AN INDIAN SCARE
The year closed with dry, open weather. The cattle scattered wide, ranging farther afield, unmolested except by shifting winds. The latter was a matter of hourly observation, affording its lesson to the brothers, and readily explained by the older and more practical men. For instance, a north or the dreaded east wind brought the herd into the valley, where it remained until the weather moderated, and then drifted out of its own free will. When a balmy south wind blew, the cattle grazed against it, and when it came from a western quarter, they turned their backs and the gregarious instinct to flock was noticeable. Under settled weather, even before dawn, by noting the quarter of the wind, it was an easy matter to foretell the movement of the herd for the coming day.
The daily tasks rested lightly. The line was ridden as usual, but more as a social event than as a matter of necessity. The occasional reports of Manly to his employer were flattering in the extreme. Any risk involved in the existing contract hinged on the present winter, and since it was all that could be desired, every fine day added to the advantage of Wells Brothers. So far their venture had been greeted with fair winds, and with not a cloud in the visible sky. Manly was even recalled by Mr. Stoddard early in February.
Month after month passed without incident. Spring came fully a fortnight earlier than the year before. By the middle of March, the willows were bent with pollen, the birds returned, and the greening slopes rolled away and were lost behind low horizons. The line-camp was abandoned, the cattle were scattered over the entire valley, and the instincts to garden were given free rein. The building of two additional tanks, one below the old trail crossing and the other near the new camp above, occupied a month's time to good advantage. It enlarged the range beyond present needs; but the brothers were wrestling with a rare opportunity, and theirs was strictly a policy of expansion.
An occasional trip to the railroad, for supplies or pressing errand, was usually rewarded with important news. During the winter just passed, Kansas had quarantined against Texas cattle, and the trail was barred from that state. Early in May information reached the ranch that the market interests of Dodge City had moved over the line into Colorado, and had established a town on the railroad, to be known as Trail City. A feasible route lay open to the south, across No-Man's-Land, into the Texas Panhandle, while scouting parties were out with the intent of locating a new trail to Ogalalla. It would cross the Republican River nearly due westward from headquarters, and in the neighborhood of one hundred miles distant.
"There you are," said Sargent, studying a railroad folder. "You must have water for the herds, so the new market will have a river and a railroad. It simply means that the trail has shifted from the east to the west of your range. As long as the country is open, you can buy cattle at Trail City, hold them on the Colorado line until frost, and cross to your own range with a few days' travel. It may prove an advantage after all."
The blessing of sunshine and shower rested on the new ranch. The beaver ponds filled, the spill-ways of every tank ran like a mill race, and the question of water for the summer was answered. The cattle early showed the benefits of the favorable winter, and by June the brands were readable at a glance. From time to time reports from the outside world reached the brothers, and among other friendly letters received was an occasional inquiry from the commission firm, the factors named under the existing contract. The house kept in touch with the range, was fully aware of the open winter, and could easily anticipate its effects in maturing cattle for early shipment.
The solicitors of the firm, graduates of the range, were sent out a month in advance of other years. Wells Brothers were advised of a promised visit by one of the traveling agents of the commission house, and during the first week in July he arrived at headquarters. He was a practical man, with little concern for comfort, as long as there were cattle to look over. Joel took him in tow, mounted him on the pick of saddle horses, and the two leisurely rode the range.
"What does he say?" inquired Dell, after a day's ride.
"Not a word," answered Joel. "He can't talk any more than I can. Put in all day just looking and thinking. He must like cattle that range wide, for we rode around every outside bunch. He _can_ talk, because he admitted we have good horses."
Again the lesson that contact teaches was accented anew. At parting the following morning, in summing up the outlook, the solicitor surprised the brothers. "The situation is clear," said he quietly. "You must ship early. Your double-wintered beeves will reach their prime this month. You may ship them any day after the 25th. Your single-wintered ones can follow in three weeks. The firm may be able to advise you when to ship. It's only a fourteen-hour run to the yards, and if you work a beef-shipping outfit that's up to date, you can pick your day to reach the market. Get your outfit together, keep in touch with the house by wire, and market your beef in advance of the glut from the Platte country."
