Chapter I. Fitting Out for the Journey
 

"Forsythe!" announced the trainman in a loud voice.

"That is where we get off, is it not!" asked Tad Butler.

"Yes, this is the place," answered Professor Zepplin.

"I don't see any place," objected Stacy Brown, peering from the car window. "Where is it?"

"You'll see it in a minute," said Walter Perkins.

"Chunky, we are too busy to bother answering all your silly questions. Why don't you get a railroad guide? Town's on the other side. It's one of those one-sided towns. Use your eyes more and your tongue less," added Ned Rector impatiently.

With this injunction, Ned rose and began pulling his belongings from the rack over his head, which action was followed by the three other boys in the party. Professor Zepplin had already risen and was walking toward the car door.

The Northern Pacific train on which they were riding, came to a slow, noisy stop. From it, alighted the four boys, sun-burned, clear-eyed and springy of step. They were clad in the regulation suits of the cowboy, the faded garments giving evidence of long service on the open plains.

Accompanying the lads was a tall, athletic looking man, his face deeply bronzed from exposure to wind, sun and storm, his iron gray beard standing out in strong contrast, giving to his sun burned features a ferocious appearance that was not at all in keeping with the man's real nature.

A man dressed in a neat business suit, but wearing a broad brimmed sombrero stepped up to the boys without the least hesitation, the moment they reached the platform.

"Are you the Pony Rider Boys?" he asked smilingly.

"We are, sir," replied Tad, lifting his hat courteously.

"Glad to know you, young man. I am Mr. Simms the banker here. I was requested by banker Perkins of Chillicothe, Missouri, to meet you young gentlemen. Funds for your use while here are deposited in my bank ready for your order. Where is Professor--Professor----"

"Zepplin?"

"Yes, that's the name." "This is he," Tad informed him, introducing the Professor.

"If you and the young men will come up to the bank we will talk matters over. I would ask you to my house, but my family is spending the summer at my ranch out near Gracy Butte."

"It is just as well," said the Professor. "We are not exactly up here on a social mission. The boys are crowding all the time possible into their life during their vacation. I presume they are anxious to get started again."

Leaving their baggage at the railroad station, the party set off up the street with the banker, to make final arrangements for the journey to which they looked forward with keen anticipation.

Readers of this series will remember how, in "The Pony Rider Boys in the Rockies," the four lads set off on horseback to spend part of their summer vacation in the mountains. The readers will remember too, the many thrilling experiences that the boys passed through on that eventful trip, between hunting big game in hand to hand conflict, fighting a real battle with the bad men of the mountains, and how in the end they discovered and took possession of the Lost Claim.

Readers will also remember how the lads next joined in a cattle drive, and their adventures and exciting trip across the plains in "The Pony Rider Boys in Texas."

It will be recalled that on this expedition they became cowboys in reality, living the life of the cattle men, sharing their duties and their hardships, participating in wild, daring night rides, facing appalling storms, battling with swollen torrents, bravely facing many perils, and tow eventually Tad Butler and his companions solved the Veiled Riddle of the Plains, thus bringing great happiness to others as well as keen satisfaction to themselves.

After having completed their eventful trip in Texas, the boys had expressed a desire to next make a trip of exploration to the north country. Arrangements had therefore been made by the father of Walter Perkins for a journey into the wilder parts of Montana.

None of the details, however, had been decided upon. The boys felt that they were now experienced enough to be allowed to make their own arrangements, always, of course, with the approval of their companion, Professor Zepplin.

As a result they arrived in Forsythe one hot July day, about noon. Their ponies had been shipped home, the little fellows having become a bit too docile to suit the tastes of the lads, who had been riding bucking bronchos during their trip on a cattle drive in southern Texas. They knew they would have little difficulty in finding animals to suit them up in the grazing country.

"And now what are your plans, young men?" smiled the hanker, after all had taken seats in his office in the rear of the bank.

The lads waited for Professor Zepplin to speak.

"Tell Mr. Simms what you have in mind," he urged.

"We had thought of going over the old Custer trail," spoke up Walter.

"Where, down in the Black Hills?"

"No, not so far down as that. We should like to go over the trail he followed and visit the scene of his last battle and get a little mountain trip as well----"

"Are there any mountains around here?" asked Stacy innocently.

Mr. Simms laughed, in which he was joined by the boys.

