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The brothers withdrew to a point of safety. Joel was blanched to the color of the snow, his horse trembled in every muscle, but Dell shook out his rope.

“Hold on,” urged Joel, gasping for breath. “Hold on. That’s a mad wolf, or else it’s dying.”

“He’s poisoned,” replied Dell. “See how he lays his head back on his flank. It’s the griping of the poison. Half of them die in just that position. I’m going to rope and drag him to death.”

But the crunching of the horse’s feet in the snow aroused the victim, and he again sprang wildly upward, snapping as before, and revealing fangs that bespoke danger. Struggling to its feet, the wolf ran aimlessly in a circle, gradually enlarging until it struck a strand of wire in the corral fence, the rebound of which threw the animal flat, when it again curled its head backward and lay quiet.

“Rope it,” said Joel firmly, shaking out his own lasso. “If it gets into that corral it will kill a dozen cattle. That I’ve got a live horse under me this minute is because that wolf missed Rowdy’s neck by a hand-breadth.”

The trampled condition of the snow around the corral favored approach. Dell made a long but perfect throw, the wolf springing as the rope settled, closing with one foot through the loop. The rope was cautiously wrapped to the pommel, could be freed in an instant, and whirling Dog-toe, his rider reined the horse out over the lane leading to the herd’s feeding ground to the south. The first quarter of a mile was an indistinct blur, out of which a horse might be seen, then a boy, or a wolf arose on wings and soared for an instant. Suddenly the horse doubled back over the lane, and as his rider shot past Joel, a fire of requests was vaguely heard, regarding “a noose that had settled foul,” of “a rope that was being gnawed” and a general inability to strangle a wolf.

Joel saw the situation in an instant. The rope had tightened around the wolf’s chest, leaving its breathing unaffected, while a few effectual snaps of those terrible teeth would sever any lasso. Shaking out a loop in his own rope, as Dell circled back over the other trail, Rowdy carried his rider within easy casting distance, the lasso hissed through the air, settled true, when two cow-horses threw their weight against each other, and the wolf’s neck was broken as easily as a rotten thread.

“A little of this goes a long way with me,” said Joel from the safety of his saddle.

“Oh, it’s fine practice,” protested Dell, as he dismounted and kicked the dead wolf. “Did you notice my throw? If it was an inch, it was thirty feet!”

In its severity, the winter of 1885-86 stands alone in range cattle history. It came rather early, but proved to be the pivotal trial in the lives of Dell and Joel Wells. Six weeks, plus three days, after the worst blizzard in the history of the range industry, the siege was lifted and the Beaver valley groaned in her gladness. Sleet cracks ran for miles, every pool in the creek threw off its icy gorge, and the plain again smiled within her own limits. Had the brothers been thorough plainsmen, they could have foretold the coming thaw, as three days before its harbingers reached them every lurking wolf, not from fear of poison, but instinctive of open country elsewhere, forsook the Beaver, not to return the remainder of the winter.

“That’s another time you counted the chickens too soon,” said Joel to his brother, when the usual number of baits failed to bring down a wolf.

“Very good,” replied Dell. “The way accounts stand, we lost twelve cattle against one hundred and eighteen pelts taken. I’ll play that game all winter.”

CHAPTER XII

A WINTER DRIFT

The month of March was the last intrenchment in the wintry siege. If it could be weathered, victory would crown the first good fight of the boys, rewarding their courage in the present struggle and fortifying against future ones. The brothers had cast their lot with the plains, the occupation had almost forced itself on them, and having tasted the spice of battle, they buckled on their armor and rode forth. Without struggle or contest, the worthy pleasures of life lose their nectar.

The general thaw came as a welcome relief. The cattle had gradually weakened, a round dozen had fallen in sacrifice to the elements, and steps must be taken to recuperate the herd.

“We must loose-herd hereafter,” said Joel, rejoicing in the thawing weather. “A few warm days and the corral will get miry. Unless the wolves return, we’ll not pen the cattle again.”

Dell was in high feather. “The winter’s over,” said he. “Listen to the creek talking to itself. No, we’ll not have to corral the herd any longer. Wasn’t we lucky not to have any more cattle winter-killed! Every day during the last month I felt that another week of winter would take half the herd. It was good fighting, and I feel like shouting.”

“It was the long distance between the corral and the divides that weakened the cattle,” said Joel. “Hereafter we’ll give them all the range they need and only put them under close-herd at night. There may be squally weather yet, but little danger of a general storm. After this thaw, farmers on the Solomon will begin their spring ploughing.”

A fortnight of fine weather followed. The herd was given almost absolute freedom, scattering for miles during the day, and only thrown together at nightfall. Even then, as the cattle grazed entirely by day, a mile square of dry slope was considered compact enough for the night. The extra horses, which had ranged for the winter around Hackberry Grove, were seen only occasionally and their condition noted. The winter had haired them like llamas, the sleet had worked no hardship, as a horse paws to the grass, and any concern for the outside saddle stock was needless.

The promise of spring almost disarmed the boys. Dell was anxious to know the value of the bales of peltry, and constantly urged his brother for permission to ride to the railroad and inquire.

“What’s your hurry?” was Joel’s rejoinder. “I haven’t shouted yet. I’m not sure that we’re out of the woods. Let’s win for sure first.”

“But we ought to write to Mr. Paul and Mr. Quince,” urged the younger boy, by way of a double excuse. “There may be a letter from them at Grinnell now. Let’s write to our friends in Texas and tell them that we’ve won the fight. The spring’s here.”

“You can go to the station later,” replied Joel. “The fur will keep, and we may have quite a spell of winter yet. Don’t you remember the old weather proverb, of March coming in like a lion and going out like a lamb? This one came in like a lamb, and we had better keep an eye on it for fear it goes out like a lion. You can go to the railroad in April.”

There was wisdom in Joel’s random advice. As yet there was no response in the earth to the sun’s warmth. The grass was timid and refused to come forth, and only a few foolish crows had reached the shrub and willow along the Beaver, while the absence of other signs of spring carried a warning that the wintry elements might yet arise and roar like a young lion.

