Chapter IV. The Brothers Claim a Range
 

The next morning Straw dallied about until Dell brought up the crippled cattle. They were uniform in size; rest was the one thing needful, and it now would be theirs amid bountiful surroundings. They were driven up among the others, now scattered about in plain sight in the valley above, presenting a morning scene of pastoral contentment.

"Even the calves are playing this morning," said Straw to Forrest, as the former entered the tent. "A few cattle surely make this valley look good. What you want to do now is to keep on drawing more. Don't allow no outfit to pass without chipping in, at least give them the chance, and this trail hospital will be on velvet in no time. Of course, all Lovell outfits will tear their shirts boosting the endowment fund, but that needn't bar the other herds. Some outfits may have no cattle, but they can chip in a sore-back or crippled pony. My idea is to bar no one, and if they won't come in, give them a chance to say they don't want to. You ought to send word back to Dodge; any foreman going east or west from there would give you his strays."

The conception of a trail refuge had taken root. The supply points were oases for amusement, but a halfway haven for the long stretches of unsettled country, during the exodus of Texas cattle to the Northwest, was an unknown port. The monotony of from three to five months on the trail, night and day work, was tiring to men, while a glass of milk or even an hour in the shade was a distinct relief. Straw was reluctant to go, returning to make suggestions, by way of excuse, and not until forced by the advancing day did he mount and leave to overtake his herd.

Again the trio was left alone. Straw had given Forrest a list of brands and a classification of the cattle contributed, and a lesson in reading brands was given the boys. "Brands read from left to right," said Forrest to the pair of attentive listeners, "or downward. If more than one brand is on an animal, the upper one is the holding or one in which ownership is vested. Character brands are known by name, and are used because difficult to alter. There is scarcely a letter in the alphabet that a cattle thief can't change. When a cow brute leaves its home range, it's always a temptation to some rustler to alter the brand, and characters are not so easily changed."

The importance of claiming the range was pressing, and now that cattle were occupying it, the opportunity presented itself. A notice was accordingly written, laying claim to all grazing rights, from the Texas and Montana trail crossing on Beaver to the headwaters of the same, including all its tributaries, by virtue of possession and occupancy vested in the claimants, Wells Brothers. "How does that sound?" inquired Forrest, its author, giving a literal reading of the notice. "Nothing small or stingy about that, eh? When you're getting, get a-plenty."

"But where are we to get the cattle to stock such a big country?" pondered Joel. "It's twenty miles to the head of this creek."

"We might as well lay big plans as little ones. Here's where we make a spoon or spoil a horn. Saddle a horse and post this notice down at the trail crossing. Sink a stake where every one can see it, and nail your colors to the sign-board. We are the people, and must be respected."

Joel hastened away to post the important notice. Dell was detailed on sentinel duty, on lookout for another herd, but each trip he managed to find some excuse to ride among the cattle. "What's the brand on my white cow?" inquired Forrest, the object leading up to another peculiarity in color.

"I couldn't read it," said Dell, airing his range parlance.

"No? Well, did you ever see a white cow with a black face?" inquired the wounded man, coming direct to the matter at issue.

"Not that I remember; why?"

"Because there never lived such a colored cow. Nature has one color that she never mars. You can find any colored cow with a white face, but you'll never find a milk-white cow with a colored face. That line is drawn, and you want to remember it. You'll never shoot a wild swan with a blue wing, or see yellow snowflakes fall, or meet a pure white cow with a black face. Hereafter, if any one attempts to send you on a wild-goose chase, to hunt such a cow, tell them that no such animal ever walked this earth."

Joel returned before noon. No sign of an approaching herd was sighted by the middle of the afternoon, and the trio resigned themselves to random conversation.

"Dell," said Forrest, "it's been on my mind all day to ask you why you picked a yearling yesterday when you had a chance to take a cow. Straw laughed at you."

"Because Joel said red cattle were worth a dollar a head more than any other color."

"Young man," inquired Forrest of Joel, "what's your authority for that statement?"

"Didn't you pick me a red cow yesterday, and didn't you admit to Mr. Straw that red cattle were worth the most?" said Joel, in defense of his actions.

"And you rushed away and palmed my random talking off on Dell as original advice? You'll do. Claiming a little more than you actually know will never hurt you any. Now here's a prize for the best brand reader: The boy who brings me a correct list of brands, as furnished by Straw, gets my white cow and calf as a reward. I want the road and ranch brand on the cripples, and the only or holding brand on the others. Now, fool one another if you can. Ride through them slowly, and the one who brings me a perfect list is my bully boy."

The incentive of reward stimulated the brothers to action. They scampered away on ponies, not even waiting to saddle, and several hours were spent in copying brands. These included characters, figures, and letters, and to read them with skill was largely a matter of practice. Any novice ought to copy brands, but in this instance the amateur's list would be compared with that of an experienced trail foreman, a neutral judge from which there was no appeal.

The task occupied the entire evening. Forrest not only had them read, but looked over each copy, lending impartial assistance in reading characters that might baffle a boy. There were some half dozen of the latter in Straw's list, a turkey track being the most difficult to interpret, but when all characters were fully understood, Joel still had four errors to Dell's three. The cripples were found to be correct in each instance, and were exempt from further disturbance. Forrest now insisted that to classify, by enumerating each grade, would assist in locating the errors, which work would have to be postponed until morning.

