LIVING IN THE SADDLE
The glow of a smouldering camp-fire piloted the returning horsemen safely to their wagon. A good night's rest fitted them for the task of the day, which began at sunrise. The next shipment would come from the flotsam of the year before, many of which were heavy beeves, intended for army delivery, but had fallen footsore on the long, drouthy march. The past winter had favored the lame and halt, and after five months of summer, the bulk of them had matured into finished beef.
By shipping the different contingents separately, the brothers were enabled to know the situation at all times. No accounts were kept, but had occasion required, either Joel or Dell could have rendered a statement from memory of returns on the double and single wintered, as well as on the purchased cattle. Sale statements were furnished by the commission house, and by filing these, an account of the year's shipments, each brand separate, could be made up at the end of the season.
The early struggle of Wells Brothers, in stocking their range, was now happily over. Instead of accepting the crumbs which fell as their portion, their credit and resources enabled them to choose the class of cattle which promised growth and quick returns. The range had proven itself in maturing beef, and the ranch thereafter would carry only sufficient cows to quiet and pacify its holdings of cattle.
"If this was my ranch," said Sargent to the brothers at breakfast, "I'd stock it with two-year-old steers and double-winter every hoof. Look over those sale statements and you'll see what two winters mean. That first shipment of Lazy H's was as fat as mud, and yet they netted seven dollars a head less than those rag-tag, double-wintered ones. There's a waste that must be saved hereafter."
"That's our intention," said Joel. "We'll ship out every hoof that has the flesh this year. Nearly any beef will buy three two-year-old steers to take his place. It may take another year or two to shape up our cattle, but after that, every hoof must be double-wintered."
An hour after sunrise, the drag-net was drawing together the first round-up of the day. The importance of handling heavy beeves without any excitement was fully understood, and to gather a shipment without disturbing those remaining was a task that required patience and intelligence. Men on the outside circle merely turned the cattle on the extremes of the range; they were followed by inner horsemen, and the drag-net closed at a grazing pace, until the round-up halted on a few acres.
The first three shipments had tried out the remuda. The last course in the education of a cow-horse is cutting cattle out of a mixed round-up. On the present work, those horses which had proven apt were held in reserve, and while the first contingent of cattle was quieting down, the remuda was brought up and saddles shifted to four cutting horses. The average cow can dodge and turn quicker than the ordinary horse, and only a few of the latter ever combine action and intelligence to outwit the former. Cunning and ingenuity, combined with the required alertness, a perfect rein, coupled with years of actual work, produce that rarest of range mounts--the cutting horse.
Dell had been promised a trial in cutting out beeves. Sargent took him in hand, and mounted on two picked horses, they entered the herd. "Now, I'll pick the beeves," said the latter, "and you cut them out. All you need to do is to rein that horse down on your beef, and he'll take him out of the herd. Of course you'll help the horse some little; but if you let too many back, I'll call our wrangler and try him out. That horse knows the work just as well as you do. Now, go slow, and don't ride over your beef."
The work commenced. The beeves were lazy from flesh, inactive, and only a few offered any resistance to the will of the horsemen. Dell made a record of cutting out fifty beeves in less than an hour, and only letting one reënter the herd. The latter was a pony-built beef, and after sullenly leaving the herd, with the agility of a cat, he whirled right and left on the space of a blanket, and beat the horse back into the round-up. Sargent lent a hand on the second trial, and when the beef saw that resistance was useless, he kicked up his heels and trotted away to join those selected for shipment.
"He's laughing at you," said Sargent. "He only wanted to try you out. Just wanted to show you that no red-headed boy and flea-bit horse could turn him. And he showed you."
"This beats roping," admitted Dell, as the two returned to the herd, quite willing to change the subject. "Actually when a beef reaches the edge of the herd, this horse swells up and his eyes pop out like door-knobs. You can feel every muscle in him become as rigid as ropes, and he touches the ground as if he was walking on eggs. Look at him now; goes poking along as if he was half asleep."
"He's a cutting horse and doesn't wear himself out. Whenever you can strip the bridle off, while cutting out a beef, and handle your steer, that's the top rung a cow-horse can reach. He's a king pin--that's royalty."
A second round-up was required to complete the train-load of beeves. They were not uniform in weight or age, and would require reclassing before loading aboard the cars. Their flesh and finish were fully up to standard, but the manner in which they were acquired left them uneven, their ages varying from four to seven years.
"There's velvet in this shipment," said Sargent, when the beeves had been counted and trimmed. "These cattle can defy competition. Instead of five cents a head for watering last year's drive, this year's shipment from crumbs will net you double that amount. The first gathering of beef will square the account with every thirsty cow you watered last summer."
An extra day was allowed in which to reach the railroad. The shipment must pen the evening before, and halting the herd within half a mile of the railway corrals, the reclassing fell to Joel and Sargent. The contingent numbered four hundred and forty beeves, and in order to have them marketable, all rough, heavy cattle must be cut into a class by themselves, leaving the remainder neat and uniform. A careful hour's work resulted in seven car-loads of extra heavy beeves, which were corralled separately and in advance of the others, completing a long day in the saddle.