The one advantage of the passing days was the general improvement in the herd. The instinct of the cattle led them to the buffalo grass, which grew on the slopes and divides, and with three weeks of fair weather and full freedom the herd as a whole rounded into form, reflecting its tenacity of life and the able handling of its owners.

Within ten days of the close of the month, the weakened lines of intrenchment were again assaulted. The herd was grazing westward, along the first divide south of the Beaver, when a squall struck near the middle of the afternoon. It came without warning, and found the cattle scattered to the limits of loose herding, but under the eyes of two alert horsemen. Their mounts responded to the task, circling the herd on different sides, but before it could be thrown into mobile form and pointed into the Beaver valley, a swirl of soft snow enveloped horses and riders, cattle and landscape. The herd turned its back to the storm, and took up the steady, sullen march of a winter drift. Cut off from the corral by fully five miles, the emergency of the hour must be met, and the brothers rode to dispute the progress of the drifting cattle.

“Where can we turn them?” timidly inquired Dell.

“Unless the range of sand dunes catch us,” replied Joel, “nothing short of the brakes of the Prairie Dog will check the cattle. We’re out until this storm spends its force.”

“Let’s beat for the sand hills, then. They lay to our right, and the wolves are gone.”

“The storm is from the northwest. If it holds from that quarter, we’ll miss the sand dunes by several miles. Then it becomes a question of horseflesh.”

“If we miss the sand hills, I’ll go back and get a pack horse and overtake you to-morrow. It isn’t cold, and Dog-toe can face the storm.”

“That’s our one hope,” admitted Joel. “We’ve brought these cattle through a hard winter and now we mustn’t lose them in a spring squall.”

The wind blew a gale. Ten minutes after the storm struck and the cattle turned to drift with it, all knowledge of the quarter of the compass was lost. It was a reasonable allowance that the storm would hold a true course until its wrath was spent, and relying on that slender thread, the boys attempted to veer the herd for the sand hills. By nature cattle are none too gregarious, as only under fear will they flock compactly, and the danger of splitting the herd into wandering contingents must be avoided. On the march which lay before it, its compactness must be maintained, and to turn half the herd into the sand dunes and let the remainder wander adrift was out of the question.

“We’ll have to try out the temper of the herd,” said Joel. “The cattle are thin, have lost their tallow, and this wind seems to be cutting them to the quick. There’s no use in turning the lead unless the swing cattle will follow. It’s better to drift until the storm breaks than to split the herd into little bunches.”

“Let’s try for the sand hills, anyhow,” urged Dell. “Turn the leaders ever so slightly, and I’ll try and keep the swing cattle in line.”

An effort to reach the shelter of the sand dunes was repeatedly made. But on each attempt the wind, at freezing temperature, cut the cattle to the bone, and as drifting was so much more merciful, the brothers chose to abandon the idea of reaching a haven in the sand hills.

“The cattle are too weak,” admitted Joel, after repeated efforts. “Turn the leaders and they hump their backs and halt. An hour of this wind would drop them in their tracks. It’s drift or die.”

“I’ll drop back and see how the drag cattle are coming on,” suggested Dell, “and if they’re in line I might as well start after a pack horse. We’re only wearing out our horses in trying to turn this herd.”

The efforts to veer the herd had enabled the drag end to easily keep in a compact line, and on Dell’s return to the lead, he reported the drifting column less than a quarter mile in length.

“The spirit of the herd is killed,” said he; “the cattle can barely hold their heads off the ground. Why, during that Christmas drift, they fought and gored each other at every chance, but to-day they act like lost sheep. They are half dead on their feet.”

The herd had been adrift several hours, and as sustenance for man and horse was important, Dell was impatient to reach the Beaver before nightfall.

“If the storm has held true since it struck,” said he, “I’ll cut it quartering from here to headquarters. That good old corn that Dog-toe has been eating all winter has put the iron into his blood, until he just bows his neck and snorts defiance against this wind and snow.”

“Now, don’t be too sure,” cautioned Joel. “You can’t see one hundred yards in this storm, and if you get bewildered, all country looks alike. Trust your horse in any event, and if you strike above or below headquarters, if you keep your head on your shoulders you ought to recognize the creek. Give your horse free rein and he’ll take you straight to the stable door. Bring half a sack of corn, some bread and meat, the tent-fly and blankets. Start an hour before daybreak, and you’ll find me in the lead of the herd.”

The brothers parted for the night. So long as he could ride in their lead, the necessity of holding the cattle was the lodestar that sustained Joel Wells during those lonely hours. There was always the hope that the storm would abate, when the tired cattle would gladly halt and bed down, which promise lightened the passing time. The work was easy to boy and horse; to retard the march of the leaders, that the rear might easily follow, was the task of the night or until relieved.

On the other hand, Dell’s self-reliance lacked caution. Secure in his ability to ride a course, day or night, fair or foul weather, he had barely reached the southern slope of the Beaver when darkness fell. The horse was easily quartering the storm, but the pelting snow in the boy’s face led him to rein his mount from a true course, with the result that several miles was ridden without reaching any recognizable landmark. A ravine or dry wash was finally encountered, when Dell dismounted. As a matter of precaution, he carried matches, and on striking one, confusion assumed the reign over all caution and advice. He was lost, but contentious to the last ditch. Several times he remounted and allowed his horse free rein, but each time Dog-toe turned into the eye of the storm, then the true course home, and was halted. Reason was abandoned and disorder reigned. An hour was lost, when the confident boy mounted his horse and took up his former course, almost crossing the line of storm on a right angle. A thousand visible forms, creatures of the night and storm, took shape in the bewildered mind of Dell Wells, and after dismounting and mounting unknown times, he floundered across Beaver Creek fully three miles below headquarters.

