Chapter VIII. A Much-Wanted Desperado
 

Tad had snatched a burning brand from the fire, carrying it along with him so that Withem might get a good look at the prisoner. The lad considered it a fortunate coincidence that the Ranger lieutenant should have visited their camp at that particular time.

The instant Withem set eyes on the prisoner he uttered an exclamation under his breath, while the prisoner glared up at him with menacing eyes.

"Hullo, Dunk," greeted the Ranger. "You seem to be in limbo. I reckon you bit off more'n you could chew, for once in your life. Thought you were shooting up Rangers, did you? Instead you barked up against some tenderfeet who were too much for you. I guess you ain't quite so smart as you thought you were."

"I reckon you've made a mistake," growled the prisoner. "I don't know what you're chewing about."

"That's all right, Dunk. I don't reckon it makes any difference what you think about it. We've got you hard and fast, and you're done for. I reckon, too, that the captain will be glad to see you. He'll have a warm welcome for you, you bet. They certainly have you tied up for keeps," laughed the lieutenant, bending over to examine the prisoner's bonds. "They certainly have. Come on, let's finish that bacon," added the Ranger straightening up.

The party took its way back to the campfire, Stacy disgustedly throwing his gun on the ground at the foot of the tree where lay the prisoner's rifle.

"Now, sir, perhaps you will explain who and what this man is? You appear to be well acquainted with him," said the professor.

"I am that. But how did you get him?"

"Master Tad there will answer that question. He and Rector made the capture."

"You two younkers caught that man?" wondered the lieutenant.

"Yes, sir," replied Tad modestly. "But I'll admit that it was a pretty tough job. He nearly got us."

"Tell me about it."

Tad did so briefly, making as little of his own achievement as possible. He related also, how the prisoner had gained possession of Professor Zepplin's revolver and of the latter's narrow escape from death.

"Boys, you've done a big thing. The captain will be interested in you," said Mr. Withem. "He's been wanting this man for a long time."

"You haven't told us who the fellow is, yet," reminded Professor Zepplin.

"He is Dunk Tucker, sir, one of the most dangerous customers infesting the border. We have been on his trail for weeks, but he's managed to give us the slip every time. We never expected to capture him alive. We expected to have to shoot him on sight, which we probably would have done."

"Is it possible?" murmured the professor. "I did not suppose such conditions existed on the border at this late day."

"They do not, ordinarily."

"What has the man Tucker done?"

"Done? It would be easier to tell you what he hasn't done. He's committed pretty nearly every crime in the calendar and some that aren't in the almanac. He is one of a band of thieves that has been operating on the border for months. They are smugglers and thieves. They have even gone back to the old style of stock stealing. Up to date it is estimated that they have run across the border into Mexico several hundred head of stock. The ranchers are up in arms. The Rangers have been called in to put the Border Bandits out of business. This is the first one of the gang that we have captured. And, after all, we didn't capture him. That was left for a bunch of plucky young tenderfeet---two of them, to be exact.

"Furthermore, it is suspected that Dunk and some of the other bad men of his crowd are in the pay of German agents in Mexico. The Germans are trying to stir up trouble on this side of the line, and these border ruffians are ready to do anything for the sake of easy money, even at the expense of being traitors to their country. It is believed that German money is finding its way into their pockets. The hounds!" raged the Ranger.

"Surely these men have not resorted to force---committed murder or anything of that sort?" interposed the professor.

"Not that we know of, though some of them did have a pitched battle with a rancher over on the western border of the state. A few stopped bullets, but so far as we know no one was killed. I am telling you all this in confidence. There are a good many in this thing whose names we do not know."

"You can make the prisoner confess, can you not?" asked Professor Zepplin.

"Confess?" the lieutenant laughed. "You don't know these Border Bandits. No, they never confess. There will always be more or less trouble down on the Rio Grande. It is so close to Mexico, so easy to get across the border that bad men cannot resist taking advantage of it. That is why the Rangers are still in business. If it were not for the border we all should be looking for other jobs. As it is there aren't many of us left."

"How many?" asked the professor.

"Some thirty in the state, that is all. We are subject to the orders of the governor, though we're left pretty much to ourselves."

"Who is your commander?"

"Captain Billy McKay."

"That's the man Dunk named. He accused us of belonging to McKay's band of Rangers," said Rector.

"He did, eh?"

"Yes."

"I thought so. Still, he might have shot you up just the same, even if he had known you hadn't anything to do with us."

"Where is the rest of your party, Mr. Withem?" asked Tad.

"They're out on the trail," was the somewhat evasive answer. "I'll get in touch with them sometime to-night or to-morrow."

"But you will take Tucker with you, will you not?" asked Ned.

"I reckon I will," laughed the Ranger.

"Shall we take him along for you? You have no horse?" asked Tad.

"My nag isn't far from here," smiled the lieutenant. "I'll load him on like a sack of meal. He'll get a good shaking up, but it won't hurt Dunk. He's too tough to be bothered by a little thing like that. We'll land him in the calaboose in El Paso by the day after to-morrow. Where are you folks going?"

"We planned to do the Guadalupes, then go on down to the Rio Grande," answered Professor Zepplin.

Withem reflected.

"I reckon the captain will be wanting to see you. There's a reward out for Dunk. Captain Bill is on the square. He'll 'divvy' with you fairly."

"We are not looking for any rewards," spoke up Tad quickly. "You may tell him that whatever reward is paid, belongs to the Rangers. We are glad to have served you, but remember, we did so to save our own skins."

Withem extended his hand, grasping Tad's hand within it.

"You're the right sort, young man. I wish we had you with us."