The solicitor lifted the lines over a livery team. "One moment," said Joel. "Advise Mr. Stoddard that we rely on him to furnish us two men during the beef-shipping season."
"Anything else?" inquired the man, a memorandum-book in hand.
"Where are the nearest ranches to ours?"
"On the Republican, both above and below the old trail crossing. There may be extra men over on the river," said the solicitor, fully anticipating the query.
"That's all," said Joel, extending his hand.
The stranger drove away. The brothers exchanged a puzzled glance, but Sargent smiled. "That old boy sabes cows some little," said the latter. "The chances are that he's forgotten more about cattle than some of these government experts ever knew. Anyway, he reads the sign without much effort. His survey of this range and the outlook are worth listening to. Better look up an outfit of men."
"We'll gather the remuda to-day," announced Joel. "While I'm gone to the Republican, you boys can trim up and gentle the horses."
The extra mounts, freed the fall before, had only been located on the range, and must be gathered and brought in to headquarters at once. They had ranged in scattering bunches during the winter, and a single day would be required to gather and corral the ranch remuda. It numbered, complete, ninety-six horses, all geldings, and the wisdom of buying the majority a year in advance of their needs reflected the foresight of a veteran cowman. Many of them were wild, impossible of approach, the call of the plain and the free life of their mustang ancestors pulsing with every heart-beat, and several days would be required to bring them under docile subjection. There were scraggy hoofs to trim, witches' bridles to disentangle, while long, bushy, matted tails must be thinned to a graceful sweep.
The beginning of work acted like a tonic. The boys sallied forth, mounted on their best horses, their spirits soaring among the clouds. During the spring rains, several small lakes had formed in the sand hills, at one of which a band of some thirty saddle horses was watering. The lagoon was on the extreme upper end of the range, fully fifteen miles from headquarters; and as all the saddle stock must be brought in, the day's work required riding a wide circle. Skirting the sand dunes, by early noon all the horses were in hand, save the band of thirty. There was no occasion for all hands to assist in bringing in the absent ones, and a consultation resulted in Joel and Dell volunteering for the task, while Sargent returned home with the horses already gathered.
The range of the band was well known, and within a few hours after parting with Sargent, the missing horses were in hand. The brothers knew every horse, and, rejoicing in their splendid condition, they started homeward, driving the loose mounts before them. The most direct course to headquarters was taken, which would carry the cavalcade past the springs and the upper winter quarters. The latter was situated in the brakes of the Beaver, several abrupt turns of the creek, until its near approach, shutting out a western view of the deserted dug-out. The cavalcade was drifting home at a gentle trot, but on approaching The Wagon, a band of ponies was sighted forward and in a bend of the creek. The boys veered their horses, taking to the western divide, and on gaining it, saw below them and at the distance of only a quarter-mile, around the springs, an Indian encampment of a dozen tepees and lean-tos.
Dell and Joel were struck dumb at the sight. To add to their surprise, all the dogs in the encampment set up a howling, the Indians came tumbling from their temporary shelters, many of them running for their ponies on picket, while an old, almost naked leader signaled to the brothers. It was a moment of bewilderment with the boys, who conversed in whispers, never halting on their course, and when the Indians reached their ponies, every brave dashed up to the encampment. A short parley followed, during which signaling was maintained by the old Indian, evidently a chief; but the boys kept edging away, and the old brave sprang on a pony and started in pursuit, followed by a number of his band.
The act was tinder to powder. The boys gave rowel to their mounts, shook out their ropes, raised the long yell, and started the loose horses in a mad dash for home. It was ten long miles to headquarters, and their mounts, already fagged by carrying heavy saddles and the day's work, were none too fresh, while the Indians rode bareback and were not encumbered by an ounce of extra clothing.
