Chapter XX. Tilting for the Silver Spurs
 

Their journey led the young horsemen across the plains, over low-lying ranges, across broad, barren table-lands and down through the bottom lands until the wide sweep of the Rio Grande River at last lay before them.

After the weeks of arid landscape the sight of water, and so much of it, brought a loud cheer from the Pony Rider Boys. The next thing was to find a fording place. This they did late in the afternoon of the same day, and their further journey took them to the little desert town of Puraje.

They camped on the outskirts of the village.

"Here's where we get a real bath. Who's going in swimming with me?" asked Tad.

"I am," shouted all the boys at once.

The Professor and Kris Kringle concluded that they, too, would take a dip, and a merry hour was spent in a protected cove of the big river, where the boys proved themselves as much at home as they were in the saddle.

In the evening, they purchased such supplies as the town afforded. The night passed with-out disturbance, the boys taking up their journey next morning before the sleepy town had awakened.

It was a week later, when, tired and dusty, the outfit pulled up at La Luz, a quaint hamlet nestling in the foothills of the Sacramento Mountains. The place they found to be largely Mexican, and it was almost as if the visitors had slipped over the border to find themselves in Mexico itself.

Decorations were in evidence on all sides; bright-colored mantillas, Indian blankets and flags were everywhere.

"Hello, I guess something is going on here," laughed Tad.

"We are in time, whatever it is," nodded the guide. "Probably it's a feast of some kind. You will be interested in it, if that is what it is.

The feast, they learned, was to be celebrated on the morrow with games, feats of strength and horsemanship.

"Do you think they will let us take part?" asked Tad, as the party made camp in the yard of a little adobe church, where they had obtained permission to camp.

"I'll see about it," answered the guide. "There may be reasons why it would not be best to do so."

"Maybe I can win another rifle," suggested Chunky.

"These people don't give away rifles. They're too-- too-- what do you call it?-- too artistic. That's it."

The camp being on the main street of the village, attracted no little attention. After sundown, crowds of gayly bedecked young people strolled up and stood about the church yard, watching the American boys pitching their tents and preparing for their stay over night.

The villagers were especially interested in watching the boys get their supper, which was served up steaming hot within fifteen minutes after preparations had begun. Chunky had bought several pies at the store, which, with a pound of cheese brought in by Ned, made a pleasant change in the daily routine.

Chunky started in on the pie.

Ned calmly reached over and took it away from him; then the supper went along until it came time for the dessert, when Chunky fixed his eyes on the cheese suspiciously.

"See anything wrong with that cheese?" demanded Ned.

"No, but I've got an idea."

"Out with it! You won't rest easy until you do. What's your idea?"

"I was thinking, if I had a camera, I could make a motion picture of that cheese. I heard of a fellow once--"

"That will do, Master Stacy," warned Professor Zepplin.

"Can't I talk?"

"Along proper lines-- yes."

"Cheese is proper, isn't it?"

"Depends upon how old it is," chuckled Tad.

"You needn't make fun of my cheese. Here give it to me; I'll eat it."

"You're welcome to it, Ned," laughed the boys.

The fun went on, much to the amusement of the villagers, who remained near by until the evening was well along and the lads began preparing for bed. Next morning the visitors began coming in to town early. There were men from the ranches, Mexican ranch-hands arrayed in bright colors and displaying expensive saddle trimmings. There were others from the wild places on the desert, far beyond the water limits, whose means of livelihood were known only to themselves.

It was a strange company, and one that appealed considerably to the curiosity of the Pony Rider Boys.

The early part of the day was given over to racing, roping, gambling and other sports in which the lads were content to take no part. But there was an event scheduled for the afternoon that interested Tad more than all the rest. That was a tilting bout, open to all comers. A tilting arch had been erected in the middle of the main street, and had been decorated with flags and greens.

The tilting ring, suspended from the top of the arch, was not more than an inch in diameter. The horseman who could impale it on his tilting peg and carry the ring away with him the greatest, number of times, would be declared the winner. Each one was to be given five chances.

The prize, a pair of silver spurs, was to be presented by the belle of the town, a dark-eyed seņorita.

The guide had entered Tad in this contest; but, as the lad glanced up at the ring only an inch in diameter, he grew rather dubious. He never had seen any tilting, and did not even know how the sport was conducted.

Kris Kringle gave the lad some instructions about the method employed by the tilters, and Tad decided to enter the contest.

Only ten horsemen entered, most of these being either Mexicans or halfbreeds.

The first trial over, five of the contestants had succeeded in carrying away the ring.

