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"Oh, let me get up. Let me ride him for two minutes, Walter."
Walter Perkins brought his pony to a slow stop and glanced down hesitatingly into the pleading blue eyes of the freckle-faced boy at his side.
"Please! I'll only ride him up to the end of the block and back, and I won't go fast, either. Let me show you how I can ride him," urged Tad Butler, with a note of insistence in his voice.
"If I thought you wouldn't fall off----"
"I fall off?" sniffed Tad, contemptuously. "I'd like to see the pony that could bounce me off his back. Huh! Guess I know how to ride better than that. Say, Chunky, remember the time when the men from Texas had those ponies here--brought them here to sell?"
Chunky--the third boy of the group--nodded vigorously.
"And didn't I ride a broncho that never had had a saddle on his back but once in his life? Say, did I get thrown then?"
"He did that," endorsed Stacy Brown, who, because of his well-rounded cheeks and ample girth, was known familiarly among his companions as "Chunky." "I mean, he didn't. And he rode the pony three times around the baseball field, too. That broncho's back was humped up like a mad cat's all the way around. 'Course Tad can ride. Wish I could ride half as well as he does. You needn't be afraid, Walter."
Thus reassured by Chunky's praise, Walter dropped the bridle rein over the neck of his handsome new pony, and slid slowly to the ground.
"All right, Tad. Jump up! But don't hold him too tightly. He doesn't like it, and, besides, he has been trained to run when you tighten up on the rein, and father would not like it if we were to race him in the village."
"I'll be careful."
Tad Butler needed no second invitation to try out his companion's pony. With the agility of a cowboy, he leaped into the saddle without so much as touching a foot to the stirrup. In another second, with a slight pressure on the rein, he had wheeled the animal sharply on its haunches, and was jogging off up the street at an easy gallop, both boy and pony rising and falling in graceful, rhythmic movements, as if in reality each were a part of the other. Tad seemed born to stirrup and saddle.
Yet, true to his promise, the boy made no effort to increase the speed of his mount. Nor did he go beyoud the corner named. Instead, he circled and came galloping back, one hand resting lightly on the rein, the other swinging easily at his side.
As he neared the two boys, Tad checked his pony, but Walter motioned to him to continue. With a smile of keen appreciation, Tad shook out the reins, and pony and rider swung on down the village street.
The soft breeze bad by now fanned the bright color into the face of Thaddeus Butler, and his deep blue eyes glowed with excitement and pleasure; for, to him, there was no happiness so great as that to be found on the back of a swift-moving pony.
However, this was a pleasure that seldom came to Tad, for his lines had not fallen altogether in pleasant places. The boy was now seventeen, and from his twelfth birthday he had been almost the sole support of his mother. His time, out of school hours, was spent largely in doing odd jobs about the village where his services were in demand, and on Saturday afternoons and nights he delivered goods for a grocery store, for which latter service he earned the--to him--munificent sum of twenty-five cents. But all of this he accepted cheerfully and manfully. Now and then Tad was allowed to drive the grocer's wagon to the station for goods, and at such times his work was a positive recreation. Some day Tad hoped to have a horse of his own. He could imagine no more perfect happiness than this. He had determined, though, that when he did own one, it should be a saddle horse and a speedy one at that. Yet, at the present moment the realization of his ambition seemed indeed far away.
Walter Perkins was the son of a banker. He and Tad Butler had been born and brought up in the little village of Chillicothe, Missouri, where they still lived, and, despite the difference in their social positions, had been fast friends since they were little fellows.
Chunky was the son of a merchant in a small town in Massachusetts, and had been visiting an uncle in Chillicothe for nearly a year past.
Walter was a delicate boy, and, reared in luxury, as he had been all his life, he had sensed few of the delights of out-door life that were so apparent in the face of his nimble friend, Tad. It was this delicate physical condition that had brought about the gift of the pony. The family physician had advised it in order that the boy might have more out-door air, and on this May morning Walter had brought the pony out to show to his admiring friends.
"Tad's a good rider. Isn't he a beauty?" breathed Chunky, as they watched the progress of boy and horse down the street.
"Who, Tad?" asked Walter, absorbed in the contemplation of his new possession.
