Chapter XXI. A Hole in the Mountain
 

The professor gave Stacy a shaking that the fat boy did not forget at once, the others shouting their approval. The fat boy grinned after his punishment.

"I'm a regular William Tell, eh?" he asked looking about. It was still a good joke to him. Even the professor permitted a grim smile to show itself at the base of his whiskers.

"You came near killing Professor Zepplin," answered the Ranger.

"That would have been too bad," replied Stacy almost anxiously. "I shouldn't have had anybody to tease then. Do I try that shot again?"

"You do not!" was the firm reply from McKay.

"I guess I knew what I was about when I hid behind that rock," laughed Rector.

"According to Chunky, you knew what you were about when you got behind the rock during the shooting yesterday," cut in Tad.

"Come, come, boys, if you are going to shoot any more you'd better get busy. I shall soon have to leave you. Who shoots next?" demanded the captain.

"I do," announced Stacy.

"You shoot no more in this camp, young man," insisted the professor. "It's all right for those who know how, but you endanger our lives with your irresponsible actions."

"All right, Butler, I will now throw my hat up from behind you. You will turn and shoot at it when I give the word," said the captain.

The first shot Tad missed the hat by some three or four rods. How the boys did shout and jeer at him!

"I did better than you. I trimmed the professor's whiskers," declared Chunky.

Tad nodded to McKay that he was ready for another shot.

"Don't shoot this time until you see the hat. Shoot a little under rather than over it. The natural tendency is always to overshoot, whatever one is shooting at."

Bang!

The hat in the air jumped as if it had received a sudden blow as Tad whirled and let go.

"You've graduated. Next!"

Rector missed five shots. Walter fanned the rim, then they called a halt in the practice.

"Altogether I am well satisfied with your shooting, boys. Even Brown accomplished something," said McKay.

Stacy grinned broadly.

"I---I could hit a German, couldn't I?" he stammered.

"Yes, I think you could," laughed Billy.

"Especially if you were to turn your back to him before shooting," added Tad.

"Professor," said McKay, "I must go away for part of the day. I do not believe your party will have any difficulty. The bandits are no longer here. I should not be at all surprised if my men were to round them up, as they are on the track of the enemy at this very moment. If you want to move, you may do so, but I would suggest that you make this your camp for the night"

"I am quite well satisfied here. The boys will no doubt want to go out exploring. I am somewhat interested in the geological formation of the canyon at this point, so we shall all be well occupied during the remainder of the day. You plan to return here to-night?"

"I think so."

"We will see if we can't pick up the trail of the enemy," laughed Tad.

"Do so by all means. Who knows but that you may discover something worth while? I am sure you have an idea in your mind," answered McKay, giving Butler a shrewd glance.

"I will confess that I have, sir."

The Ranger captain did not say where he was going. But shortly after that he rode out of camp and was seen no more until late that evening. After the departure of McKay the professor cleared his throat and stroked his damaged whiskers.

"I trust you young men will try to keep out of trouble to-day. I am sorry to say that you are becoming rather too venturesome. Be good enough to keep in mind that we are in what appears to be a hostile country."

"It strikes me that Chunky is more hostile, more to be feared, than anything else about here," chuckled Tad.

"I agree with you, and for that reason I am going to place Stacy under your charge for the day, Tad."

"Oh, what a responsibility!" mocked Butler.

"I'm glad it isn't up to me," declared Ned.

"You will look after Walter."

"I don't need any looking after," protested Perkins.

"That's why he's put you in charge of Ned," scoffed Stacy.

"Shake hands. We will take a fresh start, Chunky," said Ned, extending a friendly hand.

Chunky regarded Ned suspiciously. He wondered what Rector had in mind to induce him to become so friendly all at once. As it chanced Ned felt that perhaps he had been rather too hard on the fat boy. But the fat boy had never thought of it in that light. Each was supposed to take the jokes played on him and without losing his temper. As a rule each one did, though Chunky seemed to get more than his share of such abuse. Perhaps he brought his troubles on himself.

