A WINTER DRIFT
The month of March was the last intrenchment in the wintry siege. If it could be weathered, victory would crown the first good fight of the boys, rewarding their courage in the present struggle and fortifying against future ones. The brothers had cast their lot with the plains, the occupation had almost forced itself on them, and having tasted the spice of battle, they buckled on their armor and rode forth. Without struggle or contest, the worthy pleasures of life lose their nectar.
The general thaw came as a welcome relief. The cattle had gradually weakened, a round dozen had fallen in sacrifice to the elements, and steps must be taken to recuperate the herd.
"We must loose-herd hereafter," said Joel, rejoicing in the thawing weather. "A few warm days and the corral will get miry. Unless the wolves return, we'll not pen the cattle again."
Dell was in high feather. "The winter's over," said he. "Listen to the creek talking to itself. No, we'll not have to corral the herd any longer. Wasn't we lucky not to have any more cattle winter-killed! Every day during the last month I felt that another week of winter would take half the herd. It was good fighting, and I feel like shouting."
"It was the long distance between the corral and the divides that weakened the cattle," said Joel. "Hereafter we'll give them all the range they need and only put them under close-herd at night. There may be squally weather yet, but little danger of a general storm. After this thaw, farmers on the Solomon will begin their spring ploughing."
A fortnight of fine weather followed. The herd was given almost absolute freedom, scattering for miles during the day, and only thrown together at nightfall. Even then, as the cattle grazed entirely by day, a mile square of dry slope was considered compact enough for the night. The extra horses, which had ranged for the winter around Hackberry Grove, were seen only occasionally and their condition noted. The winter had haired them like llamas, the sleet had worked no hardship, as a horse paws to the grass, and any concern for the outside saddle stock was needless.
The promise of spring almost disarmed the boys. Dell was anxious to know the value of the bales of peltry, and constantly urged his brother for permission to ride to the railroad and inquire.
"What's your hurry?" was Joel's rejoinder. "I haven't shouted yet. I'm not sure that we're out of the woods. Let's win for sure first."
"But we ought to write to Mr. Paul and Mr. Quince," urged the younger boy, by way of a double excuse. "There may be a letter from them at Grinnell now. Let's write to our friends in Texas and tell them that we've won the fight. The spring's here."
"You can go to the station later," replied Joel. "The fur will keep, and we may have quite a spell of winter yet. Don't you remember the old weather proverb, of March coming in like a lion and going out like a lamb? This one came in like a lamb, and we had better keep an eye on it for fear it goes out like a lion. You can go to the railroad in April."
There was wisdom in Joel's random advice. As yet there was no response in the earth to the sun's warmth. The grass was timid and refused to come forth, and only a few foolish crows had reached the shrub and willow along the Beaver, while the absence of other signs of spring carried a warning that the wintry elements might yet arise and roar like a young lion.
The one advantage of the passing days was the general improvement in the herd. The instinct of the cattle led them to the buffalo grass, which grew on the slopes and divides, and with three weeks of fair weather and full freedom the herd as a whole rounded into form, reflecting its tenacity of life and the able handling of its owners.
Within ten days of the close of the month, the weakened lines of intrenchment were again assaulted. The herd was grazing westward, along the first divide south of the Beaver, when a squall struck near the middle of the afternoon. It came without warning, and found the cattle scattered to the limits of loose herding, but under the eyes of two alert horsemen. Their mounts responded to the task, circling the herd on different sides, but before it could be thrown into mobile form and pointed into the Beaver valley, a swirl of soft snow enveloped horses and riders, cattle and landscape. The herd turned its back to the storm, and took up the steady, sullen march of a winter drift. Cut off from the corral by fully five miles, the emergency of the hour must be met, and the brothers rode to dispute the progress of the drifting cattle.
"Where can we turn them?" timidly inquired Dell.
"Unless the range of sand dunes catch us," replied Joel, "nothing short of the brakes of the Prairie Dog will check the cattle. We're out until this storm spends its force."
"Let's beat for the sand hills, then. They lay to our right, and the wolves are gone."
"The storm is from the northwest. If it holds from that quarter, we'll miss the sand dunes by several miles. Then it becomes a question of horseflesh."
"If we miss the sand hills, I'll go back and get a pack horse and overtake you to-morrow. It isn't cold, and Dog-toe can face the storm."
"That's our one hope," admitted Joel. "We've brought these cattle through a hard winter and now we mustn't lose them in a spring squall."