The hour was unknown. Still confused, Dell finally appealed to his horse, and within a few minutes Dog-toe was in a road and champing the bits against restraint. The boy dismounted, and a burning match revealed the outlines of a road under the soft snow. The horse was given rein again and took the road like a hound, finally sweeping under a tree, when another halt was made. It was the hackberry at the mouth of the cove, its broken twigs bespoke a fire which Dell had built, and yet the mute witness tree and impatient horse were doubted. And not until Dog-toe halted at the stable door was the boy convinced of his error.

“Dog-toe,” said Dell, as he swung out of the saddle, “you forgot more than I ever knew. You told me that I was wrong, and you pled with me like a brother, and I wouldn’t listen to you. I wonder if he’ll forgive me?” meditated Dell, as he opened the stable door.

The horse hurriedly entered and nickered for his feed. “Yes, you shall have an extra ration of corn,” answered his rider. “And if you’ll just forgive me this once, the lesson you taught me to-night will never be forgotten.”

It proved to be early in the evening–only eight o’clock. Even though the lesson was taught by a dumb animal, it was worth its cost. Before offering to sleep, Dell collected all the articles that were to make up the pack, foddered the horses, set the alarm forward an hour, and sought his blankets for a short rest. Several times the howling of the wind awoke him, and unable to sleep out the night, he arose and built a fire. The necessity of a pack saddle robbed him of his own, and, substituting a blanket, at the appointed hour before dawn he started, with three days’ rations for man and horse. The snow had ceased falling, but a raw March wind blew from the northwest, and taking his course with it, he reached the divide at daybreak. A struggling sun gave him a bearing from time to time, the sand dunes were sighted, and angling across the course of the wind, the trail of the herd was picked up in the mushy snow. A bull was overtaken, resting comfortably in a buffalo wallow; three others were passed, feeding with the wind, and finally the sun burst forth, revealing the brakes of the Prairie Dog.

Where the cattle had drifted barely two miles an hour, sustenance was following at a five-mile gait. The trail freshened in the snow, narrowed and broadened, and near the middle of the forenoon the scattered herd was sighted. The long yell of warning was answered only by a tiny smoke-cloud, hanging low over the creek bed, and before Joel was aware of his presence, Dell rode up to the very bank under which the fire was burning.

“How do you like an all-night drift?” shouted Dell. “How do snowballs taste for breakfast?”

“Come under the cliff and unpack,” soberly replied Joel. “I hope this is the last lesson in winter herding; I fail to see any romance in it.”

The horses were unsaddled and fed. “Give an account of yourself,” urged Dell, as the brothers returned to the fire. “How did you make out during the night?”

“I just humped my back like the other cattle and took my medicine,” replied Joel. “An Indian dances to keep warm, and I sang. You have no idea how good company cattle are. One big steer laid his ear in Rowdy’s flank to warm it. I took him by the horn any number of times and woke him up; he was just staggering along asleep. I talked to all the lead cattle, named them after boys we knew at school, and sometimes they would look up when I called to them. And the queerest thing happened! You remember old Redman, our teacher, back in Ohio. Well, I saw him last night. There was a black two-year-old steer among the lead cattle, and every time I looked at him, I saw old Redman, with his humped shoulder, his pug nose, and his half-shut eyes. It took the storm, the sullen drift, to put that expression in the black steer’s face, but it was old Redman. During the two terms of school that he taught, he licked me a score of times, but I dared him to come out of that black steer’s face and try it again. He must have heard me, for the little black steer dropped back and never came to the lead again.”

“And had you any idea where you were?” inquired Dell, prompted by his own experience.

“I was right at home in the lead of the herd. The tepee might get lost, but I couldn’t. I knew we must strike the Prairie Dog, and the cattle were within half a mile of it when day broke. Once I got my bearings, Rowdy and I turned on the herd and checked the drift.”

A late breakfast fortified the boys for the day. It was fully twenty-five miles back to the Beaver, but with the cattle weakened, the horses worn, it was decided to rest a day before starting on the return. During the afternoon, Dell went back and threw in the stragglers, and towards evening all the cattle were put under loose herd and pointed north. The sun had stripped the snow, and a comfortable camp was made under the cliff. Wood was scarce on the Prairie Dog, but the dry, rank stalks of the wild sunflower made a good substitute for fuel, and night settled over human and animal in the full enjoyment of every comfort.

It was a two-days’ trip returning. To Rowdy fell the duty of pack horse. He had led the outward march, and was entitled to an easy berth on retreat. The tarpaulin was folded the full length of the horse’s body girth, both saddles being required elsewhere, and the corn and blankets laid within the pack and all lashed securely. The commissary supplies being light, saddle pockets and cantle strings were found sufficient for their transportation.

The start was made at sunrise. The cattle had grazed out several miles the evening before, and in their weakened condition it would require nursing to reach the Beaver. A mile an hour was the pace, nothing like a compact herd or driving was permissible, and the cattle were allowed to feed or rest at their will. Rowdy grazed along the flank, the boys walked as a relief, and near evening or on sighting the dunes, Dell took the pack horse and rode for their shelter, to locate a night camp. The herd never swerved from its course, and after sunset Joel rounded the cattle into compact form and bedded them down for the night. A beacon fire of plum brush led him to the chosen camp, in the sand hills, where supper awaited the brothers.

“Isn’t it lucky,” said Dell, as he snuggled under the blankets, “that the wolves are gone. Suppose they were here yet, and we had to build fires, or stand guard over the herd to-night, like trail men, could we do it?”

“Certainly. We met the wolves before and held the cattle. You seem to forget that we’re not entitled to sleep any in the winter. Be grateful. Thank the wolf and go to sleep.”

“See how the dunes loom up in the light of this camp-fire. I wish Mr. Paul could see it.”

“More than likely he has camped in the dunes and enjoyed many rousing fires.”

Dell’s next remark was unanswered. The stars twinkled overhead, the sandman was abroad, curfew sounded through the dunes, and all was quiet.

