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CHAPTER X


OFF FOR THE BOUNDLESS WEST


"This is certainly the boundless West!"

It was Dave who spoke, and he addressed the others, who were on the rear of the observation car with him. As far as the eye could reach were the prairies, dotted here and there with hillocks and clumps of low-growing bushes. Behind were the glistening rails and the wooden ties, stretching out until lost in the distance.

A night and the larger part of the next day had been spent on the train. They had crossed the Mississippi and made several stops of more or less importance, including those at St. Paul and Minneapolis, and now they were rushing westward through North Dakota to Montana.

It was a warm, sunshiny day, and the young folk and Mr. Porter enjoyed the trip to the utmost. Dave's uncle had traveled through that section of the country several times, and he pointed out various objects of interest.

"I haven't seen any Indians yet," said Jessie, with a pout. "I thought we'd see some by this time."

"We'll see them a little further west," answered Dunston Porter. "They'll come down to the railroad stations, to sell trinkets," and his words proved true. They saw a dozen or more redmen and their squaws the following morning, at a station where they stopped for water. But the Indians were so dirty that neither Jessie nor the others wanted to trade with them, although one Indian had a set of polished horns Roger admired very much.

"Never mind, we'll get some horns at Star Ranch," said Laura. "The cowboys know how to polish them just as well as these Indians, and they'll sell their work just as cheaply, too." And this proved to be true.

They passed Livingston, which, as Dunston Porter told the young folks, was the transfer point for Yellowstone Park, and then continued on their way to Helena. Here the young folks left the train, to continue their journey on a side line running northward.

"Sorry I am not going further with you," said Dunston Porter, as he kissed his niece and shook hands warmly with the others. "I hope you get to the ranch in safety, and don't forget to send word to me at Spokane as well as to send word home."

"And you'll be sure to come to the ranch for us in about a month?" asked Laura.

"Yes, unless some special business detains me, and then I'll wire when I can come," was the reply, and then the train rolled off, Dunston Porter standing at the end, waving the boys and girls adieu.

"Now we have got to take care of ourselves," remarked the shipowner's son. "Girls, you don't feel afraid, do you?"

"Oh, we are not so very far from Star Ranch," answered Laura. "And you'll remember, I asked Mr. Endicott by telegraph to have somebody meet us. If he's at the ranch, maybe he'll come himself, and bring Belle. I know Belle will be just wild to see what sort of a brother I have found," she added, with a warm glance at Dave.

"I hope she likes me, Laura. I know I am going to like her. She's a jolly-looking girl, by her picture."

"Oh, I know she'll like you. Jessie, you had better look out!" went on Laura in a whisper, and this made Jessie turn very red. Dave heard the words and grew red, too, and commenced a lively conversation with Phil and Roger, about nothing in particular.

The train on the side line was a big contrast to the luxurious coaches they had just left. The cars were of the old-fashioned variety and but two in number, and drawn by an old mountain engine that had seen better days. Moreover, the roadbed was very uneven, and the cars rocked from side to side as they rolled between the hills towards Bramley, where the young folks were to get off. The cars were about half filled with miners and cattlemen, and a sprinkling of hunters and sightseers, and the boys and girls overheard a good deal of talk about steers and horses, mines and new discoveries, and about the outlook for hunting and fishing.

"Why, Mr. Todd, is that you!" cried Laura, suddenly, as a cowboy was passing through the car where she sat.

"It sure is me, Miss Porter," answered the cowboy, coming to a halt with a broad grin on his weatherbeaten face. "Must be you are on your way to the ranch," he added.

"We are," answered Laura. "I am glad to see you." She held out her hand, which the cowboy took very gingerly, removing his sombrero at the same time. "This is my friend, Miss Wadsworth, and this is my brother, Dave, and his two school friends, Mr. Morr and Mr. Lawrence. This is Mr. Sidney Todd, Mr. Endicott's head man," she explained.

"Just Sid Todd, miss, that's good enough for me," said the cowboy, as the others shook hands with him, one after the other. "I ain't used to no handle, I ain't. The boss thought you might be on this train, but he wasn't sure when I left. He told me to keep an eye open for you, though. I hope you had a nice trip."

"We have had a lovely trip, Mr.—Todd," said Jessie. She could not quite bring herself to drop the mister.

"I've heard of you," said Dave to the cowboy. "My sister told me how you taught her to ride and do a lot of things. I hope you'll take me and my chums in hand, too, when we get settled at Star Ranch."

"Ride, don't you?"

"Oh, yes, but not in the fashion that cowboys can," said Dave, and then he invited Sid Todd to sit down with them, which the cowboy did. He was a man of about forty, tall and leathery. His eyes were bubbling over with good humor, but they could become very stern when the occasion demanded it. Laura had become well acquainted with him during her former visit to the ranch, and knew that the Endicotts trusted him implicitly. While he had taught her how to ride, cowgirl fashion, she had taken a number of snapshot photographs for him, to be sent to some relative in the South, and for these he had been very grateful.

