The Pony Rider Boys with the Texas Rangers by Frank Gee Patchin
Chapter IV. Tad Butler Makes a Discovery
Dusk was already settling over the mountains when Ned Butler fell beneath the powerful onslaught of the mountaineer. Without an instant's hesitation the fellow picked up the boy, starting down the side of the galley with his burden. The man ran along carrying the lad as easily as if he had been a child.
Reaching a secluded spot near the west fork the fellow put his burden down, then built a little fire under a thick growth of pines, whose tops served to break up the smoke and scatter it, thus greatly lessening the chances of discovery.
It was a few minutes later that Ned regained consciousness. His captor, watching him narrowly, had placed Ned against a tree, passed a piece of rope about the boy's body, pinioning his arms to his sides, securing the rope at the other side of the tree. Then the fellow had squatted down with rifle across his knees.
Ned saw a powerfully-built, wiry man, whose lean face and deep-sunken eyes created a most unfavorable impression. Even under more pleasing circumstances this man would have caused Ned to give him a wide berth. Discovering that he had been bound Ned's face flushed angrily. Even then he did not realize that his position was a perilous one.
"You untie me and let me go, or it'll be the worse for you," threatened Rector.
"I reckon I've got you this time," grinned the mountaineer.
"I know you. You're the fellow who has been shooting at us. You will get what is coming to you when my friends find out what you have done to me. What do you think I am anyway?"
"That's what I reckoned to find out," answered the man. "Who be you?"
"That's what I am asking you."
"I reckon I ain't answering fool questions."
"Why did you shoot at us?"
"You know you did." z "What's your name?" asked the mountaineer, evading the question.
"My name is Rector---Ned Rector."
"Where you from?"
"What you doing here?"
"Maybe I am traveling for my health," answered Ned with a half sneer. He was not advancing his own cause by his attitude.
"I reckon you'll answer my questions and without putting on any trimmings either," announced the fellow, shifting his rifle around so that the barrel lay along his right leg, the muzzle pointing straight at Ned. The latter was not greatly disturbed at this. He did not think, for a moment, that the man would dare to shoot him. Ned did not realize what a desperate character he was facing.
"I will answer what I choose. You can't make me answer any questions that I don't want to," declared Rector defiantly.
"I reckon you'll change yer mind before I git done with you. Anybody with you?"
"No, not exactly here," answered Ned quickly, a sudden line of conduct occurring to him. "Unfortunately for me, and fortunately for you, I am all alone. But when my friends do find out what has happened you'd better look out. You'll be riddled so full of holes that the wind will sigh through your body as if it were a sieve."
"How's Captain Billy?" demanded the man sharply.
"Captain Billy?" wondered Ned.
"Yes. You needn't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about."
"I most certainly do not. Who is Captain Billy?"
"Know Joe Withem?"
"I do not. Some friend of yours, I suppose?"
An angry exclamation escaped the lips of the mountaineer.
"I reckon they're no friends of mine. I reckon, too, that you'll be answering my questions or you'll be hiking for the Happy Hunting Grounds in about ten minutes from now. I haven't got all night to sit here talking with you. I've got to git through with you; then I'm going to finish the rest of your crowd. You fellows thought you'd play a sharp trick on me, eh?"
"You are mistaken. We did not even know of your existence until you began shooting at us. Why did you do that?"
"If you don't know, I reckon you'll have to guess. Bill McKay must think we're easy down here, to try a game like that."
"I'll tell him when I see him," nodded Ned.
"I reckon you won't see him right smart. When I git through with you I'm going to send a bullet through your head. Maybe they'll find you here. If they do they'll know what it means, I reckon."
Ned's face paled slightly. There was that in the eyes of the man before him which, all at once, told Ned Rector that the fellow meant what he said.
"Who do you think we are?" demanded the boy earnestly.
"You're part of the Ranger gang."
"The gang known as the Texas Rangers."
"You've got it wrong this time. We are not Texas Rangers. We are known as the Pony Riders and we are out for our health and as good a time as we can have."
"Ye can't fool me. That line of talk don't go down at all I'll tell you what. Bill McKay thought to trap some folks by getting in a bunch that wasn't known down in these parts. I had his little game sized up the minute I set eyes on your bunch. But I'll clip your claws. I'll show McKay that we ain't so easy. Now you out with the whole story. If you tell it straight, I may think about letting you go. If you lie it's the end of you. I'd as lief shoot you full of holes as I would a yellow dog. Now what's your orders?"
"I haven't any orders, I tell you."
"What did Bill McKay reckon you would do down here?"
"I don't know Bill McKay, I don't know any Texas Rangers, and if they are anything like you and your kind, I don't want to know them. But I do want to tell you that if you don't let me go---that if you heap any more insults on me---it is you who will get a bullet through your miserable hide. I'm getting mad, Mr. Man."
"Oho! Ye be, eh?"
"Yes, I am."
"Then I reckon there's only one thing to do to put ye in a better frame of mind," answered the mountaineer, shifting his rifle about suggestively. "Now I'll give ye two minutes to open up and tell all ye know," was the stern announcement.
