Chapter III. In a Bad Man's Power
 

Having secreted their ponies in a dense growth of scrub oak, Tad laid out his plan as follows:

"You, Ned, will go straight in from here until you've got about a quarter of a mile directly inland. When you have done so turn due west. I don't think you can lose your way for you can see out every little while and thus get your bearings."

"Where are you going?"

"Back to the point where we first decided to make camp. I shall have easier going than you will, but I shall be in more risk."

"What's the rest?" asked Ned with a short laugh.

"It is my idea to close in on the right fork of the stream there in the foothills. I'll come up from the west and you from the east. In that way we shall close in, you see, covering roughly the greater part of the territory."

"Then you think we shall find our man there?"

"I am sure he will get there eventually, provided he has not seen our movements out there. He will go to the stream and from there he will quickly locate our camp. Understand?"

"As far as it goes, yes. But what are we going to do if we find him?"

"Watch him. Find out what he is up to, then from that on be guided by circumstances. But whatever you do, Ned, don't use your revolver unless it be to save your own life."

"No, I'm not aching to shoot any one. Do you know, Tad, I'm thinking you and I are biting off a bigger mouthful than we will know how to chew?"

"We will manage it somehow."

"What do you think this fellow is trying to do?"

"It looked very much as if he were trying to kill us," smiled Tad.

"It did. But what for?"

"I have an idea the professor was right when he said the fellow mistook us for some other party."

"And he's likely to do it again, if that's the case."

"He may have already discovered his mistake, Ned. You observe he hasn't fired a shot since?"

Rector nodded thoughtfully.

"Well, we must be on the move. We don't want to be caught out here after dark, you know, Ned. Remember, the right fork, where it enters the hills, is the point we have agreed upon meeting. You will strike the stream farther back, then follow it, but be very careful. Be an Indian, Ned. If you are a white man you're likely to lose your identity. We don't want to stop any bullets. Chunky has done quite enough of that for one day."

"I'll watch out---never you fear, old man."

"Then here we go."

Tad crept silently away, hugging the base of the rocks so that it would have been difficult for one at the top to have seen him at all Ned, obeying his instructions, found a canyon up which he crawled, neither boy making a sound. They had agreed upon the two-shot signal to call each other, three shots being a warning to the rest of their party that they were in need of assistance.

Neither lad saw or heard anything of a disturbing nature on his way out. Ned found no difficulty in making his way into the range of mountains, but as he proceeded and found no one there he grew more bold. Not that he was particularly careless, but he unconsciously relaxed a little of his former caution.

In the meantime Tad Butler had crept on past the place where the party had first planned to go into camp. Not a sign of a human being greeted Tad's watchful eyes. The lad climbed the side of the rocks, keeping his body hidden in the foliage as much as possible. He had got about half way up when he paused to take a look over the plain beneath him. The Pony Rider Boy could faintly make out the place where his companions were in camp awaiting the result of his mission.

"I believe there's Chunky standing on that rise," muttered Tad. "Yes it must be Chunky. I'll bet the professor doesn't know the boy is out there. Chunky evidently is getting anxious about us."

Bang!

The shot sounded some distance to the eastward of where Tad was secreted. Instinctively the lad glanced toward the camp again. Stacy Brown no longer was to be seen. Tad Butler could not repress a laugh. He had a pretty clear idea as to what had caused Chunky's sudden disappearance. It did not occur to him that possibly Stacy had been bit. As a matter of fact the unknown marksman's bullet had grazed the head of the fat boy, instilling in that young gentleman a more thorough respect for the mountaineer's marksmanship.

But now Tad's mind turned to the object of his visit to the mountain range. He was there looking for the man who had fired the shot. Ned Rector had heard the shot also. Both boys were making their way toward the spot whence the shot had seemed to come. Ned had located the sound much nearer than had Tad. The latter struck off in a southeasterly direction which carried him still farther into the hills. He had reasoned that the shooter was occupying a high point of vantage somewhere farther in, whence he was taking pot shots at the camp of the Pony Rider Boys. In this Tad was mistaken. The mountaineer was much nearer the plains than Tad thought.

Ned started on a trot immediately after having heard the shot.

"I've got him this time!" exulted Rector. "I've got a chance to show the fellows what sort of a trailer I am. They don't think I'm any good, except Tad, and he knows better."

Tad, as he skulked along, was wondering if Ned had heard the shot and hoping that his companion would make no false moves. Each boy was determined to round up the man who had winged Stacy Brown and narrowly missed killing the others of the party.

Night was coming on rapidly and it behooved the lads to make haste. In the first place they did not know these hills, and, in the second, the professor would become alarmed and come in search of them were their return delayed too long. This was not desirable. It might mean the undoing of the entire party unless Tad and Ned succeeded in rounding up their enemy first.

Ned, in his excitement, had a mishap. While creeping along the upper rim of a galley he stepped on a round stone. Ned fell crashing into a heap of rotting limbs and went floundering from there to the bottom of the incline, making a racket that must have been heard clear out on the plain.

The lad got up, his clothing torn, his face scratched, very much chagrined over his blundering fall.

"I guess I'm not so much of a scout as I thought I was," he muttered. "Chunky could have done no worse and for a blundering idiot he's always held the cup up to the present time. I'm glad no one saw me make such an exhibition of myself. But what if that fellow heard me? No, he couldn't. He is too far away."

In this Ned was wrong. The "man" was not so far away as the Pony Rider Boy thought. The fellow, while watching for another opportunity to shoot, had caught the distant sound of crashing twigs. It might have been a falling tree, it might have been an animal. At any rate it put the fellow instantly on his guard. Lowering his rifle he began skulking in the direction of the racket.

By this time Ned was walking ruefully down the galley looking for a convenient trail up the side to the ridge. Not that he could not have made the ascent anywhere, but that he did not wish to raise any more disturbance than be already had done. At last, finding what seemed to him to be a path, Ned began climbing the side of the galley. Had the boy first taken a survey of the ground at the top of the rise, he might possibly have made a discovery, and then again he might not. Crouched behind a rock was a man. The fellow was fingering his rifle suggestively. Twice he raised it to a level with his eyes and drew a bead on the advancing form of Ned Rector, and as many times lowered it.

The watcher observed that Ned carried no rifle, only a revolver slapping against his thigh in its holster as the boy stumbled on up the mountain side. The mountaineer evidently changed his mind about shooting, for he changed ends with the gun and sat waiting. A few moments later Ned stepped up beside the rock where he stood listening and looking about him. The Pony Rider Boy looked everywhere except in the right place.

Suddenly there was a crackling of twigs behind him. Ned turned just in time to see the figure of a man leaping upon him. The boy went down under the crushing weight, the cry that rose to his lips smothered by a stinging blow in the face.

Ned lost consciousness. Everything turned suddenly black about him.