HOLDING THE FORT
The valley lay in the grasp of winter. On the hills and sunny slopes, the range was slowly opening to the sun. The creek, under cover of ice and snow, forced its way, only yielding to axes for the time being and closing over when not in use.
The cattle required no herding. The chief concern of the brothers was to open more grazing ground, and to that end every energy was bent. The range already opened lay to the north of the Beaver, and although double the distance, an effort was made to break out a trail to the divide on the south. The herd was turned up the lane for the day, and taking their flails, the boys began an attack on the sleet. It was no easy task, as it was fully two miles to the divide, a northern slope, and not affected by the sun before high noon.
The flails rang out merrily. From time to time the horses were brought forward, their weight shattering the broken sleet and assisting in breaking out a pathway. The trail was beaten ten feet in width on an average, and by early noon the divide was reached. Several thousand acres lay bare, and by breaking out all drifts and depressions running north and south across the watershed, new grazing grounds could be added daily.
A discovery was made on the return trip. The horses had been brought along to ride home on, but in testing the sleet on the divide, the sun had softened the crust until it would break under the weight of either of the boys. By walking well outside the trail, the sleet crushed to the extent of five or six feet, and by leading their horses, the pathway was easily doubled in width. Often the crust cracked to an unknown distance, easing from the frost, which the boys accepted as the forerunner of thawing weather.
"We'll put out poison to-night," said Dell. "It will hardly freeze a shoal, and I've found one below the corral."
"I'm just as anxious as you to put out the bait," replied Joel, "but we must take no chances of making our work sure. The moment the cattle quit drinking, the water holes freeze over. This is regular old Billy Winter."
"I'll show you the ripple and leave it to you," argued the younger boy. "Under this crust of sleet and snow, running water won't freeze."
"Along about sunset we can tell more about the weather for to-night," said Joel, with a finality which disposed of the matter for the present.
On reaching the corral, the older boy was delighted with the splendid trail broken out, but Dell rode in search of a known shallow in the creek. An old wood road crossed on the pebbly shoal, and forcing his horse to feel his way through the softened crust, a riplet was unearthed as it purled from under an earthen bank.
"Here's your running water," shouted Dell, dropping the reins and allowing Dog-toe to drink. "Here you are--come and see for yourself."
Joel was delighted with Dell's discovery. In fact, the water, after emerging from under a concave bank, within a few feet passed under another arch, its motion preventing freezing.
"Don't dismount," said Joel, emphasizing caution, "but let the horses break a narrow trail across the water. This is perfect. We'll build another fire to-night, and lay a half dozen baits around this open water."
The pelt of the dead wolf was taken, when the boys cantered in home. Time was barely allowed to bolt a meal, when the loading of the wooden troughs was begun. Every caution urged was observed; the basins were handled with a hay fork, sledded to the scene, and dropped from horseback, untouched by a human hand. To make sure that the poison would be found, a rope was noosed to the carcass and a scented trace was made from every quarter, converging at the open water and tempting baits.
"There," said Dell, on completing the spoor, "if that doesn't get a wolf, then our work wasn't cunningly done."
"Now, don't forget to throw that carcass back on the ledge, under the comb," added Joel. "Wolves have a reputation of licking each other's bones, and we must deny them everything eatable except poisoned suet."
The herd would not return of its own accord, and must be brought in to the corral. As the boys neared the divide and came in sight of the cattle, they presented a state of alarm. The presence of wolves was at once suspected, and dashing up at a free gallop, the lads arrived in time to save the life of a young steer. The animal had grazed beyond the limits of the herd, unconscious of the presence of a lurking band of wolves, until attacked by the hungry pack. Nothing but the energetic use of his horns saved his life, as he dared not run for fear of being dragged down, and could only stand and fight.
The first glimpse of the situation brought the boys to the steer's rescue. Shaking out their horses, with a shout and clatter of hoofs, they bore down on the struggle, when the wolves suddenly forsook their victim and slunk away. The band numbered eight by easy count, as they halted within two hundred yards and lay down, lolling their tongues as if they expected to return and renew the attack.
"Did you ever hear of anything like this?" exclaimed Dell, as the brothers reined in their horses to a halt. "Attacking in broad daylight!"