“Here’s where we burn the wagon,” said Joel, as he aroused Dell at daybreak. “It’s one of Mr. Quince’s remarks, but this is the first time we’ve had a chance to use it. I’ll divide the corn into three good feeds, and we’ll make it in home for supper. Let’s have the whole hummingbird for breakfast, so that when we ride out of this camp, all worth saving will be the coffee pot and frying pan. So long as we hold the cattle, who cares for expense.”

The herd was in hand as it left the bed ground. An ideal spring day lent its aid to the snailing cattle. By the middle of the afternoon the watershed had been crossed, and the gradual slope clown to the Beaver was begun. Rowdy forged to the lead, the flanks turned in, the rear pushed forward, and the home-hunger of the herd found expression in loud and continued lowing.

“I must have been mistaken about the spirit of this herd being killed,” observed Dell. “When I left you the other day, to go after a pack horse, these cattle looked dead on their feet. I felt sure that we would lose a hundred head, and we haven’t lost a hoof.”

“We may have a lot to learn yet about cattle,” admitted Joel. “I fully expected to see our back track strung with dead animals.”

The origin of the herd, with its deeps and moods, is unknown and unwritten. The domesticity of cattle is dateless. As to when the ox first knew his master’s crib, history and tradition are dumb. Little wonder that Joel and Dell Wells, with less than a year’s experience, failed to fully understand their herd. An incident, similar to the one which provoked the observation of the brothers, may explain those placid depths, the deep tenacity and latent power of the herd.

After delivering its cargo at an army post, an extensive freighting outfit was returning to the supply point. Twelve hundred oxen were employed. On the outward trip, muddy roads were encountered, the wagons were loaded beyond the strength of the teams, and the oxen had arrived at the fort exhausted, spiritless, and faint to falling under their yokes. Many oxen had been abandoned as useless within one hundred miles of the post, thus doubling the work on the others. On the return trip, these scattered oxen, the lame and halt, were gathered to the number of several hundred, and were being driven along at the rear of the wagon train. Each day added to their numbers, until one fourth of all the oxen were being driven loose at the rear of the caravan. One day a boy blindfolded a cripple ox, which took fright and charged among his fellows, bellowing with fear. It was tinder to powder! The loose oxen broke from the herders, tore past the column of wagons, frenzied in voice and action. The drivers lost control of their teams, bedlam reigned, and the entire wagon train joined in the general stampede. Wagons were overturned and reduced to kindling in a moment of the wildest panic. The drivers were glad to escape with their lives and were left at the rear. A cloud of dust merely marked the direction which the oxen had taken. The teams, six to eight yoke each, wrenched their chains, broke the bows, and joined in the onrush. Many of the oxen, still under yoke, were found the next day fifteen miles distant from the scene of the incident, and unapproachable except on horseback. For a month previous to this demonstration of the latent power of cattle, the humane drivers of the wagon train were constantly lamenting that the spirit of their teams was killed.

When within a mile of the Beaver, the herd was turned westward and given its freedom. While drifting down the slope, Rowdy gradually crept far to the lead, and as the brothers left the cattle and bore off homeward, the horse took up a gentle trot, maintaining his lead until the stable was reached.

“Look at the dear old rascal,” said Joel, beaming with pride. “That horse knows more than some folks.”

“Yes, and if Dog-toe could talk,” admitted Dell, stroking his horse’s neck, “he could tell a good joke on me. I may tell it myself some day–some time when I want to feel perfectly ashamed of myself.”

CHAPTER XIII

A WELCOME GUEST

The heralds of spring bespoke its early approach. April was ushered in to the songs of birds, the greening valley, and the pollen on the willow. The frost arose, the earth mellowed underfoot, and the creek purled and sang as it hastened along. The cattle played, calves were born, while the horses, in shedding their winter coats, matted the saddle blankets and threw off great tufts of hair where they rolled on the ground.

The marketing of the peltry fell to Joel. Dell met the wagon returning far out on the trail. “The fur market’s booming,” shouted Joel, on coming within speaking distance. “We’ll not know the price for a few weeks. The station agent was only willing to ship them. The storekeeper was anxious to do the same, and advanced me a hundred dollars on the shipment. Wolf skins, prime, are quoted from two to two dollars and a half. And I have a letter from Forrest. The long winter’s over! You can shout! G’long, mules!”

During the evening, Dell read Forrest’s letter again and again. “Keep busy until the herds arrive,” it read. “Enlarge your water supply and plan to acquire more cattle.”

“That’s our programme,” said Joel. “We’ll put in two dams between here and the trail. Mr. Quince has never advised us wrong, and he’ll explain things when he comes. Once a week will be often enough to ride around the cattle.”

An air of activity was at once noticeable around headquarters. The garden was ploughed and planting begun. The fence was repaired around the corn-field, the beaver dams were strengthened, and sites for two other reservoirs were selected. The flow of the creek was ample to fill large tanks, and if the water could be conserved for use during the dry summer months, the cattle-carrying capacity of the ranch could be greatly enlarged. The old beaver dams around headquarters had withstood every drouth, owing to the shade of the willows overhead, the roots of which matted and held the banks intact. Wagon loads of willow slips were accordingly cut for the new dams and the work begun in earnest.

“We’ll take the tent and camp at the lower site,” announced Joel. “It would waste too much time to go and come. When we build the upper one, we can work from home.”

The two tanks were finished within a month. They were built several miles apart, where there was little or no fall in the creek, merely to hold still water in long, deep pools. The willow cuttings were planted along the borders and around the dams, the ends of which were riprapped with stone, and a spillway cut to accommodate any overflow during freshets.

The dams were finished none too soon, as a dry spring followed, and the reservoirs had barely filled when the creek ceased flowing. The unusual winter snowfall had left a season’s moisture in the ground, and the grass came in abundance, matting slope and valley, while the garden grew like a rank weed. The corn crop of the year before had repaid well in forage, and was again planted. In the face of another drouthy summer, the brothers sowed as if they fully expected to reap. “Keep busy” was the slogan of the springtime.

