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WELLS BROTHERS
The Young Cattle Kings
by
ANDY ADAMS

1911


*


CONTENTS

   I. WAIFS OF THE PLAIN
  II. THE HOSPITAL ON THE BEAVER
 III. THE BOTTOM RUNG
  IV. THE BROTHERS CLAIM A RANGE
   V. A FALL OF CRUMBS
  VI. SUNSHINE AND SHADOW
 VII. ALL IN THE DAY'S WORK
VIII. THE LINES OF INTRENCHMENT
  IX. A WINTRY CRUCIBLE
   X. GOOD FIGHTING
  XI. HOLDING THE FORT
 XII. A WINTER DRIFT
XIII. A WELCOME GUEST
 XIV. AN ILL WIND
  XV. WATER! WATER!
 XVI. A PROTECTED CREDIT
XVII. "THE WAGON"
XVIII. AN OPEN WINTER
  XIX. AN INDIAN SCARE
   XX. HARVEST ON THE RANGE
  XXI. LIVING IN THE SADDLE
 XXII. INDEPENDENCE


*


CHAPTER I

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."

"Oh goodness," whispered Dell to his brother; "think, fresh meat."

"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 dug-out, 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."




CHAPTER II

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?"

"Yes, unless you can cure a fool from lending his pistol," replied
Forrest.

"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 to-morrow, 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."




CHAPTER III

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
heat-waves 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."

"Well," contended poor Dell, "they surely were no friends. At least Mr.
Quince don't speak very highly of that man."

"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."

"I'll take that red steer," said Dell with marked decision, pointing out
a yearling.

A peal of laughter greeted his choice. "That's a boy," shouted Straw;
"shoot at a buck and kill a fawn! Why didn't you take that black cow
and calf?"

"I like red cattle the best," replied Dell, undaunted. "I've heard they
bring a better price. I'll own the only red steer in the bunch."

"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."




CHAPTER IV

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."

"I can drive them," came the prompt reply.

"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."




CHAPTER V

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.

"Well, I'm glad to have such near neighbors," affably said the stranger,
as he dismounted before the tent. "Holding down a homestead, I suppose?"

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."




CHAPTER VI

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 two-year-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.

"What is the reason," inquired Joel, "that so many cattle are leaving
your State for the upper country?"

"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."

"You are welcome to look over the range," assentingly said Joel, "but
only on condition that any agreement reached must be made with Mr.
Quince Forrest, now at Dodge."

"That will be perfectly agreeable," said the older cowman. "No one must
take any advantage of you boys."

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 gray-haired 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
to-morrow 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."

"That covers the question of forage, then," said Priest. "Now comes the
question of corrals and branding."

"Going to brand the calves?" impulsively inquired Dell, jumping at
conclusions.

"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."




CHAPTER VII

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 axe-men 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."

"The main Beaver forks only a few miles above Hackberry Grove,"
suggested Dell.

"Then we'll ride out the south fork to-day and come back through the
sand hills. There must be some sheltered nooks in that range of dunes."

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 full-grown 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.

"Where's your herd?" inquired Joel.

"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 two-year-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 night-herders, 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.




CHAPTER VIII

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 sun-up, 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."




CHAPTER IX

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 mid-air, 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 to-morrow 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 to-day'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.

"Get some matches," said Joel, refusing to dismount. "There's no halting
these cattle short of the second cut-bank, below on the left. Come on;
we must try and hold the herd."

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."




CHAPTER X

GOOD FIGHTING


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 to-night. 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."

"You're crazy," said Joel, "but there's no harm in trying it. Whatever
happens, stick to your saddle. Cut the rope if it comes to a pinch. I'll
get a fence-stay."

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 to-night."




CHAPTER XI

HOLDING THE FORT


The valley lay in the grasp of winter. On the hills and sunny slopes,
the range was slowly opening to the sun. The creek, under cover of ice
and snow, forced its way, only yielding to axes for the time being and
closing over when not in use.

The cattle required no herding. The chief concern of the brothers was to
open more grazing ground, and to that end every energy was bent. The
range already opened lay to the north of the Beaver, and although double
the distance, an effort was made to break out a trail to the divide on
the south. The herd was turned up the lane for the day, and taking their
flails, the boys began an attack on the sleet. It was no easy task, as
it was fully two miles to the divide, a northern slope, and not affected
by the sun before high noon.

The flails rang out merrily. From time to time the horses were brought
forward, their weight shattering the broken sleet and assisting in
breaking out a pathway. The trail was beaten ten feet in width on an
average, and by early noon the divide was reached. Several thousand
acres lay bare, and by breaking out all drifts and depressions running
north and south across the watershed, new grazing grounds could be
added daily.

A discovery was made on the return trip. The horses had been brought
along to ride home on, but in testing the sleet on the divide, the sun
had softened the crust until it would break under the weight of either
of the boys. By walking well outside the trail, the sleet crushed to the
extent of five or six feet, and by leading their horses, the pathway was
easily doubled in width. Often the crust cracked to an unknown distance,
easing from the frost, which the boys accepted as the forerunner of
thawing weather.

"We'll put out poison to-night," said Dell. "It will hardly freeze a
shoal, and I've found one below the corral."

"I'm just as anxious as you to put out the bait," replied Joel, "but we
must take no chances of making our work sure. The moment the cattle quit
drinking, the water holes freeze over. This is regular old
Billy Winter."

"I'll show you the ripple and leave it to you," argued the younger boy.
"Under this crust of sleet and snow, running water won't freeze."

"Along about sunset we can tell more about the weather for to-night,"
said Joel, with a finality which disposed of the matter for the present.

On reaching the corral, the older boy was delighted with the splendid
trail broken out, but Dell rode in search of a known shallow in the
creek. An old wood road crossed on the pebbly shoal, and forcing his
horse to feel his way through the softened crust, a riplet was unearthed
as it purled from under an earthen bank.

"Here's your running water," shouted Dell, dropping the reins and
allowing Dog-toe to drink. "Here you are--come and see for yourself."

Joel was delighted with Dell's discovery. In fact, the water, after
emerging from under a concave bank, within a few feet passed under
another arch, its motion preventing freezing.

"Don't dismount," said Joel, emphasizing caution, "but let the horses
break a narrow trail across the water. This is perfect. We'll build
another fire to-night, and lay a half dozen baits around this
open water."

The pelt of the dead wolf was taken, when the boys cantered in home.
Time was barely allowed to bolt a meal, when the loading of the wooden
troughs was begun. Every caution urged was observed; the basins were
handled with a hay fork, sledded to the scene, and dropped from
horseback, untouched by a human hand. To make sure that the poison would
be found, a rope was noosed to the carcass and a scented trace was made
from every quarter, converging at the open water and tempting baits.

"There," said Dell, on completing the spoor, "if that doesn't get a
wolf, then our work wasn't cunningly done."

"Now, don't forget to throw that carcass back on the ledge, under the
comb," added Joel. "Wolves have a reputation of licking each other's
bones, and we must deny them everything eatable except poisoned suet."

The herd would not return of its own accord, and must be brought in to
the corral. As the boys neared the divide and came in sight of the
cattle, they presented a state of alarm. The presence of wolves was at
once suspected, and dashing up at a free gallop, the lads arrived in
time to save the life of a young steer. The animal had grazed beyond the
limits of the herd, unconscious of the presence of a lurking band of
wolves, until attacked by the hungry pack. Nothing but the energetic use
of his horns saved his life, as he dared not run for fear of being
dragged down, and could only stand and fight.

The first glimpse of the situation brought the boys to the steer's
rescue. Shaking out their horses, with a shout and clatter of hoofs,
they bore down on the struggle, when the wolves suddenly forsook their
victim and slunk away. The band numbered eight by easy count, as they
halted within two hundred yards and lay down, lolling their tongues as
if they expected to return and renew the attack.

"Did you ever hear of anything like this?" exclaimed Dell, as the
brothers reined in their horses to a halt. "Attacking in broad
daylight!"

"They're starving," replied Joel. "This sleet makes it impossible to get
food elsewhere. One of us must stay with the cattle hereafter."

"Well, we saved a steer and got a wolf to-day," boastfully said Dell.
"That's not a bad beginning."

"Yes, but it's the end I dread. If this weather lasts a month longer,
some of these cattle will feed the wolves."

There was prophecy in Joel's remark. The rescued animal was turned into
the herd and the cattle started homeward. At a distance, the wolves
followed, peeping over the divide as the herd turned down the pathway
leading to the corral. Fuel had been sledded up, and after attending to
the details of water and fire, the boys hurried home.

The weather was a constant topic. It became the first concern of the
morning and the last observation of the night. The slightest change was
noticeable and its portent dreaded. Following the blizzard, every
moderation of the temperature brought more snow or sleet. Unless a
general thaw came to the relief of the cattle, any change in the weather
was undesirable.

A sleepless night followed. It was later than usual when the boys
replenished the fire and left the corral. Dell's imagination covered the
limits of all possibilities. He counted the victims of the poison for
the night, estimated the number of wolves tributary to the Beaver,
counted his bales of peltry, and awoke with a start. Day was breaking,
the horses were already fed, and he was impatient for saddles and away.

"How many do you say?" insisted Dell, as they left the stable.

"One," answered Joel.

"Oh, we surely got seven out of those eight."

"There were only six baits. You had better scale down your estimate.
Leave a few for luck."

Nothing but the cold facts could shake Dell's count of the chickens.
Joel intentionally delayed the start, loitering between house and
corral, and when no longer able to restrain his impulsive brother,
together they reached the scene. Dell's heart failed him--not a dead
wolf lay in sight. Every bait had been disturbed. Some of the troughs
had been gnawed to splinters, every trace of the poisoned suet had been
licked out of the auger holes, while the snow was littered with
wolf tracks.

"Our cunning must be at fault," remarked Joel, as he surveyed the scene
and empty basins.

Dell looked beaten. "My idea is that we had too few baits for the number
of visitors. See the fur, where they fought over the tallow. That's it;
there wasn't enough suet to leave a good taste in each one's mouth. From
the looks of the ground, there might have been fifty wolves."

The boy reasoned well. Experience is a great school. The brothers awoke
to the fact that in the best laid plans of mice and men the unforeseen
is ever present. Their sponsors could only lay down the general rule,
and the exceptions threw no foreshadows. No one could foresee that the
grip of winter would concentrate and bring down on the little herd the
hungry, roving wolf packs.

"Take out the herd to-day," said Dell, "and let me break out more
running water. I'll take these basins in and refill them, make new ones,
and to-night we'll put out fifty baits."

The cattle were pointed up the new trail to the southern divide. Joel
took the herd, and Dell searched the creek for other shallows tributary
to the corral. Three more were found within easy distance, when the
troughs were gathered with fork and sled, and taken home to be refilled.
It was Dell Wells's busy day. Cunning and caution were his helpers;
slighting nothing, ever crafty on the side of safety, he cut, bored, and
charred new basins, to double the original number. After loading, for
fear of any human taint, he dipped the troughs in water and laid them in
the shade to freeze. A second trip with the sled was required to
transport the basins up to the corral, the day's work being barely
finished in time for him to assist in penning the herd.

"How many baits have you?" was Joel's hail.

"Sixty odd."

"You'll need them. Three separate wolf packs lay in sight all the
afternoon. Several times they crept up within one hundred yards of the
cattle. One band numbered upwards of twenty."

"Let them come," defiantly said Dell. "The banquet is spread.
Everything's done, except to drag the carcass, and I didn't want to do
that until after the cattle were corraled."

The last detail of the day was to build a little fire, which would die
out within an hour after darkness. It would allow the cattle time to bed
down and the packs to gather. As usual, it was not the intention of the
boys to return, and as they mounted their horses to leave, all the
welled-up savage in Dell seemed to burst forth.

"Welcome, Mr. Wolf, welcome," said he, with mimic sarcasm and a gesture
which swept the plain. "I've worked like a dog all day and the feast is
ready. Mrs. Wolf, will you have a hackberry plate, or do you prefer the
scent of cottonwood? You'll find the tender, juicy kidney suet in the
ash platters. Each table seats sixteen, with fresh water right at hand.
Now, have pallets and enjoy yourselves. Make a night of it. Eat, drink,
and be merry, for to-morrow your pelts are mine."

"Don't count your chickens too soon," urged Joel.

"To-morrow you're mine!" repeated Dell, ignoring all advice. "I'll
carpet the dug-out with your hides, or sell them to a tin peddler."

"You counted before they were hatched this morning," admonished his
brother. "You're only entitled to one guess."

"Unless they got enough to sicken them last night," answered Dell with
emphasis, "nothing short of range count will satisfy me."

A night of conjecture brought a morning with results. Breakfast was
forgotten, saddles were dispensed with, while the horses, as they
covered the mile at a gallop, seemed to catch the frenzy of expectation.
Dell led the way, ignoring all counsel, until Dog-toe, on rounding a
curve, shied at a dead wolf in the trail, almost unhorsing his rider.

"There's one!" shouted Dell, as he regained his poise. "I'll point them
out and you count. There's another! There's two more!"

It was a ghastly revel. Like sheaves in a harvest field, dead wolves lay
around every open water. Some barely turned from the creek and fell,
others struggled for a moment, while a few blindly wandered away for
short distances. The poison had worked to a nicety; when the victims
were collected, by actual count they numbered twenty-eight. It was a
victory to justify shouting, but the gruesome sight awed the brothers
into silence. Hunger had driven the enemy to their own death, and the
triumph of the moment at least touched one sensitive heart.

"This is more than we bargained for," remarked Joel in a subdued voice,
after surveying the ravages of poison.

"Our task is to hold these cattle," replied Dell. "We're soldiering this
winter, and our one duty is to hold the fort. What would Mr. Paul say if
we let the wolves kill our cattle?"

After breakfast Joel again led the herd south for the day, leaving Dell
at the corral. An examination of the basins was made, revealing the fact
that every trace of the poisoned suet had been licked out of the
holders. Of a necessity, no truce with the wolf became the slogan of the
present campaign. No mushy sentiment was admissible--the fighting was
not over, and the powder must be kept dry. The troughs were accordingly
sledded into the corral, where any taint from the cattle would further
disarm suspicion, and left for future use.

The taking of so many pelts looked like an impossible task for a boy.
But Dell recalled, among the many experiences with which Forrest, when a
cripple, regaled his nurses, was the skinning of winter-killed cattle
with a team. The same principle applied in pelting a wolf, where by very
little aid of a knife, about the head and legs, a horse could do the
work of a dozen men. The corral fence afforded the ready snubbing-post,
Dog-toe could pull his own weight on a rope from a saddle pommel, and
theory, when reduced to the practical, is a welcome auxiliary. The head
once bared, the carcass was snubbed to the centre gate post, when a
gentle pull from a saddle horse, aided by a few strokes of a knife, a
second pull, and the pelt was perfectly taken. It required steady
mounting and dismounting, a gentle, easy pull, a few inches or a foot,
and with the patience of a butcher's son, Dog-toe earned his corn and
his master a bale of peltry.

Evening brought report of further annoyance of wolves. New packs had
evidently joined forces with the remnants of the day before, as there
was neither reduction in numbers nor lessening in approach or attitude.

"Ours are the only cattle between the Republican River in Nebraska and
the Smoky River in this State," said Joel, in explanation. "Rabbits and
other rodents are at home under this sleet, and what is there to live
on but stock? You have to hold the cattle under the closest possible
herd to avoid attack."

"That will made the fighting all the better," gloatingly declared Dell.
"Dog-toe and I are in the fur business. Let the wolves lick the bones of
their brethren to-night, and to-morrow I'll spread another banquet."

The few days' moderation in the weather brought a heavy snowfall that
night. Fortunately the herd had enjoyed two days' grazing, but every
additional storm had a tendency to weaken the cattle, until it appeared
an open question whether they would fall a prey to the wolves or succumb
to the elements. A week of cruel winter followed the local storm, during
which three head of cattle, cripples which had not fully recuperated, in
the daily march to the divides fell in the struggle for sustenance and
fed the wintry scavengers. It was a repetition of the age-old struggle
for existence--the clash between the forces of good and evil, with the
wolf in the ascendant.

The first night which would admit of open water, thirty-one wolves fell
in the grip of poison. It was give and take thereafter, not an eye for
an eye, but in a ratio of ten to one. The dug-out looked like a
trapper's cave, carpeted with peltry, while every trace of sentiment
for the enemy, in the wintry trial which followed, died out in the
hearts of the boys.

Week after week passed, with the elements allied with the wolves against
the life of the herd. On the other hand, a sleepless vigilance and
sullen resolve on the part of the besieged, aided by fire and poison,
alone held the fighting line. To see their cattle fall to feed the
wolves, helpless to relieve, was a bitter cup to the struggling boys.

A single incident broke the monotony of the daily grind. One morning
near the end of the fifth week, when the boys rode to the corral at an
early hour, in order to learn the result of poison, a light kill of
wolves lay in sight around the open water. While they were attempting to
make a rough count of the dead from horseback, a wolf, supposed to be
poisoned, sprang fully six feet into the air, snapping left and right
before falling to the ground. Nothing but the agility of Rowdy saved
himself or rider, who was nearly unhorsed, from being maimed or killed
from the vicious, instant assault.

The brothers withdrew to a point of safety. Joel was blanched to the
color of the snow, his horse trembled in every muscle, but Dell shook
out his rope.

"Hold on," urged Joel, gasping for breath. "Hold on. That's a mad wolf,
or else it's dying."

"He's poisoned," replied Dell. "See how he lays his head back on his
flank. It's the griping of the poison. Half of them die in just that
position. I'm going to rope and drag him to death."

But the crunching of the horse's feet in the snow aroused the victim,
and he again sprang wildly upward, snapping as before, and revealing
fangs that bespoke danger. Struggling to its feet, the wolf ran
aimlessly in a circle, gradually enlarging until it struck a strand of
wire in the corral fence, the rebound of which threw the animal flat,
when it again curled its head backward and lay quiet.

"Rope it," said Joel firmly, shaking out his own lasso. "If it gets into
that corral it will kill a dozen cattle. That I've got a live horse
under me this minute is because that wolf missed Rowdy's neck by a
hand-breadth."

The trampled condition of the snow around the corral favored approach.
Dell made a long but perfect throw, the wolf springing as the rope
settled, closing with one foot through the loop. The rope was cautiously
wrapped to the pommel, could be freed in an instant, and whirling
Dog-toe, his rider reined the horse out over the lane leading to the
herd's feeding ground to the south. The first quarter of a mile was an
indistinct blur, out of which a horse might be seen, then a boy, or a
wolf arose on wings and soared for an instant. Suddenly the horse
doubled back over the lane, and as his rider shot past Joel, a fire of
requests was vaguely heard, regarding "a noose that had settled foul,"
of "a rope that was being gnawed" and a general inability to strangle
a wolf.

Joel saw the situation in an instant. The rope had tightened around the
wolf's chest, leaving its breathing unaffected, while a few effectual
snaps of those terrible teeth would sever any lasso. Shaking out a loop
in his own rope, as Dell circled back over the other trail, Rowdy
carried his rider within easy casting distance, the lasso hissed through
the air, settled true, when two cow-horses threw their weight against
each other, and the wolf's neck was broken as easily as a rotten thread.

"A little of this goes a long way with me," said Joel from the safety of
his saddle.

"Oh, it's fine practice," protested Dell, as he dismounted and kicked
the dead wolf. "Did you notice my throw? If it was an inch, it was
thirty feet!"

In its severity, the winter of 1885-86 stands alone in range cattle
history. It came rather early, but proved to be the pivotal trial in the
lives of Dell and Joel Wells. Six weeks, plus three days, after the
worst blizzard in the history of the range industry, the siege was
lifted and the Beaver valley groaned in her gladness. Sleet cracks ran
for miles, every pool in the creek threw off its icy gorge, and the
plain again smiled within her own limits. Had the brothers been thorough
plainsmen, they could have foretold the coming thaw, as three days
before its harbingers reached them every lurking wolf, not from fear of
poison, but instinctive of open country elsewhere, forsook the Beaver,
not to return the remainder of the winter.

"That's another time you counted the chickens too soon," said Joel to
his brother, when the usual number of baits failed to bring down a wolf.

"Very good," replied Dell. "The way accounts stand, we lost twelve
cattle against one hundred and eighteen pelts taken. I'll play that game
all winter."




CHAPTER XII

A WINTER DRIFT


The month of March was the last intrenchment in the wintry siege. If it
could be weathered, victory would crown the first good fight of the
boys, rewarding their courage in the present struggle and fortifying
against future ones. The brothers had cast their lot with the plains,
the occupation had almost forced itself on them, and having tasted the
spice of battle, they buckled on their armor and rode forth. Without
struggle or contest, the worthy pleasures of life lose their nectar.

The general thaw came as a welcome relief. The cattle had gradually
weakened, a round dozen had fallen in sacrifice to the elements, and
steps must be taken to recuperate the herd.

"We must loose-herd hereafter," said Joel, rejoicing in the thawing
weather. "A few warm days and the corral will get miry. Unless the
wolves return, we'll not pen the cattle again."

Dell was in high feather. "The winter's over," said he. "Listen to the
creek talking to itself. No, we'll not have to corral the herd any
longer. Wasn't we lucky not to have any more cattle winter-killed! Every
day during the last month I felt that another week of winter would take
half the herd. It was good fighting, and I feel like shouting."

"It was the long distance between the corral and the divides that
weakened the cattle," said Joel. "Hereafter we'll give them all the
range they need and only put them under close-herd at night. There may
be squally weather yet, but little danger of a general storm. After this
thaw, farmers on the Solomon will begin their spring ploughing."

A fortnight of fine weather followed. The herd was given almost absolute
freedom, scattering for miles during the day, and only thrown together
at nightfall. Even then, as the cattle grazed entirely by day, a mile
square of dry slope was considered compact enough for the night. The
extra horses, which had ranged for the winter around Hackberry Grove,
were seen only occasionally and their condition noted. The winter had
haired them like llamas, the sleet had worked no hardship, as a horse
paws to the grass, and any concern for the outside saddle stock
was needless.

The promise of spring almost disarmed the boys. Dell was anxious to
know the value of the bales of peltry, and constantly urged his brother
for permission to ride to the railroad and inquire.

"What's your hurry?" was Joel's rejoinder. "I haven't shouted yet. I'm
not sure that we're out of the woods. Let's win for sure first."

"But we ought to write to Mr. Paul and Mr. Quince," urged the younger
boy, by way of a double excuse. "There may be a letter from them at
Grinnell now. Let's write to our friends in Texas and tell them that
we've won the fight. The spring's here."

"You can go to the station later," replied Joel. "The fur will keep, and
we may have quite a spell of winter yet. Don't you remember the old
weather proverb, of March coming in like a lion and going out like a
lamb? This one came in like a lamb, and we had better keep an eye on it
for fear it goes out like a lion. You can go to the railroad in April."

There was wisdom in Joel's random advice. As yet there was no response
in the earth to the sun's warmth. The grass was timid and refused to
come forth, and only a few foolish crows had reached the shrub and
willow along the Beaver, while the absence of other signs of spring
carried a warning that the wintry elements might yet arise and roar
like a young lion.

The one advantage of the passing days was the general improvement in the
herd. The instinct of the cattle led them to the buffalo grass, which
grew on the slopes and divides, and with three weeks of fair weather and
full freedom the herd as a whole rounded into form, reflecting its
tenacity of life and the able handling of its owners.

