Wells Brothers by Andy Adams - HTML preview
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Waifs Of The Plain................................................................................................3
The Hospital On The Beaver ..............................................................................10
The Bottom Rung................................................................................................18
The Brothers Claim A Range..............................................................................25
A Fall Of Crumbs ................................................................................................32
Sunshine And Shadow........................................................................................38
All In The Day's Work..........................................................................................45
The Lines Of Intrenchment .................................................................................51
A Wintry Crucible................................................................................................58
Good Fighting .....................................................................................................65
Holding The Fort.................................................................................................72
A Winter Drift ......................................................................................................80
A Welcome Guest...............................................................................................88
An Ill Wind...........................................................................................................93
A Protected Credit.............................................................................................106
An Open Winter ................................................................................................118
An Indian Scare ................................................................................................125
Harvest On The Range.....................................................................................130
Waifs Of The Plain
The first herd of trail cattle to leave Dodge City, Kansas, for the Northwest, during the summer of 1885, was owned by the veteran drover, Don Lovell. Accidents will happen, and when about midway between the former point and Ogalalla, Nebraska, a rather serious mishap befell Quince Forrest, one of the men with the herd. He and the horse wrangler, who were bunkies, were constantly scuffling, reckless to the point of injury, the pulse of healthy manhood beating a constant alarm to rough contest.
The afternoon previous to the accident, a wayfaring man had overtaken the herd, and spent the night with the trail outfit. During the evening, a flock of sand-hill cranes was sighted, when the stranger expressed a wish to secure a specimen of the bird for its splendid plumage. On Forrest's own suggestion, his being a long-range pistol and the covey wary, the two exchanged belts. The visitor followed the flock, stealing within range a number of times, and emptying the six-shooter at every chance. On securing a fine specimen near nightfall, he returned to the herd, elated over his chance shot and beautiful trophy. However, before returning the belt, he had refilled the cylinder with six instead of five cartridges, thus resting the hammer on a loaded shell. In the enthusiasm of the moment, and ignorant of its danger, belt and pistol were returned to their owner.
Dawn found the camp astir. The sun had flooded the plain while the outfit was breakfasting, the herd was grazing forward in pastoral contentment, the horses stood under saddle for the morning's work, when the trail foreman, Paul Priest, languidly remarked: "If everybody's ready, we'll ride. Fill the canteens; it's high time we were in the saddle. Of course, that means the parting tussle between Quince and the wrangler. It would be a shame to deny those lads anything so enjoyable-- they remind me so much of mule colts and half-grown dogs. Now, cut in and worry each other a spell, because you'll be separated until noon. Fly at it, or we mount."
The two addressed never cast a glance at each other, but as the men swung into their saddles, the horse wrangler, with the agility of a tiger, caught his bunkie in the act of mounting, dragging him to the ground, when the expected scuffle ensued. The outfit had barely time to turn their horses, to witness the contest, when the two crashed against the wagon wheel and Forrest's pistol was discharged. The men dismounted instantly, the wrangler eased the victim to the ground, and when the outfit gathered around, the former was smothering the burning clothing of his friend and bunkmate. A withdrawn boot, dripping with blood, was the first indication of the havoc wrought, and on stripping it was found that the bullet had ploughed an open furrow down the thigh, penetrating the calf of the leg from knee to ankle, where it was fortunately deflected outward and into the ground.
The deepest of regret was naturally expressed. The jocular remarks of the foreman, the actions of the wrangler, were instantly recalled to the surrounding group, while the negligence which caused the accident was politely suppressed. The stranger, innocently unaware of any mistake on his part, lent a valuable hand in stanching the blood and in washing and binding up the wounds. No bones were injured, and with youth and a buoyant constitution, there was every hope of recovery.
However, some disposition must be made of the wounded man. No one could recall a house or settlement nearer than the Republican River, unless down the Beaver, which was uncertain, when the visitor came to the rescue. He was positive that some two years before, an old soldier had taken a homestead five or six miles above the trail crossing on the Beaver. He was insistent, and the foreman yielded so far as to order the herd grazed forward to the Beaver, which was some ten miles distant in their front. All the blankets in the outfit were accordingly brought into use, in making a comfortable bed in the wagon, and the caravan started, carrying the wounded man with it. Taking the stranger with him, the foreman bore away in the direction of the supposed homestead, having previously sent two men on an opposite angle, in search of any settlement down the creek.
The visitor's knowledge of the surrounding country proved to be correct. About six miles above the trail crossing, the Beaver, fringed with willows, meandered through a narrow valley, in which the homestead was located. The presence of the willows was an indication of old beaver dams, which the settler had improved until the water stood in long, placid pools. In response to their hail, two boys, about fourteen and sixteen years of age, emerged from the dug-out and greeted the horsemen. On inquiry, it proved that their father had died during the previous winter, at a settlement on the Solomon River, and the boys were then confronted with the necessity of leaving the claim to avoid suffering want. It was also learned that their mother had died before their father had taken the homestead, and therefore they were left orphans to fight their own battle.
The boys gave their names as Joel and Dell Wells. Both were bright-eyed and alert, freckled from the sun, ragged and healthy. Joel was the oldest, broad-shouldered for his years, distant by nature, with a shock of auburn hair, while Dell's was red; in height, the younger was the equal of his brother, talkative, and frank in countenance. When made acquainted with the errand of the trail boss, the older boy shook his head, but Dell stepped forward: "Awful sorry," said he, with a sweep of his hand, "but our garden failed, and there won't be a dozen roasting-ears in that field of corn. If hot winds don't kill it, it might make fodder. We expect to pull out next week.""Have you no cows?" inquired the trail foreman. "We had two, but the funeral expenses took them, and then pa's pension was stopped. You see--" "I see," said the trail foreman, dismounting. "Possibly we can help each other. Our wagon is well provisioned. If you'll shelter and nurse this wounded man of mine--"
"We can't winter here," said Joel, stepping forward, "and the sooner we get out and find work the better."
"Oh, I was figuring on paying you wages," countered the trail man, now aware of their necessity, "and I suppose you could use a quarter of beef."
"And I'll give each of you twenty-five dollars a month--leave the money with my man or pay you in advance. If you say the word, I'll unload my wagon right here, and grub-stake you for two months. I can get more provision at the Republican River, and in the mean time, something may turn up."
The stranger also dismounted and took part in urging the necessity of accepting the offer. Dell brightened at every suggestion, but his brother was tactful, questioning and combating the men, and looking well to the future. A cold and unfriendly world, coupled with misfortune, had aged the elder boy beyond his years, while the younger one was sympathetic, trustful, and dependent.
"Suppose we are delayed in reaching the Solomon until fall," said Dell to his brother; "that will put us into the settlements in time for corn-shucking. If you get six-bits a day, I'm surely worth fifty cents."
"Suppose there is no corn to shuck," replied Joel. "Suppose this wounded man dies on our hands? What then? Haven't you heard pa tell how soldiers died from slight wounds?-from blood-poisoning? If we have to go, we might as well go at once."
According to his light, the boy reasoned well. But when the wayfaring man had most skillfully retold the story of the Good Samaritan, the older boy relented somewhat, while Dell beamed with enthusiasm at the opportunity of rendering every assistance."It isn't because we don't want to help you," protested Joel, but it's because we're so poor and have nothing to offer." "You have health and willing hands," said the trail boss; "let me do the rest." "But suppose he doesn't recover as soon as expected," cautiously protested Joel, "where are we to get further provision?"
"Good suggestion," assented the trail foreman. "But here: I'll leave two good horses in your care for the wounded man, and all you need to do is to ride down to the trail, hail any passing herd, and simply tell them you are harboring a crippled lad, one of Don Lovell's boys, and you can levy on them for all they have. It's high time you were getting acquainted with these trail outfits. Shelter this man of mine, and all will come out well in the end. Besides, I'll tell old man Don about you boys, and he might take you home to his ranch with him. He has no boys, and he might take a fancy to you two."
Dell's eyes moistened at the suggestion of a home. The two brothers reëntered the dugout, and the men led their horses down to the creek for a drink. A span of poor old mules stood inside a wooden corral, a rickety wagon and a few rusty farming implements were scattered about, while over all the homestead was the blight of a merciless summer drouth.
"What a pretty little ranch this would make," said the trail boss to the stranger. "If these boys had a hundred cows, with this water and range, in a few years they would be independent men. No wonder that oldest boy is cautious. Just look around and see the reward of their father's and their own labor. Their very home denies them bread.""Did you notice the older boy brighten," inquired the visitor, "when you suggested leaving horses in their care? It was the only argument that touched him."
"Then I'll use it," said the trail boss, brightening. "We have several cow horses in our remuda, unfit for saddle,--galled backs and the like,--and if these boys would care for them, I'll make their hungry hearts happy. Care and attention and a month's rest would make the ponies as sound as a dollar. You suggest my giving them each a saddle pony; argue the matter, and try and win me over."
The men retraced their steps, leading their horses, and when scarcely halfway from the creek to the dug-out, Dell ran down to meet them. "If you can spare us a few blankets and a pillow," earnestly said the boy, "we'll take the wounded man. He's liable to be feverish at night, and ought to have a pillow. Joel and I can sleep outside or in the stable."
"Hurrah for the Wells boys!" shouted the trail boss. "Hereafter I'll bet my money, horse and saddle, on a red-headed boy. Blankets? Why, you can have half a dozen, and as to pillows, watch me rob the outfit. I have a rubber one, there are several moss ones, and I have a lurking suspicion that there are a few genuine goose-hair pillows in the outfit, and you may pick and choose. They are all yours for the asking."
The men parleyed around some little time, offering pretexts for entering the shack, the interior of which bespoke its own poverty. When all agreements had been reviewed, the men mounted their horses, promising to fulfill their part of the covenant that afternoon or evening.
Once out of hearing, the stranger remarked: "That oldest boy is all right; it was their poverty that caused him to hesitate; he tried to shield their want. We men don't always understand boys. Hereafter, in dealing with Joel, you must use some diplomacy. The death of his parents has developed a responsibility in the older boy which the younger one doesn't feel. That's about all the difference in the two lads. You must deal gently with Joel, and never offend him or expose his needs."
"Trust me," replied the foreman, "and I'll coach Quince--that's the name of the wounded man. Within an hour, he'll be right at home with those boys. If nothing serious happens to his wound, within a week he'll have those youngsters walking on clouds."
The two men rode out of the valley, when they caught sight of a dust cloud, indicating the locality of the trailing herd, then hidden behind the last divide before reaching Beaver Creek. On every hand the undulating plain rolled away to low horizons, and the men rode forward at a leisurely pace.
"I've been thinking of those boys," suddenly said the trail foreman, arousing himself from a reverie. "They're to be pitied. This government ought to be indicted for running a gambling game, robbing children, orphan children of a soldier, at that. There's a fair sample of the skin game the government's running--bets you one hundred and sixty acres against fourteen dollars you can't hold down a homestead for five years. And big as the odds look, in nine cases out of ten, in this country, the government wins. It ought to be convicted on general principles. Men are not to be pitied, but it's a crime against women and children."
"Oh, you cowmen always rail at the settler," retorted the stranger; "you would kick if you were being hung. There's good in everything. A few years of youthful poverty, once they reach manhood, isn't going to hurt those boys. The school of experience has its advantages."
"If it's convenient, let's keep an eye on those boys the next few years," said the trail boss, catching sight of his remuda. "Now, there's the wagon. Suppose you ride down to the Beaver and select a good camp, well above the trail crossing, and I'll meet the commissary and herd. We'll have to lay over this afternoon, which will admit of watering the herd twice to-day. Try and find some shade."
The men separated, riding away on different angles. The foreman hailed his wagon, found the victim resting comfortably, and reported securing a haven for the wounded man. Instructing his cook to watch for a signal, at the hands of the stranger, indicating a camp on the creek, he turned and awaited the arrival of the lead cattle of the trailing column. Issuing orders to cover the situation, he called off half the men, first veering the herd to the nearest water, and rode to overtake his wagon and saddle horses.
Beaver Creek was barely running water, with an occasional long pool. A hedge of willows was interwoven, Indian fashion, from which a tarpaulin was stretched to the wagon bows, forming a sheltered canopy. Amid a fire of questions, the wounded man was lifted from the wagon.
"Are you sure there isn't a woman at this nester's shack," said he appealingly to the bearers of the blanket stretcher. "If there is, I ain't going. Paul, stand squarely in front of me, where I can see your eyes. After what I've been handed lately, it makes me peevish. I want to feel the walnut juice in your hand clasp. Now, tell it all over once more." The stranger was artfully excused, to select a beef, after which the foreman sat down beside his man, giving him all the details and making valuable suggestions. He urged courteous treatment of their guest while he remained; that there was nothing to be gained, after the accident, by insult to a visitor, and concluded by praising the boys and bespeaking their protection.
The wounded man was Southern by birth and instinct, and knew that the hospitality of ranch and road and camp was one and the same. "Very well," said he, "but in this instance, remember it's my calf that's gored. Serves me right, though, kittening up to every stranger that comes along. I must be getting tired of you slatterly cow hands." He hesitated a moment. "The one thing I like," he continued, "about this nester layout is those red-headed boys. And these two are just about petting age. I can almost see them eating sugar out of my hand."
After dinner, and now that a haven was secured, the question of medical aid was considered. The couriers down the Beaver had returned and reported no habitation in that direction. Fortunately the destination of the stranger was a settlement on the Republican River, and he volunteered to ride through that afternoon and night and secure a surgeon. Frontier physicians were used to hundred-mile calls. The owner of the herd, had he been present, would have insisted on medical attention, the wounded man reluctantly consented, and the stranger, carrying a hastily written letter to Mr. Lovell, took his departure.
Early evening found the patient installed, not in the dug-out, but in a roomy tent. A quarter of beef hung on a willow, the one-room shack was bountifully provisioned, while the foreman remained to await the arrival of a physician. The day had brought forth wonders to Joel and Dell--from the dark hour of want to the dawn of plenty, while the future was a sealed book. In addition to the promised horses, Forrest's saddle hung in the sod stable, while two extra ponies aroused the wonder of the questioning boys.
"I just brought these two along," explained the foreman, "as their backs were galled during a recent rainy spell. You can see they are unfit for saddle, but with a little attention can be cured--I'll show you how. You have an abundance of water, and after I leave, wash their backs, morning and evening, and they'll be well in a month. Since you are running a trail hospital, you want to cater to man and beast. Of course, if you boys nurse this man through to health and strength, I'll make an appeal to Mr. Lovell to give you these ponies. They'll come in handy, in case you return to the Solomon, or start a little cattle ranch here."
The sun set in benediction on the little homestead. The transformation seemed magical. Even the blight of summer drouth was toned and tempered by the shadows of evening. The lesson of the day had filled empty hearts with happiness, and when darkness fell, the boys threw off all former reserve, and the bond of host and guest was firmly established. Forrest, even, cemented the tie, by dividing any needful attention between the boys.
"Do you know," said he to the foreman indifferently, in the presence of the lads, "that I was thinking of calling the oldest one Doc and the youngest one Nurse, but now I'm going to call them just plain Joel and Dell, and they can call me Mr. Quince. Honor bright, I never met a boy who can pour water on a wound, that seems to go to the right spot, like Dell Wells. One day with another, give me a red-headed boy."
The Hospital On The Beaver
The patient passed a feverish night. Priest remained on watch in the tent, but on several occasions aroused the boys, as recourse to pouring water was necessary to relieve the pain. The limb had reached a swollen condition by morning, and considerable anxiety was felt over the uncertainty of a physician arriving. If summoned the previous evening, it was possible that one might arrive by noon, otherwise there was no hope before evening or during the night.
"Better post a guide on the trail," suggested Joel. "If a doctor comes from the Republican, we can pilot him across the prairie and save an hour's time. There's a dim wagon trail runs from here to the first divide, north of the trail crossing on Beaver. Pa used it when he went to Culbertson to draw his pension. It would save the doctor a six or seven mile drive."
"Now, that suggestion is to the point," cheerfully assented the trail foreman. "The herd will noon on the first divide, and we can post the boys of the cut-off. They'll surely meet the doctor this afternoon or evening. Corral the horses, and I'll shorten up the stirrup straps on Forrest's saddle. Who will we send?"
"I'll go," said Dell, jumping at the opportunity. He had admired the horses and heavy Texas saddles the evening previous, and now that a chance presented itself, his eyes danced at the prospect. "Why, I can follow a dim wagon track," he added. "Joel and I used to go halfway to the divide, to meet pa when he bought us new boots."
"I'll see who can best be spared," replied Priest. "Your patient seems to think that no one can pour water like you. Besides, there will be plenty of riding to do, and you'll get your share."
The foreman delayed shortening the stirrup straps until after the horse stood saddled, when he adjusted the lacings as an object lesson to the boys. Both rode the same length of stirrup, mounting the horse to be fitted, and when reduced to the proper length, Dell was allowed to ride past the tent for inspection.
"There's the making of a born cowman," said Forrest, as Dell halted before the open tent. "It's an absolute mistake to think that that boy was ever intended for a farmer. Notice his saddle poise, will you, Paul? Has a pretty foot, too, even if it is slightly sun-burned. We must get him some boots. With that red hair, he never ought to ride any other horse than a black stallion."
When the question arose as to which of the boys was to be sent to intercept the moving herd and await the doctor, Forrest decided the matter. "I'll have to send Joel," said he, "because I simply can't spare Dell. The swelling has benumbed this old leg of mine, and we'll have to give it an occasional rubbing to keep the circulation up. There's where Dell has the true touch; actually he reminds me of my mother. She could tie a rag around a sore toe, in a way that would make a boy forget all his trouble. Hold Joel a minute."
The sound of a moving horse had caught the ear of the wounded man, and when the older boy dismounted at the tent opening, he continued: "Now, Joel, don't let that cow outfit get funny with you. Show them the brand on that horse you're riding, and give them distinctly to understand, even if you are barefooted, that you are one of Don Lovell's men. Of course you don't know him, but with that old man, it's love me, love my dog. Get your dinner with the outfit, and watch for a dust cloud in the south. There's liable to be another herd along any day, and we'll need a cow."
Forrest was nearly forty, while Priest was fully fifty years of age; neither had ever had children of his own, and their hearts went out in manly fullness to these waifs of the plain. On the other hand, a day had brought forth promise and fulfillment, from strangers, to the boys, until the latter's confidence knew no bounds. At random, the men virtually spoke of the cattle on a thousand hills, until the boys fully believed that by merely waving a wand, the bells would tinkle and a cow walk forth. Where two horses were promised, four had appeared. Where their little store of provision was as good as exhausted, it had been multiplied many fold. Where their living quarters were threatened with intrusion, a tent, with fly, was added; all of which, as if by magic, had risen out of a dip in the plain.
There was no danger, at the hands of the trail men, of any discourtesy to Joel, but to relieve any timidity, the foreman saddled his horse and accompanied the boy a mile or more, fully reviewing the details of his errand. Left behind, and while rubbing the wounded limb, Dell regaled his patient with a scrap of family history. "Pa never let us boys go near the trail," said he. "It seemed like he was afraid of you Texas men; afraid your cattle would trample down our fields and drink up all our water. The herds were so big."
