AN ILL WIND
The start to the station was made at four o'clock in the morning. Joel accompanied the drover, the two best horses being under saddle, easily capable of a road gait that would reach the railroad during the early forenoon. The direct course lay across country, and once the sun flooded the Beaver valley, the cowman swung around in the saddle and his practical eye swept the range. On sighting Hackberry Grove, the broken country beyond, including the sand hills, he turned to his guide.
"My boy," said Mr. Lovell, "you brothers have a great future before you. This is an ideal cattle range. The very grass under our horses' feet carries untold wealth. But you lack cattle. You have the range here for thousands where you are running hundreds. Buy young steers; pay any price; but get more cattle. The growth of young steers justifies any outlay. Come down to Dodge about the first of August. This drouth is liable to throw some bargains on that market. Be sure and come. I'll keep an eye open in your interest on any cattle for sale."
The old drover's words bewildered Joel. The ways and means were not entirely clear, but the confidence of the man in the future of the brothers was gratifying. Meanwhile, at the little ranch the team stood in waiting, and before the horseman had passed out of sight to the south the buckboard started on its northern errand. Dell accompanied it, protesting against his absence from home, but Forrest brushed aside every objection.
"Come on, come on," said he to Dell; "you have no saddle, and we may be back to-night. We're liable to meet Paul on the Republican. Turn your ranch loose and let it run itself. Come on; we ain't halfway through our figuring."
Joel returned after dark. Priest had left Ogalalla, to the north, the same day that Forrest and his employer started up the trail from the south, and at the expected point the two foremen met. The report showed water in abundance from the Republican River northward, confirming Forrest's assertion to his employer, and completing the chain of waters between Dodge and Ogalalla. Priest returned with the buckboard, which reached the Beaver after midnight, and aroused Joel out of heavy sleep.
"I just wanted to say," said Priest, sitting on the edge of Joel's bunk, "that I had my ear to the ground and heard the good fighting. Yes, I heard the sleet cracking. You never saw me, but I was with you the night you drifted to the Prairie Dog. Take it all along the line, wasn't it good fighting?"
"Has Dell told you everything?" inquired Joel, sitting up in his blankets.
"Everything, including the fact that he got lost the night of the March drift, while going home after a pack horse. Wouldn't trust poor old Dog-toe, but run on the rope himself! Landed down the creek here a few miles. News to you? Well, he admits that the horse forgot more than he himself ever knew. That's a hopeful sign. As long as a man hearkens to his horse, there is no danger of bad counsel being thrust on him."
The boys were catching, at first hand, an insight into the exacting nature of trail work. Their friends were up with the dawn, and while harnessing in the team, Forrest called Joel's attention to setting the ranch in order to water the passing herds.
"I was telling Dell yesterday," said he, "the danger of Texas fever among wintered cattle, and you must isolate your little herd until after frost falls. Graze your cattle up around Hackberry Grove, and keep a dead-line fully three miles wide between the wintered and through trail herds. Any new cattle that you pick up, cripples or strays, hold them down the creek--between here and the old trail crossing. For fear of losing them you can't even keep milk cows around the ranch, so turn out your calves. Don't ask me to explain Texas fever. It's one of the mysteries of the trail. The very cattle that impart it after a winter in the north catch the fever and die like sheep. It seems to exist, in a mild form, in through, healthy cattle, but once imparted to native or northern wintered stock, it becomes violent and is usually fatal. The sure, safe course is to fear and avoid it."
The two foremen were off at an early hour. Priest was again in charge of Lovell's lead herd, and leaving the horse that he had ridden to the Republican River in care of the boys, he loitered a moment at parting.
"If my herd left Dodge at noon yesterday," said he, mentally calculating, "I'll overtake it some time to-morrow night. Allowing ten days to reach here--"
He turned to the boys. "This is the sixteenth of June. Well, come out on the divide on the morning of the twenty-fifth and you will see a dust cloud in the south. The long distance between waters will put the herd through on schedule time. Come out and meet me."
The brothers waved the buckboard away. The dragging days were over. The herds were coming, and their own little ranch promised relief to the drover and his cattle.
"Mr. Quince says the usual price for watering trail herds is from one to three cents a head," said Dell, as their friends dipped from sight. "The government, so he says, allows three cents for watering cavalry horses and harness mules. He tells me that the new settlers, in control of the water on the trail, in northern Texas, fairly robbed the drovers this year. The pastoral Texan, he contends, shared his canteen with the wayfarer, and never refused to water cattle. He wants us to pattern after the Texans--to give our water and give it freely. When Mr. Lovell raised the question of arranging to water his herds from our beaver ponds, do you remember how Mr. Quince answered for us? I'm mighty glad money wasn't mentioned. No money could buy Dog-toe from me. And Mr. Lovell gave us three of our best horses."
"He offered me ten dollars for taking him to the railroad," said Joel, "but I looked him square in the eye and refused the money. He says we must buy more cattle. He wants me to come to Dodge in August, and I'm going."