"We want to do a lot of riding, and a lot of hunting and fishing, too," said the senator's son. "Do you think we'll have a chance for much sport?"

"I dunno," answered Sid Todd, dryly. "Might be the game will hear of your coming and move on to the next State," and his eyes twinkled over his little joke.

"I'd like to see some kind of a round-up," said Phil. "Will there be one while we are here?"

"Might be, Mr.—I didn't quite catch your handle."

"Phil Lawrence. Just call me Phil."

"I will if you'll call me Todd, or Sid. I can't git used to this mister business nohow. Besides, the boys would have the laugh on me, if they heard you a-mistering me all the time."

"All right, Sid it is," said Dave. "And I'm Dave."

"And I am Roger," added the senator's son.

"About that round-up," continued the cowboy. "Might see something of the sort, for Mr. Endicott is goin' to sell some cattle the end of the month, and they'll be driven off to another range. But you'll see enough of cattle anyway, before you go home, if you are going to stay a month or six weeks."

"Any fishing?" queried the shipowner's son.

"Yes, plenty of fishing, back in the mountains. One place there you can catch a barrel or two of fish in ten minutes—if you've got lines enough," and once more Sid Todd chuckled at his joke.

It was a three hours' run to Bramley, for the train stopped at many little stations and at some crossings where there were no stations at all. At one point they came to a halt where there was a large corral, and the boys and girls watched the efforts of several cowboys to lasso a bronco that was untrained. The bronco eluded the rope with apparent ease.

"Some of 'em are mighty tricky," explained Sid Todd. "I remember two years ago, we had one bronco nobody at the Star could touch. I reckon he was sure mad, for finally he bit Hank Snogger, and Hank had to treat him to a dose of lead."

"Is Hank Snogger still with Mr. Endicott?" questioned Laura.

"No, he ain't," answered Sid Todd, shortly. "He left two months ago. A good job done, too," added the cowboy.

"Who was this Hank Snogger?" asked Dave, in a low voice of his sister, for he saw that the subject was distasteful to Todd.

"He was one of the cowboys working for Mr. Endicott," answered Laura. "He was rather a queer kind of a man."

"Bramley's just ahead," announced Sid Todd, presently. "Maybe you can catch sight of somebody you know," he added to Laura, as the train rounded the curve of a small hill.

"I see a young lady on horseback, and a man!" cried Dave's sister a few minutes later. "It's Belle, and her father! They came to meet us! Oh, I must signal to them!" And she waved her handkerchief from the car window. Soon Belle Endicott saw it, and waved her big straw hat in return.

"Welcome to the West!" she cried, merrily, as she dashed up on her pony beside the railroad tracks. "Oh, I was so afraid you wouldn't come!"

"And I was so afraid you'd miss our telegram and wouldn't meet us," returned Laura.

As soon as the train came to a stop the boys hopped down and assisted the girls to alight. Sid Todd followed, with the hand baggage, and the whole party gathered in a group, while Mr. Endicott and Belle dismounted to greet them.

"Very glad to know you," said the railroad president, with a genial smile overspreading his features. "I feel as if I knew Morr already. I have met his father and mother several times in Washington."

"Yes, so dad wrote," answered the senator's son.

"And I feel as if I knew you, and Miss Belle," said Dave. "I've heard so much about you from Laura."

"And we've heard so much about you!" cried Belle. "Oh, wasn't it simply wonderful how you found your folks! Why, it's almost like a page out of a fairy book!"

"Not quite," put in Phil. "Fairy stories aren't true, while this really happened."

"Some day Dave has got to tell me the whole story from beginning to end," said Belle. "You see, I'm going to call you Dave, and you must call me Belle."

"Well, we can't stop for stories just now," said Mr. Endicott. "It's a long ride to the ranch, and they'll be more than hungry by the time we get there. Todd, bring up the horses, and tell Jerry to dump all the baggage in the wagon. Do you all want to ride horseback, or does somebody prefer a seat in the wagon?"

"Oh, let us ride horseback, if you have animals enough!" cried Laura. "You're willing, aren't you, Jessie?"

"I—I guess so," said Jessie, rather timidly. "That is, if you don't ride too fast."

"We'll take it easy," said Belle. "And if you get tired you can wait for the wagon."

A number of sturdy-looking animals were brought up, and the entire party proceeded to mount, the boys assisting Laura and Jessie. In the meantime Sid Todd went off, to return with a ranch wagon, driven by an old man smoking a corncob pipe.

"Hello, Uncle Jerry!" cried Laura, pleasantly, and the others soon learned that the old man was known by that name and no other. He had been attached to the ranch when Mr. Endicott purchased the place, and knew no other home. He and Todd placed the baggage in the wagon, and then the cowboy swung himself into the saddle of his own steed, that had been brought to the station for him.

Just as the party was about to leave, a tall, thin, and well-dressed man dashed up, riding a coalblack steed. As he came closer Laura gave a start and motioned for Dave to come closer.

"Who is it?" asked Dave, in a low voice.

"That is Mr. Merwell," answered his sister.