Chapter II. A View of the Promised Land
 

For nearly three days the Pony Rider Boys had been taking their ease in a Pullman sleeping car, making great inroads on the food served in the dining car.

It had been a happy journey. The boys were full of anticipation of what was before them. At intervals during the day they would study their maps and enter into long discussions with Professor Zepplin, the grizzled, stern-looking man who in so many other journeys had been their guardian and faithful companion. The Professor had joined them at St. Louis, where the real journey had commenced.

All that day they had been racing over baked deserts, a cloud of dust sifting into the car and making life miserable for the more tender passengers, though the hardy Pony Riders gave no heed to such trivial discomforts as heat and dust. They were used to that sort of thing. Furthermore, they expected, ere many more days had passed, to be treated to discomforts that were real.

Suddenly the train dashed from the baked desert into a green forest. The temperature seemed to drop several degrees in an instant. Everyone drew a long breath, faces were pressed against windows and expressions of delight were heard in many parts of the sleeper.

They had entered a forest of tall pines, so tall that the lads were obliged to crane their necks to see the tops.

"This is the beginning of the beginning," announced Professor Zepplin somewhat enigmatically. "This is the forest primeval."

"I don't know," replied Chunky, peering through a car window. "It strikes me that we've left the evil behind and got into the real thing."

"What is it, Professor?" asked Tad Butler.

"As I have said, it is a primeval forest. This great woodland stretches away from the very base of the San Francisco mountains southward for a distance of nearly two hundred miles. We are taking a short cut through it and should reach Flagstaff in about an hour from now."

"Hurrah! We're going to see the Flagstaff in an hour," cried Stacy, his face wreathed in smiles.

"A further fact, which is no doubt unknown to you, is that this enormous forest covers an area of over ten thousand square miles, and contains six million, four hundred thousand acres."

The boys uttered exclamations of amazement and wonder.

"If you'd said ten acres, I'd understand you better," replied Stacy. "I never could think in such big figures. I'm like a rich fellow in our town, who doesn't know what money is above a certain sum."

"Well, what about it?" demanded Tad.

"Up to fifty dollars, he knows how much it is, but for anything above that it's a check," finished Chunky, looking about him expectantly.

No one laughed.

"Speaking of checks," said Ned Rector after an interval of silence, "did you bring along that snaffle bit, Tad?"

"What snaffle bit?"

"The one we were going to put on Stacy Brown to hold him in check?"

A series of groans greeted Ned's words. Chunky grumbled something about making a checker board of Ned's face if he didn't watch out, after which the Professor turned the rising tide into other and safer channels by continuing his lecture on the great Arizona forest.

As the train dashed on the Pony Riders were greeted with occasional views of a mountain differing from anything they ever had seen. One peak especially attracted their attention. Its blackened sides, and its summit bathed in a warm glow of yellow sunshine, gave it a most striking appearance.

"What is it, Professor?" asked Tad, with an inquiring gaze and nod toward the mountain.

"Sunset Mountain," answered Professor Zepplin. "You should have discovered that."

"But it isn't sunset," objected Walter.

"It is always sunset there. The effect is always a sunset effect."

"In the night, too!" questioned Chunky.

"No, it's moonset then," scoffed Rector.

"In the same direction you will observe the others of the San Francisco mountains. However, we shall have more of this later on. For the present you would do well to gather up Your belongings, for we shall be at our journey's end in a few minutes."

This announcement caused the boys to spring up, reaching to the racks above for such of their luggage as had been stowed there. All was bustle for the next twenty minutes. Then the train drew into the station, the cars covered with the dust of the desert, changing the dark brown of their paint to a dirty gray.

The boys found that they had arrived at a typical western town, a tree-surrounded, mountain-shadowed, breeze-blown place set like a gem in a frame of green and gold, nestling, it seemed, at the very base of the towering peaks of the San Francisco mountains, whose three rough volcanic peaks stood silent sentinel over the little community clustered at their base.

The railroad track lined one side of the main street, while business blocks and public houses were ranged on the opposite side. Here the garb of the Pony Riders failed to attract the same attention that it had done further east. There were many others on the station platform whose clothes and general get-up were similar to those of the boys.

But as they descended from the sleeping car, their arms full of their belongings, each carrying a rifle in a case, they caught sight of a man who instantly claimed their attention. He was fully sixty years old, standing straight as a tree and wearing a soft black felt hat, a white shirt and a wing collar. From his chin, extend almost back to the ears, there stood a growth of white bristling whiskers. As he tilted his head backward in an apparent effort to stand still more erect, the whiskers stood out almost at right angles, giving him a most ferocious appearance.

Tad felt a tug at his sleeve. He turned to find the big eyes of Chunky Brown gazing up into his face.

"Is that the Wild Man of the Canyon?" whispered Stacy.

"I don't know. He looks as if he might be a Senator, or-----"

"Any of you boys know where we can find Jim Nance?" interrupted the Professor.

"I reckon we do," drawled a cowboy.

"Well?" urged the Professor somewhat irritably.

"Wal?" answered the cowboy.

"Will you please tell us where we may find him, pardner?" spoke up Tad, observing how the land lay and wishing to head off friction.

"I reckon that's him," answered the cowboy, pointing to the straight, athletic figure of the old man.