Within ten days of the close of the month, the weakened lines of
intrenchment were again assaulted. The herd was grazing westward, along
the first divide south of the Beaver, when a squall struck near the
middle of the afternoon. It came without warning, and found the cattle
scattered to the limits of loose herding, but under the eyes of two
alert horsemen. Their mounts responded to the task, circling the herd on
different sides, but before it could be thrown into mobile form and
pointed into the Beaver valley, a swirl of soft snow enveloped horses
and riders, cattle and landscape. The herd turned its back to the storm,
and took up the steady, sullen march of a winter drift. Cut off from the
corral by fully five miles, the emergency of the hour must be met, and
the brothers rode to dispute the progress of the drifting cattle.

"Where can we turn them?" timidly inquired Dell.

"Unless the range of sand dunes catch us," replied Joel, "nothing short
of the brakes of the Prairie Dog will check the cattle. We're out until
this storm spends its force."

"Let's beat for the sand hills, then. They lay to our right, and the
wolves are gone."

"The storm is from the northwest. If it holds from that quarter, we'll
miss the sand dunes by several miles. Then it becomes a question of
horseflesh."

"If we miss the sand hills, I'll go back and get a pack horse and
overtake you to-morrow. It isn't cold, and Dog-toe can face the storm."

"That's our one hope," admitted Joel. "We've brought these cattle
through a hard winter and now we mustn't lose them in a spring squall."

The wind blew a gale. Ten minutes after the storm struck and the cattle
turned to drift with it, all knowledge of the quarter of the compass was
lost. It was a reasonable allowance that the storm would hold a true
course until its wrath was spent, and relying on that slender thread,
the boys attempted to veer the herd for the sand hills. By nature cattle
are none too gregarious, as only under fear will they flock compactly,
and the danger of splitting the herd into wandering contingents must be
avoided. On the march which lay before it, its compactness must be
maintained, and to turn half the herd into the sand dunes and let the
remainder wander adrift was out of the question.

"We'll have to try out the temper of the herd," said Joel. "The cattle
are thin, have lost their tallow, and this wind seems to be cutting them
to the quick. There's no use in turning the lead unless the swing cattle
will follow. It's better to drift until the storm breaks than to split
the herd into little bunches."

"Let's try for the sand hills, anyhow," urged Dell. "Turn the leaders
ever so slightly, and I'll try and keep the swing cattle in line."

An effort to reach the shelter of the sand dunes was repeatedly made.
But on each attempt the wind, at freezing temperature, cut the cattle to
the bone, and as drifting was so much more merciful, the brothers chose
to abandon the idea of reaching a haven in the sand hills.

"The cattle are too weak," admitted Joel, after repeated efforts. "Turn
the leaders and they hump their backs and halt. An hour of this wind
would drop them in their tracks. It's drift or die."

"I'll drop back and see how the drag cattle are coming on," suggested
Dell, "and if they're in line I might as well start after a pack horse.
We're only wearing out our horses in trying to turn this herd."

The efforts to veer the herd had enabled the drag end to easily keep in
a compact line, and on Dell's return to the lead, he reported the
drifting column less than a quarter mile in length.

"The spirit of the herd is killed," said he; "the cattle can barely hold
their heads off the ground. Why, during that Christmas drift, they
fought and gored each other at every chance, but to-day they act like
lost sheep. They are half dead on their feet."

The herd had been adrift several hours, and as sustenance for man and
horse was important, Dell was impatient to reach the Beaver before
nightfall.

"If the storm has held true since it struck," said he, "I'll cut it
quartering from here to headquarters. That good old corn that Dog-toe
has been eating all winter has put the iron into his blood, until he
just bows his neck and snorts defiance against this wind and snow."

"Now, don't be too sure," cautioned Joel. "You can't see one hundred
yards in this storm, and if you get bewildered, all country looks alike.
Trust your horse in any event, and if you strike above or below
headquarters, if you keep your head on your shoulders you ought to
recognize the creek. Give your horse free rein and he'll take you
straight to the stable door. Bring half a sack of corn, some bread and
meat, the tent-fly and blankets. Start an hour before daybreak, and
you'll find me in the lead of the herd."

The brothers parted for the night. So long as he could ride in their
lead, the necessity of holding the cattle was the lodestar that
sustained Joel Wells during those lonely hours. There was always the
hope that the storm would abate, when the tired cattle would gladly halt
and bed down, which promise lightened the passing time. The work was
easy to boy and horse; to retard the march of the leaders, that the rear
might easily follow, was the task of the night or until relieved.

On the other hand, Dell's self-reliance lacked caution. Secure in his
ability to ride a course, day or night, fair or foul weather, he had
barely reached the southern slope of the Beaver when darkness fell. The
horse was easily quartering the storm, but the pelting snow in the boy's
face led him to rein his mount from a true course, with the result that
several miles was ridden without reaching any recognizable landmark. A
ravine or dry wash was finally encountered, when Dell dismounted. As a
matter of precaution, he carried matches, and on striking one, confusion
assumed the reign over all caution and advice. He was lost, but
contentious to the last ditch. Several times he remounted and allowed
his horse free rein, but each time Dog-toe turned into the eye of the
storm, then the true course home, and was halted. Reason was abandoned
and disorder reigned. An hour was lost, when the confident boy mounted
his horse and took up his former course, almost crossing the line of
storm on a right angle. A thousand visible forms, creatures of the night
and storm, took shape in the bewildered mind of Dell Wells, and after
dismounting and mounting unknown times, he floundered across Beaver
Creek fully three miles below headquarters.

The hour was unknown. Still confused, Dell finally appealed to his
horse, and within a few minutes Dog-toe was in a road and champing the
bits against restraint. The boy dismounted, and a burning match revealed
the outlines of a road under the soft snow. The horse was given rein
again and took the road like a hound, finally sweeping under a tree,
when another halt was made. It was the hackberry at the mouth of the
cove, its broken twigs bespoke a fire which Dell had built, and yet the
mute witness tree and impatient horse were doubted. And not until
Dog-toe halted at the stable door was the boy convinced of his error.

"Dog-toe," said Dell, as he swung out of the saddle, "you forgot more
than I ever knew. You told me that I was wrong, and you pled with me
like a brother, and I wouldn't listen to you. I wonder if he'll forgive
me?" meditated Dell, as he opened the stable door.

The horse hurriedly entered and nickered for his feed. "Yes, you shall
have an extra ration of corn," answered his rider. "And if you'll just
forgive me this once, the lesson you taught me to-night will never be
forgotten."

It proved to be early in the evening--only eight o'clock. Even though
the lesson was taught by a dumb animal, it was worth its cost. Before
offering to sleep, Dell collected all the articles that were to make up
the pack, foddered the horses, set the alarm forward an hour, and sought
his blankets for a short rest. Several times the howling of the wind
awoke him, and unable to sleep out the night, he arose and built a fire.
The necessity of a pack saddle robbed him of his own, and, substituting
a blanket, at the appointed hour before dawn he started, with three
days' rations for man and horse. The snow had ceased falling, but a raw
March wind blew from the northwest, and taking his course with it, he
reached the divide at daybreak. A struggling sun gave him a bearing from
time to time, the sand dunes were sighted, and angling across the course
of the wind, the trail of the herd was picked up in the mushy snow. A
bull was overtaken, resting comfortably in a buffalo wallow; three
others were passed, feeding with the wind, and finally the sun burst
forth, revealing the brakes of the Prairie Dog.

Where the cattle had drifted barely two miles an hour, sustenance was
following at a five-mile gait. The trail freshened in the snow, narrowed
and broadened, and near the middle of the forenoon the scattered herd
was sighted. The long yell of warning was answered only by a tiny
smoke-cloud, hanging low over the creek bed, and before Joel was aware
of his presence, Dell rode up to the very bank under which the fire
was burning.

"How do you like an all-night drift?" shouted Dell. "How do snowballs
taste for breakfast?"

"Come under the cliff and unpack," soberly replied Joel. "I hope this
is the last lesson in winter herding; I fail to see any romance in it."

The horses were unsaddled and fed. "Give an account of yourself," urged
Dell, as the brothers returned to the fire. "How did you make out during
the night?"

"I just humped my back like the other cattle and took my medicine,"
replied Joel. "An Indian dances to keep warm, and I sang. You have no
idea how good company cattle are. One big steer laid his ear in Rowdy's
flank to warm it. I took him by the horn any number of times and woke
him up; he was just staggering along asleep. I talked to all the lead
cattle, named them after boys we knew at school, and sometimes they
would look up when I called to them. And the queerest thing happened!
You remember old Redman, our teacher, back in Ohio. Well, I saw him last
night. There was a black two-year-old steer among the lead cattle, and
every time I looked at him, I saw old Redman, with his humped shoulder,
his pug nose, and his half-shut eyes. It took the storm, the sullen
drift, to put that expression in the black steer's face, but it was old
Redman. During the two terms of school that he taught, he licked me a
score of times, but I dared him to come out of that black steer's face
and try it again. He must have heard me, for the little black steer
dropped back and never came to the lead again."

"And had you any idea where you were?" inquired Dell, prompted by his
own experience.

"I was right at home in the lead of the herd. The tepee might get lost,
but I couldn't. I knew we must strike the Prairie Dog, and the cattle
were within half a mile of it when day broke. Once I got my bearings,
Rowdy and I turned on the herd and checked the drift."

A late breakfast fortified the boys for the day. It was fully
twenty-five miles back to the Beaver, but with the cattle weakened, the
horses worn, it was decided to rest a day before starting on the return.
During the afternoon, Dell went back and threw in the stragglers, and
towards evening all the cattle were put under loose herd and pointed
north. The sun had stripped the snow, and a comfortable camp was made
under the cliff. Wood was scarce on the Prairie Dog, but the dry, rank
stalks of the wild sunflower made a good substitute for fuel, and night
settled over human and animal in the full enjoyment of every comfort.

It was a two-days' trip returning. To Rowdy fell the duty of pack
horse. He had led the outward march, and was entitled to an easy berth
on retreat. The tarpaulin was folded the full length of the horse's body
girth, both saddles being required elsewhere, and the corn and blankets
laid within the pack and all lashed securely. The commissary supplies
being light, saddle pockets and cantle strings were found sufficient for
their transportation.

The start was made at sunrise. The cattle had grazed out several miles
the evening before, and in their weakened condition it would require
nursing to reach the Beaver. A mile an hour was the pace, nothing like a
compact herd or driving was permissible, and the cattle were allowed to
feed or rest at their will. Rowdy grazed along the flank, the boys
walked as a relief, and near evening or on sighting the dunes, Dell took
the pack horse and rode for their shelter, to locate a night camp. The
herd never swerved from its course, and after sunset Joel rounded the
cattle into compact form and bedded them down for the night. A beacon
fire of plum brush led him to the chosen camp, in the sand hills, where
supper awaited the brothers.

"Isn't it lucky," said Dell, as he snuggled under the blankets, "that
the wolves are gone. Suppose they were here yet, and we had to build
fires, or stand guard over the herd to-night, like trail men, could
we do it?"

"Certainly. We met the wolves before and held the cattle. You seem to
forget that we're not entitled to sleep any in the winter. Be grateful.
Thank the wolf and go to sleep."

"See how the dunes loom up in the light of this camp-fire. I wish Mr.
Paul could see it."

"More than likely he has camped in the dunes and enjoyed many rousing
fires."

Dell's next remark was unanswered. The stars twinkled overhead, the
sandman was abroad, curfew sounded through the dunes, and all was quiet.

"Here's where we burn the wagon," said Joel, as he aroused Dell at
daybreak. "It's one of Mr. Quince's remarks, but this is the first time
we've had a chance to use it. I'll divide the corn into three good
feeds, and we'll make it in home for supper. Let's have the whole
hummingbird for breakfast, so that when we ride out of this camp, all
worth saving will be the coffee pot and frying pan. So long as we hold
the cattle, who cares for expense."

The herd was in hand as it left the bed ground. An ideal spring day lent
its aid to the snailing cattle. By the middle of the afternoon the
watershed had been crossed, and the gradual slope clown to the Beaver
was begun. Rowdy forged to the lead, the flanks turned in, the rear
pushed forward, and the home-hunger of the herd found expression in loud
and continued lowing.

"I must have been mistaken about the spirit of this herd being killed,"
observed Dell. "When I left you the other day, to go after a pack horse,
these cattle looked dead on their feet. I felt sure that we would lose a
hundred head, and we haven't lost a hoof."

"We may have a lot to learn yet about cattle," admitted Joel. "I fully
expected to see our back track strung with dead animals."

The origin of the herd, with its deeps and moods, is unknown and
unwritten. The domesticity of cattle is dateless. As to when the ox
first knew his master's crib, history and tradition are dumb. Little
wonder that Joel and Dell Wells, with less than a year's experience,
failed to fully understand their herd. An incident, similar to the one
which provoked the observation of the brothers, may explain those placid
depths, the deep tenacity and latent power of the herd.

After delivering its cargo at an army post, an extensive freighting
outfit was returning to the supply point. Twelve hundred oxen were
employed. On the outward trip, muddy roads were encountered, the wagons
were loaded beyond the strength of the teams, and the oxen had arrived
at the fort exhausted, spiritless, and faint to falling under their
yokes. Many oxen had been abandoned as useless within one hundred miles
of the post, thus doubling the work on the others. On the return trip,
these scattered oxen, the lame and halt, were gathered to the number of
several hundred, and were being driven along at the rear of the wagon
train. Each day added to their numbers, until one fourth of all the oxen
were being driven loose at the rear of the caravan. One day a boy
blindfolded a cripple ox, which took fright and charged among his
fellows, bellowing with fear. It was tinder to powder! The loose oxen
broke from the herders, tore past the column of wagons, frenzied in
voice and action. The drivers lost control of their teams, bedlam
reigned, and the entire wagon train joined in the general stampede.
Wagons were overturned and reduced to kindling in a moment of the
wildest panic. The drivers were glad to escape with their lives and were
left at the rear. A cloud of dust merely marked the direction which the
oxen had taken. The teams, six to eight yoke each, wrenched their
chains, broke the bows, and joined in the onrush. Many of the oxen,
still under yoke, were found the next day fifteen miles distant from the
scene of the incident, and unapproachable except on horseback. For a
month previous to this demonstration of the latent power of cattle, the
humane drivers of the wagon train were constantly lamenting that the
spirit of their teams was killed.

When within a mile of the Beaver, the herd was turned westward and given
its freedom. While drifting down the slope, Rowdy gradually crept far to
the lead, and as the brothers left the cattle and bore off homeward, the
horse took up a gentle trot, maintaining his lead until the stable
was reached.

"Look at the dear old rascal," said Joel, beaming with pride. "That
horse knows more than some folks."

"Yes, and if Dog-toe could talk," admitted Dell, stroking his horse's
neck, "he could tell a good joke on me. I may tell it myself some
day--some time when I want to feel perfectly ashamed of myself."




CHAPTER XIII

A WELCOME GUEST


The heralds of spring bespoke its early approach. April was ushered in
to the songs of birds, the greening valley, and the pollen on the
willow. The frost arose, the earth mellowed underfoot, and the creek
purled and sang as it hastened along. The cattle played, calves were
born, while the horses, in shedding their winter coats, matted the
saddle blankets and threw off great tufts of hair where they rolled on
the ground.

The marketing of the peltry fell to Joel. Dell met the wagon returning
far out on the trail. "The fur market's booming," shouted Joel, on
coming within speaking distance. "We'll not know the price for a few
weeks. The station agent was only willing to ship them. The storekeeper
was anxious to do the same, and advanced me a hundred dollars on the
shipment. Wolf skins, prime, are quoted from two to two dollars and a
half. And I have a letter from Forrest. The long winter's over! You can
shout! G'long, mules!"

During the evening, Dell read Forrest's letter again and again. "Keep
busy until the herds arrive," it read. "Enlarge your water supply and
plan to acquire more cattle."

"That's our programme," said Joel. "We'll put in two dams between here
and the trail. Mr. Quince has never advised us wrong, and he'll explain
things when he comes. Once a week will be often enough to ride around
the cattle."

An air of activity was at once noticeable around headquarters. The
garden was ploughed and planting begun. The fence was repaired around
the corn-field, the beaver dams were strengthened, and sites for two
other reservoirs were selected. The flow of the creek was ample to fill
large tanks, and if the water could be conserved for use during the dry
summer months, the cattle-carrying capacity of the ranch could be
greatly enlarged. The old beaver dams around headquarters had withstood
every drouth, owing to the shade of the willows overhead, the roots of
which matted and held the banks intact. Wagon loads of willow slips were
accordingly cut for the new dams and the work begun in earnest.

"We'll take the tent and camp at the lower site," announced Joel. "It
would waste too much time to go and come. When we build the upper one,
we can work from home."

The two tanks were finished within a month. They were built several
miles apart, where there was little or no fall in the creek, merely to
hold still water in long, deep pools. The willow cuttings were planted
along the borders and around the dams, the ends of which were riprapped
with stone, and a spillway cut to accommodate any overflow
during freshets.

The dams were finished none too soon, as a dry spring followed, and the
reservoirs had barely filled when the creek ceased flowing. The unusual
winter snowfall had left a season's moisture in the ground, and the
grass came in abundance, matting slope and valley, while the garden grew
like a rank weed. The corn crop of the year before had repaid well in
forage, and was again planted. In the face of another drouthy summer,
the brothers sowed as if they fully expected to reap. "Keep busy" was
the slogan of the springtime.

The month of June arrived without a sign of life on the trail. Nearly
one hundred calves were born to the herd on the Beaver, the peltry had
commanded the highest quotation, and Wells Brothers swaggered in their
saddles. But still the herds failed to come.

"Let's put up the tent," suggested Dell, "just as if we were expecting
company. Mr. Paul or Mr. Quince will surely ride in some of these
evenings. Either one will reach here a full day in the lead of his herd.
Let's make out that we're looking for them."

Dell's suggestion was acted on. A week passed and not a trail man
appeared. "There's something wrong," said Joel, at the end of the second
week. "The Lovell herds go through, and there's sixteen of them on
the trail."

"They're water-bound," said Dell, jumping at a conclusion.

"Waterbound, your foot! The men and horses and cattle can all swim.
Don't you remember Mr. Quince telling about rafting his wagon across
swimming rivers? Waterbound, your grandmother! High water is nothing to
those trail men."

Dell was silenced. The middle of June came and the herds had not
appeared. The brothers were beginning to get uneasy for fear of bad
news, when near dark one evening a buckboard drove up. Its rumbling
approach hurried the boys outside the tent, when without a word of hail,
Quince Forrest sprang from the vehicle, grasped Dell, and the two rolled
over and over on the grass.

"I just wanted to roll him in the dirt to make him grow," explained
Forrest to an elderly man who accompanied him. "These are my boys. Look
at that red-headed rascal--fat as a calf with two mothers. Boys, shake
hands with Mr. Lovell."

The drover alighted and greeted the boys with fatherly kindness. He was
a frail man, of medium height, nearly sixty years of age, with an energy
that pulsed in every word and action. There was a careworn expression in
his face, while an intensity of purpose blazed from hungry, deep-set
eyes which swept every detail of the scene at a glance. That he was
worried to the point of exhaustion was evident the moment that
compliments were exchanged.

"Show me your water supply," said he to Joel; "old beaver ponds, if I am
correctly informed. We must move fifty thousand cattle from Dodge to the
Platte River within the next fortnight. One of the worst drouths in the
history of the trail confronts us, and if you can water my cattle
between the Prairie Dog and the Republican River, you can name your
own price."

"Let's drive around," said Forrest, stepping into the blackboard,
"before it gets too dark. Come on, boys, and show Mr. Lovell the water."

All four boarded the vehicle, the boys standing up behind the single
seat, and drove away. In a mile's meanderings of the creek were five
beaver ponds, over which in many places the willows interlapped. The
pools stood bank full, and after sounding them, the quartette turned
homeward, satisfied of the abundant water supply.

"There's water and to spare for the entire drive," said Forrest to his
employer. "It isn't the amount drank, it's the absorption of the sun
that gets away with water. Those willows will protect the pools until
the cows come home. I felt sure of the Beaver."

"Now, if we can arrange to water my herds here--"

"That's all arranged," replied Forrest. "I'm a silent partner in this
ranch. Anything that Wells Brothers owns is yours for the asking. Am I
right, boys?"

"If Mr. Lovell needs the water, he is welcome to it," modestly replied
Joel.

"That's my partner talking," said Forrest; "that was old man Joel Wells
that just spoke. He's the senior member of the firm. Oh, these boys of
mine are cowmen from who laid the rail. They're not out to rob a
neighbor. Once you hear from the head of the Stinking Water, you can
order the herds to pull out for the Platte."

"Yes," said Mr. Lovell, somewhat perplexed. "Yes, but let's get the
water on the Beaver clear first. What does this mean? I offer a man his
price to water my cattle, and he answers me that I'm welcome to it for
nothing. I'm suspicious of the Greeks when they come bearing gifts. Are
you three plotting against me?"

"That's it," replied Forrest. "You caught the gleam of my axe all right.
In the worry of this drouth, you've overlooked the fact that you have
five horses on this ranch. They were left here last fall, expecting to
pick them up this spring. Two of them were cripples and three were good
cow horses. Now, these boys of mine are just branching out into cattle,
and they don't need money, but a few good horses are better than gold.
That's about the plot. What would you say was the right thing to do?"

Mr. Lovell turned to the boys. "The five horses are yours. But I'm still
in your debt. Is there anything else that you need?"

The question was repeated to Forrest. "By the time the herds reach
here," said he, mildly observant, "there will be quite a number of
tender-footed and fagged cattle. They could never make it through
without rest, but by dropping them here, they would have a fighting
chance to recuperate before winter. There won't be a cent in an
abandoned steer for you, but these boys--"

"Trim the herds here on the Beaver," interrupted Mr. Lovell. "I'll give
all my foremen orders to that effect. Cripples are worthless to me, but
good as gold to these boys. What else?"

"Oh, just wish the boys good luck, and if it ever so happens, speak a
good word for the Wells Brothers. I found them white, and I think you'll
find them on the square."

"Well, this is a happy termination," said Mr. Lovell, as he alighted at
the tent. "Our water expense between Dodge and Ogalalla will not exceed
five thousand dollars. It cost me double that getting out of Texas."

Secure on the Beaver, the brothers were unaware of the outside drouth,
which explained the failure of the herds to appear on the trail as in
other years. It meant the delay of a fortnight, and the concentration of
a year's drive into a more limited space of time. Unconscious of its
value, the boys awoke to the fact that they controlled the only water
between the Prairie Dog and the Republican River--sixty miles of the
plain. Many of the herds were under contract and bond to cattle
companies, individuals, army posts, and Indian agencies, and no excuse
would be accepted for any failure to deliver. The drouth might prove an
ill-wind to some, but the Beaver valley was not only exempt but could
extend relief.

After supper, hosts and guests adjourned to the tent. Forrest had
unearthed the winter struggle of his protégés, and gloating over the
manner in which the boys had met and overcome the unforeseen, he assumed
an observant attitude in addressing his employer.

"You must be working a sorry outfit up on the Little Missouri," said he,
"to lose ten per cent of straight steer cattle. My boys, here on the
Beaver, report a measly loss of twelve head, out of over five hundred
cattle. And you must recollect that these were rag-tag and bob-tail, the
flotsam of a hundred herds, forty per cent cripples, walking on
crutches. Think of it! Two per cent loss, under herd, a sleet over the
range for six weeks, against your ten per cent kill on an open range.
You must have a slatterly, sore-thumbed lot of men on your beef ranch."