The wind blew a gale. Ten minutes after the storm struck and the cattle turned to drift with it, all knowledge of the quarter of the compass was lost. It was a reasonable allowance that the storm would hold a true course until its wrath was spent, and relying on that slender thread, the boys attempted to veer the herd for the sand hills. By nature cattle are none too gregarious, as only under fear will they flock compactly, and the danger of splitting the herd into wandering contingents must be avoided. On the march which lay before it, its compactness must be maintained, and to turn half the herd into the sand dunes and let the remainder wander adrift was out of the question.
"We'll have to try out the temper of the herd," said Joel. "The cattle are thin, have lost their tallow, and this wind seems to be cutting them to the quick. There's no use in turning the lead unless the swing cattle will follow. It's better to drift until the storm breaks than to split the herd into little bunches."
"Let's try for the sand hills, anyhow," urged Dell. "Turn the leaders ever so slightly, and I'll try and keep the swing cattle in line."
An effort to reach the shelter of the sand dunes was repeatedly made. But on each attempt the wind, at freezing temperature, cut the cattle to the bone, and as drifting was so much more merciful, the brothers chose to abandon the idea of reaching a haven in the sand hills.
"The cattle are too weak," admitted Joel, after repeated efforts. "Turn the leaders and they hump their backs and halt. An hour of this wind would drop them in their tracks. It's drift or die."
"I'll drop back and see how the drag cattle are coming on," suggested Dell, "and if they're in line I might as well start after a pack horse. We're only wearing out our horses in trying to turn this herd."
The efforts to veer the herd had enabled the drag end to easily keep in a compact line, and on Dell's return to the lead, he reported the drifting column less than a quarter mile in length.
"The spirit of the herd is killed," said he; "the cattle can barely hold their heads off the ground. Why, during that Christmas drift, they fought and gored each other at every chance, but to-day they act like lost sheep. They are half dead on their feet."
The herd had been adrift several hours, and as sustenance for man and horse was important, Dell was impatient to reach the Beaver before nightfall.
"If the storm has held true since it struck," said he, "I'll cut it quartering from here to headquarters. That good old corn that Dog-toe has been eating all winter has put the iron into his blood, until he just bows his neck and snorts defiance against this wind and snow."
"Now, don't be too sure," cautioned Joel. "You can't see one hundred yards in this storm, and if you get bewildered, all country looks alike. Trust your horse in any event, and if you strike above or below headquarters, if you keep your head on your shoulders you ought to recognize the creek. Give your horse free rein and he'll take you straight to the stable door. Bring half a sack of corn, some bread and meat, the tent-fly and blankets. Start an hour before daybreak, and you'll find me in the lead of the herd."
The brothers parted for the night. So long as he could ride in their lead, the necessity of holding the cattle was the lodestar that sustained Joel Wells during those lonely hours. There was always the hope that the storm would abate, when the tired cattle would gladly halt and bed down, which promise lightened the passing time. The work was easy to boy and horse; to retard the march of the leaders, that the rear might easily follow, was the task of the night or until relieved.
On the other hand, Dell's self-reliance lacked caution. Secure in his ability to ride a course, day or night, fair or foul weather, he had barely reached the southern slope of the Beaver when darkness fell. The horse was easily quartering the storm, but the pelting snow in the boy's face led him to rein his mount from a true course, with the result that several miles was ridden without reaching any recognizable landmark. A ravine or dry wash was finally encountered, when Dell dismounted. As a matter of precaution, he carried matches, and on striking one, confusion assumed the reign over all caution and advice. He was lost, but contentious to the last ditch. Several times he remounted and allowed his horse free rein, but each time Dog-toe turned into the eye of the storm, then the true course home, and was halted. Reason was abandoned and disorder reigned. An hour was lost, when the confident boy mounted his horse and took up his former course, almost crossing the line of storm on a right angle. A thousand visible forms, creatures of the night and storm, took shape in the bewildered mind of Dell Wells, and after dismounting and mounting unknown times, he floundered across Beaver Creek fully three miles below headquarters.
The hour was unknown. Still confused, Dell finally appealed to his horse, and within a few minutes Dog-toe was in a road and champing the bits against restraint. The boy dismounted, and a burning match revealed the outlines of a road under the soft snow. The horse was given rein again and took the road like a hound, finally sweeping under a tree, when another halt was made. It was the hackberry at the mouth of the cove, its broken twigs bespoke a fire which Dell had built, and yet the mute witness tree and impatient horse were doubted. And not until Dog-toe halted at the stable door was the boy convinced of his error.
