Chapter V. When the Tables Were Turned
 

At the instant when Ned had shot his quick glance at the wondering Tad, the latter with quick instinct, realizing that Ned had made a serious mistake, threw himself flat on the ground.

That move undoubtedly saved Tad Butler's life. At least, two bullets went ripping through the foliage over his head. The move served the further purpose of hiding him from the man who was shooting at him. The mountaineer had not even caught a sight of Butler, quick as had been his turn about. The fellow swung to the right letting go two more shots, evidently believing that he had not fired in the right direction.

In Tad Butler's right hand was gripped a piece of rock that he had grabbed when he threw himself to the ground. The boy came to his feet as if propelled by a spring. At that second the eyes of the mountaineer were fixed on a point several yards to the left of Tad.

Without a sound Tad let go the rock. But the movement caught the eyes of the ruffian. He swung toward Butler at the same instant pulling the trigger of his rifle.

Once more the rifle roared its savage protest. But that was its last roar for the time being. Almost at the instant when he pulled the trigger the mountaineer received Tad's rock in the pit of his stomach. With such force had the missile been hurled that the fellow staggered back, the rifle falling from his hands, both of which were suddenly clasped over the part of his anatomy that had been struck.

The fellow uttered a howl of pain. He swayed and staggered then fell over a dead limb, landing flat on his back with a crash.

Tad, without an instant's hesitation, sprang forward. The eyes of the plucky Pony Rider Boy were flashing. Tad had not even thought to draw his revolver. But his anger was kindled. He was dangerous in his present mood. He did not pause to think what a terrible chance he was taking in thus rushing forward. Fortunately for Tad, however, the mountaineer was suffering such agonies that he either gave no thought to the revolver that was hanging at his side, or else he was too weak to draw it. He staggered to his feet, swaying, groaning, shoulders hunched forward, chin on his breast.

Young Butler was upon him like a whirlwind.

Whack!

Tad's fist caught the mountaineer squarely on the point of the jaw as the man raised his head half defiantly, one hand groping awkwardly for his pistol.

The fellow went down in a heap.

"Whoop!" howled Ned Rector. "That's the blow that put the finishing touches to father. Cut me loose! Cut me loose! Quick, Tad! He'll be up in a minute!"

Butler had no need to be told this. He knew the first thing to be done was to secure the prisoner. Ned could wait. The danger lay with the man stretched out there on the ground. Tad worked rapidly. His rope was jerked free from his belt. Three swift turns were made about the body of the prostrate man, binding the fellow's arms firmly to his sides.

Next Tad jerked the mountaineer's revolver from its holster and cast it into the bushes. Then he tied the man's ankles together, after which he straightened up and wiped the sweat from his face and forehead.

"Whew! Warm, isn't it, Ned?"

"Rather," drawled Rector. "Warmer for some folks than others. It came near being pretty warm for you. Are you going to cut me loose, or am I to stay tied to this tree for the rest of the night?"

"I guess we will let you up now. We shall have to wait until our friend there comes to his senses before going farther. Tell me how you got into this mess."

"The same way Chunky gets into trouble. I blundered into it." Ned then went on to relate briefly how he had been jumped on by the mountaineer and made prisoner.

"What was he trying to get you to tell him?"

"He accused me of being a Texas Ranger, a member of some fellow's band, a fellow named McKay."

"The band or the man?" questioned Tad.

"That was the man's name. Billy McKay. He's a captain of Rangers, or something of the sort, it doesn't matter much what."

"I rather think it does," answered Butler dryly.

"How so?"

"Why, don't you see, it means that if the Texas Rangers are after this fellow he must be wanted for something very serious. Who is he?"

"You may search me. Stacy may be right after all. There are plenty of Germans in Mexico, so why not some of them up here to stir up trouble? He looks like pictures I have seen of some of those Hun assassins," declared Ned Rector.

"I think I will search him. He may have some more weapons about his person."