Tad grinned at Chunky.

"That's our guide, Bub."

"He looks fierce enough to be a man eater."

"I'm afraid of him," whispered Stacy. "He's mysterious looking, too; like the Canyon."

Professor Zepplin strode up to the old man.

"Mr. Nance, I believe."

"Y-a-a-s," drawled the old man.

The Professor introduced himself, then one by one called the boys up and presented them, the old man gazing keenly with twinkling, searching eyes into the face of each one presented to him. Chunky said "ouch" when Nance squeezed his hand, then backed off.

"This is Mr. Nance, the gentleman who is to be our guide," announced Professor Zepplin.

"We're all glad to see you, Mr. Nance," chorused the Pony Riders.

"Ain't all tenderfeet, eh?" quizzed the guide.

"No, not exactly. They have been out for some time. They are pretty well used to roughing it," declared the Professor.

"Good idea. They'll think they haven't before they get through with the old Grand."

"How about our ponies?" asked Tad. "Have you engaged them?"

"You pick 'em out. I'll take yon to corral after you've had your dinner."

All hands walked across the street to a hotel, where they sat down to the first satisfying meal they had eaten since leaving home.

"This beats the spirit meals we've been having on board the train," announced Stacy, his eyes roving longingly over the heaped up dishes.

"Don't lick your chops," cautioned Ned. "There are some polite folks here, as you can see.

"What's that you said about spirit meals?" quizzed the guide after they had gotten started with their dinner.

"The kind a fellow I knew used to make for his men on the farm," answered Stacy promptly.

"Tell us about it. I never heard you mention it," urged Tad.

"He fed his men mostly on spirit soup. Ever hear of spirit soup?"

"I never did. Any of you boys ever hear of spirit soup?"

The Pony Riders shook their heads. They were not particularly interested in Chunky's narration. Ned frowned and went on with his dinner.

"Well, this fellow used to make it. He had barrels of the stuff, and-----"

"How is the chuck made?" demanded Jim Nance.

"I'll tell you. To make spirit soup you catch a snipe. Then you starve him to death. Understand?"

Nance nodded.

"After you've starved him to death you hang him up on the sunny side of the house till he becomes a shadow. A shadow, you understand? Well, after he's become a shadow you let the shadow drop into a barrel of rainwater. The result is spirit soup. Serve a teaspoonful a day as directed," added Stacy, coming to a sudden stop as Ned trod on his toes with a savage heel.

Jim Nance's whiskers stood out, the ends trembling as if from the agitation of their owner, causing Chunky to shrink within himself.

"Very unseemly, young man," rebuked the Professor.

"It seems so," muttered Walter under his breath; then all hands laughed heartily.

The meal being finished, Nance ordered a three-seated buckboard brought around. Into this the whole outfit piled until the bottom of the vehicle bent almost to the ground.

"Will it hold?" questioned the Professor apprehensively.

"I reckon it will if it doesn't break. We'll let the fat boy walk if we've got too big a load," Nance added, with a twinkle.

"No, I'll ride, sir," spoke up Stacy promptly. "I'm very delicate and I'm not allowed to walk, because-----"

"How far is it out to the corral, Mr. Nance?" questioned Tad.

"'Bout a mile as the hawk flies. We'll be there in a jiffy."

It appeared that all arrangements had been made by Mr. Perkins for the stock, through a bank in Flagstaff, where he had deposited funds to cover the purchase of stock and stores for the trip through the Canyon. This the Professor understood. There remained little for the boys to do except for each to pick out the pony be fancied.

They looked over the mustangs in the corral, asking the owner about this and that one.

"I'll take that one," said Chunky, indicating a mild-eyed pinto that stood apparently half asleep.

The owner of the herd of mustangs smiled.

"Kind and sound, isn't he?" questioned the fat boy.

"Oh, he's sound all right."

"Do you know how to handle a pinto, boy?" questioned Nance.

"Do I? Of course I do. Haven't I been riding the toughest critters on the ranges of the Rockies for years and years? Don't I know how to rope anything that ambles on four legs? Well, I guess! Gimme that rope. I'll show you how to fetch a sleepy pinto out of his dreams."

The black that Chunky coveted seemed, at that moment, to have opened his eyes ever so little, then permitted the eyelids to droop. It was not a good sign as Tad viewed it, and the Pony Rider was an excellent horseman.

"Better be careful, Chunky," he warned. "Shan't I rope him for you?"

"I guess not. If I can't rope him I'd like to see you do it."

"Sail in. You know best," answered Tad, with a grin, winking at Ned and the Professor. Jim Nance appeared to take only a passive interest in the matter. He might have his say later provided his advice were needed.

Chunky ran his rope through his hands, then grasping the hondo, strode boldly into the corral.

"I reckon it's time we were climbing the fence," announced Tad.

"I reckon it is," agreed the guide, vaulting to the top rail, which action was followed by the other two boys, only the owner of the herd and Professor Zepplin remaining inside the corral with Stacy.

Suddenly Stacy let go the loop of his lariat. It dropped over the head of the sleepy pinto. The pinto, at the touch of the rope, sprang into sudden life. Then things began to happen in that corral. Stacy Brown was the center of the happenings.