"Dog-toe," said Dell, as he swung out of the saddle, "you forgot more than I ever knew. You told me that I was wrong, and you pled with me like a brother, and I wouldn't listen to you. I wonder if he'll forgive me?" meditated Dell, as he opened the stable door.
The horse hurriedly entered and nickered for his feed. "Yes, you shall have an extra ration of corn," answered his rider. "And if you'll just forgive me this once, the lesson you taught me to-night will never be forgotten."
It proved to be early in the evening--only eight o'clock. Even though the lesson was taught by a dumb animal, it was worth its cost. Before offering to sleep, Dell collected all the articles that were to make up the pack, foddered the horses, set the alarm forward an hour, and sought his blankets for a short rest. Several times the howling of the wind awoke him, and unable to sleep out the night, he arose and built a fire. The necessity of a pack saddle robbed him of his own, and, substituting a blanket, at the appointed hour before dawn he started, with three days' rations for man and horse. The snow had ceased falling, but a raw March wind blew from the northwest, and taking his course with it, he reached the divide at daybreak. A struggling sun gave him a bearing from time to time, the sand dunes were sighted, and angling across the course of the wind, the trail of the herd was picked up in the mushy snow. A bull was overtaken, resting comfortably in a buffalo wallow; three others were passed, feeding with the wind, and finally the sun burst forth, revealing the brakes of the Prairie Dog.
Where the cattle had drifted barely two miles an hour, sustenance was following at a five-mile gait. The trail freshened in the snow, narrowed and broadened, and near the middle of the forenoon the scattered herd was sighted. The long yell of warning was answered only by a tiny smoke-cloud, hanging low over the creek bed, and before Joel was aware of his presence, Dell rode up to the very bank under which the fire was burning.
"How do you like an all-night drift?" shouted Dell. "How do snowballs taste for breakfast?"
"Come under the cliff and unpack," soberly replied Joel. "I hope this is the last lesson in winter herding; I fail to see any romance in it."
The horses were unsaddled and fed. "Give an account of yourself," urged Dell, as the brothers returned to the fire. "How did you make out during the night?"
"I just humped my back like the other cattle and took my medicine," replied Joel. "An Indian dances to keep warm, and I sang. You have no idea how good company cattle are. One big steer laid his ear in Rowdy's flank to warm it. I took him by the horn any number of times and woke him up; he was just staggering along asleep. I talked to all the lead cattle, named them after boys we knew at school, and sometimes they would look up when I called to them. And the queerest thing happened! You remember old Redman, our teacher, back in Ohio. Well, I saw him last night. There was a black two-year-old steer among the lead cattle, and every time I looked at him, I saw old Redman, with his humped shoulder, his pug nose, and his half-shut eyes. It took the storm, the sullen drift, to put that expression in the black steer's face, but it was old Redman. During the two terms of school that he taught, he licked me a score of times, but I dared him to come out of that black steer's face and try it again. He must have heard me, for the little black steer dropped back and never came to the lead again."
"And had you any idea where you were?" inquired Dell, prompted by his own experience.
"I was right at home in the lead of the herd. The tepee might get lost, but I couldn't. I knew we must strike the Prairie Dog, and the cattle were within half a mile of it when day broke. Once I got my bearings, Rowdy and I turned on the herd and checked the drift."
A late breakfast fortified the boys for the day. It was fully twenty-five miles back to the Beaver, but with the cattle weakened, the horses worn, it was decided to rest a day before starting on the return. During the afternoon, Dell went back and threw in the stragglers, and towards evening all the cattle were put under loose herd and pointed north. The sun had stripped the snow, and a comfortable camp was made under the cliff. Wood was scarce on the Prairie Dog, but the dry, rank stalks of the wild sunflower made a good substitute for fuel, and night settled over human and animal in the full enjoyment of every comfort.
It was a two-days' trip returning. To Rowdy fell the duty of pack horse. He had led the outward march, and was entitled to an easy berth on retreat. The tarpaulin was folded the full length of the horse's body girth, both saddles being required elsewhere, and the corn and blankets laid within the pack and all lashed securely. The commissary supplies being light, saddle pockets and cantle strings were found sufficient for their transportation.