Mr. Lovell was discouraged over the outlook of his cattle interests.
"That was a first report that you are quoting from," said he to Forrest.
"It was more prophecy than statement. We must make allowances for young
men. There is quite a difference between getting scared and being hurt.
My beef outfit has orders to go three hundred miles south of our range
and cover all round-ups northward. It was a severe winter, and the drift
was heavy, but I'm not worrying any about that sore-fingered outfit.
Promptly meeting government contracts is our work to-day. My cattle are
two weeks behind time, and the beef herds must leave Dodge to-morrow.
Help me figure it out: Can you put me on the railroad by noon?" he
concluded, turning to Joel.

"Easily, or I can carry a message to-night."

"There's your programme," said Forrest, interceding. "One of these boys
can take you to Grinnell in time for the eastbound train. Wire your beef
herds to pull out for the Platte. You can trust the water to improve
from here north."

"And you?" inquired the drover, addressing his foreman.

"I'll take the buckboard and go north until I meet Paul. That will cover
the last link in the trail. We'll know our water then, and time our
drives to help the cattle. It's as clear as mud."

"Just about," dubiously answered Mr. Lovell. "Unless I can get an
extension of time on my beef contracts, the penalty under my bonds will
amount to a fortune."

"The army is just as well aware of this drouth as you are," said
Forrest, "and the War Department will make allowances. The government
don't expect the impossible."

"Yes," answered the old drover with feeling. "Yes, but it exacts a bond,
and stipulates the daily forfeiture, and if any one walks the plank,
it's not your dear old Uncle Samuel. And it matters not how much sleep I
lose, red tape never worries."

The boys made a movement as if to withdraw, and Forrest arose. "The
programme for to-morrow, then, is understood," said the latter. "The
horses will be ready at daybreak."

It was midnight when the trio sought their blankets. On the part of the
brothers, there was a constant reference to their guest, the drover, and
a desire, if in their power, to aid him in every way.

"I wanted you boys to meet and get acquainted with Mr. Lovell," said
Forrest, as all were dozing off to sleep. "There is a cowman in a
thousand, and his word carries weight in cattle matters. He's rather
deep water, unless you cross or surprise him. I nagged him about the men
on his beef ranch. He knew the cattle wouldn't winter kill when they
could drift, and the round-up will catch every living hoof. He was too
foxy to borrow any trouble there, and this long yell about the drouth
interfering with delivery dates keeps the trail outfits against the
bits. Admitting his figures, the water expense won't be a drop in the
bucket. It affords good worrying and that keeps the old man in fighting
form. I'm glad he came along; treat him fair and square, and his
friendship means something to you, boys."




CHAPTER XIV

AN ILL WIND


The start to the station was made at four o'clock in the morning. Joel
accompanied the drover, the two best horses being under saddle, easily
capable of a road gait that would reach the railroad during the early
forenoon. The direct course lay across country, and once the sun flooded
the Beaver valley, the cowman swung around in the saddle and his
practical eye swept the range. On sighting Hackberry Grove, the broken
country beyond, including the sand hills, he turned to his guide.

"My boy," said Mr. Lovell, "you brothers have a great future before you.
This is an ideal cattle range. The very grass under our horses' feet
carries untold wealth. But you lack cattle. You have the range here for
thousands where you are running hundreds. Buy young steers; pay any
price; but get more cattle. The growth of young steers justifies any
outlay. Come down to Dodge about the first of August. This drouth is
liable to throw some bargains on that market. Be sure and come. I'll
keep an eye open in your interest on any cattle for sale."

The old drover's words bewildered Joel. The ways and means were not
entirely clear, but the confidence of the man in the future of the
brothers was gratifying. Meanwhile, at the little ranch the team stood
in waiting, and before the horseman had passed out of sight to the south
the buckboard started on its northern errand. Dell accompanied it,
protesting against his absence from home, but Forrest brushed aside
every objection.

"Come on, come on," said he to Dell; "you have no saddle, and we may be
back to-night. We're liable to meet Paul on the Republican. Turn your
ranch loose and let it run itself. Come on; we ain't halfway through our
figuring."

Joel returned after dark. Priest had left Ogalalla, to the north, the
same day that Forrest and his employer started up the trail from the
south, and at the expected point the two foremen met. The report showed
water in abundance from the Republican River northward, confirming
Forrest's assertion to his employer, and completing the chain of waters
between Dodge and Ogalalla. Priest returned with the buckboard, which
reached the Beaver after midnight, and aroused Joel out of heavy sleep.

"I just wanted to say," said Priest, sitting on the edge of Joel's bunk,
"that I had my ear to the ground and heard the good fighting. Yes, I
heard the sleet cracking. You never saw me, but I was with you the night
you drifted to the Prairie Dog. Take it all along the line, wasn't it
good fighting?"

"Has Dell told you everything?" inquired Joel, sitting up in his
blankets.

"Everything, including the fact that he got lost the night of the March
drift, while going home after a pack horse. Wouldn't trust poor old
Dog-toe, but run on the rope himself! Landed down the creek here a few
miles. News to you? Well, he admits that the horse forgot more than he
himself ever knew. That's a hopeful sign. As long as a man hearkens to
his horse, there is no danger of bad counsel being thrust on him."

The boys were catching, at first hand, an insight into the exacting
nature of trail work. Their friends were up with the dawn, and while
harnessing in the team, Forrest called Joel's attention to setting the
ranch in order to water the passing herds.

"I was telling Dell yesterday," said he, "the danger of Texas fever
among wintered cattle, and you must isolate your little herd until
after frost falls. Graze your cattle up around Hackberry Grove, and keep
a dead-line fully three miles wide between the wintered and through
trail herds. Any new cattle that you pick up, cripples or strays, hold
them down the creek--between here and the old trail crossing. For fear
of losing them you can't even keep milk cows around the ranch, so turn
out your calves. Don't ask me to explain Texas fever. It's one of the
mysteries of the trail. The very cattle that impart it after a winter in
the north catch the fever and die like sheep. It seems to exist, in a
mild form, in through, healthy cattle, but once imparted to native or
northern wintered stock, it becomes violent and is usually fatal. The
sure, safe course is to fear and avoid it."

The two foremen were off at an early hour. Priest was again in charge of
Lovell's lead herd, and leaving the horse that he had ridden to the
Republican River in care of the boys, he loitered a moment at parting.

"If my herd left Dodge at noon yesterday," said he, mentally
calculating, "I'll overtake it some time to-morrow night. Allowing ten
days to reach here--"

He turned to the boys. "This is the sixteenth of June. Well, come out on
the divide on the morning of the twenty-fifth and you will see a dust
cloud in the south. The long distance between waters will put the herd
through on schedule time. Come out and meet me."

The brothers waved the buckboard away. The dragging days were over. The
herds were coming, and their own little ranch promised relief to the
drover and his cattle.

"Mr. Quince says the usual price for watering trail herds is from one to
three cents a head," said Dell, as their friends dipped from sight. "The
government, so he says, allows three cents for watering cavalry horses
and harness mules. He tells me that the new settlers, in control of the
water on the trail, in northern Texas, fairly robbed the drovers this
year. The pastoral Texan, he contends, shared his canteen with the
wayfarer, and never refused to water cattle. He wants us to pattern
after the Texans--to give our water and give it freely. When Mr. Lovell
raised the question of arranging to water his herds from our beaver
ponds, do you remember how Mr. Quince answered for us? I'm mighty glad
money wasn't mentioned. No money could buy Dog-toe from me. And Mr.
Lovell gave us three of our best horses."

"He offered me ten dollars for taking him to the railroad," said Joel,
"but I looked him square in the eye and refused the money. He says we
must buy more cattle. He wants me to come to Dodge in August, and
I'm going."

Dell treated the idea of buying cattle with slight disdain.
"You--going--to--buy--more--cattle?" said he, accenting each word. "Any
one tell your fortune lately?"

"Yes," answered the older boy. "I'm having it told every day. One of
those two men, the gray-haired one on that buckboard,--stand here and
you can see them,--told me over a year ago that this range had a value,
and that we ought to skirmish some cattle, some way, and stock it. What
he saw clearly then, I see now, and what Mr. Lovell sees now, you may
see a year hence. These men have proved their friendship, and why stand
in our own light? Our ability to hold cattle was tested last winter, and
if this range is an asset, there may be some way to buy more cattle. I'm
going to Dodge in August."

Dell was silenced. There was ample time to set the ranch in order.
Turning away from the old trail, on the divide, and angling in to
headquarters, and thence northward, was but a slight elbow on the
general course of the trail herds. The long distance across to the
Republican would compel an early watering on the Beaver, that the cattle
might reach the former river the following evening. The brothers knew to
a fraction the grazing gait of a herd, the trailing pace, and could
anticipate to an hour the time required to move a herd from the Prairie
Dog to the Beaver.

The milk cows and calves were turned back into the general herd. The
dead-line was drawn safely below Hackberry Grove, between imaginary
landmarks on either slope, while on the creek, like a sentinel, stood a
lone willow which seemed to say, "Thus far shalt thou go and no
farther." The extra horses, now in the pink of condition, were brought
home and located below the ranch, and the house stood in order.

The arrival of the first herd had been correctly calculated. The
brothers rode out late on the morning designated, but did not reach the
divide. The foremost herd was met within seven miles of the Beaver, the
leaders coming on with the steady stride of thirsty cattle that had
scented water. Priest was nowhere in sight, but the heavy beeves
identified the herd, and when the boys hailed a point man, the
situation cleared.

"Mr. Paul--our boss?" repeated the point man. "He's setting up a
guide-board, back on the divide, where we turned off from the old
trail. Say, does this dim wagon track we're following lead to Wells
Brothers' ranch?"

"It does," answered Joel. "You can see the willows from the next swell
of the prairie," added Dell, as the brothers passed on.

It was a select herd of heavy beeves. In spite of the drouth
encountered, the cattle were in fine condition, and as the herd snailed
forward at its steady march, the sweep of horn, the variety of color,
the neat outline of each animal blended into a pastoral picture of
strength and beauty.

The boys rode down the advancing column. A swing man on the opposite
side of the herd waved his hand across to the brothers, and while the
two were speculating as to who he might be, a swing lad on the left
reined out and saluted the boys.

With hand extended, he smilingly inquired, "Don't you remember the day
we branded your cattle? How did the Two Bars and the ---- Y
cows winter?"

"It's Billy Honeyman," said Dell, beaming. "Who is that man across the
herd, waving at us?" he inquired, amid hearty greeting.

"That's Runt Pickett, the little fellow who helped us brand--the lad who
rushed the cattle. The herd cuts him off from shaking hands. Turn your
horses the other way and tell me how you like it out West."

Dell turned back, but Joel continued on. The column of beeves was fully
a mile in length. After passing the drag end of the herd, the wagon and
remuda were sighted, later met, with the foreman still at the rear. The
dust cloud of yet another herd arose in the distance, and while Joel
pondered on its location over the divide, a horseman emerged from a dip
in the plain and came toward him in a slow gallop.

"There's no foreman with the next herd," explained Priest, slacking his
horse into a walk, "and the segundo wasn't sure which swell was the real
divide. We trailed two herds past your ranch last summer, but the frost
has mellowed up the soil and the grass has overgrown the paths until
every trace is gone. I planted a guide-post and marked it 'Lovell's
Trail,' so the other foremen will know where to turn off. All the old
man's herds are within three or four days' drive, and after that it's
almost a solid column of cattle back to Dodge. Forrest is in charge of
the rear herd, and will pick up any of our abandoned cattle."

The two shook out their mounts, passed the commissary and saddle stock,
but halted a moment at the drag end of the herd. "We've been dropping
our cripples," explained Priest, "but the other herds will bring them
through. There's not over one or two here, but I'm going to saw off
three horses on Wells Brothers. Good ones, too, that is, good for
next year."

A halt was made at the lead of the herd, and some directions given the
point man. It was still early in the forenoon, and once man and boy had
fairly cleared the leaders in front, a signal was given and the cattle
turned as a single animal and fell to grazing. The wagon and remuda
never halted; on being joined by the two horsemen, they continued on
into the Beaver. Eleven o'clock was the hour named to water the herd,
and punctual to the moment the beeves, with a mile-wide front, were
grazed up to the creek.

The cattle were held around the pools for an hour. Before dinner was
over, the acting foreman of the second herd rode in, and in mimicking a
trail boss, issued some drastic orders. The second herd was within
sight, refused to graze, and his wagon was pulling in below the ranch
for the noon camp.

Priest looked at his watch. "Start the herd," said he to his own men.
"Hold a true northward course, and camp twelve miles out to-night. I may
not be with you, but water in the Republican at six o'clock to-morrow
evening. Bring in your herd, young fellow," he concluded, addressing
the segundo.

The watering of a trail herd is important. Mere opportunity to quench
thirst is not sufficient. The timid stand in awe of the strong, and the
excited milling cattle intimidate the weak and thirsty. An hour is the
minimum time, during which half the herd may drink and lie down,
affording the others the chance to approach without fear and slake
their thirst.

The acting foreman signaled in his herd. The beeves around the water
were aroused, and reluctantly grazed out on their course, while the
others came on with a sullen stride that thirst enforces. The previous
scene of contentment gave way to frenzy. The heavy beeves, equally
select with the vanguard, floundered into the pools, lowed in their joy,
drank to gorging, fought their fellows, staggered out of the creek, and
dropped to rest in the first dust or dry grass.

Priest trimmed his own beeves and remuda. A third herd appeared, when he
and the acting foreman culled over both horses and cattle, and sent the
second herd on its way. Each of the three advance herds must reach the
Republican the following day, and it was scant two o'clock when the
third one trailed out from the Beaver. With mature cattle there were
few cripples, and the day ended with an addition to the little ranch of
the promised horses and a few tender-footed beeves. There were two more
herds of heavy beef cattle to follow, which would arrive during the next
forenoon, and the old foreman remained over until the last cattle,
intended for army delivery, had passed the ranch.

The herd never fails. Faith in cattle is always rewarded. From that far
distant dawn when man and his ox started across the ages the one has
ever sustained the other. The two rear beef herds promptly reached the
Beaver the next morning, slaked their thirst, and passed on before noon.

"This lets me out as your guest," said Priest to the boys, when the last
herd was trimmed. "Bob Quirk will now follow with six herds of contract
cattle. He's the foreman of the second herd of beeves, but Mr. Lovell
detailed him to oversee this next division across to the Platte. Forrest
will follow Quirk with the last five herds of young steers, slated for
the old man's beef ranch on the Little Missouri. That puts our cattle
across the Beaver, but you'll have plenty of company for the next month.
Mr. Lovell has made a good talk for you boys around Dodge, and if you'll
give these trail drovers this water, it will all come back. As cowmen,
there are two things that you want to remember--that it'll rain again,
and that the cows will calve in the spring."

Priest had barely left the little ranch when Bob Quirk arrived. Before
dismounting, he rode around the pools, signaled in a wagon and remuda,
and returned to the tent.

"This is trailing cattle with a vengeance," said he, stripping his
saddle from a tired horse. "There has been such a fight for water this
year that every foreman seems to think that unless he reaches the river
to-day it'll be dry to-morrow. Five miles apart was the limit agreed on
before leaving Dodge, and here I am with six herds--twenty thousand
cattle!--within twenty miles of the Beaver. For fear of a stampede last
night, we threw the herds left and right, two miles off the trail. The
Lord surely loves cattle or the earth would have shook from
running herds!"

That afternoon and the next morning the second division of the Lovell
herds crossed the Beaver. Forrest rode in and saluted the boys with his
usual rough caress.

"Saddle up horses," said he, "and drop back and come through with the
two rear herds, There's a heavy drag end on each one, and an extra man
to nurse those tender cows over here, to home and friends, will be
lending a hand to the needy. I'll run the ranch while you're gone. One
of you to each, the fourth and fifth herds, remember. I'll meet you
to-morrow morning, and we'll cut the cripples out and point them in to
the new tanks below. Shake out your fat horses, sweat them up a
little--you're needed at the rear of Lovell's main drive."

The boys saddled and rode away in a gallop. Three of the rear herds
reached the Beaver that afternoon, watered, and passed on to safe camps
beyond. One of Quirk's wagons had left a quarter of beef at
headquarters, and Forrest spent the night amid peace and plenty where
the year before he lay wounded.

The next morning saw the last of the Lovell herds arrive. The lead one
yielded ninety cripples, and an hour later the rear guard disgorged a
few over one hundred head. The two contingents were thrown together, the
brothers nursed them in to the new tanks, where they were freed on a
perfect range. A count of the cripples and fagged cattle, culled back at
headquarters, brought the total discard of the sixteen herds up to two
hundred and forty-odd, a riffraff of welcome flotsam, running from a
young steer to a seven-year-old beef. The sweepings had paid the
reckoning.

Several other trail foremen, scouting in advance of their herds, had
reached the Beaver, or had been given assurance that water was to be had
in abundance. A measurement of the water was awaited with interest, and
once the rear herd grazed out from the beaver ponds, Forrest and the
brothers rode around the pools to take soundings.

"I cut notches on willow roots, at each beaver dam, and the loss runs
from four to six inches, the lower pools suffering the heaviest," said
Joel, summing up the situation.

"They're holding like cisterns," exultingly said Forrest. "Fifty
thousand cattle watered, and only lowered the pools on an average of
five inches. The upper one's still taking water--that's the reason it's
standing the drain. Write it in the sand or among the stars, but the
water's here for this year's drive. Go back and tell those waiting
foremen to bring on their cattle. Headquarters ranch will water every
trail herd, or break a tug trying."




CHAPTER XV

WATER! WATER!


"Bring on your herds," said Joel, addressing a quartette of trail
foremen resting under the sunshade. "Our water is holding out better
than we expected. The Lovell cattle only lowered the ponds a trifle.
From the present outlook, we can water the drive."

"That's a big contract," reluctantly admitted a "Running W" trail boss.
"I had word on the railroad yesterday that the Arkansaw River at Dodge
was only running at night."

"Water is reported plentiful around Ogalalla and beyond," doggedly said
a pock-marked foreman.

"That'll tempt the herds to cross over," urged the Running W man. "The
faraway hills are always green."

The conversation took a new tack. "Who knows the estimate on the total
drive this year?" inquired a swarthy, sun-burned little man, addressing
the pock-marked foreman.

"A rough estimate places the drive at six hundred and fifty thousand
head," came the languid reply.

"There you are," smilingly said the Running W boss, turning to Joel.
"Better revise your water estimate."

"Not now," answered Joel, meeting smile with smile. "Later on I may have
to hedge, but for the present, bring on your cattle."

"That's to the point," languidly said a tall, blond Texan, arising. "My
cattle must have water this evening."

The other trail foremen arose. "We all understand," remarked the
pock-marked man to the others, "that this is the place where we drop our
strays, fagged and crippled stuff. These are the boys that Mr. Lovell
mentioned as worthy of any cattle that must be abandoned."

"At Wells Brothers' ranch, on the Beaver," assentingly said the little
man.

"Our lead herds will not have many cripples," said the Running W
foreman, turning to the boys. "A few days' rest is everything to a
tender-footed steer, and what cattle the lead ones drop, the rear ones
have orders to bring through to you."

"Thank you, sir," said Joel frankly. "We want to stock our range, and
crippled cattle are as good as gold to us."

Spurs clanked as the men turned to their mounts. The boys followed, and
Dell overtook the blond Texan. "If you need a hand on the drag end of
your herd," said the boy to the tall foreman, "I'll get up a fresh horse
and overtake you."

"Make it a horse apiece," said the young man, "and I'll sign your
petition for the post office--when this country has one. I'm as good
as afoot."

The other foremen mounted their horses. "I'll overtake you," said Joel
to the trio, "as soon as I change mounts. Whoever has the lead herd,
come in on the water above the field. The upper pools are the deepest,
and let your cattle cover the water evenly."

"I'm in the lead," said the pock-marked man. "But we'll have to come up
to the water in trailing formation. The cattle have suffered from
thirst, and they break into a run at sight of water, if grazed up to it.
You may take one point and I'll take the other."

The existing drouth promised a good schooling for the brothers. Among
the old philosophies, contact was said to be educational. Wells Brothers
were being thrown in contact with the most practical men that the
occupation, in all pastoral ages, had produced. The novelty of trailing
cattle vast distances had its origin with the Texans. Bred to the
calling, they were masters of the craft. In the hands of an adept outfit
of a dozen men, a trail herd of three thousand beeves had all the
mobility of a brigade of cavalry. The crack of a whip was unheard on the
trail. A whispered order, followed by a signal to the men, and the herd
turned, grazed to its contentment, fell into column formation, and took
up its march--a peaceful march that few armies have equaled. Contact
with these men, the rank and file of that splendid cavalry which once
patrolled the range industry of the West, was priceless to the boys.

The lead herd reached the Beaver valley at noon. When within a mile of
the water, the point men gave way to the foremen and Joel Wells. But
instead of dropping back, the dust-covered men rode on into the lead,
the action being seemingly understood by every one except the new hand
on the point. Joel was alert, felt the massive column of beeves yield to
his slightest pressure, as a ship to the hand of the helmsman, as he
veered the leaders out of the broken trails and guided the herd around
the field to the upper pools. On nearing the water, the deposed point
men deployed nearer the lead, when the object of their position
explained itself. On sighting the ponds, the leaders broke into a run,
but the four horsemen at hand checked the excited dash, and the herd was
led up to the water in column formation. It was the mastery of man over
the creature.

The herds arrived in hit-and-miss class. The destination of the
pock-marked foreman's beeves was an army post in Dakota. The swarthy
little man followed with a herd of cows for delivery at an Indian agency
in Wyoming. The different Running W herds were under contract to
different cattle companies, in adjoining states and territories. The
tall foreman's herd was also under contract, but the point of delivery
was at Ogalalla, on the Platte, where a ranch outfit would receive
the cattle.

The latter herd arrived late at evening. The cattle were driven on
speculation, there had been an oversight in mounting the outfit, and the
men, including the foreman, were as good as afoot.

"This trip lets me out," said the young Texan to the brothers, "of
walking up the trail and leading fagged-out saddle stock. A mount of six
horses to the man may be all right on a ranch, but it won't do on the
trail. Especially in a dry year, with delivery on the Platte. Actually,
this afternoon is the first time I have felt a horse under me since we
crossed Red River. Give me a sheet of paper, please. I want to give you
a bill of sale for these six drag ponies that I'm sawing off on you. I
carry written authority to give a bill of sale, and it will always
protect your possession of the horses. They wouldn't bring a dollar a
head in Ogalalla, but when they round into form again next summer, some
brand ferret passing might want to claim them on you. Any cattle that I
cull out here are abandoned, you understand, simply abandoned."

The boys were left alone for the first time in several nights. The rush
of the past few days had kept them in the saddle during their waking
hours. The dead-line had been neglected, the drifting of cripples to the
new tanks below was pressing, and order must be established. The water
in the pools was the main concern, a thing beyond human control, and a
matter of constant watchfulness. A remark dropped during the day, of
water flowing at night, was not lost on the attentive ear of Joel Wells.

"What did you mean?" he politely inquired of the Running W foreman,
while the latter's herd was watering, "of a river only running
at night?"

"All over this arid country moisture rises at night and sinks by day,"
replied the trail boss. "Under drouth, these sandy rivers of the plain,
including the Platte and for a thousand miles to the south, only flow at
night. It's their protection against the sun's absorption. Mark these
pools at sunset and see if they don't rise an inch to-night. Try it
and see."

Willow roots were notched on the water-line of each beaver dam. The
extreme upper pool was still taking water from a sickly flow, a
struggling rivulet, fed by the springs at its head. Doubt was indulged
in and freely expressed.

"If the water only holds a week longer," ventured Dell, sleepless in his
blankets, "it'll double our holding of cattle."

