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- The Pony Rider Boys in Montana - 20/37 -
"Why? I joined because I could get more pay. That's why. What you suppose I joined for?"
"I thought perhaps you preferred sheep," answered the lad meekly.
"Like them --like mutton?" snarled Old Hicks, hurling his frying-pan angrily into the chuck wagon. "Between sheep and had Injuns, give me the Injun every time. Why, every time I have to cook one it makes me sick; it does."
"Indians? Do you cook Indians?" asked Stacy, who had been an interested listener to the conversation.
"Wha--wha--cook Indians? No! I cook mutton. What do you take me for?"
"I--I--I didn't know," muttered Stacy meekly. "Thought I heard you say you did."
"You got another think coming," growled the cook, limping away. "Come over here and take a sniff at this kettle?" he called, turning back to Tad.
The lad did so.
"Smells fine, doesn't it?"
"I think so. What is it, mutton?"
"Boiled mutton. I kin smell the wool. Bah."
"Do you cook them with the wool on?" asked Chunky, edging nearer the kettle.
"See here, young man. This here is a bad country to ask fool questions in. Use your eyes and ears. Give your tongue a rest. It'll stop on you some day."
Chunky retired somewhat crestfallen, and from that moment on he kept aloof from the irascible cook, whom he held in wholesome awe.
"Come and get it!" bellowed Old Hicks, who, after prodding about the interior of the kettle with a sharp stick for some time, decided that the hated mutton was ready to be served.
The Pony Riders did not share Hicks's repugnance to mutton. They helped themselves liberally, and even Phil Simms went so far as to pass his plate for a second helping. By the time the meal had been finished twilight was upon them.
The boys, when Professor Zepplin called their attention to the lateness of the hour, made haste to pitch their tents, while Mr. Simms, with Phil and the sheepmen, looked on approvingly.
"You boys go at it like troopers," he smiled. "You'll have to pitch your own, too, after to-day, Philip."
"We'll help him," chorused the boys. "We've got to do something to earn our board," said Ned.
"If we eat all the time the way we have tonight, there won't be many sheep left to graze by the time we've finished the trip," laughed Walter.
"Somebody has to eat the cook's share," interrupted Larue. "What I came over here to ask was whether you boys were intending to take your turns at herding for the next few nights?"
"Of course we are," they answered in one voice. "That's what we are up here for, "added Tad.
"Got any guns?"
"Rifles. Fortunately, they were not in the tent that was set afire by the bear, so they are all right," replied Tad. "However, I'll have to ask the Professor about taking them out. I do not think he will care to have us do so."
"I'll give you each a revolver," announced the foreman.
"Luke, never mind the guns. The boys will do their part by keeping guard. We don't want them to be mixed up in any trouble that may follow. If there is any shooting to be done, we can take care of that, I guess," said Mr. Simms, with a grim smile.
"Yes, I could not think of permitting it," said the Professor firmly; hence it was decided that the lads should go on as they had been doing, leaving the sterner work to those whose business it was to attend to it.
After the darkness had settled over the camp, the boys observed that there were more men present than had been the case when they had their supper.
Mr. Simms explained that they were some men he had sent for to help protect the herd. He had ordered them to report after dark, so that the trouble-makers might know nothing about the increased force. The rancher was determined to teach the cattle men of the free-grass range a lesson they would not soon forget.
"What do you wish us to do?" asked Walter. "We are anxious to get busy."
"I think two of you had better go out for the first half of the night; the other two for the latter half."
"Do we take our ponies?" asked Tad.
"Yes. All of us will ride, excepting the few men who are regularly on guard with the sheep. But you will not move around much. Make no noise and be watchful. That is all we can do."
It was decided that Ned and Walter should take the early trick; Tad and Stacy Brown going out after midnight.
The herders were already attending to their duties. And now Mr. Simms and the foreman having given their orders, the reserve force moved out one at a time until all had disappeared in the darkness. A signal had been agreed upon, so that they might recognize each other in the dark.
The rancher had thrown out his reserve force in the shape of a picket line, located some distance out from the herd and covering a circle something more than a mile in diameter. This was done so that in case of an attack they would have an opportunity to drive off their enemy without great danger to the herd. The battle, more than likely, would be ended before the cowmen could get near enough to the sheep to inflict any damage.
The two boys left camp rather closer together than had the others, as they were to keep in touch during their watch.
In a short time the guards were all placed and a great silence settled over the scene, broken only now and then by the bleating of a lamb that had lost its mother in the darkness.
BUNTED BY A MERINO RAM
The Simms outfit breathed a sigh of relief when daylight came again. There had been nothing more disturbing than Stacy Brown's yawns in the early part of the night.
So persistent had been these that the Professor and Mr. Simms found themselves yawning in sympathy. Old Hicks, who was sitting up to prepare hot coffee for any of the sheepmen who might come in, was affected in a like manner. Had it not been for the presence of the owner of the herd Hicks might have adopted heroic measures to put a stop to Stacy's yawns. As it was, he threatened all sorts of dire things. At breakfast time the cook seemed to be in a far worse humor than ever when he gave the breakfast call.
"Come and get it. And I hope it chokes you!" he bellowed, voicing his displeasure at everything and everybody in general.
Tad rode in as fresh as if he had not had a sleepless vigil. His rest of late had been more or less irregular, but it seemed to have not the slightest effect either on his spirits or his appetite.
All felt the relief from the strain of the night's watching and it was a more sociable company that gathered at the table than had been the case on the previous evening.
"Well, how do you like being a sheepman?" asked Mr. Simms jovially.
"It's better than being lost in the mountains and being shot at by cowmen," averred Tad.
"Perhaps you'll have a chance to enjoy the latter pleasure, still," said Mr. Simms. "I do not delude myself that we are out of danger yet; it may be that they have taken warning and given it up."
"What are the plans for to-day?" asked Ned Rector.
"The herd will graze on, and later in the day we shall move the camp five or six miles up the range. See any Indians last night?"
"No," answered the boys, sobering a little.
"Old Hicks is authority for the statement that they were hovering somewhere near during the night."
"How does he know?" asked Tad.
"You'll have to make inquiry of Hicks himself if you want to find out," laughed the rancher. "Probably the same way that he knows we are talking about him now."
All eyes were directed toward the cook.
Hicks was limping around the mutton kettle, shaking his fist at it and berating it, though in a voice too low for them to hear.
"That's one of your cattle men for you," chuckled Mr. Simms. "I think he would take genuine pleasure in boiling a sheepman in his pot. But he takes the money," added Mr. Simms significantly. "By the way, where's your chum?"
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