The boys led the race by fully five hundred yards. But instead of taking to the divide, the Indians bore down the valley, pursued and pursuers in plain sight of each other. For the first mile or so the loose horses were no handicap, showing clean heels and keeping clear of the whizzing ropes. But after the first wild dash, the remuda began to scatter, and the Indians gained on the cavalcade, coming fairly abreast and not over four hundred yards distant.
"They're riding to cut us off!" gasped Dell. "They'll cut us off from headquarters!"
"Our horses will outwind their ponies," shouted Joel, in reply. "Don't let these loose horses turn into the valley."
The divide was more difficult to follow than the creek. The meanderings of the latter were crossed and recrossed without halting, while the watershed zigzagged, or was broken and cut by dry washes and coulees, thus retarding the speed of the cavalcade. The race wore on with varying advantage, and when near halfway to headquarters, the Indians turned up the slope as if to verify Dell's forecast. At this juncture, a half-dozen of the loose horses cut off from the band and turned down the slope in plain sight of the pursuers.
[Illustration: THE FIRST ROUND-UP OF THE DAY]
"If it's horses they want, they can have those," shouted Joel. "Climbing that slope will fag their ponies. Come on; here's where we have the best of it."
The Indians were not to be pacified. Without a look they swept past the abandoned horses. The boys made a clear gain along a level stretch on the divide, maintaining their first lead, when the pursuers, baffled in cutting them off, turned again into the valley.
"It isn't horses they want," ventured Dell, with a backward glance.
"In the next dip, we'll throw the others down the western slope, and ride for our lives," answered Joel, convinced that a sacrifice of horses would not appease their pursuers.
The opportunity came shortly, when for a few minutes the brothers dipped from sight of the Indians. The act confused the latter, who scaled the divide, only to find the objects of their chase a full half-mile in the lead, but calling on the last reserve in their fagged horses. The pursuers gradually closed the intervening gap; but with the advantage of knowing every foot of the ground, the brothers took a tack which carried them into the valley at the old winter corral. From that point it was a straight stretch homeward, and, their horses proving their mettle, the boys dashed up to the stable, where Sargent was found at work among the other horses.
"Indians! Indians!" shouted Dell, who arrived in the lead. "Indians have been chasing us all afternoon. Run for your life, Jack!"
Joel swept past a moment later, accenting the situation, and as Sargent left the corral, he caught sight of the pursuing Indians, and showed splendid action in reaching the dug-out.
Breathless and gasping, Dell and Joel each grasped a repeating rifle, while Sargent, in the excitement of the moment, unable to unearth the story, buckled on a six-shooter. The first reconnoitre revealed the Indians halted some two hundred yards distant, and parleying among themselves. At a first glance, the latter seemed to be unarmed, and on Sargent stepping outside the shack, the leader, the old brave, simply held up his hand.
"They must be peaceful Indians," said Sargent to the boys, and signaled in the leader.
The old Indian jogged forward on his tired pony, leaving his followers behind, and on riding up, a smile was noticeable on his wrinkled visage. He dismounted, unearthing from his scanty breech-clout a greasy, grimy letter, and tendered it to Sargent.
The latter scanned the missive, and turning to the boys, who had ventured forth, broke into a fit of laughter.
"Why, this is Chief Lone Wolf," said Sargent, "from the Pine Ridge Agency, going down to see his kinsfolks in the Indian Territory. The agent at Pine Ridge says that Lone Wolf is a peaceful Indian, and has his permission to leave the reservation. He hopes that nothing but kindness will be shown the old chief in his travels, and bespeaks the confidence of any white settlers that he may meet on the way. You boys must have been scared out of your wits. Lone Wolf only wanted to show you this letter."
Sargent conversed with the old chief in Spanish, the others were signaled in, when a regular powwow ensued. Dell and Joel shook hands with all the Indians, Sargent shared his tobacco with Lone Wolf, and on returning to their encampment at evening, each visitor was burdened with pickled beef and such other staples as the cow-camp afforded.