"Suppose the cattle would drink the water," replied Forrest, "the owner would pay for it, which would be better than letting it go to waste. One day's hot winds would absorb more water than the biggest herd of cattle could drink. This ain't no farming country."
"That's so," admitted Dell; "we only had one mess of peas this season, and our potatoes aren't bigger than marbles. Now, let me rub your knee, there where the bullet skipped, between the bandages."
The rubbing over, Forrest pressed home the idea of abandoning farming for cattle ranching. "What your father ought to have done," said he, "was to have made friends with the Texas drovers; given them the water, with or without price, and bought any cripples or sore-footed cattle. Nearly every herd abandons more or less cattle on these long drives, and he could have bought them for a song and sung it himself. The buffalo grass on the divides and among these sand hills is the finest winter grazing in the country. This water that you are wasting would have yearly earned you one hundred head of cripples. A month's rest on this creek and they would kick up their heels and play like calves. After one winter on this range, they would get as fat as plover. Your father missed his chance by not making friends with the Texas trail men.""Do you think so?" earnestly said Dell. "I know it," emphatically asserted the wounded man. "Hereafter, you and Joel want to be friendly with these drovers and their men. Cast your bread upon the waters." "Mother used to read that to us," frankly admitted Dell. There was a marked silence, only broken by a clatter of hoofs, and the trail boss cantered up to the tent.
"That wagon track," said he, dismounting, "is little more than a dim trail. Sorry I didn't think about it sooner, but we ought to have built a smudge fire where this road intersects the cattle trail. In case the doctor doesn't reach there by noon, I sent orders to fly a flag at the junction, and Joel to return home. But if the doctor doesn't reach there until after darkness, he'll never see the flag, and couldn't follow the trail if he did. We'll have to send Joel back.""It's my turn," said Dell. "I know how to build a smudge fire; build it in a circle, out of cattle chips, in the middle of the road." "You're a willing boy," said Priest, handing the bridle reins to Dell, "but we'll wait until Joel returns. You may water my horse and turn him in the corral."
The day wore on, and near the middle of the afternoon Joel came riding in. He had waited fully an hour after the departure of the herd, a flag had been left unfurled at the junction, and all other instructions delivered. Both Forrest and Priest knew the distance to the ford on the Republican, and could figure to an hour, by different saddle gaits, the necessary time to cover the distance, even to Culbertson. Still there was a measure of uncertainty: the messenger might have lost his way; there might not have been any physician within call; accidents might have happened to horse or rider,--and one hour wore away, followed by another.
Against his will, Dell was held under restraint until six o'clock. "It's my intention to follow him within an hour," said the foreman, as the boy rounded a bluff and disappeared. "He can build the fire as well as any one, and we'll return before midnight. That'll give the doctor the last minute and the benefit of every doubt."
The foreman's mount stood saddled, and twilight had settled over the valley, when the occupants of the tent were startled by the neigh of a horse. "That's Rowdy," said Forrest; "he always nickers when he sights a wagon or camp. Dell's come."
Joel sprang to the open front. "It's Dell, and there's a buckboard following," he whispered. A moment later the vehicle rattled up, led by the irrepressible Dell, as if in charge of a battery of artillery. "This is the place, Doctor," said he, as if dismissing a troop from cavalry drill.
The physician proved to be a typical frontier doctor. He had left Culbertson that morning, was delayed in securing a relay team at the ford on the Republican, and still had traveled ninety miles since sunrise. "If it wasn't for six-shooters in this country," said he, as he entered the tent, "we doctors would have little to do. Your men with the herd told me how the accident happened." Then to Forrest, "Son, think it'll ever happen again?"
"Certainly. I've noticed that similarity in all gunshot wounds: they usually offer good excuses. It's healing in its nature," commented the doctor, as he began removing the bandages. As the examination proceeded, there was a running comment maintained, bordering on the humorous.
"If there's no extra charge," said Forrest, "I wish you would allow the boys to see the wounds. You might also deliver a short lecture on the danger of carrying the hammer of a pistol on a loaded cartridge. The boys are young and may take the lesson seriously, but you're wasting good breath on me. Call the boys--I'm an old dog."
"Gunshot wounds are the only crop in this country," continued the doctor, ignoring the request, "not affected by the drouth. There's an occasional outbreak of Texas fever among cattle, but that's not in my department. Well, that bullet surely was hungry for muscle, but fortunately it had a distaste for bone. This is just a simple case of treatment and avoiding complications. Six weeks to two months and you can buckle on your six-shooter again. Hereafter, better wear it on the other side, and if another accident occurs, it'll give you a hitch in each leg and level you up.""But there may be no fool loafing around to borrow it," protested Forrest. "Never fear, son; the fool's eternal," replied the doctor, with a quiet wink at the others.
The presence and unconcern of the old physician dispelled all uneasiness, and the night passed without anxiety, save between the boys. Forrest's lecture to Dell during the day, of the importance of making friends with the drovers, the value of the water, the purchase of disabled cattle, was all carefully reviewed after the boys were snugly in bed. "Were you afraid of the men with the herd to-day?--afraid of the cowboys?" inquired Dell, when the former subject was exhausted."Why, no," replied Joel rather scornfully, from the security of his bunk; "who would be afraid? They are just like any other folks." Dell was skeptical. "Not like the pictures of cowboys?--not shooting and galloping their horses?"
"Why, you silly boy," said Joel, with contempt; "there wasn't a shot fired, their horses were never out of a walk, never wet a hair, and they changed to fresh ones at noon. The only difference I could see, they wore their hats at dinner. And they were surely cowboys, because they had over three thousand big beeves, and had come all the way from Texas.""I wish I could have gone," was Dell's only comment.
"Oh, it was a great sight," continued the privileged one. "The column of cattle was a mile long, the trail twice as wide as a city street, and the cattle seemed to walk in loose marching order, of their own accord. Not a man carried a whip; no one even shouted; no one as much as looked at the cattle; the men rode away off yonder. The herd seemed so easy to handle.""And how many men did it take?" insisted Dell.
"Only eleven with the herd. And they had such queer names for their places. Those in the lead were _point_ men, those in the middle were _swing_ men, and the one who brought up the rear was the _drag_ man. Then there was the cook, who drove the wagon, and the wrangler, who took care of the horses--over one hundred and forty head. They call the band of saddle horses the remuda; one of the men told me it was Spanish for relay--a relay of horses.""I'm going the next time," said Dell. "Mr. Quince said he would buy us a cow from the next herd that passed."
"These were all big beeves to-day, going to some fort on the Yellowstone River. And they had such wide, sweeping horns! And the smartest cattle! An hour before noon one of the point men gave a shrill whistle, and the whole column of beeves turned aside and began feeding. The men called it 'throwing the herd off the trail to graze.' It was just like saying _halt_! to soldiers--like we saw at that reunion in Ohio.""And you weren't afraid?" timidly queried the younger brother. "No one else was afraid, and why should I be? I was on horseback. Stop asking foolish questions and go to sleep," concluded Joel, with pitying finality, and turned to the wall.
"But suppose those big Texas beeves had stampeded, then what?" There was challenge in Dell's voice, but the brother vouchsafed no answer. A seniority of years had given one a twelve hours' insight over the other, in range cattle, and there was no common ground between sleepy bedfellows to justify further converse. "I piloted in the doctor, anyhow," said Dell defensively. No reply rewarded his assertion.
Morning brought little or no change in the condition of the wounds. The doctor was anxious to return, but Priest urged otherwise. "Let's call it Sunday," said he, "and not work to-day. Besides, if I overtake the herd, I'll have to make a hand. Wait until tomorrow, and we'll bear each other company. If another herd shows up on the trail to-day, it may have a cow. We must make these boys comfortable."
The doctor consented to stay over, and amused himself by quarreling with his patient. During the forenoon Priest and Joel rode out to the nearest high ground, from which a grove was seen on the upper Beaver. "That's what we call Hackberry Grove," said Joel, "and where we get our wood. The creek makes a big bend, and all the bottom land has grown up with timber, some as big as a man's body. It doesn't look very far away, but it takes all day to go and come, hauling wood. There's big springs just above, and the water never fails. That's what makes the trees so thrifty."
"Too bad your father didn't start a little ranch here," said Priest, surveying the scene. "It's a natural cattle range. There are the sand hills to the south; good winter shelter and a carpet of grass."
"We were too poor," frankly admitted the boy. "Every fall we had to go to the Solomon River to hunt work. With pa's pension, and what we could earn, we held down the homestead. Last fall we proved up; pa's service in the army counted on the residence required. It doesn't matter now if we do leave it. All Dell and I have to do is to keep the taxes paid."
"You would be doing wrong to leave this range," said the trail boss in fatherly tones. "There's a fortune in this grass, if you boys only had the cattle to eat it. Try and get a hundred cows on shares, or buy young steers on a credit.""Why, we have no money, and no one would credit boys," ruefully replied Joel.
"You have something better than either credit or money," frankly replied the cowman; "you control this range. Make that the basis of your beginning. All these cattle that are coming over the trail are hunting a market or a new owner. Convince any man that you have the range, and the cattle will be forthcoming to occupy it.""But we only hold a quarter-section of land," replied the boy in his bewilderment.
"Good. Take possession of the range, occupy it with cattle, and every one will respect your prior right," argued the practical man. "Range is being rapidly taken up in this western country. Here's your chance. Water and grass, world without end."
Joel was evidently embarrassed. Not that he questioned the older man's advice, but the means to the end seemed totally lacking. The grind of poverty had been his constant companion, until he scarcely looked forward to any reprieve, and the castles being built and the domain surveyed at the present moment were vague and misty. "I don't doubt your advice," admitted the boy. "A man could do it, you could, but Dell and I had better return to the settlements. Mr. Quince will surely be well by fall.""Will you make me a promise?" frankly asked the cowman.
"I will," eagerly replied the boy. "After I leave to-morrow morning, then, tell Forrest that you are thinking of claiming Beaver Creek as a cattle range. Ask him if he knows any way to secure a few cows and yearlings with which to stock it. In the mean time, think it over yourself. Will you do that?""Y-e-s, I--I will," admitted Joel, as if trapped into the promise.
"Of course you will. And ask him as if life and death depended on securing the cattle. Forrest has been a trail foreman and knows all the drovers and their men. He's liable to remain with you until the season ends. Now, don't fail to ask him.""Oh, I'll ask him," said Joel more cheerfully. "Did you say that control of a range was a basis on which to start a ranch, and that it had a value?"
"That's it. Now you're catching the idea. Lay hold and never lose sight of the fact that a range that will graze five to ten thousand cattle, the year round, is as good as money in the bank."
Joel's faculties were grappling with the idea. The two turned their horses homeward, casting an occasional glance to the southward, but were unrewarded by the sight of a dust cloud, the signal of an approaching herd. The trail foreman was satisfied that he had instilled interest and inquiry into the boy's mind, which, if carefully nurtured, might result in independence. They had ridden several miles, discussing different matters, and when within sight of the homestead, Joel reined in his horse. "Would you mind repeating," said he, "what you said awhile ago, about control of a range by prior rights?"
The trail foreman freely responded to the awakened interest. "On the range," said he, "custom becomes law. No doubt but it dates back to the first flocks and herds. Its foundations rest on a sense of equity and justice which has always existed among pastoral people. In America it dates from the first invasion of the Spanish. Among us Texans, a man's range is respected equally with his home. By merely laying claim to the grazing privileges of public domain, and occupying it with flocks or herds, the consent of custom gives a man possession. It is an asset that is bought and sold, and is only lost when abandoned. In all human migrations, this custom has followed flocks and herds. Title to land is the only condition to which the custom yields.""And we could claim this valley, by simply occupying it with cattle, and hold possession of its grazing privileges?" repeated the boy.
"By virtue of a custom, older than any law, you surely can. It's primal range to-day. This is your epoch. The buffalo preceded you, the settler, seeking a home, will follow you. The opportunity is yours. Go in and win."
"But how can we get a start of cattle?" pondered Joel. "Well, after I leave, you're going to ask Forrest that question. That old boy knows all the ins and outs, and he may surprise you. There's an old maxim about where there's a will there's a way. Now if you have the will, I've a strong suspicion that your Mr. Quince will find the way. Try him, anyhow.""Oh, I will," assured Joel; "the first thing in the morning."
The leaven of interest had found lodgment. A pleasant evening was spent in the tent. Before excusing the lads for the night, Priest said to the doctor: "This is a fine cattle range, and I'd like your opinion about these boys starting a little ranch on the Beaver."
"Well," said the old physician, looking from Joel to Dell, "there are too many lawyers and doctors already. The farmers raise nothing out here, and about the only prosperous people I meet are you cowmen. You ride good horses, have means to secure your needs, and your general health is actually discouraging to my profession. Yes, I think I'll have to approve of the suggestion. A life in the open, an evening by a camp-fire, a saddle for a pillow--well, I wish I had my life to live over. It wouldn't surprise me to hear of Wells Brothers making a big success as ranchmen. They have health and youth, and there's nothing like beginning at the bottom of the ladder. In fact, the proposition has my hearty approval. Fight it out, boys; start a ranch.""Come on, Dell," said Joel, leading the way; "these gentlemen want to make an early start. You'll have to bring in the horses while I get breakfast. Come on."
The Bottom Rung
An early start was delayed. Joel had figured without his guest, as the Texan stands in a class by himself. The peace and serenity of pastoral life affects its people, influencing their normal natures into calm and tranquil ways. Hence, instead of the expected start at sunrise, after breakfast the trail foreman languidly sauntered out to the corral, followed by the boys.
The old physician, even, grew impatient. "What on earth do you think is detaining that man?" he inquired of Forrest. "Here the sun is nearly an hour high, and not a wheel turning. And I can see him from the tent opening, sitting on a log, flicking the ground with his quirt and chatting with those boys. What do you suppose they are talking about?"
"Well, now, that's a hard question," answered Forrest. "I'll chance the subject is of no importance. Just a little social powwow with the boys, most likely. Sit down, Doctor, and take life easy--the cows will calve in the spring."Patience had almost ceased to be a virtue when the trail boss put in an appearance at the tent. "You are in no particular hurry, are you, Doctor?" he inquired, with a friendly smile.
"Oh, no," said the physician, with delightful irony; "I was just thinking of having the team unhooked, and lay over another day. Still, I am some little distance from home, and have a family that likes to see me occasionally."
The buckboard rattled away. "Come in the tent," called Forrest to the boys. "If old Paul sees you standing out there, he's liable to think of something and come back. Honestly, when it comes to killing time, that old boy is the bell steer."
Only three were now left at the homestead. The first concern was to intercept the next passing herd. Forrest had a wide acquaintance among trail foremen, had met many of them at Dodge only ten days before, while passing that supply point, and it was a matter of waiting until a herd should appear.
There was little delay. Joel was sent at ten o'clock to the nearest swell, and Dell an hour later. The magic was working overtime; the dust cloud was there! In his haste to deliver the message, the sentinel's horse tore past the tent and was only halted at the corral. "It's there!" he shouted, returning, peering through the tent-flaps. "They're coming; another herd's coming. It's in the dip behind the first divide. Shall I go? I saw it first."
"Dismount and rest your saddle," said Forrest. "Come in and let's make a little medicine. If this herd has one, here's where we get a cow. Come in and we'll plot against the Texans."
With great misgiving, Dell dismounted. As he entered the tent, Forrest continued: "Sit on the corner of my bunk, and we'll talk the situation over. Oh, I'm going to send you, never fear. Now, the trouble is, we don't know whose herd this may be, and you must play innocent and foxy. If the herd is behind the first divide, it'll water in the Beaver about four o'clock. Now, ride down the creek and keep your eagle eye open for a lone horseman, either at the crossing or on the trail. That's the foreman, and that's the man we want to see. He may be ten miles in the lead of his herd, and you want to ride straight to him. Give him all the information you can regarding the water, and inquire if this is one of Lovell's herds. That will put you on a chatting basis, and then lead up to your errand. Tell him that you are running a trail hospital, and that you have a wounded man named Quince Forrest at your camp, and ask the foreman to come up and see him. Once you get him here, your work is over, except going back after the cow."
Dell was impatient to be off, and started for the opening. "Hold on," commanded Forrest, "or I'll put a rope on you. Now, ride slowly, let your horse set his own pace, and don't come back without your man. Make out that I'm badly wounded, and that you feel uneasy that blood poisoning may set in."
The messenger lost no time in getting away. Once out of sight of the tent, Dell could not resist the temptation to gallop his mount over level places. Carrying the weight of a boy was nothing to the horse, and before half an hour had passed, the ford and trail came in view of the anxious courier. Halting in order to survey the horizon, the haze and heatwaves of summer so obstructed his view that every object looked blurred and indistinct. Even the dust cloud was missing; and pushing on a mile farther, he reined in again. Now and then in the upper sky, an intervening cloud threw a shadow over the plain, revealing objects more distinctly. For a moment one rested over the trail crossing, and like prophecy fulfilled, there was the lone horseman at the ford!
In the waste places it is a pleasure to unexpectedly meet a fellow being. Before being observed, Dell rode within hailing distance, greeting, and man and boy were soon in friendly converse. There was water sufficient for all needs, the herd required no pilot, the summons found a ready response, and the two were soon riding up the Beaver in a jog trot.
The gait admitted of free conversation, and the new foreman soon had Dell on the defensive. "I always hate to follow a Lovell outfit," said the stranger regretfully; "they're always in trouble. Old man Don's a nice enough man, but he sure works sorry outfits on the trail. I've been expecting to hear something like this. If it isn't rebranding their saddle stock with nigger brands, it's sure to be something worse. And now that flat-headed Quince Forrest plows a fire-guard down his own leg with a six-shooter! Well, wouldn't that sour sweet milk!"
"Oh, it wasn't his fault," protested Dell; "he only loaned his pistol, and it was returned with the hammer on a cartridge."
"Of course," disgustedly assented the trail boss; "with me it's an old story. Hadn't no more sabe than to lend his gun to some prowling tenderfoot. More than likely he urged its loan on this short-horn. Yes, I know Colonel Forrest; I've known him to bet his saddle and ride bareback as the result. It shows his cow-sense. Rather shallow-brained to be allowed so far from home."
"That's his hindsight," said the trail foreman. "If the truth ever comes out, you'll notice his foresight was different. Colonel Quince is famous, after the horse is stolen, for locking the stable door. That other time he offered to take an oath, on a stack of Bibles, never to bet his saddle again. The trouble is the game never repeats; the play never comes up twice alike. If that old boy's gray matter ever comes to full bloom, long before his allotted time, he'll wither away."
Dell was discouraged. He realized that his defense of his friend was weak. This second foreman seemed so different from either Priest or Forrest. He spoke with such deep regret of the seeming faults of others that the boy never doubted his sincerity. He even questioned Dell with such an innocent countenance that the lad withered before his glance, and became disheartened at the success of the errand. Forced to the defense continually, on several occasions Dell nearly betrayed the object of bringing the new man to the homestead, but in each instance was saved by some fortunate turn in the conversation. Never was sight more welcome than the tent, glistening in the sun, and never was relief from duty more welcome to a courier. The only crumb of comfort left to the boy who had ridden forth so boldly was that he had not betrayed the object of his mission and had brought the range men together. Otherwise his banner was trailing in the dust.
