?"

"That's what I came for, my boy. I reckoned those two fellows who got after us in camp last night would take this trail and head for the lower end of the mountain range. That's what they've done. This trail proves that. Of course they may get sidetracked, but that's their idea up to this point. I think we are safe in following our original plans now."

Captain Billy did not say what those plans were, nor did Tad ask him. They now turned about and started toward home at a slow jog trot, riding side by side where the trail permitted and in single file where it did not.

On the way back the captain asked Tad many questions about himself, the members of his party and their experiences during their various journeyings into the wilder parts of their native land.

"Ever think of joining the army yourself, Tad?" questioned the Ranger.

"Have I? I am thinking of it most of the time. Oh how I wish I were old enough. I know I could give my country good services now."

"You bet you could, Kid. You would make a wonderful scout over there," declared the captain, nodding.

"Some day, if the war lasts, I shall go," asserted Tad in a low voice, tense with emotion.

Billy said he had been East to Chicago once, where he had been robbed of everything he had on except his clothes.

"Funny, isn't it? I'd like to see a fellow go through me out here in my native pastures. But back there in the city---" Billy shook his head. The subject was too great for words.

They found the camp quiet and in order. The three boys and the professor had been sleeping a good part of the afternoon, and without having put out a guard, either. The captain shook his head, glancing significantly at Tad as he heard this. In fact the two had to shout to awaken the party. Then to learn that they had been sleeping all day---well, there was nothing to be said.

"Do we move to-night, sir?" asked the professor.

"Can't tell you. Not until I hear the reports of my men, and the messenger or scout whom I looked for to meet us here at noon. Seen. anything of that rattler around these diggings, Professor?"

"No, we haven't seen any rattler."

"We don't want to see any rattler," piped Chunky. "I'd snip his head off with my pistol if I caught sight of him."

"Yes, you would!" grinned Tad.

"You'd have to learn to shoot first," scoffed Rector.

"Perhaps Captain McKay will give us some lessons in revolver shooting," suggested Tad.

"From what I hear I guess you boys are pretty handy with both rifle and pistol as it is. However, if there are any drawing or sighting tricks I can show you I'll be glad to do so."

"Thank you. If we are where it is safe we will ask you to make good that promise to-morrow," declared Tad Butler.

While they were preparing the supper that night the Rangers whom the captain had sent out on a scouting expedition rode into camp, tired and gloomy. It was a personal and keen disappointment to every man of them that some ruffian hadn't shot at him once during the ride. Not once had the Rangers' weapons been out of their holsters. Whatever their mission the men merely shook their heads in reply to a questioning glance from their commander. That was all. No words were wasted in explanations. The captain knew that his men had done their work thoroughly. No explanations were necessary. This perfect confidence and understanding between commander and men was not lost on Tad Butler. It was an object lesson that made a deep impression on him.

The men had returned with sharp edges on their appetites, but they ate in silence. Stacy had little to say at dinner. He was observing the Rangers with wide eyes, stuffing his cheeks with food and listening while the professor, Tad Butler and Captain McKay discussed a variety of subjects.

"I don't understand why Joe hasn't come in, boys," said the captain finally. "He had passed Tonka Gulch at four o'clock this afternoon. He should have arrived here a long time ago."

The men nodded.

"Perhaps he's come up with Withem," suggested Cad Morgan.

"I don't think so. The lieutenant isn't due there until some time to-morrow. He will have to finish investigating the El Paso end before he can come along and join up with us."

Tad wondered how the captain knew that his scout had reached a certain point in the mountains when none had seen him or heard from him. But there were many mysteries connected with the work of these brave men. They worked in mysterious ways that added to the awe in which they were held by those whose ways were dark.

The night was warm and soon after supper the Rangers threw themselves down on the ground wrapped in their blankets. In view of the fact that the whole party might be called out all turned in early. The men had barely closed their eyes when suddenly there sounded the menacing hiss of a rattler right among them.

"Look out!" yelled Polly, jumping up.

"What is it?" cried half a dozen voices, as their owners sprang up with drawn weapons.

"There's a rattler in camp. Get a torch, somebody!"

Tad, who had snatched an ember from the dying campfire, was poking about cautiously, the torch in one hand, a club in the other ready to dispatch the reptile on sight. The Ranger who had been on guard duty hurried in upon hearing the uproar. He said he had heard a snake just after leaving the camp. The men jeered when they saw Stacy half way up a small tree, peering down at them with scared eyes.

"Afraid of the snake, eh, Bugs?"

"No, I'm not afraid of any snake. I just thought I'd get out of your way so you could work better."

The men jeered again. Morgan stepped over and gave the tree a shake, whereat the fat boy came sliding down to the ground. The search for the reptile was a fruitless one. After a time the Rangers turned in again. They had not been rolled in their blankets more than five minutes when that same fearsome, trilling hiss smote their ears again. This time the men were mad. They declared they'd find the "pizen critter" before ever they turned in again.

"Pile on some wood. We've got to have light here," ordered the captain. "Where was he?"

"That's what we're trying to find out, Captain. It isn't any easy matter to locate a sound like that. The critter may be 'most anywhere."

"Have---have you looked in your pockets?" stammered Stacy.

"Yes, maybe he's crawled in your clothes to get warm," grinned Tad.

"Oh, close up!" growled a tired Ranger.

"I was just trying to help you," answered Chunky indignantly. "You needn't get mad about it."

"No, don't grouch," laughed the captain. "We are losing too much time as it is. Better roll in your blankets and go to sleep. The fire will drive the fellow away."

Some of the men tried to sleep standing, leaning against trees. Others took the chance and rolled in their blankets. But there was little rest in the camp that night. About the time the men had settled down, they would be awakened to their surroundings by that same trilling hiss. It was beginning to get on the nerves of the Rangers. They were getting mad. The Pony Rider Boys felt a sense of discomfort too, though none showed any nervousness. It was not the first time the young explorers had passed through such an experience. Just the same they would have preferred to be in some other locality just then.

Finally Stacy went to sleep. When he woke up with a start, he tried to recall what had been going on when he dropped off. Then he remembered. He had been indulging in his famous imitation of an angry serpent. Had any of the men been awake at the moment he might have seen the fat boy's blanket shaking as if the boy were sobbing. But Stacy Brown was not sobbing.

It was some moments before he had subdued his merriment sufficiently to hiss again. The hiss was unheard. Stacy opened his eyes as he saw the captain striding into camp. He saw McKay awaken the Rangers, then start to arouse the Pony Rider Boys. In his wonderment at the proceeding Stacy forgot to hiss again for some time.

"Saddle up," commanded the captain sharply, but in a low tone.

The camp, so silent a few moments before, was now a scene of orderly activity. Every man in it was packing his pony and in less than ten minutes after the alarm had been given the men were in their saddles. The Pony Rider Boys were full of anticipation. It looked to them as if something were going to develop that was worth while.

Starting off in single file the men dozed in their saddles, but the Pony Rider Boys did not. The latter were too much excited for sleep. All at once that trilling hiss came again. Two dozing Rangers landed on their backs in the bush. The party was in an uproar, but as suddenly quieted by a stern word from the captain. The latter wondered at their being followed by a rattler. It was peculiar to say the least.

Stacy hissed again. Then the boy shivered, for a heavy hand was laid on his arm, closing over it until the fat boy yelled.

"Ouch! Let go of my arm!" he cried.

"Young man, I think I've got the rattler this time," said the stern voice of Captain Billy McKay, as the fat boy fairly shrank within himself.