Dave Porter at Star Ranch/Chapter 12
A RACE ON HORSEBACK
"What a beautiful spot!"
It was Dave who uttered the words, as he stood out in front of the ranch house on the following morning. He had gotten up early, and Laura and Belle had joined him, leaving the others still at rest.
Dave spoke with feeling, for the grand and sublime things in Nature had always appealed to him. He was gazing toward the east, where the rising sun was flooding the plains with a golden hue. Beyond the cottonwoods he caught a glimpse of the winding river. Then, when he turned, he saw the foothills and the mountains in the west, with their great bowlders and cliffs and their sturdy growths of pine.
"Aren't you glad you came, Dave?" said his sister, as she placed an affectionate hand on his shoulder.
"Indeed I am, Laura," he replied. "Why, it looks to me as if I was going to have the outing of my life! In fact, all of us ought to have the best time ever!"
"Does it put you in mind of your trip to Norway?" questioned Belle.
"Hardly. That was taken during cold weather, and everything was covered with snow and ice. Besides, the scenery was quite different." Dave paused to sweep the horizon. "In what direction is the Merwell ranch?" he asked.
"Over yonder," answered Belle, pointing up the river. "The little brook flowing down between those rough rocks marks the boundary line."
"And whose cattle are those on yonder hills?"
"I am not sure, but I think they belong to papa. When you ask about cattle you must go to Sid Todd. He knows every animal for miles around."
"I suppose your cattle are all branded?"
"Oh, yes, with a star and the letter E on either side of it. That's why this is called Star Ranch."
"What is the Merwell brand?" asked Laura.
"A triple cross."
Breakfast was soon announced, and all the girls and boys assembled in the dining-hall. While they ate the meal, Mr. Endicott told the newcomers much about his ranch, and also about the people working for him.
"I am sorry to hear that you have had trouble with Mr. Merwell's son," said the railroad president. "I am afraid it will make matters worse out here—and they are bad enough as it is."
"But I am sure Dave and his chums are not to blame, Mr. Endicott," said Laura, hastily.
"Oh, I am sure of that myself—for I know something of Link Merwell and his headstrong temper,—a temper he gets largely from his father. If it were not for that temper, I think Mr. Merwell and myself might be on better terms."
"We have had trouble over one of the hired men, Hank Snogger," explained Belle. "Snogger used to work for us, but Mr. Merwell hired him away."
"That wasn't a very nice thing to do," was Roger's comment.
"If it had been done openly it would not have been so bad," said Mr. Endicott. "But it was done secretly, and Snogger was gone almost before I knew it. He was a valuable man and I felt his loss keenly."
"I suppose Mr. Merwell offered him more wages," said Phil.
"Probably, although I paid Snogger a good salary. I don't know what game Merwell played to get the fellow, but he got him."
"It's exactly like some of Link's underhanded work at Oak Hall," was Roger's comment. "Father and son must be very much alike."
"While you are here I would advise you to steer clear of the Merwells," was Mr. Endicott's advice. "I'd not even go on their land if you can help it. There are plenty of other places to go to."
"I'll not go near his ranch, if I know it," answered Dave.
"It is queer that Link did not come on the train with you, if his father was expecting him."
"Oh, most likely he stopped off somewhere to have a good time," answered the senator's son. "A fellow like Link would be apt to find life slow on a ranch."
After breakfast Mr. Endicott and Belle took the boys and girls around the ranch buildings, which were quite numerous. The girls were interested in some fancy chickens and pigeons Belle owned, and the boys grew enthusiastic over the horses.
"I never saw better animals!" cried Dave, his eyes resting on a black horse that was truly a beauty. "What's his name?" he asked.
"Hero," answered Mr. Endicott. "He can go, let me tell you. You can try him this afternoon, if you wish."
"Thank you, perhaps I will."
"And if you like him, you can use Hero during your stay here," went on the railroad president, and then he pointed out various horses that the others might use.
"No busting broncos here, I suppose," said Phil, with a grin.
"No. If you want to try a bronco, you'll have to see Todd. But I advise you to be careful. Some day I'll have Todd give you an exhibition of bronco busting, as it is called."
During their tour of the place they met several cowboys and other helpers, and soon became well acquainted. In the past, visitors to Star Ranch had been numerous, consequently the most of the men were not as shy as they might otherwise have been. They gladly answered all the questions the boys and girls put to them, and offered to do all sorts of things to render the visit of the newcomers pleasant.
After lunch the girls felt like resting, for it was rather warm, but all the boys were anxious to get into the saddle. They had heard that Sid Todd was going to a distant part of the range, to see about two steers that had fallen into a ravine, and asked to be taken along.
"All right, my boys," said the cowboy. "Come ahead. But you'll have to do quite a bit of riding to get there and back by nightfall."
"Well, we may as well get used to it," answered Phil. "I expect to about live in the saddle while I am here."
