"Bring on your herds," said Joel, addressing a quartette of trail foremen resting under the sunshade. "Our water is holding out better than we expected. The Lovell cattle only lowered the ponds a trifle. From the present outlook, we can water the drive."
"That's a big contract," reluctantly admitted a "Running W" trail boss. "I had word on the railroad yesterday that the Arkansaw River at Dodge was only running at night."
"Water is reported plentiful around Ogalalla and beyond," doggedly said a pock-marked foreman.
"That'll tempt the herds to cross over," urged the Running W man. "The faraway hills are always green."
The conversation took a new tack. "Who knows the estimate on the total drive this year?" inquired a swarthy, sun-burned little man, addressing the pock-marked foreman.
"A rough estimate places the drive at six hundred and fifty thousand head," came the languid reply.
"There you are," smilingly said the Running W boss, turning to Joel. "Better revise your water estimate."
"Not now," answered Joel, meeting smile with smile. "Later on I may have to hedge, but for the present, bring on your cattle."
"That's to the point," languidly said a tall, blond Texan, arising. "My cattle must have water this evening."
The other trail foremen arose. "We all understand," remarked the pock-marked man to the others, "that this is the place where we drop our strays, fagged and crippled stuff. These are the boys that Mr. Lovell mentioned as worthy of any cattle that must be abandoned."
"At Wells Brothers' ranch, on the Beaver," assentingly said the little man.
"Our lead herds will not have many cripples," said the Running W foreman, turning to the boys. "A few days' rest is everything to a tender-footed steer, and what cattle the lead ones drop, the rear ones have orders to bring through to you."
"Thank you, sir," said Joel frankly. "We want to stock our range, and crippled cattle are as good as gold to us."
Spurs clanked as the men turned to their mounts. The boys followed, and Dell overtook the blond Texan. "If you need a hand on the drag end of your herd," said the boy to the tall foreman, "I'll get up a fresh horse and overtake you."
"Make it a horse apiece," said the young man, "and I'll sign your petition for the post office--when this country has one. I'm as good as afoot."
The other foremen mounted their horses. "I'll overtake you," said Joel to the trio, "as soon as I change mounts. Whoever has the lead herd, come in on the water above the field. The upper pools are the deepest, and let your cattle cover the water evenly."
"I'm in the lead," said the pock-marked man. "But we'll have to come up to the water in trailing formation. The cattle have suffered from thirst, and they break into a run at sight of water, if grazed up to it. You may take one point and I'll take the other."
The existing drouth promised a good schooling for the brothers. Among the old philosophies, contact was said to be educational. Wells Brothers were being thrown in contact with the most practical men that the occupation, in all pastoral ages, had produced. The novelty of trailing cattle vast distances had its origin with the Texans. Bred to the calling, they were masters of the craft. In the hands of an adept outfit of a dozen men, a trail herd of three thousand beeves had all the mobility of a brigade of cavalry. The crack of a whip was unheard on the trail. A whispered order, followed by a signal to the men, and the herd turned, grazed to its contentment, fell into column formation, and took up its march--a peaceful march that few armies have equaled. Contact with these men, the rank and file of that splendid cavalry which once patrolled the range industry of the West, was priceless to the boys.
The lead herd reached the Beaver valley at noon. When within a mile of the water, the point men gave way to the foremen and Joel Wells. But instead of dropping back, the dust-covered men rode on into the lead, the action being seemingly understood by every one except the new hand on the point. Joel was alert, felt the massive column of beeves yield to his slightest pressure, as a ship to the hand of the helmsman, as he veered the leaders out of the broken trails and guided the herd around the field to the upper pools. On nearing the water, the deposed point men deployed nearer the lead, when the object of their position explained itself. On sighting the ponds, the leaders broke into a run, but the four horsemen at hand checked the excited dash, and the herd was led up to the water in column formation. It was the mastery of man over the creature.
