A PROTECTED CREDIT
The trail outfit swept past the ranch, leaving Dell on nettles. The importance of the message was urgent, and saddling up a horse, he started up the Beaver in search of Joel and Sargent. They were met returning, near the dead-line, and after listening to the breathless report, the trio gave free rein to their horses on the homeward ride.
"I'll use old Rowdy for my seventh horse," said Joel, swinging out of the saddle at the home corral. "Bring him in and give him a feed of corn. It may be late when I overtake the outfit. Mr. Quince says that that old horse has cow-sense to burn; that he can scent a camp at night, or trail a remuda like a hound."
An hour later Joel cantered up to the tent. "This may be a wild-goose chase," said he, "but I'm off. If my hopes fall dead, I can make a hand coming back. Sargent, if I do buy any cattle, your name goes on the pay-roll from to-day. I'll leave you in charge of the ranch, anyhow. There isn't much to do except to ride the dead-line twice a day. The wintered cattle are located; and the cripples below--the water and their condition will hold them. Keep open house, and amuse yourselves the best you can. That's about all I can think of just now."
Joel rode away in serious meditation. Although aged beyond his years, he was only seventeen. That he could ride into Dodge City, the far-famed trail-town of the West, and without visible resources buy cattle, was a fit subject for musing. There the drovers from Texas and the ranchmen from the north and west met and bartered for herds--where the drive of the year amounted to millions in value. Still the boy carried a pressing invitation from a leading drover to come, and neither slacking rein nor looking back, he was soon swallowed up in the heat-waves over the plain.
Sargent and Dell sought the shelter of the awning. "Well," said the latter, "that trip's a wild-goose chase. How he expects to buy cattle without money gets me."
"It may be easier than it seems," answered Sargent. "You secured a start in cattle last summer without money. Suppose you save a thousand head out of the cripples this year, what have they cost you?"
"That's different," protested Dell. "Dodge City is a market where buyers and sellers meet."
"True enough. And behind that are unseen conditions. The boom of two years ago in land and live stock bankrupted many people in Texas. Cattle companies were organized on the very summit of that craze. Then came the slump. Last year cattle had fallen in price nearly forty per cent. This year there is a further falling. I'm giving you Texas conditions. Half the herds at Dodge to-day are being handled by the receivers of cattle companies or by trustees for banks. That accounts for the big drive. Then this drouth came on, and the offerings at Dodge are unfit for any purpose, except to restock ranches. And those northern ranchmen know it. They'll buy the cattle at their own price and pay for them when they get good and ready."
Dell was contending for his view. "Do you claim that a northern cowman can buy cattle from a Texas drover without money?"
"Certainly. When one sheep jumps off the cliff and breaks his neck, all the rest jump off and break their necks. When money is pouring into cattle, as it was two years ago, range cattle were as good as gold. Now, when all that investment is trying to withdraw from cattle, they become a drag on the market. The Simple Simons ain't all dead yet. Joel will buy cattle."
"He may, but I don't see how."
"Buy them just as any other wide-awake cowman. You brothers are known in Dodge. This water that you have given the drovers, during the drouth, has made you friends. Mr. Lovell's word, in your behalf, is as good as money in the bank. Joel will come back with cattle. My only fear is, he won't strain his credit."
"Credit! Who would credit us?"
"Why not? There are not so many drovers at Dodge who had your showing at the same age. They have fought their way up and know who to credit. Your range and ability to hold cattle are your best assets. We must shape up the ranch, because Joel will come in with cattle."
"You're the foreman," said Dell assentingly. "And what's more, if Joel comes home with cattle, I'll hit the ground with my hat and shout as loud as any of you."
"That's the talk. I'm playing Joel to come back winner. Let's saddle up horses, and ride through the cripples this afternoon. I want to get the lay of the range, and the water, and a line on the cattle."
Joel overtook Bob Quirk midway between the Prairie Dog and the railroad. The outfit was drifting south at the rate of forty miles a day, traveling early and late to avoid the heat. On sighting the lone horseman in the rear, signals were exchanged, and the foreman halted until Joel overtook the travelers.
"This is the back track," said Quirk, "and we're expected to crowd three days into one. I don't know what the old man wants with you, but I had a wire to pick you up."