The two rode direct to the tent. During the middle of the day, in order to provide free ventilation, the walls were tucked up, and the flaps, rear and front, thrown wide open. Stretched on his bunk, Forrest watched the opening, and when darkened by the new arrival, the wounded man's greeting was most cordial. "Well, if it isn't old Nat Straw," said he, extending his hand. "Here, I've been running over in my mind the different trail bosses who generally go north of the Platte River, but you escaped my memory. It must have gotten into my mind, somehow, that you had married and gone back to chopping cotton. Still driving for Uncle Jess Ellison, I reckon?"
"Yes, still clerking for the same drover," admitted Straw, glancing at the wounded limb. "What's this I hear about you laying off, and trying to eat some poor nester out of house and home? You must be getting doty."
"Enjoy yourself, Nat. The laugh's on me. I'm getting discouraged that I'll ever have common horse sense. Isn't it a shame to be a fool all your life!"
Straw glanced from the bunk to Dell. "I was just telling the boy, as we rode up the creek, that you needed a whole heap of fixing in your upper loft. The poor boy tried his best to defend you, but it was easy to see that he hadn't known you long."
"And of course you strung him for all he could carry," said Forrest. "Here, Dell. You were in such a hurry to get away that I overlooked warning you against these trail varmints. Right now, I can see old Nat leading you in under a wet blanket, and your colors dragging. Don't believe a word he told you, and don't even give him a pleasant look while he stays here."
The discouraged boy brightened, and Joel and Dell were excused, to water and picket the horses. "You ought to be ashamed of yourself," resumed Forrest, "brow-beating that boy. Considering my hard luck, I've fallen into angels' hands. These boys are darling fellows. Now before you leave, square yourself with that youngest one."
"A little jollying while he's young won't hurt him," replied Straw. "It's not a bad idea to learn early to believe nothing that you hear and only half of what you see. If you had been taken snipe hunting oftener when you were young, it wouldn't hurt you any now. There are just about so many knocks coming to each of us, and we've got to take them along with the croup, chicken-pox, measles, and mumps."
During the absence of the boys, Forrest informed Straw of the sad condition which confronted the lads, when accident and necessity threw him into their hands. He also repeated Priest's opinion of the valuable range, unoccupied above on the Beaver, and urged his assistance in securing some cattle with which to stock and claim it for the boys.
"There's plenty of flotsam on the trail," said he, "strays and sore-footed cattle, to occupy this valley and give these boys a start in life. I never even got thanked for a stray, and I've turned hundreds of them loose on these upper ranges, refused on the delivery of a herd. Somebody gets them, and I want these boys of mine to get a few hundred head during this summer. Here's the place to drop your cripples and stray cows. From what Paul says, there's range above here for thousands of cattle, and that's the foundation of a ranch. Without a hoof on it, it has a value in proportion to its carrying capacity, and Priest and I want these boys to secure it. They've treated me white, and I'm going to make a fight for them."
The appeal was not in vain. "Why not," commented Straw. "Let me in and we'll make it three-handed. My herd is contracted again this year to the same cattle company on the Crazy Woman, in Wyoming, as last season, and I want to fool them this trip. They got gay on my hands last summer, held me down to the straight road brand at delivery, and I'll see to it that there are no strays in my herd this year. I went hungry for fresh beef, and gave those sharks over forty good strays. They knew I'd have to leave them behind me. Watch me do it again."
"About how many have you now, and how do they run?" "They're a hit-and-miss lot, like strays always are. Run from a good cow down to yearlings. There ought to be about twenty-five head, and I'll cut you out five or six cripples. They could never make it through, nohow.""Any calves among the strays?" "Two or three." "Good enough. Give each of the boys a cow and calf, and the others to me. We'll let on that I've bought them."
That no time might be lost in friendly chat, a late dinner was eaten in the tent. Straw would have to meet his herd at the trail crossing that afternoon, which would afford an opportunity to cut out all strays and cripples. One of the boys would return with him, for the expected cow, and when volunteers were called for, Dell hesitated in offering his services. "I'll excuse you," said Straw to Joel, who had jumped at the chance. "I'm a little weak on this red-headed boy, and when a cow hand picks on me for his side partner, the choice holds until further orders. Bring in the horses off picket, son, and we'll be riding."
The latter order was addressed to Dell. No sooner had the boy departed than Straw turned to Joel. "I've fallen head over ears in love with the idea of this trail hospital. Just where it ought to be; just about midway between Dodge and Ogalalla. Of course I'm hog wild to get in on it. I might get a man hurt any day, might get sick myself, and I want to be a stockholder in this hospital of yours. What's your favorite color in cows?"
Joel's caution caused him to hesitate. "If you have one, send me a milk-white cow _with a black face_" instantly said Forrest. "White cows are rich in cream, and I'm getting peevish, having to drink black coffee.""A white cow for you," said Straw, nodding to Forrest, "and what color for you?" But Joel, although half convinced, made no answer. "Send him a red one," authorized Forrest; "red steers bring a dollar a head more than mongrel colors."
"A red cow and calf for Joel, a white one for milk, and Dell can pick his own," said Straw, murmuring a memorandum. "Now, that little passel of cripples, and odds and ends," again nodding to Forrest, "that I'm sawing off on you, I'll bring them up with the cows. Yes, I'm coming back and stay all night."
Joel lost all doubts on the moment. The trail boss was coming back, was going to bring each one a cow. There was no question but that this stranger had the cattle in his possession; surely he would not trifle with his own people, with an unfortunate, wounded man. All this seemed so in keeping with the partial outline of Priest, the old gray-haired foreman, that the boy's caution gave place to firm belief. If generous princes ever walked the earth, it was just possible that liberal ones in the rough were still riding it in disguise. Joel hastened to his brother with the news. "It's all right," said he, throwing the saddle on Straw's horse. "You go right along with this strange foreman. He gave Mr. Quince a milk cow, a white one, and you're to pick one for yourself. If I were going in your place, I'd pick a red one; red cattle are worth a dollar a head more than any other color."There was something in Joel's voice that told Dell that his brother had not been forgotten. "And you?--don't you?" stammered the younger boy.
"Mr. Quince picked out a cow and calf for me," replied Joel, with a loftiness that two years' seniority confers on healthy boys. "I left it to him to choose mine. You'd better pick out a red one. And say, this hospital of ours is the real thing. It's the only one between Dodge and Ogalalla. This strange foreman wants to take stock in it. I wonder if that was what he meant by sawing off a little passel of cattle on Mr. Quince. Now, don't argue or ask foolish questions, but keep your eyes and ears open."
Fortified anew in courage, Dell accompanied the trail boss to meet his herd. It was a short hour's ride, and on sighting the cattle, then nearing the crossing, they gave rein to their horses and rode for the rear of the long column, where, in the rear-guard of the trailing cattle, naturally the sore and tender-footed animals were to be found. The drag men knew them to a hoof, were delighted to hear that all cripples were to be dropped, and half a dozen were cut off and started up the Beaver. "Nurse them to the nearest water," said Straw to the drag men, "and then push them up the creek until I overtake you. Here's where we drop our strays and cripples. What? No, I'm only endowing a trail hospital."
The herd numbered thirty-one hundred two-year-old steers. They filled the channel of the Beaver for a mile around the crossing, crowding into the deeper pools, and thrashing up and down the creek in slaking their thirst. Dell had never seen so many cattle, almost as uniform in size as that many marbles, and the ease with which a few men handled the herd became a nine-day wonder to the astonished boy. And when the word passed around to cut all strays up the creek, the facility with which the men culled out the alien down to one class and road brand, proved them masters in the craft. It seemed as easily done as selecting a knife from among the other trinkets in a boy's pocket.
After a change of mounts for the foreman, Dell and the trail boss drifted the strays up the creek. The latter had counted and classed them as cut out of the herd, and when thrown together with the cripples, the promised little passel numbered thirty-five cattle, not counting three calves. Straw excused his men, promising to overtake them the next morning, and man and boy drifted the nucleus of a future ranch toward the homestead.
"Barring that white cow and the red one with the speckled calf," said Straw to Dell, pointing out each, "you're entitled to pick one for yourself. Now, I'm not going to hurry you in making your choice. Any time before we sight the tent and shack, you are to pick one for your own dear cow, and stand by your choice, good or bad. Remember, it carries my compliments to you, as one of the founders of the first hospital on the Texas and Montana cattle trail."
Two miles below the homestead, the half-dozen cripples were dropped to the rear. "You can come back to-morrow morning and get these tender steers," said the foreman, "and drift them up above the improvements. You'll find them near here on the water. Now, we'll sight the tent around the next bend, and you may point out your choice."
"Yes, but when your choice is a beef, that black cow and her increase would buy two beeves. Dell, if you ever get to be a cowman, you'll have to do some of your own thinking."
Dell's mistake was in listening to others. Joel was equally guilty, as his lofty comments regarding red cattle were derived from the random remarks of Forrest. The brothers were novices in range cattle, and Dell's error was based in not relying on his own judgment.
On sighting the approaching cattle, Forrest's bunk was eased around to the tent opening, Joel holding the flaps apart, and the little herd was grazed past at a snail's pace in review. Leaving Dell to nurse the nucleus past the improvements, Straw dismounted at the tent. "Well," said he, handing the bridle reins to Joel, "that red-headed Dell is surely the making of a great cowman. All successful men begin at the bottom of the ladder, and he surely put his foot on the lowest rung. What do you suppose his choice was?""The bottom rung suggests a yearling," said Forrest. "Stand up. You spelled the word correct. I'm a sheep herder, if he didn't pick out the only, little, old, red, dobe steer in the entire bunch!" Forrest eased himself down on the bunk, unable to restrain his laughter. "Well," said he, "we all have to learn, and no one can say Dell wasn't true to his colors."
The Brothers Claim A Range
The next morning Straw dallied about until Dell brought up the crippled cattle. They were uniform in size; rest was the one thing needful, and it now would be theirs amid bountiful surroundings. They were driven up among the others, now scattered about in plain sight in the valley above, presenting a morning scene of pastoral contentment.
"Even the calves are playing this morning," said Straw to Forrest, as the former entered the tent. "A few cattle surely make this valley look good. What you want to do now is to keep on drawing more. Don't allow no outfit to pass without chipping in, at least give them the chance, and this trail hospital will be on velvet in no time. Of course, all Lovell outfits will tear their shirts boosting the endowment fund, but that needn't bar the other herds. Some outfits may have no cattle, but they can chip in a sore-back or crippled pony. My idea is to bar no one, and if they won't come in, give them a chance to say they don't want to. You ought to send word back to Dodge; any foreman going east or west from there would give you his strays."
The conception of a trail refuge had taken root. The supply points were oases for amusement, but a halfway haven for the long stretches of unsettled country, during the exodus of Texas cattle to the Northwest, was an unknown port. The monotony of from three to five months on the trail, night and day work, was tiring to men, while a glass of milk or even an hour in the shade was a distinct relief. Straw was reluctant to go, returning to make suggestions, by way of excuse, and not until forced by the advancing day did he mount and leave to overtake his herd.
Again the trio was left alone. Straw had given Forrest a list of brands and a classification of the cattle contributed, and a lesson in reading brands was given the boys. "Brands read from left to right," said Forrest to the pair of attentive listeners, "or downward. If more than one brand is on an animal, the upper one is the holding or one in which ownership is vested. Character brands are known by name, and are used because difficult to alter. There is scarcely a letter in the alphabet that a cattle thief can't change. When a cow brute leaves its home range, it's always a temptation to some rustler to alter the brand, and characters are not so easily changed."
The importance of claiming the range was pressing, and now that cattle were occupying it, the opportunity presented itself. A notice was accordingly written, laying claim to all grazing rights, from the Texas and Montana trail crossing on Beaver to the headwaters of the same, including all its tributaries, by virtue of possession and occupancy vested in the claimants, Wells Brothers. "How does that sound?" inquired Forrest, its author, giving a literal reading of the notice. "Nothing small or stingy about that, eh? When you're getting, get a-plenty."
"But where are we to get the cattle to stock such a big country?" pondered Joel. "It's twenty miles to the head of this creek."
"We might as well lay big plans as little ones. Here's where we make a spoon or spoil a horn. Saddle a horse and post this notice down at the trail crossing. Sink a stake where every one can see it, and nail your colors to the sign-board. We are the people, and must be respected."
Joel hastened away to post the important notice. Dell was detailed on sentinel duty, on lookout for another herd, but each trip he managed to find some excuse to ride among the cattle. "What's the brand on my white cow?" inquired Forrest, the object leading up to another peculiarity in color."I couldn't _read_ it," said Dell, airing his range parlance. "No? Well, did you ever see a white cow with a black face?" inquired the wounded man, coming direct to the matter at issue. "Not that I remember; why?"
"Because there never lived such a colored cow. Nature has one color that she never mars. You can find any colored cow with a white face, but you'll never find a milk-white cow with a colored face. That line is drawn, and you want to remember it. You'll never shoot a wild swan with a blue wing, or see yellow snowflakes fall, or meet a pure white cow with a black face. Hereafter, if any one attempts to send you on a wild-goose chase, to hunt such a cow, tell them that no such animal ever walked this earth."Joel returned before noon. No sign of an approaching herd was sighted by the middle of the afternoon, and the trio resigned themselves to random conversation. "Dell," said Forrest, "it's been on my mind all day to ask you why you picked a yearling yesterday when you had a chance to take a cow. Straw laughed at you." "Because Joel said red cattle were worth a dollar a head more than any other color." "Young man," inquired Forrest of Joel, "what's your authority for that statement?" "Didn't you pick me a red cow yesterday, and didn't you admit to Mr. Straw that red cattle were worth the most?" said Joel, in defense of his actions.
"And you rushed away and palmed my random talking off on Dell as original advice? You'll do. Claiming a little more than you actually know will never hurt you any. Now here's a prize for the best brand reader: The boy who brings me a correct list of brands, as furnished by Straw, gets my white cow and calf as a reward. I want the road and ranch brand on the cripples, and the only or holding brand on the others. Now, fool one another if you can. Ride through them slowly, and the one who brings me a perfect list is my bully boy."
The incentive of reward stimulated the brothers to action. They scampered away on ponies, not even waiting to saddle, and several hours were spent in copying brands. These included characters, figures, and letters, and to read them with skill was largely a matter of practice. Any novice ought to copy brands, but in this instance the amateur's list would be compared with that of an experienced trail foreman, a neutral judge from which there was no appeal.
The task occupied the entire evening. Forrest not only had them read, but looked over each copy, lending impartial assistance in reading characters that might baffle a boy. There were some half dozen of the latter in Straw's list, a _turkey track_ being the most difficult to interpret, but when all characters were fully understood, Joel still had four errors to Dell's three. The cripples were found to be correct in each instance, and were exempt from further disturbance. Forrest now insisted that to classify, by enumerating each grade, would assist in locating the errors, which work would have to be postponed until morning.
The boys were thoroughly in earnest in mastering the task. Forrest regaled them with examples of the wonderful expertness of the Texans in reading brands and classifying cattle. "Down home," said he, "we have boys who read brands as easily as a girl reads a novel. I know men who can count one hundred head of mixed cattle, as they leave a corral, or trail along, and not only classify them but also give you every brand correctly. Now, that's the kind of cowmen I aim to make out of you boys, and to-morrow morning you must get these brands accurate. What was that?"Both boys sprang to the tent opening and listened. It sounded like a shot, and within a few moments was seconded by a distant hail. "Some one must be lost," suggested Joel. "He's down the creek."
"Lost your grandmother!" exclaimed Forrest. "We're all lost in this country. Here, fire this six-shooter in the air, and follow it up with a Comanche yell. Dell, build a little fire on the nearest knoll. It's more than likely some trail man hunting this camp."
The signal-fire was soon burning. The only answer vouchsafed was some fifteen minutes later, when the clatter of an approaching horse was distinctly heard. A lantern shone through the tent walls, and the prompt hail of the horseman proved him no stranger. "Is Quince Forrest here?" he inquired, as his horse shied at the tent.
"He is. Come in, Dorg," said Forrest, recognizing by his voice the horseman without to be Dorg Seay, one of Don Lovell's foremen. "Come in and let us feast our eyes on your handsome face."
Seay peeped within and timidly entered. "Well," said he, pulling at a straggling mustache, "evidently it isn't as bad as reported. Priest wrote back to old man Don that you had attempted suicide--unfortunate in love was the reason given--and I have orders to inquire into your health or scatter flowers on your grave. Able to sit up and take notice?--no complications, I hope?""When did you leave Dodge?" inquired Forrest, ignoring Seay's persiflage.
"About a week ago. A telegram was waiting me on the railroad, and I rode through this afternoon. If this ranch boasts anything to eat, now would be an awful nice time to mention it."Seay's wants were looked after. "How many herds between here and the railroad?" inquired Forrest, resuming the conversation. "Only one ahead of mine. In fact, I'm foreman of both herds--live with the lead one and occasionally go back and see my own. It all depends on who feeds best." "And when will your herd reach the Beaver?" continued Forrest. "I left orders to water my lead herd in the Beaver at three o'clock to-morrow, and my own dear cattle will be at their heels. My outfit acts as rear-guard to Blocker's herd."
These men, in the employ of the same drover, had not seen each other in months, and a fire of questions followed, and were answered. The chronicle of the long drive, of accident by flood and field, led up to the prospects for a northern demand for cattle.
"The market has barely opened in Dodge," said Seay, in reply to a question. "Unless the herds are sold or contracted, very few will leave Dodge for the Platte River before the first of July. Old man Don isn't driving a hoof that isn't placed, so all his herds will pass Ogalalla before the first of the month. The bulk of the drive going north of the Platte will come next month. With the exception of scattering herds, the first of August will end the drive."The men talked far into the night. When they were left alone in the tent, Forrest unfolded his plans for starting the boys in life.
"We found them actually on their uppers," said he; "they hadn't tasted meat in months, and were living on greens and garden truck. It's a good range, and we must get them some cattle. The first year may be a little tough, but by drawing on all of Lovell's wagons for the necessary staples, we can provision them until next spring. You must leave some flour and salt and beans and the like."
"Beans!" echoed Seay. "That will surely tickle my cook. Did you ever notice that the farther north it goes, a Texas trail outfit gets tastier? Let it start out on bacon and beans and blackstrap, and after the herd crosses the Platte, the varmints want prairie chicken and fried trout. Tasty! Why, those old boys develop an elegant taste for dainties. Nothing but good old beef ever makes them even think of home again. Yes, my cook will give you his last bean, and make a presentation speech gratis."
Forrest's wound had begun to mend, the soreness and swelling had left the knee joint, and the following morning Seay spent in making crutches. Crude and for temporary use, the wounded man tried them out, and by assistance reached the entrance, where he was eased into an old family rocking-chair in the shade of the tent.
"This has been the dream of my life," said he, "to sit like some old patriarch in my tent door and count my cattle. See that white cow yonder?" pointing with a crutch. "Well, she belongs to your uncle John Quincy. And that reminds me that she and her calf are up as a reward to complete the roll of brands. Boys, are you ready?"
The revised lists were submitted for inspection. Compared with the one rendered by Straw, there was still a difference in Dell's regarding a dun cow, while Joel's list varied on three head. Under the classification the errors were easily located, and summoning the visiting foreman, Forrest explained the situation.