"Tad! Pooh! No; the pony, of course. I don't see anything very fetching about Tad, do you? But I should be willing to be as freckled as he is if I could stick on a pony's back the way he does."
"Yes, he does know how to ride," agreed Walter. "And, by the way, father is going to get a horse for Professor Zepplin, my tutor; then we are going off on long rides every day, after my lessons are done. The doctor says it will be good for me. Fine to have a doctor like that, isn't it?"
"Great! Wish I could go along."
"Why don't you?" asked Walter, turning quickly to his companion. "That would be just the idea. What great times we three could have, riding off into the open country! And we could go on exploring expeditions, too, and make believe we were cowboys and--and all that sort of thing."
Chunky shook his head dubiously. "I haven't a pony. But I wish I had. I should like to go so much," replied the boy wistfully.
"Then, why not ask your uncle to get one for you? He will do it, I know," urged Walter brightly, brimming over with his new plan. "Why, I'll ask him myself."
"Wouldn't he do it?"
"No. Uncle said I was too young, and that the first thing I would be doing would be to break my neck. If father was here and gave his permission, why, that would be different. Uncle said it would take my mind off my school, besides."
"School? Why, school will not last much longer. It is May, now, and school will be over early in June. That isn't long to wait. You go right home, Chunky, and tell your uncle you must have a pony. Tell him I said so. If he refuses, I'll have my father go ask him. He won't refuse my father anything he asks. My father is a banker and everybody does everything he wants them to, because he lends them money," advised Walter wisely.
"My--my uncle doesn't have to borrow money. He's got money of his own," bristled Chunky.
"Yes, that's so. But you go ask him. Tell him about my pony and that we are all going off for a ride every day. Say that Professor Zepplin will be along to take care of us. And say! I'll tell you what," added the boy eagerly.
"Yes?" urged Chunky.
"We will form ourselves into a club. Now, wouldn't that be great?"
"Fine!" glowed Chunky. "But, what kind of a club? They don't have horses in clubs."
"We shall, in this one. That is, we shall be the club, and the ponies will be our club-house. When we are on our ponies' backs we shall be in our club-house. Maybe we can get Ned Rector to join us. He knows how to ride--why, he rides almost as well as Tad."
Chunky nodded thoughtfully.
"What shall we call it? We must have some kind of a name for the club."
"I hadn't thought of that. I'll tell you what," exclaimed Walter, brightening, after a moment's consideration. "We will call ourselves the Rough Riders. That's what we will do, Chunky."
"Yes, but we are not rough riders," protested Chunky. "We are only beginners; that is, all of us except Tad, and he can't join us--just because he's too poor to have a horse. As for us--humph! We'd be rough riders only when we fell off!"
Walter laughed heartily.
"No," he admitted. "I guess we are not rough riders yet; but we may be some day, after we've learned to ride better. I can't think of any other name, can you?"
"We might call ourselves the Wild Riders," suggested Chunky.
"No, that won't do, either. It's as bad as the other name. Father'd never let me go out at all if we called ourselves the Wild Riders, because he would think it meant we were going to be too much like cowboys. I guess we shall have to think it over some more. But here comes Tad back. Suppose we ask him? He'll know what to call the club."
Tad reigned in alongside of them and pulled the pony up sharply, patting its sleek neck approvingly, still loath to dismount.
"It's great, fellows. Wish I had a pony like him."
"So do I," echoed Chunky.
"Why, you don't have to touch the reins at all. I could ride him without just as well as with them. All you have to do is to press your knee against his side and he will turn, just as if you were pulling on the rein. He's a trained pony, Walter. Did you know that?"
"That's what the man said when father bought him. Jo-Jo can walk on his hind legs, too. But father said I mustn't try to make him do any tricks, for fear I might get hurt."
"Hurt nothing! He wouldn't hurt a baby," objected Tad in the little animal's defence. "I'll show you--I won't hurt him, don't be afraid," he exclaimed leaping to the ground, stripping the rein over the animal's head and holding it at arm's length. "If he knows how to stand up I can make him do it. I've seen them do that in the circus. Let me have your whip."
"I don't know about that," answered Walter doubtfully. "Yes, you may try," he decided finally, extending the whip that he had been idly tapping against his legging. "But don't hit him, will you?"
