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.