The little ranch had assumed a contract and must answer at the appointed time. If the brothers could meet their first commercial obligation, it would establish their standing, and to that end every energy must be directed. They were extremely fortunate in the advice and help of two young men bred to the occupation, and whose every interest lay in making a success of the ranch.
The trail outfit returned to the railroad that night. Everything was abandoned but their saddles--_burning the wagon_--while Joe Manly, one of their number, remained behind. Manly was not even the foreman, and on taking his departure the trail boss, in the presence of all, said to his man, "Now, Joe, turn yourself over to this ranch and make a useful hand. Drop old man Dudley a line whenever you have a chance. It's quite a little ride to the station, and we'll understand that no news is good news. And once you see that these cattle are going to winter safely, better raise the long yell and come home. You can drift back in the fall--during the beef-shipping season. I may write you when next summer's plans begin to unfold."
Accompanied by Dell and Sargent, and singing the home songs of the South, the outfit faded away into the night. Forrest's herd had watered during the evening, and moved out to a safe camp, leaving its foreman on the Beaver. He and Manly discussed the situation, paving the way in detail, up to the manner of holding the cattle during the coming winter. With numbers exceeding three thousand, close herd and corralling at night was impossible, and the riding of lines, with an extra camp, admitting of the widest freedom, was decided on as the most feasible method. The new camp must be located well above Hackberry Grove, and to provision it for man and horse was one of the many details outlined in meeting the coming winter. Joel was an attentive listener, and having held cattle by one system, he fully understood the necessity of adopting some other manner of restraint. In locating cattle, where there was danger of drifting from any cause, the method of riding lines was simple and easily understood--to patrol the line liable to assault from drifting cattle.
Forrest was elated over the outlook. On leaving the next morning, he turned his horse and rode back to the tent. "This may be the last time I'll come this way," said he to Joel, "as there is talk of the trail moving west. On account of fever, this State threatens to quarantine against Texas cattle. If it does, the trail will have to move over into Colorado or hunt a new route through unorganized counties on the western line of Kansas. In event of quarantine being enforced, it means a bigger range for Wells Brothers. Of course, this is only your second year in cattle, just getting a firm grip on the business, but I can see a big future for you boys. As cowmen, you're just in swaddling clothes yet, toddling around on your first legs, but the outlook is rosy. Hold these cattle this winter, protect your credit next fall, and it doesn't matter if I never come back. A year hence you'll have a bank account, be living on the sunny side of the creek, and as long as you stick to cows, through thick and thin, nothing can unhorse you."
The trail foreman rode away to overtake his herd, and Joel and Manly busied themselves in locating the new cattle. Dell and Sargent accompanied the last Lovell herd into the ranch that evening, and it proved to be the rear guard of trail cattle for that summer.
The ranch was set in order for the present. The dead-line was narrowed to a mile, which admitted of fully half the through cattle watering at the beaver ponds around headquarters. The new remuda, including all horses acquired that summer, to the number of eighty head, was moved up to Hackberry Grove and freed for the year. The wintered horses furnished ample saddle mounts for the present, there being little to do, as the water held the new cattle and no herding was required. The heat of summer was over, the water held in tanks and beaver dams, and the ranch settled down in pastoral security.
Under the new outline for the winter, an increased amount of forage must be provided, as in riding lines two grain-fed horses to the man was the lowest limit in mounting all line-riders. Machinery was available on the railroad, and taking a team, Joel returned with a new mowing machine, and the matter of providing abundant forage was easily met. Sufficient hay, from a few bends of the creek, in dead-line territory, supplied the home ranch, and a week's encampment above Hackberry Grove saw the site of the new line-camp equipped with winter forage.