The month of June arrived without a sign of life on the trail. Nearly one hundred calves were born to the herd on the Beaver, the peltry had commanded the highest quotation, and Wells Brothers swaggered in their saddles. But still the herds failed to come.

“Let’s put up the tent,” suggested Dell, “just as if we were expecting company. Mr. Paul or Mr. Quince will surely ride in some of these evenings. Either one will reach here a full day in the lead of his herd. Let’s make out that we’re looking for them.”

Dell’s suggestion was acted on. A week passed and not a trail man appeared. “There’s something wrong,” said Joel, at the end of the second week. “The Lovell herds go through, and there’s sixteen of them on the trail.”

“They’re water-bound,” said Dell, jumping at a conclusion.

“Waterbound, your foot! The men and horses and cattle can all swim. Don’t you remember Mr. Quince telling about rafting his wagon across swimming rivers? Waterbound, your grandmother! High water is nothing to those trail men.”

Dell was silenced. The middle of June came and the herds had not appeared. The brothers were beginning to get uneasy for fear of bad news, when near dark one evening a buckboard drove up. Its rumbling approach hurried the boys outside the tent, when without a word of hail, Quince Forrest sprang from the vehicle, grasped Dell, and the two rolled over and over on the grass.

“I just wanted to roll him in the dirt to make him grow,” explained Forrest to an elderly man who accompanied him. “These are my boys. Look at that red-headed rascal–fat as a calf with two mothers. Boys, shake hands with Mr. Lovell.”

The drover alighted and greeted the boys with fatherly kindness. He was a frail man, of medium height, nearly sixty years of age, with an energy that pulsed in every word and action. There was a careworn expression in his face, while an intensity of purpose blazed from hungry, deep-set eyes which swept every detail of the scene at a glance. That he was worried to the point of exhaustion was evident the moment that compliments were exchanged.

“Show me your water supply,” said he to Joel; “old beaver ponds, if I am correctly informed. We must move fifty thousand cattle from Dodge to the Platte River within the next fortnight. One of the worst drouths in the history of the trail confronts us, and if you can water my cattle between the Prairie Dog and the Republican River, you can name your own price.”

“Let’s drive around,” said Forrest, stepping into the blackboard, “before it gets too dark. Come on, boys, and show Mr. Lovell the water.”

All four boarded the vehicle, the boys standing up behind the single seat, and drove away. In a mile’s meanderings of the creek were five beaver ponds, over which in many places the willows interlapped. The pools stood bank full, and after sounding them, the quartette turned homeward, satisfied of the abundant water supply.

“There’s water and to spare for the entire drive,” said Forrest to his employer. “It isn’t the amount drank, it’s the absorption of the sun that gets away with water. Those willows will protect the pools until the cows come home. I felt sure of the Beaver.”

“Now, if we can arrange to water my herds here–“

“That’s all arranged,” replied Forrest. “I’m a silent partner in this ranch. Anything that Wells Brothers owns is yours for the asking. Am I right, boys?”

“If Mr. Lovell needs the water, he is welcome to it,” modestly replied Joel.

“That’s my partner talking,” said Forrest; “that was old man Joel Wells that just spoke. He’s the senior member of the firm. Oh, these boys of mine are cowmen from who laid the rail. They’re not out to rob a neighbor. Once you hear from the head of the Stinking Water, you can order the herds to pull out for the Platte.”

“Yes,” said Mr. Lovell, somewhat perplexed. “Yes, but let’s get the water on the Beaver clear first. What does this mean? I offer a man his price to water my cattle, and he answers me that I’m welcome to it for nothing. I’m suspicious of the Greeks when they come bearing gifts. Are you three plotting against me?”

“That’s it,” replied Forrest. “You caught the gleam of my axe all right. In the worry of this drouth, you’ve overlooked the fact that you have five horses on this ranch. They were left here last fall, expecting to pick them up this spring. Two of them were cripples and three were good cow horses. Now, these boys of mine are just branching out into cattle, and they don’t need money, but a few good horses are better than gold. That’s about the plot. What would you say was the right thing to do?”

Mr. Lovell turned to the boys. “The five horses are yours. But I’m still in your debt. Is there anything else that you need?”

The question was repeated to Forrest. “By the time the herds reach here,” said he, mildly observant, “there will be quite a number of tender-footed and fagged cattle. They could never make it through without rest, but by dropping them here, they would have a fighting chance to recuperate before winter. There won’t be a cent in an abandoned steer for you, but these boys–“

“Trim the herds here on the Beaver,” interrupted Mr. Lovell. “I’ll give all my foremen orders to that effect. Cripples are worthless to me, but good as gold to these boys. What else?”

“Oh, just wish the boys good luck, and if it ever so happens, speak a good word for the Wells Brothers. I found them white, and I think you’ll find them on the square.”

“Well, this is a happy termination,” said Mr. Lovell, as he alighted at the tent. “Our water expense between Dodge and Ogalalla will not exceed five thousand dollars. It cost me double that getting out of Texas.”

Secure on the Beaver, the brothers were unaware of the outside drouth, which explained the failure of the herds to appear on the trail as in other years. It meant the delay of a fortnight, and the concentration of a year’s drive into a more limited space of time. Unconscious of its value, the boys awoke to the fact that they controlled the only water between the Prairie Dog and the Republican River–sixty miles of the plain. Many of the herds were under contract and bond to cattle companies, individuals, army posts, and Indian agencies, and no excuse would be accepted for any failure to deliver. The drouth might prove an ill-wind to some, but the Beaver valley was not only exempt but could extend relief.

After supper, hosts and guests adjourned to the tent. Forrest had unearthed the winter struggle of his proteges, and gloating over the manner in which the boys had met and overcome the unforeseen, he assumed an observant attitude in addressing his employer.

“You must be working a sorry outfit up on the Little Missouri,” said he, “to lose ten per cent of straight steer cattle. My boys, here on the Beaver, report a measly loss of twelve head, out of over five hundred cattle. And you must recollect that these were rag-tag and bob-tail, the flotsam of a hundred herds, forty per cent cripples, walking on crutches. Think of it! Two per cent loss, under herd, a sleet over the range for six weeks, against your ten per cent kill on an open range. You must have a slatterly, sore-thumbed lot of men on your beef ranch.”