"It'll hold a month," said Joel, equally sleepless. "We've got to stand
by these trail herds--there is no other water short of the Republican.
I've figured it all out. When the Beaver ponds are gone, we'll round up
the wintered cattle, drift them over to the south fork of the
Republican, and get some one to hold them until frost falls. Then we'll
ship the cripples up to Hackberry Grove, and that will free the new
tanks--water enough for twenty trail herds. We have the horses, and
these trail outfits will lend us any help we need. By shifting cattle
around, I can see a month's supply. And there may be something in water
rising at night. We'll know in the morning."

Sleep blotted out the night. Dawn revealed the fact that the trail
foreman knew the secrets of the plain. "That trail boss knew," shouted
Joel, rushing into the tent and awakening Dell. "The water rose in every
pool. The lower one gained an inch and the upper one gained two. The
creek is running freely. The water must be rising out of the ground. Let
those Texans bring on their herds. We have oceans of water!"

The cattle came. The first week thirty herds passed the new ranch. It
took riding. The dead-line was held, the flotsam cared for, and a hand
was ever ready to point a herd or nurse the drag end. Open house was
maintained. Every arriving foreman was tendered a horse, and left his
benediction on the Beaver.

The ranch proved a haven to man and beast. One of the first foremen to
arrive during the second week was Nat Straw. He drove up at sunset, with
a chuck-wagon, halted at the tent, and in his usual easy manner
inquired, "Where is the matron of this hospital?"

"Here she is," answered Dell, recognizing the man and surmising the
situation. "One of your men hurt?"

"Not seriously," answered Straw, looking back into the wagon. "Just a
little touch of the dengue. He's been drinking stagnant water, out of
cow tracks, for the last few months, and that gets into the bones of the
best of us. I'm not feeling very well myself."

Dell lifted the wagon-sheet and peered inside. "Let's get the poor
fellow into the tent," urged the boy. "Can he walk, or can you and I
carry him?"

"He's the long size Texan, and we'd better try and trail him in,"
answered Straw, alighting from the wagon. "Where's Dr. Joel Wells?"

"Riding the dead-line. He'll be in shortly. I'll fix a cot, and we'll
bring the sick man in at once."

It was simple malaria, known in the Southwest as dengue fever. The
unfortunate lad was made comfortable, and on Joel riding in, Straw had
skirmished some corn, and was feeding his mules.

"As one of the founders of this hospital," said Straw, after greeting
Joel, "this corn has my approval. It is my orders, as one of the
trustees, that it be kept in stock hereafter. This team has to go back
to the Prairie Dog to-night, and this corn will fortify them for
the trip."

The situation was explained. "I only lost half a day," continued Straw,
"by bringing the poor fellow over to you. He's one of the best men that
ever worked for me, and a month's rest will put him on his feet again.
Now, if one of you boys will take the team back to--"

"Certainly," answered Joel. "Anything a director of this hospital wants
done--We're running a relief station now--watering the entire drive this
year. Where's your outfit camped?"

"A mile above the trail crossing on the Prairie Dog. The wagon's empty.
Leave here at two o'clock to-night, and you'll get there in time for
breakfast."

"I'm your man. Going to the Prairie Dog at night, in the summer, is a
horse that's easy curried."

The next evening Joel brought in Straw's herd. In the mean time the sick
man had been cared for, and the passing wayfarer and his cattle made
welcome and sped on their way. During the lay-over, Straw had lost his
place in the overland march, two herds having passed him and crossed
the Beaver.

"I'm corporal here to-day," said Straw to the two foremen, who arrived
together in advance. "On this water, I'm the squatter that'll rob you
right. You'll count your cattle to me and pay the bill in advance. This
cool, shaded water in the Beaver is worth three cents a head, and I'll
count you down to a toddling calf and your wagon mules. Your drafts are
refused honor at the Beaver banks--nothing but the long green passes
currency here. You varmints must show some regrets for taking advantage
of a widow woman. I'll make you sorry for passing me."

"How I love to hear old Nat rattle his little song," said one of the
foremen, shaking hands with Dell. "Remember the night you slept with me?
How's the black cow I gave you last summer?"

Dell fairly clung to the grasped hand. "Pressnell's foreman!" said he,
recalling both man and incident. "The cow has a roan calf. Sit down.
Will you need a fresh horse to-day? Do you like lettuce?"

"I reckon, Nat," said the other foreman, an hour later, as the two
mounted loaned horses, "I reckon your big talk goes up in smoke. You're
not the only director in this cattle company. Dell, ransack both our
wagons to-day, and see if you can't unearth some dainties for this sick
lad. No use looking in Straw's commissary; he never has anything to eat;
Injuns won't go near his wagon."

Straw spent a second night with the sick man. On leaving in the
morning, he took the feverish hand of the lad and said: "Now, Jack, make
yourself right at home. These boys have been tried before, and they're
our people. I'm leaving you a saddle and a horse, and when you get on
your feet, take your own bearings. You can always count on a job with
me, and I'll see that you draw wages until my outfit is relieved. This
fever will burn itself out in a week or ten days. I'll keep an eye over
you until you are well. S'long, Jack."

The second week fell short only two herds of the previous one. There
were fully as many cattle passed, and under the heat of advancing summer
the pools suffered a thirsty levy. The resources of the ponds were a
constant source of surprise, as an occasional heavy beef caved a foot
into an old beaver warren, which poured its contents into the pools. At
the end of the first fortnight, after watering fifty-eight herds, nearly
half the original quantity of water was still in reserve.

A third week passed. There was a decided falling off in the arrival of
herds, only twenty-two crossing the Beaver. The water reserves suffered
freely, more from the sun's absorption than from cattle, until the
supply became a matter of the most serious concern. The pools would not
have averaged a foot in depth, the flow from the springs was a mere
trickle, the beaver burrows sounded empty to a horse's footbeat, and
there must be some limit to the amount the parched soil would yield.

The brothers found apt counsel in their guest. By the end of the second
week, the fever had run its course, and the sick man, Jack Sargent, was
up and observant of the situation. True to his calling, he felt for the
cattle, and knew the importance of water on the Beaver to the
passing drive.

"You must rest these beaver ponds," said Jack, in meeting the emergency.
"Every time these pools lower an inch, it gives the sun an advantage.
It's absorption that's swallowing up the ponds. You must deepen these
pools, which will keep the water cooler. Rest these ponds a few days, or
only water late at night. You have water for weeks yet, but don't let
the sun rob you. These ponds are living springs compared to some of the
water we used south of Red River. Meet the herds on the divide, and
pilot the early ones to the tanks below, and the late ones in here.
Shifting in your saddle rests a horse, and a little shifting will save
your water."

The advice was acted on. While convalescent, Sargent was installed as
host on the Beaver, and the brothers took to their saddles. The majority
of the herds were met on the Prairie Dog, and after a consultation with
the foremen their cattle were started so as to reach the tanks by day or
the ranch at evening. The month rounded out with the arrival of eighteen
herds, only six of which touched at headquarters, and the fourth week
saw a distinct gain in the water supply at the beaver dams. The boys
barely touched at home, to change horses, living with the trail wagons,
piloting in herds, rich in the reward of relieving the wayfaring, and
content with the crumbs that fell to their range.

The drouth of 1886 left a gruesome record in the pastoral history of the
West. The southern end of the Texas and Montana cattle trail was marked
by the bones of forty thousand cattle that fell, due to the want of
water, during the months of travail on that long march. Some of this
loss was due to man's inhumanity to the cattle of the fields, in
withholding water, but no such charge rested on the owners of the little
ranch on the Beaver.

A short month witnessed the beginning of the end of the year's drive.
Only such herds as were compelled to, and those that had strength in
reserve, dared the plain between the Arkansas and Platte Rivers. The
fifth week only six herds arrived, all of which touched at the ranch;
half of them had been purchased at Dodge, had neither a cripple nor a
stray to bestow, but shared the welcome water and passed on.

One of the purchased herds brought a welcome letter to Joel. It was from
Don Lovell, urgently accenting anew his previous invitation to come to
Dodge and look over the market.

"After an absence of several weeks," wrote Mr. Lovell, "I have returned
to Dodge. From a buyer's standpoint, the market is inviting. The boom
prices which prevailed in '84 are cut in half. Any investment in cattle
now is perfectly safe.

"I have ordered three of my outfits to return here. They will pass your
ranch. Fall in with the first one that comes along. Bring a mount of
horses, and report to me on arriving. Fully half this year's drive is
here, unsold. Be sure and come."

"Are you going?" inquired Dell on reading the letter.

"I am," answered Joel with emphasis.

"That's the talk," said Sargent. "Whenever cattle get so cheap that no
other man will look a cow in the face, that's the time to buy her.
Folks are like sheep; the Bible says so; they all want to buy or all
want to sell. I only know Mr. Lovell from what you boys have told me;
but by ordering three outfits to return to Dodge, I can see that he's
going to take advantage of that market and buy about ten thousand
cattle. You've got the range. Buy this summer. I'll stay with Dell until
you return. Buy a whole herd of steers, and I'll help you hold them
this winter."

The scene shifted. Instead of looking to the south for a dust cloud, the
slopes of the north were scanned for an approaching cavalcade. The last
week admitted of taking an account of the cattle dropped at the new
ranch. From the conserves of its owners, one hundred and four herds had
watered, over three hundred thousand cattle, the sweepings of which
amounted to a few over eleven hundred head, fully fifty of which,
exhausted beyond recovery, died after reaching their new range.

By the end of July, only an occasional herd was arriving. August was
ushered in with the appearance of Bob Quirk, one of the division
foremen, on the upper march. He arrived early in the morning, in advance
of his outfit barely an hour, and inquired for Joel. Dell answered for
the brothers, the older one and Sargent being above at Hackberry Grove.

"I have orders to bring him to Dodge," said Quirk, dismounting. "Make
haste and bring in the remuda. We'll cut him out a mount of six horses
and throw them in with mine. Joel can follow on the seventh. My outfit
will barely touch here in passing. We're due to receive cattle in Dodge
on the 5th, and time is precious. Joel can overtake us before night.
Make haste."




CHAPTER XVI

A PROTECTED CREDIT


The trail outfit swept past the ranch, leaving Dell on nettles. The
importance of the message was urgent, and saddling up a horse, he
started up the Beaver in search of Joel and Sargent. They were met
returning, near the dead-line, and after listening to the breathless
report, the trio gave free rein to their horses on the homeward ride.

"I'll use old Rowdy for my seventh horse," said Joel, swinging out of
the saddle at the home corral. "Bring him in and give him a feed of
corn. It may be late when I overtake the outfit. Mr. Quince says that
that old horse has cow-sense to burn; that he can scent a camp at night,
or trail a remuda like a hound."

An hour later Joel cantered up to the tent. "This may be a wild-goose
chase," said he, "but I'm off. If my hopes fall dead, I can make a hand
coming back. Sargent, if I do buy any cattle, your name goes on the
pay-roll from to-day. I'll leave you in charge of the ranch, anyhow.
There isn't much to do except to ride the dead-line twice a day. The
wintered cattle are located; and the cripples below--the water and
their condition will hold them. Keep open house, and amuse yourselves
the best you can. That's about all I can think of just now."

Joel rode away in serious meditation. Although aged beyond his years, he
was only seventeen. That he could ride into Dodge City, the far-famed
trail-town of the West, and without visible resources buy cattle, was a
fit subject for musing. There the drovers from Texas and the ranchmen
from the north and west met and bartered for herds--where the drive of
the year amounted to millions in value. Still the boy carried a pressing
invitation from a leading drover to come, and neither slacking rein nor
looking back, he was soon swallowed up in the heat-waves over the plain.

Sargent and Dell sought the shelter of the awning. "Well," said the
latter, "that trip's a wild-goose chase. How he expects to buy cattle
without money gets me."

"It may be easier than it seems," answered Sargent. "You secured a start
in cattle last summer without money. Suppose you save a thousand head
out of the cripples this year, what have they cost you?"

"That's different," protested Dell. "Dodge City is a market where
buyers and sellers meet."

"True enough. And behind that are unseen conditions. The boom of two
years ago in land and live stock bankrupted many people in Texas. Cattle
companies were organized on the very summit of that craze. Then came the
slump. Last year cattle had fallen in price nearly forty per cent. This
year there is a further falling. I'm giving you Texas conditions. Half
the herds at Dodge to-day are being handled by the receivers of cattle
companies or by trustees for banks. That accounts for the big drive.
Then this drouth came on, and the offerings at Dodge are unfit for any
purpose, except to restock ranches. And those northern ranchmen know it.
They'll buy the cattle at their own price and pay for them when they get
good and ready."

Dell was contending for his view. "Do you claim that a northern cowman
can buy cattle from a Texas drover without money?"

"Certainly. When one sheep jumps off the cliff and breaks his neck, all
the rest jump off and break their necks. When money is pouring into
cattle, as it was two years ago, range cattle were as good as gold. Now,
when all that investment is trying to withdraw from cattle, they become
a drag on the market. The Simple Simons ain't all dead yet. Joel will
buy cattle."

"He may, but I don't see how."

"Buy them just as any other wide-awake cowman. You brothers are known in
Dodge. This water that you have given the drovers, during the drouth,
has made you friends. Mr. Lovell's word, in your behalf, is as good as
money in the bank. Joel will come back with cattle. My only fear is, he
won't strain his credit."

"Credit! Who would credit us?"

"Why not? There are not so many drovers at Dodge who had your showing at
the same age. They have fought their way up and know who to credit. Your
range and ability to hold cattle are your best assets. We must shape up
the ranch, because Joel will come in with cattle."

"You're the foreman," said Dell assentingly. "And what's more, if Joel
comes home with cattle, I'll hit the ground with my hat and shout as
loud as any of you."

"That's the talk. I'm playing Joel to come back winner. Let's saddle up
horses, and ride through the cripples this afternoon. I want to get the
lay of the range, and the water, and a line on the cattle."

Joel overtook Bob Quirk midway between the Prairie Dog and the
railroad. The outfit was drifting south at the rate of forty miles a
day, traveling early and late to avoid the heat. On sighting the lone
horseman in the rear, signals were exchanged, and the foreman halted
until Joel overtook the travelers.

"This is the back track," said Quirk, "and we're expected to crowd three
days into one. I don't know what the old man wants with you, but I had a
wire to pick you up."

"Mr. Lovell has been urging me to stock our range--to buy more cattle,"
admitted Joel.

"That's what I thought. He's buying right and left. We're on our way now
to receive cattle. That's it; the old man has a bunch of cattle in
sight for you."

"Possibly. But what's worrying me is, how am I to buy them--if it takes
any money!" dejectedly admitted the husky boy.

"Is that fretting you?" lightly inquired Quirk. "Let the old man do the
worrying--that's his long suit. You can rest easy that he has everything
all figured out. It might keep you and I guessing, but it's as clear as
mud to that old man. We'll make Dodge in four days."

The ravages of the drouth were disheartening. A few hours after sunrise,
a white haze settled over the dull, dead plain, the heat-waves rolled
up to the cavalcade like a burning prairie, sweat and dust crusted over
the horses under saddle, without variation of pace or course. Only three
herds were met, feeling their way through the mirages, or loitering
along the waters. Traveling by night was preferable, and timing the
route into camps and marches, the cottonwood on the Arkansas River was
sighted in advance of the schedule.

The outfit halted on a creek north of town. Cattle under herd had been
sighted by the thousands, and before the camp was made snug, a
conveyance drove up and Forrest and Don Lovell alighted.

"Well, Bob, you're a little ahead of time," said the latter, amid
general greetings, "but I'm glad of it. I've closed trades on enough
cattle to make up a herd, and the sellers are hurrying me to receive
them. Pick up a full outfit of men to-night, and we'll receive to-morrow
afternoon. Quince took the train at Cheyenne, but his outfit ought to
reach here in a day or so. I've laid my tape on this market, and have
all the cattle in sight that I want. Several deals are pending, awaiting
the arrival of this boy. Come to town to-night. I'll take Joel under my
wing right now."

Three horses were caught, Joel riding one and leading two, and the
vehicle started. It was still early in the afternoon, and following down
the creek, within an hour the party reached a trail wagon encamped. A
number of men were about, including a foreman; and at the request of Mr.
Lovell to look over their cattle and horses again the camp took on an
air of activity. A small remuda was corralled within ropes, running from
choice to common horses, all of which were looked over carefully by the
trio, including the wagon team. A number of horses were under saddle,
and led by the foreman, a quartette of men started in advance to
bunch the herd.

Leaving Forrest at the camp, Mr. Lovell and Joel took the rig and
leisurely followed the departing horsemen. "This is one of the best
herds on the market," said the old drover to the boy, "and I've kept the
deal pending, to see if you and I couldn't buy it together. It runs full
thirty-five hundred cattle, twelve hundred threes and the remainder
twos. I always buy straight two-year-olds for my beef ranch, because I
double-winter all my steer cattle--it takes two winters in the north to
finish these Texas steers right. Now, if you can handle the threes, the
remnant of twos, and the saddle stock, we'll buy the herd, lock, stock,
and barrel. The threes will all ship out as four-year-old beeves next
fall, and you can double-winter the younger cattle. I can use two
thousand of the two-year-olds, and if you care for the others, after we
look them over, leave me to close the trade."

"Mr. Lovell, it has never been clear to me how I am to buy cattle
without money," earnestly said Joel.

"Leave that to me--I have that all figured out. If we buy this herd
together, you can ship out two thousand beef cattle next fall, and a
ranch that has that many beeves to market a year hence, can buy, with or
without money, any herd at Dodge to-day. If you like the cattle and want
them, leave it all to me."

"But so many horses--We have forty horses already," protested Joel.

"A wide-awake cowman, in this upper country, always buys these southern
horses a year in advance of when he needs them. Next year you'll be
running a shipping outfit, mounting a dozen men, sending others on fall
round-ups, and if you buy your horses now, you'll have them in the pink
of condition then. It's a small remuda, a few under sixty horses, as
fifty head were detailed out here to strengthen remudas that had to go
to the Yellowstone. This foreman will tell you that he topped out
twenty-five of the choice horses before the other trail bosses were
allowed to pick. As the remuda stands, its make-up is tops and tailings.
A year hence one will be as good as the other. You'll need the horses,
and by buying down to the blanket, turning the owner foot-loose and
free, it will help me to close the trade, in our mutual interest."

The cattle were some two miles distant, under close herd, and by quietly
edging them in onto a few hundred acres, they could be easily looked
over from the conveyance. On the arrival of the prospective buyers, the
foreman had the cattle sufficiently compact, and the old man and the boy
drove back and forth through the herd for fully an hour. They were
thrifty, western Texas steers, had missed the drouth by coming into the
trail at Camp Supply, and were all that could be desired in range
cattle. The two agreed on the quality of the herd, and on driving out
from among the cattle, the foreman was signaled up.

"One of my outfits arrived from the Platte this afternoon," said Mr.
Lovell, "and we'll receive to-morrow. That leaves me free to pick up
another herd. If Dud would try his best, he would come very near selling
me these cattle. I've got a buyer in sight for the threes and remnant of
twos, and if you price the horses right, we might leave you afoot. If
you see Dudley before I do, tell him I looked over his cattle again."

"I'll see him to-night," said the foreman, calling after the vehicle.

Forrest was picked up, and they returned to town. The fame of wicked
Dodge never interfered with the transaction of business, its iniquity
catering largely to the rabble.

"I'll take Joel with me," said the drover to Forrest, "and you look
after the horses and hang around the hotel. Dud Stoddard is almost sure
to look me up, and if you meet him, admit that we looked over his cattle
again. I want him to hound me into buying that herd."

Joel's taciturn manner stood him in good stead. He was alert to all that
was passing and, except with Mr. Lovell, was reticent in the extreme.
The two strolled about the streets during the evening hours, and on
returning to the hotel rather late, Dudley Stoddard was awaiting the old
drover. There was no prelude to the matter at issue, and after arranging
with other sellers to receive the following day, Mr. Lovell led the way
to his room.

"This is one of the Wells Brothers," said the old cowman, presenting
Joel; "one of the boys who watered the drive on the Beaver this summer.
I was up on his ranch about a month ago, and gave him a good scolding
for not stocking his range somewhere near its carrying capacity. He's
the buyer I had in view for your three-year-olds. You offered me the
herd, on time, and at satisfactory prices. I can use two thousand of the
twos, and Wells Brothers will take the remainder, and we'll turn you
afoot. Say so, and your herd is sold."

"Well," said Mr. Stoddard, somewhat embarrassed, "I don't happen to know
the Wells Brothers--and I usually know men when I extend them a credit.
This boy--Well, I'm not in the habit of dealing with boys."

"You and I were boys once and had to make our start," testily replied
Mr. Lovell, pacing the room. "The Wells Brothers are making the fight
that you and I were making twenty years ago. In our early struggles, had
some one stood behind us, merely stood behind us, it might have been
different with us to-day. And now when I don't need no help--Dud, it
don't cost much to help others. These boys have proven themselves white,
to yours and to my men and to yours and to my cattle. Is there nothing
we can do?"

Mr. Stoddard turned to the old drover. "I'll renew my last offer to you.
Take the herd and sell these boys the older cattle and remnants. You
know the brothers--you know their resources."

"No!" came the answer like a rifle-shot.

"Then, will you stand sponsor--will you go their security?"

"No! These boys can't send home for money nor can't borrow any. Their
only asset is their ability to hold and mature cattle. Last winter, the
most severe one in the history of the West, they lost two per cent of
their holdings. Neither you nor I can make as good a showing on any of
our ranges. Dud, what I'm trying to do is to throw on this boy's
shoulders the _responsibility_ of _paying_ for _any cattle he buys_. At
his age it would be wrong to rob him of that important lesson. Let's you
and I stand behind him, and let's see to it that he makes the right
effort to protect his credit."

"That's different," admitted Mr. Stoddard. "Don, if you'll suggest the
means to that end, I'll try and meet you halfway."

Mr. Lovell took a seat at the table and picked up a blank sheet of
paper. "As mutual friends," said he, "let me draw up, from seller to
buyer, an iron-clad bill of sale. Its first clause will be a vendor's
lien for the cost of the cattle, horses, etc. Its second will be the
appointment of a commission house, who will act as agent, hold this
contract, and receive the beeves when ready for shipment to market. Its
third clause will be your right, as creditor in a sale of chattel, to
place a man of your own selection on Wells Brothers' ranch, under their
pay and subject to their orders. As your representative, the privilege
is granted of making a daily, weekly, or monthly report to you of the
condition of the cattle and the general outlook of the buyers to meet
this, their covenant with the seller, before November 1, 1887.

"I wouldn't enter into such a contract with you," continued Mr. Lovell,
throwing down the sheet of paper, "but I want this boy to learn the
value of a well-protected credit. At his time of life, it's an asset.
I'll pay for my half when it's convenient, but I want him to meet his
first obligation on or before the day of maturity. I can speak for the
boy's willingness to make such a contract. What do you say?"

"Delivery here or elsewhere?" inquired Mr. Stoddard.

"My half here, within three days, the remainder on the Beaver, a seven
days' drive. It won't cost you a cent more to send your outfit home from
Grinnell than from Dodge. Ten days will end all your trouble. What
do you say?"

"Don, let me talk the matter over with you privately," said Mr.
Stoddard, arising. "The boy will excuse us. We'll give him a
square deal."

The two old men left the room. Forrest arose from a couch and threw his
arms around Joel. "It's a sale!" he whispered. "The cattle's yours! That
old man of mine will ride Dud Stoddard all around the big corral and
spur him in the flank at every jump, unless he comes to those terms. An
iron-clad bill of sale is its own surety. You'll need the man, anyhow. I
want to give the long yell."