"They're starving," replied Joel. "This sleet makes it impossible to get food elsewhere. One of us must stay with the cattle hereafter."
"Well, we saved a steer and got a wolf to-day," boastfully said Dell. "That's not a bad beginning."
"Yes, but it's the end I dread. If this weather lasts a month longer, some of these cattle will feed the wolves."
There was prophecy in Joel's remark. The rescued animal was turned into the herd and the cattle started homeward. At a distance, the wolves followed, peeping over the divide as the herd turned down the pathway leading to the corral. Fuel had been sledded up, and after attending to the details of water and fire, the boys hurried home.
The weather was a constant topic. It became the first concern of the morning and the last observation of the night. The slightest change was noticeable and its portent dreaded. Following the blizzard, every moderation of the temperature brought more snow or sleet. Unless a general thaw came to the relief of the cattle, any change in the weather was undesirable.
A sleepless night followed. It was later than usual when the boys replenished the fire and left the corral. Dell's imagination covered the limits of all possibilities. He counted the victims of the poison for the night, estimated the number of wolves tributary to the Beaver, counted his bales of peltry, and awoke with a start. Day was breaking, the horses were already fed, and he was impatient for saddles and away.
"How many do you say?" insisted Dell, as they left the stable.
"One," answered Joel.
"Oh, we surely got seven out of those eight."
"There were only six baits. You had better scale down your estimate. Leave a few for luck."
Nothing but the cold facts could shake Dell's count of the chickens. Joel intentionally delayed the start, loitering between house and corral, and when no longer able to restrain his impulsive brother, together they reached the scene. Dell's heart failed him--not a dead wolf lay in sight. Every bait had been disturbed. Some of the troughs had been gnawed to splinters, every trace of the poisoned suet had been licked out of the auger holes, while the snow was littered with wolf tracks.
"Our cunning must be at fault," remarked Joel, as he surveyed the scene and empty basins.
Dell looked beaten. "My idea is that we had too few baits for the number of visitors. See the fur, where they fought over the tallow. That's it; there wasn't enough suet to leave a good taste in each one's mouth. From the looks of the ground, there might have been fifty wolves."
The boy reasoned well. Experience is a great school. The brothers awoke to the fact that in the best laid plans of mice and men the unforeseen is ever present. Their sponsors could only lay down the general rule, and the exceptions threw no foreshadows. No one could foresee that the grip of winter would concentrate and bring down on the little herd the hungry, roving wolf packs.
"Take out the herd to-day," said Dell, "and let me break out more running water. I'll take these basins in and refill them, make new ones, and to-night we'll put out fifty baits."
The cattle were pointed up the new trail to the southern divide. Joel took the herd, and Dell searched the creek for other shallows tributary to the corral. Three more were found within easy distance, when the troughs were gathered with fork and sled, and taken home to be refilled. It was Dell Wells's busy day. Cunning and caution were his helpers; slighting nothing, ever crafty on the side of safety, he cut, bored, and charred new basins, to double the original number. After loading, for fear of any human taint, he dipped the troughs in water and laid them in the shade to freeze. A second trip with the sled was required to transport the basins up to the corral, the day's work being barely finished in time for him to assist in penning the herd.
"How many baits have you?" was Joel's hail.
"You'll need them. Three separate wolf packs lay in sight all the afternoon. Several times they crept up within one hundred yards of the cattle. One band numbered upwards of twenty."
"Let them come," defiantly said Dell. "The banquet is spread. Everything's done, except to drag the carcass, and I didn't want to do that until after the cattle were corraled."
The last detail of the day was to build a little fire, which would die out within an hour after darkness. It would allow the cattle time to bed down and the packs to gather. As usual, it was not the intention of the boys to return, and as they mounted their horses to leave, all the welled-up savage in Dell seemed to burst forth.
"Welcome, Mr. Wolf, welcome," said he, with mimic sarcasm and a gesture which swept the plain. "I've worked like a dog all day and the feast is ready. Mrs. Wolf, will you have a hackberry plate, or do you prefer the scent of cottonwood? You'll find the tender, juicy kidney suet in the ash platters. Each table seats sixteen, with fresh water right at hand. Now, have pallets and enjoy yourselves. Make a night of it. Eat, drink, and be merry, for to-morrow your pelts are mine."
