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The Border Boys with the Texas Rangers
Fremont B. Deering
THE NEXT INSTANT JACK AND THE PONY WENT ROLLING AND PLUNGING OFF THE TRAIL DOWN TOWARD THE RIVER.—
“Yip! Yip! Y–e–e–e–e–ow!”
“Gracious! What’s coming, a band of circus Indians?”
“Not knowing, can’t say; but there is evidently something to the fore in the strenuous line.”
“Well, I should say so. Hark, what’s that?”
“Shooting; maybe some of those Mestizos from over the Rio Grande are attacking the town.”
“Hardly likely. The last heard of them they were fifty miles from the Border fighting hard with the Federals. But it’s something, all right.”
“Hullo! Look there. It’s—it’s the Rangers!”
The red–headed, sun–burned last speaker reined in his impetuous, plunging, gray broncho and, shielding his eyes with his hand, gazed down the dusty main street of San Mercedes. Above the trio of lads who had halted their cayuses at the sudden sound of distant uproar, the sun hung in the steely blue sky like a red hot copper ball. Jack Merrill, alert and good–looking, with his frank, bronzed face and easy seat in the saddle, followed the direction of red–headed Walt Phelps’ gaze. Ralph Stetson, equally excited, studied the situation with equivalent interest.
And now at the end of the street, which had suddenly become thronged as if by magic with slouching Mexicans, blue–bloused Chinese and swinging–gaited cow–punchers with jingling spurs on their high–heeled boots, a novel procession swept into view.
Out of a cloud of yellow dust, which hung like a saffron curtain against the burning cobalt of the sky, appeared the foremost of a group of riders.
“Here they come! Look out, fellows! Let’s sidetrack ourselves and let the Texas limited go by!”
As he shouted this advice Ralph Stetson, a lad of slightly more delicate build than his youthful companions, swung his wiry little pony in a pivotal sweep, and made as if to retreat.
“Hurry, boys!” he shouted.
But Jack Merrill stood his ground, and Walt Phelps, seeing that the leader of the three Border Boys did not swerve in the face of the onrush, did not budge an inch either. But on the street excitement was rife. Cayuses, hitched to the long, strong hitching racks, or simply left to stand with the reins dropped to the ground over their heads, plunged and squealed. Men ran about and shouted, and even the usually stolidChinese restaurant keepers and laundry men seemed stirred out of their habitual state of supreme unconcern. As for the Mexican residents of San Mercedes, they merely drew their serapes closer about them and from beneath their broad brimmed, cone–crowned sombreros gazed with a haughty indifference at the group of galloping, shouting horsemen.
As Ralph Stetson cantered off, Jack Merrill backed his pony up to the very edge of the raised wooden sidewalk. The little animal was wildly excited and plunged and whinnied as if it felt the bit and saddle for the first time. But Jack maintained his easy, graceful seat as if he had formed part of the lively little creature he bestrode. Walt Phelps, also undisturbed, controlled his equally restive mount.
“Why don’t we cut and run, too, Jack?” asked Walt, as the hind feet of their ponies rattled on the wooden walk. “Those fellows are taking up the whole street. They’ll run us down.”
“Inasmuch as they are just the men that we are here to meet,” responded Jack, “I propose to stand my ground.”
The Border Boys had arrived in San Mercedes that morning, having ridden from El Chico, the nearest town on the Southern Pacific Railroad. They had come almost directly from a short rest following their exciting adventures across the Mexican Border, as related in “The Border Boys With the Mexican Rangers.” In this book, it will be recalled, they had aided the picturesque mounted police of Mexico in running down a band of desperadoes headed by Black Ramon, a famous Border character.
We first met the boys in the initial book of this series, “The Border Boys on the Trail.” This volume set forth how Jack Merrill, the son of an Arizona rancher, and Ralph Stetson, the rather delicate son of an Eastern Railroad magnate and an old school chum, had shared with Walt Phelps, a cattleman’s son, some astonishing adventures, including much trouble with the hard characters who formed the nucleus of a band of cattle rustlers. They assisted in putting them to rout, but not before they had encountered many stirring adventures in a ruined mission church in Chihuahua used as a gathering place by the band. The treasure they discovered secreted in the catacombs under the ruined edifice had given each boy a substantial little nest egg of his own.
In “The Border Boys Across the Frontier” they were found aiding Uncle Sam. They happened to find a strange subterranean river by means of which arms and ammunition were being smuggled to Mexican revolutionists. In trying to put a stop to that work they were captured, and escaped only after a ride on a borrowed locomotive and a fight in the stockade of the Esmeralda mine.
