Chapter VI. The Camp in an Uproar
 

"Tad! Where is Tad? What does this mean?" demanded the professor.

"Hullo, boys," cried Butler stepping out into the light. "Did you think that was myself tied up there?"

Chunky, in the excitement of the moment, forgot to tell Tad that he had stopped another bullet out on the plain.

"What do you think of our prisoner, Professor?"

"Tad, will you be good enough to explain what this means?"

"Yes, sir. To be brief that's the fellow who shot at us. He tried to kill us both up here in the mountains."

"Are you sure?"

"Positive."

"I guess I ought to know," grinned Rector, "He jumped me, tied me to a tree, then was about to blow my head off when Tad appeared just in time to save my precious life."

By this time Stacy had slipped from his saddle and striding over to the prisoner stood looking down at him. "So, you're the fellow who potted me twice to-day, are you?" demanded the fat boy sternly. The prisoner made no reply, but he gazed up at his tormentor so savagely that Stacy instinctively took a step backward.

"He is the man, but we landed him," answered Rector proudly.

"Is there any objection to my giving the ruffian a good hard kick for luck?" asked Stacy.

"There certainly is objection to your doing anything of the sort," returned Tad sharply. "We have not come to the point where we treat our prisoners of war the way the Germans do theirs. You let the man alone or I'll have something to say to you."

"Stacy!" rebuked Professor Zepplin sternly.

"Yes, sir?"

"You will keep away from the prisoner. Tad, I want to hear all about this."

"There is not much to tell, except that we got him, though he nearly got us. He caught Ned napping. I should have fallen just the same had I been in Ned's place, for this fellow is a bad man. Ned has told you what happened to him, else I shouldn't have said anything about that part of the affair. While Ned was trying to find where the shot came from that caught Stacy last, this fellow spotted and captured him. I was hunting for the source of the shot at the same time, but went astray. I was finally attracted by the smell of smoke. I arrived on the scene about the time that fellow was getting ready to take Ned's life. At least, that was the way it seemed to me."

"Yes, he was," interjected Rector.

"You were an easy mark!" jeered Stacy.

"At least I didn't stop two bullets," answered Ned witheringly.

"The fellow caught Ned looking at me and knowing instantly that something was wrong he whirled and shot at me. He missed, then I shied a stone into his solar plexus," said Tad.

"That sounds like astronomy," ventured Stacy.

"You're wrong; it's geography," chuckled Rector. "I'll finish the story. The ruffian fired twice more after the first two shots at Tad; then he went down as the stone landed on him. By the time he had got up, Tad was on the job and punched him in the jaw."

"Boys, boys!" rebuked Professor Zepplin. "One would think this was a prize fight you were describing."

"It's the truth," protested Ned.

"Of course it is," laughed Tad.

"That may be. But be good enough to moderate your language. You can describe the scene without using questionable language."

"Yes, it's disgraceful," added Stacy, whereat Ned gave the fat boy another withering look.

"As I was about to say," continued Rector, "this gentleman of the mountains had got to his feet when Tad gently smote said gentleman on the tender part of his chin. The gentleman fell down and went to sleep like a little child after a full meal. When the gentleman woke up we had him hog-tied---"

"During which time our friend Ned remained tied to a tree," chuckled Butler.

"Pshaw! I thought so," grunted Stacy. "Brave man is Ned Rector! If you were a scarred veteran like myself then you'd have a right to swell out your chest," added the fat boy, gingerly stroking the bullet mark on his cheek. "Well, go on. We're listening."

"That's all there is to tell, Professor, except that we carried the man down here and there he is."

Professor Zepplin stroked his bristling whiskers reflectively.

"What is your name, my man?" he asked stepping up to the prisoner. But the fellow made no reply.

"I said what is your name?" repeated Professor Zepplin.

"What's that to you, old Whiskers?"

The professor started, a faint touch of color showing under his tan, while audible chuckles might have been heard from the boys in the background.

"Such language will not help you. What is your name?"

"Yours will be Mud when I git out of this, you old scarecrow! Don't you stand there jawing over me. I don't like it," added the prisoner, so savagely that the professor shrank back a little.

"It's no use to question him, professor," spoke up Tad. "He won't answer questions."

"I question our right to hold him," said Professor Zepplin. "We have no proof that he is the man who shot at us."

"I've got proof that he assaulted me," bristled Ned.

"And I that he shot at me four times," added Tad. "I should think that were proof enough. What would you do, Professor?"

"I was thinking that we should let the man go with an admonition."

"No, no, no," protested Chunky. "I don't want to be shot up again to-day."