"Well, if I am going to have charge of you, Stacy, I think I'll take you out in the woods where you can't do any damage to any one but myself. Bring your gun and we'll go shooting."

"My rifle?"

"No. Your pistol."

"That suits me. I am too delicate to tote a rifle around on my shoulder all day."

"Be back early, and do not go far away," ordered the professor.

"Shoot off a rifle if you want us before we get back," suggested Tad.

"Which way are you going?" asked Ned.

"South. Which way do you go?"

"I guess we will go west if you are going south. I want to get a good distance away if you fellows are going to shoot at a mark."

"Come on, Stacy."

The fat boy and his companion strolled off. They were going to take their ponies, but the professor had decided against this, fearing that the boys would stray too far from camp were they to ride. Being on foot he felt reasonably certain that they would not get far away, knowing how averse they were to walking, which is usually the case with those used to riding a horse. A cowboy will mount his pony if he wants to go across the street, just the same as a fire chief will get into his buggy if he goes to a fire on the same block.

Stacy and Tad engaged in a friendly conversation on the way out. Tad was giving his companion some advice. They were talking seriously and for a wonder Stacy was giving serious consideration to what Butler was saying.

They had been going along aimlessly for nearly an hour, halting now and then to sit down on a rock or a log, when Stacy paused, looking about him curiously.

"Isn't this the place where we were shot at last night?"

"Yes, this is the place, I guess," answered Tad, looking about him inquiringly. "Over yonder is where we were stationed. Let's go over and look about a little."

Stacy was willing, so they strolled over. Tad sat down, a thoughtful look on his face, taking a survey, forming a mental picture of the scene as it had appeared during the bloodless battle with the border bandits.

"According to my idea those fellows must have fallen into a hole in the ground about where that tree is down," declared Stacy wisely.

"That is my idea too," answered Tad. "I can't understand how they could have slipped by us as easily as they did."

"Maybe they didn't."

"They must have done so. There is no hole in the ground over there, as you can see for yourself. Even if there were, what good would it have done the men? Let's go over and see if we can pick up a trail of some sort."

"I'm with you. Where shall we begin?"

"You go to the left and I'll go to the right. We will meet somewhere near the fallen tree unless we get side-tracked."

The tree referred to was a huge one. It lay at the base of a great pile of rocks, from which it evidently had slipped. In falling it had carried its roots with it. These roots, massed with dirt and stone, stood up in the air all of fifteen feet. The top of the tree was a hundred feet further out. It must have been a magnificent tree when it stood towering from the top of the rocks there and no doubt was a landmark for all that part of the Guadalupe Range. The trunk at the top stood free of the ground several feet, the trunk nearer the roots resting on an almost knife-like edge of rock that had cut deeply into the trunk when the tree fell.

Stacy gazed at the tree and decided that it would make an excellent thing to climb. He stepped up on the trunk at the roots, walking out toward the top.

"Come on up. The walking's great, Tad," he cried.

"I'll be there pretty soon."

After looking about for several minutes Butler followed his companion. But Tad paused before climbing up. He eyed that towering mass of roots, dirt and stones with interest.

"See anything funny?" called Stacy.

"No, nothing particularly funny. I do see the print of a horseshoe here on the rocks where some dirt has stuck to the shoe and been left on the stone. It isn't any of our stock as nearly as I can determine. I guess it must have been some of those fellows last night. They evidently were shooting from behind the tree here."

"They weren't shooting from behind much of anything, as well as I could judge," answered the fat boy.

Tad climbed up and made his way slowly along the tree trunk. As he neared his companion, he felt the tree settle a little. This at the moment did not make any particular impression on the Pony Rider Boy. Their combined weight might cause the outer end to give a little. Then all at once a howl from Chunky caused Tad to grasp a branch to save himself.

The tree top was settling slowly.

"Look, look!" cried the fat boy.

Tad turned, amazement growing on his face. The roots of the tree had slowly risen several feet into the air, disclosing a hole in the rocks.

Chunky was so excited that he fell off before Tad could say a word. The tree settled back, closing the hole in the rocks.