AN OPEN WINTER
An ideal Indian summer was enjoyed. Between the early and late fall frosts, the range matured into perfect winter pasturage. Light rains in September freshened the buffalo grass until it greened on the sunny slopes, cured into hay as the fall advanced, thus assuring abundant forage to the cattle.
Manly was the only one of the quartette not inured to a northern climate. A winter in Montana had made Sargent proof against any cold, while the brothers were native to that latitude if not to the plains. After building the line-camp and long before occupying it, the quartette paired off, Sargent and Dell claiming the new dug-out, while the other two were perfectly content with the old shack at headquarters. A healthy spirit of rivalry sprang up, extending from a division of the horses down to a fair assignment of the blankets.
Preparations for and a constant reference to the coming winter aroused a dread in Manly. "You remind me of our darky cook," said Sargent, "up on the Yellowstone a few years ago. Half the trail outfit were detailed until frost, to avoid fever and to locate the cattle, and of course the cook had to stay. A squall of snow caught us in camp, and that poor darky just pined away. 'Boss,' he used to say to the foreman, shivering over the fire, 'ah's got to go home. Ah's subjec' to de rheumatics. Mah fambly's a-gwine to be pow'ful uneasy 'bout me. Dis-a-yere country am no place fo' a po' ol' niggah.'"
Two teams were employed in freighting in the corn, four round trips being required, Joel and Manly assuming the work. Supplies for the winter were brought in at the same time, among the first of which were four sacks of salt; and the curing of two barrels of corned beef fell a pleasant task to Dell and his partner. There was nothing new in pickling the meat, and with the exception of felling the beeves, the incident passed as part of the day's work. Dell claimed the privilege of making the shots, which Sargent granted, but exercised sufficient caution to corral the beeves. Both fell in their tracks, and the novice gained confidence in his skill in the use of a rifle.
The first of December was agreed on to begin the riding of lines. That date found all the new cattle drifted above headquarters, and as it was some ten miles to the upper line-camp, an extremely liberal range was allowed the herd. Eight of the best wintered horses were stabled, and at first the line was maintained on the south bank of the Beaver. An outer line was agreed upon, five miles to the south; but until the season forced the cattle to the shelter of the valley, the inner one was kept under patrol. The outer was a purely imaginary line, extending in an immense half-circle, from headquarters to the new line-camp above. It followed the highest ground, and marked the utmost limit on the winter range on the south. Any sign or trace of cattle crossing it, drifting before a storm or grazing at leisure, must be turned back or trailed down.
The first and second weeks passed, the weather continuing fine. Many of the cattle ranged two and three miles north of the creek, not even coming in to water oftener than every other day. Several times the horsemen circled to the north; but as ranging wide was an advantage, the cattle were never disturbed. A light fall of soft snow even failed to bring the cattle into the valley.
Christmas week was ushered in with a display of animal instinct. The through and wintered cattle had mixed and mingled, the latter fat and furred, forging to the front in ranging northward, and instinctively leading their brethren to shelter in advance of the first storm. Between the morning and evening patrol of a perfect day, the herd, of its own accord, drifted into the valley, the leaders rioting in a wild frolic. Their appearance hastened the patrol of the inner line by an hour, every nook and shelter, including the old corral, being filled with frolicsome cattle. The calves were engaging each other in mimic fights, while the older cattle were scarring every exposed bank, or matting their foreheads in clay and soft dirt.
"What does it mean?" inquired Joel, hailing Sargent, when the line-riders met.
"It means that we'll ride the outside line in the morning," came the reply. "There's a storm coming within twelve hours. At least, the herd say so."
"What can we do?"
"Leave that to the cattle. They'll not quit the valley unless driven out by a storm. The instinct that teaches them of the coming storm also teaches them how to meet it. They'll bed in the blue-stem to-night, or hunt a cosy nook under some cut-bank."
A meeting point on the outer line, for the next morning, was agreed upon, when the horsemen separated for the evening. "Get out early, and keep your eyes open for any trace of cattle crossing the line," Sargent called back, as he reined homeward. "Dell and I will leave The Wagon at daybreak."