Tad found a bowie knife in the mountaineer's boot, but that was the only weapon left on his person. Tad threw the knife away. About this time the prisoner began to show signs of returning consciousness.

"You must have hit him an awful wallop," wondered Ned, standing over the man and eyeing him narrowly.

"I did. I hit him first with a stone, then with my fist. I skinned my knuckles, too."

Ned grunted.

"I'd hate to have you land on me that way. That surely was a sockdolager. He has his eyes open."

"Oh, hullo!" greeted Butler. "We rather turned the tables on you, didn't we?"

"I'll kill you for this!" growled the prisoner hoarsely.

"I don't think you will kill anybody to-night. What I would like to know is what you mean by trying to shoot us up."

"I'll shoot up the rest of you before I get through with you, you and your whole gang. You can tell Bill McKay what I say and---"

"We don't know Bill McKay. We have nothing to do with any of you people down here. We are here for pleasure."

"That's what the other cayuse said. Looks like you wuz, hey?"

"You alone are to blame for present conditions. We were not looking for you. You began shooting at us before we got into the foothills. Who were you shooting at the last time? I mean before you tried to pot me just now."

A growl was the only answer.

"The question is, what are we going to do with this fellow, Tad?" asked Ned. "Surely it won't be safe to let him go, and we can't leave him here to starve to death."

"No. I'll tell you what. We will fix up a litter---by the way, fellow, are there any more of your kind fooling about here?"

"You'll find out whether there are or not," grunted the prisoner.

"Thank you. You have answered my question. I now know you are alone. Ned, can you cut down a couple of saplings?"

"Where do you want to carry him?"

"Down to the fork."

"Then let's drag him. Dragging is good enough for that ruffian---too good for him. He ought to be shot, then rolled down the hill."

"Don't be bloodthirsty. Prisoners of war should be treated with the utmost courtesy and consideration. I guess perhaps we had better not take the time to make a litter. We can carry him down to the fork. Take hold of the feet. I'll take the heavier end. And you, fellow! You will get along much better if you keep quiet. Remember, no yells nor struggles, else I shall be obliged to put you to sleep as I did a short time since. Do you understand?"

There was no reply to the question.

"All right. Pick him up, Ned," directed Tad.

"Are you going to take his rifle?"

"Yes, I guess perhaps it would be best. The rifle is good evidence," decided Butler.

Tad strapped the weapon to his own back. He did not bother to pick up the revolver or the bowie knife. The rifle was the evidence that he wanted to take with him. Then they gathered their prisoner up. He proved a heavy burden, though fortunately the distance was short to the fork where Tad had decided to carry the man. The fellow had nothing to say, but the expression in his eyes made up for what his lips did not utter. The two boys were glad enough when finally they reached their destination and dropped their burden, though none too gently at that.

"Now what?" demanded Ned.

"I want you to hurry over to where the ponies are tethered, then ride to the outfit. Tell them to pack up and move over here at once."

"Give me a signal before you come into the gulch here. I'll answer it if all is right. Then you may come in without fear."

"What are you going to do?"

"I am going to stay here to keep our friend company. He might get lonesome if we were to leave him alone," chuckled Tad. "Get back as soon as you can. I'll have a fire built, then we'll get supper. Did you know this fellow took another shot at Chunky?"

"No. Was that what he shot at?"

"That was it."

"I hope he didn't hit him."

"I guess not."

"Chunky seems to be getting more than his share of lead to-day," answered Rector with a chuckle. "Serves him right. It'll teach him to be more prudent."

"I don't think you are exactly in the position to say much yourself," replied Tad, his eyes twinkling mischievously.

Ned flushed to the roots of his hair.

"For goodness' sake, don't tell the crowd how I got jumped on. I am as easy as a baby. I'll never call myself a mountaineer again."

"Never mind. You showed your grit at any rate. You didn't appear to be the least bit scared."

"I wasn't. But honest, Tad, now that I've had time to think it all over, I'm scared stiff right this minute. I believe he would have shot me."

