Chapter II. A Mysterious Attack
 

"Pull in close!" cried Tad.

"Where is it coming from?" shouted Ned.

"I don't know. I haven't had time to look. Look out there!"

Professor Zepplin, somewhat slower than the others, had halted a little distance out from the foothills. A bullet threw up a little cloud of dust just to one side of where he was sitting on his pony, followed by a report somewhere up in the mountains.

"Stop that! Stop it, I tell you!" bellowed the professor, waving his sombrero. Almost ere the words were out of his mouth, the sombrero was shot from his hand and went spinning out to the rear. Professor Zepplin did not wait for further parley. He turned his horse, dashing for the protection of the foothills.

In the meantime, Tad Butler had leaped from his pony, placing Stacy on the ground. It was observed that there was blood on the fat boy's left cheek, but his eyes, wide and frightened, were staring up at the boys now gathering about him.

"Are you hurt?" demanded Tad breathlessly.

"I'm killed."

"Nonsense! It's only a flesh wound---"

"Is---is he shot?" stammered Walter Perkins.

"Of course I'm shot. Don't you see I am?" demanded Chunky with considerable spirit for a man who had been the mark of a bullet and who according to his own word was dead.

Tad half dragged the fat boy down to the creek where the blood was quickly washed from his cheek. It was then seen that a bullet had grazed Stacy's cheek, leaving a raw streak across it.

Professor Zepplin, now mindful of his duty, had hurried up to them, and down on his knees was examining the wound critically.

"Hm---m---m!" he muttered. "Bad business, bad business!"

"But---what does it mean?" urged Walter.

"What does it mean? It means that the Germans have got us," wailed Stacy Drown. "Oh, I knew we should be in this war sooner or later, but I didn't think I should be the first man to get shotted up."

"It means some one has been trying to shoot us up," answered Rector.

"Trying!" exploded Chunky. "They did more than try. They succeeded. Don't you see this wound on my countenance? Wait till I get sight of the man who put that mark on my face. I'll bear the scar for life. I-----"

"It is my opinion that we are in a dangerous position," declared the professor, getting up and glancing about him apprehensively.

"We were. We are all right here for a little while," replied Tad. "But we shall have to seek other quarters, I am afraid, and that without delay."

"Surely, it must be a mistake," protested the professor. "Some one must have been shooting at us under a misapprehension that we were another party."

"It doesn't make any difference what their motive is, sir," answered Tad. "The fact remains that some one is trying to get us and we must look lively or they will pink one or more of us. Get up, Stacy! You are all right. Lead your pony in here while I take an observation."

Tad mounted his own horse and galloped along at the base of the rocks, well shielded from any one who might be hiding further back in the mountains. The Pony Rider Boy's mind was working rapidly. He was forming a plan of campaign. He was inclined to agree with the theory of Professor Zepplin. Still, theories would not help them at this critical moment. They must protect themselves and at once if they expected to get out alive. One course was plainly open to them. They could mount their ponies and ride out over the plains at a gallop and perhaps escape. However, this plan was rather risky. Besides, Tad did not like the idea of running away.

"No, we've got to do something else," he declared out loud. "I have it!" The boy brought his pony up standing and gazed off over the plain to a point about a quarter of a mile beyond, where the plain rolled into a hollow, a "hog hollow" as it was called down there.

Butler galloped back to where his companions were standing anxiously awaiting him.

"We are wasting time, Tad," cried the professor as the lad rode up. "It is my opinion that we had better ride into that canyon there and make camp in some secluded spot where we shall not be easily found."

"I am afraid that won't help us any, Professor," said Tad. "How could we expect to hide ourselves in there so completely that a mountaineer would not find us? No, sir, it is my opinion that our only safety lies out there in the open, at least for the rest of the afternoon and the night."

"What, ride out there to be shot up again?" demanded Stacy. "No, sir, not for Stacy Brown! I've been shot up once. I don't propose to make a bull's-eye of myself again."

"Stacy is right, boys. It would be foolishness to follow such a course and---"

"Wait till you hear my plan, sir," urged Butler.

"We will hear it. Proceed."

"Out yonder about a quarter of a mile from the base of the rocks is a depression in the plain. If we can reach it we shall be safe---"

"Yes, if we can reach it," repeated Ned.

"In doing so we should be shot in all probability," objected Professor Zepplin.

"I think not, sir."

"Explain what you mean?"

"From the position occupied by the man or men when they fired at us out there, I am sure they could not see us were we to follow the course I went out on just now. If you will ride down to the edge of the foothills with me and wait there, I will gallop out and prove my theory."

"What do you mean?" questioned the professor.

"I will see if I can draw their fire," answered Tad.

Professor Zepplin shook his head.

"Too risky!"

"It certainly is risky to stay here. Listen, sir. If that man wants to get us he surely will be creeping down on our position before long. We are in greater peril here, where we can't see anything on one side of us, than we would be out there where we have an unobstructed view on all sides. My plan is to make camp out in the hollow; then we will place a guard over the camp, keeping a sharp watch all through the night. By morning we'll be able to find out what is in the wind."

"I won't move a step," declared Stacy stubbornly.

"You will do whatever seems best to the rest of us," answered the professor sternly. Then, after a moment's thought, he added, "I am inclined, upon second thought, to agree with Tad. We will try the plan."

"Good. Follow me. Get that pony, Chunky. I told you once before to catch him. We'll be in a fine mess if you lose your mount."

"I'd rather lose my mount than to lose my precious life," answered the fat boy surlily.