"Not I," grinned the freckle-faced boy, leading the pony further out into the street. "He doesn't need to be struck."
Tad first coaxed the pony by patting it gently on the side of the head, to which the intelligent animal responded by brushing his cheek softly with its nose.
"See, he knows a thing or two," cried Tad. "Now, watch me!"
Standing off a few feet, the boy tapped the animal gently under the chin with the whip.
"Up, Jo-Jo! Up!" he urged, lifting the whip into the air insistently. At first, Jo-Jo only swished his tail rebelliously, shaking his head until the bit rattled between his teeth.
But Tad persisted, gently yet firrnly urging with voice and whip. Jo-Jo meanwhile pawed the dirt up into a cloud of dust that settled over the boys, finally causing a chorus of sneezes, until Tad felt sure he observed a twinkle of amusement in the eyes of the knowing little animal.
"Up, Jo-Jo!" he commanded almost sternly, bringing the whip sharply against the side of his own leg.
The pony, recognizing the voice of a master, hesitated no longer. Half folding its slender forelegs back, it rose slowly, up and up.
"Walter Perkins and Stacy Brown broke into a cheer. But Tad, never for an instant removing his gaze from Jo-Jo, held up a warning hand, leaned slightly forward and fixed the pony with impelling eyes.
Then Tad backed away slowly. To the amazement of the others, Jo-Jo, balancing himself beautifully on his hind legs, followed his new-found master in short, cautious steps, the animal's head now high in the air, its nostrils dilated, and every nerve strained to the task in hand.
"Beautiful," breathed Walter and Chunky in chorus.
"He's a regular brick," added Chunky.
"How'd you do it, Tad!"
Before replying, the boy lowered the whip to his side, motioning to the pony that his task was done. Jo-Jo dropped quickly on all fours, and, walking up to Tad, rubbed his nose against the lad's cheek again.
"Good boy," soothed Tad, returning the caress, his eyes swimming with happiness.
But as Tad stepped back Jo-Jo insistently followed, alternately pushing his nose against the boy's face and tugging at his shirt.
"He wants to do it again, Tad," cried Chunky, enthusiastically.
The freckle-faced boy grinned knowingly.
"Got any sugar, Walter?" he asked.
Walter thrust a hand into a trousers pocket, bringing up a handful of lumps that were far from being their natural color. But Tad grabbed them, and an instant later Jo-Jo's quivering upper lip had closed greedily over the handful of sweets.
"That's what the little rascal wanted," breathed Tad with a pleased smile. "I could teach that pony to do 'most anything but talk, fellows. I'm not so sure that he couldn't do that in his own way, after a little time. What did you give for him?"
"Father paid the man a hundred and fifty dollars."
Tad uttered a long-drawn whistle; his face sobered. It was more money than he ever had seen at one time in his life. Would he ever have as much as that? The freckle-faced boy doubted it.
"We fellows were talking about getting up a club," spoke up Walter.
"Club? What kind of a club?" asked Tad absently.
"Oh, some sort of a riding club. Chunky is going to ask his uncle to buy him a pony; then we are going out with my tutor on long rides in the country.
Tad eyed them steadily.
"Somehow we can't just decide on the name for the new club. I thought maybe we would call ourselves the Bough Riders. Chunky doesn't like that name. We had an idea that, perhaps, you could give us one. What do you say, Tad?"
"Chunky's uncle is going to get him a pony?" asked Tad a bit unsteadily.
"We hope so," nodded Walter. "And that's not all. We are going to get Ned Rector to join the club. He already has a pony. Wish you might come in with us, Tad."
"Wish I might," answered Tad wistfully.
"Of course, we know you can't really, but you belong to us just the same. You can be a sort of--of honorary member. We will let you ride our ponies sometimes when we are in town, though, of course, when we go out for long trips we can't take you along very well. You understand that, don't you, Tad?"
Tad inclined his head.
"And now about the name. Got anything to suggest?"
The freckle-faced boy walked over to the pony and laid his cheek against its nose, which he patted softly, his head averted so that the others might not see the pain in his eyes.
"You--you might call yourselves 'The Pony Rider Boys,'" suggested Tad, controlling his voice with an effort.
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