"I'll have to appoint you umpire in deciding this matter. Here's the roll furnished by Nat Straw, and you'll compare it with Dell and Joel's. Of course, old Nat didn't care a whoopee about getting the list perfect, and my boy may be right on that dun cow. Joel differs on a three-year-old, a heifer, and a yearling steer. Now, get them straight, because we're expecting to receive more cattle this evening. Pass on these brands before you leave to meet your herd this afternoon. And remember, there's a cow and calf at stake for whichever one of these boys first gets the roll correct."
After dinner the three rode away for a final inspection. The cattle were lazy and logy from water, often admitting of riding within a rod, thus rendering the brands readable at a glance. Dell led the way to the dun cow, but before Seay could pass an opinion, the boy called for his list in possession of the man. "Let me take my roll a minute," said he, "and I'll make the correction. It isn't a four bar four, it's four equals four; there's two bars instead of one. The cow and calf is mine. That gives me three."
The lust of possession was in Dell's voice. The reward had been fairly earned, and turning to the other cattle in dispute, Joel's errors were easily corrected. All three were in one brand, and the mere failure to note the lines of difference between the figure eight and the letter S had resulted in repeating the mistake. Seay amused himself by pointing out different animals and calling for their brands, and an envious rivalry resulted between the brothers, in their ability to read range script.
"A good eye and a good memory," said Seay, as they rode homeward, "are gifts to a cowman. A brand once seen is hardly ever forgotten. Twenty years hence, you boys will remember all these brands. One man can read brands at twice the distance of another, and I have seen many who could distinguish cattle from horses, with the naked eye, at a distance of three miles. When a man learns to know all there is about cattle, he ought to be getting gray around the edges."
Forrest accepted the umpire's report. "I thought some novice might trip his toe on that equality sign," said he. "There's nothing like having studied your arithmetic. Dell's been to school, and it won him a cow and calf when he saw the sign used as a brand. I wonder how he is on driving mules."
"Very well. Hook up the old team. I'm sending you down to the trail crossing to levy on two commissary wagons. Take everything they give you and throw out a few hints for more. This afternoon we begin laying in a year's provisions. It may be a cold winter, followed by a late spring, and there's nothing like having enough. Relieve them of all their dried fruits, and make a strong talk for the staples of life. I may want to winter here myself, and a cow camp should make provision for more or less company."
Seay lent his approval. "Hitch up and rattle along ahead of me," said he. "The wagons may reach the crossing an hour or two ahead of the herds, and I'll be there to help you trim them down to light traveling form."
It proved an active afternoon. The wagon was started for the trail crossing, followed by Seay within half an hour. Joel was in a quandary, between duty and desire, as he was anxious to see the passing herds, yet a bond of obligation to the wounded man required his obedience. Forrest had noticed the horse under saddle, the impatience of the boy, but tactfully removed all uneasiness.
"I have been trying to figure out," said he, "how I could spare you this afternoon, as no doubt you would like to see the herds, but we have so much to do at home. Now that I can hobble out, you must get me four poles, and we will strip this fly off the tent and make a sunshade out of it--make an arbor in front of our quarters. Have the props ready, and in the morning Seay will show you how to stretch a tarpaulin for a sunshade. And then along towards evening, you must drift our little bunch of cattle at least a mile up the creek. I'm expecting more this evening, and until we learn the brands on this second contingent, they must be kept separate. And then, since we've claimed it, we want to make a showing of occupying the range, by scattering the cattle over it. Within a month, our cows must rest in the shade of Hackberry Grove and be watering out of those upper springs. When you take a country, the next thing is to hold it."
Something to do was a relief to Joel. Willow stays, for the arbor, were cut, the bark peeled off, and the poles laid ready at hand. When the cattle arose, of their own accord, from the noonday rest, the impatient lad was allowed to graze them around the bend of the creek. There was hardly enough work to keep an active boy employed, and a social hour ensued. "Things are coming our way," said Forrest. "This man Seay will just about rob Blocker's outfit. When it comes to making a poor mouth, that boy Dorg is in a class by himself. Dell will just about have a wagon load. You boys will have to sleep in the tent hereafter."
It proved so. The team returned an hour before sunset, loaded to the carrying capacity of the wagon. Not only were there remnants in the staples of life, but kegs of molasses and bags of flour and beans, while a good saddle, coils of rope, and a pair of new boots which, after a wetting, had proven too small for the owner, were among the assets. It was a motley assortment of odds and ends, a free discard of two trail outfits, all of which found an acceptable lodgment at the new ranch.
"They're coming up to supper," announced Dell to Forrest. "Mr. Blocker's foreman knows you, and sent word to get up a spread. He says that when he goes visiting, he expects his friends to not only put on the little and big pot, but kill a chicken and churn. He's such a funny fellow. He made me try on those boots, and when he saw they would fit, he ordered their owner, one of Mr. Seay's men, to give them to me or he would fight him at sunrise."
"Had them robbing each other for us, eh?" said Forrest, smiling. "Well, that's the kind of friend to have when settling up a new country. This ranch is like a fairy story. Here I sit and wave my crutch for a wand, and everything we need seems to just bob up out of the plain. Cattle coming along to stock a ranch, old chum coming to supper, in fact, everything coming our way. Dell, get up a banquet--who cares for expense!"
It was barely dusk when the second contingent of cattle passed above the homestead and were turned loose for the night. As before, the cripples had been dropped midway, and would be nursed up the next morning. With the assistance of crutches, Forrest managed to reach the opening, and by clinging to the tent-pole, waved a welcome to the approaching trail men.
Blocker's foreman, disdaining an invitation to dismount, saluted his host. "There's some question in my mind," said he, "as to what kind of a dead-fall you're running up here, but if it's on the square, there goes my contribution to your hospital. Of course, the gift carries the compliments of my employer, Captain John. That red-headed boy delivered my messages, I reckon? Well, now, make out that I'm somebody that's come a long way, and that you're tickled to death to see me, and order the fatted calf killed. Otherwise, I won't even dismount."
A Fall Of Crumbs
An active day followed. The two trail foremen left early to overtake their herds, and the trio at the homestead was fully employed. The cripples were brought up, brands were copied, and the commissary stores assorted and arranged. Before leaving, the men had stretched the sunshade, and the wounded magician sat in state before his own tent door.
The second contingent numbered forty cattle. Like the first, they were a mixed lot, with the exception of a gentle cow. Occasionally a trail foreman would provide his outfit with a milk cow before starting, or gentle one en route, and Seay had willingly given his cow to the hospital on the Beaver.
A fine rain fell during the night. It began falling during the twilight of evening, gathering in force as the hours passed, and only ceased near the middle of the following forenoon. The creek filled to its banks, the field and garden freshened in a day, and the new ranch threw off the blight of summer drouth.
"This will bring the herds," said Forrest, as the sun burst forth at noon. "It's a general rain, and every one in Dodge, now that water is sure, will pull out for the Platte River. It will cool the weather and freshen the grass, and every drover with herds on the trail will push forward for Ogalalla. We'll have to patrol the crossing on the Beaver, as the rain will lay the dust for a week and rob us of our signal."
The crippled man's words proved prophetic. One of the boys was daily detailed to ride to the first divide south, from which a herd, if timing its march to reach the Beaver within a day, could be sighted. On a primal trace, like the Texas and Montana cattle trail, every benefit to the herd was sought, and the freshened range and running water were a welcome breeze to the drover's sail.
The first week after the rain only three herds reached the Beaver. Each foreman paid his respects to Forrest at the homestead, but the herds were heavy beef cattle, purchased at Dodge for delivery on army contracts, and were outfitted anew on a change of owners. The usual flotsam of crippled and stray cattle, of galled and lame saddle stock, and of useless commissary supplies, was missing, and only the well wishes of the wayfaring were left to hearten man and boy at the new ranch.
The second week brought better results. Four of Don Lovell's herds passed within two days, and the nucleus of cattle increased to one hundred and forty odd, seven crippled horses were left, while the commissary stores fairly showered, a second wagon load being necessary to bring up the cache from the trail crossing. In all, during the week, fifteen herds passed, only three of which refused the invitation to call, while one was merely drifting along in search of a range to take up and locate with a herd of cattle. Its owners, new men in the occupation, were scouting wide, and when one of them discovered Hackberry Grove above the homestead, his delight was unbounded, as the range met every requirement for establishing a ranch.
The tyro's exultation was brief. On satisfying himself on the source of the water, the splendid shade and abundance of fuel, he rode down the creek to intercept the trail, and on rounding a bend of the Beaver, was surprised to sight a bunch of cattle. Knowing the value of the range, Forrest had urged the boys to nurse the first contingent of strays up the creek, farther and farther, until they were then ranging within a mile of the grove. The newcomer could hardly control his chagrin, and as he rode along, scarcely a mile was passed but more cattle were encountered, and finally the tent and homestead loomed in sight.
Only Joel and Forrest were at home. "Not exactly," replied the latter; "this is headquarters ranch of Wells Brothers; range from the trail crossing on Beaver to the headwaters of the same. On the trail with cattle, I reckon?"
"Just grazing along until a range can be secured," replied the man. "I've found a splendid one only a few miles up the creek--fine grove of timber and living springs. If the range suits my partner, we'll move in within a few days and take possession.""Notice any cattle as you came down the creek?" politely inquired Forrest. "Just a few here and there. They look like strays; must have escaped from some trail herd. If we decide to locate above, I'll have them all rounded up and pushed down the creek."
Joel scented danger as a cub wolf scents blood. He crossed the arbor and took up a position behind Forrest's chair. The latter was a picture of contentment, smiling at the assurance of his caller, and qualifying his remarks with rare irony."Well, since you expect to be our neighbor, better unsaddle and stay for dinner," urged Forrest. "Let's get acquainted--at least, come to some friendly understanding." "No, thank you. My partner is waiting my return to the herd, and will be anxious for my report on the range above. If possible, we don't care to locate any farther north." "You ought to have secured your range before you bought your cattle. You seem to have the cart before the horse," observed the wounded man. "Oh," said the novice, with a sweeping gesture, "there's plenty of unclaimed range. There's ample grass and water on this creek to graze five thousand cattle." "Wells Brothers estimate that the range, tributary to the Beaver, will carry ten thousand head the year round," replied Forrest, languidly indifferent.
"Who are Wells Brothers?" inquired the newcomer. Forrest turned to the stranger as if informing a child. "You have the name correct," said he. "The brothers took this range some time ago, and those cattle that you met up the creek are theirs. Before you round up any cattle and drive them out, you had better look into the situation thoroughly. You surely know and respect range customs.""Well," said the stranger explosively,--they mustn't expect to hold the whole country with a handful of cattle." "They only took the range recently, and are acquiring cattle as fast as possible," politely replied Forrest.
"They can't hold any more country than they can occupy," authoritatively asserted the novice. "All we want is a range for a thousand cows, and I've decided on that hackberry grove as headquarters."
"Your hearing seems defective," remarked Forrest in flute-like tones. "Let me repeat: This is headquarters for Wells Brothers. Their range runs from the trail crossing, six miles below, to the headwaters of Beaver, including all its tributaries. Since you can't stay for dinner, you'll have time to ride down to the crossing of the Texas and Montana trail on this creek. There you'll find the posted notice, so that he who runs may read, that Wells Brothers have already claimed this range. I'll furnish you a pencil and scrap of paper, and you can make a copy of the formal notice and show it to your partner. Then, if you feel strong enough to outrage all range customs, move in and throw down your glove. I've met an accident recently, leaving me a cripple, but I'll agree to get in the saddle and pick up the gauntlet."The novice led his horse aside as if to mount. "I fail to see the object in claiming more range than one can occupy. It raises a legal question," said he, mounting.
"Custom is the law of the range," replied Forrest. "The increase of a herd must be provided for, and a year or two's experience of beginners like you usually throws cattle on the market. Abundance of range is a good asset. Joel, get the gentleman a pencil and sheet of paper.""Not at all necessary," remarked the amateur cowman, reining away. "I suppose the range is for sale?" he called out, without halting. "Yes, but folks who prefer to intrude are usually poor buyers," shouted the crippled Texan.
Joel was alarmed and plied Forrest with a score of questions. The boy had tasted the thrill of ownership of cattle and possession of a range, and now the envy of others had threatened his interests.
"Don't be alarmed," soothingly said the wounded man. "This is like a page from life, only twice as natural. It proves two things: that you took your range in good time, and that it has a value. This very afternoon you must push at least one hundred cattle up to those springs above Hackberry Grove. Let them track and trample around the water and noon in the shade of the motte. That's possession, and possession is nine points, and the other fellow can have the tenth. If any one wants to dispute your rights or encroach on them, I'll mount a horse and go to the trail for help. The Texans are the boys to insist on range customs being respected. It's time I was riding a little, anyhow."
Dell returned from scouting the trail, and reported two herds due to reach the Beaver that evening. "I spent an hour with one of the foremen around the ford," said he to Forrest; "and he says if you want to see him, you had better come down to the crossing. He knows you, and makes out you ain't much hurt. He says if you come down, he'll give you a quarter of beef and a speckled heifer. He's one of Jess Pressnell's bosses."
"That's the word I'm waiting for," laughed Forrest. "Corral the horses and fix up some kind of a mounting block. It'll take a scaffold to get me on a horse, but I can fall off. Make haste, because hereafter we must almost live on horseback."
The words proved true. Forrest and Dell, the latter bareback, returned to the trail, while Joel rode to drift their cattle up the Beaver, in order to be in possession of Hackberry Grove and its living springs. The plains of the West were a lawless country, and if its pioneers would not respect its age-old pastoral customs, then the consequences must be met or borne.
Three weeks had passed since the accident to Forrest, the herds were coming with a vengeance, and the scene of activity changed from the homestead to the trail crossing. Forrest did not return for a week, foraging on the wagons, camping with the herds, and never failing to levy, to the extent of his ability to plead, on cattle, horses, and needful supplies. As many as five and six herds arrived in a single day, none of which were allowed to pass without an appeal: if strangers, in behalf of a hospital; if among friends, the simple facts were sufficient. Dell was kept on the move with bunches of cattle, or freighting the caches to the homestead, while Joel received the different contingents and scouted the threatened range.
Among old acquaintances there was no denying Forrest, and Dell fell heir to the first extra saddle found among the effects of a trail outfit. The galled horses had recovered serviceable form, affording each of the boys a mount, and even the threatened cloud against the range lifted. The herd of a thousand cows crossed the Beaver, and Forrest took particular pains to inform its owners of the whereabouts of unclaimed range the year before. Evidently the embryo cowmen had taken heed and inquired into range customs, and were accordingly profuse with disclaimers of any wrong intent.
The first three weeks of July saw the bulk of the herds north of the Beaver. Water and range had been taken advantage of in the trailing of cattle to the Northwest, fully three hundred thousand head having crossed from Dodge to Ogalalla. The exodus afforded the boys an insight into pastoral life, brought them in close contact with the men of the open, drove false ideas from their immature minds, and assisted in the laying of those early foundations on which their future manhood must rest.
Dell spent every chance hour with the trail men. He and Forrest slept with the wagons, met the herds, and piloted them in to the best water. The fact that only experienced men were employed on the trail made the red-headed boy a welcome guest with every herd, while the wide acquaintance of his crippled sponsor assured the lad every courtesy of camp and road. Dell soon learned that the position of point man usually fell to a veteran of the range, and one whose acquaintance was worthy of cultivation, both in the saddle and around the camp-fire.
"I'm going to be a point man," Dell confided to Forrest, on one of their trips up to the homestead. "He don't seem to have much to do, and nearly always rides with one leg across his horse's neck."
"That's the idea," assented Forrest. "Aim high. Of course, you'll have to begin as a drag man, then a few trips to Montana in the swing, and after that you have a right to expect a place on the point. The trouble is, you are liable to slip back a notch or two at any time. Here I've been a foreman in other years, and this trip I was glad to make a hand. There's so many slips, and we can't be all point men and bosses. Cooks and horse wranglers are also useful men."
The first serious cloud to hover over the new ranch appeared early during the last week in July. Forrest's wounds had nearly healed, and he was wondering if his employer would make a further claim on his services during that summer, which was probable at the hands of a drover with such extensive interests. He and Dell were still patrolling the ford on Beaver, when one evening a conveyance from the railroad to the south drove up to the crossing. It brought a telegram from Don Lovell, requesting the presence of Forrest in Dodge City, and the messenger, a liveryman from Buffalo, further assured him that transportation was awaiting him at that station. There were no grounds on which to refuse the summons, indefinite and devoid of detail as it was, and preparations were immediately made to return with the liveryman. What few cattle had been secured during that trip were drifted up the creek, when all returned to the homestead for the night.
To Dell and Joel the situation looked serious. The crippled man, helpless as he was at first, had proven their rock of refuge, and now that he was leaving them, a tenderness of unnoticed growth was revealed. As an enforced guest, he had come to them at a moment when their poverty had protested at receiving him, his unselfishness in their behalf had proven his friendship and gratitude beyond question, and the lesson was not lost on the parentless waifs.
On the other hand, Forrest lightened all depression of spirits. "Don't worry," said he to the boys. "Just as sure as water runs and grass grows, I'll come over this trail again. So far in life, I've never done any good for myself, and I'm going to play this hand out and see if you lads land on your feet. Now, don't get the idea that I've done any great feat in rustling you boys a few cows. It's one of the laws of life, that often we can do for others what we can't do for ourselves. That sounds like preaching, but it isn't. Actually, I'm ashamed of myself, that I didn't get you double the number of cattle. What we did skirmish together was merely the flotsam of the trail, the crumbs that fall from the supper table, and all obligations to me are overpaid. If I could have had just a few tears on tap, with that hospital talk, and you boys being poor and orphans--shucks! I must be getting doty--that plea was good for a thousand strays and cripples!"
The brothers took courage. So far their chief asset was a fine range. Nearly three hundred and fifty cattle, imperfect as the titles to many of them were, had been secured and were occupying the valley. A round dozen cow ponies, worthless for the present, but which in time would round into form, were added to the new ranch. Every passing commissary had laughed at the chance to discard its plunder and useless staples, and only the departure of the man behind the venture, standing in the shadow as it were, threw a depression over the outlook.
Funds, with which to pay his reckoning, had been left with Forrest. The boys had forgotten the original agreement, and it was only with tact and diplomacy that a snug sum, against his protest and embarrassment, was forced on Joel. "It don't come off me," said the departing man, "and it may come handy with you. There's a long winter ahead, and the fight ain't near won yet. The first year in starting a ranch is always the hardest. But if you boys can only hold these cattle until grass comes again, it's the making of you. You know the boy is father to the man, and if you are true-blue seed corn--well, I'll bet on two ears to the stock."
Forrest's enthusiasm tempered the parting. The start for the railroad was made at daybreak, and in taking leave, each boy held a hand, shaking it heartily from time to time, as if to ratify the general advice. "I'll make Dodge in two days," said the departing guest, "and then I'll know the meaning of this wire. It means something--that's sure. In the mean time, sit square in your saddles, ride your range, and let the idea run riot that you are cowmen. Plan, scheme, and devise for the future. That's all until you hear from me or see my sign in the sky. Adios, señors."
