A WELCOME GUEST
The heralds of spring bespoke its early approach. April was ushered in to the songs of birds, the greening valley, and the pollen on the willow. The frost arose, the earth mellowed underfoot, and the creek purled and sang as it hastened along. The cattle played, calves were born, while the horses, in shedding their winter coats, matted the saddle blankets and threw off great tufts of hair where they rolled on the ground.
The marketing of the peltry fell to Joel. Dell met the wagon returning far out on the trail. "The fur market's booming," shouted Joel, on coming within speaking distance. "We'll not know the price for a few weeks. The station agent was only willing to ship them. The storekeeper was anxious to do the same, and advanced me a hundred dollars on the shipment. Wolf skins, prime, are quoted from two to two dollars and a half. And I have a letter from Forrest. The long winter's over! You can shout! G'long, mules!"
During the evening, Dell read Forrest's letter again and again. "Keep busy until the herds arrive," it read. "Enlarge your water supply and plan to acquire more cattle."
"That's our programme," said Joel. "We'll put in two dams between here and the trail. Mr. Quince has never advised us wrong, and he'll explain things when he comes. Once a week will be often enough to ride around the cattle."
An air of activity was at once noticeable around headquarters. The garden was ploughed and planting begun. The fence was repaired around the corn-field, the beaver dams were strengthened, and sites for two other reservoirs were selected. The flow of the creek was ample to fill large tanks, and if the water could be conserved for use during the dry summer months, the cattle-carrying capacity of the ranch could be greatly enlarged. The old beaver dams around headquarters had withstood every drouth, owing to the shade of the willows overhead, the roots of which matted and held the banks intact. Wagon loads of willow slips were accordingly cut for the new dams and the work begun in earnest.
"We'll take the tent and camp at the lower site," announced Joel. "It would waste too much time to go and come. When we build the upper one, we can work from home."
The two tanks were finished within a month. They were built several miles apart, where there was little or no fall in the creek, merely to hold still water in long, deep pools. The willow cuttings were planted along the borders and around the dams, the ends of which were riprapped with stone, and a spillway cut to accommodate any overflow during freshets.
The dams were finished none too soon, as a dry spring followed, and the reservoirs had barely filled when the creek ceased flowing. The unusual winter snowfall had left a season's moisture in the ground, and the grass came in abundance, matting slope and valley, while the garden grew like a rank weed. The corn crop of the year before had repaid well in forage, and was again planted. In the face of another drouthy summer, the brothers sowed as if they fully expected to reap. "Keep busy" was the slogan of the springtime.
The month of June arrived without a sign of life on the trail. Nearly one hundred calves were born to the herd on the Beaver, the peltry had commanded the highest quotation, and Wells Brothers swaggered in their saddles. But still the herds failed to come.
"Let's put up the tent," suggested Dell, "just as if we were expecting company. Mr. Paul or Mr. Quince will surely ride in some of these evenings. Either one will reach here a full day in the lead of his herd. Let's make out that we're looking for them."
Dell's suggestion was acted on. A week passed and not a trail man appeared. "There's something wrong," said Joel, at the end of the second week. "The Lovell herds go through, and there's sixteen of them on the trail."
"They're water-bound," said Dell, jumping at a conclusion.
"Waterbound, your foot! The men and horses and cattle can all swim. Don't you remember Mr. Quince telling about rafting his wagon across swimming rivers? Waterbound, your grandmother! High water is nothing to those trail men."
Dell was silenced. The middle of June came and the herds had not appeared. The brothers were beginning to get uneasy for fear of bad news, when near dark one evening a buckboard drove up. Its rumbling approach hurried the boys outside the tent, when without a word of hail, Quince Forrest sprang from the vehicle, grasped Dell, and the two rolled over and over on the grass.
"I just wanted to roll him in the dirt to make him grow," explained Forrest to an elderly man who accompanied him. "These are my boys. Look at that red-headed rascal--fat as a calf with two mothers. Boys, shake hands with Mr. Lovell."
The drover alighted and greeted the boys with fatherly kindness. He was a frail man, of medium height, nearly sixty years of age, with an energy that pulsed in every word and action. There was a careworn expression in his face, while an intensity of purpose blazed from hungry, deep-set eyes which swept every detail of the scene at a glance. That he was worried to the point of exhaustion was evident the moment that compliments were exchanged.
"Show me your water supply," said he to Joel; "old beaver ponds, if I am correctly informed. We must move fifty thousand cattle from Dodge to the Platte River within the next fortnight. One of the worst drouths in the history of the trail confronts us, and if you can water my cattle between the Prairie Dog and the Republican River, you can name your own price."
"Let's drive around," said Forrest, stepping into the blackboard, "before it gets too dark. Come on, boys, and show Mr. Lovell the water."
All four boarded the vehicle, the boys standing up behind the single seat, and drove away. In a mile's meanderings of the creek were five beaver ponds, over which in many places the willows interlapped. The pools stood bank full, and after sounding them, the quartette turned homeward, satisfied of the abundant water supply.
"There's water and to spare for the entire drive," said Forrest to his employer. "It isn't the amount drank, it's the absorption of the sun that gets away with water. Those willows will protect the pools until the cows come home. I felt sure of the Beaver."
"Now, if we can arrange to water my herds here--"
"That's all arranged," replied Forrest. "I'm a silent partner in this ranch. Anything that Wells Brothers owns is yours for the asking. Am I right, boys?"
"If Mr. Lovell needs the water, he is welcome to it," modestly replied Joel.