Todd had several things to attend to before starting, so they did not leave the stables until nearly three o'clock. Dave was mounted on the steed he had so admired, and the others had equally good horses.
"Shall we take our guns?" asked Roger.
"What for?" asked the cowboy.
"Oh, I thought we might get the chance to shoot something."
"We'll not have much time to look for game," answered Sid Todd. "However, if you want to take your shootin' irons, there ain't no objections." So each of the lads provided himself with a shotgun. Todd carried a pistol, of the "hoss" variety and nearly two feet long, the same being deposited in tht holster of his saddle.
The course was to the westward, to the foothills of the distant mountains. Here, the cowboy explained, was a treacherous ravine, the sides overgrown with a tangle of low bushes. The cattle loved to get in the bushes, finding something there particularly appetizing to eat, and often the rocks and dirt would give way and a steer would go down in the hollow and be unable to get out.
"They don't seem to know how to climb the rocks," said Sid Todd. "And you've got to fairly drive 'em the right way, or they'd stay in the hollow till they died."
Dave felt like "letting himself loose," as he expressed it, and with a level stretch of several miles before them, he called on Phil and Roger for a race.
"Done!" cried the shipowner's son. "But I know you'll beat," he added. "You've had more practice on horseback than I have had."
"Take care and keep to the trail!" sung out Sid Todd. He had no desire to join in the sport, for horseback riding was no novelty to him.
Over the soft ground thundered the three horses, the boys at the start keeping in a bunch. But gradually they spread out and then Roger forged ahead.
"Here is where I win!" sang out the senator's son.
"Not much!" answered Phil. "Just wait till my horse gets his muscles limbered up a bit!" And then he urged his animal to a better gait, and slowly but surely crawled up closer to Roger.
Dave said but little, for he was paying all his attention to Hero. He had studied horses from childhood, and he thought he saw in the steed he rode better staying qualities than in either of the other animals. He kept on directly behind his chums, but made no effort for the first half mile to pass them.
"How far do we race?" cried the senator's son, presently.
"To the patch of woods," answered Dave, indicating a growth about a mile distant.
"All right—and—good-by to you!" returned Roger, merrily.
"Dave, you aren't in it a little bit!" added Phil. And he sped after the senator's son, leaving Dave a full fifty yards in the rear.
Dave saw that Hero was gradually warming up to his task. He clucked softly, and the little black horse pricked up his ears and increased his gait. Then Dave clucked again—he had heard Todd do this—and Hero went a little faster.
On went the three boys, the fresh air of the plains and the mountains filling their lungs and causing their eyes to snap with pure delight. At that moment each of them felt as if he hadn't a care in the world.
Phil and Roger were now neck-and-neck, with not quite half a mile of the race still to cover. Sixty yards behind was Dave. Still further to the rear was Sid Todd, now urging his horse forward, that he might see the finish of the contest.
"Now, then, my little beauty, go!" cried Dave to his horse, and he clucked several times to Hero, and dug his heels into the steed's ribs.
He had not miscalculated, and Hero responded instantly. Up he went into the air, and when he came down his ears were laid far back, and forward he shot like an arrow from a bow. Dave kept him to it, and gradually he ranged up between the others.
"Hi, get back there!" yelled Roger, who was now slightly in advance. "You can beat Phil, but you can't beat me!"
"Not much! He's not going to beat me!" put in the shipowner's son, and he urged his horse to do better. But this was impossible, and, inch by inch, Dave overtook him, and went to the front.
It now seemed to be a race between Hero and the brown horse that the senator's son rode. Roger's mount was still in fine condition, but it must be confessed that the senator's son did not know exactly how to race him to the best advantage. He sawed a little on the reins, thus worrying the animal, and causing him to lose his gait. Then, with a bound, Dave came up, and the pair were neck-and-neck for the finish.
"Go! go!" yelled Phil. "May the best horse win!"
"Whoopee!" came unexpectedly from Sid Todd, and, grabbing his pistol from the holster, he sent three shots into the air, just to add to the excitement.
As the pistol went off, both horses gave an extra bound forward. The two young riders were almost unseated, but each quickly recovered. Then they bent low over their steeds' necks and went forward for the finish.
It was a thrilling moment, Dave and Roger side by side, Phil at their heels, and Sid Todd further back, firing another shot or two, "just for fun," in true cowboy fashion.
But Roger had urged his horse to the limit and could do no better. As Dave clucked again, Hero shot ahead, a foot, a yard, and soon several yards. Then Phil came up abreast of the senator's son, and thus they kept until the edge of the woods was gained.
"Dave wins!" cried Sid Todd. "An' a good race, boys,—a good race all around."
"Yes, Dave wins!" answered Phil. "My, but your horse did go it at the finish!" he added, admiringly.
"A fine animal," said Roger. "But mine is fine, too, even if he didn't come in first," he added, loyally.
"You all rode well—better nor I expected," was Sid Todd's comment. "It was a good race. I wish the others on the ranch had seen it,—they wouldn't call you tenderfeet no more!"