We now find them in San Mercedes awaiting the arrival of the Texas Rangers, a detachment of whom had been ordered to the little settlement on the banks of the Rio Grande Del Norte to put down any disturbances, and to keep the warring Mexicans from committing outrages on Uncle Sam’s soil. The boys, always anxious for anything that might offer in the way of adventure, had begged their fathers to allow them to see something of the work of the Rangers. At first this had been absolutely refused. But finally Mr. Stetson gave his permission, and then Mr. Merrill fell in line, as did Walt Phelps’ parents. Captain Moseby Atkinson of the Rangers being an old friend of Mr. Merrill’s, the rest was easy, and it had been arranged that the boys were to meet Captain Atkinson at San Mercedes. Though they looked only for fun and novel experiences, the Border Boys were destined, while with the Rangers, to pass through adventures more thrilling, and hardships more severe than they dreamed.
On dashed the Rangers, the hoofs of their mounts thundering like artillery. It was a sight calculated to stir the heart and quicken the pulse of any wholesome, active lad. There were fully twenty of them, riding six abreast. Their sombreros, blue shirts, rough leather chaps and the rifles slung in each man’s saddle holster, showed them to be men of action in the acutest sense of that word; men whose bronzed faces and keen, steady eyes bespoke them of the best type of plainsman; worthy descendants of Fremont, Lewis and Clarke.
“Yip! Yip!” the foremost of the riders shouted as they saw the boys.
Jack’s fiery little pony began to show signs of frantic alarm. It bucked and tried to throw itself backward, but each time the young horseman’s skill checked it.
“Captain! Captain!” called Jack, as the Rangers swept by.
But above the thunder of hoofs, and in the midst of the yellow dust clouds, Captain Atkinson did not hear nor see the two boys.
But one of his men, a rather squat, dark–skinned, dark–haired little fellow, did.
“Y—e—ow! Out of the way, you tenderfoot kid!” he exploded.
“I’m trying to get out of the way,” responded Jack good humoredly.
“What’s that, you long–legged cayuse,” bellowed the little chap, whose sleeves were tied round above the elbows with gorgeous pink ribbons, and whose black silk shirt was embroidered with pink rosebuds, “what’s that? Can you ride, kid? Can you ride?”
At the same instant Jack’s pony swung around, presenting its flank toward the little Ranger. As it did so the Texan brought down his quirt with all its force on the startled little creature’s rump.
“Wow! Now for fireworks!” he shouted, while his comrades checked their ponies to see the fun.
Jack said nothing. In truth, he had his hands full. Excited before, his pony was now half mad with frenzy. It bucked as if its insides had been made of steel springs. But Jack stuck to it like a burr to a maverick’s tail.
“Wow! Wow!” shouted the Rangers, as the pony gathered its feet together, sprung into the air, and came down with legs as stiff as hitching posts.
“Stick to him, kid! Don’t go to leather!” (meaning, “grab hold of the saddle”), encouraged some of the Rangers struck by Jack’s manful riding. But the dark–skinned little chap seemed to wish nothing more than to see the youthful leader of the Border Boys ignominiously toppled into the dust. He spurred his pony alongside Jack’s and whacked it again and again with his rawhide quirt.
“That’s enough!” shouted Jack. “Stop it!”
“You’re scared!” jeered the Ranger. “Mammy’s little pet!”
The taunt had hardly left his lips before something very unexpected happened. Jack, for a flash, managed to secure control of his pony. He swung it round on its hind legs and rode it right at the scornful, jeering Ranger. As he did so the other leaned out of his saddle to give Jack’s pony another blow with the quirt as it dashed by him. But he miscalculated. Jack drove his pony right in alongside his tormentor’s, and the shock of the collision, added to the position the Ranger now occupied in the saddle—leaning far over—proved too much for his equilibrium.
His animal plunged, as if shot from a catapult, halfway across the street from Jack’s pony. As it did so its rider made a vain attempt to save himself by grabbing its withers. But quick as he was he could not regain his balance.
Off he shot, landing in the street and ploughing a furrow with his face in the soft dust. As for the pony, it dashed off, while a dozen Rangers pursued it, yelling and swinging lariats.
Those who remained set up a yell of delight. It tickled the fancy of these free and easy sons of the plains to see their companion unhorsed by a slip of a boy.
“Good for you, kid!” shouted some.