The storm struck between midnight and morning. Dawn revealed an angry horizon, accompanied by a raw, blue-cold, cutting wind from the north. On leaving their quarters, both patrols caught the storm on an angle, edging in to follow the circle, their mounts snorting defiance and warming to the work in resisting the bitter morning. The light advanced slowly, a sifting frost filled the air, obscuring the valley, and not until the slope to the south was reached was the situation known.
No cattle were in sight or adrift. Within an hour after leaving the line-camp, the experienced eye of Sargent detected a scattering trace where an unknown number of cattle had crossed the line. Both he and Dell dismounted, and after studying the trail, its approach and departure, the range-bred man was able to give a perfect summary of the situation.
"There's between fifty and a hundred head in this drift," remarked Sargent, as the two remounted. "They're through cattle; the storm must have caught them on the divide, north of the Beaver. They struck the creek in the flats and were driven out of the valley. The trail's not over two hours old. Ride the line until you meet the other boys, and I'll trail down these cattle. The sand dunes ought to catch them."
Dell and Sargent separated. Five miles to the eastward Joel was met. Manly was reported at the rear, the two having intercepted a contingent of cattle approaching the line, and was then drifting the stragglers back to the valley. On Dell's report, the brothers turned to the assistance of Sargent, retracing the western line, and finally bearing off for the sand hills. Several times the sun threatened to break through, lighting the valley, but without revealing any stir among the cattle in the shelter of the creek. In the short time since leaving their stables, the horses under saddle had whitened from the action of the frost on their sweaty coats, unheeded by their riders. There was no checking of mounts until the range of dunes was reached, when from the summit of a sand hill the stragglers were located in care of Sargent, and on the homeward drift. The cattle were so benumbed and bewildered from the cold that they had marched through the shelter of the dunes, and were overtaken adrift on the wind-swept plain.
The contingent numbered sixty-odd cattle, and with the help of the brothers were easily handled. Before recrossing the line, the sun burst forth, and on reaching the slope, the trio halted in parting. "A few hours of this sun," said Sargent, "and we've got the upper hand of this storm. The wind or sun must yield. If the wind lulls, we'll ride the inner line to-night and bed every hoof in the shelter of the creek. Pick up Manly, and we'll ride the valley line about the middle of the afternoon."
Joel turned homeward, scouting that portion of the line under patrol from headquarters. The drifting contingent was intrusted to Dell, leaving Sargent to retrace their division of the line, and before noon all had reached their quarters. From twenty to thirty miles had been covered that morning, in riding the line and recovering the lost, and at the agreed time, the relay horses were under saddle for the afternoon task. The sun had held sway, the wind had fallen, and as they followed up the valley, they encountered the cattle in large bunches, grazing to every quarter of the compass. They were not molested on the outward ride, but on the return trip, near evening, they were all turned back to the sheltering nooks and coves which the bends of the Beaver afforded. A crimpy night followed, but an early patrol in the morning found the cattle snug in the dry, rank grasses which grew in the first bottoms of the creek.
The first storm had been weathered. The third day, of their own accord, the cattle left the valley and grazed out on the northern divide. The line-riders relaxed their vigil, and in preparation for observing the Natal day, each camp put forth its best hunter to secure a venison. The absence of snow, during the storm, had held the antelope tributary to the Beaver, and locating game was an easy matter. To provide the roast, the spirit of rivalry was accented anew, and each camp fervently hoped for its own success.
A venison hung at headquarters before noon, Manly making a running shot at the leader of a band, which was surprised out of a morning siesta near the old trail crossing. If a quarry could only be found in the sand hills, a natural shelter for antelope, Sargent had flattered Dell into believing that his aim was equal to the occasion. The broken nature of the dune country admitted of stealthy approach, and its nearness to the upper camp recommended it as an inviting hunting ground. The disappointment of the first effort, due to moderated weather, was in finding the quarry far afield. A dozen bands were sighted from the protection of the sand hills, a mile out on the flat plain, but without shelter to screen a hunter. Sargent was equal to the occasion, and selecting a quarry, the two horses were unsaddled, the bridle reins lengthened by adding ropes, and crouching low, their mounts afforded the necessary screen as they grazed or were driven forward. By tacking right and left in a zigzag course they gained the wind, and a stealthy approach on the band was begun. The stabled horses grazed ravenously, sometimes together, then apart, affording a perfect screen for stalking.
