Chapter XVI. Chunky's New Idea
 

Three of the ponies, they found, had been knocked down and so severely shocked that they were only just beginning to regain consciousness.

"Why didn't you tell us?" demanded Ned, turning on Stacy savagely.

"You wouldn't let me. Maybe next time I've got an idea, you'll stop and listen."

Kris Kringle's face wore a broad grin.

"Master Stacy is right. He tried hard enough to tell us," he said.

Chunky was humming blithely as the party set out next morning. He was pretty well satisfied with himself, for had he not been through a prairie fire, knocked a savage Apache off his horse, saved himself and his companions, besides having just escaped from being struck by lightning? Stacy swelled out his chest and held his chin a little bit higher than usual.

"Chunky's got a swelled head," said Ned, nodding in the direction of the fat boy.

"Swelled chest, you mean," laughed Walter. "Nobody has a better right. Chunky isn't half as big a fool as he'd have everybody believe. When we think we are having lots of fun with him he's really having sport with us. And those Indians-- say, Ned, do you think they will bother us any more?"

"Ask Chunky," retorted Ned. "He's the oracle of the party."

"I will," answered Walter, motioning for Stacy to join them, which the latter did leisurely. "We want to know if you think we've seen the last of the Apaches? Will they bother us any more?"

The fat boy consulted the sky thoughtfully.

"I think there's some of them around now," he replied.

"What?"

Stacy nodded wisely.

"Santa Claus ought to have shot them."

"Why, you cold-blooded savage!" scoffed Ned. "The idea!"

"You'll see. I'd have done it, myself, if I'd had my gun," declared Stacy bravely.

"Good thing for you that your gun was in camp, instead of in your holster."

"Yes; I'd have lost the gun when the pony went down. Poor pony! Say, Walt," he murmured, leaning over toward his companion.

"Well, out with it!"

"This pony of Santa Claus's can jump further than a kangaroo."

"Ever see a kangaroo jump?" sneered Ned.

"No; but I've seen you try to. I'll show you, Walt, when we get a chance to go out and have a contest."

"That would be good sport, wouldn't it, Ned?"

"What?"

"A jumping contest!"

"If we didn't break our necks."

"Can't break a Pony Rider Boy's neck. They're too tough," laughed Walter, to which sentiment, Stacy Brown agreed with a series of emphatic nods.

"Say, Tad," called Walter, "what do you say to our jumping our ponies some time to-day?"

Tad grinned appreciatively.

"If the stock isn't too tired when we make camp, I think it would be great fun. We haven't had any real jumping contests in a long time."

"Wish we had our stallions here, Tad."

"They're better off at home, Chunky. Altogether too valuable horses for this kind of work. I'll speak to the guide."

"Well, what is it, young man?" smiled Kris Kringle.

"If you can find a level place for our camp we want to have a contest this afternoon. Professor, will you join us?"

"What kind of a contest?"

"Jumping."

"No, thank you."

"We will camp in the foothills of the Black range. You will find plenty of level ground there for your purpose," said the guide.

In order that they might have more time for their games, an early halt was called. The first work was to pitch the camp, the ponies being allowed to graze and rest in the meantime, after which the lads started out on a broad, open plain for their sport.

Their shouts of merriment drifted back to the camp where Kris Kringle and Professor Zepplin were setting things to rights and preparing an early supper, the sun still being some hours high.

"That's a great bunch of boys, Professor."

"Great for getting into difficulties."

"And for getting out of them."

"I'll put them against any other four lads in the world for hunting out trouble," laughed the Professor.

The result of the afternoon's sport was a total of several spills and numerous black and blue spots on the bodies of the Pony Rider Boys. Stacy Brown on Kris Kringle's pony, carried off the honors, having taken a higher jump than did any of his companions. Then Stacy did it again, after the others had tried-- and failed to equal the record.

The games being finished, Tad and Walter rode off to get a closer view of some peculiar rock formations that they had discovered in the high distance, while Ned and Chunky started slowly for the camp.

The table had been set out in front of the tents when the fat boy and his companion came in sight of the camp.

"Whew! but I'm hungry!" announced Stacy Brown.

"But you didn't think of it until you saw the table set, did you?"

"It wasn't the table, it was the shaking up I got back there that made me feel full of emptiness."

"Huh!"

"I've got an idea, Ned."

"For goodness' sake, keep it to yourself, then. When you have an idea it spells trouble for everybody else around you."

"Bet you I can."

"Can what?" snorted Ned.

"Bet you I can jump the dinner table and you can't."

"Bet you can't."

"Bet I can, and without even knocking a fly off the milk pitcher."

"Go on, you! You try it first, and, if you don't make it, you lose. I don't have to try it if I don't want to," agreed Ned, with rare prudence.

Chunky was fairly hugging himself with glee, but he took good care that Ned Rector did not observe his satisfaction.

"If you don't you're a tenderfoot," taunted Stacy.

"I'll show you who's the tenderfoot. You go ahead and bolt the dinner, table and all, if you dare. Now, then!"

Stacy gathered up his reins. There was mischief in his eyes, which were fixed on the table, neatly set for the evening meal.

"You start right after me. They'll be surprised to see a procession of ponies going over the table, won't they?"

"Somebody'll be surprised. May not be the Professor and Santa Claus, though," growled Ned.

Stacy had his own ideas on this question, but he did not confide them to his companion.

The fat boy clucked to his pony, and the little animal started off. As they moved along, Stacy used the persuasive spurs resulting in a sudden burst of speed.

"Come on!" he shouted.

He heard Ned's pony pursuing him.

"Hi-yi-yi-y-e-o-w!" howled the shrill voice of the fat boy.

Professor Zepplin and Kris Kringle were sitting at opposite ends of the table, with elbows leaning on it, engaged in earnest conversation. There had been so much yelling out on the plain ever since the boys left camp that the older men gave no heed to this new shout-- did not even turn their eyes in the direction whence Stacy Brown and his pony were sweeping down on them at break-neck speed.

Suddenly the two men started back with a sudden exclamation, as a shadow fell athwart the table and a dark form hurled itself through the air, while a shrill, "w-h-o-o-p-e-e!" sounded right over their heads.

The fat boy cleared the table without so much as disturbing the fly to which he had referred when making the arrangement.

Kris Kringle's face wore an expansive grin as he discovered the cause of the interruption. But, Professor Zepplin's face reflected no such emotion. He was angry. He started to rise, when a second shadow fell across the table.

Ned Rector, not to be outdone by his fat little friend, pursed his lips tightly, driving his broncho at the dinner table and pressing in the spurs so hard, that the pony grunted with anger.

Up went the broncho in a graceful curving leap.

But the pony or its rider had not calculated the distance properly. Both rear hoofs went through the table, whisking it off the ground from before the astonished eyes of Professor Zepplin and Kris Kringle.

Both men drew back so violently that they toppled over backwards.

'Mid the crashing of dishes and the sound of breaking wood, the dinner table shot up into the air, while the pony ploughed the ground with its nose.

Ned Rector struck the ground some distance farther on; he slid on his face for several feet skinning his nose, and filling mouth, eyes and nose with dirt.

Then dishes and pieces of table began to rain down on them in a perfect shower. A can of condensed milk emptied itself on the head of Professor Zepplin, while a hot biscuit lodged inside the collar of Santa Claus's shirt.

"Wow! Oh, wow!" howled the fat boy, falling off his pony in the excess of his merriment and rolling on the ground.