"Mr. Lovell has been urging me to stock our range--to buy more cattle," admitted Joel.
"That's what I thought. He's buying right and left. We're on our way now to receive cattle. That's it; the old man has a bunch of cattle in sight for you."
"Possibly. But what's worrying me is, how am I to buy them--if it takes any money!" dejectedly admitted the husky boy.
"Is that fretting you?" lightly inquired Quirk. "Let the old man do the worrying--that's his long suit. You can rest easy that he has everything all figured out. It might keep you and I guessing, but it's as clear as mud to that old man. We'll make Dodge in four days."
The ravages of the drouth were disheartening. A few hours after sunrise, a white haze settled over the dull, dead plain, the heat-waves rolled up to the cavalcade like a burning prairie, sweat and dust crusted over the horses under saddle, without variation of pace or course. Only three herds were met, feeling their way through the mirages, or loitering along the waters. Traveling by night was preferable, and timing the route into camps and marches, the cottonwood on the Arkansas River was sighted in advance of the schedule.
The outfit halted on a creek north of town. Cattle under herd had been sighted by the thousands, and before the camp was made snug, a conveyance drove up and Forrest and Don Lovell alighted.
"Well, Bob, you're a little ahead of time," said the latter, amid general greetings, "but I'm glad of it. I've closed trades on enough cattle to make up a herd, and the sellers are hurrying me to receive them. Pick up a full outfit of men to-night, and we'll receive to-morrow afternoon. Quince took the train at Cheyenne, but his outfit ought to reach here in a day or so. I've laid my tape on this market, and have all the cattle in sight that I want. Several deals are pending, awaiting the arrival of this boy. Come to town to-night. I'll take Joel under my wing right now."
Three horses were caught, Joel riding one and leading two, and the vehicle started. It was still early in the afternoon, and following down the creek, within an hour the party reached a trail wagon encamped. A number of men were about, including a foreman; and at the request of Mr. Lovell to look over their cattle and horses again the camp took on an air of activity. A small remuda was corralled within ropes, running from choice to common horses, all of which were looked over carefully by the trio, including the wagon team. A number of horses were under saddle, and led by the foreman, a quartette of men started in advance to bunch the herd.
Leaving Forrest at the camp, Mr. Lovell and Joel took the rig and leisurely followed the departing horsemen. "This is one of the best herds on the market," said the old drover to the boy, "and I've kept the deal pending, to see if you and I couldn't buy it together. It runs full thirty-five hundred cattle, twelve hundred threes and the remainder twos. I always buy straight two-year-olds for my beef ranch, because I double-winter all my steer cattle--it takes two winters in the north to finish these Texas steers right. Now, if you can handle the threes, the remnant of twos, and the saddle stock, we'll buy the herd, lock, stock, and barrel. The threes will all ship out as four-year-old beeves next fall, and you can double-winter the younger cattle. I can use two thousand of the two-year-olds, and if you care for the others, after we look them over, leave me to close the trade."
"Mr. Lovell, it has never been clear to me how I am to buy cattle without money," earnestly said Joel.
"Leave that to me--I have that all figured out. If we buy this herd together, you can ship out two thousand beef cattle next fall, and a ranch that has that many beeves to market a year hence, can buy, with or without money, any herd at Dodge to-day. If you like the cattle and want them, leave it all to me."
"But so many horses--We have forty horses already," protested Joel.
"A wide-awake cowman, in this upper country, always buys these southern horses a year in advance of when he needs them. Next year you'll be running a shipping outfit, mounting a dozen men, sending others on fall round-ups, and if you buy your horses now, you'll have them in the pink of condition then. It's a small remuda, a few under sixty horses, as fifty head were detailed out here to strengthen remudas that had to go to the Yellowstone. This foreman will tell you that he topped out twenty-five of the choice horses before the other trail bosses were allowed to pick. As the remuda stands, its make-up is tops and tailings. A year hence one will be as good as the other. You'll need the horses, and by buying down to the blanket, turning the owner foot-loose and free, it will help me to close the trade, in our mutual interest."
