Part Four
Chapter IV
 

On the way down the narrow trail Bob found himself near the two men from his own camp. He chaffed them good-humouredly over their lack of skill in the contests, to which they replied in the same spirit.

Arrived at camp, Thorne turned to face his followers, who gathered in a group to listen.

"Let's have a little riding, boys," said he. "Bring out a horse or two and some saddles. Each man must saddle his horse, circle that tree down the road, return, unsaddle and throw up both hands to show he's done."

Bob was amused to see how the aspect of the men changed at this announcement. The lithe young fellows, who had been looking pretty sober over the records they had made at shooting, brightened visibly and ran with some eagerness to fetch out their own horses and saddles. Some of the others were not so pleased, notably two of the young fellows from the valley towns. Still others remained stolidly indifferent to a trial in which they could not hope to compete with the professional riders, but in which neither would they fail.

The results proved the accuracy of this reasoning. A new set of stars rose to the ascendant, while the heroes of the upper meadow dropped into obscurity. Most of the mountain men saddled expeditiously but soberly their strong and capable mountain horses, rode the required distance, and unsaddled deftly. It was part of their everyday life to be able to do such things well. The two town boys, and, to Bob's surprise, one of his lumberjacks, furnished the comic relief. They frightened the horses allotted them, to begin with; threw the saddles aboard in a mess which it was necessary to untangle; finally clambered on awkwardly and rode precariously amid the yells and laughter of the spectators.

"How you expect to be a ranger, if you can't ride?" shouted some one at the lumberjack.

"If horses don't plumb detest me, I reckon I can learn!" retorted the shanty boy, stoutly. "This ain't my game!"

But when young Pollock, whom Bob recognized as Jim's oldest, was called out, the situation was altered. He appeared leading a beautiful, half-broken bay, that snorted and planted its feet and danced away from the unaccustomed crowd. Nevertheless the lad, as impassive as an image, held him well in hand, awaiting Thorne's signal.

"Go!" called the Supervisor, his eyes on his watch.

The boy, still grasping the hackamore in his left hand, with his right threw the saddle blanket over the animal's back. Stooping again, he seized the heavy stock saddle by the horn, flipped it high in the air, and brought it across the horse with so skilful a jerk that not only did the skirts, the heavy stirrup and the horsehair cinch fall properly, but the cinch itself swung so far under the horse's belly that young Pollock was able to catch it deftly before it swung back. To thrust the broad latigo through the rings, jerk it tight, and fasten it securely was the work of an instant. With a yell to his horse the boy sprang into the saddle. The animal bounded forward, snorting and buck-plunging, his eye wild, his nostril wide. Flung with apparent carelessness in the saddle, the rider, his body swaying and bending and giving gracefully to every bound, waved his broad hat, uttering shrill yips of encouragement and admonition to his mount. The horse straightened out and thundered swift as an arrow toward the tree that marked the turning point. With unslackened gait, with loosened rein, he swept fairly to the tree. It seemed to Bob that surely the lad must overshoot the mark by many yards. But at the last instant the rider swayed backward and sidewise; the horse set his feet, plunged mightily thrice, threw up a great cloud of dust, and was racing back almost before the spectators could adjust their eyes to the change of movement. Straight to the group horse and rider raced at top speed, until the more inexperienced instinctively ducked aside. But in time the horse sat back, slid and plunged ten feet in a spray of dust and pine needles, to come to a quivering halt. Even before that young Pollock had thrown himself from the saddle. Three jerks ripped that article of furniture from its place to the earth. The boy, with an engaging gleam of teeth, threw up both hands.

It was flash-riding, of course; but flash-riding at its best. And how the boys enjoyed it! Now the little group of "buckeroos," heretofore rather shyly in the background, shone forth in full glory.

"Now let's see how good you are at packing," said Thorne, when the last man had done his best or worst. "Jack," he told young Pollock, "you go up in the pasture and catch me up that old white pack mare. She's warranted to stand like a rock."

While the boy was gone on this errand, Thorne rummaged the camp. Finally he laid out on the ground about a peck of loose potatoes, miscellaneous provisions, a kettle, frying-pan, coffee-pot, tin plates, cutlery, a single sack of barley, a pick and shovel, and a coil of rope.

"That looks like a reasonable camp outfit," remarked Thorne. "Just throw one of those pack saddles on her," he told Jack Pollock, who led up the white mare. "Now you boys all retire; you mustn't have a chance to learn from the other fellow. Hicks, you stay. Now pack that stuff on that horse. I'll time you."