Mr. Lovell returned after midnight, and alone. Forrest and Joel arose to
meet him, inquiry and concern in every look and action.

"Take Joel and get out of here," said the old drover, whose twinkling
eyes could not conceal the gloating within. "I've got to draw up that
bill of sale. Just as if those steers wouldn't pay for themselves next
fall. Get to bed, you rascals!"

"Would there be any harm if I went down to the bank of the river and
gave the long yell?" inquired Forrest, as he halted in the doorway.

"Get to bed," urged the old drover. "I'll want you in the morning. We'll
close a trade, the first thing, on fifteen hundred of those Womack
twos. That'll give you a herd, and you can keep an eye over Joel's
cattle until the Beaver's reached."

During the few days which followed, Joel Wells was thrown in contact
with the many features of a range cattle market. In all the migrations
of mankind, strictly cattle towns like Dodge City and Ogalalla are
unknown. They were the product of all pastoral ages, reaching a climax
on American soil, and not of record in any other country or time. Joel
let little escape him. Here men bought and sold by the thousand head, in
his day and generation, and he was a part of that epoch.

The necessary number of cattle to complete a herd for Forrest were
purchased without leaving town. The afternoon was spent in receiving a
herd, in which the veteran drover took a hand, assisted by two competent
foremen. Every feature in the cattle, the why and wherefore, was pointed
out by the trio, to the eager, earnest boy, so that the lesson sunk into
Joel's every fibre. The beauty of the first herd received was in the
uniform average of each animal, when ages, class, and build governed
selection.

Forrest's outfit arrived that evening, and without even a day's rest
arrangements were made to receive the two contingents the next morning.
When it came to receive the Stoddard herd, the deftness with which the
two outfits classified the cattle was only short of marvelous. The
threes were cut out, and each age counted. The over-plus of the younger
cattle were cut back, and the contingents were tendered on delivery. The
papers were ready, executed on the ground, and the herds started, the
smaller in the lead.

The drive to the Beaver was without incident. Forrest spent most of his
time with the little herd, which used only eight men, counting Joel, who
stood guard at night and made a hand. The herd numbered a few over
fifteen hundred cattle, the remuda fifty-six horses, a team and wagon,
the total contract price of which was a trifle under twenty-five
thousand dollars. It looked like a serious obligation for two boys to
assume, but practical men had sanctioned it, and it remained for the
ability of Wells Brothers to meet it.

On nearing the Beaver, the lead herd under Bob Quirk took the new trail,
which crossed at the ranch. On their leaving the valley, a remark was
dropped, unnoticed by Dell, but significant to Jack Sargent. It resulted
in the two riding out on the trail, only to meet the purchased cattle,
Joel on one point and Forrest on the other, directing the herds to the
tanks below. The action bespoke its intent, and on meeting Forrest, the
latter jerked his thumb over his shoulder, remarking, "Drop back and
pilot the wagon and remuda into the ranch. We're taking this passel of
cattle into the new tanks, and will scatter them up and down the creek.
Lovell's cattle? No. Old man Joel Wells bought these to stock his ranch.
See how chesty it makes him--he won't even look this way. You boys may
have to sit up with him a few nights at first, but he'll get over that.
Pilot in the remuda. You two are slated to take this outfit to the
railroad to-night. Trail along, my beauties; Wells Brothers are shaking
out a right smart bit of sail these days."




CHAPTER XVII

"THE WAGON"


The little ranch had assumed a contract and must answer at the appointed
time. If the brothers could meet their first commercial obligation, it
would establish their standing, and to that end every energy must be
directed. They were extremely fortunate in the advice and help of two
young men bred to the occupation, and whose every interest lay in making
a success of the ranch.

The trail outfit returned to the railroad that night. Everything was
abandoned but their saddles--_burning the wagon_--while Joe Manly, one
of their number, remained behind. Manly was not even the foreman, and on
taking his departure the trail boss, in the presence of all, said to his
man, "Now, Joe, turn yourself over to this ranch and make a useful hand.
Drop old man Dudley a line whenever you have a chance. It's quite a
little ride to the station, and we'll understand that no news is good
news. And once you see that these cattle are going to winter safely,
better raise the long yell and come home. You can drift back in the
fall--during the beef-shipping season. I may write you when next
summer's plans begin to unfold."

Accompanied by Dell and Sargent, and singing the home songs of the
South, the outfit faded away into the night. Forrest's herd had watered
during the evening, and moved out to a safe camp, leaving its foreman on
the Beaver. He and Manly discussed the situation, paving the way in
detail, up to the manner of holding the cattle during the coming winter.
With numbers exceeding three thousand, close herd and corralling at
night was impossible, and the riding of lines, with an extra camp,
admitting of the widest freedom, was decided on as the most feasible
method. The new camp must be located well above Hackberry Grove, and to
provision it for man and horse was one of the many details outlined in
meeting the coming winter. Joel was an attentive listener, and having
held cattle by one system, he fully understood the necessity of adopting
some other manner of restraint. In locating cattle, where there was
danger of drifting from any cause, the method of riding lines was simple
and easily understood--to patrol the line liable to assault from
drifting cattle.

Forrest was elated over the outlook. On leaving the next morning, he
turned his horse and rode back to the tent. "This may be the last time
I'll come this way," said he to Joel, "as there is talk of the trail
moving west. On account of fever, this State threatens to quarantine
against Texas cattle. If it does, the trail will have to move over into
Colorado or hunt a new route through unorganized counties on the western
line of Kansas. In event of quarantine being enforced, it means a bigger
range for Wells Brothers. Of course, this is only your second year in
cattle, just getting a firm grip on the business, but I can see a big
future for you boys. As cowmen, you're just in swaddling clothes yet,
toddling around on your first legs, but the outlook is rosy. Hold these
cattle this winter, protect your credit next fall, and it doesn't matter
if I never come back. A year hence you'll have a bank account, be living
on the sunny side of the creek, and as long as you stick to cows,
through thick and thin, nothing can unhorse you."

The trail foreman rode away to overtake his herd, and Joel and Manly
busied themselves in locating the new cattle. Dell and Sargent
accompanied the last Lovell herd into the ranch that evening, and it
proved to be the rear guard of trail cattle for that summer.

The ranch was set in order for the present. The dead-line was narrowed
to a mile, which admitted of fully half the through cattle watering at
the beaver ponds around headquarters. The new remuda, including all
horses acquired that summer, to the number of eighty head, was moved up
to Hackberry Grove and freed for the year. The wintered horses furnished
ample saddle mounts for the present, there being little to do, as the
water held the new cattle and no herding was required. The heat of
summer was over, the water held in tanks and beaver dams, and the ranch
settled down in pastoral security.

Under the new outline for the winter, an increased amount of forage must
be provided, as in riding lines two grain-fed horses to the man was the
lowest limit in mounting all line-riders. Machinery was available on the
railroad, and taking a team, Joel returned with a new mowing machine,
and the matter of providing abundant forage was easily met. Sufficient
hay, from a few bends of the creek, in dead-line territory, supplied the
home ranch, and a week's encampment above Hackberry Grove saw the site
of the new line-camp equipped with winter forage.

While engaged on the latter task, a new feature was introduced on Wells
Brothers' ranch. A movable commissary is a distinct aid to any pastoral
occupation, and hence _the wagon_ becomes a cowman's home and castle.
From it he dispenses a rough hospitality, welcomes the wayfarer, and
exchanges the chronicle of the range. The wagon, which had been acquired
with the new herd and used on the above occasion, was well equipped with
canvas cover, water barrels, and a convenient chuck-box at the rear. The
latter was fitted with drawers and compartments as conveniently as a
kitchen. When open, the lid of the box afforded a table; when closed, it
protected the contents from the outer elements. The wagon thus becomes
home to nomadic man and animal, the one equal with the other. Saddle
horses, when frightened at night, will rush to the safety of a camp-fire
and the protection of their masters, and therefore a closer bond exists
between the men of the open and their mounts than under more refined
surroundings.

Early in September a heavy rain fell in the west, extending down the
Beaver, flushing the creek and providing an abundance of running water.
It was followed by early frosts, lifting the dead-line and ushering in
Indian summer. With forage secure, attention was turned to the cattle.
The purchase of a mowing machine had exhausted the funds derived from
the sale of peltry, and a shipment of cattle was decided on to provide
the munitions for the coming winter. The wagon was accordingly
provisioned for a week, the blankets stored in the commissary, and the
quartette moved out to round up the wintered cattle. They had not been
handled since the spring drift of March before, and when thrown into a
compact herd, they presented a different appearance from the spiritless
cattle of six months previous. A hundred calves, timid as fawns, shied
from the horsemen, their mothers lowed in comforting concern, the beeves
waddled about from carrying their own flesh, while the patriarchs of the
herd bellowed in sullen defiance. Fifty of the heaviest beeves were cut
out from the ---- Y brand, flesh governing the selection, and the first
shipment of cattle left the Beaver for eastern markets.

Four days were required to graze the heavy cattle down to the railroad.
Dell drove the wagon, Sargent was intrusted with the remuda, the two
others grazing the beeves, while each took his turn in standing guard at
night. Water was plentiful, cars were in waiting, and on reaching the
railroad, the cattle were corralled in the shipping pens.

Joel and Manly accompanied the shipment to Kansas City. The beeves were
consigned to the firm mentioned in the bill of sale as factor in
marketing and settlement of the herd which had recently passed from the
possession of Mr. Stoddard to that of Wells Brothers. The two cars of
cattle found a ready sale, the weights revealing a surprise, attracting
the attention of packers and salesmen to the quality of beef from the
Beaver valley.

"Give me the cattle from the short-grass country," said a salesman to a
packer, as Wells Brothers' beeves were crossing the weighing scale. "You
and I needn't worry about the question of range--the buffalo knew. Catch
the weights of these cattle and compare it with range beef from the
sedge-grass and mountain country. Tallow tells its own story--the
buffalo knew the best range."

An acquaintance with the commission house was established on a mutual
basis. The senior member of the firm, a practical old man, detained Joel
and Manly in his private office for an hour.

"This market is alert to every new section having cattle to ship," said
the old man to Joel, studying a sales statement. "The Solomon River
country sent in some cattle last fall, but yours is the first shipment
from the Beaver. Our salesman reports your consignment the fattest
range beeves on to-day's market. And these weights confirm the
statement. I don't understand it. What kind of a country have you
out there?"

Joel gave Manly an appealing look. "It's the plains," answered the
latter. "It's an old buffalo range. You can see their skulls by the
thousand. It's a big country; it just swells, and dips, and rolls away."

It was the basis of a range which interested the senior member. "The
grasses, the grasses?" he repeated. "What are your native grasses?"

"Oh, just plain, every-day buffalo grass," answered Manly. "Of course,
here and there, in the bends of the Beaver, there's a little blue-stem,
enough for winter forage for the saddle stock. The cattle won't
touch it."

The last of many subjects discussed was the existing contract, of which
the commission firm was the intermediary factor. The details were gone
over carefully, the outlook for next year's shipments reviewed, and on
taking their leave, the old man said to his guests:--

"Well, I'm pleased over the outlook. The firm have had letters from both
Mr. Lovell and Mr. Stoddard, and now that I've gone over the situation,
with the boys in the saddle, everything is clear and satisfactory. Next
year's shipments will take care of the contract. Keep in touch with us,
and we'll advise you from time to time. Ship your cattle in finished
condition, and they'll make a market for themselves. We'll expect you
early next summer."

"Our first shipment will be two hundred double-wintered cattle,"
modestly admitted Joel.

"They ought to be ready a full month in advance of your single-wintered
beeves," said the old man, from his practical knowledge in maturing
beef. "Ship them early. The bookkeeper has your account all ready."

Joel and Manly were detained at the business office only a moment. The
beeves had netted thirty-five dollars a head, and except for current
expenses, the funds were left on deposit with the commission house, as
there were no banks near home; the account was subject to draft, and
accepting a small advance in currency, the boys departed. A brief hour's
shopping was indulged in, the principal purchases being two long-range
rifles, cartridges and poison in abundance, when they hastened to the
depot and caught a west-bound train. Horses had been left at Grinnell,
and at evening the next day the two rode into headquarters on
the Beaver.

Beyond question there are tides in the affairs of men. With the first
shipment of cattle from the little ranch, poverty fled and an air of
independence indicated the turn in the swing of the pendulum. Practical
men, in every avenue of the occupation, had lent their indorsement to
the venture of the brothers, the mettle of the pasture had been tested
in the markets, and the future, with reasonable vigilance, rested on
sure foundations.

The turn of the tide was noticeable at once. "I really think Uncle Dud
would let me come home," said Manly to the others, at supper. "There's
no occasion for my staying here this winter. Besides, I'm a tender
plant; I'm as afraid of cold as a darky is of thunder. Wouldn't I like
to get a letter from Uncle Dud saying, 'Come home, my little white
chicken, come home!'"

"You can go in the spring," said Joel. "We're going to use four
line-riders this winter, and there's every reason why you'll make a
trusty one!"

"That's one of the owners talking," observed Sargent; "now listen to the
foreman's orders: The next thing is to brand every hoof up to date.
Then, at the upper line-camp, comes the building of a new dug-out and
stabling for four horses. And lastly, freight in plenty of corn. After
that, if we fail to hold the cattle, it's our own fault. No excuse will
pass muster. Hold these cattle? It's a dead immortal cinch! Joseph dear,
make yourself a useful guest for the winter."

A hopeful spirit lightened every task. The calves and their mothers were
brought down to the home corral and branded in a single day. The
Stoddard cattle, the title being conditional, were exempt, the Lazy H
ranch brand fully protecting mutual interests. Only cripple, fagged, and
stray cattle were branded, the latter numbering less than a hundred
head, and were run into the Hospital brand, while the remainder bore
the--Y of the ranch. The work was completed within a week, Dell making a
hand which proved his nerve, either in the saddle or branding pen.

The first week in October was devoted to building the new dug-out and
stable. The wagon was provisioned, every implement and tool on the
ranch, from a hammer to a plough, was taken along, as well as the
remuda, and the quartette sallied forth to the task as if it were a
frolic. The site had been decided on during the haying, and on reaching
the scene, the tent was set up, and the building of a shelter for man
and horse was begun.

The dug-out of the West is built for comfort,--half cellar and the
remainder sod walls. A southern slope was selected; an abrupt break or
low bank was taken advantage of, admitting of four-foot cellar walls on
three sides, the open end inclosed with massive sod walls and containing
the door. The sod was broken by a team and plough, cut into lengths like
brick, and the outside walls raised to the desired height. For roofing,
a heavy ridge-pole was cut the length of the room, resting on stout
upright posts. Lighter poles were split and laid compactly, like
rafters, sheeted with hay, and covered with loose dirt to the depth of a
foot. The floor was earthen; a half window east and west, supplemented
by a door in the south, admitted light, making a cosy, comfortable
shelter. A roomy stable was built on the same principle and from the
same material.

The work was completed quickly, fuel for the winter gathered, when the
quartette started homeward. "It looks like the halfway house at Land's
End," said Manly, turning for a last look at the new improvements. "What
are you going to call the new tepee?"

"Going to call it The Wagon," answered Sargent, he and Dell having
accepted the new line-camp as their winter quarters, "and let the
latch-string hang on the outside. Whenever you can, you must bring your
knitting and come over."




CHAPTER XVIII

AN OPEN WINTER


An ideal Indian summer was enjoyed. Between the early and late fall
frosts, the range matured into perfect winter pasturage. Light rains in
September freshened the buffalo grass until it greened on the sunny
slopes, cured into hay as the fall advanced, thus assuring abundant
forage to the cattle.

Manly was the only one of the quartette not inured to a northern
climate. A winter in Montana had made Sargent proof against any cold,
while the brothers were native to that latitude if not to the plains.
After building the line-camp and long before occupying it, the quartette
paired off, Sargent and Dell claiming the new dug-out, while the other
two were perfectly content with the old shack at headquarters. A healthy
spirit of rivalry sprang up, extending from a division of the horses
down to a fair assignment of the blankets.

Preparations for and a constant reference to the coming winter aroused a
dread in Manly. "You remind me of our darky cook," said Sargent, "up on
the Yellowstone a few years ago. Half the trail outfit were detailed
until frost, to avoid fever and to locate the cattle, and of course the
cook had to stay. A squall of snow caught us in camp, and that poor
darky just pined away. 'Boss,' he used to say to the foreman, shivering
over the fire, 'ah's got to go home. Ah's subjec' to de rheumatics. Mah
fambly's a-gwine to be pow'ful uneasy 'bout me. Dis-a-yere country am no
place fo' a po' ol' niggah.'"

Two teams were employed in freighting in the corn, four round trips
being required, Joel and Manly assuming the work. Supplies for the
winter were brought in at the same time, among the first of which were
four sacks of salt; and the curing of two barrels of corned beef fell a
pleasant task to Dell and his partner. There was nothing new in pickling
the meat, and with the exception of felling the beeves, the incident
passed as part of the day's work. Dell claimed the privilege of making
the shots, which Sargent granted, but exercised sufficient caution to
corral the beeves. Both fell in their tracks, and the novice gained
confidence in his skill in the use of a rifle.

The first of December was agreed on to begin the riding of lines. That
date found all the new cattle drifted above headquarters, and as it was
some ten miles to the upper line-camp, an extremely liberal range was
allowed the herd. Eight of the best wintered horses were stabled, and at
first the line was maintained on the south bank of the Beaver. An outer
line was agreed upon, five miles to the south; but until the season
forced the cattle to the shelter of the valley, the inner one was kept
under patrol. The outer was a purely imaginary line, extending in an
immense half-circle, from headquarters to the new line-camp above. It
followed the highest ground, and marked the utmost limit on the winter
range on the south. Any sign or trace of cattle crossing it, drifting
before a storm or grazing at leisure, must be turned back or
trailed down.

The first and second weeks passed, the weather continuing fine. Many of
the cattle ranged two and three miles north of the creek, not even
coming in to water oftener than every other day. Several times the
horsemen circled to the north; but as ranging wide was an advantage, the
cattle were never disturbed. A light fall of soft snow even failed to
bring the cattle into the valley.

Christmas week was ushered in with a display of animal instinct. The
through and wintered cattle had mixed and mingled, the latter fat and
furred, forging to the front in ranging northward, and instinctively
leading their brethren to shelter in advance of the first storm. Between
the morning and evening patrol of a perfect day, the herd, of its own
accord, drifted into the valley, the leaders rioting in a wild frolic.
Their appearance hastened the patrol of the inner line by an hour, every
nook and shelter, including the old corral, being filled with frolicsome
cattle. The calves were engaging each other in mimic fights, while the
older cattle were scarring every exposed bank, or matting their
foreheads in clay and soft dirt.

"What does it mean?" inquired Joel, hailing Sargent, when the
line-riders met.

"It means that we'll ride the outside line in the morning," came the
reply. "There's a storm coming within twelve hours. At least, the
herd say so."

"What can we do?"

"Leave that to the cattle. They'll not quit the valley unless driven out
by a storm. The instinct that teaches them of the coming storm also
teaches them how to meet it. They'll bed in the blue-stem to-night, or
hunt a cosy nook under some cut-bank."

A meeting point on the outer line, for the next morning, was agreed
upon, when the horsemen separated for the evening. "Get out early, and
keep your eyes open for any trace of cattle crossing the line," Sargent
called back, as he reined homeward. "Dell and I will leave The Wagon at
daybreak."

The storm struck between midnight and morning. Dawn revealed an angry
horizon, accompanied by a raw, blue-cold, cutting wind from the north.
On leaving their quarters, both patrols caught the storm on an angle,
edging in to follow the circle, their mounts snorting defiance and
warming to the work in resisting the bitter morning. The light advanced
slowly, a sifting frost filled the air, obscuring the valley, and not
until the slope to the south was reached was the situation known.

No cattle were in sight or adrift. Within an hour after leaving the
line-camp, the experienced eye of Sargent detected a scattering trace
where an unknown number of cattle had crossed the line. Both he and Dell
dismounted, and after studying the trail, its approach and departure,
the range-bred man was able to give a perfect summary of the situation.

"There's between fifty and a hundred head in this drift," remarked
Sargent, as the two remounted. "They're through cattle; the storm must
have caught them on the divide, north of the Beaver. They struck the
creek in the flats and were driven out of the valley. The trail's not
over two hours old. Ride the line until you meet the other boys, and
I'll trail down these cattle. The sand dunes ought to catch them."

Dell and Sargent separated. Five miles to the eastward Joel was met.
Manly was reported at the rear, the two having intercepted a contingent
of cattle approaching the line, and was then drifting the stragglers
back to the valley. On Dell's report, the brothers turned to the
assistance of Sargent, retracing the western line, and finally bearing
off for the sand hills. Several times the sun threatened to break
through, lighting the valley, but without revealing any stir among the
cattle in the shelter of the creek. In the short time since leaving
their stables, the horses under saddle had whitened from the action of
the frost on their sweaty coats, unheeded by their riders. There was no
checking of mounts until the range of dunes was reached, when from the
summit of a sand hill the stragglers were located in care of Sargent,
and on the homeward drift. The cattle were so benumbed and bewildered
from the cold that they had marched through the shelter of the dunes,
and were overtaken adrift on the wind-swept plain.

The contingent numbered sixty-odd cattle, and with the help of the
brothers were easily handled. Before recrossing the line, the sun burst
forth, and on reaching the slope, the trio halted in parting. "A few
hours of this sun," said Sargent, "and we've got the upper hand of this
storm. The wind or sun must yield. If the wind lulls, we'll ride the
inner line to-night and bed every hoof in the shelter of the creek. Pick
up Manly, and we'll ride the valley line about the middle of the
afternoon."

Joel turned homeward, scouting that portion of the line under patrol
from headquarters. The drifting contingent was intrusted to Dell,
leaving Sargent to retrace their division of the line, and before noon
all had reached their quarters. From twenty to thirty miles had been
covered that morning, in riding the line and recovering the lost, and at
the agreed time, the relay horses were under saddle for the afternoon
task. The sun had held sway, the wind had fallen, and as they followed
up the valley, they encountered the cattle in large bunches, grazing to
every quarter of the compass. They were not molested on the outward
ride, but on the return trip, near evening, they were all turned back to
the sheltering nooks and coves which the bends of the Beaver afforded. A
crimpy night followed, but an early patrol in the morning found the
cattle snug in the dry, rank grasses which grew in the first bottoms of
the creek.

The first storm had been weathered. The third day, of their own accord,
the cattle left the valley and grazed out on the northern divide. The
line-riders relaxed their vigil, and in preparation for observing the
Natal day, each camp put forth its best hunter to secure a venison. The
absence of snow, during the storm, had held the antelope tributary to
the Beaver, and locating game was an easy matter. To provide the roast,
the spirit of rivalry was accented anew, and each camp fervently hoped
for its own success.

A venison hung at headquarters before noon, Manly making a running shot
at the leader of a band, which was surprised out of a morning siesta
near the old trail crossing. If a quarry could only be found in the sand
hills, a natural shelter for antelope, Sargent had flattered Dell into
believing that his aim was equal to the occasion. The broken nature of
the dune country admitted of stealthy approach, and its nearness to the
upper camp recommended it as an inviting hunting ground. The
disappointment of the first effort, due to moderated weather, was in
finding the quarry far afield. A dozen bands were sighted from the
protection of the sand hills, a mile out on the flat plain, but without
shelter to screen a hunter. Sargent was equal to the occasion, and
selecting a quarry, the two horses were unsaddled, the bridle reins
lengthened by adding ropes, and crouching low, their mounts afforded the
necessary screen as they grazed or were driven forward. By tacking right
and left in a zigzag course they gained the wind, and a stealthy
approach on the band was begun. The stabled horses grazed ravenously,
sometimes together, then apart, affording a perfect screen for stalking.