Sunshine And Shadow
An entire week passed, during which the boys were alone. A few herds were still coming over the trail, but for lack of an advocate to plead, all hope of securing more cattle must be foregone. Forrest had only taken his saddle, abandoning for the present all fixtures contributed for his comfort on arriving at the homestead, including the horses of his employers. The lads were therefore left an abundance of mounts, all cattle were drifted above the ranch, and plans for the future considered.
Winter must be met and confronted. "We must have forage for our saddle horses," said Joel to his brother, the evening after Forrest's departure. "The rain has helped our corn until it will make fodder, but that isn't enough. Pa cut hay in this valley, and I know where I can mow a ton any morning. Mr. Quince said we'd have to stable a saddle horse apiece this winter, and those mules will have to be fed. The grass has greened up since the rain, and it will be no trick at all to make ten to fifteen tons of hay. Help me grind the scythe, and we'll put in every spare hour haying. While you ride around the cattle every morning, I can mow."
A farm training proved an advantage to the boys. Before coming West, their father had owned a mowing machine, but primitive methods prevailed on the frontier, and he had been compelled to use a scythe in his haying operations. Joel swung the blade like a veteran, scattering his swath to cure in the sun, and with whetstone on steel, beat a frequent tattoo. The raking into windrows and shocking at evening was an easy task for the brothers, no day passing but the cured store was added to, until sufficient was accumulated to build a stack. That was a task which tried their mettle, but once met and overcome, it fortified their courage to meet other ordeals.
"I wish Mr. Quince could see that stack of hay," admiringly said Dell, on the completion of the first effort. "There must be five tons in it. And it's as round as an apple. I can't remember when I've worked so hard and been so hungry. No wonder the Texan despises any work he can't do on horseback. But just the same, they're dear, good fellows. I wish Mr. Quince could live with us always. He's surely a good forager."
The demand for range was accented anew. One evening two strangers rode up the creek and asked for a night's lodging. They were made welcome, and proved to be Texas cowmen, father and son, in search of pasturage for a herd of through cattle. There was an open frankness about the wayfarers that disarmed every suspicion of wrong intent, and the brothers met their inquiries with equal candor.
"And you lads are Wells Brothers?" commented the father, in kindly greeting. "We saw your notice, claiming this range, at the trail crossing, and followed your wagon track up the creek. Unless the market improves, we must secure range for three thousand twoyear-old steers. Well, we'll get acquainted, anyhow."
The boys naturally lacked commercial experience in their new occupation. The absence of Forrest was sorely felt, and only the innate kindness of the guests allayed all feeling of insecurity. As the evening wore on, the old sense of dependence brought the lads in closer touch with the strangers, the conversation running over the mutual field of range and cattle matters.
"The reasons are numerous and valid," replied the older cowman. "It's the natural outgrowth or expansion of the pastoral interests of our State. Before the opening of the trail, for years and years, Texas clamored for an outlet for its cattle. Our water supply was limited, the State is subject to severe drouth, the cattle were congesting on our ranges, with neither market inquiry or demand. The subjection of the Indian was followed by a sudden development of the West, the Texas and Montana cattle trail opened, and the pastoral resources of our State surprised the world. Last year we sent eight hundred thousand cattle over the trail, and they were not missed at home. That's the reason I'm your guest to-night; range has suddenly become valuable in Texas."
"There is also an economic reason for the present exodus of cattle," added the young man. "Our State is a natural breeding ground, but we can't mature into marketable beef. Nearly twenty years' experience has proven that a northern climate is necessary to fatten and bring our Texas cattle to perfect maturity. Two winters in the North will insure a gain of from three to four hundred pounds' extra weight more per head than if allowed to reach maturity on their native heath. This gain fully doubles the value of every hoof, and is a further motive why we are your guests to-night; we are looking for a northern range on which to mature our steer cattle."
The boys were grasping the fact that in their range they had an asset of value. Less than two months before, they were on the point of abandoning their home as worthless, not capable of sustaining life, the stone which the builders rejected, and now it promised a firm foundation to their future hopes. The threatened encroachment of a few weeks previous, and the causes of demand, as explained by their guests, threw a new light on range values and made the boys doubly cautious. Was there a possible tide in the primitive range, which taken at its flood would lead these waifs to fortune?The next morning the guests insisted on looking over the upper valley of the Beaver.
"In the first place," said the elder Texan, "let it be understood that we respect your rights to this range. If we can reach some mutual agreement, by purchase or rental, good enough, but not by any form of intrusion. We might pool our interests for a period of years, and the rental would give you lads a good schooling. There are many advantages that might accrue by pooling our cattle. At least, there is no harm in looking over the range."
"They can ride with me as far as Hackberry Grove," said Dell. "None of our cattle range over a mile above the springs, and from there I can nearly point out the limits of our ranch."
The trio rode away, with Dell pointing out around the homestead the different beaver dams in the meanderings of the creek. Joel resumed his mowing, and near noon sighted a cavalcade of horses coming down the dim road which his father used in going to Culbertson. A wagon followed, and from its general outlines the boy recognized it to be a cow outfit, heading for their improvements. Hastening homeward, he found Paul Priest, the gray-haired foreman, who had passed northward nearly two months before, sitting under the sunshade before the tent."Howdy, bud," said Priest languidly in greeting. "Now, let me think--Howdy, Joel!"
No prince could have been more welcome. The men behind the boys had been sadly missed, and the unexpected appearance of Priest filled every want. "Sit down," said the latter. "First, don't bother about getting any dinner; my outfit will make camp on the creek, and we'll have a little spread. Yes, I know; Forrest's in Dodge; old man Don told me he needed him. Where's your brother?"
"Dell's gone up the creek with some cowmen from Texas," admitted Joel. "They're looking for a range. I told them any agreement reached must be made with Mr. Quince. But now that you are here, you will do just as well. They'll be in soon.""I'm liable to tell them to ride on," said the gray-haired foreman. "I'm jealous, and I want it distinctly understood that I'm a silent partner in this ranch. How many cattle have you?" "Nearly three hundred and fifty, not counting the calves." "Forrest only rustled you three hundred and fifty cattle? The lazy wretch--he ought to be hung for ingratitude!" "Oh, no," protested Joel; "Mr. Quince has been a father to Dell and myself." "Wait until I come back from Dodge, and I'll show you what a rustler I am," said Priest, arising to give his horse to the wrangler and issue directions in regard to camping.
The arrival of Dell and the cowmen prevented further converse between Priest and his protégé. For the time being a soldier's introduction sufficed between the Texans, but Dell came in for a rough caress. "What do you think of the range?" inquired the trail foreman, turning to the men, and going direct to the subject."It meets every requirement for ranching," replied the elder cowman, "and I'm going to make these boys a generous offer." "This man will act for us," said Joel to the two cowmen, with a jerk of his thumb toward Priest. "Well, that's good," said the older man, advancing to Priest. "My name is Allen, and this is my son Hugh." "And my name is Priest, a trail foreman in the employ of Don Lovell," said the grayhaired man, shaking hands with the Texans. "Mr. Lovell was expected in Dodge the day we left," remarked the younger man in greeting. "We had hopes of selling him our herd." "What is your county?" inquired the trail boss, searching his pockets for a telegram. "Comanche." "And when did you leave Dodge?" "Just ten days ago." "Then you need no range--your cattle are sold," said Priest, handing the older man a telegram.
The two scanned the message carefully, and the trail foreman continued: "This year my herd was driven to fill a sub-contract, and we delivered it last week at old Camp Clark, on the North Platte. From there the main contractor will trail the beef herd up to the Yellowstone. Old man Don was present at the delivery, and when I got back to Ogalalla with the oufit, that message was awaiting me. I'm now on my way to Dodge to receive the cattle. They go to the old man's beef ranch on the Little Missouri. It says three thousand Comanche County two-year-olds, don't it?"
"It's our cattle," said the son to his father. "We have the only straight herd of Comanche County two-year-olds at Dodge City. That commission man said he would sell them before we got back."
The elder Texan turned to the boys with a smile. "I reckon we'll have to declare all negotiations off regarding this range. I had several good offers to make you, and I'm really sorry at this turn of events. I had figured out a leasing plan, whereby the rentals of this range would give you boys a fine schooling, and revert to you on the eldest attaining his majority. We could have pooled our cattle, and your interests would have been carried free."
"You needn't worry about these boys," remarked Priest, with an air of interest; "they have silent partners. As to schooling, I've known some mighty good men who never punched the eyes out of the owl in their old McGuffy spelling-book."
A distant cry of dinner was wafted up the creek. "That's a welcome call," said Priest, arising. "Come on, everybody. My cook has orders to tear his shirt in getting up a big dinner."A short walk led to the camp. "This outfit looks good to me," said the elder cowman to Priest, "and you can count on my company to the railroad." "You're just the man I'm looking for," replied the trail boss. "We're making forty miles a day, and you can have charge until we reach Dodge." "But I only volunteered as far as the railroad," protested the genial Texan.
"Yes; but then I know you cowmen," contended Priest. "You have lived around a wagon so long and love cow horses so dearly, that you simply can't quit my outfit to ride on a train. Two o'clock is the hour for starting, and I'll overtake you before evening."
The outfit had been reduced to six men, the remainder having been excused and sent home from Ogalalla. The remuda was in fine condition, four changes of mounts a day was the rule, and on the hour named, the cavalcade moved out, leaving its foreman behind. "Angle across the plain and enter the trail on the divide, between here and the Prairie Dog," suggested Priest to his men. "We will want to touch here coming back, and the wagon track will point the way. Mr. Allen will act as segundo."
Left to themselves, the trio resolved itself into a ways and means committee. "I soldiered four years," said Priest to the boys, once the sunshade was reached, "and there's nothing that puts spirit and courage into the firing line like knowing that the reserves are strong. It's going to be no easy task to hold these cattle this winter, and now is the time to bring up the ammunition and provision the camp. The army can't march unless the mules are in condition, and you must be well mounted to handle cattle. Ample provision for your saddle stock is the first requirement.""We're putting up a ton of hay a day," said Joel, "and we'll have two hundred shocks of fodder."
"That's all right for rough forage, but you must have corn for your saddle stock," urged the man. "Without grain for the mounts, cavalry is useless. I think the railroad supplies, to settlers along its line, coal, lumber, wire, and other staples at cost. I'll make inquiry tomorrow and let you know when we return. One hundred bushels of corn would make the forage reserves ample for the winter."
"We've got money enough to buy it," admitted Joel. "I didn't want to take it, but Mr. Quince said it would come in handy."
"The calves need not be branded before next spring," replied the practical man, "but the herd must be branded this fall. If a blizzard struck the cattle on the open, they would drift twenty miles during a night. These through Texas cattle have been known to drift five hundred miles during the first winter. You must guard against a winter drift, and the only way is to hold your cattle under herd. If you boys let these cattle out of your hand, away from your control, they'll drift south to the Indian reservations and be lost. You must hold them in spite of storms, and you will need a big, roomy inclosure in which to corral the herd at night.""There's the corn field," suggested Dell. "It has no shelter," objected Priest. "Your corral must protect against the north and west winds."
"The big bend's the place," said Joel. "The creek makes a perfect horseshoe, with bluff banks almost twenty feet high on the north and northwest. One hundred yards of fencing would inclose five acres. Our cows used to shelter there. It's only a mile above the house.""What's the soil, and how about water?" inquired the gray-haired foreman, arising. "It's a sand-bar, with a ripple and two long pools in the circle of the creek," promptly replied Joel. "Bring in the horses," said Priest, looking at his watch; "I'll have time to look it over before leaving."
While awaiting the horses, the practical cowman outlined to Joel certain alterations to the corral at the stable, which admitted of the addition of a branding chute. "You must cut and haul the necessary posts and timber before my return, and when we pass north, my outfit will build you a chute and brand your cattle the same day. Have the materials on the ground, and I'll bring any needful hardware from the railroad."
A short canter brought the committee to the big bend. The sand-bar was overgrown with weeds high as a man's shoulder on horseback, but the leader, followed by the boys, forced his mount through the tangle until the bend was circled. "It's an ideal winter shelter," said Priest, dismounting to step the entrance, as a preliminary measurement. "A hundred and ten yards," he announced, a few minutes later, "coon-skin measurement. You'll need twenty heavy posts and one hundred stays. I'll bring you a roll of wire. That water's everything; a thirsty cow chills easily. Given a dry bed and contented stomach, in this corral your herd can laugh at any storm. It's almost ready made, and there's nothing niggardly about its proportions.""When will we put the cattle under herd?" inquired Dell as the trio rode homeward.
"Oh, about the second snowstorm," replied Priest. "After squaw winter's over, there's usually a month to six weeks of Indian summer. It might be as late as the first of December, but it's a good idea to loose-herd awhile; ride around them evening and morning, corral them and leave the gates open, teach them to seek a dry, cosy bed, at least a month before putting the cattle under close-herd. Teach them to drink in the corral, and then they'll want to come home. You boys will just about have to live with your little herd this winter.""We wintered here once," modestly said Joel, "and I'm sure we can do it again. The storms are the only thing to dread, and we can weather them."
"Of course you can," assured the trail boss. "It's a ground-hog case; it's hold these cattle or the Indians will eat them for you. Lost during one storm, and your herd is lost for good.""And about horses: will one apiece be enough?" queried Joel. "Mr. Quince thought two stabled ones would do the winter herding."
"One corn-fed pony will do the work of four grass horses," replied the cowman. "Herding is no work for horses, provided you spare them. If you must, miss your own dinner, but see that your horse gets his. Dismount and strip the bridle off at every chance, and if you guard against getting caught out in storms, one horse apiece is all you need."
On reaching the homestead, Priest shifted his saddle to a horse in waiting, and announced his regrets at being compelled to limit his visit. "It may be two weeks before I return," said he, leading his horse from the corral to the tent, "but we'll point in here and lend a hand in shaping you up for winter. Forrest is liable to have a herd of his own, and in that case, there will be two outfits of men. More than likely, we'll come through together."
Hurried as he professed to be, the trail foreman pottered around as if time was worthless, but finally mounted. "Now the commissary is provisioned," said he, in summing up the situation, "to stand a winter's siege, the forage is ample, the corral and branding chute is half done--well, I reckon we're the boys to hold a few cattle. Honest Injun, I hope it will storm enough this winter to try you out; just to see what kind of thoroughbreds you really are. And if any one else offers to buy an interest in this range," he called back, as a happy afterthought, "just tell them that you have all the partners you need."
All In The Day's Work
The brief visit of Priest proved a tonic to the boys. If a firing line of veteran soldiers can be heartened, surely the spirit and courage of orphan waifs needed fortifying against the coming winter. The elements have laughed at the hopes and ambitions of a conqueror, and an invincible army has trailed its banners in the snow, unable to cope with the rigors of the frost king. The lads bent anew to their tasks with a cheerfulness which made work mere play, sweetening their frugal fare, and bringing restful sleep. The tie which began in a mercenary agreement had seemingly broken its bonds, and in lieu, through the leaven of human love, a new covenant had been adopted."If it's a dry, open winter," said Dell at breakfast next morning, "holding these cattle will be nothing. The water holds them now without herding." [Illustration: JOEL WELLS AND HIS SPANISH COW-PONY]
"Yes," replied Joel, "but we must plan to meet the worst possible winter. A blizzard gives little warning, and the only way to overcome one is to be fully prepared. That's what Mr. Paul means by bringing up the ammunition. We must provide so as to be able to withstand a winter siege.""Well, what's lacking?" insisted Dell.
"Fuel. Take an axe with you this morning, and after riding around the cattle, cut and collect the dead and fallen timber in Hackberry Grove. Keep an eye open for posts and stays--I'll cut them while you're hauling wood. Remember we must have the materials on the ground when Mr. Paul returns, to build a corral and branding chute."
Axe and scythe were swung that morning with renewed energy. Within a week the required amount of hay was in stack, while the further supply of forage, promised in the stunted corn, was daily noted in its advancing growth.
Without delay the scene of activity shifted. The grove was levied on, a change of axemen took place, while the team even felt a new impetus by making, instead of one, two round trips daily. The fuel supply grew, not to meet a winter's, but a year's requirements. Where strength was essential, only the best of timber was chosen, and well within the time limit the materials for corral and branding chute were at hand on the ground. One task met and mastered, all subsequent ones seemed easier.
"We're ahead of time," said Joel with a quiet air of triumph, as the last load of stays reached the corral site. "If we only knew the plans, we might dig the post-holes. The corn's still growing, and it won't do to cut until it begins to ripen--until the sugar rises in the stock. We can't turn another wheel until Mr. Paul returns."
Idleness was galling to Joel Wells. "We'll ride the range to-day," he announced the following morning. "From here to the ford doesn't matter, but all the upper tributaries ought to be known. We must learn the location of every natural shelter. If a storm ever cuts us off from the corrals, we must point the herd for some other port."
That the morning hour has gold in its mouth, an unknown maxim at the new ranch, mattered nothing. The young cowmen were up and away with the rising sun, riding among and counting the different bunches of cattle encountered, noting the cripples, and letting no details of the conditions of the herd, in their leisurely course up the creek, escape their vigilance.
The cattle tallied out to an animal, and were left undisturbed on their chosen range. Two hours' ride brought the boys to the forks of the Beaver, and by the middle of the forenoon the south branch of the creek was traced to its source among the sand dunes. If not inviting, the section proved interesting, with its scraggy plum brush, its unnumbered hills, and its many depressions, scalloped out of the sandy soil by the action of winds. Coveys of wild quail were encountered, prairie chicken took wing on every hand, and near the noon hour a monster gray wolf arose from a sunny siesta on the summit of a near-by dune, and sniffed the air in search of the cause of disturbance. Unseen, the boys reined in their horses, a windward breeze favored the view for a moment, when ten nearly fullgrown cubs also arose and joined their mother in scenting the horsemen. It was a rare glimpse of wary beasts, and like a flash of light, once the human scent was detected, mother and whelps skulked and were lost to sight in an instant.
"They're an enemy of cattle," whispered Joel when the cubs appeared. "The young ones are not old enough yet to hunt alone, and are still following their mother. Their lair is in these hills, and if this proves a cold winter, hunger will make them attack our cattle before spring. We may have more than storms to fight. There they go.""How are we to fight them?" timidly asked Dell. "We have neither dog nor gun." "Mr. Paul will know," replied Joel with confidence. "They'll not bother us while they can get food elsewhere."
The shelter of a wolf-pack's lair was not an encouraging winter refuge to drifting cattle. The boys even shook out their horses for a short gallop in leaving the sand dunes, and breathed easier once the open of the plain was reached. Following a low watershed, the brothers made a wide detour from the Beaver, but on coming opposite the homestead, near the middle of the afternoon, they turned and rode directly for the ranch, where a welcome surprise greeted them.
Four men were at work on the branding chute. A single glance revealed both Priest and Forrest among the quartette. On riding up to the stable corral, in the rough reception which followed, the lads were fairly dragged from their saddles amid hearty greetings. "Well, here we are again, and as busy as cranberry merchants," said Priest, once order was restored.