"My lad, there's not much else up here. You'll find all the mountains you want and some that you will not want----"

"Any Indians?" asked Chunky.

"State's full of them."

"Good Indians, of course," nodded the Professor.

"Well, you know the old saying that 'the only good Indian is a dead Indian.' They're good when they have to be. We have very little trouble with the Crows, but sometimes the Black feet and Flat Heads get off their reservations and cause us a little trouble."

Chunky was listening with wide open eyes. "I--I don't like Indians," he stammered. "None of us are overfond of them, I guess. Since you arrived I have been thinking of something that may interest you."

"We are in your hands," smiled the Professor.

"As I said a short time ago, I have a ranch out near Gracy Butte."

"Cattle?" asked Tad, with quickened interest.

"No, sheep. I have another up on the Missouri River. I am getting in five thousand more sheep that some of my men are bringing in on a drive. They should be along very shortly now."

"You deal in large numbers in this country," smiled the Professor.

"Yes, we have to if we expect to make a profit. I intend to send these five thousand new sheep to the Missouri River ranch. It will be a long, hard drive and we shall need some extra men. How would you boys like to join the outfit and go through with them? I promise you you will get all the outdoor life you want."

"Well, I don't know," said Tad doubtfully. "I don't just like sheep."

Mr. Simms laughed.

"You've been with a cattle outfit. I can see that. You have learned to hate sheep and for no reason--no good reason whatever. Sheep are a real pleasure to manage. Besides, they are wholesome, intelligent little animals. The cattle men resent their being on the range for the reason that the sheep crop down the grass so close that the cattle are unable to get enough. They try to drive us off."

"By what right?" interrupted the Professor.

"Right of strength, that's all. On free grass we have as much right as the cattle men. Have you your own ponies?"

"No; we expect to purchase some here. Can you recommend us to a ranch where we can fit ourselves out? We have our saddles and camp outfit, of course," said Tad.

"Yes; I'll take you out to my brother's ranch just outside the town. He has some lively little bronchos there. He won't ask you any fancy price, either. If you buy, why, you can give him an order on my bank and I will settle with him. You know you have funds here for your requirements. What do you say to the sheep idea?"

"Will you let us think it over, Mr. Simms!" asked Walter.

"Why, certainly. You will have plenty of time to visit the Rosebud Mountains as well. I have arranged for a guide. You will find him at the edge of the foothills where he lives. You can't miss him. When do you plan to start?" asked the banker.

"We thought we should like to get away today," replied Tad.

"I see you are not losing any time, young men. We may be able to fix you up so you can start this afternoon. You will want to camp out, I imagine, and not make the journey in one day."

"Oh, yes, we are used to that," interjected Ned. "We have slept out of doors so long now that we should not feel comfortable in a real bed."

"I understand. I have been a cowboy as well as sheepman, and have spent many weeks on the open range. It was different then," he added reminiscently. "We will drive out to my brother's ranch now, if you are ready."

The boys rose instantly. They were looking forward to having their new ponies, with keen anticipation.

After a short drive they reached the ranch, and a herd of half wild ponies was driven into a corral where the lads might look them over and make their choice.

"I think that little bay there, with the pink eyes "will suit me," decided Tad. "Is he saddle broken?"

"After a fashion, yes. He's been out a few times. But he's full of ginger," announced the cowboy who was showing the horses to them.

"That's what I want. Don't like to have to use the spur to keep my mount from going to sleep," laughed the boy.

"You won't need the irons to keep this pony awake or yerself either."

"You may give me the most gentle beast on the premises," spoke up the Professor. "I have had quite enough of wild horses and their pranks," a speech at which the boys all laughed heartily.

"Me too," agreed Chunky.

"You'll take what you get. You couldn't stay on any kind of horse for long at a time. Why, you'd fall off one of those wooden horses that they have in harness shops," announced Ned Rector witheringly.

"I can ride as well as you can," retorted the fat boy, looking his tormentor straight in the eyes.

"Chunky means business when he looks at you that way," laughed Walter. "Better keep away from him, Ned."

"Think I'll take the pink-eyed one," decided Tad. "Pink-eye. That will be a good name for him. Got a rope?"

"Yes, kin you rope him?"

"I'll try if you will stir them up a bit," answered the freckle-faced boy.

"You might as well pick out our ponies, too," observed the Professor. "You are the only one of our party who is a competent judge of horse flesh."