The cattle were some two miles distant, under close herd, and by quietly edging them in onto a few hundred acres, they could be easily looked over from the conveyance. On the arrival of the prospective buyers, the foreman had the cattle sufficiently compact, and the old man and the boy drove back and forth through the herd for fully an hour. They were thrifty, western Texas steers, had missed the drouth by coming into the trail at Camp Supply, and were all that could be desired in range cattle. The two agreed on the quality of the herd, and on driving out from among the cattle, the foreman was signaled up.
"One of my outfits arrived from the Platte this afternoon," said Mr. Lovell, "and we'll receive to-morrow. That leaves me free to pick up another herd. If Dud would try his best, he would come very near selling me these cattle. I've got a buyer in sight for the threes and remnant of twos, and if you price the horses right, we might leave you afoot. If you see Dudley before I do, tell him I looked over his cattle again."
"I'll see him to-night," said the foreman, calling after the vehicle.
Forrest was picked up, and they returned to town. The fame of wicked Dodge never interfered with the transaction of business, its iniquity catering largely to the rabble.
"I'll take Joel with me," said the drover to Forrest, "and you look after the horses and hang around the hotel. Dud Stoddard is almost sure to look me up, and if you meet him, admit that we looked over his cattle again. I want him to hound me into buying that herd."
Joel's taciturn manner stood him in good stead. He was alert to all that was passing and, except with Mr. Lovell, was reticent in the extreme. The two strolled about the streets during the evening hours, and on returning to the hotel rather late, Dudley Stoddard was awaiting the old drover. There was no prelude to the matter at issue, and after arranging with other sellers to receive the following day, Mr. Lovell led the way to his room.
"This is one of the Wells Brothers," said the old cowman, presenting Joel; "one of the boys who watered the drive on the Beaver this summer. I was up on his ranch about a month ago, and gave him a good scolding for not stocking his range somewhere near its carrying capacity. He's the buyer I had in view for your three-year-olds. You offered me the herd, on time, and at satisfactory prices. I can use two thousand of the twos, and Wells Brothers will take the remainder, and we'll turn you afoot. Say so, and your herd is sold."
"Well," said Mr. Stoddard, somewhat embarrassed, "I don't happen to know the Wells Brothers--and I usually know men when I extend them a credit. This boy--Well, I'm not in the habit of dealing with boys."
"You and I were boys once and had to make our start," testily replied Mr. Lovell, pacing the room. "The Wells Brothers are making the fight that you and I were making twenty years ago. In our early struggles, had some one stood behind us, merely stood behind us, it might have been different with us to-day. And now when I don't need no help--Dud, it don't cost much to help others. These boys have proven themselves white, to yours and to my men and to yours and to my cattle. Is there nothing we can do?"
Mr. Stoddard turned to the old drover. "I'll renew my last offer to you. Take the herd and sell these boys the older cattle and remnants. You know the brothers--you know their resources."
"No!" came the answer like a rifle-shot.
"Then, will you stand sponsor--will you go their security?"
"No! These boys can't send home for money nor can't borrow any. Their only asset is their ability to hold and mature cattle. Last winter, the most severe one in the history of the West, they lost two per cent of their holdings. Neither you nor I can make as good a showing on any of our ranges. Dud, what I'm trying to do is to throw on this boy's shoulders the _responsibility_ of _paying_ for _any cattle he buys_. At his age it would be wrong to rob him of that important lesson. Let's you and I stand behind him, and let's see to it that he makes the right effort to protect his credit."
"That's different," admitted Mr. Stoddard. "Don, if you'll suggest the means to that end, I'll try and meet you halfway."
Mr. Lovell took a seat at the table and picked up a blank sheet of paper. "As mutual friends," said he, "let me draw up, from seller to buyer, an iron-clad bill of sale. Its first clause will be a vendor's lien for the cost of the cattle, horses, etc. Its second will be the appointment of a commission house, who will act as agent, hold this contract, and receive the beeves when ready for shipment to market. Its third clause will be your right, as creditor in a sale of chattel, to place a man of your own selection on Wells Brothers' ranch, under their pay and subject to their orders. As your representative, the privilege is granted of making a daily, weekly, or monthly report to you of the condition of the cattle and the general outlook of the buyers to meet this, their covenant with the seller, before November 1, 1887.