"He hasn't any," interrupted Forrest; "he's working for me. About this time to-morrow evening, I'll split this ranch wide open with two herds, each of thirty-five hundred twoyear-old steers. I'm coming with some style this time. You simply can't keep a good man down."
"There were two herds instead of one to go to the old man's beef ranch," explained Priest. "We brought along a couple extra men and came through a day ahead. We can't halt our cattle, but we can have the chute and corrals nearly ready when the herds arrive. All we'll lack is the hardware, and the wagons will reach here early during the afternoon."
The homestead presented a busy scene for the remainder of the day. Every old tool on the ranch was brought into service, and by twilight the outlines of the branding chute had taken form. The stable corral was built out of heavy poles and posts, with a capacity of holding near one hundred cattle, and by a very slight alteration it could be enlarged, with branding conveniences added.
At this point it was deemed advisable to enlighten the boys regarding the title of stray cattle. Forrest and Priest had talked the matter over between themselves, and had decided that the simple truth concerning the facts was the only course to adopt. The older of the two men, by the consent of years, was delegated to instruct the lads, and when the question of brands to be adopted by the new ranch was under consideration, the chance presented itself.
"In starting this ranch," said the gray-haired foreman to the boys, as they all sat before the tent in the twilight, "we'll have to use two brands. Cattle are conveyed from one owner to another by bill-of-sale. In a big pastoral exodus like the present, it is simply impossible to keep strays out of moving herds. They come in at night, steal in while a herd is passing through thickets, while it is watering, and they may not be noticed for a month. Under all range customs, strays are recognized as flotsam. Title is impossible, and the best claim is due to the range that gives them sustenance. It has always been customary to brand the increase of strays to the range on which they are found, and that will entitle you to all calves born of stray mothers."
The brothers were intent listeners, and the man continued: "For fear of winter drifting, and that they may be identified, we will run all these strays into Two Bars on the left hip, which will be known as the 'Hospital' brand. For the present, that will give us an asylum for that branch of flotsam gathered, and as trustees and owners of the range, all increase will fall to Wells Brothers. However, in accepting this deputyship, you do so with the understanding that the brand is merely a tally-mark, and that in no way does it deprive the owner of coming forward to prove and take possession of his property. This method affords a refuge to all strays in your possession, and absolves you from any evil intent. All other cattle coming under your control, with the knowledge and consent of the owner or his agent, are yours in fee simple, and we will run them into any brand you wish to adopt.""But suppose no one ever calls for these stray cows?" said Joel, meditating.
"Then let them live out their days in peace," advised Forrest. "The weeds grow rankly wherever a cow dies, and that was the way their ancestors went. One generation exempts you."
The discovery of wolves in that immediate vicinity was not mentioned until the following morning. The forces were divided between the tasks, and as Priest and Joel rode up the valley to the site of the new corral, the disclosure was made known.
"Wolves? Why, certainly," said Priest, answering his own query. "Wolves act as a barometer in forecasting the coming of storms. Their activity or presence will warn you of the approach of blizzards, and you want to take the hint and keep your weather eye open. When other food becomes scarce, they run in packs and will kill cattle. You are perfectly safe, as yours will be either under herd or in a corral. Wolves always single out an animal to attack; they wouldn't dare enter an inclosure. Taken advantage of in their hunger, they can be easily poisoned. A wolf dearly loves kidney suet or fresh tallow, and by mixing strychnine with either, they can be lured to their own destruction."
The post-holes were dug extra deep for the corral. The work was completed before noon, the gate being the only feature of interest. It was made double, fifty feet wide, and fastened in the centre to a strong post. The gate proper was made of wire, webbed together with stays, admitting of a pliability which served a double purpose. By sinking an extra post opposite each of the main ones, the flexibility of the gate also admitted of making a perfect wing, aiding in the entrance or exit of a herd. In fastening the gate in the centre short ropes were used, and the wire web drawn taut to the tension of a pliable fence. "You boys will find this short wing, when penning a herd, equal to an extra man," assured the old foreman.
The first round-up on the new ranch took place that afternoon. Forrest took the extra men and boys, and riding to the extreme upper limits of the range, threw out the drag-net of horsemen and turned homeward. The cattle ranged within a mile or two on either side of the creek, and by slowly closing in and drifting down the Beaver, the nucleus of the ranch was brought into a compact herd. There was no hurry, as ample time must be allowed for the arrival of the wagons and stretching of the wire, in finishing and making ready the upper corral for its first reception of cattle. There was a better reason for delay, which was held in reserve, as a surprise for the boys.
As expected, the wagons and remudas arrived at the new ranch hours in advance of the herds. The horse wranglers were detailed by Priest, and fitting an axle to the spool of wire, by the aid of ropes attached to the pommels of two saddles, it was rolled up to the scene of its use at an easy canter. The stretching of the wire was less than an hour's work, the slack being taken up by the wranglers, ever upholding Texas methods, from the pommels of saddles, while Priest clinched the strands with staples at the proper tension. The gates were merely a pliable extension of the fence, the flexible character requiring no hinges. "Now, when the stays are interwoven through the wire, and fastened in place with staples, there's a corral that will hold a thousand cattle," said one of the wranglers admiringly.
It was after sunset when the herd was penned. Forrest, after counting the round-up to his satisfaction, detailed Dell and Joel to graze the herd in a bend of the Beaver, out of sight and fully a mile above, and taking the extra men returned to the homestead. The trail herds had purposely arrived late, expecting to camp on the Beaver that night, and were met by their respective foremen while watering for the day. In receiving, at Dodge, two large herds of one-aged cattle, both foremen, but more particularly Forrest, in the extra time at his command, had levied on the flotsam of the herds from which his employer was buying, until he had accumulated over one hundred cattle. Priest had secured, among a few friends and the few herds with which he came in contact, scarcely half that number, and still the two contingents made a very material increase to the new ranch.
The addition of these extra cattle was the surprise in reserve. Joel and Dell had never dreamed of a further increase to the ranch stock, and Forrest had timed the corralling of the original and late contingents as the climax of the day's work. Detailing both of the boys on the point, as the upper herd was nearing the corral, it was suddenly confronted by another contingent, rounding a bend of the creek from the opposite quarter. Priest had purposely detailed strange men, coached to the point of blindness, in charge of the new addition, and when the two bunches threatened to mix, every horseman present except the boys seemed blind to the situation.
Dell and Joel struggled in vain--the cattle mixed. "Well, well," said Forrest, galloping up, "here's a nice come-off! Trust my own boys to point a little herd into a corral, and they let two bunches of cattle mix! Wouldn't that make a saint swear!"
"Those other fellows had no man in the lead or on the point," protested Dell dejectedly. "They were looking away off yonder, and their cattle walked into ours. Where were you?"
"One of my men was telling me about an old sweetheart of his down on the Trinity River, and it made me absent-minded. I forgot what we were doing. Well, it's too late in the day to separate them now. We'll pen them until morning."
The appearance of Priest and the readiness with which the strange men assisted in corralling the herd shortly revealed the situation to the crafty Joel. On the homeward canter, the gray-haired foreman managed to drop a word which lightened Dell's depression and cleared up the supposed error.
That was a great night on the Beaver. The two wagons camped together, the herds bedded on either side of the creek, and the outfits mingled around the same camp-fire. Rare stories were told, old songs were sung, the lusty chorus of which easily reached the nightherders, and was answered back like a distant refrain.
The next morning the herds moved out on their way without a wasted step. Two men were detailed from each outfit, and with the foremen and the boys, a branding crew stood ready for the task before them. The chute had been ironed and bolted the evening previous, and long before the early rays of the sun flooded the valley of the Beaver, the first contingent of cattle arrived from the upper corral.
The boys adopted Bar Y as their brand. The chute chambered ten grown cattle, and when clutched in a vise-like embrace, with bars fore and aft, the actual branding, at the hands of two trail foremen, was quickly over. The main herd was cut into half a dozen bunches, and before the noon hour arrived, the last hoof had passed under the running irons and bore the new owner's brand or tally-mark.
Only a short rest was allowed, as the herds were trailing the limit of travel, and must be overtaken by evening. When crossing the railroad a few days before, it was learned that Grinnell was the railroad depot for settlers' supplies, and the boys were advised to file their order for corn, and to advance a liberal payment to insure attention. All details of the ranch seemed well in hand, the cattle were in good condition to withstand a winter, and if spirit and confidence could be imparted, from age to youth, the sponsors of the venture would have felt little concern for the future. If a dry, open winter followed, success was assured; if the reverse, was it right to try out the very souls of these waifs in a wintry crucible?
The foremen and their men left early in the afternoon. On reaching a divide, which gave the party of horsemen a last glimpse of the Beaver, the cavalcade halted for a parting look."Isn't it a pretty range?" said Forrest, gazing far beyond the hazy valley. "I wish we knew if those boys can stick out the winter." "Stick? We'll make them stick!" said Priest, in a tone as decisive as if his own flesh and blood had been insulted.
The Lines Of Intrenchment
The boys watched the cavalcade until it faded away in the swells of the plain. At each recurring departure of their friends, in spite of all bravado to the contrary, a pall of loneliness crept into the hearts of the waifs. Theirs had been a cheerless boyhood; shifted about from pillar to post, with poverty their one sure companion, they had tasted of the wormwood in advance of their years. Toys such as other lads played with for an hour and cast aside were unknown in their lives, and only the poor substitute for hoop, horse, or gun had been theirs. In the struggle for existence, human affection was almost denied them. A happy home they had never known, and the one memory of their childhood worthy of remembrance was the love of a mother, which arose like a lily in the mire of their lives, shedding its fragrance more fully as its loss was realized.
Joel was the more sensitive of the brothers. Forrest had fully discussed the coming winter with the older lad, and as an incentive to watchfulness had openly expressed doubt of the ability of the boys to battle with the elements. The conversation was depressing, and on the departure of the men, the boys resumed the discussion of the matter at issue.
"Mr. Quince thinks we can't hold these cattle," said Joel, watching the receding horsemen. "He's afraid a storm will catch us several miles out and cut us off from reaching the corral. Well, it will be my fault if it does."
Dell made a boastful remark, but the older boy only intensified his gaze at the fading cavalcade. A vision of his youthful sufferings flashed through his mind, and a mist, closely akin to tears, dimmed his eyes. He had learned the lesson that poverty teaches, unaware that the storm which rocks also roots the oak, but unable to make the comparison or draw the inference between surrounding nature and himself. For an instant the horsemen dipped from view, changing the scene, and a picture rose up, a vision of the future, of independence, of a day when he would take his place as a man among men. The past was beyond his control, its bridges burned, but the future was worth battling for; and as if encouraged by invisible helpers, the boy turned his face to the valley of the Beaver."We'll hold these cattle or starve," said he, unconsciously answering his gray-haired sponsor, fading from sight over the last divide. "Hold them. I can hold them alone." "There's no danger of starving," commented Dell, following his brother into the tent. "We have provisions for a year." "Then we'll hold the herd or freeze," answered Joel, almost hissing the words--words which became a slogan afterward.
The cattle drifted back to their chosen range. The late addition mixed and mingled with the others, now attached to the valley, with its abundance of grass and water. Nothing was said about the first four horses, from which the boys understood that they were, at least for the present, left in their charge. All told, sixteen horses, fully half of which were fit for saddle, were at the service of the ranch, ample in number in proportion to the cattle secured.
It was only the middle of August. An accident, and a little over two months' time, had changed the character of the Beaver valley. With no work pressing, the brothers rode the range, circling farther to the west and south, until any country liable to catch a winter drift became familiar to sight. Northward ho! the slogan of every drover had ceased, and the active trail of a month before had been deserted. The new ranch had no neighbors, the nearest habitation was on the railroad to the south, and the utter loneliness of the plain was only overcome by active work. To those who love them, cattle and horses are good company, and in their daily rides the lads became so familiar with the herd that in the absence of brands they could have readily identified every animal by flesh marks alone. Under almost constant contact with the boys, the cattle became extremely gentle, while the calves even grew so indifferent that they reluctantly arose from their beds to avoid a passing horseman.
The cutting, curing, and garnering home the field of corn was a welcome task. It augmented the forage supply, assuring sustenance to the saddle horses, an important feature in withstanding the coming winter siege. An ideal fall favored the ranch, the dry weather curing the buffalo grass on the divides, until it was the equal of hay, thus assuring the cattle of ample grazing until spring. The usual squaw winter passed in a swirl of snow, a single angry day, to be followed by a month of splendid Indian summer. Its coming warned the lads; the order for corn was placed; once a week the cattle were brought in and corralled, and the ranch was made snug against the wintry months.
The middle of November was as early as the railroad would agree to deliver the corn. It would take three days to go and come, and an equal number of round trips would be required to freight the grain from the railroad to the ranch. The corn had been shelled and sacked at elevator points, eastward in the State, and in encouraging emigration the railroad was glad to supply the grain at cost and freightage.
The hauling fell to Joel. He had placed the order, making a deposit, and identification was necessary with the agent. On the very first trip to Grinnell, a mere station on the plain, a surprise awaited the earnest boy. As if he were a citizen of the hamlet, and in his usual quiet way, Paul Priest greeted Joel on his arrival. The old foreman had secretly left a horse with the railroad agent at Buffalo, where the trail crossed, had kept in touch with the delivery of corn at stations westward, and had timed his affairs so as to meet and pay a final visit to his protégées.
"A battle is sometimes lost by a very slight oversight or accident," said the man to the boy. "The ammunition may get damaged, slippery ground might prevent the placing of a battery at an opportune moment, or the casting of a horse's shoe might delay a courier with an important order. I feel an interest in your little ranch, and when I know that everything is done that can be done to fortify against the coming winter, I'll go home feeling better. There is such a thing as killing the spirit of a soldier, and if I were to let you boys try and fail, it would affect your courage to face the future. That's the reason I've dropped off to take a last look at your lines of intrenchment. We've got to hold those cattle.""Mr. Quince thinks we won't, but let the winter come as it may, we're going to hold the herd," simply said the boy.
There was a resolution, an earnestness, in the words of the lad that pleased the man. "Your Mr. Quince has seen some cold winters on the range," said the latter, "and that's the reason he fears the worst. But come as it will, if we do all in our power, put up the best fight in us, and fail, then we are blameless. But with my experience, if I let you fail, when you might have won, then I have done you an injury."
That was the platform on which men and boys stood, the outline on which their mutual venture must stand or fall, and admitted of no shirking on the part of any one. The most minute detail, down to a change of clean saddle blankets, for winter work, must be fully understood. The death of a horse in which reliance rested, at an unfortunate moment, might mean the loss of the herd, and a clean, warm blanket on a cold day was the merciful forethought of a man for his beast. No damp, frosty, or frozen blanket must be used on the Wells ranch.
On the return trip, an early start was made. A night camp was necessary, at the halfway point, the dread of which was robbed of its terrors by the presence of a veteran of the open. Before leaving the depot, Priest unearthed a number of bundles, "little things that might come in handy," among which was a sack of salt and two empty oak barrels. The latter provoked an inquiry from Joel, and an explanation was forced at the moment."Did you notice a big steer that came in with the last cattle, and which was overlooked in branding?" inquired Priest, meeting the boy's query with a question. "A mottled beef, branded 7L?" "That's the steer. Why do you reckon we overlooked branding him?" "Dell and I thought it was an oversight."
"When you see what I'm going to do with that salt and these barrels, then you'll see that it was no neglect. That steer has undergone several Northern winters, has reached his prime, and the governor's cellar won't have any better corn beef this winter than the Wells ranch. Seven or eight hundred pounds of pickled beef is an important item in the winter intrenchments. In fact, it's an asset to any cow camp. There are so many little things that may come in handy."
The second morning out from the station, Priest bore off on a course that would land him well above the grove on the Beaver. He had never been over the range, and not wishing to waste a day with a loaded wagon, he angled away for the sand hills which formed the divide, sloping away to the branches of the main creek. Noon found him on the south fork; cattle were encountered near the juncture, and as he approached the grove, a horseman rode out as if to dispute the passage of an intruder. The old foreman noticed the boyish figure and delayed the meeting, reining in to critically examine cattle which he had branded some three months before. With diligent intent, the greeting was kept pending, the wayfarer riding away on a tangent and veering back on his general course, until Dell's suspicion was aroused. The return of Priest was so unexpected that the boy's eyes filled with tears, and the two rode along until the grove was reached, when they dismounted."If I had known that you were coming," said Dell, "I could have made coffee here. It was so lonesome at the ranch that I was spending the day among the cattle." "A cowman expects to miss his dinner occasionally," admitted Priest; "that's why they all look so long and hungry. Where does that 7L steer range?" "The big mottled fellow?--Why, down near the corral," replied the boy, repeating and answering the question. "I want to look him over," simply said the old foreman.
The two remounted and continued down the valley. The noon hour had brought the herd in for its daily water, and no animal was overlooked on the homeward ride. The summer gloss had passed and the hairy, shaggy, winter coats of the cattle almost hid the brands, while three to six months' rest on a perfect range was reflected in the splendid condition of the general herd."That's one feature of the winter intrenchments that needn't worry us," said Priest; "the cattle have the tallow to withstand any ordinary winter." "And the horses are all rolling fat," added Dell. "They range below the ranch; and there isn't a cripple or sore back among them. There's the mottled steer."
They were nearing the last contingent of cattle. Priest gave the finished animal a single glance, and smiled. "Outsiders say," said he, "that it's a maxim among us Texans never to eat your own beef. The adage is worth transplanting. We'll beef him. The lines of intrenchment are encouraging."
The latter remarks were not fully understood by Dell, but on the arrival of the wagon that evening, and a short confidence between the brothers, the horizon cleared. Aside from the salt and barrels, there were sheepskin-lined coats and mittens, boots of heavy felting, flannels over and under, as if the boys were being outfitted for a polar expedition. "It may all come in handy," said a fatherly voice, "and a soldier out on sentinel duty ought to be made comfortable. In holding cattle this winter, it's part of the intrenchments."
A cyclone cellar served as a storeroom for the sacked corn. Joel was away by early sunup, on the second trip to the station, while those left behind busied themselves in strengthening the commissary. The barrels were made sweet and clean with scalding water, knives were ground, and a crude platform erected for cooling out meat. Dell, on the tip-toe of expectancy, danced attendance, wondering how this quiet man would accomplish his ends, and unable to wholly restrain his curiosity.
"Watch me closely," was the usual reply. "You will probably marry young, and every head of a family, on a ranch, ought to know how to cure corn beef. Give me a week of frosty nights, and the lesson is yours. Watch me closely."
The climax of the day was felling the beef. Near the middle of the afternoon, the two rode out, cut off a small contingent of cattle, including the animal wanted, and quietly drifted them down to the desired location. Dell's curiosity had given way to alertness, and when the old foreman shook out a rope, the boy instinctively knew that a moment of action was at hand. Without in the least alarming the other cattle, the cast was made, the loop opened in mid-air, settled around the horns, cut fast by a jerk of the rope, and the contest between man and animal began. It was over in a moment. The shade of a willow was the chosen spot, and as the cattle were freed, the steer turned, the horseman taking one side of the tree and the beef the other, wrapping several turns of the rope in circling on contrary courses. The instant the big fellow quieted, on its coming to a level, a pistol flashed, and the beef fell in his tracks. That was the programme--to make the kill in the shade of the willow. And it was so easily done."That's about all we can do on horseback," said the gray-haired Texan, dismounting. "You may bring the knives."