Tad nodded. His rope was held loosely in his hand, the broad loop lying on the ground a few feet behind him, while the cowboy began milling the biting, kicking animals about the corral.

Now Pink-eye's head was raised above the back of his fellows so that Tad got a good roping sight. The lariat began curving in the air, then its great loop opened, shot out and dropped neatly over the head of the pink-eyed pony. Tad drew it taut before it settled to the animal's shoulder, at the same time throwing his full weight on the rawhide.

He would have been equally successful in trying to hold a steam engine. Before the lad had time to swing the line and throw the pony from its feet, the muscular little animal had leaped to one side.

The sudden jerk hurled the boy through the air.

"Look out!" warned the cowboy.

His warning came too late.

Tad was thrown with great force full against the heels of another broncho.

"He'll be killed!" cried Professor Zepplin.

Up went the pony's hind feet and with them Tad Butler. The pony came down as quickly as it had gone up, but Tap kept on going. He had been near the wire corral when he was jerked against the animal's feet.

The pony kicked a clean goal and Tad was projected over the wire fence, landing in a heap several feet outside the corral.

The lad was on his feet almost instantly. When they saw that be had not been seriously injured the boys set up a defiant yell.

"Hurt you any?" grinned the cowboy.

"Only my pride," answered Tad, with a sheepish smile. "I never had that happen to me before."

"Other ponies got in your way so you couldn't throw your rope down on the pink-eyed one and trip him. I'll get him out for you."

"You will do nothing of the sort. I can rope my own stock."

After having obtained another lariat, Tad, not deeming it wise to attempt to try to pick up the rope that the animal was dragging about the corral, once more took his station, while the cowman began milling them around the enclosure by sundry shouts and prods.

There was much kicking and squealing.

"Now cut him out!" shouted Tad.

The cowboy did so. Pink-eye was beating a tattoo in the air with his heels. He was occupying a little open space all by himself at that moment.

The rope again curled through the air. Tad gave it a quick undulating motion after feeling the pull on the pony's neck, and the next moment the little animal fell heavily to his side.

"Woof!" said the pony.

"Come out of here!" commanded the lad, jerking the animal to its feet and starting for the exit.

The pink-eyed broncho followed its new master out as if he had been doing so every day for a long time.

Tad picked out a spotted roan for Stacy Brown, to which he gave the appropriate name of "Painted-squaw". Bad-eye, was considered an appropriate name for Ned Rector's broncho, while Walter drew a dapple gray which he decided to call Buster.

After choosing a well broken animal for the Professor, and picking out a suitable pack horse, the boys announced that they were ready for the start. An hour or so was spent in getting provisions enough to last them for a few days, all of which, together with their camp equipment, was strapped to the backs of the ponies.

It was now three o'clock in the afternoon. Ahead of them was a thirty mile journey over an unknown trail.

"I think we had better have a guide to take us out to the foothills until we shall have found our permanent guide," said the Professor.

"No, please don't," urged Tad.

"We are plainsmen enough now to he able to find our own way," added Ned. "It's a clear trail. We can see the Rosebud Range from here. That's it over there, isn't it, Mr. Simms?"

"Yes," replied the banker. "All you will have to do will be to get your direction by your compass before you start, and hold to it. You will not be able to see the mountains all the time, as the country is rolling and there are numerous buttes between here and there."

"Any Indians?" asked Stacy apprehensively.

"You may see some, but they will not bother you," laughed the banker. "I shall hope to have you all spend next Sunday with us at my ranch; then we can discuss our plans for your joining my outfit."

"How far is it from where we are bound?" asked the Professor.

"Not more than twenty miles. Just a few hours' ride."

Filled with joyful anticipations the little party set out, headed for the mountain ranges that lay low in the southwest, some thirty miles distant. Contrary to their usual practice, they had taken no cook with them, having decided to rely wholly on their own resources for a time at least, which they felt themselves safe in doing after their many experiences thus far on their summer vacation.

The little western village was soon left behind them. Turning in their saddles, they found that it had sunk out of sight. They could not tell behind which of the endless succession of high and low buttes the town was nestling. Tad consulted his compass, after which the lads faced the southwest and pressed cheerfully on.

The Pony Rider Boys were fairly started now on what was to prove the most exciting and eventful journey of their lives.