“Say, Shorty,” admonished others, “why don’t you pick a fellow your own size?”
In the meantime “Shorty,” as he had been addressed, scrambled to his feet. He was a sorry object. His elaborate black silk shirt was torn and dust covered, and one of his carefully tied ribbons was missing. His sombrero lay six feet away, and his black hair fell in a tangle over his dark forehead. As he got to his legs again, crowning humiliation of all, a Chinaman picked up his broad–brimmed hat and tendered it to him. Shorty aimed a blow and a curse at the well–meaning Mongolian, who quickly dodged.
With a roar of rage he rushed at Jack. Then Jack and the others saw what they had not noticed before.
In his fall Shorty’s revolver had fallen from its holster into the dust. But he had recovered it, and now, with his lips set viciously, he was rushing at Jack, the weapon poised for a shot.
“You dern young coyote, I’ll do fer you!” he shouted hoarsely, beside himself with fury, intensified by the taunts of his companions over his downfall.
As if in a trance Jack saw the revolver raised above the fellow’s head, and then brought down to the firing position.
But at the very instant that the Ranger’s finger pressed the trigger something came swishing and snaking through the air, falling in a loop about him and pinioning his arms. The gun cracked as Shorty was yanked from his feet, but the bullet merely ploughed a little furrow in the ground. The next minute he was rolling in the dust for the second time, roped as neatly as ever he had lassoed a yearling, by the rawhide of Captain Atkinson himself.
The captain, who had been in advance, as we know, had not witnessed the first part of the drama which had so nearly ended in a tragedy, but had been apprised of it when Shorty’s pinto pony had flashed by him with half a dozen shouting Rangers at its heels. The minute it had been roped he instituted inquiries, and hearing what had occurred, he judged from his acquaintance with Shorty’s character that his presence might be needed at the scene of the Ranger’s unhorsing.
At top speed he had galloped back, arriving just in time to see Shorty’s revolver flash in the air as he brought it down for a shot. Almost as by magic the captain’s hand had sought and found his lariat and sent its coil swishing through the air.
“Get up!” he thundered to the disgruntled Shorty, who, thoroughly humiliated, did as he was told.
“Let me alone! Let me git at that cub!” he snarled, under his breath.
“See here, Shorty Swift!” flashed Atkinson, “this isn’t the first trouble I’ve had with you. You’re a disgrace to the Rangers.”
“He was pickin’ on me,” began the Ranger; but his commander cut him short with a sharp word.
“Buncombe! Is this the way you obey orders to conduct yourself properly? Do you mean to tell me that you can give me any good reason why a kid like that should annoy a Texas ranger?”
“Well, he did. It was his fault. He—he———”
“See here, Shorty, are you going to tell the truth?”
“I am telling the truth, cap.”
“You’re not. Some of you other boys tell me what happened.”
One of the Rangers who had applauded Jack’s horsemanship gave a plain, unvarnished account of the whole scene. Captain Atkinson’s brow darkened as he heard.
“So,” he snapped, “that’s the sort of fellow you are. Well, all I’ve got to say is that you and your kind are a disgrace to the name of Texas. I’ve warned you before, Shorty, of what you might expect if you got into disgrace again. That was the last time. Now I find you bullyin’ a kid who hadn’t done you any harm, and when he gave you what you deserved you tried to shoot him. I’ve only got one thing to say to you——”
There was a vibrant silence, during which the trampling of the restless ponies’ hoofs and the hard breathing of Shorty were the only sounds to break the stillness.
The order came like the crack of a rifle.
Shorty seemed to wither and grow smaller and darker as he heard.
“Captain, I——” he stammered out. But Atkinson cut him short abruptly.
“You heard me. Git! This isn’t a cow camp, but a regularly organized troop to enforce law and order. You set a fine example of lawlessness right in the town we have been sent to protect from that very thing. There’s your pony and here’s the pay that’s coming to you. Hit the trail, and hit it quick.”
“Don’t be too hard on him, captain. Give him one more chance. I guess it was only meant as horse play and not viciousness.”
Captain Atkinson turned his bronzed countenance on the speaker. It was Jack. Beside him Walt Phelps had reined up and Ralph Stetson, too, the latter having been attracted by the excitement from the side street where he had sought refuge at the boisterous entrance of the Rangers.
“Oh, it’s you, is it?” he said. “Well, young chap, you’ve got nerve and sense; but this fellow doesn’t deserve any pity.”
“I’m sure he won’t do it again,” Jack assured the captain; “let him off this time. He’s been punished enough.”
