Read CHAPTER VI - A TOUCH OF MYSTERY of The Rover Boys at Big Horn Ranch The Cowboys' Double Round-Up , free online book, by Edward Stratemeyer, on ReadCentral.com.

“Now I reckon we are worse off than we were before,” remarked Jack, as the assembled cadets looked at each other in consternation.

“If he cuts off our supper the best thing we can do is to save this grub,” declared Randy.  “We’ll have to go on short rations.”

“And when we feel real hungry we can turn to our school books for consolation,” added his twin brother.  “Gee! but doesn’t this take the cake?” And picking up his algebra he threw it at Phil.  The boy from Texas dodged, and the algebra hit the wall behind him.

“Don’t start a rough-house, Andy,” remonstrated Jack quickly.  “We’re in deep enough as it is.  Please don’t forget that Fred and I are worse off than any of you.”

“How do you make that out?” demanded Gif.

“Because we are officers, and are supposed to be models for the rest of the cadets.”

“Huh!  I forgot that,” said Gif.  “That’s too bad.”

It must be admitted that the cadets were far less cheerful while finishing their meal than they had been a few minutes before.  They ate somewhat sparingly, and placed what was left of the food in an out-of-the-way corner under one of the cots.

“No use of taking chances,” said Jack.  “Duke may come in here and search the closet for rations when he gets the dirty dishes.”

“Well, I suppose we might as well spend our time studying,” came from Spouter presently.  “We’ve got to learn our lessons, no matter if we are prisoners.  Otherwise later on we’ll be marked down for that, too.”

“Too bad that poor Dan had to be caught with that pumpkin pie and cheese,” groaned Randy.  He was particularly fond of the pies turned out by the Hall cooks.

Making themselves as comfortable as they could around the radiator, the seven cadets began to study.  Thus an hour passed, and then came more footsteps in the hall.

“Another visitor,” said Jack, looking up.

When the door was thrown open they expected to see Snopper Duke or one of the other professors, and they were, therefore, much surprised when Colonel Colby stepped into the room.  The master of the Hall was alone.

“Attention!” called Jack sharply - for this had been arranged between the cadets earlier in the day - and thereupon all of the cadets leaped to their feet and saluted.

This action came somewhat as a surprise to the master of the school, and just the faintest flicker of a smile passed over his features.  Then he closed the door behind him and came forward.

“I am very sorry to learn that all of you have been breaking the rules of this institution,” said Colonel Colby, in an even tone of voice.  “Captain Rover, I would like to have your version of the affair if you care to make a report.”

“I don’t know that I can make much of a report, Colonel,” answered the young captain, his face flushing.  “We brought the snowballs into the school, and that is all there is to it.”

“Well, what about sending that big snowball down the stairs on top of Professor Duke?”

“That was an accident, sir, and I was responsible for it,” broke in Andy.

“An accident?  Professor Duke is quite certain it was done by design.”

“He is mistaken, sir,” continued Andy, and then in a few words related exactly how the accident had occurred.

“Well, what about the snowballs that were placed in the rooms of Stowell, Besser, Lunn and in the bathroom?”

“We only meant it for a little fun, Colonel,” pleaded Fred.  “Of course, I realize now that maybe we went a little too far.”

“You certainly did go too far, Lieutenant Rover.  And I am especially surprised to find you and Captain Rover mixed up in anything of this sort.  I expect the officers of the cadets to set a good example.”

“I was thinking you might say that, Colonel Colby,” put in Jack quickly.  “And I should have thought of it before I went into the affair.  But we were having such fun outside snowballing, and like that, that we got deeper into it before we gave it a second thought.”

“And we really didn’t know that we couldn’t bring any snow into the school,” put in Phil rather lamely.

“Such an explanation won’t go here, Franklin.  I expect my students to have more common sense than that.  Of course, it may have been nothing but a boyish prank, and if you can give me your word that the snowball which went down the stairs and hit Professor Duke was not aimed at him deliberately, I shall feel inclined to let the matter pass.”

