Chapter IX. The Midnight Alarm
 

"What's this, what's this?" demanded the Professor, striding up.

"Look! Look! The ponies are dead!" exclaimed Ned excitedly.

"What do you suppose could have happened to them?" stammered Walter.

"Is it possible? What's the meaning of this, guide?"

Juan shrugged his shoulders and showed his white teeth.

In the meantime Tad had hurried to his own pony, and was down on his knees examining it. Placing his hands on the animal's side, he remained in that position for an instant, then sprang up.

"They're not dead, fellows! They're alive!"

"Asleep," grumbled Ned disgustedly.

"But there's something the matter with them. Something has happened to the stock," added Tad.

"Only a false alarm," nodded Stacy.

"Think so? Try to wake your pony up," advised Tad.

Stacy had already hurried to his own broncho, and now began tugging at the bridle rein, with sundry pokes in the animal's ribs.

"I can't. He's in a trance," wailed Stacy, considerably startled.

That expression came nearer to describing the condition of the stock than any other words could have done.

"Guide, what do you know about this?" questioned the Professor. "Has some one been tampering with our animals?"

Juan shrugged his shoulders with an air of indifference.

"No bother bronchs."

"Then will you please tell us what is the matter with them?"

"Sleepy grass!"

"Sleepy grass?" chorused the lads.

"Of course they're asleep all right," added Ned. "But whoever heard of sleepy grass?"

"He means they're sleeping on the grass," Stacy informed them.

"Ah! I begin to understand," nodded the Professor. "I think I know what the trouble is now. The guide is no doubt right."

The boys gathered around him, all curiosity.

"Tell us about it, Professor. We are very much mystified?" said the Pony Riders.

"A long time ago I remember to have read, somewhere, of a certain grass in this region that possessed peculiar narcotic properties--"

"What's narcotic?" interrupted Stacy.

"Something that makes you go to sleep when you can't," explained Tad Butler, rather ambiguously.

"When eaten by horses or cattle it is said to put them into deep sleep. The Rockefeller Institute, I believe, is already making an analytical test of the grass."

"Please talk so I can understand it," begged Stacy.

"Yes; those words make my head ache," scowled Ned. "Even the guide is making up faces in his effort to understand."

"He does understand. He understands only too well. For many years this grass has been known. Cows turned out for the day would fail to return at night--"

"To be milked," interjected Stacy.

"And an investigation would disclose them sleeping in some region, where the sleepy grass grew

And the fat boy hummed:

"Down where the sleepy grass is growing."

"Travelers who have tied out their horses in patches of the grass for the night have been unable to continue their journey until the animals recovered from their strange sleep. Thus the properties of the grass became known."

"Indians use 'em to tame bad bronchos," the guide informed them.

"Just so."

"But, when will they wake up?" questioned Tad.

"Mebby sun-up to-morrow," answered Juan, glancing up at the sky.

"What, sleep twenty-four hours?" demanded Ned.

"Si."

"Preposterous."

"Then, then, we've got to remain here all the rest of the afternoon and night-- is that it?" demanded Tad.

"It looks that way."

"And you knew about this stuff, Juan?" questioned Tad.

"Si."

"Well, you're a nice sort of a guide, I must say."

"You ought to be put off the reservation," threatened Stacy, shaking a menacing fist in front of the white teeth.

In the meantime, Tad had gone over to the animals again, and, taking them in turn, sought to stir them up. He found he could not do so. The ponies' heads would drop to the ground after he had lifted and let go of them, just as if the animals were dead.

"Gives you a creepy feeling, doesn't it?" shivered Walter.

"I should say it does," answered Ned.

"Well, what is it, Chunky?" asked Tad, who observed that Stacy had something on his mind that he was trying to formulate into words.

"I've got an idea, fellows," he exploded.

"Hold on to it, then. You may never get another," jeered Ned.

"What is it, Master Stacy?" asked the Professor.

"Then-- then-- then-- that's what Juan and his burro have been eating all the time. I knew there was something the matter with them."

A loud laugh greeted the fat boy's suggestion.

"Guess he's about right, at that," grinned Tad.

"A brilliant thought," agreed the Professor. "Boys, I must have some of that grass. I shall make some experiments with it."

"Experiment on Chunky," they shouted.

"No; he sleeps quite well enough as it is," smiled the Professor.

"I want some of it too-- no, not to eat," corrected the fat boy. "I'll feed it to my aunt's cat when I get back; then he won't be running away from home every night."

"Better unload the rest of the equipment, boys," advised the Professor. "If we must remain here all night we might as well make the best of it."

Without their ponies, the lads spent rather a restless afternoon. They had not fully realized before how much a part of them their horses had become until they were suddenly deprived of them.

In the meantime, the bronchos slept on undisturbed.

"I've got another idea," shouted Stacy.

"Keep it to yourself," growled Ned. "Your ideas, like your jokes, graduated a long time ago."

"Is there sleepy grass in the Catskill Mountains!" persisted Stacy.

"We don't know, and we don't--"

"I know there is, and that's what put Rip Van Winkle to sleep for twenty years," shouted the fat boy in high glee. "See, I know more than--"

"Yes; you're the original boy wonder. We'll take that for granted," nodded Ned Rector.

