Chapter VII. Receiving a Late Visitor
 

So unexpected had been the shot that, for a few seconds, the boys stood dumbfounded.

"I'm shot! I'm shot!" yelled the professor.

Bang!

A bullet whistled close to the head of Tad Butler. Stacy Brown, who was just coming into camp with an armful of dry wood for the campfire, dropped his burden and with a howl made for shelter. Tad and Ned had sprung to one side so as to be out of range, while Walter Perkins had flattened himself on the ground.

"Lie still!" commanded Tad sternly as the professor started to get up from where he had sunk down. "Are you much hurt?"

"I---I don't know."

"Drop that pistol, you!" commanded Tad, glowering at the prisoner.

The man laughed.

"I've got you children now," he sneered. "I'll pick you off unless you do as I tell you. Now you come over here. Walk straight, one hand out. Leave your guns behind. Cut me loose or you're a dead one," commanded the prisoner.

"Oh, am I?"

Tad glanced around to make sure that all the boys were out of range. Then with a quick leap he got entirely out of range of the revolver in the hands of the prisoner. Tad had thought he was out of range before, but the man on the ground had twisted the weapon about until its muzzle was pointing in Butler's direction.

But this time the lad got out of range without question. But he was no better off than before. Reaching for his revolver he made the discovery that he had thrown off his belt with revolver and cartridges before beginning to get supper. The others were in no better shape. Not a boy had his revolver on, and the professor's weapon was in the hands of the prisoner.

"I know a trick. I've played it once to-day and I can play it again," declared Tad, searching for a stone, while the others got well out of the way, watching T. Butler. In an emergency they always looked to him to get them out of their difficulties.

"Professor, you lie still. Don't move. I'll fix this fellow. You had better get a good bit farther off," advised the lad, observing a movement on the part of the mountaineer.

Suddenly the latter braced his head and digging his heels into the ground ran around, pivoting on his head. Tad anticipated the movement by running a few seconds in advance. For a few moments it was a race of wits. The lad as yet had not found a stone suited to his immediate requirements. He was using his eyes in this direction as well as watching the prisoner. Once the latter tried a shot at the boy. The bullet passed Butler rather too close for comfort, but the Pony Rider Boy appeared not to have heard the shot.

Not a word was being said by the lad's companions. The professor lay where he had fallen, the perspiration streaming from his face and body up the side of the canyon the big eyes of Chunky might have been seen peering through between the bushes at the exciting scene below. All at once Tad stooped over. When he straightened up with a bound that carried him several feet to one side, he held a good-sized stone in his right hand.

"Now will you drop that pistol?" demanded the Pony Rider Boy.

"I'll drop you!" roared the enraged enemy.

No sooner had he uttered the words than Tad, with a well-directed toss, dropped the stone fairly on the stomach of the man on the ground.

The prisoner uttered a yell that might have been heard a quarter of a mile away. Ere the yell had died out another stone landed nearly in the same place. The weapon dropped from the hands of the fellow, falling between his legs where he could not reach it without changing his position materially. This he tried to do in a series of quick twists and wriggles, though the boys knew from the expression on his face that he was suffering great pain. It was not surprising, in view of the fact that two rocks, each weighing from eight to ten pounds, had been dropped on his stomach.

The fellow found no opportunity to recover the lost weapon. Tad was upon him with a rush. Grabbing the mountaineer's feet he dragged the man roughly to one side.

"I guess that will be about all for you, my man. You may push us too far. I shan't promise to let you off so easily if you try any more tricks. Professor, are you much hurt?"

"I---I don't know. I'm bleeding."

"Let's see what he did to you."

A quick examination developed the fact that the professor had sustained merely a flesh wound. It was bleeding very little now. Tad, at the professor's direction, washed and dressed the wound, binding a piece of cloth firmly about the waist.

"There, I guess you will be all right now. You may come down, Chunky. The fun is all over for the present. How did he happen to get you that way, Professor?"

Professor Zepplin explained how the prisoner had tricked him, declaring his belief in Tad Butler's statement that the prisoner was a bad man. The professor no longer urged the release of their prisoner. Tad smiled mirthlessly. Perhaps it was better that the professor should have had an object lesson. He would take no further chances with the fellow after that. As for the prisoner, he was fairly frothing at the mouth with rage.

Now that the excitement had come to an end for the moment Stacy Brown went about his task of gathering more wood for the fire. This time he went quite a distance down the canyon, carrying a torch that he might the better find that for which he was in search.

Stacy was busy gathering wood, muttering to himself as was his habit, when all of a sudden he straightened up, conscious that some one was standing beside him. As he rose the fat boy's nose nearly bumped into the muzzle of a revolver. The revolver was backed by a not unpleasant, but stern face.

"Wha---wha-----what---" stammered the fat boy. "Wh---wh---who---"

"Not a sound, young man, if you value your life. Who and what are you?"

"I---I'm a Pu---Pu---Pony Rider Boy."

"A what?"

"A Pu---Pony Rider Boy."

"What are you doing here?"

"Ga---gathering firewood."

"Who is your party?"

"Pro---professor Ze---Zep---Zepplin and the boys," stammered the fat boy, trembling at the knees. "I haven't done anything, but I'm a bu---bu---bad man when I get ma---mad."

The stern-faced stranger grinned appreciatively.

"You are not the fellows who came in at State Line the other day, are you?"

"Ye---yes, we're the bu---bu---bunch."

"Oh, fudge!" groaned the stranger. "And to think I've been to all this trouble to round up a bunch of tenderfeet." The man thrust his revolver into its holster with a grunt of disgust.