"That's my partner talking," said Forrest; "that was old man Joel Wells that just spoke. He's the senior member of the firm. Oh, these boys of mine are cowmen from who laid the rail. They're not out to rob a neighbor. Once you hear from the head of the Stinking Water, you can order the herds to pull out for the Platte."
"Yes," said Mr. Lovell, somewhat perplexed. "Yes, but let's get the water on the Beaver clear first. What does this mean? I offer a man his price to water my cattle, and he answers me that I'm welcome to it for nothing. I'm suspicious of the Greeks when they come bearing gifts. Are you three plotting against me?"
"That's it," replied Forrest. "You caught the gleam of my axe all right. In the worry of this drouth, you've overlooked the fact that you have five horses on this ranch. They were left here last fall, expecting to pick them up this spring. Two of them were cripples and three were good cow horses. Now, these boys of mine are just branching out into cattle, and they don't need money, but a few good horses are better than gold. That's about the plot. What would you say was the right thing to do?"
Mr. Lovell turned to the boys. "The five horses are yours. But I'm still in your debt. Is there anything else that you need?"
The question was repeated to Forrest. "By the time the herds reach here," said he, mildly observant, "there will be quite a number of tender-footed and fagged cattle. They could never make it through without rest, but by dropping them here, they would have a fighting chance to recuperate before winter. There won't be a cent in an abandoned steer for you, but these boys--"
"Trim the herds here on the Beaver," interrupted Mr. Lovell. "I'll give all my foremen orders to that effect. Cripples are worthless to me, but good as gold to these boys. What else?"
"Oh, just wish the boys good luck, and if it ever so happens, speak a good word for the Wells Brothers. I found them white, and I think you'll find them on the square."
"Well, this is a happy termination," said Mr. Lovell, as he alighted at the tent. "Our water expense between Dodge and Ogalalla will not exceed five thousand dollars. It cost me double that getting out of Texas."
Secure on the Beaver, the brothers were unaware of the outside drouth, which explained the failure of the herds to appear on the trail as in other years. It meant the delay of a fortnight, and the concentration of a year's drive into a more limited space of time. Unconscious of its value, the boys awoke to the fact that they controlled the only water between the Prairie Dog and the Republican River--sixty miles of the plain. Many of the herds were under contract and bond to cattle companies, individuals, army posts, and Indian agencies, and no excuse would be accepted for any failure to deliver. The drouth might prove an ill-wind to some, but the Beaver valley was not only exempt but could extend relief.
After supper, hosts and guests adjourned to the tent. Forrest had unearthed the winter struggle of his protégés, and gloating over the manner in which the boys had met and overcome the unforeseen, he assumed an observant attitude in addressing his employer.
"You must be working a sorry outfit up on the Little Missouri," said he, "to lose ten per cent of straight steer cattle. My boys, here on the Beaver, report a measly loss of twelve head, out of over five hundred cattle. And you must recollect that these were rag-tag and bob-tail, the flotsam of a hundred herds, forty per cent cripples, walking on crutches. Think of it! Two per cent loss, under herd, a sleet over the range for six weeks, against your ten per cent kill on an open range. You must have a slatterly, sore-thumbed lot of men on your beef ranch."
Mr. Lovell was discouraged over the outlook of his cattle interests. "That was a first report that you are quoting from," said he to Forrest. "It was more prophecy than statement. We must make allowances for young men. There is quite a difference between getting scared and being hurt. My beef outfit has orders to go three hundred miles south of our range and cover all round-ups northward. It was a severe winter, and the drift was heavy, but I'm not worrying any about that sore-fingered outfit. Promptly meeting government contracts is our work to-day. My cattle are two weeks behind time, and the beef herds must leave Dodge to-morrow. Help me figure it out: Can you put me on the railroad by noon?" he concluded, turning to Joel.
"Easily, or I can carry a message to-night."
"There's your programme," said Forrest, interceding. "One of these boys can take you to Grinnell in time for the eastbound train. Wire your beef herds to pull out for the Platte. You can trust the water to improve from here north."
"And you?" inquired the drover, addressing his foreman.
"I'll take the buckboard and go north until I meet Paul. That will cover the last link in the trail. We'll know our water then, and time our drives to help the cattle. It's as clear as mud."
"Just about," dubiously answered Mr. Lovell. "Unless I can get an extension of time on my beef contracts, the penalty under my bonds will amount to a fortune."
"The army is just as well aware of this drouth as you are," said Forrest, "and the War Department will make allowances. The government don't expect the impossible."
"Yes," answered the old drover with feeling. "Yes, but it exacts a bond, and stipulates the daily forfeiture, and if any one walks the plank, it's not your dear old Uncle Samuel. And it matters not how much sleep I lose, red tape never worries."
The boys made a movement as if to withdraw, and Forrest arose. "The programme for to-morrow, then, is understood," said the latter. "The horses will be ready at daybreak."
It was midnight when the trio sought their blankets. On the part of the brothers, there was a constant reference to their guest, the drover, and a desire, if in their power, to aid him in every way.
"I wanted you boys to meet and get acquainted with Mr. Lovell," said Forrest, as all were dozing off to sleep. "There is a cowman in a thousand, and his word carries weight in cattle matters. He's rather deep water, unless you cross or surprise him. I nagged him about the men on his beef ranch. He knew the cattle wouldn't winter kill when they could drift, and the round-up will catch every living hoof. He was too foxy to borrow any trouble there, and this long yell about the drouth interfering with delivery dates keeps the trail outfits against the bits. Admitting his figures, the water expense won't be a drop in the bucket. It affords good worrying and that keeps the old man in fighting form. I'm glad he came along; treat him fair and square, and his friendship means something to you, boys."