"I wouldn't enter into such a contract with you," continued Mr. Lovell, throwing down the sheet of paper, "but I want this boy to learn the value of a well-protected credit. At his time of life, it's an asset. I'll pay for my half when it's convenient, but I want him to meet his first obligation on or before the day of maturity. I can speak for the boy's willingness to make such a contract. What do you say?"
"Delivery here or elsewhere?" inquired Mr. Stoddard.
"My half here, within three days, the remainder on the Beaver, a seven days' drive. It won't cost you a cent more to send your outfit home from Grinnell than from Dodge. Ten days will end all your trouble. What do you say?"
"Don, let me talk the matter over with you privately," said Mr. Stoddard, arising. "The boy will excuse us. We'll give him a square deal."
The two old men left the room. Forrest arose from a couch and threw his arms around Joel. "It's a sale!" he whispered. "The cattle's yours! That old man of mine will ride Dud Stoddard all around the big corral and spur him in the flank at every jump, unless he comes to those terms. An iron-clad bill of sale is its own surety. You'll need the man, anyhow. I want to give the long yell."
Mr. Lovell returned after midnight, and alone. Forrest and Joel arose to meet him, inquiry and concern in every look and action.
"Take Joel and get out of here," said the old drover, whose twinkling eyes could not conceal the gloating within. "I've got to draw up that bill of sale. Just as if those steers wouldn't pay for themselves next fall. Get to bed, you rascals!"
"Would there be any harm if I went down to the bank of the river and gave the long yell?" inquired Forrest, as he halted in the doorway.
"Get to bed," urged the old drover. "I'll want you in the morning. We'll close a trade, the first thing, on fifteen hundred of those Womack twos. That'll give you a herd, and you can keep an eye over Joel's cattle until the Beaver's reached."
During the few days which followed, Joel Wells was thrown in contact with the many features of a range cattle market. In all the migrations of mankind, strictly cattle towns like Dodge City and Ogalalla are unknown. They were the product of all pastoral ages, reaching a climax on American soil, and not of record in any other country or time. Joel let little escape him. Here men bought and sold by the thousand head, in his day and generation, and he was a part of that epoch.
The necessary number of cattle to complete a herd for Forrest were purchased without leaving town. The afternoon was spent in receiving a herd, in which the veteran drover took a hand, assisted by two competent foremen. Every feature in the cattle, the why and wherefore, was pointed out by the trio, to the eager, earnest boy, so that the lesson sunk into Joel's every fibre. The beauty of the first herd received was in the uniform average of each animal, when ages, class, and build governed selection.
Forrest's outfit arrived that evening, and without even a day's rest arrangements were made to receive the two contingents the next morning. When it came to receive the Stoddard herd, the deftness with which the two outfits classified the cattle was only short of marvelous. The threes were cut out, and each age counted. The over-plus of the younger cattle were cut back, and the contingents were tendered on delivery. The papers were ready, executed on the ground, and the herds started, the smaller in the lead.
The drive to the Beaver was without incident. Forrest spent most of his time with the little herd, which used only eight men, counting Joel, who stood guard at night and made a hand. The herd numbered a few over fifteen hundred cattle, the remuda fifty-six horses, a team and wagon, the total contract price of which was a trifle under twenty-five thousand dollars. It looked like a serious obligation for two boys to assume, but practical men had sanctioned it, and it remained for the ability of Wells Brothers to meet it.
On nearing the Beaver, the lead herd under Bob Quirk took the new trail, which crossed at the ranch. On their leaving the valley, a remark was dropped, unnoticed by Dell, but significant to Jack Sargent. It resulted in the two riding out on the trail, only to meet the purchased cattle, Joel on one point and Forrest on the other, directing the herds to the tanks below. The action bespoke its intent, and on meeting Forrest, the latter jerked his thumb over his shoulder, remarking, "Drop back and pilot the wagon and remuda into the ranch. We're taking this passel of cattle into the new tanks, and will scatter them up and down the creek. Lovell's cattle? No. Old man Joel Wells bought these to stock his ranch. See how chesty it makes him--he won't even look this way. You boys may have to sit up with him a few nights at first, but he'll get over that. Pilot in the remuda. You two are slated to take this outfit to the railroad to-night. Trail along, my beauties; Wells Brothers are shaking out a right smart bit of sail these days."