Every step in the lesson was of interest to Dell. Before dark the beef was cut into suitable pieces and spread on the platform to drain and cool. During the frosty night following, all trace of animal heat passed away, and before sunrise the meat was salted into barrels. Thereafter, or until it was drained of every animal impurity, the beef was spread on the platform nightly, the brine boiled and skimmed, until a perfect pickle was secured. It was a matter of a week's concern, adding to the commissary two barrels of prime corned beef, an item of no small value in the line of sustenance.The roping of the beef had not been overlooked. "I can't see what made the loop open for you yesterday," said Dell the next morning; "it won't open for me."
Priest took the rope from the boy. "What the tail means to a kite, or the feather to an arrow," said he, running out an oval noose, "the same principle applies to open the loop of a rope. The oval must have a heavy side, which you get by letting the Hondo run almost halfway round the loop, or double on one side. Then when you make your cast, the light side will follow the heavy, and your loop will open. In other words, what the feather is to the arrow, the light side is to the heavy, and if you throw with force, the loop must open."
It seemed so easy. Like a healthy boy, Dell had an ambition to be a fearless rider and crack roper. During the week which followed, in the saddle or at leisure, the boy never tired of practicing with a rope, while the patient man called attention to several wrist movements which lent assistance in forming a perfect loop. The slightest success was repeated to perfection; unceasing devotion to a task masters it, and before the visit ended, the perfect oval poised in the air and the rope seemingly obeyed the hand of Dell Wells.
"It's all right to master these little details of the cattle business," said Priest to Dell, "but don't play them as lead cards. Keep them up your sleeve, as a private accomplishment, for your own personal use. These fancy riders and ropers are usually Sunday men. When I make up an outfit for the trail, I never insist on any special attainments. Just so he's good natured, and no danger of a rainy night dampening the twinkle in his eye, that's the boy for me. Then if he can think a little, act quick, clear, and to the point, I wouldn't care if he couldn't rope a cow in a month."
In considering the lines of resistance, the possibility of annoyance from wolves was not overlooked. There was an abundance of suet in the beef, several vials of strychnine had been provided, and a full gallon of poisoned tallow was prepared in event of its needs. While Joel was away after the last load of corn, several dozen wooden holders were prepared, two-inch auger holes being sunk to the depth of five or six inches, the length of a wolf's tongue, and the troughs charred and smoked of every trace of human scent.
That the boys might fully understand the many details, the final instructions were delayed until Joel's return. "Always bear in mind that a wolf is a wary beast," admonished Priest, "and match your cunning against his. Make no mistake, take no chances, for you're dealing with a crafty enemy. About the troughs on the ground, surrounding the bait, every trace of human scent must be avoided. For that reason, you must handle the holder with a spear or hay fork, and if you have occasion to dismount, to refill a trough, carry a board to alight on, remembering to lower and take it up by rope, untouched even by a gloved hand. The scent of a horse arouses no suspicion; in fact, it is an advantage, as it allays distrust."
In loading a bait, an object lesson was given, using unpoisoned suet. "After throwing off all suspicion," continued Priest, illustrating the process, "the next thing is to avoid an overdose. An overdose acts as an emetic, and makes a wise wolf. For that reason, you must pack the tallow in the auger hole, filling from a half to two thirds full. Force Mr. Wolf to lick it out, administer the poison slowly, and you are sure of his scalp. You will notice I have bored the hole in solid wood, to prevent gnawing, and you must pack the suet firmly, to prevent spilling, as a crafty wolf will roll a trough over and over to dislodge the bait. Keep your holders out in the open, exposed to the elements, scald the loading tools before using, and you have the upper hand of any wolves that may molest your cattle."
The trail foreman spent a pleasant two weeks at the Wells ranch. After the corn was in store, the trio rode the range and reviewed every possible line of defense. Since the winter could not be foreseen, the only safe course was to anticipate the worst, and barring the burning of the range from unseen sources, the new ranch stood prepared to withstand a winter siege. Everything to forefend against a day of stress or trial had been done, even to instilling courage into youthful hearts.
"There's only one thing further that comes to mind," said the practical man, as they rode homeward, "and that is to face an unexpected storm. If a change of weather threatens, point your herd to meet it, and then if you are caught out, you will have the storm in your back to drift the cattle home. Shepherds practice that rule, and the same applies to cattle under herd."
All horses were to be left at the new ranch for the winter. Dell volunteered to accompany their guest to the railroad and bring back the extra mount, thus leaving five of Lovell's horses in possession of the boys. On the day of departure, at breakfast, after a final summary of the lines of resistance, the trio dallied about the table, the trail foreman seemingly reluctant to leave.
"It's a common remark among us drovers," said Priest, toying with his coffee cup, "that a cowman is supposed to do his sleeping in the winter. But the next few months you boys must reverse that rule. Not that you need to deny yourselves abundant rest, but your vigilance should never sleep. Let your concern for the herd be the first and last thought of the day, and then I'll get my beauty sleep this winter. The unforeseen may happen; but I want you to remember that when storms howl the loudest, your Mr. Quince and I will be right around the bend of the creek, with our ear to the ground, the reserves, listening to the good fight you boys are making. Of course you could call the reserves, but you want the glory of the good fighting and the lust of victory, all to yourselves. That's the way I've got you sized up--die rather than show the white feather. Come on, Dell; we're sleeping in the summer."
A Wintry Crucible
The dreaded winter was at hand. Scarcely a day passed but the harbingers of air and sky sounded the warning approach of the forthcoming siege. Great flights of song and game birds, in their migration southward, lent an accent as they twittered by or honked in midair, while scurrying clouds and squally weather bore witness of approaching winter.
The tent was struck and stored away. The extra saddle stock was freed for the winter, and located around Hackberry Grove. The three best horses were given a ration of corn, and on Dell's return from the railroad, the cattle were put under herd. The most liberal freedom must be allowed; with the numbers on hand, the term _close_ herding would imply grazing the cattle on a section of land, while _loose_ herding would mean four or five times that acreage. New routes must be taken daily; the weather would govern the compactness and course of the herd, while a radius of five miles from the corral was a liberal range.
The brothers were somewhat familiar with winter on the plains. Cold was to be expected, but if accompanied by sunshine and a dry atmosphere, there was nothing to fear. A warm, fine day was usually the forerunner of a storm, the approach of which gave little warning, requiring a sleepless vigilance to avoid being taken unaware or at a disadvantage.
The day's work began at sunrise. Cattle are loath to leave a dry bed, and on throwing open the corral gates, it was often necessary to enter and arouse the herd. Thereafter, under normal conditions, it was a matter of pointing, keeping up the drag cattle, allowing the herd to spread and graze, and contracting and relaxing as occasion required. In handling, it was a decided advantage that the little nucleus had known herd restraint, in trailing overland from Texas, and were obedient, at a distance of fifty yards, to the slightest whistle or pressure of a herdsman. Under favorable conditions, the cattle could be depended on to graze until noon, when they were allowed an hour's rest, and the circle homeward was timed so as to reach the corral and water by sunset. The duties of each day were a repetition of the previous one, the moods of the old and younger cattle, sedate and frolicsome, affording the only variety to the monotony of the task."Holding these cattle is going to be no trouble at all," said Dell, as they rode homeward, at the end of the first day's herding. "My horse never wet a hair to-day." "Don't shout before you're out of the woods," replied Joel. "The first of April will be soon enough to count our chickens. To-morrow is only the beginning of December." "Last year we shucked corn up until Christmas."
"Husking corn is a burnt bridge with me. We're herding cattle this winter. Sit straight in your saddle."
A week of fine weather followed. The boys were kept busy, early and late, with the details of house and stable. A new route each day was taken with the herd, and after penning in the evening, it was a daily occurrence, before bedtime, to walk back to the corral and see that all was secure. Warning of approach and departure, on the part of the boys, either by whistling or singing, was always given the cattle, and the customary grunting of the herd answered for its own contentment. A parting look was given the horses, their forage replenished, and every comfort looked after to the satisfaction of their masters. By nature, horses are distant and slow of any expression of friendship; but an occasional lump of sugar, a biscuit at noon-time, with the present ration of grain, readily brought the winter mounts to a reliance, where they nickered at the approaching footsteps of their riders.
The trust of the boys, in their winter mounts, entitles the latter to a prominent place in the line of defense. Rowdy, Joel's favorite, was a veteran cow horse, dark brown in color, and, under the saddle, restless, with a knowledge of his work that bordered on the human. Dell favored Dog-toe, a chestnut in color, whose best point was a perfect rein, and from experience in roping could halt from any gait on the space of a blanket. The relay horse was named Coyote, a cinnamon-colored mount, Spanish marked in a black stripe down his back, whose limbs were triple-ringed above the knees, or where the body color merged with the black of his legs. Their names had followed them from the trail, one of which was due to color marks, one to disposition, while that of Dell's chestnut was easily traceable, from black marks in his hoofs quartering into toes.
The first storm struck near the middle of December. It was preceded by an ideal day; like the promise of spring, a balmy south wind swept the range, while at night a halo encircled the moon.
"It will storm within three days," said Dell, as the boys strolled up to the corral for a last look at the sleeping cattle. "There are three stars inside the circle around the moon. That's one of Granny Metcalf's signs."
"Well, we'll not depend on signs," replied Joel. "These old granny omens may be all right to hatch chickens by, but not to hold cattle. All advice on that point seems to rely on corn-fed saddle horses and little sleep."
The brothers spent the customary hour at the corral. From the bluff bank which encircled the inclosure, the lads looked down on the contented herd, their possession and their promise; and the tie of man and his beast was accented anew in their youthful hearts.
"Mr. Paul was telling me on one of our rides," said Joel, gazing down on the sleeping herd, "that we know nothing of the human race in an age so remote that it owned no cattle. He says that when the pyramids of Egypt were being built, ours was then an ancient occupation. I love to hear Mr. Paul talk about cattle. Hark!"
The long howl of a wolf to the south was answered by a band to the westward, and echoed back from the north in a single voice, each apparently many miles distant. Animal instinct is usually unerring, and the boys readily recalled the statement of the old trail foreman, that the howling of wolves was an omen of a forthcoming storm."Let it come," said Joel, arising and starting homeward. "We'll meet it. Our course tomorrow will be northwest."
It came with little warning. Near the middle of the following afternoon, a noticeable lull in the wind occurred, followed by a leaden horizon on the west and north. The next breeze carried the icy breath of the northwest, and the cattle turned as a single animal. The alert horsemen acted on the instant, and began throwing the cattle into a compact herd. At the time they were fully three miles from the corral, and when less than halfway home, the storm broke in splendid fury. A swirl of snow accompanied the gale, blinding the boys for an instant, but each lad held a point of the herd and the raging elements could be depended on to bring up the rear.
It was no easy victory. The quarter from which the storm came had been anticipated to a fraction. The cattle drifted before its wrath, dropped into the valley just above the corral, where the boys doubled on the outside point, and by the aid of a wing-gate turned the wandering herd into the enclosure. The rear, lashed by the storm, instinctively followed the leaders, and the gates were closed and roped securely.
It was a close call. The lesson came vividly near to the boys. "Hereafter," said Joel, "all signs of a storm must be acted upon. We corraled these cattle by a scratch. Now I know what a winter drift means. A dozen men couldn't turn this herd from the course of today's storm. We must hold nearer the corral."
The boys swung into their saddles, and, trusting to their horses, safely reached the stable. A howling night followed; the wind banked the snow against every obstacle, or filled the depressions, even sifting through every crack and crevice in the dug-out. The boys and their mounts were snug within sod walls, the cattle were sheltered in a cove of the creek, and the storm wailed its dirges unheeded.
Dawn broke cold and clear. Sun-dogs flanked the day's harbinger and sunrise found the boys at the corral gate. The cattle lazily responded to their freedom, the course led to the nearest divide, wind-swept of snow, and which after an hour's sun afforded ample grazing for the day. The first storm of the winter had been met, and its one clear lesson lent a dread to any possible successors. The herd in the grip of a storm, cut off from the corral, had a new meaning to the embryo cowmen. The best advice is mere theory until applied, and experience in the practical things of life is not transferable.
The first storm was followed by ideal winter weather until Christmas day. The brothers had planned an extra supper on that occasion, expecting to excuse Dell during the early afternoon for the culinary task, and only requiring his services on corraling the herd at evening. The plan was feasible, the cattle were herd-broke, knew their bed and water, and on the homeward circle all that was required was to direct and time the grazing herd. The occasion had been looked forward to, partly because it was their very own, their first Christmas spread, and partly on account of some delicacies that their sponsor had forced on Dell on parting at the railroad, in anticipation of the day. The bounds of the supper approached a banquet, and the question of appetites to grace the occasion was settled.
The supper was delayed. Not from any fault in the planning, but the weather had not been consulted. The herd had been grazed out on a northwest course for the day, and an hour after noon, almost the time at which Dell was to have been excused, a haze obscured the sun and dropped like a curtain around the horizon. Scurrying clouds appeared, and before the herd could be thrown together and started, a hazy, leaden sky shot up, almost due west, heralding the quarter of the coming storm. The herd sensed the danger and responded to the efforts of the horsemen; but before a mile had been covered, it was enveloped in swirling snow and veering its march with the course of the storm. The eddying snow blinded the boys as to their direction; they supposed they were pointing the cattle into the valley, unaware that the herd had changed its course on the onslaught of the elements. Confidence gave way to uncertainty, and when sufficient time had elapsed to more than have reached the corral, conjecture as to their location became rife. From the moment the storm struck, both boys had bent every energy to point the herd into the valley, but when neither slope nor creek was encountered, the fact asserted itself that they were adrift and at the mercy of the elements."We've missed the corral," shouted Dell. "We're lost!" "Not yet," answered Joel, amid the din of the howling storm. "The creek's to our right. Loosen your rope and we'll beat these leaders into the valley."
The plying of ropes, the shouting of boys, and the pressure of horses merely turned the foremost cattle, when a new contingent forged to the front, impelled onward by the fury of the storm. Again and again the boys plied the fear of ropes and the force of horses, but each effort was futile, as new leaders stepped into the track of the displaced ones, and the course of the herd was sullenly maintained.
The battle was on, and there were no reserves within call. In a crisis like the present, moments drag like hours, and the firing line needed heartening. A knowledge of the country was of no avail, a rod or two was the limit of vision, and the brothers dared not trust each other out of sight. Time moved forward unmeasured, yet amid all Joel Wells remained in possession of a stanch heart and an unbewildered mind. "The creek's to our right," was his battle cry. "Come on; let's turn these lead cattle once more."
Whether it was the forty-ninth or hundredth effort is not on record, but at some point in the good fight, the boys became aware that the cattle were descending a slope--the welcome, southern slope of the Beaver valley! Overhead the storm howled mercilessly, but the shelter of the hillside admitted of veering the herd on its course, until the valley was reached. No knowledge of their location was possible, and all the brothers could do was to cross to the opposite point, and direct the herd against the leeward bank of the creek. Every landmark was lost, with the herd drifting at will.
The first recognition was due to animal instinct. Joel's horse neighed, was answered by Dell's, and with slack rein, the two turned a few rods aside and halted at their stable door. Even then the boys could scarcely identify their home quarters, so enveloped was the dug-out in swirling snow.
The sullen cattle passed on. The halt was only for a moment, when the boys resumed their positions on the point and front. Allowing the cattle to move, assured a compact herd, as on every attempt to halt or turn it, the rear forged to the front and furnished new leaders, and in unity lay a hope of holding the drifting cattle.
The lay of the Beaver valley below headquarters was well known. The banks of the creek shifted from a valley on one side, to low, perpendicular bluffs on the other. It was in one of these meanderings of the stream that Joel saw a possible haven, the sheltering cut-bank that he hoped to reach, where refuge might be secured against the raging elements. It lay several miles below the homestead, and if the drifting herd reached the bend before darkness, there was a fighting chance to halt the cattle in a protected nook. The cove in mind was larger than the one in which the corral was built, and if a successful entrance could only be effected--but that was the point.
"This storm is quartering across the valley," said Joel, during a lull, "and if we make the entrance, we'll have to turn the herd on a direct angle from the course of the wind. If the storm veers to the north, it will sweep us out of the valley, with nothing to shelter the cattle this side of the Prairie Dog. It's make that entrance, or abandon the herd, and run the chance of overtaking it.""We'll rush them," said Dell. "Remember how those men, the day we branded, rushed the cattle into the branding chute." "They could do things that we wouldn't dare--those were trail men."
"The cattle are just as much afraid of a boy as of a man; they don't know any difference. You point them and I'll rush them. Remember that story Mr. Quince told about a Mexican boy throwing himself across a gateway, and letting a thousand range horses jump over him? You could do that, too, if you had the nerve. Watch me rush them."
It seemed an age before the cut-bank was reached. The meanderings of the creek were not even recognizable, and only an occasional willow could be identified, indicating the location of the present drift. Occasionally the storm thickened or lulled, rendering it impossible to measure the passing time, and the dread of nightfall was intensified. Under such stress, the human mind becomes intensely alert, and every word of warning, every line of advice, urged on the boys by their sponsors, came back in their hour of trial with an applied meaning. This was no dress parade, with the bands playing and horses dancing to the champing of their own bits; no huzzas of admiring throngs greeted this silent, marching column; no love-lit eyes watched their hero or soft hand waved lace or cambric from the border of this parade ground.
A lone hackberry tree was fortunately remembered as growing near the entrance to the bend which formed the pocket. When receiving the cattle from the trail, it was the landmark for dropping the cripples. The tree grew near the right bank of the creek, the wagon trail passed under it, making it a favorite halting place when freighting in supplies. Dell remembered its shade, and taking the lead, groped forward in search of the silent sentinel which stood guard at the gateway of the cove. It was their one hope, and by zigzagging from the creek to any semblance of a road, the entrance to the nook might be identified.
The march of the herd was slow and sullen. The smaller cattle sheltered in the lee of the larger, moving compactly, as if the density of the herd radiated a heat of its own. The saddle horses, southern bred and unacclimated, humped their backs and curled their heads to the knee, indicating, with the closing day, a falling temperature. Suddenly, and as clear as the crack of a rifle, the voice of Dell Wells was heard in the lead:--"Come on, Joel; here's our hackberry! Here's where the fight is won or lost! Here's where you point them while I rush them! Come quick!"
The brothers shifted positions. It was the real fight of the day. Responding to spur and quirt, the horses sprang like hungry wolves at the cattle, and the gloomy column turned quartering into the eye of the storm. But as on every other attempt to turn or mill the drifting herd, new leaders forged to the front and threatened to carry the drift past the entrance to the pocket. The critical moment had arrived. Dismounting, with a coiled rope in hand, Dell rushed on the volunteer leaders, batting them over the heads, until they whirled into the angling column, awakened from their stupor and panic-stricken from the assault of a boy, who attacked with the ferocity of a fiend, hissing like an adder or crying in the eerie shrill of a hyena in the same breath. It worked like a charm! Its secret lay in the mastery of the human over all things created. Elated by his success, Dell stripped his coat, and with a harmless weapon in each hand, assaulted every contingent of new leaders, striking right and left, throwing his weight against their bodies, and by the magic of his mimic furies forcing them into obedience.