“Oh, Colonel Colby, will you really do that?” questioned Fred eagerly.

“Please remember we’ve been punished already,” put in Spouter.  “Locked up like a lot of criminals, and the radiator turned off until we almost froze to death!”

“The radiator turned off?” questioned the owner of the school.  “It is hot enough now,” he added, as he placed his hand upon it.

“But it wasn’t before,” answered Gif, and gave the particulars.  As he did this Colonel Colby’s face became a study.

“I will look into that,” he said, and then walked over to one of the cots and also to one of the beds and inspected the thin coverings.  “I trust none of you caught cold?”

“Well, I did catch a little cold,” answered Spouter, and began to cough, for what he said was true.

After this Colonel Colby talked to the cadets for fully ten minutes, trying to show them that what they had done was not what he expected of them.  He was kind almost to the point of being fatherly, and made several remarks which caused the boys to do considerable thinking.

“I am afraid some of you lads do not like Professor Duke,” said he.  “I am afraid you consider him rather quick-tempered and irritable.”

“Well, he certainly isn’t as nice as most of the other teachers,” declared Randy flatly.

“He always seems to be waiting for a chance to get in on a fellow,” broke out Fred.  “In some ways he’s even worse than Asa Lemm was.”

“But he’s a splendid teacher, I will say that for him,” declared Jack.  “Only, the way he sometimes jumps on a fellow is terrible.”

“I shouldn’t like to have you boys compare Professor Duke with that scalawag, Asa Lemm,” declared Colonel Colby.  “Lemm had a good education - if he hadn’t had I should not have engaged him to teach here - but he was not the honest and upright man Snopper Duke is.  I will admit that at times he is quick-tempered, but, believe me, boys, he has good reasons for it - or, at least, there is quite some excuse for his acting that way at times.  I do not feel like discussing his personal affairs with you, but you will be doing a real act of kindness if at times you don’t notice his actions when he seems rather sharp.  I am quite sure he doesn’t always mean it.”

“Well, of course, if there’s some reason - ” began Jack.

“There is quite a reason, Captain Rover.  But, as I said before, I do not care to discuss Professor Duke’s personal affairs further.  Only, if I were one of you boys, I should go very slow in judging him.  And now to come back to this present affair:  I have had a talk with Professor Duke and I will have another talk this evening, and, all told, I think you have been punished enough.  So we will call the matter off and you can return to your classrooms.”

“Thank you very much, Colonel Colby,” cried Jack, and, starting forward, he offered his hand, and the master of the school shook it warmly.  Then all of the other cadets came forward to do likewise.

“I hope you won’t punish those other fellows for getting some extra food up to us,” said Fred, as he and Andy brought out the hidden things and placed them on one of the trays.  “They only tried to do us a good turn.”

“You may rest assured, Rover, that I shall treat them only as they deserve,” answered Colonel Colby, and led the way downstairs.  Here the cadets separated, each to pay a brief visit to his own room before going down to the classrooms on the lower floor.

“I wonder what Colonel Colby meant when he said Duke had reasons for being irritable?” remarked Randy.

“I don’t know, I’m sure,” answered Jack thoughtfully.

“Maybe he’s suffering from some sickness,” suggested Fred.  “Perhaps he ought to have an operation and hates to have it done.”

“Maybe he’s worried about money matters,” came from Randy.

“It was certainly something worth while or Colonel Colby wouldn’t have been so serious about it,” said Fred.  “Gee!  I’m sorry if I misjudged him, if there is really something wrong.”

“I don’t believe Colonel Colby would caution us if it wasn’t so,” said Jack.  “And after this I’m going to give Duke as much consideration as I possibly can.”

The boys had been told to go to their classrooms, but this was hardly necessary, for they had just about presented themselves when the afternoon session of the school came to an end.  Then they followed some of their friends down to the gymnasium, where they were at once surrounded and asked to give the particulars of what had happened to them.