Dell treated the idea of buying cattle with slight disdain. "You--going--to--buy--more--cattle?" said he, accenting each word. "Any one tell your fortune lately?"
"Yes," answered the older boy. "I'm having it told every day. One of those two men, the gray-haired one on that buckboard,--stand here and you can see them,--told me over a year ago that this range had a value, and that we ought to skirmish some cattle, some way, and stock it. What he saw clearly then, I see now, and what Mr. Lovell sees now, you may see a year hence. These men have proved their friendship, and why stand in our own light? Our ability to hold cattle was tested last winter, and if this range is an asset, there may be some way to buy more cattle. I'm going to Dodge in August."
Dell was silenced. There was ample time to set the ranch in order. Turning away from the old trail, on the divide, and angling in to headquarters, and thence northward, was but a slight elbow on the general course of the trail herds. The long distance across to the Republican would compel an early watering on the Beaver, that the cattle might reach the former river the following evening. The brothers knew to a fraction the grazing gait of a herd, the trailing pace, and could anticipate to an hour the time required to move a herd from the Prairie Dog to the Beaver.
The milk cows and calves were turned back into the general herd. The dead-line was drawn safely below Hackberry Grove, between imaginary landmarks on either slope, while on the creek, like a sentinel, stood a lone willow which seemed to say, "Thus far shalt thou go and no farther." The extra horses, now in the pink of condition, were brought home and located below the ranch, and the house stood in order.
The arrival of the first herd had been correctly calculated. The brothers rode out late on the morning designated, but did not reach the divide. The foremost herd was met within seven miles of the Beaver, the leaders coming on with the steady stride of thirsty cattle that had scented water. Priest was nowhere in sight, but the heavy beeves identified the herd, and when the boys hailed a point man, the situation cleared.
"Mr. Paul--our boss?" repeated the point man. "He's setting up a guide-board, back on the divide, where we turned off from the old trail. Say, does this dim wagon track we're following lead to Wells Brothers' ranch?"
"It does," answered Joel. "You can see the willows from the next swell of the prairie," added Dell, as the brothers passed on.
It was a select herd of heavy beeves. In spite of the drouth encountered, the cattle were in fine condition, and as the herd snailed forward at its steady march, the sweep of horn, the variety of color, the neat outline of each animal blended into a pastoral picture of strength and beauty.
The boys rode down the advancing column. A swing man on the opposite side of the herd waved his hand across to the brothers, and while the two were speculating as to who he might be, a swing lad on the left reined out and saluted the boys.
With hand extended, he smilingly inquired, "Don't you remember the day we branded your cattle? How did the Two Bars and the ---- Y cows winter?"
"It's Billy Honeyman," said Dell, beaming. "Who is that man across the herd, waving at us?" he inquired, amid hearty greeting.
"That's Runt Pickett, the little fellow who helped us brand--the lad who rushed the cattle. The herd cuts him off from shaking hands. Turn your horses the other way and tell me how you like it out West."
Dell turned back, but Joel continued on. The column of beeves was fully a mile in length. After passing the drag end of the herd, the wagon and remuda were sighted, later met, with the foreman still at the rear. The dust cloud of yet another herd arose in the distance, and while Joel pondered on its location over the divide, a horseman emerged from a dip in the plain and came toward him in a slow gallop.
"There's no foreman with the next herd," explained Priest, slacking his horse into a walk, "and the segundo wasn't sure which swell was the real divide. We trailed two herds past your ranch last summer, but the frost has mellowed up the soil and the grass has overgrown the paths until every trace is gone. I planted a guide-post and marked it 'Lovell's Trail,' so the other foremen will know where to turn off. All the old man's herds are within three or four days' drive, and after that it's almost a solid column of cattle back to Dodge. Forrest is in charge of the rear herd, and will pick up any of our abandoned cattle."
The two shook out their mounts, passed the commissary and saddle stock, but halted a moment at the drag end of the herd. "We've been dropping our cripples," explained Priest, "but the other herds will bring them through. There's not over one or two here, but I'm going to saw off three horses on Wells Brothers. Good ones, too, that is, good for next year."
A halt was made at the lead of the herd, and some directions given the point man. It was still early in the forenoon, and once man and boy had fairly cleared the leaders in front, a signal was given and the cattle turned as a single animal and fell to grazing. The wagon and remuda never halted; on being joined by the two horsemen, they continued on into the Beaver. Eleven o'clock was the hour named to water the herd, and punctual to the moment the beeves, with a mile-wide front, were grazed up to the creek.
The cattle were held around the pools for an hour. Before dinner was over, the acting foreman of the second herd rode in, and in mimicking a trail boss, issued some drastic orders. The second herd was within sight, refused to graze, and his wagon was pulling in below the ranch for the noon camp.
Priest looked at his watch. "Start the herd," said he to his own men. "Hold a true northward course, and camp twelve miles out to-night. I may not be with you, but water in the Republican at six o'clock to-morrow evening. Bring in your herd, young fellow," he concluded, addressing the segundo.