After a seeming age to Dell, the required rifle range was reached, when the cronies flattened themselves in the short grass and allowed the horses to graze to their rope's end. Sargent indicated a sentinel buck, presenting the best shot; and using his elbow for a rest, the rifle was laid in the hollow of Dell's upraised hand and drawn firmly to his shoulder, and a prompt report followed. The shot went wild, throwing up a flash of dust before the band, which instantly whirled. The horses merely threw up their heads in surprise, attracting the startled quarry, which ran up within fifty yards of the repeating rifle. In the excitement of the moment instantly following the first shot, Dell had arisen to his knee, unmindful of the necessity of throwing another cartridge into the rifle barrel. "Shoot! Shoot!" whispered Sargent, as the band excitedly halted within pistol range. Dell fingered the trigger in vain. "Throw in a cartridge!" breathlessly suggested Sargent. The lever clicked, followed by a shot, which tore up the sod within a few feet of the muzzle of the rifle!
The antelope were away in a flash. Sargent rolled on the grass, laughing until the tears trickled down his cheeks, while Dell's chagrin left him standing like a simpleton.
"I don't believe this gun shoots true," he ventured at last, too mortified to realize the weakness of his excuse. "Besides, it's too easy on the trigger."
"No rifle shoots true during buck ague season," answered Sargent, not daring to raise his eyes. "When the grass comes next spring, those scars in the sod will grow over. Lucky that neither horse was killed. Honest, I'll never breathe it! Not for worlds!"
Sargent's irony was wasted. Dell, in a dazed way, recovered his horse, mounted, and aimlessly followed his bunkie. On reaching their saddles, the mental fog lifted, and as if awakening from a pleasant dream, the boy dismounted. "Did I have it?--the buck ague?" he earnestly inquired.
"You had symptoms of it," answered Sargent, resaddling his horse. "Whenever a hunter tries to shoot an empty gun, or discharges one into the ground at his feet, he ought to take something for his nerves. It's not fatal, and I have hopes of your recovery."
The two turned homeward. Several times Sargent gave vent to a peal of laughter that rang out like a rifle report, but Dell failed to appreciate the humor of the situation.
"Well," said the older one, as they dismounted at the stable, "if we have to fall back on corn beef for our Christmas dinner, I can grace it with a timely story. And if we have a saddle of venison, it will fit the occasion just as well."
The inner line was ridden at evening. The cattle were caring for themselves; but on meeting the lads from headquarters, an unusual amount of banter and repartee was exchanged.
"Killed an antelope two days before you needed it," remarked Sargent scathingly. "Well, well! You fellows certainly haven't much confidence in your skill as hunters."
"Venison improves with age," loftily observed Manly.
"That's a poor excuse. At best, antelope venison is dry meat. We located a band or two to-day, and if Dell don't care for the shot, I'll go out in the morning and bring in a fat yearling."
"Is that your prospect for a Christmas roast?" inquired Manly with refined sarcasm. "Dell, better air your Sunday shirt to-morrow and come down to headquarters for your Christmas dinner. We're going to have quite a spread."
Dell threw a glance at Sargent. "Come on," said the latter with polished contempt, reining his horse homeward. "Just as if we lived on beans at The Wagon! Just as if our porcelain-lined graniteware wasn't as good as their tin plates! Catch us accepting! Come on!"
Sargent was equal to his boast. He returned the next day before noon, a young doe lashed to his saddle cantle, and preparations were made for an extensive dinner. The practical range man is usually a competent cook, and from the stores of the winter camp a number of extra dishes were planned. In the way of a roast, on the plains, a saddle of venison was the possible extreme, and the occupants of the line-camp possessed a ruddy health which promised appetites to grace the occasion.
