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.
"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."