"Don't count your chickens too soon," urged Joel.
"To-morrow you're mine!" repeated Dell, ignoring all advice. "I'll carpet the dug-out with your hides, or sell them to a tin peddler."
"You counted before they were hatched this morning," admonished his brother. "You're only entitled to one guess."
"Unless they got enough to sicken them last night," answered Dell with emphasis, "nothing short of range count will satisfy me."
A night of conjecture brought a morning with results. Breakfast was forgotten, saddles were dispensed with, while the horses, as they covered the mile at a gallop, seemed to catch the frenzy of expectation. Dell led the way, ignoring all counsel, until Dog-toe, on rounding a curve, shied at a dead wolf in the trail, almost unhorsing his rider.
"There's one!" shouted Dell, as he regained his poise. "I'll point them out and you count. There's another! There's two more!"
It was a ghastly revel. Like sheaves in a harvest field, dead wolves lay around every open water. Some barely turned from the creek and fell, others struggled for a moment, while a few blindly wandered away for short distances. The poison had worked to a nicety; when the victims were collected, by actual count they numbered twenty-eight. It was a victory to justify shouting, but the gruesome sight awed the brothers into silence. Hunger had driven the enemy to their own death, and the triumph of the moment at least touched one sensitive heart.
"This is more than we bargained for," remarked Joel in a subdued voice, after surveying the ravages of poison.
"Our task is to hold these cattle," replied Dell. "We're soldiering this winter, and our one duty is to hold the fort. What would Mr. Paul say if we let the wolves kill our cattle?"
After breakfast Joel again led the herd south for the day, leaving Dell at the corral. An examination of the basins was made, revealing the fact that every trace of the poisoned suet had been licked out of the holders. Of a necessity, no truce with the wolf became the slogan of the present campaign. No mushy sentiment was admissible--the fighting was not over, and the powder must be kept dry. The troughs were accordingly sledded into the corral, where any taint from the cattle would further disarm suspicion, and left for future use.
The taking of so many pelts looked like an impossible task for a boy. But Dell recalled, among the many experiences with which Forrest, when a cripple, regaled his nurses, was the skinning of winter-killed cattle with a team. The same principle applied in pelting a wolf, where by very little aid of a knife, about the head and legs, a horse could do the work of a dozen men. The corral fence afforded the ready snubbing-post, Dog-toe could pull his own weight on a rope from a saddle pommel, and theory, when reduced to the practical, is a welcome auxiliary. The head once bared, the carcass was snubbed to the centre gate post, when a gentle pull from a saddle horse, aided by a few strokes of a knife, a second pull, and the pelt was perfectly taken. It required steady mounting and dismounting, a gentle, easy pull, a few inches or a foot, and with the patience of a butcher's son, Dog-toe earned his corn and his master a bale of peltry.
Evening brought report of further annoyance of wolves. New packs had evidently joined forces with the remnants of the day before, as there was neither reduction in numbers nor lessening in approach or attitude.
"Ours are the only cattle between the Republican River in Nebraska and the Smoky River in this State," said Joel, in explanation. "Rabbits and other rodents are at home under this sleet, and what is there to live on but stock? You have to hold the cattle under the closest possible herd to avoid attack."
"That will made the fighting all the better," gloatingly declared Dell. "Dog-toe and I are in the fur business. Let the wolves lick the bones of their brethren to-night, and to-morrow I'll spread another banquet."
The few days' moderation in the weather brought a heavy snowfall that night. Fortunately the herd had enjoyed two days' grazing, but every additional storm had a tendency to weaken the cattle, until it appeared an open question whether they would fall a prey to the wolves or succumb to the elements. A week of cruel winter followed the local storm, during which three head of cattle, cripples which had not fully recuperated, in the daily march to the divides fell in the struggle for sustenance and fed the wintry scavengers. It was a repetition of the age-old struggle for existence--the clash between the forces of good and evil, with the wolf in the ascendant.