While engaged on the latter task, a new feature was introduced on Wells Brothers' ranch. A movable commissary is a distinct aid to any pastoral occupation, and hence _the wagon_ becomes a cowman's home and castle. From it he dispenses a rough hospitality, welcomes the wayfarer, and exchanges the chronicle of the range. The wagon, which had been acquired with the new herd and used on the above occasion, was well equipped with canvas cover, water barrels, and a convenient chuck-box at the rear. The latter was fitted with drawers and compartments as conveniently as a kitchen. When open, the lid of the box afforded a table; when closed, it protected the contents from the outer elements. The wagon thus becomes home to nomadic man and animal, the one equal with the other. Saddle horses, when frightened at night, will rush to the safety of a camp-fire and the protection of their masters, and therefore a closer bond exists between the men of the open and their mounts than under more refined surroundings.
Early in September a heavy rain fell in the west, extending down the Beaver, flushing the creek and providing an abundance of running water. It was followed by early frosts, lifting the dead-line and ushering in Indian summer. With forage secure, attention was turned to the cattle. The purchase of a mowing machine had exhausted the funds derived from the sale of peltry, and a shipment of cattle was decided on to provide the munitions for the coming winter. The wagon was accordingly provisioned for a week, the blankets stored in the commissary, and the quartette moved out to round up the wintered cattle. They had not been handled since the spring drift of March before, and when thrown into a compact herd, they presented a different appearance from the spiritless cattle of six months previous. A hundred calves, timid as fawns, shied from the horsemen, their mothers lowed in comforting concern, the beeves waddled about from carrying their own flesh, while the patriarchs of the herd bellowed in sullen defiance. Fifty of the heaviest beeves were cut out from the ---- Y brand, flesh governing the selection, and the first shipment of cattle left the Beaver for eastern markets.
Four days were required to graze the heavy cattle down to the railroad. Dell drove the wagon, Sargent was intrusted with the remuda, the two others grazing the beeves, while each took his turn in standing guard at night. Water was plentiful, cars were in waiting, and on reaching the railroad, the cattle were corralled in the shipping pens.
Joel and Manly accompanied the shipment to Kansas City. The beeves were consigned to the firm mentioned in the bill of sale as factor in marketing and settlement of the herd which had recently passed from the possession of Mr. Stoddard to that of Wells Brothers. The two cars of cattle found a ready sale, the weights revealing a surprise, attracting the attention of packers and salesmen to the quality of beef from the Beaver valley.
"Give me the cattle from the short-grass country," said a salesman to a packer, as Wells Brothers' beeves were crossing the weighing scale. "You and I needn't worry about the question of range--the buffalo knew. Catch the weights of these cattle and compare it with range beef from the sedge-grass and mountain country. Tallow tells its own story--the buffalo knew the best range."
An acquaintance with the commission house was established on a mutual basis. The senior member of the firm, a practical old man, detained Joel and Manly in his private office for an hour.
"This market is alert to every new section having cattle to ship," said the old man to Joel, studying a sales statement. "The Solomon River country sent in some cattle last fall, but yours is the first shipment from the Beaver. Our salesman reports your consignment the fattest range beeves on to-day's market. And these weights confirm the statement. I don't understand it. What kind of a country have you out there?"
Joel gave Manly an appealing look. "It's the plains," answered the latter. "It's an old buffalo range. You can see their skulls by the thousand. It's a big country; it just swells, and dips, and rolls away."
It was the basis of a range which interested the senior member. "The grasses, the grasses?" he repeated. "What are your native grasses?"
"Oh, just plain, every-day buffalo grass," answered Manly. "Of course, here and there, in the bends of the Beaver, there's a little blue-stem, enough for winter forage for the saddle stock. The cattle won't touch it."
The last of many subjects discussed was the existing contract, of which the commission firm was the intermediary factor. The details were gone over carefully, the outlook for next year's shipments reviewed, and on taking their leave, the old man said to his guests:--
"Well, I'm pleased over the outlook. The firm have had letters from both Mr. Lovell and Mr. Stoddard, and now that I've gone over the situation, with the boys in the saddle, everything is clear and satisfactory. Next year's shipments will take care of the contract. Keep in touch with us, and we'll advise you from time to time. Ship your cattle in finished condition, and they'll make a market for themselves. We'll expect you early next summer."