"There is no doubt of it in my mind. So he thinks we are Rangers?"

"Who are the Rangers, anyway?"

"The Rangers are a body of men who did much toward clearing this state of the bad men that infested it for a long time."

"They don't seem to have got them all," replied Rector.

"No, there are some near the border still. The Rangers are a sort of police who range over the state wherever their services may be needed. I understand they are paid by the state. I guess there are not many of them left. The necessity for Rangers is not what it was a few years ago."

"So I should judge from what has just happened," answered Ned somewhat ironically.

"Come, are you going to get started tonight?" demanded Tad with a laugh.

"I'm off this very minute."

Ned hurried away laughing. He bore evidences of his recent encounter with the mountaineer, but all this was forgotten now that the man had been taken and was safely tied up back there in the canyon with the ever vigilant Tad Butler on guard over him.

A short time after that Ned was riding his pony over the plain toward the camp at a fast gallop. He shouted as he neared the camp, where no fire had been lighted, uttering a subdued whoop as he rode in. Chunky and the professor met him a few rods from the camp.

"I---I got shot again!" cried Chunky.

"Where is Tad?" called the professor.

"Over on the fork waiting for us. You are to pack up and return with me at once."

"But---but, the danger," protested Professor Zepplin.

"The danger is past. I don't believe you will have to worry."

"Explain what you mean!"

"I'll leave that for Tad to do after we get over there. Are you all ready?"

"Is Tad all right?" demanded Perkins.

"Fit as a fiddle. You can't put Tad out of business for any length of time. You are to fetch everything. We are going into camp where we originally planned to spend the night," advised Rector.

The professor, very much relieved to learn that the boys had met with no harm, but still somewhat nervous from the hours of fretting he had passed when the lads failed to return, now hastened to get ready to accompany Ned. On the way he explained bow Stacy Brown had been fanned by another bullet when the fat boy indiscreetly showed himself on the rise of ground between the camping place and the foothills of the mountains.

"Maybe you'll learn something one of these days," scoffed Ned.

"I---I've learned something to-day."

"Have you?"

"I have."

"Well, what have you learned?"

"That these fellows down here can shoot to beat the band."

"I have observed something of the same sort myself," muttered Ned, with the memory of the mountaineer's bombardment of Tad Butler.

The party had set out at a slow trot with Ned leading the way. Ned's confidence assured them that all was as it should be, but the young man turned a deaf ear to all their questions, replying only now and then with the remark that Tad would tell them all that was to be told when they got to the camping place.

In the meantime Tad had built up a fire, mainly for the reason that he wanted to keep his prisoner well in sight all the time. Butler knew that the man was a tough customer and that were he to get free it would be a sad night for Tad Butler, and so, too, perhaps, for the rest of the party.

The prisoner had nothing to say, nor did Butler seek to draw the fellow into conversation. But the man was watching every move of the young rider who had so cleverly outwitted and captured him. The mountaineer now believed more firmly than before that these two young men were carrying out the orders of Captain Billy McKay of the Texas Rangers. He swore to be revenged on every man of them when once he had gained his freedom. At present that hour of revenge was a long way off.

Suddenly a loud "Yip! Yip! Yahee!" sounded off on the plain. Tad smiled broadly.

"That's Stacy Brown, I'll wager my hat. I'll bet Ned is scolding him, too."

Ned was. He was at that instant threatening to break Chunky's head if he opened his mouth again before they reached the camping place. Shortly after that Butler's keen ears caught the sound of hoofbeats. He stepped back into the shadows, the prisoner eyeing him inquiringly. Tad did not take the trouble to explain. Let the prisoner think what he might. Then the party rode in in single file. Tad was not in sight. He was hiding in the bushes.

Professor Zepplin pulled up short when his glances finally came to rest on the bound form of the mountaineer; Stacy Brown's eyes grew large and Walter Perkins gasped.