The start was made at sunrise. The cattle had grazed out several miles the evening before, and in their weakened condition it would require nursing to reach the Beaver. A mile an hour was the pace, nothing like a compact herd or driving was permissible, and the cattle were allowed to feed or rest at their will. Rowdy grazed along the flank, the boys walked as a relief, and near evening or on sighting the dunes, Dell took the pack horse and rode for their shelter, to locate a night camp. The herd never swerved from its course, and after sunset Joel rounded the cattle into compact form and bedded them down for the night. A beacon fire of plum brush led him to the chosen camp, in the sand hills, where supper awaited the brothers.
"Isn't it lucky," said Dell, as he snuggled under the blankets, "that the wolves are gone. Suppose they were here yet, and we had to build fires, or stand guard over the herd to-night, like trail men, could we do it?"
"Certainly. We met the wolves before and held the cattle. You seem to forget that we're not entitled to sleep any in the winter. Be grateful. Thank the wolf and go to sleep."
"See how the dunes loom up in the light of this camp-fire. I wish Mr. Paul could see it."
"More than likely he has camped in the dunes and enjoyed many rousing fires."
Dell's next remark was unanswered. The stars twinkled overhead, the sandman was abroad, curfew sounded through the dunes, and all was quiet.
"Here's where we burn the wagon," said Joel, as he aroused Dell at daybreak. "It's one of Mr. Quince's remarks, but this is the first time we've had a chance to use it. I'll divide the corn into three good feeds, and we'll make it in home for supper. Let's have the whole hummingbird for breakfast, so that when we ride out of this camp, all worth saving will be the coffee pot and frying pan. So long as we hold the cattle, who cares for expense."
The herd was in hand as it left the bed ground. An ideal spring day lent its aid to the snailing cattle. By the middle of the afternoon the watershed had been crossed, and the gradual slope clown to the Beaver was begun. Rowdy forged to the lead, the flanks turned in, the rear pushed forward, and the home-hunger of the herd found expression in loud and continued lowing.
"I must have been mistaken about the spirit of this herd being killed," observed Dell. "When I left you the other day, to go after a pack horse, these cattle looked dead on their feet. I felt sure that we would lose a hundred head, and we haven't lost a hoof."
"We may have a lot to learn yet about cattle," admitted Joel. "I fully expected to see our back track strung with dead animals."
The origin of the herd, with its deeps and moods, is unknown and unwritten. The domesticity of cattle is dateless. As to when the ox first knew his master's crib, history and tradition are dumb. Little wonder that Joel and Dell Wells, with less than a year's experience, failed to fully understand their herd. An incident, similar to the one which provoked the observation of the brothers, may explain those placid depths, the deep tenacity and latent power of the herd.
After delivering its cargo at an army post, an extensive freighting outfit was returning to the supply point. Twelve hundred oxen were employed. On the outward trip, muddy roads were encountered, the wagons were loaded beyond the strength of the teams, and the oxen had arrived at the fort exhausted, spiritless, and faint to falling under their yokes. Many oxen had been abandoned as useless within one hundred miles of the post, thus doubling the work on the others. On the return trip, these scattered oxen, the lame and halt, were gathered to the number of several hundred, and were being driven along at the rear of the wagon train. Each day added to their numbers, until one fourth of all the oxen were being driven loose at the rear of the caravan. One day a boy blindfolded a cripple ox, which took fright and charged among his fellows, bellowing with fear. It was tinder to powder! The loose oxen broke from the herders, tore past the column of wagons, frenzied in voice and action. The drivers lost control of their teams, bedlam reigned, and the entire wagon train joined in the general stampede. Wagons were overturned and reduced to kindling in a moment of the wildest panic. The drivers were glad to escape with their lives and were left at the rear. A cloud of dust merely marked the direction which the oxen had taken. The teams, six to eight yoke each, wrenched their chains, broke the bows, and joined in the onrush. Many of the oxen, still under yoke, were found the next day fifteen miles distant from the scene of the incident, and unapproachable except on horseback. For a month previous to this demonstration of the latent power of cattle, the humane drivers of the wagon train were constantly lamenting that the spirit of their teams was killed.
When within a mile of the Beaver, the herd was turned westward and given its freedom. While drifting down the slope, Rowdy gradually crept far to the lead, and as the brothers left the cattle and bore off homeward, the horse took up a gentle trot, maintaining his lead until the stable was reached.
"Look at the dear old rascal," said Joel, beaming with pride. "That horse knows more than some folks."
"Yes, and if Dog-toe could talk," admitted Dell, stroking his horse's neck, "he could tell a good joke on me. I may tell it myself some day--some time when I want to feel perfectly ashamed of myself."