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."