"I'm Withem," he snapped.

"So am I," answered Chunky.

"I said, 'I'm Withem,'" repeated the stranger.

"I said I was too," reiterated the fat boy.

"Look here, what are you trying to get at, young man?" demanded the newcomer with a slight show of irritation. "Are you trying to make sport of me?"

"N---n----no. You said you were with them---with us---with the crowd, you know. And I said I was too."

The stranger tilted back his head and laughed softly.

"You little cayuse, my name is Withem. W---I---T---H---E----M!" he spelled.

"Oh!"

A broad smile grew on the face of the Pony Rider Boy as he asked:

"What do you reckon you want here?"

"I'm just looking around a bit. I think I'll go to your camp with you."

Stacy surveyed his companion critically from head to foot.

"All right," he said. "If you want to take the chance, I'm willing."

"What chance?" demanded the stranger.

"Tad Butler might take it into his head to throw you out, or something, if he doesn't like your looks."

"I'll take the chance."

"All right; come on. But mind you, it'll be the worse for you if you try to start anything. We're a bad lot, we are, and don't you forget it."

A moment or so later the Pony Rider Boys were amazed to see Stacy strutting in with a stranger in tow.

"He's with us fellows," was the fat boy's announcement.

"Withem's my name," corrected the stranger.

"Yes, he's with 'em. But he hasn't said who it is he is with. I thought I was with him when he shoved a pistol under my nose."

"Good evening, sir," said Tad stepping up, directing a quick, keen glance of inquiry into the eyes of the newcomer. In that one glance Butler decided that the man was all right. It was a relief to see a face like that after their experience with the mountaineer.

As for the prisoner himself, who lay back in a shadow now, he started violently the instant he beheld the man who had just come into the camp of the Pony Rider Boys. The prisoner looked as if he had a severe case of ague for he fairly shrank within himself.

"You are just in time to join us for a bite, Mr. Withem. That is your name, is it not?"

"That's my name."

"Mine is Tad Butler. This is Professor Zepplin. The young man with whom you came in is Stacy Brown, otherwise Chunky, and here are Mr. Rector and Mr. Perkins. If you will gather around the fire I'll serve the chuck."

"Thanks, young man. You certainly know how to do the honors, as well as how to fry bacon. I could smell that across a county and I'd ride to it as fast as horseflesh could carry me."

"Are you from these parts?" asked the professor after they had seated themselves on the ground.

"Yes, I'm from everywhere," laughed Withem. "By the way, young man, that looks like the mark of a bullet on your cheek," he continued, bending a keen glance on Stacy.

"Then it looks like what it is," muttered the fat boy.

"I don't want to be inquisitive, but---"

"No, it isn't considered good manners to be too curious down in this country, I've heard."

"Right you are, yonnker," laughed Withem, in which the others joined heartily. "Men have been known to get into trouble by being too curious, especially down on the Rio Grande. The-----"

The visitor's conversation was interrupted by something falling over from beside the tree against which he was sitting. That something was the rifle the boys had taken from the prisoner.

Withem picked up the gun with the purpose of replacing it. He was just standing it against the tree when suddenly he stopped, bringing the gun around in front of him where he could get a better view of it.

The Pony Rider Boys were regarding him questioningly, Tad almost suspiciously. Chunky was wondering if their visitor was going to shoot. The fat boy was ready to run at the first sign of trouble. He had stopped enough bullets for one day. As for the prisoner, his bloodshot eyes were taking in every movement of the man Withem.

"You seem to be much interested," suggested Tad.

Withem flashed a keen, searching look into Butler's face.

"I am."

"Why that's-----" began Walter, then subsided at a warning look from Tad.

"Pardon me, but will you be good enough to tell me where you got this rifle? I have good and sufficient reasons for asking the question," said Withem almost sternly.

"We took it from a man who had set out to shoot us up, sir," replied Butler.

"Tried to shoot you up? When? Where?" demanded the visitor with a trace of excitement in his tone.

"This afternoon and to-night. Stacy Brown's cheek bears evidence of the fellow's marksmanship. It seems the man took us to be officers---Rangers, he said."

"Then you---you talked with him?"

"We did," answered Tad with a twinkle in his eyes. "In fact we held quite a lengthy conversation with the gentleman."

"Explain what you are getting at." Withem was deeply interested in the scant information that had been given to him. They saw that he was containing himself with difficulty.

"Tell, Mr. Withem. Don't beat about the bush," advised the professor.

"Yes; tell me what became of the fellow who shot you up," urged the visitor.

"What became of him, sir?"

"Yes, yes!"

"Why we caught and made him prisoner."

"What!"

"Yes, sir, and we have him now," smiled Tad Butler.

"You've got him now? Where is he?" roared the visitor springing to his feet, permitting the captured weapon to fall to the ground.

"He is over there in the bushes," said Tad. "However, I think you had better wait until I get over there before you pay him a visit. I have a sort of proprietary interest in that fellow and I don't propose to have any monkey business. He nearly killed Professor Zepplin, bound though he is. Wait one moment, please. Why do you wish to see the man?"

"Because I think I know him. Gentlemen, I am a Ranger. I am Lieutenant Joe Withem, and I have good reasons to believe your prisoner is a man whom I have been anxious to meet for some time. I am ready to be shown."

Tad wonderingly led the way over to their captive, the lieutenant following in quick, nervous strides, the others of the party bringing up the rear, Chunky lugging a rifle which he kept in position for instant use in case the stranger should seek to liberate their prisoner. But there was little danger of Lieutenant Joe Withem doing anything of the sort,