"In the Rangers?"

"Yes, of course."

"I am afraid that would not be possible," smiled the Pony Rider Boy.

"Wholly impossible," affirmed Professor Zepplin with emphasis.

"I suppose so. However, I want you to see the captain. I'll tell you what to do." The lieutenant lowered his voice. "We will be in camp to-morrow night about twenty-five miles to the southwest of here. Know where Doble's Spring is?"

"No, sir."

"You can find it. The water gushes out of the rocks pretty high up, falling in a sort of spray. You can't miss the place. You'll hear it if it's after dark when you get there."

"And, further, you'll probably see a campfire, but sing out before you come in too close. Some of our boys are rather sudden when they're interrupted at night," grinned the Ranger.

"I should call it violent," declared Stacy. "The way you poked that pistol in my face back there was a caution. You nearly scared me out of a week's growth."

No one paid any attention to Chunky's interruption.

"Will your captain be there?" asked the professor.

"I reckon he will But I can't tell for sure. McKay is a pretty busy man. You don't know where to find him. He may be here to-night. and to-morrow morning he may be sixty or seventy miles away. You can't tell about Billy McKay."

"Is there any danger of our having difficulties with any of this fellow's companions?" asked the professor apprehensively.

"I reckon not. At least there won't be after you have come up with our party. We'll see to that."

"Where are their headquarters---in these mountains?" questioned Tad.

"We don't know. That's what we're trying to find out. We have reckoned they had their hang-out here, but we haven't found it yet"

"How many are in this band of Border Bandits?" asked Butler.

"There are some that we don't know. We do know a few of them, however. For instance, there's the Mexican, Espinoso, known as the 'Yellow Kid.' Then there's Greg. Gonzales, a half-breed Mex bandit, and Willie Jones."

"Willie Jones! That's a funny name," laughed Stacy. "That doesn't sound very savage. I shouldn't be afraid of a fellow with a name like that."

"You would if you knew him. Willie is a dude. He dresses like a city fellow with all the frills he can pile on, and he has the manners of a city chap too. But you look out for Willie. There isn't a colder blooded man in the state than Willie Jones. He's quick as lightning on the gun and can hit a bull's-eye with his own eyes shut."

"If he is any worse than our prisoner over there, I don't think I care to make his acquaintance," replied Butler with a laugh.

"He is, young man. You'd know Dunk to be a bad man the first time you saw him. You wouldn't think it of Willie and by the time you get him sized up, it's too late to do you any good. I hope you don't meet with Willie and try to land him. If you do you'll be carried out on a litter, reduced to a pulp."

"Br---r----r---r!" shivered Chunky.

"Where---where is this bad man supposed to hide himself?" asked the professor.

"I wish I knew," sighed the Ranger. "It would be worth a cold thousand dollars to me and perhaps some more. There's a price on Willie's head. But what's the use speculating about it? We'll get him some day, but he'll be a dead one when we do. I'd a sight rather capture him alive."

The boys listened to all this with deep interest. They had never come in contact with such cold-blooded discussion over human lives. They began to understand something of the things they had read concerning conditions in the Lone Star State in the early days when men's passions ran riot; when practically the only law of the land was the law of the gun. Now, conditions had changed. It was only in certain localities that lawlessness reigned in Texas, but these were bad spots, as evidenced by the presence of the Rangers, that intrepid body of men that for thirty years had been the terror of evildoers. The Rangers were pitted against a worthy foe in this instance, though it was a certainty that in time the Rangers would get their men, either dead or alive.

"And now I reckon I'll be going," decided the lieutenant, after having partaken heartily of the appetizing meal. "I'll be expecting you at the Spring when we get there to-morrow."

"Thank you; we will endeavor to be there. It will be a pleasure to meet your commander. We may get some useful advice from him."

"We'll bring up your horse if you will tell us where he is," offered Tad.

"Thanks, pard. He's on the other side of the creek about fifteen rods from here."

Accompanied by Ned, Tad hurried down, but found some difficulty in locating the horse, so carefully had the animal been secreted. Withem smiled when he saw them coming back.

"I guess you boys are all right," he nodded.

They helped him load the prisoner over the horse's back, after which, giving each of the party a cordial shake of the hand, Lieutenant Withem rode away. They observed that his rifle was resting across the body of the prisoner, as if the lieutenant were looking for trouble. The trouble came sooner than they expected. The Ranger had been gone less than twenty minutes when a volley of rifle shots crashed out.

"He's attacked!" cried Tad.

"Quick! Put out the fire!" shouted the professor.

"Don't wait for the fire. We must go to his assistance!" answered Tad, snatching up his rifle and making a bolt for his pony. "Come on, boys, we've got something to do this time."

"Stop!" commanded the professor.

"What, sit here while a band of bandits are perhaps murdering Lieutenant Withem? I can't do that. You stay here, Professor. We will take care of ourselves. Don't worry about us. Chunky, you'd better stay here with the professor. You haven't got sand enough to---"

"What, me stay here?" shouted the fat boy, starting for his own mount. "I guess you don't know what kind of a man I am. Come on, fellows. Whoop!"

Stacy leaped into his saddle. Ned Rector and Walter Perkins already had taken to their saddles. The professor saw that it was useless to try to stop the boys. He groaned aloud. But Professor Zepplin was very active for his years. Ere the enthusiastic Pony Riders had started to gallop away the professor had made a flying leap into his saddle and a few seconds later was pounding down the canyon, along the West Fork, in the wake of the racing Pony Rider Boys.

"There they are!" cried Tad, as bursting out on the plain they saw vicious flashes of light, accompanied by the crashing of guns.