The herds arrived in hit-and-miss class. The destination of the pock-marked foreman's beeves was an army post in Dakota. The swarthy little man followed with a herd of cows for delivery at an Indian agency in Wyoming. The different Running W herds were under contract to different cattle companies, in adjoining states and territories. The tall foreman's herd was also under contract, but the point of delivery was at Ogalalla, on the Platte, where a ranch outfit would receive the cattle.
The latter herd arrived late at evening. The cattle were driven on speculation, there had been an oversight in mounting the outfit, and the men, including the foreman, were as good as afoot.
"This trip lets me out," said the young Texan to the brothers, "of walking up the trail and leading fagged-out saddle stock. A mount of six horses to the man may be all right on a ranch, but it won't do on the trail. Especially in a dry year, with delivery on the Platte. Actually, this afternoon is the first time I have felt a horse under me since we crossed Red River. Give me a sheet of paper, please. I want to give you a bill of sale for these six drag ponies that I'm sawing off on you. I carry written authority to give a bill of sale, and it will always protect your possession of the horses. They wouldn't bring a dollar a head in Ogalalla, but when they round into form again next summer, some brand ferret passing might want to claim them on you. Any cattle that I cull out here are abandoned, you understand, simply abandoned."
The boys were left alone for the first time in several nights. The rush of the past few days had kept them in the saddle during their waking hours. The dead-line had been neglected, the drifting of cripples to the new tanks below was pressing, and order must be established. The water in the pools was the main concern, a thing beyond human control, and a matter of constant watchfulness. A remark dropped during the day, of water flowing at night, was not lost on the attentive ear of Joel Wells.
"What did you mean?" he politely inquired of the Running W foreman, while the latter's herd was watering, "of a river only running at night?"
"All over this arid country moisture rises at night and sinks by day," replied the trail boss. "Under drouth, these sandy rivers of the plain, including the Platte and for a thousand miles to the south, only flow at night. It's their protection against the sun's absorption. Mark these pools at sunset and see if they don't rise an inch to-night. Try it and see."
Willow roots were notched on the water-line of each beaver dam. The extreme upper pool was still taking water from a sickly flow, a struggling rivulet, fed by the springs at its head. Doubt was indulged in and freely expressed.
"If the water only holds a week longer," ventured Dell, sleepless in his blankets, "it'll double our holding of cattle."
"It'll hold a month," said Joel, equally sleepless. "We've got to stand by these trail herds--there is no other water short of the Republican. I've figured it all out. When the Beaver ponds are gone, we'll round up the wintered cattle, drift them over to the south fork of the Republican, and get some one to hold them until frost falls. Then we'll ship the cripples up to Hackberry Grove, and that will free the new tanks--water enough for twenty trail herds. We have the horses, and these trail outfits will lend us any help we need. By shifting cattle around, I can see a month's supply. And there may be something in water rising at night. We'll know in the morning."
Sleep blotted out the night. Dawn revealed the fact that the trail foreman knew the secrets of the plain. "That trail boss knew," shouted Joel, rushing into the tent and awakening Dell. "The water rose in every pool. The lower one gained an inch and the upper one gained two. The creek is running freely. The water must be rising out of the ground. Let those Texans bring on their herds. We have oceans of water!"
The cattle came. The first week thirty herds passed the new ranch. It took riding. The dead-line was held, the flotsam cared for, and a hand was ever ready to point a herd or nurse the drag end. Open house was maintained. Every arriving foreman was tendered a horse, and left his benediction on the Beaver.
The ranch proved a haven to man and beast. One of the first foremen to arrive during the second week was Nat Straw. He drove up at sunset, with a chuck-wagon, halted at the tent, and in his usual easy manner inquired, "Where is the matron of this hospital?"
"Here she is," answered Dell, recognizing the man and surmising the situation. "One of your men hurt?"
"Not seriously," answered Straw, looking back into the wagon. "Just a little touch of the dengue. He's been drinking stagnant water, out of cow tracks, for the last few months, and that gets into the bones of the best of us. I'm not feeling very well myself."
Dell lifted the wagon-sheet and peered inside. "Let's get the poor fellow into the tent," urged the boy. "Can he walk, or can you and I carry him?"
