Chapter VIII. Asleep on the Sleepy Grass
 

The slanting rays of the sun got into the eyes of the Pony Rider Boys. Four arms were thrown over as many pairs of eyes to shut out the blinding light.

"Ho-ho-hum!" yawned Chunky.

Cocking an impish eye at his companions, he observed that each had fallen into a deep sleep again.

The fat boy cautiously gathered up a handful of dry sand and hurled it into the air. A shower of it sprinkled over them, into their eyes and half-opened mouths.

Three pairs of eyes were opened, then closed again.

Encouraged by his success, Stacy chuckled softly to himself, then dumped another handful of sand over his companions.

But he was not prepared for what followed.

Three muscular boys hurled themselves upon him. Instantly the peaceful scene was changed into a pandemonium of yells. Down came the tent poles, the canvas rising and falling as if imbued with sudden life.

Professor Zepplin, startled by the racket, roused himself and sprang from his own tent. Observing the erratic actions of the tent in which the boys had been sleeping, he instantly concluded that something serious had happened.

"Boys! boys!" he cried, running to the spot, frantically hauling away the canvas. "What has happened? What has happened?"

They were too busy to answer him. When finally he had uncovered what lay below, he found his charges literally tied up in a knot, rolling and tumbling, with Stacy Brown lying flat on his back, each of his three companions vigorously rubbing handfuls of sand over his face, down his neck and in the hair of his head.

"I think I'll take a hand in this myself," smiled the Professor. He ran to his tent, returning quickly. In his hands he carried two pails of water.

Unluckily for the boys, they had failed to observe what he was doing. Nor did they understand that they were in danger until the contents of the two pails had been dashed over them.

There were yells in earnest this time. The water turned the dirt into mud at once, and their faces were "sights." Stacy's face had been protected, in a measure, by the other boys who were bending over him rubbing in the sand.

The unexpected bath put a sudden end to their sport, and they staggered out shouting for vengeance. They did not even know who had been the cause of their undoing.

The Professor, as he walked away smiling, had handed the pails to the grinning Juan with instructions to refill them.

The unfortunate Juan, bearing the pails away, was the first person to catch the eyes of the lads, as they rubbed the sticky mud out of them.

With a howl they projected themselves upon him. Juan's grin changed instantly to an expression of great concern. He went down under their charge, with four boys, instead of three, on top of him.

"Duck him!" shouted some one.

"Yes! Douse him in the spring!" chorused the boys.

Juan cried out for the Professor, but his appeals were in vain.

Shouting in high glee the lads bore him to the spring from which they got their water. They plumped him in, not any too gently, again and again.

"Now roll him in the sand," suggested Ned.

They did so.

The wet clothing and body made the sand stick to him until the lazy Mexican was scarcely recognizable.

At this point Professor Zepplin took a hand. He came bounding to the scene and began throwing the boys roughly from their unhappy victim. Perhaps be was not greatly disturbed over the shaking up the guide had sustained, but of course he confided nothing of this to the boys.

"You ought to be ashamed of yourselves-- for four of you to pitch on to one weak Mexican! I'm surprised, young gentlemen."

"But-- but-- he ducked us," protested Ned.

"He did nothing of the sort."

"What-- didn't duck us? Guess I know water when I feel it," objected Walter.

"You were ducked, all right, but it is I, not Juan, who am responsible for that."

"You?" questioned the lads all at once.

The Professor nodded, a broad grin on his face.

"But he had the pails."

"I gave them to him, after pouring the water over you. That's what is known as circumstantial evidence, young gentlemen. Let it be a lesson to you to be careful how you convict anyone on that kind of evidence."

"Fellows," glowed Chunky, "we've made a mistake. Let's make it right by ducking the Professor."

The boys looked over Professor Zepplin critically.

"I guess we'd better defer that job till we grow some more," they decided, with a laugh.

The next fifteen minutes were fully occupied in cleaning up and putting on their clothes. They were all thoroughly awake now, with cheeks flushed and eyes sparkling after their violent exercise. The guide had rather sullenly washed off the wet dust that clung to his face and hands.

"Never mind the clothes, Juan," advised Ned. "It'll brush off as soon as it gets dry. We'll take up a contribution to buy you a clothes brush. Ever see one?"

Juan grinned.

"You promise not to gamble the money away if we give it to you?"

"Si."

"Shell out, fellows. Ten cents apiece. That ought to salve his injured feelings."

Ned passed the hat, all contributing.

"That makes forty cents. Here, Professor, you haven't put in your ten yet. It'll take just fifty cents to paste up Juan's injuries."

"That reminds me of a fellow I heard about once," announced Stacy.

"Are you going to tell a story?" questioned Ned.

"If you will keep still long enough," replied Stacy.

"Then me for the bunch grass. It's like going to a funeral to hear Chunky try to tell a story."

"Let him tell it," shouted the lads.

"Go on, Chunky. Never mind Ned. He'll laugh when he gets back to Chillicothe," jibed Walter.

"I heard of a fellow once--"

"Yes; you told us that before," jeered Ned.

"Not the one we ducked in the spring, was it?" grinned Tad.

"Who's telling this story?" demanded Stacy belligerently.

"You are, I guess. I won't interrupt again."

"Well, did I say this fellow was a boy?"

"No."

"Well, he was-- he's grown up now. He rushed into a drug store--"

"Was anything chasing him?" asked Ned innocently.

Stacy gave no heed to the interruption.

"And he said to the man in the store, 'Please, sir, some liniment and some cement?'"

"'What?' asked the clerk all in a muddle. You see, he'd never had a prescription like that to fill before. It made him tired, 'cause he thought the kid was making fun of him."

"'What-- what's the trouble? What do you want liniment and cement for?'

"'Cause,' said the boy to the pill man, ''cause mom hit pop on the head with a plate.'"

For a moment there was silence, then the boys roared. But Ned never smiled.

"Laugh, laugh! Why don't you laugh?" urged Walter.

"Laugh? Huh! I laughed myself almost sick over that a long time ago. Read it in an almanac when I was in short trousers."

"The ponies! The ponies!" cried Juan, rushing up to them, waving his arms, then running his fingers through his long black hair until it stood up like the quills of a porcupine.

"What!" queried the Pony Rider Boys in sudden alarm. "What's the matter with the ponies?"

Juan pointed to the place where the stock had been tethered after they arrived at the camp.

There was not an animal to be seen anywhere on the plain.

"Gone!" gasped the lads, with sinking hearts.

"No, no, no. There!" stammered the guide.

With one accord the boys ran at top speed to the spot indicated by Juan.

There, stretched out in the long grass lay bronchos and burros.

"They're dead, the ponies are dead, every one of them!" cried the lads aghast.