"Don't be afraid, little boy," urged Rector. "We are not going to let the man go---not if I have to fight for it."

"Professor, this fellow thought us Rangers," began Tad.

"Rangers?"

"Yes. He admitted in his questioning of Ned that he thought we were Rangers, or that we had been employed by the Rangers to run him down. That is why he sought to kill us."

"But surely you assured him we were not," protested Professor Zepplin.

"Little stock did he take in our assurances," scoffed Ned. "You might as well talk to the wind."

"But what are we going to do with him, boys?"

"I have thought of that," replied Tad. "It is my idea that he is a bad man. He must be, else the Rangers would not be looking for him. He has proved that he is a dangerous customer to be at large---"

"Yes, he's large, all right," mumbled Stacy. "As I was saying, it seems to me to be our duty to turn him over to the officers of the law."

"Where?"

"I don't know. Is there any town near here?"

"Some twenty miles to the southeast, I believe," answered the professor.

"Then that is where we must take him."

"We may find, then, that we have made a mistake," objected the professor, still doubtful about the wisdom of the course proposed by Tad Butler.

"Then we will make a complaint against him ourselves," answered Tad firmly. "I don't propose to let him off after what he has done. Why, were we to let that man go our lives wouldn't be worth a cent. He would shoot us before the night was over. No, Professor, he must be held prisoner until we can get him to town."

"But we can't go on to-night."

"No. The morning will be time enough. We will give him some food."

"Let me feed the animal," urged Stacy.

"You have steady business performing that office for yourself," retorted Ned Rector.

"In the morning we will take him to town. Shall we get some supper now?"

"Yes. I will think over your proposal in the meantime. Stacy, you might gather some more wood for the fire. Ahem! This has been a most remarkable proceeding all the way through."

"You would have thought so if that fellow had jumped on you as he did on me," growled Ned Rector. "I thought the mountain had fallen down on me. He is bad medicine."

Tad by this time was getting out the things for supper. They were late with this meal owing to circumstances over which they had not had full control, though matters were now pretty well in the hands of the Pony Rider Boys.

"You had better tell us who and what you are. You have heard what has been said here, my man," said the professor returning to the prisoner.

"I reckon I've heard enough. I reckon, too, that you've made a mistake. I ain't what you think. I'll tell you, now that the fresh young feller isn't listening."

"Do so," urged Professor Zepplin, preparing to listen.

"Lean over so the others won't hear."

"Surely."

"You're a right smart old party and I don't mind talking to you, for you've got right smart sense and you'll understand what I'm getting at."

"Say what you have to say, my man. I am listening."

"Between you and me I'm an officer. I'm looking for some parties that have been cutting up didoes down in these parts of late. When I saw your party I thought you were the lawbreakers, so I up and let go. I saw that there were too many for me and it was the only chance I had to---"

"But surely you didn't have to kill us."

"I didn't kill you, did I?"

"True; true."

"I was telling you, I thought you were they and I let go a few shots, just as a tickler. You see, I could have picked you off one at a time just as easy as eating pie. I'm a dead shot, I am."

"Then you only sought to drive us off?" questioned the professor.

"Yes, that's it. You're a wise old party. They're a bad lot, you know."

"But what about this assault on my boys?" demanded the professor.

"Same thing. I thought they were them."

"Your grammar is shocking, my man, but what you say is deserving of careful consideration. You say you took us to be bad men?"

"Sure I did."

"Who did you think we were?"

"Tuck O'Connor and his crowd."

"Who are they?"

"Well, you see, they do some smuggling over the Rio Grande. Then again, they are up to a few other tricks that the public hasn't got on to yet. What I want to do is to get away from here, quiet-like, so the youngsters won't get wise in time to cut up. Of course I ain't afraid of them. I don't want to hurt them, you see."

"I see," observed the professor dryly.

"I've got to get away to-night. If I'm held till morning I'll have to take you all in. You'll all have to go back with me to State Line and you'll be locked up for interfering with an officer."

"How comes it that you feared we were Rangers then, if this be true?"

"Aw, I was jest bluffing. I wanted the youngsters to give theirselves away, you see."

"I see," reflected the professor.

"Then you'll let me out?"

"I am afraid I can't do that."

"Then lean over here and I'll tell you a secret that'll make you change your mind."

The professor leaned closer. The man's hands, free from the wrists, were moving cautiously. All at once Professor Zepplin's revolver was snipped from its holster and a bullet tore through his clothes, taking some of the professor's skin with it. The professor fell back, staggering to one side out of range where he sank down to the ground holding a hand to his side.