Chapter V. A Daring Act
 

"If you don't want to go with me you may go back, Chunky. Perhaps one would not be as likely to get into trouble as two. You can find your way, can't you?"

"I go back? Think I'm a tenderfoot? Huh! Guess I ain't afraid of any cheap Wild West Indians. I'm going with you, Tad."

"Very well; but see to it that you keep in the background. You have a habit of getting into trouble on the slightest provocation."

"So do you," retorted Stacy.

The ponies had been urged to their best pace by this time. Twilight had fallen and darkness would settle over them in a very short time now, though a new moon hovered pale and weak in the blue sky above. Tad knew this, so he did not worry about the return trip.

"We should be sighting the place pretty soon," he muttered.

"I see a light," announced Stacy.

"Where?"

"To the right. Over that low butte there."

"Yes; that's so. I see it now. You have sharp eyes," laughed Tad.

"I can see when there's anything to see."

"And eat when there's food to be had," added Tad.

"Think those are the Indians that wanted to shoot us, Tad?" he asked, with a trace of apprehension in his voice.

Tad glanced at his companion keenly;

"Getting cold feet, Chunky?"

"No!" roared the fat boy.

"I beg your pardon," grinned Tad. "I didn't mean to insult you."

"Better not. Look out that you don't get chilblains on your own feet. May need a hot mustard bath yourself before you get through."

They rounded the butte. A full quarter of a mile ahead of them flickered a large fire, with several smaller blazes twinkling here and there about it. Shadowy figures were observed moving back and forth, some with rapid movements, others in slow, methodical steps.

"There must be a lot of them, Tad."

"Looks that way. I wonder where we shall find the guide."

Both boys fell silent for a time, and as they drew nearer to the scene pulled their ponies down to a walk. Tad concluded to make a detour half way round the camp in order to get a clump of bushes that he had observed between them and the redskins. From that point of vantage he would be able to get a closer view, and perhaps locate the man for whom he was looking.

Riding in, they were soon swallowed up in the shadows.

"Hold my pony a moment," directed Tad, slipping to the ground.

"Where are you going?"

"Nowhere, just this minute. I'm going to look around."

The lad peered through the bushes until, uttering a low exclamation, he turned to his companion.

"I see him. He's over on the other side--"

"Who? Juan?"

"Yes. Now I want you to remain right here. Don't move away. I'll tie my pony so he won't give you any trouble. Sit perfectly quiet, and if any Indians come along don't bother them. I'm going around the outside, so I don't have to pass through the crowd, though they seem too busy to notice anyone."

Tad slipped away in the shadows until he came to a spot opposite where he had caught a glimpse of the lazy Mexican.

He discovered Juan in the center of a circle of dusky Indians who were squatting on the ground. Some of the braves were clothed in nondescript garments, while others were attired in gaudy blankets. These were the gamblers.

At that moment their efforts were concentrated on winning from Juan the wages of his first week's work with the Pony Rider Boys. A blanket had been spread over the ground, and on this they were wagering small amounts on the throw of the dice, a flickering camp-fire near by dimly lighting up the blanket and making the reading of the dice a difficult matter for any but the keenest of eyes. The sing-song calls of the players added to the weirdness of the scene.

Tad waited long enough to observe that the guide lost nearly every time, the stolid-faced red men raking in his coins with painful regularity.

"It's a wonder he has a cent left. But they're not playing for very large amounts, as near as I can tell."

Each time the Mexican lost he would utter a shrill "si, si," then lured by the hope that Dame Fortune would favor him, reached greedily for the next throw.

"It's time for me to do something," muttered Tad.

Stepping boldly from his cover, he walked up to the edge of the circle.

"Juan!" he called sharply.

"Si," answered the Mexican, without looking up.

"Juan!"

This time the word was uttered in a more commanding voice.

"You come with me!"

The guide, oblivious to all beyond the terrible fascination of the game he was playing, gave no heed to Tad Butler's stern command. Three times did Tad call to him, but without result. One of the red men cast an angry glance in the Tad's direction, and then returned to his play.

Without an instant's hesitation, Tad sprang over into the center of the circle, and grasping Juan by an ear, jerked him to his feet.

Red hands fell to belts and dark faces scowled menacingly at the intruder.

"You come with me, Juan!"

Juan sought to jerk away, but under the strong pull on his ear, he did not find it advisable to force himself from his captor's grip.

"You ought to be ashamed of yourself. You're lucky if Professor Zepplin doesn't give you another dose of hot drops for this. I suppose these Indians sat down to rob you," growled Tad.

"No, no, no," protested Juan.

By this time the Indian gamblers had leaped to their feet, an ugly light in their eyes that boded ill for the Pony Rider Boy who had interrupted them in the process of fleecing the Mexican.

With one accord they barred the way in a solid human wall. Tad found himself hemmed in on all sides. It had been easy to gain an entrance to the circle, but getting out of it was another matter.

"This man belongs to me," he said with as much courage in his tone as he was able to command. "You will please step aside and let us go. You're breaking the law. If you offer any resistance I'll have the government officers after you in short order."

He could not have said a worse thing under the circumstances. At first they took him for a spy, possibly a Government spy. Now they were sure of it, for had not the lad told them so himself?

With a growl, one who appeared to be the most important personage in the group drew his sheath knife and sprang straight at the slender figure of Tad Butler.

Tad acted without an instant's hesitation.

Stepping aside quickly; he cleverly avoided the knife-thrust. At the same instant, while the Indian was off his balance, not yet having recovered from the lunge, the Pony Rider Boy's fist and the Indian's jaw met in sudden collision.

The impact of the blow might have been heard more than a rod away.

The red man's blanket dropped from his shoulders; he staggered backward, made a supreme effort to pull himself together, then dropped in a heap at the feet of the boy who had felled him.

Without waiting for the astonished red gamblers to recover their wits, Tad grasped an arm of the Mexican and sprang away into the bushes.

He had done a serious thing, even though in self-protection. He had knocked down an Apache brave with his fist. The sting of that blow would rest upon the savage jaw until the insult was wiped out by the victim himself.