After a seeming age to Dell, the required rifle range was reached, when
the cronies flattened themselves in the short grass and allowed the
horses to graze to their rope's end. Sargent indicated a sentinel buck,
presenting the best shot; and using his elbow for a rest, the rifle was
laid in the hollow of Dell's upraised hand and drawn firmly to his
shoulder, and a prompt report followed. The shot went wild, throwing up
a flash of dust before the band, which instantly whirled. The horses
merely threw up their heads in surprise, attracting the startled quarry,
which ran up within fifty yards of the repeating rifle. In the
excitement of the moment instantly following the first shot, Dell had
arisen to his knee, unmindful of the necessity of throwing another
cartridge into the rifle barrel. "Shoot! Shoot!" whispered Sargent, as
the band excitedly halted within pistol range. Dell fingered the trigger
in vain. "Throw in a cartridge!" breathlessly suggested Sargent. The
lever clicked, followed by a shot, which tore up the sod within a few
feet of the muzzle of the rifle!

The antelope were away in a flash. Sargent rolled on the grass, laughing
until the tears trickled down his cheeks, while Dell's chagrin left him
standing like a simpleton.

"I don't believe this gun shoots true," he ventured at last, too
mortified to realize the weakness of his excuse. "Besides, it's too easy
on the trigger."

"No rifle shoots true during buck ague season," answered Sargent, not
daring to raise his eyes. "When the grass comes next spring, those scars
in the sod will grow over. Lucky that neither horse was killed. Honest,
I'll never breathe it! Not for worlds!"

Sargent's irony was wasted. Dell, in a dazed way, recovered his horse,
mounted, and aimlessly followed his bunkie. On reaching their saddles,
the mental fog lifted, and as if awakening from a pleasant dream, the
boy dismounted. "Did I have it?--the buck ague?" he earnestly inquired.

"You had symptoms of it," answered Sargent, resaddling his horse.
"Whenever a hunter tries to shoot an empty gun, or discharges one into
the ground at his feet, he ought to take something for his nerves. It's
not fatal, and I have hopes of your recovery."

The two turned homeward. Several times Sargent gave vent to a peal of
laughter that rang out like a rifle report, but Dell failed to
appreciate the humor of the situation.

"Well," said the older one, as they dismounted at the stable, "if we
have to fall back on corn beef for our Christmas dinner, I can grace it
with a timely story. And if we have a saddle of venison, it will fit the
occasion just as well."

The inner line was ridden at evening. The cattle were caring for
themselves; but on meeting the lads from headquarters, an unusual amount
of banter and repartee was exchanged.

"Killed an antelope two days before you needed it," remarked Sargent
scathingly. "Well, well! You fellows certainly haven't much confidence
in your skill as hunters."

"Venison improves with age," loftily observed Manly.

"That's a poor excuse. At best, antelope venison is dry meat. We located
a band or two to-day, and if Dell don't care for the shot, I'll go out
in the morning and bring in a fat yearling."

"Is that your prospect for a Christmas roast?" inquired Manly with
refined sarcasm. "Dell, better air your Sunday shirt to-morrow and come
down to headquarters for your Christmas dinner. We're going to have
quite a spread."

Dell threw a glance at Sargent. "Come on," said the latter with polished
contempt, reining his horse homeward. "Just as if we lived on beans at
The Wagon! Just as if our porcelain-lined graniteware wasn't as good as
their tin plates! Catch us accepting! Come on!"

Sargent was equal to his boast. He returned the next day before noon, a
young doe lashed to his saddle cantle, and preparations were made for an
extensive dinner. The practical range man is usually a competent cook,
and from the stores of the winter camp a number of extra dishes were
planned. In the way of a roast, on the plains, a saddle of venison was
the possible extreme, and the occupants of the line-camp possessed a
ruddy health which promised appetites to grace the occasion.

Christmas day dawned under ideal conditions. Soft winds swayed the dead
weeds and leafless shrubs, the water trickled down the creek from pool
to pool, reminding one of a lazy, spring day, with droning bees and
flights of birds afield. Sargent rode the morning patrol alone, meeting
Joel at the halfway point, when the two dismounted, whiling away several
hours in considering future plans of the ranch.

It was high noon when the two returned to their respective quarters.
Dell had volunteered to supervise the roasting of the venison, and on
his crony's return, the two sat down to their Christmas dinner. What the
repast lacked in linen and garnishment, it made up in stability, graced
by a cheerfulness and contentment which made its partakers at peace with
the world. Sargent was almost as resourceful in travel and story as
Quince Forrest, and never at a loss for the fitting incident to grace
any occasion.

Dell was a good listener. Any story, even at his own expense, was
enjoyed. "Whether we had corn beef or venison," said he to Sargent, "you
promised to tell a story at dinner to-day."

"The one that you reminded me of when you shot the rifle into the ground
at your feet and scared the antelope away? No offense if I have to
laugh; you looked like a simpleton."

"Tell your story; I'm young, I'll learn," urged Dell.

"You may learn to handle a gun, and make the same mistake again, but in
a new way. It's live and learn. This man was old enough to be your
father, but he looked just as witless as you did."

"Let's have the story," impatiently urged the boy.

"It happened on a camp hunt. Wild turkeys are very plentiful in certain
sections of Texas, and one winter a number of us planned a week's
shooting. In the party was a big, raw-boned ex-sheriff, known as one of
the most fearless officers in the state. In size he simply towered above
the rest of us.

"It was a small party, but we took along a commissary wagon, an
ambulance, saddle horses, and plenty of Mexicans to do the clerking and
coarse handwriting. It was quite a distance to the hunting grounds, and
the first night out, we made a dry camp. A water keg and every jug on
the ranch had been filled for the occasion, and were carried in
the wagon.

"Before reaching the road camp, the big sheriff promised us a quail
pot-pie for breakfast, and with that intent, during the afternoon, he
killed two dozen partridges. The bird was very plentiful, and instead of
picking them for a pot-pie, skinning such a number was much quicker. In
the hurry and bustle of making the camp snug for the night, every one
was busy, the sheriff in particular, in dressing his bag of quail. On
finishing the task, he asked a Mexican to pour some water, and the horse
wrangler reached into the wagon, at random, and emptied a small jug into
the vessel containing the dressed birds.

"The big fellow adjourned to the rear and proceeded to wash and drain
his quail. After some little time, he called to the cook: 'Ignacio, I
smell kerosene. Look in the wagon, please, and see if the lantern
isn't leaking.'

"'In a minute,' answered the cook, busy elsewhere.

"The sheriff went on washing the quail, and when about halfway through
the task, he halted. 'Ignacio, I smell that kerosene again. See if the
lantern isn't upset, or the oil jug leaking.'

"'Just in a minute,' came the answer as before. 'My hands are in the
flour.'

"The big man went on, sniffing the air from time to time, nearly
finishing his task, when he stopped again and pleadingly said: 'Ignacio,
I surely smell kerosene. We're out for a week, and a lantern without oil
puts us in a class with the foolish virgins. Drop your work and see
what the trouble is. There's a leak somewhere.'

"The cook dusted the flour from his hands, clambered up on the wagon
wheel, lifted the kerosene jug, pulled the stopper, smelt it, shook it,
and lifted it above his head in search of a possible crack. The empty
jug, the absence of any sign of leakage, gradually sifted through his
mind, and he cast an inquiring glance at the big sheriff, just then
finishing his task. Invoking heaven and all the saints to witness, he
gasped, 'Mr. Charlie, you've washed the quail in the kerosene!'

"The witless, silly expression that came into that big man's face is
only seen once in a lifetime," said Sargent in conclusion. "I've been
fortunate, I've seen it twice; once on the face of a Texas sheriff, and
again, when you shot a hole in the ground with your eye on an antelope.
Whenever I feel blue and want to laugh, I conjure up the scene of a
Mexican, standing on a wagon wheel, holding a jug, and a six-footer in
the background, smelling the fingers of one hand and then the other."




CHAPTER XIX

AN INDIAN SCARE


The year closed with dry, open weather. The cattle scattered wide,
ranging farther afield, unmolested except by shifting winds. The latter
was a matter of hourly observation, affording its lesson to the
brothers, and readily explained by the older and more practical men. For
instance, a north or the dreaded east wind brought the herd into the
valley, where it remained until the weather moderated, and then drifted
out of its own free will. When a balmy south wind blew, the cattle
grazed against it, and when it came from a western quarter, they turned
their backs and the gregarious instinct to flock was noticeable. Under
settled weather, even before dawn, by noting the quarter of the wind, it
was an easy matter to foretell the movement of the herd for the
coming day.

The daily tasks rested lightly. The line was ridden as usual, but more
as a social event than as a matter of necessity. The occasional reports
of Manly to his employer were flattering in the extreme. Any risk
involved in the existing contract hinged on the present winter, and
since it was all that could be desired, every fine day added to the
advantage of Wells Brothers. So far their venture had been greeted with
fair winds, and with not a cloud in the visible sky. Manly was even
recalled by Mr. Stoddard early in February.

Month after month passed without incident. Spring came fully a fortnight
earlier than the year before. By the middle of March, the willows were
bent with pollen, the birds returned, and the greening slopes rolled
away and were lost behind low horizons. The line-camp was abandoned, the
cattle were scattered over the entire valley, and the instincts to
garden were given free rein. The building of two additional tanks, one
below the old trail crossing and the other near the new camp above,
occupied a month's time to good advantage. It enlarged the range beyond
present needs; but the brothers were wrestling with a rare opportunity,
and theirs was strictly a policy of expansion.

An occasional trip to the railroad, for supplies or pressing errand, was
usually rewarded with important news. During the winter just passed,
Kansas had quarantined against Texas cattle, and the trail was barred
from that state. Early in May information reached the ranch that the
market interests of Dodge City had moved over the line into Colorado,
and had established a town on the railroad, to be known as Trail City. A
feasible route lay open to the south, across No-Man's-Land, into the
Texas Panhandle, while scouting parties were out with the intent of
locating a new trail to Ogalalla. It would cross the Republican River
nearly due westward from headquarters, and in the neighborhood of one
hundred miles distant.

"There you are," said Sargent, studying a railroad folder. "You must
have water for the herds, so the new market will have a river and a
railroad. It simply means that the trail has shifted from the east to
the west of your range. As long as the country is open, you can buy
cattle at Trail City, hold them on the Colorado line until frost, and
cross to your own range with a few days' travel. It may prove an
advantage after all."

The blessing of sunshine and shower rested on the new ranch. The beaver
ponds filled, the spill-ways of every tank ran like a mill race, and the
question of water for the summer was answered. The cattle early showed
the benefits of the favorable winter, and by June the brands were
readable at a glance. From time to time reports from the outside world
reached the brothers, and among other friendly letters received was an
occasional inquiry from the commission firm, the factors named under the
existing contract. The house kept in touch with the range, was fully
aware of the open winter, and could easily anticipate its effects in
maturing cattle for early shipment.

The solicitors of the firm, graduates of the range, were sent out a
month in advance of other years. Wells Brothers were advised of a
promised visit by one of the traveling agents of the commission house,
and during the first week in July he arrived at headquarters. He was a
practical man, with little concern for comfort, as long as there were
cattle to look over. Joel took him in tow, mounted him on the pick of
saddle horses, and the two leisurely rode the range.

"What does he say?" inquired Dell, after a day's ride.

"Not a word," answered Joel. "He can't talk any more than I can. Put in
all day just looking and thinking. He must like cattle that range wide,
for we rode around every outside bunch. He _can_ talk, because he
admitted we have good horses."

Again the lesson that contact teaches was accented anew. At parting the
following morning, in summing up the outlook, the solicitor surprised
the brothers. "The situation is clear," said he quietly. "You must ship
early. Your double-wintered beeves will reach their prime this month.
You may ship them any day after the 25th. Your single-wintered ones can
follow in three weeks. The firm may be able to advise you when to ship.
It's only a fourteen-hour run to the yards, and if you work a
beef-shipping outfit that's up to date, you can pick your day to reach
the market. Get your outfit together, keep in touch with the house by
wire, and market your beef in advance of the glut from the
Platte country."

The solicitor lifted the lines over a livery team. "One moment," said
Joel. "Advise Mr. Stoddard that we rely on him to furnish us two men
during the beef-shipping season."

"Anything else?" inquired the man, a memorandum-book in hand.

"Where are the nearest ranches to ours?"

"On the Republican, both above and below the old trail crossing. There
may be extra men over on the river," said the solicitor, fully
anticipating the query.

"That's all," said Joel, extending his hand.

The stranger drove away. The brothers exchanged a puzzled glance, but
Sargent smiled. "That old boy sabes cows some little," said the latter.
"The chances are that he's forgotten more about cattle than some of
these government experts ever knew. Anyway, he reads the sign without
much effort. His survey of this range and the outlook are worth
listening to. Better look up an outfit of men."

"We'll gather the remuda to-day," announced Joel. "While I'm gone to the
Republican, you boys can trim up and gentle the horses."

The extra mounts, freed the fall before, had only been located on the
range, and must be gathered and brought in to headquarters at once. They
had ranged in scattering bunches during the winter, and a single day
would be required to gather and corral the ranch remuda. It numbered,
complete, ninety-six horses, all geldings, and the wisdom of buying the
majority a year in advance of their needs reflected the foresight of a
veteran cowman. Many of them were wild, impossible of approach, the call
of the plain and the free life of their mustang ancestors pulsing with
every heart-beat, and several days would be required to bring them under
docile subjection. There were scraggy hoofs to trim, witches' bridles to
disentangle, while long, bushy, matted tails must be thinned to a
graceful sweep.

The beginning of work acted like a tonic. The boys sallied forth,
mounted on their best horses, their spirits soaring among the clouds.
During the spring rains, several small lakes had formed in the sand
hills, at one of which a band of some thirty saddle horses was watering.
The lagoon was on the extreme upper end of the range, fully fifteen
miles from headquarters; and as all the saddle stock must be brought in,
the day's work required riding a wide circle. Skirting the sand dunes,
by early noon all the horses were in hand, save the band of thirty.
There was no occasion for all hands to assist in bringing in the absent
ones, and a consultation resulted in Joel and Dell volunteering for the
task, while Sargent returned home with the horses already gathered.

The range of the band was well known, and within a few hours after
parting with Sargent, the missing horses were in hand. The brothers knew
every horse, and, rejoicing in their splendid condition, they started
homeward, driving the loose mounts before them. The most direct course
to headquarters was taken, which would carry the cavalcade past the
springs and the upper winter quarters. The latter was situated in the
brakes of the Beaver, several abrupt turns of the creek, until its near
approach, shutting out a western view of the deserted dug-out. The
cavalcade was drifting home at a gentle trot, but on approaching The
Wagon, a band of ponies was sighted forward and in a bend of the creek.
The boys veered their horses, taking to the western divide, and on
gaining it, saw below them and at the distance of only a quarter-mile,
around the springs, an Indian encampment of a dozen tepees and lean-tos.

Dell and Joel were struck dumb at the sight. To add to their surprise,
all the dogs in the encampment set up a howling, the Indians came
tumbling from their temporary shelters, many of them running for their
ponies on picket, while an old, almost naked leader signaled to the
brothers. It was a moment of bewilderment with the boys, who conversed
in whispers, never halting on their course, and when the Indians reached
their ponies, every brave dashed up to the encampment. A short parley
followed, during which signaling was maintained by the old Indian,
evidently a chief; but the boys kept edging away, and the old brave
sprang on a pony and started in pursuit, followed by a number of
his band.

The act was tinder to powder. The boys gave rowel to their mounts, shook
out their ropes, raised the long yell, and started the loose horses in a
mad dash for home. It was ten long miles to headquarters, and their
mounts, already fagged by carrying heavy saddles and the day's work,
were none too fresh, while the Indians rode bareback and were not
encumbered by an ounce of extra clothing.

The boys led the race by fully five hundred yards. But instead of taking
to the divide, the Indians bore down the valley, pursued and pursuers in
plain sight of each other. For the first mile or so the loose horses
were no handicap, showing clean heels and keeping clear of the whizzing
ropes. But after the first wild dash, the remuda began to scatter, and
the Indians gained on the cavalcade, coming fairly abreast and not over
four hundred yards distant.

"They're riding to cut us off!" gasped Dell. "They'll cut us off from
headquarters!"

"Our horses will outwind their ponies," shouted Joel, in reply. "Don't
let these loose horses turn into the valley."

The divide was more difficult to follow than the creek. The meanderings
of the latter were crossed and recrossed without halting, while the
watershed zigzagged, or was broken and cut by dry washes and coulees,
thus retarding the speed of the cavalcade. The race wore on with varying
advantage, and when near halfway to headquarters, the Indians turned up
the slope as if to verify Dell's forecast. At this juncture, a
half-dozen of the loose horses cut off from the band and turned down the
slope in plain sight of the pursuers.

[Illustration: THE FIRST ROUND-UP OF THE DAY]

"If it's horses they want, they can have those," shouted Joel. "Climbing
that slope will fag their ponies. Come on; here's where we have the
best of it."

The Indians were not to be pacified. Without a look they swept past the
abandoned horses. The boys made a clear gain along a level stretch on
the divide, maintaining their first lead, when the pursuers, baffled in
cutting them off, turned again into the valley.

"It isn't horses they want," ventured Dell, with a backward glance.

"In the next dip, we'll throw the others down the western slope, and
ride for our lives," answered Joel, convinced that a sacrifice of horses
would not appease their pursuers.

The opportunity came shortly, when for a few minutes the brothers dipped
from sight of the Indians. The act confused the latter, who scaled the
divide, only to find the objects of their chase a full half-mile in the
lead, but calling on the last reserve in their fagged horses. The
pursuers gradually closed the intervening gap; but with the advantage of
knowing every foot of the ground, the brothers took a tack which carried
them into the valley at the old winter corral. From that point it was a
straight stretch homeward, and, their horses proving their mettle, the
boys dashed up to the stable, where Sargent was found at work among the
other horses.

"Indians! Indians!" shouted Dell, who arrived in the lead. "Indians have
been chasing us all afternoon. Run for your life, Jack!"

Joel swept past a moment later, accenting the situation, and as Sargent
left the corral, he caught sight of the pursuing Indians, and showed
splendid action in reaching the dug-out.

Breathless and gasping, Dell and Joel each grasped a repeating rifle,
while Sargent, in the excitement of the moment, unable to unearth the
story, buckled on a six-shooter. The first reconnoitre revealed the
Indians halted some two hundred yards distant, and parleying among
themselves. At a first glance, the latter seemed to be unarmed, and on
Sargent stepping outside the shack, the leader, the old brave, simply
held up his hand.

"They must be peaceful Indians," said Sargent to the boys, and signaled
in the leader.

The old Indian jogged forward on his tired pony, leaving his followers
behind, and on riding up, a smile was noticeable on his wrinkled visage.
He dismounted, unearthing from his scanty breech-clout a greasy, grimy
letter, and tendered it to Sargent.

The latter scanned the missive, and turning to the boys, who had
ventured forth, broke into a fit of laughter.

"Why, this is Chief Lone Wolf," said Sargent, "from the Pine Ridge
Agency, going down to see his kinsfolks in the Indian Territory. The
agent at Pine Ridge says that Lone Wolf is a peaceful Indian, and has
his permission to leave the reservation. He hopes that nothing but
kindness will be shown the old chief in his travels, and bespeaks the
confidence of any white settlers that he may meet on the way. You boys
must have been scared out of your wits. Lone Wolf only wanted to show
you this letter."

Sargent conversed with the old chief in Spanish, the others were
signaled in, when a regular powwow ensued. Dell and Joel shook hands
with all the Indians, Sargent shared his tobacco with Lone Wolf, and on
returning to their encampment at evening, each visitor was burdened with
pickled beef and such other staples as the cow-camp afforded.




CHAPTER XX

HARVEST ON THE RANGE


Joel set out for the Republican the next morning and was gone four days.
The beef ranches along the river had no men to spare, but constant
inquiry was rewarded by locating an outfit whose holdings consisted of
stock cattle. Three men were secured, their services not being urgently
required on the home ranch until the fall branding, leaving only a cook
and horse wrangler to be secured. Inquiry at Culbertson located a
homesteader and his boy, anxious for work, and the two were engaged.

"They're to report here on the 15th," said Joel, on his return. "It
gives us six men in the saddle, and we can get out the first shipment
with that number. The cook and wrangler may be a little green at first,
but they're willing, and that masters any task. We'll have to be patient
with them--we were all beginners once. Any man who ever wrestled with a
homestead ought to be able to cook."

"Yes, indeed," admitted Sargent. "There's nothing develops a man like
settling up a new country. It brings out every latent quality. In the
West you can almost tell a man's native heath by his ability to use
baling wire, hickory withes, or rawhide."

The instinct of cattle is reliable in selecting their own range. Within
a week, depending on the degree of maturity, the herd, with unerring
nutrient results, turns from one species of grass to another. The
double-wintered cattle naturally returned to their former range; but in
order to quicken the work, any beeves of that class found below were
drifted above headquarters. It was a distinct advantage to leave the
herd undisturbed, and with the first shipment drifted to one end of the
range, a small round-up or two would catch all marketable beeves.

The engaged men arrived on the appointed date. The cook and wrangler
were initiated into their respective duties at once. The wagon was
equipped for the trail, vicious horses were gentled, and an ample mount
allotted to the extra men. The latter were delighted over the saddle
stock, and mounted to satisfy every desire, no task daunted their
numbers. Sargent was recognized as foreman; but as the work was fully
understood, the concerted efforts of all relieved him of any concern,
except in arranging the details. The ranch had fallen heir to a
complete camp kit, with the new wagon, and with a single day's
preparations, the shipping outfit stood ready to move on an
hour's notice.

It was no random statement, on the part of the solicitor, that Wells
Brothers could choose the day on which to market their beef. Sargent had
figured out the time, either forced or leisurely, to execute a shipment,
and was rather impatient to try out the outfit in actual field work.

"Suppose we break in the outfit," he suggested, "by taking a little
swing around the range. It will gentle the horses, instruct the cook and
wrangler, and give us all a touch of the real thing."

Joel consulted a calendar. "We have four days before beginning to gather
beeves," he announced. "Let's go somewhere and camp."

"We'll move to the old trail crossing at sun-up," announced Sargent.
"Roll your blankets in the morning, boys."

A lusty shout greeted the declaration. It was the opening of the
beef-shipping season, the harvest time of the year, and the boys were
impatient to begin the work. But the best-laid plans are often
interrupted. That evening a courier reached headquarters, bearing a
message from the commission firm which read, "Have your double-wintered
beeves on Saturday's market."

"That's better," said Sargent, glancing over the telegram. "The wagon
and remuda will start for Hackberry Grove at sun-up. Have the messenger
order ten cars for Friday morning. The shipment will be on
Saturday's market."