Important mail was awaiting Wells Brothers at the station. A permit from the state quarantine authorities had been secured, due to the influence of the commission house and others, admitting the through herd, then en route from Ogalalla. The grant required a messenger to meet the herd without delay, and Dell volunteered his services as courier. Darkness fell before supper was over and the messenger ready.
"One more shipment will clean up our beeves," said Joel to his brother, "and those through cattle can come in the day we gather our last train. We'll give them a clear field. If the herd hasn't reached the Republican, push ahead until you meet it."
A hundred-mile ride lay before Dell Wells. "You mean for the herd to follow the old trail," he inquired, "and turn off opposite our middle tank?"
"That's it; and hold the cattle under herd until we can count and receive them."
Dell led out his horse and mounted. "Dog-toe will take me safely home to-night," said he, "and we'll reach the Republican by noon to-morrow. If the herd's there, you haven't an hour to waste. We'll drop down on you in a day and a half."
The night received courier and horse. A clatter of caution and advice followed the retreating figure out of hearing, when the others threw themselves down around the camp-fire. Early morning found the outfit astir, and as on the previous occasion, the wagon and remuda were started home at daybreak. The loading and shipping instructions were merely a repetition of previous consignments, and the train had barely left the station when the cavalcade rode to overtake the commissary.
The wagon was found encamped on the Prairie Dog. An hour's rest was allowed, fresh horses were saddled, when Joel turned to the cook and wrangler: "Make camp to-night on the middle tank, below headquarters. We'll ride on ahead and drift all the cattle up the creek. Our only round-up to-morrow will be well above the old winter corral. It's our last gathering of beef, and we want to make a general round-up of the range. We'll drift cattle until dark, so that it'll be late when we reach camp."
The outfit of horsemen followed the old trail, and only sighted the Beaver late in the afternoon. The last new tank, built that spring, was less than a mile below the old crossing; and veering off there, the drag-net was thrown across the valley below it, and a general drift begun. An immense half-circle, covering the limits of the range, pointed the cattle into the valley, and by moving forward and converging as the evening advanced, a general drift was maintained. The pace was barely that of grazing, and as darkness approached, all cattle on the lower end of the range were grazed safely above the night camp and left adrift.
The wagon had arrived, and the men reached camp by twos and threes. There was little danger of the cattle returning to their favorite range during the night, but for fear of stragglers, at an early hour in the morning the drag-net was again thrown out from camp. Headquarters was passed before the horsemen began encountering any quantity of cattle, and after passing the old winter corral, the men on the points of the half-circle were sent to ride the extreme limits of the range. By the middle of the forenoon, everything was adrift, and as the cattle naturally turned into the valley for their daily drink, a few complete circles brought the total herd into a general round-up, numbering over fifteen hundred head of mixed cattle.
Meanwhile the wagon and remuda had followed up the drift, dinner was waiting, and after the mid-day meal had been bolted, orders rang out. "Right here's where all hands and the cook draw fresh horses," said Sargent, "and get into action. It's a bulky herd, and cutting out will be slow. The cook and wrangler must hold the beeves, and that will turn the rest of us free to watch the round-up and cut out."
By previous agreement, in order to shorten the work, Joel was to cut out the remnant of double-wintered beeves, Manly the Lazy H's, while Sargent and an assistant would confine their selections to the single-wintered ones in the ---- Y brand. Each man would tally his own work, even car-loads were required, and a total would constitute the shipment. The cutting out began quietly; but after a nucleus of beeves were selected, their numbers gained at the rate of three to five a minute, while the sweat began to reek from the horses.
Joel cut two car-loads of prime beeves, and then tendered his services to Sargent. The cattle had quieted, and a fifth man was relieved from guarding the round-up, and sent to the assistance of Manly. A steady stream of beef poured out for an hour, when a comparison of figures was made. Manly was limited to one hundred and twenty head, completing an even thousand shipped from the brand, and lacking four, was allowed to complete his number. Sargent was without limit, the object being to trim the general herd of every heavy, rough beef, and a tally on numbers was all that was required. The work was renewed with tireless energy, and when the limit of twenty cars was reached, a general conference resulted in cutting two loads extra.
"That leaves the home cattle clean of rough stuff," said Sargent, as he dismounted and loosened the saddle on a tired horse. "Any aged steers left are clean thrifty cattle, and will pay their way to hold another year. Turn the round-up adrift."
After blowing their horses, a detail of men drifted the general herd up the creek. Others lent their assistance to the wrangler in corralling his remuda, and after relieving the cutting horses, the beeves were grazed down the valley. The outfit had not spent a night at headquarters in some time, the wagon serving as a substitute, and orders for evening freed all hands except two men on herd with the beeves.
The hurry of the day was over. On securing fresh horses, Joel and Sargent turned to the assistance of the detail, then drifting the main herd westward. The men were excused, to change mounts, and relieved from further duty until the guards, holding the beeves, were arranged for the night. The remnant of the herd was pushed up the creek and freed near Hackberry Grove, and on returning to overtake the beeves, the two horsemen crossed a spur of the tableland, jutting into the valley, affording a perfect view of the surrounding country.