"He's the long size Texan, and we'd better try and trail him in," answered Straw, alighting from the wagon. "Where's Dr. Joel Wells?"
"Riding the dead-line. He'll be in shortly. I'll fix a cot, and we'll bring the sick man in at once."
It was simple malaria, known in the Southwest as dengue fever. The unfortunate lad was made comfortable, and on Joel riding in, Straw had skirmished some corn, and was feeding his mules.
"As one of the founders of this hospital," said Straw, after greeting Joel, "this corn has my approval. It is my orders, as one of the trustees, that it be kept in stock hereafter. This team has to go back to the Prairie Dog to-night, and this corn will fortify them for the trip."
The situation was explained. "I only lost half a day," continued Straw, "by bringing the poor fellow over to you. He's one of the best men that ever worked for me, and a month's rest will put him on his feet again. Now, if one of you boys will take the team back to--"
"Certainly," answered Joel. "Anything a director of this hospital wants done--We're running a relief station now--watering the entire drive this year. Where's your outfit camped?"
"A mile above the trail crossing on the Prairie Dog. The wagon's empty. Leave here at two o'clock to-night, and you'll get there in time for breakfast."
"I'm your man. Going to the Prairie Dog at night, in the summer, is a horse that's easy curried."
The next evening Joel brought in Straw's herd. In the mean time the sick man had been cared for, and the passing wayfarer and his cattle made welcome and sped on their way. During the lay-over, Straw had lost his place in the overland march, two herds having passed him and crossed the Beaver.
"I'm corporal here to-day," said Straw to the two foremen, who arrived together in advance. "On this water, I'm the squatter that'll rob you right. You'll count your cattle to me and pay the bill in advance. This cool, shaded water in the Beaver is worth three cents a head, and I'll count you down to a toddling calf and your wagon mules. Your drafts are refused honor at the Beaver banks--nothing but the long green passes currency here. You varmints must show some regrets for taking advantage of a widow woman. I'll make you sorry for passing me."
"How I love to hear old Nat rattle his little song," said one of the foremen, shaking hands with Dell. "Remember the night you slept with me? How's the black cow I gave you last summer?"
Dell fairly clung to the grasped hand. "Pressnell's foreman!" said he, recalling both man and incident. "The cow has a roan calf. Sit down. Will you need a fresh horse to-day? Do you like lettuce?"
"I reckon, Nat," said the other foreman, an hour later, as the two mounted loaned horses, "I reckon your big talk goes up in smoke. You're not the only director in this cattle company. Dell, ransack both our wagons to-day, and see if you can't unearth some dainties for this sick lad. No use looking in Straw's commissary; he never has anything to eat; Injuns won't go near his wagon."
Straw spent a second night with the sick man. On leaving in the morning, he took the feverish hand of the lad and said: "Now, Jack, make yourself right at home. These boys have been tried before, and they're our people. I'm leaving you a saddle and a horse, and when you get on your feet, take your own bearings. You can always count on a job with me, and I'll see that you draw wages until my outfit is relieved. This fever will burn itself out in a week or ten days. I'll keep an eye over you until you are well. S'long, Jack."
The second week fell short only two herds of the previous one. There were fully as many cattle passed, and under the heat of advancing summer the pools suffered a thirsty levy. The resources of the ponds were a constant source of surprise, as an occasional heavy beef caved a foot into an old beaver warren, which poured its contents into the pools. At the end of the first fortnight, after watering fifty-eight herds, nearly half the original quantity of water was still in reserve.
A third week passed. There was a decided falling off in the arrival of herds, only twenty-two crossing the Beaver. The water reserves suffered freely, more from the sun's absorption than from cattle, until the supply became a matter of the most serious concern. The pools would not have averaged a foot in depth, the flow from the springs was a mere trickle, the beaver burrows sounded empty to a horse's footbeat, and there must be some limit to the amount the parched soil would yield.
The brothers found apt counsel in their guest. By the end of the second week, the fever had run its course, and the sick man, Jack Sargent, was up and observant of the situation. True to his calling, he felt for the cattle, and knew the importance of water on the Beaver to the passing drive.