The first night which would admit of open water, thirty-one wolves fell in the grip of poison. It was give and take thereafter, not an eye for an eye, but in a ratio of ten to one. The dug-out looked like a trapper's cave, carpeted with peltry, while every trace of sentiment for the enemy, in the wintry trial which followed, died out in the hearts of the boys.
Week after week passed, with the elements allied with the wolves against the life of the herd. On the other hand, a sleepless vigilance and sullen resolve on the part of the besieged, aided by fire and poison, alone held the fighting line. To see their cattle fall to feed the wolves, helpless to relieve, was a bitter cup to the struggling boys.
A single incident broke the monotony of the daily grind. One morning near the end of the fifth week, when the boys rode to the corral at an early hour, in order to learn the result of poison, a light kill of wolves lay in sight around the open water. While they were attempting to make a rough count of the dead from horseback, a wolf, supposed to be poisoned, sprang fully six feet into the air, snapping left and right before falling to the ground. Nothing but the agility of Rowdy saved himself or rider, who was nearly unhorsed, from being maimed or killed from the vicious, instant assault.
The brothers withdrew to a point of safety. Joel was blanched to the color of the snow, his horse trembled in every muscle, but Dell shook out his rope.
"Hold on," urged Joel, gasping for breath. "Hold on. That's a mad wolf, or else it's dying."
"He's poisoned," replied Dell. "See how he lays his head back on his flank. It's the griping of the poison. Half of them die in just that position. I'm going to rope and drag him to death."
But the crunching of the horse's feet in the snow aroused the victim, and he again sprang wildly upward, snapping as before, and revealing fangs that bespoke danger. Struggling to its feet, the wolf ran aimlessly in a circle, gradually enlarging until it struck a strand of wire in the corral fence, the rebound of which threw the animal flat, when it again curled its head backward and lay quiet.
"Rope it," said Joel firmly, shaking out his own lasso. "If it gets into that corral it will kill a dozen cattle. That I've got a live horse under me this minute is because that wolf missed Rowdy's neck by a hand-breadth."
The trampled condition of the snow around the corral favored approach. Dell made a long but perfect throw, the wolf springing as the rope settled, closing with one foot through the loop. The rope was cautiously wrapped to the pommel, could be freed in an instant, and whirling Dog-toe, his rider reined the horse out over the lane leading to the herd's feeding ground to the south. The first quarter of a mile was an indistinct blur, out of which a horse might be seen, then a boy, or a wolf arose on wings and soared for an instant. Suddenly the horse doubled back over the lane, and as his rider shot past Joel, a fire of requests was vaguely heard, regarding "a noose that had settled foul," of "a rope that was being gnawed" and a general inability to strangle a wolf.
Joel saw the situation in an instant. The rope had tightened around the wolf's chest, leaving its breathing unaffected, while a few effectual snaps of those terrible teeth would sever any lasso. Shaking out a loop in his own rope, as Dell circled back over the other trail, Rowdy carried his rider within easy casting distance, the lasso hissed through the air, settled true, when two cow-horses threw their weight against each other, and the wolf's neck was broken as easily as a rotten thread.
"A little of this goes a long way with me," said Joel from the safety of his saddle.
"Oh, it's fine practice," protested Dell, as he dismounted and kicked the dead wolf. "Did you notice my throw? If it was an inch, it was thirty feet!"
In its severity, the winter of 1885-86 stands alone in range cattle history. It came rather early, but proved to be the pivotal trial in the lives of Dell and Joel Wells. Six weeks, plus three days, after the worst blizzard in the history of the range industry, the siege was lifted and the Beaver valley groaned in her gladness. Sleet cracks ran for miles, every pool in the creek threw off its icy gorge, and the plain again smiled within her own limits. Had the brothers been thorough plainsmen, they could have foretold the coming thaw, as three days before its harbingers reached them every lurking wolf, not from fear of poison, but instinctive of open country elsewhere, forsook the Beaver, not to return the remainder of the winter.
"That's another time you counted the chickens too soon," said Joel to his brother, when the usual number of baits failed to bring down a wolf.
"Very good," replied Dell. "The way accounts stand, we lost twelve cattle against one hundred and eighteen pelts taken. I'll play that game all winter."