Hicks looked about him.

"Where's the kyacks?" he demanded. [Footnote: Kyacks--pack sacks slung either side the pack saddle.]

"You don't get any kyacks," stated Thorne crisply.

"Got to pack all that stuff without 'em?"

"Sure."

Hicks set methodically to work, gathering up the loose articles, thrusting them into sacks, lashing the sacks on the crossbuck saddle. At the end of a half-hour, he stepped back.

"That might ride--for a while," said Thorne.

"I never pack without kyacks," said Hicks.

"So I see. Well, sit down and watch the rest of them. Ware!" Thorne shouted.

The prospector disengaged himself from the sprawling and distant group.

"Throw those things off, and empty out those bags," ordered Thorne. "Now, there's your camp outfit. Pack it, as fast as you can."

Ware set to work, also deliberately, it seemed. He threw a sling, packed on his articles, and over it all drew the diamond hitch.

"Reckon that'll travel," he observed, stepping back.

"Good pack," commended Thorne briefly, as he glanced at his watch. "Eleven minutes."

"Eleven minutes!" echoed Bob to California John, who sat near, "and the other man took thirty-five! Impossible! Ware didn't hurry any; he moved, if anything, slower than the other man."

"He didn't make no moves twice," pointed out California John. "He knows how. This no-kyack business is going to puzzle plenty of those boys who can do good, ordinary packing."

"It's near noon," Thorne was saying; "we haven't time for another of those duffers. I'll just call up your partner, Ware, and we'll knock off for dinner."

The partner did as well, or even a little better, for the watch credited him with ten and one-half minutes, whereupon he chaffed Ware hugely. Then the pack horse was led to a patiently earned feed, while the little group of rangers, with Thorne, his sister and Bob, moved slowly toward headquarters.

"That's all this morning, boys," he told the waiting group as they passed it. "This afternoon we'll double up a bit. The rest of you can all take a try at the packing, but at the same time we'll see who can cut down a tree quickest and best."

"Stop and eat lunch with us," Amy was urging Bob. "It's only a cold one--not even tea. I didn't want to miss the show. So it's no bother."

They all turned to and set the table under the open.

"This is great fun," said Bob gratefully, as they sat down. "Good as a field day. When do you expect to begin your examinations? That's what these fellows are here for, isn't it?"

He looked up to catch both Thorne and Amy looking on him with a comically hopeless air.

"You don't mean to say!" cried Bob, a light breaking in on him. "--of course! I never thought----"

"What do you suppose we would examine candidates for Forest Ranger in--higher mathematics?" demanded Amy.

"Now that's practical--that's got some sense!" cried Bob enthusiastically.

Thorne, with a whimsical smile, held up his finger for silence. Through the thin screen of azalea bushes that fringed this open-air dining room Bob saw two men approaching down the forest. They were evidently unaware of observation. With considerable circumspection they drew near and disappeared within the little tool house. Bob recognized the two lumberjacks from his own camp.

"What are those fellows after?" he demanded indignantly.

But Thorne again motioned for caution.

"I suspect," said Thorne in a low voice. "Go on eating your lunch. We'll see."

The men were inside the tool house for some time. When they reappeared, each carried an axe. They looked about them cautiously. No one was in sight. Then they thrust the axes underneath a log, and disappeared in the direction of their own camp.

Thorne laughed aloud.

"The old foxes!" said he. "I'll bet anything you please that we'll find the two best-balanced axes the Government owns under that log."

Such proved to be the case. Furthermore, the implements had been ground to a razor edge.

"When I mentioned tree cutting, I saw their eyes light up," said Thorne. "It's always interesting in a crowd of candidates like this to see every man cheer up when his specialty comes along." He chuckled. "Wait till I spring the written examinations on them. Then you'll see them droop."

"What else is there?" asked Bob.

"Well, I'll organize regular survey groups--compass-man, axe-man, rod-man, chain-men--and let them run lines; and I'll make them estimate timber, and make a sketch map or so. It's all practical."

"I should think so!" cried Bob. "I wonder if I could pass it myself." He laughed. "I should hate to tackle tying those things on that horse--even after seeing those prospectors do it!"

"Most of them will go a little slow. They're used to kyacks. But you'd have your specialty."

"What would it be?" asked Amy curiously of Bob.

The young man shook his head.

"You haven't got some nice scrappy little job, have you?" he asked, "where I can tell people to hop high? That's about all I'm good for."

"We might even have that," said Thorne, eyeing the young man's proportions.