Wells Brothers

by Andy Adams

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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."

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