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."