In the meantime Tad Butler had not been idle. As the reader already knows, Tad had been deceived as to the location of the shot. He had gone a long distance out of his course. After a time he realized this and at once started back toward the plain. It was his intention to make the opening where they had first sought to make camp, as it was there or in that vicinity that he was to meet Ned Rector.
The lad settled down to a trot. Every faculty was on the alert, for Butler was a natural woodsman, added to which was an experience of some two or three years in mountain and on plain until Tad was familiar with many of the tricks of the mountaineer.
Suddenly the boy halted and stood with head thrown back sniffing the air.
"Smoke!" breathed Tad. "There is a fire somewhere near here. That means some one is in camp here. I can't be far from the edge now. I must find out where the fire is."
After a few moments of sniffing the lad decided that smoke lay off obliquely to the right of him. Having decided upon this he started in the direction named, but proceeded with much more caution than before as he did not wish to stumble upon strangers until he had first determined whether they were friends or enemies.
At last he saw a faint flicker of light.
"It's there," muttered the boy. "Now we'll see. I hope nothing has happened to Ned. Still, he would have fired his revolver had he got into trouble. He may be waiting for me down by the creek. But I must find out what's going on here before I take time to look him up. I hope the others don't come and blunder in."
Tad paused in his reflections as the sound of voices reached his ears. Young Butler, crouching low, crept cautiously through the bushes, each foot being placed on the ground as softly as an animal stalking its prey could have done. Not a sound did the young woodsman make. Of course his progress was slow, but it was silent, which was much more to be desired.
Some fifteen minutes elapsed before Tad reached a point where he could get a view of the fire. He was obliged to crawl some three or four rods from that point ere he found a position where he could see the men who were near the fire.
The first to attract Tad's attention was the mountaineer, squatting down with head thrust forward, his rifle held across his chest, the man's hand over the trigger-frame. Butler knew that the first finger of the right hand was toying with the trigger. His glances followed the direction indicated by the muzzle of the weapon. Then Tad's face flushed hot all over. There, back to a tree, a rope twisted twice about his body sat Ned Rector, defiance in face and eyes. Ned was looking straight at his captor. The situation was strained. To Tad, it was maddening.
"What is it you want me to tell you?" demanded the prisoner.
"I've told you that already. What are your orders?"
"And I have already told you, I have no orders from any one."
"How many are in your party?"
"Five, not including the horses."
"I wasn't asking about the cayuses. Who is in charge of you?"
"You wouldn't know if I told you."
"I'm asking you!"
"His name is Zepplin, Professor Zepplin."
"One of them scientific shooters, eh?"
"I don't know about his being a shooter. He is scientific, all right. But what's that got to do with you and me?"
"Did this---this perfesser get his orders from Bill McKay?"
"I should say not," answered Ned with a mirthless laugh.
"Who was it you was to look up?"
"I don't know what you mean."
"Yes you do. Don't try to make a monkey of me. You'll be willing to answer right smart after I've fanned you with a forty-four. Who is it you and your bunch are after?"
"We are after no one. Can't you understand English?" replied Rector with some heat, "I have told you that we are here on a trip for pleasure and nothing else."
"You said you was here for your health, a little time ago," grinned the mountaineer.
"Well, what if we are?" snorted Ned.
"Nothing only that I'm going to drill you full of holes. The two minutes is about up. You've lied to me pretty near every word you've said. You said you didn't know Bill McKay when I know you do. You've said he hadn't given you any orders. You've---"
"You're crazy," scoffed Rector.
"I reckon if I am that you're more so if you think I am going to gulp down all them fairy stories. You're young. Mebby you don't know the kind of a game you've stacked up against, but---"
"I ought to have some idea about it by this time," returned Ned. "Everything you have said is a lie and you know it. I don't know you, nor do I want to, being somewhat particular about the people I know. And now once more, are you going to let me go?"
A sudden note of triumph had leaped into the tone of Ned Rector. Ned had seen something that sent the blood coursing through his veins madly. That something was a figure that for a few seconds had been outlined in the faint light of the fire.
The mountaineer caught the change of tone on the instant. His suspicions were aroused. His eyes narrowed. He slowly straightened up until he had risen to his full height. Now the rifle came up to position, ready for work. It was at his chest again. The mountaineer had no need to bring the weapon to a level with his eyes. He could shoot equally well from almost any position.
Rector shot a quick glance over the mountaineer's shoulder. He could not resist one more look in Tad's direction. But that look was fatal. With a roar the fellow wheeled like a flash.
The shots were fired with such suddenness that Ned did not realize the fellow had turned until after the rifle had spit two charges of fire and lead. Ned's head dropped. Everything grew black about him again. The lad was in a fainting condition. It was all up with him now.
Ned had tried to cry out, but the words would not come. He could not utter a sound if his very life depended upon so doing.
Ned found his voice at last. It rose in a mighty yell for help, a yell that carried far beyond the spot where those exciting scenes were being enacted.