By this time the others were taking to their saddles. The faces of all wore serious expressions. They had not looked for anything quite so lively as this. It was not the first time the Pony Rider Boys had smelled powder when the powder was being expended on them, but they liked it none the better for past experiences.

Stacy's cheek was bleeding again. He was holding his handkerchief to the wound and his face was a little paler than usual.

"Buck up!" commanded Ned. "You're not going to show the white feather, are you?"

"No, it's a red feather I'm showing," wailed the fat boy.

"Forward!" ordered Butler. "Get up, Chunky!"

The party moved off, keeping close to the rocks, Tad now and then casting apprehensive glances up to their tops. He was not wholly satisfied that they were out of range of the bullets. The man who had been firing at them, too, was practically a dead shot.

"Now spread out," commanded Tad after they bad reached the point where he previously had halted. "Don't shout, but when I wave my hand, ride fast for the hollow. I'll be all right; don't worry about me."

With that the lad galloped leisurely out on the plain, his back to the mountains. It was a bold thing to do. Deep down in his heart the Pony Rider Boy expected every second to bear a bullet scream over his head, providing he was fortunate enough not to stop the bullet with his body. Not a shot greeted his bold act.

Tad rode on, finally disappearing in the "hog hollow." A few moments later he rode up the ridge, waving his hands for them to come on. Professor Zepplin started out at once, followed by the others of his party, Stacy this time well up toward the front of the line. For reasons of his own he did not care to drag behind. If there was to be any shooting he wanted to be as far away from it as possible.

The trip was made at a fast gallop and without incident, the party reaching the hollow without having drawn a shot from the enemy.

"It is my opinion," declared the professor, "that, whoever our enemy may be, he has discovered that he has made a mistake."

Tad shook his head.

"I don't think we would be safe in taking that for granted. He did not see us, but he will be on hand before long. I'm going back there before he does see us. If he starts any more shooting you all lie low."

"Where are you going?" demanded the professor.

"On a scouting trip."

"I cannot consent to any such foolhardy business," answered Professor Zepplin sternly.

"It is not foolhardy. We've got to clear up this mystery. Don't you see, we shan't dare go any farther---we simply cannot go into the mountains knowing there is some one there waiting to riddle us the first time he gets a clear sight at us?"

"But what do you propose to do?"

"I don't know, beyond finding out what is up."

"Yes, let him go," urged Stacy. "He's looking for trouble. I'm the only one who has had any experience thus far. It's time some one else made a mark of himself."

"I was thinking of taking you with me," laughed Tad.

"No, you don't! Not if I see you coming," objected Stacy.

"Yes, take him along," urged Ned.

"No, I think I'll take you, the Professor being willing," answered Tad nodding at Rector.

Ned stopped smiling, gazing at Tad to see whether the latter were in earnest. Tad was.

"All right, I'm willing, Tad."

"How about it, Professor?"

"Provided you do not go into the mountains I will agree to your plan. But I cannot consent to your taking further desperate chances."

"I hope you will not hold me to that, Professor."

"To what?" demanded Professor Zepplin shortly.

"To not going beyond the edge of the mountains."

"Plainly, what is it you are planning to do, Tad?"

"I want to find out who it is that is shooting at us and why. That is all, sir."

"You don't suppose it possibly could be the Germans attacking us, do you?" questioned Walter apprehensively.

The professor shook his head.

"If you will stop to think you will see how necessary it is for some one to do something," urged Tad Butler.

"Yes; don't let me do it all," urged Stacy. "I think I have done my share already. It is high time some one else got a move on. First thing we know we shan't know anything. We'll be dead ones, and---"

"Very good. Go on. There will be no peace here unless you have your way. See to it that you are back here in an hour. If not we shall go after you. Do you understand?"

"Yes, sir, I will try to get back on time. If something should occur to keep us longer than that please don't worry. You know we might not be able to get away. If we get into trouble I will signal by firing three shots into the air. Are you ready, Ned?"

"Yes. Do we take our arms?"

"Better leave the rifles here. We don't want to be bothered with them. We'll take our revolvers. That will be sufficient."

"Now, Tad, be prudent," begged the professor. "I know you have a level head or I should not permit you to get out of my sight under the circumstances."

"We will be prudent, sir. Come on, Ned; we mustn't waste a moment now. If we are seen to leave the camp we'll fail."

For answer Ned swung himself into his saddle, after first having taken the rifle from the saddle boot and fastened it to one of the packs.

"Don't pitch the tent yet. We must be in marching order," directed Butler, after leaping into his saddle. "And don't worry about us, for we'll be all right."

Nodding to Ned Tad started off at a fast gallop. But despite Tad's cheerfulness he realized that he had taken upon himself a serious piece of work, one that might be the death of both. Still, he was nothing daunted. He was determined to go to the bottom of the mystery, whatever the cost might be to himself.

Tad knew also that he could depend upon Ned Rector, for Ned was brave and resourceful, a boy who would keep his head in an emergency.

They made the trip to the mountains without incident. There Tad pulled up for a conference.

"Now tell me what your plan is?" said Ned.

"First we will ride on a little further along the base here. I see a place where I think we can hide our ponies. I don't want to go back to the point where we first started to make camp. That is the place where our enemy will be looking for us first. But when he gets there we'll be somewhere in the vicinity."

Ned wheeled his pony without further comment and followed Tad at a slow trot along the base of the foothills. The boys were engaged on a more desperate mission than they knew.