With the first sweep of the horizon, their horses were reined to a halt. Fully fifteen miles to the northeast, and in a dip of the plain, hung an ominous dust cloud. Both horsemen read the sign at a glance.
Sargent was the first to speak. "Dell met the herd on the Republican," said he with decision. "It's the Stoddard cattle from Ogalalla. The pitch of their dust shows they're trailing south."
The sign in the sky was read correctly. The smoke from a running train and the dust from a trailing herd, when viewed from a distance, pitches upward from a horizon line, and the moving direction of train or herd is easily read by an observant plainsman. Sargent's summary was confirmed on reaching headquarters, where Dell and the trail foreman were found, the latter regaling Manly and others with the chronicle of the new trail.
The same foreman as the year before was in charge of the herd. He protested against any step tending to delivery for that day, even to looking the cattle over. "Uncle Dud wouldn't come," said he, "and it's up to me to make the delivery. I've been pioneering around all summer with this herd, and now that I'm my own boss, I'll take orders from no one. We made rather a forced drive from the Republican, and I want a good night's rest for both the herd and myself. Ten o'clock in the morning will be early enough to tender the cattle for delivery. In the mean time, our pilot, the red-headed clerk, will answer all questions. As for myself, I'm going to sleep in the new tent, and if any one calls or wakes me in the morning, I'll get up and wear him out. I've lost a right smart of sleep this summer, and I won't stand no trifling."
Joel fully understood that the object in delay was to have the herd in presentable condition, and offered no objection. The beeves were grazed up opposite headquarters, and the guards were arranged for the night, which passed without incident. Thereafter, as a matter of precaution, a dead-line must be maintained between the wintered and the through cattle; and as Manly was to remain another year, he and an assistant were detailed to stay at headquarters. A reduced mount of horses was allowed them, and starting the beeves at daybreak, the wagon and remuda followed several hours later.
The trail foreman was humored in his wishes. It was nearly noon when the through herd was reached, grazed and watered to surfeiting, and a single glance satisfied Joel Wells that the cattle fully met every requirement. The question of age was disposed of as easily as that of quality.
"We gathered this year's drive on our home ranges," said the foreman, "and each age was held separate until the herds were made up. I started with fifteen hundred threes and sixteen hundred twos, with ten head extra of each age, in case of loss on the trail. Our count on leaving Ogalalla showed a loss of twelve head. I'm willing to class or count them as they run. Manly knows the make-up of the herd."
Sargent and the brothers rode back and forth through the scattered cattle. It meant a big saving of time to accept them on a straight count, and on being rejoined by the foreman, Joel waived his intent to classify the cattle.
"I bought this herd on Mr. Stoddard's word," said he, "and I'm going to class it on yours. String out your cattle, and you and Manly count against Sargent and myself."
A correct count on a large herd is no easy task. In trailing formation, the cattle march between a line of horsemen, but in the open the difficulty is augmented. A noonday sun lent its assistance in quieting the herd, which was shaped into an immense oval, and the count attempted. The four men elected to make the count cut off a number of the leaders, and counting them, sent them adrift. Thereafter, the trail outfit fed the cattle between the quartette, who sat their horses in speechless intensity, as the column filed through at random. Each man used a string, containing ten knots, checking the hundreds by slipping the knots, and when the last hoof had passed in review, the quiet of a long hour was relieved by a general shout, when the trail outfit dashed up to know the result.
"How many strays have you?" inquired Sargent of the foreman, as the quartette rode together.
"That's so; there's a steer and a heifer; we'll throw them in for good measure. What's your count?"
"Minus the strays, mine repeats yours at Ogalalla," answered Sargent, turning to Joel.
"Thirty-one hundred and ten," said the boy.
The trail foreman gave vent to a fit of laughter. "Young fellow," said he, "I never allow no man to outdo me in politeness. If you bought these cattle on my old man's word, I want you to be safe in receiving them. We'll class them sixteen hundred twos, and fifteen hundred threes, and any overplus falls to the red-headed pilot. That's about what Uncle Dud would call a Texas count and classification. Shake out your horses; dinner's waiting."
There were a few details to arrange. Manly must have an assistant, and an extra man was needed with the shipment, both of whom volunteered from the through outfit. The foreman was invited to move up to headquarters and rest to his heart's content, but in his anxiety to report to his employer, the invitation was declined.
"We'll follow up to-morrow," said he, "and lay over on the railroad until you come in with our beeves. The next hard work I do is to get in touch with my Uncle Dudley."
"Look here--how about it--when may we expect you home?" sputtered Manly, as the others hurriedly made ready to overtake the beef herd.
"When you see us again," answered Joel, mounting his horse. "If this shipment strikes a good market, we may drop down to Trail City and pick up another herd. It largely depends on our bank account. Until you see or hear from us, hold the dead-line and locate your cattle."