Mr. Lovell was discouraged over the outlook of his cattle interests. “That was a first report that you are quoting from,” said he to Forrest. “It was more prophecy than statement. We must make allowances for young men. There is quite a difference between getting scared and being hurt. My beef outfit has orders to go three hundred miles south of our range and cover all round-ups northward. It was a severe winter, and the drift was heavy, but I’m not worrying any about that sore-fingered outfit. Promptly meeting government contracts is our work to-day. My cattle are two weeks behind time, and the beef herds must leave Dodge to-morrow. Help me figure it out: Can you put me on the railroad by noon?” he concluded, turning to Joel.

“Easily, or I can carry a message to-night.”

“There’s your programme,” said Forrest, interceding. “One of these boys can take you to Grinnell in time for the eastbound train. Wire your beef herds to pull out for the Platte. You can trust the water to improve from here north.”

“And you?” inquired the drover, addressing his foreman.

“I’ll take the buckboard and go north until I meet Paul. That will cover the last link in the trail. We’ll know our water then, and time our drives to help the cattle. It’s as clear as mud.”

“Just about,” dubiously answered Mr. Lovell. “Unless I can get an extension of time on my beef contracts, the penalty under my bonds will amount to a fortune.”

“The army is just as well aware of this drouth as you are,” said Forrest, “and the War Department will make allowances. The government don’t expect the impossible.”

“Yes,” answered the old drover with feeling. “Yes, but it exacts a bond, and stipulates the daily forfeiture, and if any one walks the plank, it’s not your dear old Uncle Samuel. And it matters not how much sleep I lose, red tape never worries.”

The boys made a movement as if to withdraw, and Forrest arose. “The programme for to-morrow, then, is understood,” said the latter. “The horses will be ready at daybreak.”

It was midnight when the trio sought their blankets. On the part of the brothers, there was a constant reference to their guest, the drover, and a desire, if in their power, to aid him in every way.

“I wanted you boys to meet and get acquainted with Mr. Lovell,” said Forrest, as all were dozing off to sleep. “There is a cowman in a thousand, and his word carries weight in cattle matters. He’s rather deep water, unless you cross or surprise him. I nagged him about the men on his beef ranch. He knew the cattle wouldn’t winter kill when they could drift, and the round-up will catch every living hoof. He was too foxy to borrow any trouble there, and this long yell about the drouth interfering with delivery dates keeps the trail outfits against the bits. Admitting his figures, the water expense won’t be a drop in the bucket. It affords good worrying and that keeps the old man in fighting form. I’m glad he came along; treat him fair and square, and his friendship means something to you, boys.”

CHAPTER XIV

AN ILL WIND

The start to the station was made at four o’clock in the morning. Joel accompanied the drover, the two best horses being under saddle, easily capable of a road gait that would reach the railroad during the early forenoon. The direct course lay across country, and once the sun flooded the Beaver valley, the cowman swung around in the saddle and his practical eye swept the range. On sighting Hackberry Grove, the broken country beyond, including the sand hills, he turned to his guide.

“My boy,” said Mr. Lovell, “you brothers have a great future before you. This is an ideal cattle range. The very grass under our horses’ feet carries untold wealth. But you lack cattle. You have the range here for thousands where you are running hundreds. Buy young steers; pay any price; but get more cattle. The growth of young steers justifies any outlay. Come down to Dodge about the first of August. This drouth is liable to throw some bargains on that market. Be sure and come. I’ll keep an eye open in your interest on any cattle for sale.”

The old drover’s words bewildered Joel. The ways and means were not entirely clear, but the confidence of the man in the future of the brothers was gratifying. Meanwhile, at the little ranch the team stood in waiting, and before the horseman had passed out of sight to the south the buckboard started on its northern errand. Dell accompanied it, protesting against his absence from home, but Forrest brushed aside every objection.

“Come on, come on,” said he to Dell; “you have no saddle, and we may be back to-night. We’re liable to meet Paul on the Republican. Turn your ranch loose and let it run itself. Come on; we ain’t halfway through our figuring.”

Joel returned after dark. Priest had left Ogalalla, to the north, the same day that Forrest and his employer started up the trail from the south, and at the expected point the two foremen met. The report showed water in abundance from the Republican River northward, confirming Forrest’s assertion to his employer, and completing the chain of waters between Dodge and Ogalalla. Priest returned with the buckboard, which reached the Beaver after midnight, and aroused Joel out of heavy sleep.

“I just wanted to say,” said Priest, sitting on the edge of Joel’s bunk, “that I had my ear to the ground and heard the good fighting. Yes, I heard the sleet cracking. You never saw me, but I was with you the night you drifted to the Prairie Dog. Take it all along the line, wasn’t it good fighting?”

“Has Dell told you everything?” inquired Joel, sitting up in his blankets.

“Everything, including the fact that he got lost the night of the March drift, while going home after a pack horse. Wouldn’t trust poor old Dog-toe, but run on the rope himself! Landed down the creek here a few miles. News to you? Well, he admits that the horse forgot more than he himself ever knew. That’s a hopeful sign. As long as a man hearkens to his horse, there is no danger of bad counsel being thrust on him.”

The boys were catching, at first hand, an insight into the exacting nature of trail work. Their friends were up with the dawn, and while harnessing in the team, Forrest called Joel’s attention to setting the ranch in order to water the passing herds.

“I was telling Dell yesterday,” said he, “the danger of Texas fever among wintered cattle, and you must isolate your little herd until after frost falls. Graze your cattle up around Hackberry Grove, and keep a dead-line fully three miles wide between the wintered and through trail herds. Any new cattle that you pick up, cripples or strays, hold them down the creek–between here and the old trail crossing. For fear of losing them you can’t even keep milk cows around the ranch, so turn out your calves. Don’t ask me to explain Texas fever. It’s one of the mysteries of the trail. The very cattle that impart it after a winter in the north catch the fever and die like sheep. It seems to exist, in a mild form, in through, healthy cattle, but once imparted to native or northern wintered stock, it becomes violent and is usually fatal. The sure, safe course is to fear and avoid it.”