At this Captain Atkinson could not resist a smile. Shorty’s woebegone appearance assuredly bore testimony to the truth of Jack’s statement.
As for the Rangers, some of them broke into an open guffaw of amusement.
“You’re sure right, young chap,” agreed Captain Atkinson, “but right now I’d like to ask you who you and your two friends are. You don’t look as if you belonged about here.”
“We don’t. My name is Jack Merrill, this is Walt Phelps and yonder is Ralph Stetson, a school chum and————”
“Waal, by the Lone Star! So you’re the kids I’m to take along, eh? Shake, boy, shake! I thought you were a lot of blithering tenderfeet, but you’re regular punchers. Put it there, Jack. I’m Captain Atkinson, your father’s friend, and————”
“I guessed as much,” smiled Jack, shaking hands with the grizzled leader of the Rangers who, in turn, almost wrung the lad’s fingers off. “It’s for the sake of your friendship, captain, that I ask you to give this man another chance.”
“Boy, you’re a real sport. Shorty, apologize to this lad here and take your place in the ranks.”
“I—I’m sorry,” muttered Shorty, hanging his head sullenly and forcing the words from unwilling lips.
“That’s all right, Shorty,” said Jack heartily, “and I’m as sorry as you are. I didn’t mean to give you such a bump.”
Shorty took the outstretched hand with limp fingers, barely touched it, and then, remounting his pony, which had been led up, rode off to the rear of his comrades. His face was contorted with humiliation and angry shame.
“I hope you won’t judge the Rangers by that fellow,” said Captain Atkinson to Jack when Shorty had gone; “we may appear rough but our hearts are in the right place, as I hope we shall prove to you.”
“I’m sure of it,” rejoined Jack heartily. “Are we going to camp far from the town?” he asked, by way of changing the subject.
“Yes, in the outskirts, on the banks of the river. Alameda and his men are giving the Federal troops a hard tussle, and we want to be on the job if they try to cross.”
“Then you won’t be in one place?”
Captain Atkinson laughed.
“No; we Rangers are supposed to be like the Irish bird that flew in two places at the same time,” he said.
Then, in a more serious tone, he went on:
“We have twenty–five miles of the Rio Grande to patrol and see that the life and property of Americans along the Border are protected. It is also our duty to keep the revolutionists or Federals from getting into American territory or receiving supplies.”
“We had some experience in that line when we were in Northern Chihuahua,” responded Jack.
“So I have heard. That is one reason I consented to have you along. Raw tenderfoots would be out of place on a job of this kind. But now we must be pushing on. I want to get into camp and map out my plan of campaign before night.”
In a few minutes the column was reformed, and the Rangers, at an easy pace, were riding out of the town toward the river. The three boys rode together.
“Well, Jack,” remarked Ralph Stetson, as soon as they found themselves alone, “you’ve made a nice mess of it.”
“How’s that?” inquired Jack unsuspiciously.
“Getting in a muss with that Ranger. From the look he gave you as he went away I could see he bore you no great affection.”
“Well, I’m not going to lose any sleep over it,” declared Jack.
“I should think not,” chimed in Walt Phelps, “you only did what you were compelled to do. My dad says, ‘Don’t go looking for trouble and always avoid it if you can; but if you have it forced on you, why then make the other fellow remember it.’”
“Don’t worry about that Shorty not remembering it,” admonished Ralph seriously; “he’s not of the forgetting kind.”
And Ralph was right—Shorty wasn’t, as we shall see before long.
The Rangers, still overshadowed by that pall of yellow dust that seemed inseparable from them, and almost as much a part of themselves as their horses or accouterments, dashed gallantly out of the town and across the rather dreary expanse of mesquite and thorny cactus that lay between San Mercedes and the Rio Grande. On the brink of the stream, which at that point flowed between steep bluffs of a reddish hue, they drew rein.
The boys peered curiously over the bluff on the edge of which they had halted. They saw a shallow, slowly flowing stream obstructed with sand bars and shallows. On its banks grew scanty patches of brush and dull–colored, stunted trees; but the scene was a dreary, almost melancholy one.
“So this is the Rio Grande!” exclaimed Ralph, in a disappointed voice, “I always thought of it as a noble river dashing along between steep banks and———”
“Gracious, you talk like Sir Walter Scott,” grinned Jack; “the Rio Grande at this time of the year, so I’ve been told, is always like this.”
“Why, it’s not much more than a mud puddle,” complained Walt Phelps.