The watering of a trail herd is important. Mere opportunity to quench thirst is not sufficient. The timid stand in awe of the strong, and the excited milling cattle intimidate the weak and thirsty. An hour is the minimum time, during which half the herd may drink and lie down, affording the others the chance to approach without fear and slake their thirst.
The acting foreman signaled in his herd. The beeves around the water were aroused, and reluctantly grazed out on their course, while the others came on with a sullen stride that thirst enforces. The previous scene of contentment gave way to frenzy. The heavy beeves, equally select with the vanguard, floundered into the pools, lowed in their joy, drank to gorging, fought their fellows, staggered out of the creek, and dropped to rest in the first dust or dry grass.
Priest trimmed his own beeves and remuda. A third herd appeared, when he and the acting foreman culled over both horses and cattle, and sent the second herd on its way. Each of the three advance herds must reach the Republican the following day, and it was scant two o'clock when the third one trailed out from the Beaver. With mature cattle there were few cripples, and the day ended with an addition to the little ranch of the promised horses and a few tender-footed beeves. There were two more herds of heavy beef cattle to follow, which would arrive during the next forenoon, and the old foreman remained over until the last cattle, intended for army delivery, had passed the ranch.
The herd never fails. Faith in cattle is always rewarded. From that far distant dawn when man and his ox started across the ages the one has ever sustained the other. The two rear beef herds promptly reached the Beaver the next morning, slaked their thirst, and passed on before noon.
"This lets me out as your guest," said Priest to the boys, when the last herd was trimmed. "Bob Quirk will now follow with six herds of contract cattle. He's the foreman of the second herd of beeves, but Mr. Lovell detailed him to oversee this next division across to the Platte. Forrest will follow Quirk with the last five herds of young steers, slated for the old man's beef ranch on the Little Missouri. That puts our cattle across the Beaver, but you'll have plenty of company for the next month. Mr. Lovell has made a good talk for you boys around Dodge, and if you'll give these trail drovers this water, it will all come back. As cowmen, there are two things that you want to remember--that it'll rain again, and that the cows will calve in the spring."
Priest had barely left the little ranch when Bob Quirk arrived. Before dismounting, he rode around the pools, signaled in a wagon and remuda, and returned to the tent.
"This is trailing cattle with a vengeance," said he, stripping his saddle from a tired horse. "There has been such a fight for water this year that every foreman seems to think that unless he reaches the river to-day it'll be dry to-morrow. Five miles apart was the limit agreed on before leaving Dodge, and here I am with six herds--twenty thousand cattle!--within twenty miles of the Beaver. For fear of a stampede last night, we threw the herds left and right, two miles off the trail. The Lord surely loves cattle or the earth would have shook from running herds!"
That afternoon and the next morning the second division of the Lovell herds crossed the Beaver. Forrest rode in and saluted the boys with his usual rough caress.
"Saddle up horses," said he, "and drop back and come through with the two rear herds, There's a heavy drag end on each one, and an extra man to nurse those tender cows over here, to home and friends, will be lending a hand to the needy. I'll run the ranch while you're gone. One of you to each, the fourth and fifth herds, remember. I'll meet you to-morrow morning, and we'll cut the cripples out and point them in to the new tanks below. Shake out your fat horses, sweat them up a little--you're needed at the rear of Lovell's main drive."
The boys saddled and rode away in a gallop. Three of the rear herds reached the Beaver that afternoon, watered, and passed on to safe camps beyond. One of Quirk's wagons had left a quarter of beef at headquarters, and Forrest spent the night amid peace and plenty where the year before he lay wounded.
The next morning saw the last of the Lovell herds arrive. The lead one yielded ninety cripples, and an hour later the rear guard disgorged a few over one hundred head. The two contingents were thrown together, the brothers nursed them in to the new tanks, where they were freed on a perfect range. A count of the cripples and fagged cattle, culled back at headquarters, brought the total discard of the sixteen herds up to two hundred and forty-odd, a riffraff of welcome flotsam, running from a young steer to a seven-year-old beef. The sweepings had paid the reckoning.
Several other trail foremen, scouting in advance of their herds, had reached the Beaver, or had been given assurance that water was to be had in abundance. A measurement of the water was awaited with interest, and once the rear herd grazed out from the beaver ponds, Forrest and the brothers rode around the pools to take soundings.
"I cut notches on willow roots, at each beaver dam, and the loss runs from four to six inches, the lower pools suffering the heaviest," said Joel, summing up the situation.
"They're holding like cisterns," exultingly said Forrest. "Fifty thousand cattle watered, and only lowered the pools on an average of five inches. The upper one's still taking water--that's the reason it's standing the drain. Write it in the sand or among the stars, but the water's here for this year's drive. Go back and tell those waiting foremen to bring on their cattle. Headquarters ranch will water every trail herd, or break a tug trying."