The two foremen were off at an early hour. Priest was again in charge of Lovell’s lead herd, and leaving the horse that he had ridden to the Republican River in care of the boys, he loitered a moment at parting.

“If my herd left Dodge at noon yesterday,” said he, mentally calculating, “I’ll overtake it some time to-morrow night. Allowing ten days to reach here–“

He turned to the boys. “This is the sixteenth of June. Well, come out on the divide on the morning of the twenty-fifth and you will see a dust cloud in the south. The long distance between waters will put the herd through on schedule time. Come out and meet me.”

The brothers waved the buckboard away. The dragging days were over. The herds were coming, and their own little ranch promised relief to the drover and his cattle.

“Mr. Quince says the usual price for watering trail herds is from one to three cents a head,” said Dell, as their friends dipped from sight. “The government, so he says, allows three cents for watering cavalry horses and harness mules. He tells me that the new settlers, in control of the water on the trail, in northern Texas, fairly robbed the drovers this year. The pastoral Texan, he contends, shared his canteen with the wayfarer, and never refused to water cattle. He wants us to pattern after the Texans–to give our water and give it freely. When Mr. Lovell raised the question of arranging to water his herds from our beaver ponds, do you remember how Mr. Quince answered for us? I’m mighty glad money wasn’t mentioned. No money could buy Dog-toe from me. And Mr. Lovell gave us three of our best horses.”

“He offered me ten dollars for taking him to the railroad,” said Joel, “but I looked him square in the eye and refused the money. He says we must buy more cattle. He wants me to come to Dodge in August, and I’m going.”

Dell treated the idea of buying cattle with slight disdain. “You–going–to–buy–more–cattle?” said he, accenting each word. “Any one tell your fortune lately?”

“Yes,” answered the older boy. “I’m having it told every day. One of those two men, the gray-haired one on that buckboard,–stand here and you can see them,–told me over a year ago that this range had a value, and that we ought to skirmish some cattle, some way, and stock it. What he saw clearly then, I see now, and what Mr. Lovell sees now, you may see a year hence. These men have proved their friendship, and why stand in our own light? Our ability to hold cattle was tested last winter, and if this range is an asset, there may be some way to buy more cattle. I’m going to Dodge in August.”

Dell was silenced. There was ample time to set the ranch in order. Turning away from the old trail, on the divide, and angling in to headquarters, and thence northward, was but a slight elbow on the general course of the trail herds. The long distance across to the Republican would compel an early watering on the Beaver, that the cattle might reach the former river the following evening. The brothers knew to a fraction the grazing gait of a herd, the trailing pace, and could anticipate to an hour the time required to move a herd from the Prairie Dog to the Beaver.

The milk cows and calves were turned back into the general herd. The dead-line was drawn safely below Hackberry Grove, between imaginary landmarks on either slope, while on the creek, like a sentinel, stood a lone willow which seemed to say, “Thus far shalt thou go and no farther.” The extra horses, now in the pink of condition, were brought home and located below the ranch, and the house stood in order.

The arrival of the first herd had been correctly calculated. The brothers rode out late on the morning designated, but did not reach the divide. The foremost herd was met within seven miles of the Beaver, the leaders coming on with the steady stride of thirsty cattle that had scented water. Priest was nowhere in sight, but the heavy beeves identified the herd, and when the boys hailed a point man, the situation cleared.

“Mr. Paul–our boss?” repeated the point man. “He’s setting up a guide-board, back on the divide, where we turned off from the old trail. Say, does this dim wagon track we’re following lead to Wells Brothers’ ranch?”

“It does,” answered Joel. “You can see the willows from the next swell of the prairie,” added Dell, as the brothers passed on.

It was a select herd of heavy beeves. In spite of the drouth encountered, the cattle were in fine condition, and as the herd snailed forward at its steady march, the sweep of horn, the variety of color, the neat outline of each animal blended into a pastoral picture of strength and beauty.

The boys rode down the advancing column. A swing man on the opposite side of the herd waved his hand across to the brothers, and while the two were speculating as to who he might be, a swing lad on the left reined out and saluted the boys.

With hand extended, he smilingly inquired, “Don’t you remember the day we branded your cattle? How did the Two Bars and the —- Y cows winter?”

“It’s Billy Honeyman,” said Dell, beaming. “Who is that man across the herd, waving at us?” he inquired, amid hearty greeting.

“That’s Runt Pickett, the little fellow who helped us brand–the lad who rushed the cattle. The herd cuts him off from shaking hands. Turn your horses the other way and tell me how you like it out West.”

Dell turned back, but Joel continued on. The column of beeves was fully a mile in length. After passing the drag end of the herd, the wagon and remuda were sighted, later met, with the foreman still at the rear. The dust cloud of yet another herd arose in the distance, and while Joel pondered on its location over the divide, a horseman emerged from a dip in the plain and came toward him in a slow gallop.

“There’s no foreman with the next herd,” explained Priest, slacking his horse into a walk, “and the segundo wasn’t sure which swell was the real divide. We trailed two herds past your ranch last summer, but the frost has mellowed up the soil and the grass has overgrown the paths until every trace is gone. I planted a guide-post and marked it ‘Lovell’s Trail,’ so the other foremen will know where to turn off. All the old man’s herds are within three or four days’ drive, and after that it’s almost a solid column of cattle back to Dodge. Forrest is in charge of the rear herd, and will pick up any of our abandoned cattle.”

The two shook out their mounts, passed the commissary and saddle stock, but halted a moment at the drag end of the herd. “We’ve been dropping our cripples,” explained Priest, “but the other herds will bring them through. There’s not over one or two here, but I’m going to saw off three horses on Wells Brothers. Good ones, too, that is, good for next year.”