"Our first shipment will be two hundred double-wintered cattle," modestly admitted Joel.
"They ought to be ready a full month in advance of your single-wintered beeves," said the old man, from his practical knowledge in maturing beef. "Ship them early. The bookkeeper has your account all ready."
Joel and Manly were detained at the business office only a moment. The beeves had netted thirty-five dollars a head, and except for current expenses, the funds were left on deposit with the commission house, as there were no banks near home; the account was subject to draft, and accepting a small advance in currency, the boys departed. A brief hour's shopping was indulged in, the principal purchases being two long-range rifles, cartridges and poison in abundance, when they hastened to the depot and caught a west-bound train. Horses had been left at Grinnell, and at evening the next day the two rode into headquarters on the Beaver.
Beyond question there are tides in the affairs of men. With the first shipment of cattle from the little ranch, poverty fled and an air of independence indicated the turn in the swing of the pendulum. Practical men, in every avenue of the occupation, had lent their indorsement to the venture of the brothers, the mettle of the pasture had been tested in the markets, and the future, with reasonable vigilance, rested on sure foundations.
The turn of the tide was noticeable at once. "I really think Uncle Dud would let me come home," said Manly to the others, at supper. "There's no occasion for my staying here this winter. Besides, I'm a tender plant; I'm as afraid of cold as a darky is of thunder. Wouldn't I like to get a letter from Uncle Dud saying, 'Come home, my little white chicken, come home!'"
"You can go in the spring," said Joel. "We're going to use four line-riders this winter, and there's every reason why you'll make a trusty one!"
"That's one of the owners talking," observed Sargent; "now listen to the foreman's orders: The next thing is to brand every hoof up to date. Then, at the upper line-camp, comes the building of a new dug-out and stabling for four horses. And lastly, freight in plenty of corn. After that, if we fail to hold the cattle, it's our own fault. No excuse will pass muster. Hold these cattle? It's a dead immortal cinch! Joseph dear, make yourself a useful guest for the winter."
A hopeful spirit lightened every task. The calves and their mothers were brought down to the home corral and branded in a single day. The Stoddard cattle, the title being conditional, were exempt, the Lazy H ranch brand fully protecting mutual interests. Only cripple, fagged, and stray cattle were branded, the latter numbering less than a hundred head, and were run into the Hospital brand, while the remainder bore the--Y of the ranch. The work was completed within a week, Dell making a hand which proved his nerve, either in the saddle or branding pen.
The first week in October was devoted to building the new dug-out and stable. The wagon was provisioned, every implement and tool on the ranch, from a hammer to a plough, was taken along, as well as the remuda, and the quartette sallied forth to the task as if it were a frolic. The site had been decided on during the haying, and on reaching the scene, the tent was set up, and the building of a shelter for man and horse was begun.
The dug-out of the West is built for comfort,--half cellar and the remainder sod walls. A southern slope was selected; an abrupt break or low bank was taken advantage of, admitting of four-foot cellar walls on three sides, the open end inclosed with massive sod walls and containing the door. The sod was broken by a team and plough, cut into lengths like brick, and the outside walls raised to the desired height. For roofing, a heavy ridge-pole was cut the length of the room, resting on stout upright posts. Lighter poles were split and laid compactly, like rafters, sheeted with hay, and covered with loose dirt to the depth of a foot. The floor was earthen; a half window east and west, supplemented by a door in the south, admitted light, making a cosy, comfortable shelter. A roomy stable was built on the same principle and from the same material.
The work was completed quickly, fuel for the winter gathered, when the quartette started homeward. "It looks like the halfway house at Land's End," said Manly, turning for a last look at the new improvements. "What are you going to call the new tepee?"
"Going to call it The Wagon," answered Sargent, he and Dell having accepted the new line-camp as their winter quarters, "and let the latch-string hang on the outside. Whenever you can, you must bring your knitting and come over."