Chapter IX. Showing Good Generalship
 

Rifles had been jerked from saddle boots as the boys swung to the left, sweeping down over the plain. Tad assumed the leadership of the party, as he usually did in emergencies.

"All hold your fire until I give the word. Keep your heads. Don't get excited!" wanted the lad.

"That is good judgment. But try to keep out of the fire," shouted the professor.

Ned Rector laughed.

"We might better have stayed at the camp if that is all we are going to do," he answered.

Tad saw that several men were riding around in a circle shooting at a fleeing horseman whose rifle spoke often and spitefully. The lad knew that the solitary horseman was the Ranger lieutenant.

"The cowards---to attack one man that way!" gritted the boy. "Now, fellows," he called, slacking up slightly, "I want you, when I say go, to yell like mad. Whoop it up for all you're worth. Then when I say fire, every man shake out his rifle, but shoot high. We don't want to hit anybody unless we have to. We'll make those fellows think the whole troop of Rangers is turned loose on them. Understand?"

"Good! Excellent head work, Tad. I'm proud of you. But I do hope none of you gets hit."

"If you are afraid, drop back to the rear, Professor," suggested Stacy, whereat chuckles were heard from the others.

The bandits had not discovered the advancing horsemen in the darkness, though had they been less interested in seeking to kill Lieutenant Withem they might have observed the little band that was now sweeping down on them.

"Now! Whoop it up, fellows!" Tad raised his voice to an exultant shout.

Chunky's piercing voice punctured the atmosphere in a blood-curdling shout, a wild warwhoop.

"Yip! Yip! Hiyi! Hiyi! Kyaw! Kyeeaw! Yip! Yip!"

Despite the seriousness of the situation and the real desperateness of their position the Pony Rider Boys laughed so that they were unable to yell for a full minute. Then they let go their voices, to which the professor added his own. But his voice was almost wholly lost in the blood-curdling shouts of his young charges.

"Ready---Chunky, aim at the moon or you'll be puncturing some of us. Now fire!"

A volley of shots followed Tad's command. Five rifles crashed out, but their leaden missiles went high, followed by another series of wild yells, whoops and scattering shots.

About this time the Border Bandits discovered the oncoming party of horsemen. All at once they turned their rifles on the Pony Rider Boys. At the first shot in the direction of the boys Tad turned in his saddle.

"Lie low!" he yelled. "Keep whooping and keep shooting. Look out that you don't hit any one. Ride straight at them. They'll give ground."

"I hope to goodness they do," shouted Ned Rector.

"If they don't it's me for the tall timber," cried Stacy, who had overheard Rector's remark.

The bullets sang so close to the boys that the lads could hear them plainly. Had the light been more certain some of them must have been hit, for those men out there knew how to handle rifles much better than did any of the Pony Rider Boys.

With wild whoops and yells, keeping up a continuous fusillade, the plucky band kept straight on.

"It's the Rangers!" They heard the words plainly, uttered by one of the bandits.

"Yip! Yip! Kyeeaw!" screamed the fat boy.

"Yip! Yip! Hiyi!" chorused the others.

"We've got 'em on the run!" yelled Tad, as the circling horsemen swung out into a straight line and began racing across the plains, turning in their saddles to shoot at their assailants.

"Can you see to let them have a few shots into the ground to hurry them along?" called Butler.

"Yes, yes," yelled the boys.

"Be careful," warned the professor. Bang, bang, bang, bang! answered the rifles of the Pony Rider Boys. The horses of the bandits fairly leaped into the air. Soon after that they faded into dark, uncertain streaks on the white of the plain. Now the rifle of the solitary horseman began to speak again. Joe Withem was not afflicted with any scruples against shooting to hit. He tumbled one man out of his saddle, but the fellow's companions scooped up the wounded bandit, carrying him away with them. Withem thought he saw a man go down, but he could not be sure.

The boys swept past him some distance to the left of the Ranger, still shooting, their purpose being to keep the bandits going until the latter should have been driven so far away that they would not be back that night.

"Swing back!" commanded Tad. The boys pulled their horses down, and wheeling began trotting back. A little beyond they saw Withem galloping toward them.

"You were just in time, fellows. They had me on the hip for sure."

"I'm glad of it," called Tad, "for---"

"What's that? Who are you?" interrupted the lieutenant. Then he pulled his horse up sharply. "Well, I'll be jiggered, if it isn't you."

"That's who it is," laughed Tad. "Are you hit?"

"I stopped a couple, but it doesn't amount to anything. Just flesh wounds, that's all. And you boys put the bandits on the run, eh?" wondered the Ranger lieutenant. "That's another one I owe you. That's another one the Cap'n owes you too."

"Don't mention it."

"How did they happen to discover you?" asked the professor riding up beside the Ranger.

"That's what gets me. I don't understand it at all. They must have caught sight of me as I was riding out. They surely didn't know I had Dunk with me or they wouldn't have begun shooting at me. They'd have tried to pot the pony in the legs and get me afterwards, though I might have stood them off till daylight."

"Bad, very bad!" muttered the professor.

"I call it very good, sir. Those fellows have had a fright that will keep them going for some hours yet. They think it is the Rangers that's chasing them and they'll be hiking for cover at the rate of some miles an hour."

"You are sure you are not badly hurt?" asked the professor anxiously.

"If I never get any worse, I'll be satisfied. I'm a marked man, you know. Some day, when my gun sticks in the holster, I may get mine."

"Come back to camp with us. Surely you are not going on to-night?"

"Thank you, but I must be getting on. I've got to be at the camp by daylight."

"If you think there is danger of your being attacked, we will ride with you," said Tad.

"No, pard, I'm better off alone. I'll know enough to dodge them now."

"Speaking of danger, you don't suppose these men will come back and visit our camp, do you?" asked the professor.

"No, I don't think so. But were I in your place I think I'd put out my fire and set a guard for the rest of the night. It's always a safe thing to do. They won't touch you in the daytime; in fact, I think those fellows will be hiding. We'll set a couple of men on their trail just as soon as I get to camp; now that I know where the trail starts. They know I know, and that's what makes me think they won't let the grass grow under their feet."

"I am glad to hear you say so," answered Professor Zepplin. "I am afraid we should not have mixed up in this affair at all, though naturally I am pleased that we have been able to be of some service to you when you might have been killed."

"And some others with me," answered the Ranger grimly. "Well, so long. I'll talk with you to-morrow."

"Good night and good luck!" called the boys.

"Good night, pards," answered the Ranger heartily. Swinging his pony about he galloped away into the darkness, while the boys turned their own mounts toward their camp in the canyon. They had done a good night's work and Tad's generalship alone had won the battle for the Ranger lieutenant. But there were other equally exciting experiences ahead of them in the near future, in which the Border Bandits would play an active part.