A halt was made at the lead of the herd, and some directions given the point man. It was still early in the forenoon, and once man and boy had fairly cleared the leaders in front, a signal was given and the cattle turned as a single animal and fell to grazing. The wagon and remuda never halted; on being joined by the two horsemen, they continued on into the Beaver. Eleven o’clock was the hour named to water the herd, and punctual to the moment the beeves, with a mile-wide front, were grazed up to the creek.

The cattle were held around the pools for an hour. Before dinner was over, the acting foreman of the second herd rode in, and in mimicking a trail boss, issued some drastic orders. The second herd was within sight, refused to graze, and his wagon was pulling in below the ranch for the noon camp.

Priest looked at his watch. “Start the herd,” said he to his own men. “Hold a true northward course, and camp twelve miles out to-night. I may not be with you, but water in the Republican at six o’clock to-morrow evening. Bring in your herd, young fellow,” he concluded, addressing the segundo.

The watering of a trail herd is important. Mere opportunity to quench thirst is not sufficient. The timid stand in awe of the strong, and the excited milling cattle intimidate the weak and thirsty. An hour is the minimum time, during which half the herd may drink and lie down, affording the others the chance to approach without fear and slake their thirst.

The acting foreman signaled in his herd. The beeves around the water were aroused, and reluctantly grazed out on their course, while the others came on with a sullen stride that thirst enforces. The previous scene of contentment gave way to frenzy. The heavy beeves, equally select with the vanguard, floundered into the pools, lowed in their joy, drank to gorging, fought their fellows, staggered out of the creek, and dropped to rest in the first dust or dry grass.

Priest trimmed his own beeves and remuda. A third herd appeared, when he and the acting foreman culled over both horses and cattle, and sent the second herd on its way. Each of the three advance herds must reach the Republican the following day, and it was scant two o’clock when the third one trailed out from the Beaver. With mature cattle there were few cripples, and the day ended with an addition to the little ranch of the promised horses and a few tender-footed beeves. There were two more herds of heavy beef cattle to follow, which would arrive during the next forenoon, and the old foreman remained over until the last cattle, intended for army delivery, had passed the ranch.

The herd never fails. Faith in cattle is always rewarded. From that far distant dawn when man and his ox started across the ages the one has ever sustained the other. The two rear beef herds promptly reached the Beaver the next morning, slaked their thirst, and passed on before noon.

“This lets me out as your guest,” said Priest to the boys, when the last herd was trimmed. “Bob Quirk will now follow with six herds of contract cattle. He’s the foreman of the second herd of beeves, but Mr. Lovell detailed him to oversee this next division across to the Platte. Forrest will follow Quirk with the last five herds of young steers, slated for the old man’s beef ranch on the Little Missouri. That puts our cattle across the Beaver, but you’ll have plenty of company for the next month. Mr. Lovell has made a good talk for you boys around Dodge, and if you’ll give these trail drovers this water, it will all come back. As cowmen, there are two things that you want to remember–that it’ll rain again, and that the cows will calve in the spring.”

Priest had barely left the little ranch when Bob Quirk arrived. Before dismounting, he rode around the pools, signaled in a wagon and remuda, and returned to the tent.

“This is trailing cattle with a vengeance,” said he, stripping his saddle from a tired horse. “There has been such a fight for water this year that every foreman seems to think that unless he reaches the river to-day it’ll be dry to-morrow. Five miles apart was the limit agreed on before leaving Dodge, and here I am with six herds–twenty thousand cattle!–within twenty miles of the Beaver. For fear of a stampede last night, we threw the herds left and right, two miles off the trail. The Lord surely loves cattle or the earth would have shook from running herds!”

That afternoon and the next morning the second division of the Lovell herds crossed the Beaver. Forrest rode in and saluted the boys with his usual rough caress.

“Saddle up horses,” said he, “and drop back and come through with the two rear herds, There’s a heavy drag end on each one, and an extra man to nurse those tender cows over here, to home and friends, will be lending a hand to the needy. I’ll run the ranch while you’re gone. One of you to each, the fourth and fifth herds, remember. I’ll meet you to-morrow morning, and we’ll cut the cripples out and point them in to the new tanks below. Shake out your fat horses, sweat them up a little–you’re needed at the rear of Lovell’s main drive.”

The boys saddled and rode away in a gallop. Three of the rear herds reached the Beaver that afternoon, watered, and passed on to safe camps beyond. One of Quirk’s wagons had left a quarter of beef at headquarters, and Forrest spent the night amid peace and plenty where the year before he lay wounded.

The next morning saw the last of the Lovell herds arrive. The lead one yielded ninety cripples, and an hour later the rear guard disgorged a few over one hundred head. The two contingents were thrown together, the brothers nursed them in to the new tanks, where they were freed on a perfect range. A count of the cripples and fagged cattle, culled back at headquarters, brought the total discard of the sixteen herds up to two hundred and forty-odd, a riffraff of welcome flotsam, running from a young steer to a seven-year-old beef. The sweepings had paid the reckoning.

Several other trail foremen, scouting in advance of their herds, had reached the Beaver, or had been given assurance that water was to be had in abundance. A measurement of the water was awaited with interest, and once the rear herd grazed out from the beaver ponds, Forrest and the brothers rode around the pools to take soundings.

“I cut notches on willow roots, at each beaver dam, and the loss runs from four to six inches, the lower pools suffering the heaviest,” said Joel, summing up the situation.

“They’re holding like cisterns,” exultingly said Forrest. “Fifty thousand cattle watered, and only lowered the pools on an average of five inches. The upper one’s still taking water–that’s the reason it’s standing the drain. Write it in the sand or among the stars, but the water’s here for this year’s drive. Go back and tell those waiting foremen to bring on their cattle. Headquarters ranch will water every trail herd, or break a tug trying.”

CHAPTER XV

WATER! WATER!

“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.”

CHAPTER XVI

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.”

CHAPTER XVII

“THE WAGON”

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