“I’m not so sure about that, young men,” put in Captain Atkinson, who had overheard their conversation, “at certain times in the early spring, or winter you’d call it back east, or when there is a cloud burst, the old Rio can be as angry as the best of them.”
“What’s a cloud burst?” asked Ralph curiously. “I’ve read of them but I never knew just what they were.”
“Well, for a scientific explanation you’ll have to ask somebody wiser than me,” laughed Captain Atkinson, “but for an everyday explanation, a cloud burst occurs when clouds, full of moisture, come in contact with mountain tops warmer than the clouds themselves. This causes the clouds to melt all at once—precipitation, I believe the weather sharps call it—and then if you are in this part of the country, look out for squalls along the river.”
“But I don’t quite understand,” remarked Walt. “I guess I’m dense or something. I mean there are no mountains here.”
“No; but up among the sources of the Rio there are,” explained the leader of the Rangers, “and a cloud burst even many hundred miles away means a sudden tidal wave along this part of the Rio.”
“Well, it certainly looks as if it could stand quite a lot more water without being particularly dangerous,” commented Jack.
At this point of the conversation Captain Atkinson gave a quick look around as the rumble of approaching wheels was heard.
“Here comes the chuck–wagon, I guess,” he said; “you boys will have to excuse me while I ride off to tell them where to make a pitch.”
“Yes; I suppose a chuck wagon naturally would make a pitch,” grinned Ralph, as Captain Atkinson clattered off.
“The kind of pitch he means is a location,” rejoined Walt Phelps. “Look, boys! There she comes. Well, that means that we don’t starve, anyhow.”
The others followed the direction of Walt’s gaze and saw a big lumbering vehicle drawn by eight mules approaching across the mesquite plain. It was roofed with canvas, and through this roof stuck a rusty iron stove pipe. From this blue smoke was pouring in a cloud.
“Talk about a prairie schooner. I guess that’s a prairie steamer. Look at her smoke–stack,” cried Ralph.
“Yes; and look at the captain,” laughed Jack, pointing to the yellow face and flying queue of a Chinaman, which were at this moment projected from the back of the wagon.
“That’s the cook,” said Walt Phelps, “I guess he’s been getting supper ready as they came along.”
A loud cheer went up from the Rangers as their traveling dining–room came into sight.
“Hello, old Sawed Off, how’s chuck?” yelled one Ranger at the grinning Chinaman.
“Hey, there! What’s the news from the Chinese Republic?” shouted another.
“Me no Chinese ‘public. Me Chinese Democlat!” bawled the yellow man, waving an iron spoon and vanishing into the interior of his wheeled domain.
“They call him Sawed Off because his name is Tuo Long,” chuckled Captain Atkinson, when he had directed the driver of the cook wagon where to draw up and unharness his mules, “but he’s a mighty good cook—none better, in fact. He’s only got one failing, if you can call it such, and that is his dislike of the new Chinese Republic. If you want to get him excited you’ve only to start him on that.”
“I don’t much believe in getting cooks angry,” announced Walt Phelps, whose appetite was always a source of merriment with the Border Boys.
“Nor I. But come along and get acquainted with the boys. By–the–way, you brought blankets and slickers as I wrote you?”
“Oh, yes, and canteens, too. In fact, I guess we are all prepared to be regular Rangers,” smiled Jack.
By this time the camp was a scene of picturesque bustle. Ponies had been unsaddled and tethered, and presently another wagon, loaded with baled hay in a great yellow stack, came rumbling up. The Rangers, who had by this time selected their sleeping places and bestowed their saddles, at once set about giving their active little mounts their suppers.
First, each man mounted on his pony barebacked and rode it down to the river to get a drink of water. To do this they had to ride some little distance, as the bluffs at that point were steep and no path offered. At last, however, a trail was found, and in single file down they went to the watering place.
The boys followed the rest along the steep path, Jack coming last of the trio. The trail lay along the edge of the bluff, and at some places was not much wider than a man’s hand. Jack had reached the worst part of it, where a drop of some hundred feet lay below him, when he was astonished to hear the sound of hoofs behind him.
He was astonished because, he had judged, almost everybody in the camp had preceded him while he had been busy inspecting the different arrangements. He faced round abruptly in his saddle and saw that the rider behind him was Shorty.
It must have been at almost the same moment that, for some unknown reason, Shorty’s horse began to plunge and kick. Then it dashed forward, bearing down directly on Jack.
“Look out!” shouted Jack, “there’s only room for one on the trail. You’ll knock me off!”