"You must rest these beaver ponds," said Jack, in meeting the emergency. "Every time these pools lower an inch, it gives the sun an advantage. It's absorption that's swallowing up the ponds. You must deepen these pools, which will keep the water cooler. Rest these ponds a few days, or only water late at night. You have water for weeks yet, but don't let the sun rob you. These ponds are living springs compared to some of the water we used south of Red River. Meet the herds on the divide, and pilot the early ones to the tanks below, and the late ones in here. Shifting in your saddle rests a horse, and a little shifting will save your water."
The advice was acted on. While convalescent, Sargent was installed as host on the Beaver, and the brothers took to their saddles. The majority of the herds were met on the Prairie Dog, and after a consultation with the foremen their cattle were started so as to reach the tanks by day or the ranch at evening. The month rounded out with the arrival of eighteen herds, only six of which touched at headquarters, and the fourth week saw a distinct gain in the water supply at the beaver dams. The boys barely touched at home, to change horses, living with the trail wagons, piloting in herds, rich in the reward of relieving the wayfaring, and content with the crumbs that fell to their range.
The drouth of 1886 left a gruesome record in the pastoral history of the West. The southern end of the Texas and Montana cattle trail was marked by the bones of forty thousand cattle that fell, due to the want of water, during the months of travail on that long march. Some of this loss was due to man's inhumanity to the cattle of the fields, in withholding water, but no such charge rested on the owners of the little ranch on the Beaver.
A short month witnessed the beginning of the end of the year's drive. Only such herds as were compelled to, and those that had strength in reserve, dared the plain between the Arkansas and Platte Rivers. The fifth week only six herds arrived, all of which touched at the ranch; half of them had been purchased at Dodge, had neither a cripple nor a stray to bestow, but shared the welcome water and passed on.
One of the purchased herds brought a welcome letter to Joel. It was from Don Lovell, urgently accenting anew his previous invitation to come to Dodge and look over the market.
"After an absence of several weeks," wrote Mr. Lovell, "I have returned to Dodge. From a buyer's standpoint, the market is inviting. The boom prices which prevailed in '84 are cut in half. Any investment in cattle now is perfectly safe.
"I have ordered three of my outfits to return here. They will pass your ranch. Fall in with the first one that comes along. Bring a mount of horses, and report to me on arriving. Fully half this year's drive is here, unsold. Be sure and come."
"Are you going?" inquired Dell on reading the letter.
"I am," answered Joel with emphasis.
"That's the talk," said Sargent. "Whenever cattle get so cheap that no other man will look a cow in the face, that's the time to buy her. Folks are like sheep; the Bible says so; they all want to buy or all want to sell. I only know Mr. Lovell from what you boys have told me; but by ordering three outfits to return to Dodge, I can see that he's going to take advantage of that market and buy about ten thousand cattle. You've got the range. Buy this summer. I'll stay with Dell until you return. Buy a whole herd of steers, and I'll help you hold them this winter."
The scene shifted. Instead of looking to the south for a dust cloud, the slopes of the north were scanned for an approaching cavalcade. The last week admitted of taking an account of the cattle dropped at the new ranch. From the conserves of its owners, one hundred and four herds had watered, over three hundred thousand cattle, the sweepings of which amounted to a few over eleven hundred head, fully fifty of which, exhausted beyond recovery, died after reaching their new range.
By the end of July, only an occasional herd was arriving. August was ushered in with the appearance of Bob Quirk, one of the division foremen, on the upper march. He arrived early in the morning, in advance of his outfit barely an hour, and inquired for Joel. Dell answered for the brothers, the older one and Sargent being above at Hackberry Grove.
"I have orders to bring him to Dodge," said Quirk, dismounting. "Make haste and bring in the remuda. We'll cut him out a mount of six horses and throw them in with mine. Joel can follow on the seventh. My outfit will barely touch here in passing. We're due to receive cattle in Dodge on the 5th, and time is precious. Joel can overtake us before night. Make haste."