Dawn found the outfit at attention. Every movement was made with
alacrity. Two men assisted a husky boy to corral the remuda, others
harnessed in a span of mules, and before the sun peeped over the
horizon, the cavalcade moved out up the valley, the courier returning to
the station. The drag-net from below would be thrown out from the old
winter corral; but as an hour's sun on the cattle rendered them lazy,
half the horsemen halted until the other sighted the grove above. As
early as advisable, the gradual circle was begun, turning the cattle
into the valley, concentrating, and by slowly edging in, the first
round-up of the day was thrown together, numbering, range run, fully six
hundred head. Two men were detailed to hold the round-up compactly, Dell
volunteered to watch the cut (the beeves selected), leaving the other
three to cut out the marketable cattle which would make up the shipment.
A short hour's work followed, resulting in eighty-odd beeves being
selected. Flesh, age, and the brand governed each selection, and when
cut into a class by themselves, the mettle of the pasture was reflected
in every beef.

The cut was grazed up to the second round-up, which contributed nearly
double the former number. On finishing the work, a count of the beeves
was made, which overran in numbers the necessary shipment. They were
extremely heavy cattle, twenty head to the car was the limit, and it
became necessary to trim or cull back to the desired number. Sargent and
Joel passed on every rejected beef, uniform weight being desirable,
until the shipment stood acceptable, in numbers, form, and finish.

The beeves were watered and grazed out on their course without delay.
Three days and a half were allowed to reach the railroad, and a grazing
pace would land the herd in the shipping pens in good season. The day's
work consisted in merely pointing and drifting the cattle forward,
requiring only a few men, leaving abundant help to initiate the cook and
wrangler in their field duties. Joel had been a close observer of the
apparent ease with which a cook discharged his duty, frequently halting
his wagon on a moment's notice, and easily preparing a meal for an
outfit of trail men within an hour. The main secret lay in the
foresight, in keeping his work in advance, and Joel lent every
assistance in coaching his cook to meet the emergency of any demand.

Sargent took the wrangler in hand. The different bunches of horses had
seen service on the trail, were gentle to handle, and attention was
called to observing each individual horse and the remuda as a whole. For
instance, in summer, a horse grazes against the breeze, and if the
remuda was freed intelligently, at darkness, the wind holding from the
same quarter during the night, a practical wrangler would know where to
find his horses at dawn. The quarter of the breeze was therefore always
noted, any variation after darkness, as if subject to the whim of the
wind, turning the course of the grazing remuda. As among men, there were
leaders among horses, and by noting these and applying hobbles, any
inclination to wander was restrained. Fortunately, the husky boy had no
fear of a horse, his approach being as masterly as his leave-taking was
gentle and kindly--a rare gift when unhobbling alone in the open.

"I'll make a horse wrangler out of this boy," said Sargent to the
father, in the presence of Dell and Joel. "Before the summer ends, he'll
know every crook and turn in the remuda. There's nothing like knowing
your horses. Learn to trail down the lost; know their spirit, know them
in health, lame and wounded. If a horse neighs at night, know why; if
one's missing in the morning, name him like you would an absent boy
at school."

The trip down to the railroad was largely a matter of patience. The
beeves were given every advantage, and except the loss of sleep in
night-herding, the work approached loafing against time. Three guards
stood watch during the short summer nights, pushing the herd off its bed
at dawn, grazing early and late, and resting through the noon hours.

An agreeable surprise awaited the original trio. The evening before
loading out, the beeves must be penned, and Joel rode into the station
in advance, to see that cars were in waiting and get the shipping
details. As if sent on the same errand, Manly met him, having been
ordered on from Trail City.

"I've been burning the wires all morning," said he to Joel, "for a
special train for this shipment. The agent wanted us to take a local
freight from here, but I showed him there were other train shipments to
follow. A telegram to the commission firm and another one to my old man
done the work. Those old boys know how to pull the strings. A special
train has been ordered, and you can name your own hour for leaving in
the morning. I have a man with me; send us in horses and we'll help you
corral your beeves."

Joel remained only long enough to confirm Manly's foresight. Two horses
were sent in by Dell, and the welcome addition of two extra men joined
the herd, which was easily corralled at dusk of evening. An early hour
was agreed upon to load out, the empty train came in promptly, and the
first shipment of the year was cut into car lots and loaded out during a
morning hour.

Before the departure of the train, an air of activity was noticeable
around the bleak station. The train crew was insisting for a passenger
schedule, there was billing to be done and contracts to execute,
telegrams of notification to be sent the commission firm, and general
instructions to the beef outfit. Joel and Sargent were to accompany the
shipment, and on starting, while the engineer and conductor were
comparing their running orders, Sargent called out from the rear of the
caboose:--

"The best of friends must part," said he, pretending to weep. "Here's
two bits; buy yourself some cheese and crackers, and take some candy
home to the children. Manly, if I never come back, you can have my
little red wagon. Dell, my dear old bunkie--well, you can have all my
other playthings."

The cattle train faded from sight and the outfit turned homeward.
Horses were left at the station for Joel and Sargent, and the remainder
of the outfit reached headquarters the following day. Manly had been
away from the ranch nearly six months, and he and Dell rode the range,
pending the return of the absent. Under ideal range conditions, the
cattle of marketable age proved a revelation, having rounded into form
beyond belief.

"That's why I love cattle," said Manly to Dell, while riding the range;
"they never disappoint. Cattle endure time and season, with a hardiness
that no other animal possesses. Given a chance, they repay every debt.
Why, one shipment from these Stoddard cattle will almost wipe the slate.
Uncle Dudley thought this was a fool deal, but Mr. Lovell seemed so bent
on making it that my old man simply gave in. And now you're going to
make a fortune out of these Lazy H's. No wonder us fool Texans love
a cow."

The absent ones returned promptly. "The Beaver valley not only topped
the market for range cattle," loftily said Sargent, "but topped it in
price and weight. The beeves barely netted fifty-two dollars a head!"

Early shipments were urged from every quarter. "Hereafter," said Joel,
"the commission firm will order the trains and send us a practical
shipper. There may rise a situation that we may have to rush our
shipments, and we can't spare men to go to market. It pays to be on
time. Those commission men are wide awake. Look at these railroad
passes, good for the year, that they secured for us boys. If any one has
to go to market, we can take a passenger train, and leave the cattle
to follow."

The addition of two men to the shipping outfit was a welcome asset. The
first consignment from the ranch gave the men a field-trial, and now
that the actual shipping season was at hand, an allotment of horses was
made. The numbers of the remuda admitted of mounting every man to the
limit, and with their first shipment a success, the men rested
impatiently awaiting orders.

The commission firm, with its wide knowledge of range and market
conditions, was constantly alert. The second order, of ten days' later
date, was a duplicate of the first, with one less for fulfillment. The
outfit dropped down to the old trail crossing the evening before, and by
noon two round-ups had yielded twenty car-loads of straight Lazy H
beeves. When trimmed to their required numbers, twenty-two to the car,
they reflected credit to breeder and present owner.

In grazing down to the railroad, every hour counted. There was no
apparent rush, but an hour saved at noon, an equal economy at evening
and morning, brought the herd within summons of the shipping yards on
time. That the beeves might be favored, they were held outside for the
night, three miles from the corral, but an early sun found them safely
inside the shipping pens. Two hours later, the full train was en route
to market, in care of a practical shipper.

On yarding the beeves the customary telegram had been sent to the
commission firm. No reply was expected, but within half an hour after
the train left, a message, asking Joel to accompany the shipment, was
received from Mr. Stoddard.

"You must go," said Manly, scanning the telegram. "It isn't the last
cattle that he sold you that's worrying my boss. He has two herds on the
market this year, one at Trail City and the other at Ogalalla, and he
may have his eye on you as a possible buyer. You have a pass; you can
catch the eastern mail at noon, and overtake the cattle train in time to
see the beeves unloaded."

"Which herd did you come up with?" inquired Joel, fumbling through his
pockets for the forgotten pass.

"With the one at Ogalalla. It's full thirty-one hundred steers, single
ranch brand, and will run about equally twos and threes. Same range,
same stock, as your Lazy H's, and you are perfectly safe in buying them
unseen. Just the same cattle that you bought last year, with the
advantage of a better season on the trail. All you need to do is to
agree on the prices and terms; the cattle are as honest as gold and
twice as good."

"Leave me a horse and take the outfit home," said Joel with decision.
"If an order comes for more beeves, cut the next train from the Lazy
H's. I'll be back in a day or two."

Joel Wells was rapidly taking his degrees in the range school. At dusk
he overtook the cattle train, which reached the market yards on schedule
time. The shipper's duty ceased with the unloading of the cattle, which
was easily completed before midnight, when he and his employer
separated. The market would not open until a late morning hour,
affording ample time to rest and refresh the beeves, and to look up
acquaintances in the office.

Joel had almost learned to dispense with sleep. With the first stir of
the morning, he was up and about. Before the clerks even arrived, he
was hanging around the office of the commission firm. The expected
shipment brought the salesmen and members of the firm much earlier than
usual, and Joel was saved all further impatience. Mr. Stoddard was
summoned, and the last barrier was lifted in the hearty greeting between
the manly boy and a veteran of their mutual occupation.

The shipment sold early in the day. An hour before noon, an interested
party left the commission office and sauntered forth to watch the beeves
cross the scale. It was the parting look of breeder, owner, and factor,
and when the average weight was announced, Mr. Stoddard turned to
the others.

"Look here, Mr. Joel," said he, "are these the cattle I sold you last
summer?"

"They carry your brand," modestly admitted Joel.

"So I notice," assentingly said the old cowman. "And still I can
scarcely believe my eyes. Of course I'm proud of having bred these
beeves, even if the lion's share of their value to-day goes to the boys
who matured them. I must be an old fogy."

"You are," smilingly said the senior member of the commission house.
"Every up-to-date Texas cowman has a northern beef ranch. To be sure,
as long as you can raise a steer as cheap as another man can raise a
frying chicken, you'll prosper in a way. Wells Brothers aren't afraid of
a little cold, and you are. In that way only, the lion's share falls
to them."

"One man to his own farm, another to his merchandise," genially quoted
the old cowman, "and us poor Texans don't take very friendly to your
northern winters. It's the making of cattle, but excuse your Uncle
Dudley. Give me my own vine and fig tree."

"Then wish the boys who brave the storm success," urged the old factor.

"I do," snorted the grizzled ranchman. "These beeves are a story that is
told. I'm here to sell young Wells another herd of cattle. He's my
customer as much as yours. That's the reason I urged his
presence to-day."

The atmosphere cleared. On the market and under the weight, each beef
was paying the cost of three the year before; but it was the letter of
the bond, and each party to the contract respected his obligation.

After returning to the office, on a petty pretext, Mr. Stoddard and Joel
wandered away. They returned early in the afternoon, to find all
accounts made up, and ready for their personal approval. The second
shipment easily enabled Joel to take up his contract, and when the
canceled document was handed him, Mr. Stoddard turned to the senior
member of the firm.

"I've offered to duplicate that contract," said he, "on the same price
and terms, and for double the number of cattle. This quarantine raises
havoc with delivery."

"A liberal interpretation of the new law is in effect," remarked the
senior member. "There's too many interests involved to insist on a rigid
enforcement. The ban is already raised on any Panhandle cattle, and any
north of certain latitudes can get a clean bill of health. If that's all
that stands in the way of a trade, our firm will use its good offices."

"In that case," said Joel, nodding to Mr. Stoddard, "we'll take your
herd at Ogalalla. Move it down to the old trail crossing on the
Republican, just over the state line and north of our range. This firm
is perfectly acceptable again as middlemen or factors," he concluded,
turning to the member present.

"Thank you," said the old factor. "We'll try and merit any confidence
reposed. This other matter will be taken up with the quarantine
authorities at once. Show me your exact range," he requested, turning to
a map and indicating the shipping station.

Wells Brothers' range lay in the northwest corner of the state. The
Republican River, in Nebraska, ran well over the line to the north, with
unknown neighbors on the west in Colorado.

"It's a clear field," observed the old factor. "Your own are the only
cattle endangered, and since you are the applicant for the bill of
health, you absolve the authorities from all concern. Hurry in your
other shipments, and the railroad can use its influence--it'll want
cattle to ship next year. The ranges must be restocked."

There was sound logic in the latter statement. A telegram was sent to
Ogalalla, to start the through herd, and another to the beef outfit, to
hurry forward the next shipment. Joel left for home that night, and the
next evening met his outfit, ten miles out from the Beaver, with a
perfect duplicate of the former consignment. It was early harvest on the
cattle ranges, and those who were favored with marketable beef were
eager to avoid the heavy rush of fall shipments.

The beef herd camped for the night on the divide. Joel's report provoked
argument, and a buzz of friendly contention, as the men lounged around
the tiny camp-fire, ran through the outfit.

"It may be the custom among you Texans," protested one of the lads from
the Republican, "but I wouldn't buy a herd of cattle without seeing
them. Buy three thousand head of cattle unseen? Not this one of old man
Vivian's boys! Oh, no!"

"Link, that kind of talk shows your raising," replied Sargent. "Your
view is narrow and illiberal. You haven't traveled far. Your tickets
cost somewhere between four and six bits."

Manly lifted his head from a saddle, and turning on his side, gazed at
the dying fire. "Vivian," said he, "it all depends on how your folks
bring you up. Down home we buy and sell by ages. A cow is a cow, a steer
is a steer, according to his age, and so on down to the end of the
alphabet. The cattle never misrepresent and there's no occasion for
seeing them. If you are laboring under the idea that my old man would
use any deception to sell a herd, you have another guess coming. He'd
rather lose his right hand than to misrepresent the color of a cow. He's
as jealous of his cattle as a miller is of his flour. These boys are his
customers, last fall, this summer, and possibly for years to come. If he
wanted them, Joel did perfectly right to buy the cattle unseen."

The second train of Lazy H beeves reached the railroad on schedule
time. The shipper was in waiting, cattle cars filled the side track, and
an engine and crew could be summoned on a few hours' notice. If
corralled the night before, passing trains were liable to excite the
beeves, and thereafter it became the usual custom to hold outside and
safely distant.

The importance of restocking the range hurried the shipping operations.
Instead of allowing the wagon to reach the station, at sunrise on the
morning of shipping, it and the remuda were started homeward.

"We'll gather beeves on the lower end of our range to-morrow," said Joel
to the cook and wrangler, "and there's no need to touch at headquarters.
Follow the trail to the old crossing, and make camp at the lower
tank--same camp-ground as the first shipment of Lazy H's. The rest of
the outfit will follow, once these cattle are loaded out. You might have
a late supper awaiting us--about ten o'clock to-night."

The gates closed on the beeves without mishap. They were cut into car
lots, from horseback, and on the arrival of the crew, the loading began.
A short hour's work saw the cattle aboard, when the dusty horsemen
mounted and clattered into the straggling hamlet.

The homeward trip was like a picnic. The outfit halted on the first
running water, and saddle pockets disgorged a bountiful lunch. The
horses rolled, grazed the noon hours through, and again took up their
former road gait. An evening halt was made on the Prairie Dog, where an
hour's grazing was again allowed, the time being wholly devoted to
looking into the future.

"If we stock the range fully this fall," said Joel, in outlining his
plans, "it is my intention to build an emergency camp on this creek, in
case of winter drifts. Build a dug-out in some sheltered nook, cache a
little provision and a few sacks of corn, and if the cattle break the
line, we can ride out of snug quarters any morning and check them. It
beats waiting for a wagon and giving the drift a twenty-mile start. We
could lash our blankets on a pack horse and ride it night or day."

"What a long head!" approvingly said Sargent. "Joel, you could almost
eat out of a churn. An emergency camp on the Prairie Dog is surely a
meaty idea. But that's for next winter, and beef shipping's on in full
blast right now. Let's ride; supper's waiting on the Beaver."




CHAPTER XXI

LIVING IN THE SADDLE


The glow of a smouldering camp-fire piloted the returning horsemen
safely to their wagon. A good night's rest fitted them for the task of
the day, which began at sunrise. The next shipment would come from the
flotsam of the year before, many of which were heavy beeves, intended
for army delivery, but had fallen footsore on the long, drouthy march.
The past winter had favored the lame and halt, and after five months of
summer, the bulk of them had matured into finished beef.

By shipping the different contingents separately, the brothers were
enabled to know the situation at all times. No accounts were kept, but
had occasion required, either Joel or Dell could have rendered a
statement from memory of returns on the double and single wintered, as
well as on the purchased cattle. Sale statements were furnished by the
commission house, and by filing these, an account of the year's
shipments, each brand separate, could be made up at the end of
the season.

The early struggle of Wells Brothers, in stocking their range, was now
happily over. Instead of accepting the crumbs which fell as their
portion, their credit and resources enabled them to choose the class of
cattle which promised growth and quick returns. The range had proven
itself in maturing beef, and the ranch thereafter would carry only
sufficient cows to quiet and pacify its holdings of cattle.

"If this was my ranch," said Sargent to the brothers at breakfast, "I'd
stock it with two-year-old steers and double-winter every hoof. Look
over those sale statements and you'll see what two winters mean. That
first shipment of Lazy H's was as fat as mud, and yet they netted seven
dollars a head less than those rag-tag, double-wintered ones. There's a
waste that must be saved hereafter."

"That's our intention," said Joel. "We'll ship out every hoof that has
the flesh this year. Nearly any beef will buy three two-year-old steers
to take his place. It may take another year or two to shape up our
cattle, but after that, every hoof must be double-wintered."

An hour after sunrise, the drag-net was drawing together the first
round-up of the day. The importance of handling heavy beeves without any
excitement was fully understood, and to gather a shipment without
disturbing those remaining was a task that required patience and
intelligence. Men on the outside circle merely turned the cattle on the
extremes of the range; they were followed by inner horsemen, and the
drag-net closed at a grazing pace, until the round-up halted on a
few acres.

The first three shipments had tried out the remuda. The last course in
the education of a cow-horse is cutting cattle out of a mixed round-up.
On the present work, those horses which had proven apt were held in
reserve, and while the first contingent of cattle was quieting down, the
remuda was brought up and saddles shifted to four cutting horses. The
average cow can dodge and turn quicker than the ordinary horse, and only
a few of the latter ever combine action and intelligence to outwit the
former. Cunning and ingenuity, combined with the required alertness, a
perfect rein, coupled with years of actual work, produce that rarest of
range mounts--the cutting horse.

Dell had been promised a trial in cutting out beeves. Sargent took him
in hand, and mounted on two picked horses, they entered the herd. "Now,
I'll pick the beeves," said the latter, "and you cut them out. All you
need to do is to rein that horse down on your beef, and he'll take him
out of the herd. Of course you'll help the horse some little; but if you
let too many back, I'll call our wrangler and try him out. That horse
knows the work just as well as you do. Now, go slow, and don't ride over
your beef."

The work commenced. The beeves were lazy from flesh, inactive, and only
a few offered any resistance to the will of the horsemen. Dell made a
record of cutting out fifty beeves in less than an hour, and only
letting one reënter the herd. The latter was a pony-built beef, and
after sullenly leaving the herd, with the agility of a cat, he whirled
right and left on the space of a blanket, and beat the horse back into
the round-up. Sargent lent a hand on the second trial, and when the beef
saw that resistance was useless, he kicked up his heels and trotted away
to join those selected for shipment.

"He's laughing at you," said Sargent. "He only wanted to try you out.
Just wanted to show you that no red-headed boy and flea-bit horse could
turn him. And he showed you."

"This beats roping," admitted Dell, as the two returned to the herd,
quite willing to change the subject. "Actually when a beef reaches the
edge of the herd, this horse swells up and his eyes pop out like
door-knobs. You can feel every muscle in him become as rigid as ropes,
and he touches the ground as if he was walking on eggs. Look at him now;
goes poking along as if he was half asleep."

"He's a cutting horse and doesn't wear himself out. Whenever you can
strip the bridle off, while cutting out a beef, and handle your steer,
that's the top rung a cow-horse can reach. He's a king pin--that's
royalty."

A second round-up was required to complete the train-load of beeves.
They were not uniform in weight or age, and would require reclassing
before loading aboard the cars. Their flesh and finish were fully up to
standard, but the manner in which they were acquired left them uneven,
their ages varying from four to seven years.

"There's velvet in this shipment," said Sargent, when the beeves had
been counted and trimmed. "These cattle can defy competition. Instead of
five cents a head for watering last year's drive, this year's shipment
from crumbs will net you double that amount. The first gathering of beef
will square the account with every thirsty cow you watered last summer."

An extra day was allowed in which to reach the railroad. The shipment
must pen the evening before, and halting the herd within half a mile of
the railway corrals, the reclassing fell to Joel and Sargent. The
contingent numbered four hundred and forty beeves, and in order to have
them marketable, all rough, heavy cattle must be cut into a class by
themselves, leaving the remainder neat and uniform. A careful hour's
work resulted in seven car-loads of extra heavy beeves, which were
corralled separately and in advance of the others, completing a long day
in the saddle.

Important mail was awaiting Wells Brothers at the station. A permit from
the state quarantine authorities had been secured, due to the influence
of the commission house and others, admitting the through herd, then en
route from Ogalalla. The grant required a messenger to meet the herd
without delay, and Dell volunteered his services as courier. Darkness
fell before supper was over and the messenger ready.

"One more shipment will clean up our beeves," said Joel to his brother,
"and those through cattle can come in the day we gather our last train.
We'll give them a clear field. If the herd hasn't reached the
Republican, push ahead until you meet it."

A hundred-mile ride lay before Dell Wells. "You mean for the herd to
follow the old trail," he inquired, "and turn off opposite our
middle tank?"

"That's it; and hold the cattle under herd until we can count and
receive them."

Dell led out his horse and mounted. "Dog-toe will take me safely home
to-night," said he, "and we'll reach the Republican by noon to-morrow.
If the herd's there, you haven't an hour to waste. We'll drop down on
you in a day and a half."

The night received courier and horse. A clatter of caution and advice
followed the retreating figure out of hearing, when the others threw
themselves down around the camp-fire. Early morning found the outfit
astir, and as on the previous occasion, the wagon and remuda were
started home at daybreak. The loading and shipping instructions were
merely a repetition of previous consignments, and the train had barely
left the station when the cavalcade rode to overtake the commissary.

The wagon was found encamped on the Prairie Dog. An hour's rest was
allowed, fresh horses were saddled, when Joel turned to the cook and
wrangler: "Make camp to-night on the middle tank, below headquarters.
We'll ride on ahead and drift all the cattle up the creek. Our only
round-up to-morrow will be well above the old winter corral. It's our
last gathering of beef, and we want to make a general round-up of the
range. We'll drift cattle until dark, so that it'll be late when we
reach camp."

The outfit of horsemen followed the old trail, and only sighted the
Beaver late in the afternoon. The last new tank, built that spring, was
less than a mile below the old crossing; and veering off there, the
drag-net was thrown across the valley below it, and a general drift
begun. An immense half-circle, covering the limits of the range, pointed
the cattle into the valley, and by moving forward and converging as the
evening advanced, a general drift was maintained. The pace was barely
that of grazing, and as darkness approached, all cattle on the lower end
of the range were grazed safely above the night camp and left adrift.

The wagon had arrived, and the men reached camp by twos and threes.
There was little danger of the cattle returning to their favorite range
during the night, but for fear of stragglers, at an early hour in the
morning the drag-net was again thrown out from camp. Headquarters was
passed before the horsemen began encountering any quantity of cattle,
and after passing the old winter corral, the men on the points of the
half-circle were sent to ride the extreme limits of the range. By the
middle of the forenoon, everything was adrift, and as the cattle
naturally turned into the valley for their daily drink, a few complete
circles brought the total herd into a general round-up, numbering over
fifteen hundred head of mixed cattle.

Meanwhile the wagon and remuda had followed up the drift, dinner was
waiting, and after the mid-day meal had been bolted, orders rang out.
"Right here's where all hands and the cook draw fresh horses," said
Sargent, "and get into action. It's a bulky herd, and cutting out will
be slow. The cook and wrangler must hold the beeves, and that will turn
the rest of us free to watch the round-up and cut out."