“It wasn’t a great deal,” said Jack.  “And first of all I want to know what was done to Dan and the others.”

“Oh, Colonel Colby read us a little lecture, that’s all,” answered Walt Baxter, one of the cadets.  “He told us we had no right to take any of the food without asking for it.”

“I offered to pay for it,” put in Ned Lowe, “and so did Dan.  But the colonel said that wasn’t the point.  That he wanted the discipline of the Hall maintained.”

“Did he say anything about Professor Duke?” questioned Fred.

“Not a word.”

“Well, he told us something,” continued the youngest Rover, and then related what had been said on the subject.

“Say, that squares with something I once heard,” cried Walt Baxter.  “I met Professor Duke down at the barn one day where he was waiting to have Nixon drive him down to town.  The professor was walking around, wringing his hands and muttering to himself.  He looked all out of sorts, and he said something that sounded to me like ’I don’t see how I can do it!  I don’t see how I can really attempt it!’”

“And what do you suppose it was that bothered him, Walt?” questioned Jack curiously.

“I’m sure I don’t know.  I watched him walk up and down and wring his hands.  And then he took a notebook out of his pocket and began to study some of the figures in it.  Then Nixon came along with the auto, and he jumped in and rode off.”

“Well, that sure is a mystery,” declared Randy.

This news concerning Snopper Duke gradually spread throughout the school, and many of the boys watched the teacher curiously.  In the meantime Colonel Colby had a conference, not only with Duke, but also with Professor Grawson; and when the classes opened the next day Jack and the others found themselves treated just as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred.

“Colonel Colby said he would let the matter pass, and I guess he’s going to keep his word,” remarked Fred.

There was only one boy who remained troubled, and that was Codfish.  He avoided the Rovers and the others as much as possible, often running away at the sight of them.

“Codfish is just about scared stiff,” remarked Randy.  “He knows he got himself in wrong.”

“What a poor fish he is,” answered his twin.

On Saturday afternoon a number of the boys obtained permission to visit the town and attend the moving picture performance if they so desired.  Jack had telephoned to his sister, and Martha had answered that probably a number of girls from Clearwater Hall would be in town at the same time.

“And I’ve got something to tell you, too, Jack,” said Martha over the wire.  “Something I’m sure you’ll be interested in hearing.”

“Why don’t you tell me now?” he replied.

“Oh, this isn’t something to tell over a public telephone,” his sister answered.

The snowstorm had come to an end, and it was clear and bright overhead when the four Rovers and some of the others tramped to Haven Point.  Here, at the railroad station, they met Martha and Mary, and also Ruth Stevenson, May Powell, and several other girls from the academy.

“How are your eyes feeling, Ruth?” questioned Jack anxiously, as he walked side by side with the girl on the way to the moving picture theater.  As my old readers know, Ruth had once suffered dreadfully through getting some pepper into her eyes, and it had been feared that she might go blind.

“Oh, my eyes are quite all right again, Jack,” answered the girl.  “Sometimes they feel the least bit scratchy.  But I bathe them with a solution the doctor gave me and then they feel quite natural.”

“I’m mighty glad to hear that,” Jack returned warmly.  For of all the girls who were friends of his sister he liked Ruth the best.

As luck would have it, there was a very good show on that afternoon, and as a consequence a crowd had assembled to obtain tickets of admission.  Randy went ahead to get all the tickets needed, and while he did this Martha plucked her brother by the coat sleeve and drew him a little to one side.

“What’s this you’ve got to tell me, Martha?” questioned the young captain in a whisper.

“It’s about a fellow at your school - a chap named Lester Bangs,” replied the girl.

“Oh, you mean the fellow we call Brassy Bangs!  What about him?”

“He and one or two of his particular chums have been up to Clearwater Hall three times.  They took some of the girls out in a sleigh they hired, and that Bangs did his level best to get Ruth to go along.  And now he has invited her to attend some kind of a party next week,” was Martha’s reply, words which for some reason he could not explain even to himself cut Jack to the heart.