Christmas day dawned under ideal conditions. Soft winds swayed the dead weeds and leafless shrubs, the water trickled down the creek from pool to pool, reminding one of a lazy, spring day, with droning bees and flights of birds afield. Sargent rode the morning patrol alone, meeting Joel at the halfway point, when the two dismounted, whiling away several hours in considering future plans of the ranch.
It was high noon when the two returned to their respective quarters. Dell had volunteered to supervise the roasting of the venison, and on his crony's return, the two sat down to their Christmas dinner. What the repast lacked in linen and garnishment, it made up in stability, graced by a cheerfulness and contentment which made its partakers at peace with the world. Sargent was almost as resourceful in travel and story as Quince Forrest, and never at a loss for the fitting incident to grace any occasion.
Dell was a good listener. Any story, even at his own expense, was enjoyed. "Whether we had corn beef or venison," said he to Sargent, "you promised to tell a story at dinner to-day."
"The one that you reminded me of when you shot the rifle into the ground at your feet and scared the antelope away? No offense if I have to laugh; you looked like a simpleton."
"Tell your story; I'm young, I'll learn," urged Dell.
"You may learn to handle a gun, and make the same mistake again, but in a new way. It's live and learn. This man was old enough to be your father, but he looked just as witless as you did."
"Let's have the story," impatiently urged the boy.
"It happened on a camp hunt. Wild turkeys are very plentiful in certain sections of Texas, and one winter a number of us planned a week's shooting. In the party was a big, raw-boned ex-sheriff, known as one of the most fearless officers in the state. In size he simply towered above the rest of us.
"It was a small party, but we took along a commissary wagon, an ambulance, saddle horses, and plenty of Mexicans to do the clerking and coarse handwriting. It was quite a distance to the hunting grounds, and the first night out, we made a dry camp. A water keg and every jug on the ranch had been filled for the occasion, and were carried in the wagon.
"Before reaching the road camp, the big sheriff promised us a quail pot-pie for breakfast, and with that intent, during the afternoon, he killed two dozen partridges. The bird was very plentiful, and instead of picking them for a pot-pie, skinning such a number was much quicker. In the hurry and bustle of making the camp snug for the night, every one was busy, the sheriff in particular, in dressing his bag of quail. On finishing the task, he asked a Mexican to pour some water, and the horse wrangler reached into the wagon, at random, and emptied a small jug into the vessel containing the dressed birds.
"The big fellow adjourned to the rear and proceeded to wash and drain his quail. After some little time, he called to the cook: 'Ignacio, I smell kerosene. Look in the wagon, please, and see if the lantern isn't leaking.'
"'In a minute,' answered the cook, busy elsewhere.
"The sheriff went on washing the quail, and when about halfway through the task, he halted. 'Ignacio, I smell that kerosene again. See if the lantern isn't upset, or the oil jug leaking.'
"'Just in a minute,' came the answer as before. 'My hands are in the flour.'
"The big man went on, sniffing the air from time to time, nearly finishing his task, when he stopped again and pleadingly said: 'Ignacio, I surely smell kerosene. We're out for a week, and a lantern without oil puts us in a class with the foolish virgins. Drop your work and see what the trouble is. There's a leak somewhere.'
"The cook dusted the flour from his hands, clambered up on the wagon wheel, lifted the kerosene jug, pulled the stopper, smelt it, shook it, and lifted it above his head in search of a possible crack. The empty jug, the absence of any sign of leakage, gradually sifted through his mind, and he cast an inquiring glance at the big sheriff, just then finishing his task. Invoking heaven and all the saints to witness, he gasped, 'Mr. Charlie, you've washed the quail in the kerosene!'
"The witless, silly expression that came into that big man's face is only seen once in a lifetime," said Sargent in conclusion. "I've been fortunate, I've seen it twice; once on the face of a Texas sheriff, and again, when you shot a hole in the ground with your eye on an antelope. Whenever I feel blue and want to laugh, I conjure up the scene of a Mexican, standing on a wagon wheel, holding a jug, and a six-footer in the background, smelling the fingers of one hand and then the other."