Tad, however, was not inclined to look upon their enforced delay with anything like amusement. To him it had its serious side. He had not forgotten that they had been fleeing from the Indians. When he got an opportunity to do so, without his companions overhearing, he approached the Professor.

"I think it would be a good plan for us to have a guard over our camp to-night."

"On account of?"

"Yes."

"Very well; I think myself that it would be a prudent move. Have Juan sit up, then."

"No, he's a sleepy bead. Suppose we boys take turns?"

"Very well; arrange it to suit yourselves. I presume we ought to do something of the sort every night. It might have saved us some trouble on our Ozark journey had we been that prudent. Arrange it to suit you. I'll take my turn

"No; we can do it, Professor. You go to bed as usual. We'll draw lots to see who takes the different watches. With the four of us we'll have to take only two hours apiece. That won't be bad at all."

The other boys, after the plan had been explained to them, entered into it enthusiastically. Walter was to take the first trick, Ned the next, Chunky the third and Tad the fourth.

And they were to take their guns out with them. The Professor agreed to this, now that they had become more familiar with firearms. As a matter of fact, all the boys had developed into excellent marksmen, though Tad was recognized as the best shot of the party.

Professor Zepplin, during the afternoon, gave each of them a lesson in revolver shooting, using for the purpose, his heavy army revolver. They did pretty well with this weapon, but, of course, were not nearly as expert with it as with the rifle.

Evening came and the stock was still sleeping soundly. There was nothing the boys could do but let them sleep, though the fact of all the ponies and burros lying about as if dead began to make the Pony Riders nervous. Night came, and with it semi-darkness, the moon being overcast with a veil of fleecy white clouds, which cast a grayish film over the landscape. The lads joked each other about having the "creeps," but none would admit the charge.

Walter, with rifle slung over his right shoulder, went out on the first watch with instructions to go at least two hundred yards from camp and keep walking around the camp in a circle. This would protect them from surprises on all sides. Ned decided not to retire until he had taken his guard trick, in view of the fact that he was to go on at eleven o'clock. But Stacy, proposing to get all the sleep he was entitled to, turned in early. The rest did not disturb him. The boys were unusually quiet that evening, perhaps feeling that the responsibility of the safety of the camp rested wholly upon their youthful shoulders.

Ned came in at one o'clock, after having taken his turn, unslung his rifle, drew the cartridges then put them back in the magazine again.

"I might need them before morning," he told himself.

Chunky being sound asleep, Ned grabbed him by a foot giving him a violent pull.

"Wat'cher want? Get out!" growled the fat boy sleepily.

"Get up and take your watch!" commanded Ned.

"Who's afraid of Indians?" mumbled Stacy.

This time Ned took the lad by the collar, jerked him to his feet and shook him until Stacy yelled "Ouch!" so loudly as to awaken the entire camp.

It took some time, however, to get Stacy himself awake sufficiently to make him understand that he had a duty to perform. Finally, however, he shouldered his rifle, after surreptitiously helping himself to a sandwich from the cook tent. Then be marched off, munching the bread and meat.

"See here," snapped Ned, running after him. "You're not measuring off your distance. Come back and pace it off."

"How many?"

"Two hundred yards. Stretch your fat legs as far as they'll go, then you'll have a yard, more or less."

Stacy started all over again, forgot the count, came back, then tried it again. Even at that he was not sure whether he had gone one hundred yards or five.

He was awake enough, now, to observe his surroundings. The cool breezes of the night were tossing the leaves of the cottonwoods near the water course to the west of them, while here and there in the foliage might be heard the exultant notes of a mocking bird.

Stacy shivered.

"Guess it's going to freeze to-night," he decided, beginning his steady tramp about the camp of the Pony Rider Boys.

Muttering to himself, as was his habit when alone, Stacy kept on until finding himself opposite the ponies, he decided to go over and look at them. All were asleep. Not one had awakened since going down under the powerful influence of the "sleepy grass."

"I'd like to eat some of that stuff myself, right now," Chunky decided out loud. "I'd have a good excuse for going to sleep then. Now I can't without getting jumped on by the fellows. Wonder what time it is-- only half-past one. Must be something the matter with my watch. I know I've been out more'n two hours."

This trip he circled out further from the camp, growing a little more confident because nothing had happened to disturb him.

In the meantime the camp slept in peace-- that is, the lads did until nearly time for the change of guard. Then the whole party was aroused with the sudden, startling conviction that something serious had happened.

All at once the crack of a rifle sounded on the still night air. It was followed by another shot, and another, until four distinct reports had rolled across the plains.

In wild disorder the Pony Rider Boys tumbled from their cots, and, grasping their weapons, leaped from the tents.

"What's the row?" inquired the Professor.

"Wow! Wow! Wow! Yeow!" shrieked a shrill voice to the northward.

"It's Chunky. He's giving the alarm! We're attacked!" cried the lads.

Bang ! Bang!

They saw the flash of the fat boy's weapon before the report reached their ears.

A moment later the other boys caught sight of Stacy dashing into camp, hatless, waving his rifle and yelling as if bereft of his senses.

"What is it? What is it?" cried the boys with one voice.

"Indians! Indians! The prairie's full of them!"