Tad had waited until nearly the last in order to get all the information possible as to the way the rest of the contestants played the game. A pole had been loaned to him, or rather a "peg," they called it, eight feet long, tapered so as to allow it to go through the brass ring for fully two feet of its length.

The Pony Rider boy took his place in the middle of the street, and without the least hesitancy, galloped down toward the ring, which, indeed, he could not even see. When within a few feet of the arch he caught the sparkle of the ring.

His lance came up, and putting spurs to his broncho, he shot under the arch, driving the point of the peg full at the slender circle. The point struck the edge sending the ring swaying like the pendulum of a clock.

A howl greeted his achievement. Tad said nothing, but riding slowly back, awaited his next trial.

The rule was that when one of the contestants made a strike, he was to continue until he failed. He would be allowed to run out five points in succession if he could.

"Rest the peg against your side, and lightly," advised a man, as Tad turned into the street for another try. The man was past middle age, and, though dressed in the garb of a man of the plains, Tad decided at once that he was not of the same type as most of the motley mob by which he was surrounded.

The lad nodded his understanding.

With a sharp little cry of warning, the boy put spurs to his pony. He fairly flew down the course. No such speed had been seen there that day. The northern bronchos that the boys were riding were built for faster work and possessed more spirit than their brothers of the desert.

As he neared the arch, this time, the lad half rose in his stirrups. He knew where to look for the ring now. Leaning slightly forward he let the point of the peg tilt ever so little. It went through the ring, tearing it from its slender fastening and carrying it away.

Loud shouts of approval greeted his achievement.

Once more he raced down the lane, this time at so fast a clip that the faces of the spectators who lined the course were a mere blur in his eyes.

He felt the slight jar and heard the click as the ring slipped over the tilting peg.

"Two," announced the scorer.

He missed the next one. Then the others took their turn. Only one of these succeeded in scoring. He was one of the Mexicans who made such a brave show of color in raiment and saddle cloth.

"That gives the seņor and the boy three apiece. Each has one turn left. The others will fall out. If neither scores in his turn, both will be ruled out and the others will compete for the prize," announced the scorer.

The Mexican smiled a supercilious smile, as much as to say, "The idea of a long-legged, freckle-faced boy defeating me!" The Mexican was an expert at the game of tilting as it was practised on the desert.

The man took the first turn. He sat quietly on his pony a moment before starting, placing the lance at just the proper angle-- then galloped at the mark. He, too, rose in his stirrups. The spectators were silent.

The ring just missed being impaled on the tilting peg, slipping along the pole half way then bounding up into the air.

The spectators groaned. The Mexican had lost.

Now it was Tad's turn.

He rode as if it were an everyday occurrence with him to tilt, only he went at it with a rash that fairly took their breath away.

Just as he was about to drive at the ring, some one uttered a wild yell and a sombrero hurled from the crowd, struck Tad fairly across the eyes.

Of course he lost, and, for a moment, he could not see a thing. He pulled his pony to a quick stop and sat rubbing and blinking his smarting eyes.

A howl of disapproval went up from the spectators. None seemed to know whether the act had been inspired by enthusiasm or malice. Tad was convinced that it was the latter. His face was flushed, but the lad made no comment.

"You are entitled to another tilt," called the scorer.

To this the Mexican objected loudly.

"Under the circumstances, as my opponent objects, and as we all wish to prevent hard feelings, why not give him a chance as well? If he wins I shall be satisfied."

A shout of approval greeted Tad's suggestion. This was the real sportsman-like spirit, and it appealed to them.

The proposition was agreed to. But again the Mexican lost.

"If the young man is interfered with this time, I shall award the prize to him and end the tournament," warned the scorer.

Though Tad's eyes were smarting from the blow of the sombrero, he allowed the eyelids to droop well over them, thus protecting them from the dust and at the same time giving him a clearer vision.

On his next turn, Tad tore down the narrow lane; he shot between the posts like an arrow, and the tilting peg was driven far into the narrow hoop, wedging the ring on so firmly that it afterwards required force to loosen and remove it.

Without halting his pony, Tad rode on, out a circle and came back at a lively gallop, pulling up before the stand of dry goods boxes, where the young woman who was to award the prize stood swinging her handkerchief, while the spectators set up a deafening roar of applause.

Tad was holding the tilting peg aloft, displaying the ring wedged on it. He made the young woman a sweeping bow, his sombrero almost touching the ground as he did so.

Another shout went up when the handsome spurs were handed to him, which the enthusiastic young woman first wrapped in her own handkerchief before passing the prize over to him. And amid the din, Tad heard the familiar "Oh, Wow! Wow!" in the shrill voice of Stacy Brown.