Chapter XIII. Preparing for an Attack
 

It was late on the following forenoon when the Pony Rider Boys descended on the Simms ranch, bag and baggage. Larue had relieved one of the herders and sent him back with Tad Butler and Ned Rector, to bring up the rest of the party.

The parlor tent they found had been too badly damaged to be worth carrying along, so they left it where the bear had wrecked it.

"Heard anything from the herd?" was Tad's first question as Mr. Simms came out to greet them.

"We certainly have. They are within three miles of here now. I have given orders to keep them clear of the ranch, and the herders are at work deflecting them to the northward. We shall bed them down about five miles from here to-night. To-morrow we will push on slowly for the grass regions up the state. I have arranged for you to remain at the ranch to-night."

"Oh, no. We prefer to go out and join the herd," objected Tad.

"We most certainly do," added Ned. "That's what we are here for."

"Have you heard anything new?" asked Tad, in a low voice, leaning from his saddle.

"Yes. I heard that the cowmen all through here are stirred up. It isn't any one man or set of men that's doing it. We have received threats from different sources if we allow the sheep to stray from our own ranch," answered Mr. Simms, with serious face.

"And you have decided----?"

"To go on."

"Hello, is this your son, Philip?" asked Tad, as a slender, pale-faced boy came toward them.

"Yes, this is Phil. Come here, Phil and meet my young friends."

The Pony Rider Boys took to the lad at once. He was a manly little fellow, but delicate to the point of being fragile, the lad having only recently recovered from a serious attack of typhoid fever.

"You see what the outdoor life has done for these young gentlemen, Phil," said Mr. Simms. "I shall expect you to come back this fall, looking every bit as well as they do now. All get ready for dinner. It will be served in a few moments. Later in the day, we shall move out on the range. Phil, have you packed up your things?"

"Yes, sir. I'm all ready."

The noon meal was a jolly affair. The herders cooked their own meals out on the range, and after this the boys would eat with them. But to-day they were invited guests in the home of the rancher and hanker. In the meantime Professor Zepplin and Mr. Simms had become interested in each other and already were looking forward to the next few days on the range together, with keen pleasure.

The start was made shortly after three o'clock, the party reaching their destination well before sundown.

The Pony Riders uttered a shout as they descried the white canvas top of the chuck wagon. It was a familiar sight to them. On beyond that was a perfect sea of white backs and bobbing heads, where the great herd was grazing contentedly after its long journey to the free grass of Montana. The boys had never seen anything like it.

The sheep dogs, too, were a source of never-ending interest. The boys watched the intelligent animals, as of their own accord they rounded up a bunch here and there that they had observed straying from the main herd, working the sheep back to their fellows quietly and without in the least appearing to disturb them.

"What kind of sheep is that over there?" asked Chunky, pointing.

"That's no sheep. That's Billy," answered Mr. Simms.

"Who's he?"

"The goat. You've no doubt heard of a bell wether?"

"I have," spoke up Tad.

"That's what Billy is. He leads the sheep. They will follow a leader almost anywhere. In crossing a stream Billy wades in without the least hesitation and they cross right over after him. Otherwise we should have great difficulty in getting them over."

"Oh, yes, I know a goat. Had one once," replied Stacy. "Does he butt?"

"Sometimes. His temper is not what might be called angelic. I suspect the boys have been teasing him pretty well. However, you want to look out for some of those rams. They are ugly and they can easily knock a man down. If you are up early in the morning you will see them at play--you will see what they can do with their tough heads."

"I forgot to tell you," said Larue in a low voice, "that some of the men report having encountered Indians during the day."

"That's nothing new. There are plenty of them around here," laughed the banker.

"They think they were Blackfeet. The reds were so far away, however, that the men could not make certain."

"Off the reservation again, eh? Probably think they can pick up a few sheep. Well, look out for them. If you catch them at any shines just shoot to scare. Don't hit them. We don't want any Government inquiry. I have suspected for a long time that some of them were hiding in the Rosebuds and that the Crow Indians were in league with them. It's only the bad Indians who stray from their reservations, you see," explained Mr. Simms. "We have to be on the lookout for these roving bands all the time or they'd steal all we have."

"I should think you would complain to the Indian agencies," suggested the Professor,

"Doesn't pay. They would take it out of us in a worse way, perhaps. They're a revengeful gang."

One by one the herders came in with their dogs and flocks, rounding the sheep in for the night, having chosen for the purpose a slight depression in the plain. For the first time, the boys had an opportunity to meet the ranchers and compare them with the cattle men they tad known in Texas. They were a hardy lot, taciturn and solemn-faced. The most silent man in the bunch, was Noisy Cooper, who scarcely ever spoke a word unless forced to do so by an insistent question. Bat Coyne had been a cattle man down in Texas, while Mary Johnson --so called because of his pink and white complexion, which no amount of sun or wind could tarnish--was said to have come from the East. He had left there for reasons best known to himself, working on sheep ever since.

It was Old Hicks, however, who interested Tad most. Hicks's first words after being introduced were in apology for being cook on a sheep ranch.

He was limping about, flourishing a frying-pan to accentuate his protests.

"I'm a cowpuncher, I am. Wish I'd never joined this mutton outfit," he growled.

"Then why did you?" asked Tad, smiling broadly.

"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.