By previous agreement, in order to shorten the work, Joel was to cut out
the remnant of double-wintered beeves, Manly the Lazy H's, while Sargent
and an assistant would confine their selections to the single-wintered
ones in the ---- Y brand. Each man would tally his own work, even
car-loads were required, and a total would constitute the shipment. The
cutting out began quietly; but after a nucleus of beeves were selected,
their numbers gained at the rate of three to five a minute, while the
sweat began to reek from the horses.

Joel cut two car-loads of prime beeves, and then tendered his services
to Sargent. The cattle had quieted, and a fifth man was relieved from
guarding the round-up, and sent to the assistance of Manly. A steady
stream of beef poured out for an hour, when a comparison of figures was
made. Manly was limited to one hundred and twenty head, completing an
even thousand shipped from the brand, and lacking four, was allowed to
complete his number. Sargent was without limit, the object being to trim
the general herd of every heavy, rough beef, and a tally on numbers was
all that was required. The work was renewed with tireless energy, and
when the limit of twenty cars was reached, a general conference resulted
in cutting two loads extra.

"That leaves the home cattle clean of rough stuff," said Sargent, as he
dismounted and loosened the saddle on a tired horse. "Any aged steers
left are clean thrifty cattle, and will pay their way to hold another
year. Turn the round-up adrift."

After blowing their horses, a detail of men drifted the general herd up
the creek. Others lent their assistance to the wrangler in corralling
his remuda, and after relieving the cutting horses, the beeves were
grazed down the valley. The outfit had not spent a night at headquarters
in some time, the wagon serving as a substitute, and orders for evening
freed all hands except two men on herd with the beeves.

The hurry of the day was over. On securing fresh horses, Joel and
Sargent turned to the assistance of the detail, then drifting the main
herd westward. The men were excused, to change mounts, and relieved from
further duty until the guards, holding the beeves, were arranged for the
night. The remnant of the herd was pushed up the creek and freed near
Hackberry Grove, and on returning to overtake the beeves, the two
horsemen crossed a spur of the tableland, jutting into the valley,
affording a perfect view of the surrounding country.

With the first sweep of the horizon, their horses were reined to a halt.
Fully fifteen miles to the northeast, and in a dip of the plain, hung an
ominous dust cloud. Both horsemen read the sign at a glance.

Sargent was the first to speak. "Dell met the herd on the Republican,"
said he with decision. "It's the Stoddard cattle from Ogalalla. The
pitch of their dust shows they're trailing south."

The sign in the sky was read correctly. The smoke from a running train
and the dust from a trailing herd, when viewed from a distance, pitches
upward from a horizon line, and the moving direction of train or herd is
easily read by an observant plainsman. Sargent's summary was confirmed
on reaching headquarters, where Dell and the trail foreman were found,
the latter regaling Manly and others with the chronicle of the
new trail.

The same foreman as the year before was in charge of the herd. He
protested against any step tending to delivery for that day, even to
looking the cattle over. "Uncle Dud wouldn't come," said he, "and it's
up to me to make the delivery. I've been pioneering around all summer
with this herd, and now that I'm my own boss, I'll take orders from no
one. We made rather a forced drive from the Republican, and I want a
good night's rest for both the herd and myself. Ten o'clock in the
morning will be early enough to tender the cattle for delivery. In the
mean time, our pilot, the red-headed clerk, will answer all questions.
As for myself, I'm going to sleep in the new tent, and if any one calls
or wakes me in the morning, I'll get up and wear him out. I've lost a
right smart of sleep this summer, and I won't stand no trifling."

Joel fully understood that the object in delay was to have the herd in
presentable condition, and offered no objection. The beeves were grazed
up opposite headquarters, and the guards were arranged for the night,
which passed without incident. Thereafter, as a matter of precaution, a
dead-line must be maintained between the wintered and the through
cattle; and as Manly was to remain another year, he and an assistant
were detailed to stay at headquarters. A reduced mount of horses was
allowed them, and starting the beeves at daybreak, the wagon and remuda
followed several hours later.

The trail foreman was humored in his wishes. It was nearly noon when the
through herd was reached, grazed and watered to surfeiting, and a single
glance satisfied Joel Wells that the cattle fully met every requirement.
The question of age was disposed of as easily as that of quality.

"We gathered this year's drive on our home ranges," said the foreman,
"and each age was held separate until the herds were made up. I started
with fifteen hundred threes and sixteen hundred twos, with ten head
extra of each age, in case of loss on the trail. Our count on leaving
Ogalalla showed a loss of twelve head. I'm willing to class or count
them as they run. Manly knows the make-up of the herd."

Sargent and the brothers rode back and forth through the scattered
cattle. It meant a big saving of time to accept them on a straight
count, and on being rejoined by the foreman, Joel waived his intent to
classify the cattle.

"I bought this herd on Mr. Stoddard's word," said he, "and I'm going to
class it on yours. String out your cattle, and you and Manly count
against Sargent and myself."

A correct count on a large herd is no easy task. In trailing formation,
the cattle march between a line of horsemen, but in the open the
difficulty is augmented. A noonday sun lent its assistance in quieting
the herd, which was shaped into an immense oval, and the count
attempted. The four men elected to make the count cut off a number of
the leaders, and counting them, sent them adrift. Thereafter, the trail
outfit fed the cattle between the quartette, who sat their horses in
speechless intensity, as the column filed through at random. Each man
used a string, containing ten knots, checking the hundreds by slipping
the knots, and when the last hoof had passed in review, the quiet of a
long hour was relieved by a general shout, when the trail outfit dashed
up to know the result.

"How many strays have you?" inquired Sargent of the foreman, as the
quartette rode together.

"That's so; there's a steer and a heifer; we'll throw them in for good
measure. What's your count?"

"Minus the strays, mine repeats yours at Ogalalla," answered Sargent,
turning to Joel.

"Thirty-one hundred and ten," said the boy.

The trail foreman gave vent to a fit of laughter. "Young fellow," said
he, "I never allow no man to outdo me in politeness. If you bought these
cattle on my old man's word, I want you to be safe in receiving them.
We'll class them sixteen hundred twos, and fifteen hundred threes, and
any overplus falls to the red-headed pilot. That's about what Uncle Dud
would call a Texas count and classification. Shake out your horses;
dinner's waiting."

There were a few details to arrange. Manly must have an assistant, and
an extra man was needed with the shipment, both of whom volunteered from
the through outfit. The foreman was invited to move up to headquarters
and rest to his heart's content, but in his anxiety to report to his
employer, the invitation was declined.

"We'll follow up to-morrow," said he, "and lay over on the railroad
until you come in with our beeves. The next hard work I do is to get in
touch with my Uncle Dudley."

"Look here--how about it--when may we expect you home?" sputtered Manly,
as the others hurriedly made ready to overtake the beef herd.

"When you see us again," answered Joel, mounting his horse. "If this
shipment strikes a good market, we may drop down to Trail City and pick
up another herd. It largely depends on our bank account. Until you see
or hear from us, hold the dead-line and locate your cattle."




CHAPTER XXII

INDEPENDENCE


The trail outfit reached the railroad a day in advance of the beeves.
Shipping orders were sent to the station agent in advance, and on the
arrival of the herd the two outfits made short shift in classifying it
for market and corralling the different grades of cattle.

Mr. Stoddard had been located at Trail City. Once the shipment was
safely within the corral, notice was wired the commission firm,
affording time for reply before the shipment would leave in the morning.
An early call at the station was rewarded by receipt of a wire from the
west. "Read that," said the foreman, handing the telegram to Joel;
"wants all three of us to come into the city."

"Of course," commented Joel, returning the message. "It's clear enough.
There's an understanding between us. At the earliest convenience, after
the delivery of the herd, we were to meet and draw up the final papers.
We'll all go in with this shipment."

"And send the outfits across country to Trail City?"

"Throw the remudas together and let them start the moment the cattle
train leaves. We can go back with Mr. Stoddard and meet the outfits at
the new trail market."

"That's the ticket," said the trail boss. "I'm dead tired of riding
horses and eating at a wagon. Give me the plush cushions and let me put
my little feet under a table once more."

The heavy cattle train was promised a special schedule. The outfits
received their orders, and at the usual hour in the morning, the
shipment started to market. Weathered brown as a saddle, Dell was
walking on clouds, lending a hand to the shipper in charge, riding on
the engine, or hungering for the rare stories with which the trail
foreman regaled the train crew. The day passed like a brief hour, the
train threading its way past corn fields, country homes, and scorning to
halt at the many straggling villages that dotted the route.

It was a red-letter day in the affairs of Wells Brothers. The present,
their fifth shipment of the year, a total of over nineteen hundred
beeves, was en route to market. Another day, and their operations in
cattle, from a humble beginning to the present hour, could be condensed
into a simple statement. The brothers could barely wait the intervening
hours, and when the train reached the market and they had retired for
the night, speculation ran rife in planning the future. And amid all
their dreams and air castles, in the shadowy background stood two simple
men whose names were never mentioned except in terms of loving
endearment.

Among their many friends, Quince Forrest was Dell's hero. "They're all
good fellows," he admitted, "but Mr. Quince is a prince. He gave us our
start in cattle. Our debt to him--well, we can never pay it. And he
never owned a hoof himself."

"We owe Mr. Paul just as much," protested Joel. "He showed us our
chance. When pa died, the settlers on the Solomon talked of making bound
boys of us. Mr. Paul was the one who saw us as we are to-day."

"I wish mother could have lived to see us now--shipping beeves by the
train-load--and buying cattle by the thousand."

An eager market absorbed the beeves, and before noon they had crossed
the scale. A conference, jubilant in its nature, took place during the
afternoon, in the inner office of the commission firm. The execution of
a new contract was a mere detail; but when the chief bookkeeper handed
in a statement covering the shipments of this and the previous year, a
lull in the gayety was followed by a moment of intense interest. The
account showed a balance of sixty-odd thousand dollars in favor of
Wells Brothers!

"Give them a letter of credit for their balance," said Mr. Stoddard,
amid the general rejoicing. "And get us some passes; we're all going out
to Trail City to-night. There's a few bargains on that market, and the
boys want to stock their range fully."

"Yours obediently," said the old factor, beaming on his patrons. "And if
the boys have any occasion to use any further funds, don't hesitate to
draw on us. The manner in which they have protected their credit
entitles them to our confidence. Our customers come first. Their
prosperity is our best asset. A great future lies before you boys, and
we want a chance to help you reach it. Keep in touch with us; we may
hear of something to your advantage."

"In case we need it, can you get us another permit to bring Texas cattle
into Kansas?" eagerly inquired Joel.

"Try us," answered the old man, with a knowing look. "We may not be able
to, but in securing business, railroads look years ahead."

A jolly party of cowmen left for Trail City that night. Morning found
their train creeping up the valley of the Arkansas. The old trail market
of Dodge, deserted and forlorn-looking among the wild sunflower, was
passed like a way station. The new market was only a mile over the state
line, in Colorado, and on nearing their destination the party
drew together.

"I've only got a remnant of a herd left," said Mr. Stoddard, "and I want
you to understand that there's no obligation to even look at them. Mr.
Lovell's at his beef ranch in Dakota, and his men have not been seen
since the herds passed north in June. But I'll help you buy any cattle
you want."

In behalf of the brothers, Joel accepted the offer. "These Texas
cattle," he continued, "reach their maturity the summer following their
fourth year. Hereafter, as fast as possible, we want to shape up our
holdings so as to double-winter all our beef cattle. For that reason, we
prefer to buy two-year-olds. We'll look at your remnant; there would be
no occasion to rebrand, which is an advantage."

The train reached Trail City on time. The town was of mushroom
growth--a straggling business street with fancy fronts, while the outer
portions of the village were largely constructed of canvas. The Arkansas
River passed to the south, numerous creeks put in to the main stream,
affording abundant water to the herds on sale, while a bountiful range
surrounded the market. Shipping pens, branding chutes, and every
facility for handling cattle were complete.

The outfits were not expected in for another day. In the mean time, it
became rumored about that the two boys who had returned with Mr.
Stoddard and his trail foreman were buyers for a herd of cattle. The
presence of the old cowman threw a barrier of protection around the
brothers, except to his fellow drovers, who were made acquainted with
his protégés and their errand freely discussed.

"These boys are customers of mine," announced Mr. Stoddard to a group of
his friends. "I sold them a herd at Dodge last year, and another at
Ogalalla this summer. Range on the Beaver, in northwest Kansas. Just
shipped out their last train of beeves this week. Had them on
yesterday's market. From what I gather, they can use about three
thousand to thirty-five hundred head. At least their letter of credit is
good for those numbers. Sorry I ain't got the cattle myself. They
naturally look to me for advice, and I feel an interest in the boys.
Their outfit ought to be in by to-morrow."

Mr. Stoddard's voucher placed the brothers on a firm footing, and every
attention was shown the young cowmen. An afternoon and a morning's
drive, and the offerings on the trail market had been carefully looked
over, including the remnant of Mr. Stoddard. Only a few herds possessed
their original numbers, none of which were acceptable to the buyers,
while the smaller ones frequently contained the desired grade and age.

"Let me put you boys in possession of some facts," urged Mr. Stoddard,
in confidence to the brothers. "Most of us drovers are tired out,
disgusted with the slight demand for cattle, and if you'll buy out our
little remnants and send us home--well, we'd almost let you name the
price. Unless my herds are under contract, this is my last year on
the trail."

The remnant of Mr. Stoddard's herd numbered around seven hundred head.
They were largely twos, only a small portion of threes, and as an
inducement their owner offered to class them at the lesser age, and
priced them at the same figures as those delivered on the Beaver. On
range markets, there was a difference in the selling value of the two
ages, amounting to three dollars a head; and as one third of the cattle
would have classed as threes, Joel waived his objection to their ages.

"We'll take your remnant on one condition," said he. "Start your outfits
home, but you hang around until we make up our herd."

"That's my intention, anyhow," replied Mr. Stoddard. "My advice would be
to pick up these other remnants. Two years on a steer makes them all
alike. You have seen cripple and fagged cattle come out of the kinks,
and you know the advantage of a few cows; keeps your cattle quiet and on
the home range. You might keep an eye open for any bargains in
she stuff."

"That's just what Jack Sargent says," said Dell; "that we ought to have
a cow to every ten or fifteen steers."

"Sargent's our foreman," explained Joel. "He's a Texan, and knows cattle
right down to the split in their hoof. With his and your judgment, we
ought to make up a herd of cattle in a few days."

The two outfits came in on the evening of the fourth day. The next
morning the accepted cattle were counted and received, the through
outfits relieved, the remudas started overland under a detail, and the
remainder of the men sent home by rail. In acquiring a nucleus, Wells
Brothers fell heir to a temporary range and camp, which thereafter
became their headquarters.

A single day was wasted in showing the different remnants to Sargent,
and relieved of further concern, Mr. Stoddard lent his best efforts to
bring buyer and seller together. Barter began in earnest, on the
different fragments acceptable in age and quality. Prices on range
cattle were nearly standard, at least established for the present, and
any yielding on the part of drovers was in classing and conceding ages.
Bargaining began on the smaller remnants, and once the buyers began to
receive and brand, there was a flood of offerings, and the herd was made
up the second day. The ---- Y was run on the different remnants as fast
as received, and when completed, the herd numbered a few over
thirty-four hundred head. The suggestion to add cows to their holdings
was not overlooked, and in making up the herd, two fragments, numbering
nearly five hundred, were purchased.

"The herd will be a trifle unwieldy," admitted Sargent, "but we're only
going to graze home. And unless we get a permit, we had better hold
over the line in Colorado until after the first frost."

"Don't worry about the permit," admonished Mr. Stoddard; "it's sure."

"We'll provision the wagon for a month," said Joel, "and that will take
us home, with or without a bill of health."

The commissary was stocked, three extra men were picked up, and the herd
started northward over the new Ogalalla trail. A week later it crossed
the Kansas Pacific Railroad, when Joel left the herd, returning to their
local station. A haying outfit was engaged, placed under the direction
of Manly, and after spending a few days at headquarters, the young
cowman returned to the railroad.

The expected permit was awaiting him. There was some slight danger in
using it, without first removing their wintered cattle; and after a
conference with Manly, it was decided to scout out the country between
their range and the Colorado line. The first herd of cattle had located
nicely, one man being sufficient to hold the dead-line; and taking a
pack horse, Joel and Manly started to explore the country between the
upper tributaries of the Beaver and the Colorado line.

A rifle was taken along to insure venison. Near the evening of the first
day, a band of wild horses was sighted, the trail of which was
back-tracked to a large lake in the sand hills. On resuming their scout
in the morning, sand dunes were scaled, admitting of an immense survey
of country, but not until evening was water in any quantity encountered.
The scouts were beginning to despair of finding water for the night,
when an immense herd of antelope was sighted, crossing the plain at an
easy gallop and disappearing among the dunes. Following up the game
trail, a perfect chain of lakes, a mile in length, was found at sunset.
A venison was shot and a fat camp for the night assured.

The glare of the plain required early observation. The white haze, heat
waves, and mirages were on every hand, blotting out distinct objects
during the day. On leaving the friendly sand hills, the horsemen bore
directly for the timber on the Republican, which was sighted the third
morning, and reached the river by noon.

No sign or trace of cattle was seen. The distance between the new and
old trail was estimated at one hundred miles, and judging from their
hours in the saddle, the scouts hoped to reach the new crossing on the
river that evening. The mid-day glare prevented observations; and as
they followed the high ground along the Republican, at early evening
indistinct objects were made out on the border of a distant mirage.

The scouts halted their horses. On every hand might be seen the optical
illusions of the plain. Beautiful lakes, placid and blue, forests and
white-capped mountains, invited the horsemen to turn aside and rest. But
the allurement of the mirage was an old story, and holding the objects
in view, they jogged on, halting from time to time as the
illusions lifted.

Mirages arise at evening. At last, in their normal proportions, the
objects of concern moved to and fro. "They're cattle!" shouted Manly.
"We're near a ranch, or it's the herd!"

"Yonder's a smoke-cloud!" excitedly said Joel. "See it! in the valley!
above that motte of cotton-woods!"

"It's a camp! Come on!"

The herd had every appearance of being under control. As the scouts
advanced, the outline of an immense loose herd was noticeable, and on a
far, low horizon, a horseman was seen on duty. On reaching the cattle, a
single glance was given, when the brands told the remainder of
the story.

A detail of men was met leaving camp. Sargent was among them, and after
hearty greetings were over, Joel outlined the programme: "After leaving
the Republican," said he, "there's water between here and home in two
places. None of them are over thirty miles apart--a day and a half's
drive. I have a bill of health for these cattle, and turn the herd down
the river in the morning."

The new trail crossing was only a few miles above on the river. The herd
had arrived three days before, and finding grass and water in abundance,
the outfit had gone into camp, awaiting word from home. There was no
object in waiting any great distance from headquarters, and after a
day's travel down the Republican, a tack was made for the sand hills.

A full day's rest was allowed the herd on the chain of lakes. By
watering early, a long drive was made during the afternoon, followed by
a dry camp, and the lagoon where the wild horses had been sighted was
reached at evening the next day.

It was yet early in September, and for fear of fever, it was decided to
isolate the herd until after the first frost. The camp was within easy
touch of headquarters; and leaving Sargent and five men, the commissary,
and half the remuda, the remainder returned to the Beaver valley. The
water would hold the cattle, and even if a month elapsed before frost
lifted the ban, the herd would enjoy every freedom.

The end of the summer's work was in sight. The men from the Republican
were paid for their services, commended for their faithfulness, and went
their way. Preparations for winter were the next concern; and while
holding the dead-line, plans for two new line-camps were outlined, one
below the old trail crossing and the other an emergency shelter on the
Prairie Dog. Forage had been provided at both points, and in outlining
the winter lines, Joel submitted his idea for Manly's approval.

"Sargent thinks we can hold the cattle on twenty miles of the Beaver
valley," said he, sketching the range on the ground at his feet. "We'll
have to ride lines again, and in case the cattle break through during a
storm, we can work from our emergency camp on the Prairie Dog. In case
that line is broken, we can drop down to the railroad and make another
attempt to check any drift. And as a last resort, whether we hold the
line or not, we'll send an outfit as far south as the Arkansas River,
and attend the spring round-ups from there north to the Republican. We
have the horses and men, and no one can throw out a wider drag-net than
our outfit. Let the winter come as it will; we can ride to the lead
when spring comes."

The future of Wells Brothers rested on sure foundations. Except in its
new environment, their occupation was as old as the human race, our
heroes being merely players in a dateless drama. They belonged to a
period in the development of our common country, dating from a day when
cattle were the corner-stone of one fourth of our national domain. They
and their kind were our pioneers, our empire builders; for when a cowman
pushed into some primal valley and possessed it with his herd, his ranch
became an outpost on our frontier. The epoch was truly Western; their
ranges were controlled without investment, their cattle roamed the
virgin pastures of an unowned land.

Over twenty-five years have passed since an accident changed the course
of the heroes of this story. Since that day of poverty and uncertain
outlook, the brothers have been shaken by adversity, but have arisen
triumphant over every storm. From their humble beginning, chronicled
here, within two decades the brothers acquired no less than seven
ranches in the Northwest, while their holdings of cattle often ran in
excess of one hundred thousand head. The trail passed away within two
years of the close of this narrative; but from their wide acquaintance
with former drovers, cattle with which to restock their ranches were
brought north by rail. Their operations covered a wide field, requiring
trusty men; and with the passing of the trail, their first sponsors
found ready employment with their former protégés. And to-day, in the
many irrigation projects of the brothers, in reclaiming the arid
regions, among the directors of their companies the names of J.Q.
Forrest and John P. Priest may be found.

A new generation now occupies the Beaver valley. In the genesis of the
West, the cowman, the successor of the buffalo and Indian, gave way to
the home-loving instinct of man. The sturdy settler crept up the valley,
was repulsed again and again by the plain, only to renew his assault
until success crowned his efforts. It was then that the brothers saw
their day and dominion passing into the hands of another. But instead of
turning to new fields, they remained with the land that nurtured and
rewarded them, an equally promising field opening in financing vast
irrigation enterprises and in conserving the natural water supply.

Joel and Dell Wells live in the full enjoyment of fortunes wrested from
the plain. They are still young men, in the prime of life, while the
opportunities of a thrifty country invite their assistance and
leadership on every hand. They are deeply interested in every
development of their state, preferring those avenues where heroic
endeavor calls forth their best exertion, save in the political arena.

Joel Wells was recently mentioned as an acceptable candidate for
governor of his adopted state, but declined, owing to the pressure of
personal interests. In urging his nomination, a prominent paper, famed
for its support of state interests, in a leading editorial, paid one of
our heroes the following tribute:--

"... What the state needs is a business man in the executive chair. We
are all stockholders in common, yet the ship of state seems adrift,
without chart or compass, pilot or captain. In casting about for a
governor who would fully meet all requirements, one name stands alone.
Joel Wells can give M---- a business administration. Educated in the
rough school of experience, he has fought his way up from a poor boy on
the plains to an enviable leadership in the many industries of the
state. He could bring to the executive office every requirement of the
successful business man, and impart to his administration that mastery
which marks every enterprise of Wells Brothers...."

The golden age is always with us. If a moral were necessary to adorn
this story, it would be that no poor boy need despair of his chance in
life. The future holds as many prizes as the past. Material nature is
prodigal in its bounty, and whether in the grass under our feet, or in
harnessing the waterfall, we make or mar our success.



THE END


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