Meanwhile Joel had succeeded in holding the original leaders in line, and within a hundred yards from the turn, the shelter of the bend was reached. The domestic bovine lows for the comfort of his stable, and no sooner had the lead cattle entered the sheltering nook, than their voices arose in joyous lowing, which ran back through the column for the first time since the storm struck. Turning to the support of Dell, the older boy lent his assistance, forcing the angle, until the drag end of the column had passed into the sheltering haven. The fight was won, and to Dell's courage, in the decisive moment, all credit was due. The human is so wondrously constructed and so infinite in variety, that where one of these brothers was timid the other laughed at the storm, and where physical courage was required to assault a sullen herd, the daring of one amazed the other. Cattle are the emblem of innocence and strength, and yet a boy--in spite of all that has been written to the contrary--could dismount in the face of the wildest stampede, and by merely waving a handkerchief split in twain the frenzied onrush of three thousand beeves.
Dell recovered his horse, and the brothers rode back and forth across the mouth of the pocket. The cattle were milling in an endless merry-go-round, contented under the sheltering bluffs, lowing for mates and cronies, while above howled the elements with unrelenting fury."We'll have to guard this entrance until the cattle bed down for the night," remarked Joel, on surveying the situation. "I wonder if we could start a fire."
"I'll drop back to the hackberry and see if I can rustle some wood," said Dell, wheeling his horse and following the back trail of the cattle. He returned with an armful of dry twigs, and a fire was soon crackling under the cliff. A lodgment of old driftwood was found below the bend, and as darkness fell in earnest, a cosy fire threw its shadows over the nook.
A patrol was established and the night's vigil begun. The sentinel beat was paced in watches between the boys, the width of the gateway being about two hundred yards. There was no abatement of the storm, and it was hours before all the cattle bedded down. The welfare of the horses was the main concern, and the possibility of reaching home before morning was freely discussed. The instinct of the horses could be relied on to find the way to their stable, but return would be impossible before daybreak. The brothers were so elated over holding the cattle that any personal hardship was endurable, and after a seeming age, a lull in the elements was noticeable and a star shone forth. Joel mounted his horse and rode out of the cove, into the open valley, and on returning announced that the storm had broken and that an attempt to reach home was safe.
Quietly as Arabs, the boys stole away, leaving the cattle to sleep out the night. Once the hackberry was reached, the horses were given free rein, when restraint became necessary to avoid galloping home. The snow crunched underfoot, the mounts snorted their protest at hindrance, vagrant breezes and biting cold cut the riders to the marrow, but on approaching the homestead the reins were shaken out and the horses dashed up to the stable door."There's the morning star," observed Joel, as he dismounted. "If we're going to be cowmen," remarked Dell, glancing at the star as he swung out of the saddle, "hereafter we'll eat our Christmas supper in October."
Dawn found the boys in the saddle. A two hours' respite had freshened horses and riders. The morning was crimpy cold, but the horses warmed to the work, and covered the two miles to the bend before the sun even streaked the east. Joel rode a wide circle around the entrance to the cove, in search of cattle tracks in the snow, and on finding that none had offered to leave their shelter, joined his brother at the rekindled fire under the cliff. The cattle were resting contentedly, the fluffy snow underneath having melted from the warmth of their bodies, while the diversity of colors in the herd were blended into one in harmony with the surrounding scene. The cattle had bedded down rather compactly, and their breathing during the night had frosted one another like window glass in a humid atmosphere. It was a freak of the frost, sheening the furry coats with a silver nap, but otherwise inflicting no harm.
The cattle were allowed to rise of their own accord. In the interim of waiting for the sun to flood the cove, the boys were able to get an outline on the drift of the day previous. Both agreed that the herd was fully five miles from the corral when the storm struck, and as it dropped into the valley near the improvements (added to their present location), it had drifted fully eight miles in something like five hours.
"Lucky thing for us that it was a local storm," said Joel, as he hovered over the fire. "Had it struck out of the north we would be on the Prairie Dog this morning with nothing but snowballs for breakfast. Relying on signs did us a heap of good. It was a perfect day, and within thirty minutes we were drifting blindly. It's all easy to figure out in advance, but storms don't come by programme. The only way to hold cattle on these plains in the winter is to put your trust in corn-fed saddle horses, and do your sleeping in the summer.""I wonder when the next storm will strike," meditated Dell.
"It will come when least expected, or threaten for days and days and never come at all," replied Joel. "There's no use sitting up at night to figure it out. Rouse out the cattle, and I'll point them up the divide."
The sunshine had crept into the bend, arousing the herd, but the cattle preferred its warmth to a frosty breakfast, and stood around in bunches until their joints limbered and urgent appetites sent them forth. In spite of the cold, the sun lent its aid, baring the divides and wind-swept places of snow; and before noon, the cattle fell to feeding so ravenously that the herdsmen relayed each other, and a dinner for boy and horse was enjoyed at headquarters. In the valley the snow lay in drifts, but by holding the cattle on divides and southern slopes, they were grazed to contentment and entered their own corral at the customary hour for penning. Old axes had been left at hand, and the first cutting of ice, to open the water for cattle, occupied the boys for fully an hour, after which they rode home to a well-earned rest.
Three days of zero weather followed. Sun-dogs, brilliant as rainbows and stately as sentinels, flanked the rising sun each morning, after which the cold gradually abated, and a week after, a general thaw and warm winds swept the drifts out of the valley. It was a welcome relief; the cattle recovered rapidly, the horses proved their mettle, while the boys came out more than victors. They were inuring rapidly to their new occupation; every experience was an asset in meeting the next one, while their general fibre was absorbing strength from the wintry trial on the immutable plain.
Only once during the late storm were wolves sighted. Near the evening of the second day, a band of three made its appearance, keeping in the distance, and following up the herd until it was corraled at the regular hour. While opening the ice, the boys had turned their horses loose among the cattle, and on leading them out of the corral, the trio of prowlers had crept up within a hundred yards. With a yell, the boys mounted and made a single dash at them, when the wolves turned, and in their hurried departure fairly threw up a cloud of snow."That's what Mr. Quince means by that expression of his, 'running like a scared wolf,'" said Joel, as he reined in old Rowdy. "When will we put out the poison?" breathlessly inquired Dell, throwing his mount back on his haunches in halting.
"Just as soon as they begin to hang around. Remind me, and we'll look for tracks around the corral in the morning. My, but they were beauties! How I would like to have one of their hides for a foot-rug!"
"The first heavy snow that comes will bring them out of the sand hills," said Dell, as they rode home. "Mr. Paul said that hunger would make them attack cattle. Oh, if we could only poison all three!"
Dell rambled on until they reached the stable. He treated his mind to visions of wealth, and robes, and furry overcoats. The wolves had located the corral, the winter had barely begun, but the boys were aware of the presence of an enemy.
A complete circle of the corral was made the following morning. No tracks were visible, nor were any wolves sighted before thawing weather temporarily released the range from the present wintry grip. A fortnight of ideal winter followed, clear, crisp days and frosty nights, ushering in a general blizzard, which swept the plains from the British possessions to the Rio Grande, and left death and desolation in its pathway. Fortunately its harbingers threw its menace far in advance, affording the brothers ample time to reach the corral, which they did at a late evening hour. The day had been balmy and warm, the cattle came in, gorged from a wide circle over buffalo grass, the younger ones, as if instinctive of the coming storm and in gratitude of the shelter, even kicking up their heels on entering the gates. The boys had ample time to reach headquarters, much in doubt even then whether a storm would strike or pass away in blustering threats.
It began at darkness, with a heavy fall of soft snow. Fully a foot had fallen by bedtime, and at midnight the blizzard struck, howling as if all the demons of night and storm were holding high carnival. Towards morning a creeping cold penetrated the shack, something unknown before, and awoke the boys, shivering in their blankets. It was near their hour for rising, and once a roaring fire warmed up the interior of the room, Joel took a peep without, but closed the door with a shudder.
"It's blowing a hurricane," said he, shivering over the stove. "This is a regular blizzard-those others were only squalls. I doubt if we can reach the stable before daybreak. Those poor cattle--"
The horses were their first concern. As was their usual custom, well in advance of daybreak an attempt was made to reach and feed the saddle stock. It was Joel's task, and fortifying himself against the elements without, he announced himself as ready for the dash. It was less than a dozen rods between shack and stable, and setting a tallow dip in the window for a beacon, he threw open the door and sprang out. He possessed a courage which had heretofore laughed at storms, but within a few seconds after leaving the room, he burst open the door and fell on the bed."I'm blinded," he murmured. "Put out the light and throw a blanket over my head. The sifting snow cut my eyes like sand. I'll come around in a little while."
Daybreak revealed nothing worse from the driving snow than inflamed eyes and roughened cheeks, when another attempt was made to succor the horses. Both boys joined in the hazard, lashing themselves together with a long rope, and reached the stable in safety. On returning, Dell was thrown several times by the buffeting wind, but recovered his feet, and, following the rope, the dug-out was safely reached.
"That's what happened to me in the darkness," said Joel, once the shelter of the house was reached. "I got whipped off my feet, lost my bearings, and every time I looked for the light, my eyes filled with snow."[Illustration: DELL WELLS]
There was no abatement of the blizzard by noon. It was impossible to succor the cattle, but the boys were anxious to reach the corral, which was fully a mile from the shack. Every foot of the creek was known, and by hugging the leeward bank some little protection would be afforded and the stream would lead to the cattle. Near the middle of the afternoon, there was a noticeable abatement in the swirling snow, when the horses were blanketed to the limit and an effort made to reach the corral. By riding bareback it was believed any drifts could be forced, at least allowing a freedom to the mounts returning, in case the boys lost their course.
The blizzard blew directly from the north, and crossing the creek on a direct angle, Joel led the way, forcing drifts or dismounting and trampling them out until a pathway was made. Several times they were able to make a short dash between known points, and by hugging the sheltering bank of the creek, safely reached the corral. The cattle were slowly milling about, not from any excitement, the exercise being merely voluntary and affording warmth. The boys fell to opening up the water, the cattle crowding around each opening and drinking to their contentment. An immense comb of snow hung in a semicircle around the bend, in places thirty feet high and perpendicular, while in others it concaved away into recesses and vaults as fantastic as frosting on a window. It was formed from the early, softer snow, frozen into place, while the present shifting frost poured over the comb into the sheltered cove, misty as bride's veiling, and softening the grotesque background to a tint equaled only in the fluffy whiteness of swan's-down.
The corral met every requirement. Its protecting banks sheltered the herd from the raging blizzard; the season had inured the cattle, given them shaggy coats to withstand the cold, and only food was lacking in the present trial. After rendering every assistance possible, the boys remained at the corral, hoping the sun would burst forth at evening, only to meet disappointment, when their horses were given free rein and carried them home in a short, sure dash.
A skirmish for grazing ensued. During the next few days there was little or no sunshine to strip the divides of snow, but the cattle were taken out and given every possible chance. The first noticeable abatement of the storm was at evening of the third day, followed by a diminishing fourth, when for the first time the herd was grazed to surfeiting. The weather gradually faired off, the cattle were recovering their old form, when a freak of winter occurred. A week from the night the blizzard swept down from the north, soft winds crept up the valley, promising thawing weather as a relief to the recent wintry siege. But dawn came with a heavy snow, covering the range, ending in rain, followed by a freezing night, when the snow crusted to carry the weight of a man, and hill and valley lay in the grip of sleet and ice.
It was the unforeseen in the lines of intrenchment. The emergency admitted of no dallying. Cattle do not paw away obstacles as do horses and other animals to reach the grass, and relief must come in the form of human assistance. Even the horses were helpless, as the snow was too deep under the sleet, and any attempt to trample out pathways would have left the winter mounts bleeding and crippled. The emergency demanded men, but two boys came to the front in a resourceful manner. In their old home in Ohio, threshing flails were sometimes used, and within an hour after daybreak Joel Wells had fashioned two and was breaking a trail through the sleet to the corral.
The nearest divide lay fully a mile to the north. To reach it with the cattle, a trail, a rod or more in width, would have to be broken out. Leaving their horses at the corral, the brothers fell at the task as if it had been a threshing floor, and their flails rang out from contact with the icy sleet. By the time they had reached the divide it was high noon, and the boys were wearied by the morning task. The crusted snow lay fully six inches deep on an average, and if sustenance was rendered the cattle, whose hungry lowing reached equally hungry boys, the icy crust must be broken over the feeding grounds. It looked like an impossible task. "Help me break out a few acres," said Joel, "and then you can go back and turn out the cattle. Point them up the broken-out trail, and bring my horse and come on ahead of the herd. If we can break out a hundred acres, even, the cattle can nose around and get down to the grass. It's our one hope."
The hungry cattle eagerly followed up the icy lane. By breaking out the shallow snow, the ground was made passably available to the feeding herd, which followed the boys as sheep follow a shepherd. Fortunately the weather was clear and cold, and if temporary assistance could be rendered the cattle, a few days' sunshine would bare the ground on southern slopes and around broken places, affording ample grazing. The flails rung until sunset, the sleet was shattered by acres, and the cattle led home, if not sufficiently grazed, at least with hunger stayed.
An inch of soft snow fell the following night, and it adhered where falling, thus protecting the sleet. On the boys reaching the corrals at an unusually early hour, a new menace threatened. The cattle were aroused, milling excitedly in a compact mass, while outside the inclosure the ground was fairly littered with wolf tracks. The herd, already weakened by the severity of the winter, had been held under a nervous strain for unknown hours, or until its assailants had departed with the dawn. The pendulum had swung to an evil extreme; the sleet afforded splendid footing to the wolves and denied the cattle their daily food."Shall we put out poison to-night?" inquired Dell, on summing up the situation.
"There's no open water," replied the older boy, "and to make a dose of poison effective, it requires a drink. The bait is to be placed near running water--those were the orders. We've got five hundred cattle here to succor first. Open the gates."
The second day's work in the sleet proved more effective. The sun scattered both snow and ice; southern slopes bared, trails were beaten out to every foot of open ground, and by the middle of the afternoon fully a thousand acres lay bare, inviting the herd to feast to its heart's content. But a night on their feet had tired out the cattle, and it was with difficulty that they were prevented from lying down in preference to grazing. On such occasions, the boys threw aside their flails, and, mounting their horses, aroused the exhausted animals, shifting them to better grazing and holding them on their feet.
"This is the first time I ever saw cattle too tired to eat," said Joel, as the corral gates were being roped shut. "Something must be done. Rest seems as needful as food. This is worse than any storm yet. Half of them are lying down already. We must build a bonfire tonight. Wolves are afraid of a fire."
Fully half the cattle refused to drink, preferring rest or having eaten snow to satisfy their thirst. The condition of the herd was alarming, not from want of food, but from the hungry prowlers of the night. Before leaving, the brothers built a little fire outside the gate, as best they could from the fuel at hand, expecting to return later and replenish the wood supply from headquarters.
The boys were apt in adopting Texas methods. Once the horses were fed and their own supper eaten, the lads fastened onto two dry logs, and from pommels dragged them up to the tiny blaze at the corral opening. It was early in the evening, the herd was at rest, and the light of the bonfire soon lit up the corral and threw fancy shadows on the combing snow which formed the upper rim. The night was crimping cold, and at a late hour the boys replenished the fire and returned home. But as they dismounted at the stable, the hunting cry of a wolf pack was wafted down the valley on the frosty air, and answered by a band far to the south in the sand hills.
"They're coming again," said Joel, breathlessly listening for the distant howling to repeat. "The fire ought to hold them at a distance until nearly morning. Let's feed the horses and turn in for the night."
Daybreak found the boys at the corral. No wolves were in sight, but on every hand abundant evidence of their presence during the night was to be seen. Nearly all the cattle were resting, while the remainder, principally mother cows, were arrayed in battle form, fronting one of the recesses under the combing rim of snow. On riding within the corral, the dread of the excited cows proved to be a monster wolf, crouching on a shelf of snow. He arose on his haunches and faced the horsemen, revealing his fangs, while his breast was covered with tiny icicles, caused by the driveling slaver during the night's run. His weight was responsible for his present plight, he having ventured out on the fragile comb of snow above, causing it to cave down; and in the bewilderment of the moment he had skurried to the safety of the ledge on which he then rested.
It was a moment of excitement. A steady fire of questions and answers passed between the younger and older brother. The wolf was in hand, the horns of a hundred angry cows held the enemy prisoner, and yet the boys were powerless to make the kill. The situation was tantalizing."Can't we poison him?" inquired Dell, in the extremity of the moment. "Certainly. Hand it to him on a plate--with sugar on it." "If Mr. Paul had only left us his pistol," meditated Dell, as a possibility.
"Yes, you could about hit that bank with a six-shooter. It's the risk of a man's life to wound that wolf. He's cornered. I wouldn't dismount within twenty feet of him for this herd.""I could shoot him from Dog-toe. This is the horse from which Mr. Paul killed the beef. All trail horses are gun-proof."
"My, but you are full of happy ideas. We've got to let that wolf go--we can't make the kill."
"I have it!" shouted Dell, ignoring all rebuffs. "Dog-toe is a roping horse. Throw wide the gates. Give me a clear field, and I'll lasso that wolf and drag him to death, or wrap him to the centre gatepost and you can kill him with a fence-stay. Dog-toe, I'm going to rope a wolf from your back," added Dell, patting the horse's neck and turning back to the gate. "Show me the mettle of the State that bred you."
Ever since the killing of the beef, Dell had diligently practiced with a rope. It responded to the cunning of his hand, and the danger of the present moment surely admitted of no false calculations. Dell dismounted with a splendid assurance, tightened the cinches, tied his rope good and firm to the fork of the saddle tree, mounted, and announced himself as ready. The cattle were drifted left and right, opening a lane across the corral, and Dell rode forward to study the situation. Joel took up a position at the gate, armed only with a heavy stay, and awaited the working out of the experiment.
The hazard savored more of inexperience than of courage. Dell rode carelessly back and forth, edging in nearer the ledge each time, whirling his loop in passing, at which the cowering animal arose in an attitude of defense. Nodding to Joel that the moment had come, as the horse advanced and the enemy came within reach, the singing noose shot out, the wolf arose as if to spring, and the next instant Dog-toe whirled under spur and quirt, leaving only a blur behind as he shot across the corral. Only his rider had seen the noose fall true, the taut rope bespoke its own burden, and there was no time to shout. For an instant, Joel held his breath, only catching a swerve in the oncoming horse, whose rider bore down on the centre post of the double gate, the deviation of course being calculated to entangle the rope's victim. The horse flashed through the gate, something snapped, the rope stood in air, and a dull thud was heard in the bewilderment of the moment. The blur passed in an instant, and a monster dog wolf lay at the gatepost, relaxing in a spasm of death.
Dell checked his horse and returned, lamenting the loss of a foot's length from his favorite rope. It had cut on the saddle tree, and thus saved horse and rider from an ugly fall."He lays right where I figured to kill him--against that post," said Dell, as he reined in and looked down on the dead wolf. "Do you want his hide, or can I have it?" "Drag him aside," replied Joel, "while I rouse out the cattle. I'll have to sit up with you tonight."