The boys were thoroughly in earnest in mastering the task. Forrest regaled them with examples of the wonderful expertness of the Texans in reading brands and classifying cattle. "Down home," said he, "we have boys who read brands as easily as a girl reads a novel. I know men who can count one hundred head of mixed cattle, as they leave a corral, or trail along, and not only classify them but also give you every brand correctly. Now, that's the kind of cowmen I aim to make out of you boys, and to-morrow morning you must get these brands accurate. What was that?"

Both boys sprang to the tent opening and listened. It sounded like a shot, and within a few moments was seconded by a distant hail.

"Some one must be lost," suggested Joel. "He's down the creek."

"Lost your grandmother!" exclaimed Forrest. "We're all lost in this country. Here, fire this six-shooter in the air, and follow it up with a Comanche yell. Dell, build a little fire on the nearest knoll. It's more than likely some trail man hunting this camp."

The signal-fire was soon burning. The only answer vouchsafed was some fifteen minutes later, when the clatter of an approaching horse was distinctly heard. A lantern shone through the tent walls, and the prompt hail of the horseman proved him no stranger. "Is Quince Forrest here?" he inquired, as his horse shied at the tent.

"He is. Come in, Dorg," said Forrest, recognizing by his voice the horseman without to be Dorg Seay, one of Don Lovell's foremen. "Come in and let us feast our eyes on your handsome face."

Seay peeped within and timidly entered. "Well," said he, pulling at a straggling mustache, "evidently it isn't as bad as reported. Priest wrote back to old man Don that you had attempted suicide--unfortunate in love was the reason given--and I have orders to inquire into your health or scatter flowers on your grave. Able to sit up and take notice?--no complications, I hope?"

"When did you leave Dodge?" inquired Forrest, ignoring Seay's persiflage.

"About a week ago. A telegram was waiting me on the railroad, and I rode through this afternoon. If this ranch boasts anything to eat, now would be an awful nice time to mention it."

Seay's wants were looked after.

"How many herds between here and the railroad?" inquired Forrest, resuming the conversation.

"Only one ahead of mine. In fact, I'm foreman of both herds--live with the lead one and occasionally go back and see my own. It all depends on who feeds best."

"And when will your herd reach the Beaver?" continued Forrest.

"I left orders to water my lead herd in the Beaver at three o'clock to-morrow, and my own dear cattle will be at their heels. My outfit acts as rear-guard to Blocker's herd."

These men, in the employ of the same drover, had not seen each other in months, and a fire of questions followed, and were answered. The chronicle of the long drive, of accident by flood and field, led up to the prospects for a northern demand for cattle.

"The market has barely opened in Dodge," said Seay, in reply to a question. "Unless the herds are sold or contracted, very few will leave Dodge for the Platte River before the first of July. Old man Don isn't driving a hoof that isn't placed, so all his herds will pass Ogalalla before the first of the month. The bulk of the drive going north of the Platte will come next month. With the exception of scattering herds, the first of August will end the drive."

The men talked far into the night. When they were left alone in the tent, Forrest unfolded his plans for starting the boys in life.

"We found them actually on their uppers," said he; "they hadn't tasted meat in months, and were living on greens and garden truck. It's a good range, and we must get them some cattle. The first year may be a little tough, but by drawing on all of Lovell's wagons for the necessary staples, we can provision them until next spring. You must leave some flour and salt and beans and the like."

"Beans!" echoed Seay. "That will surely tickle my cook. Did you ever notice that the farther north it goes, a Texas trail outfit gets tastier? Let it start out on bacon and beans and blackstrap, and after the herd crosses the Platte, the varmints want prairie chicken and fried trout. Tasty! Why, those old boys develop an elegant taste for dainties. Nothing but good old beef ever makes them even think of home again. Yes, my cook will give you his last bean, and make a presentation speech gratis."

Forrest's wound had begun to mend, the soreness and swelling had left the knee joint, and the following morning Seay spent in making crutches. Crude and for temporary use, the wounded man tried them out, and by assistance reached the entrance, where he was eased into an old family rocking-chair in the shade of the tent.

"This has been the dream of my life," said he, "to sit like some old patriarch in my tent door and count my cattle. See that white cow yonder?" pointing with a crutch. "Well, she belongs to your uncle John Quincy. And that reminds me that she and her calf are up as a reward to complete the roll of brands. Boys, are you ready?"

The revised lists were submitted for inspection. Compared with the one rendered by Straw, there was still a difference in Dell's regarding a dun cow, while Joel's list varied on three head. Under the classification the errors were easily located, and summoning the visiting foreman, Forrest explained the situation.

"I'll have to appoint you umpire in deciding this matter. Here's the roll furnished by Nat Straw, and you'll compare it with Dell and Joel's. Of course, old Nat didn't care a whoopee about getting the list perfect, and my boy may be right on that dun cow. Joel differs on a three-year-old, a heifer, and a yearling steer. Now, get them straight, because we're expecting to receive more cattle this evening. Pass on these brands before you leave to meet your herd this afternoon. And remember, there's a cow and calf at stake for whichever one of these boys first gets the roll correct."

After dinner the three rode away for a final inspection. The cattle were lazy and logy from water, often admitting of riding within a rod, thus rendering the brands readable at a glance. Dell led the way to the dun cow, but before Seay could pass an opinion, the boy called for his list in possession of the man. "Let me take my roll a minute," said he, "and I'll make the correction. It isn't a four bar four, it's four equals four; there's two bars instead of one. The cow and calf is mine. That gives me three."

The lust of possession was in Dell's voice. The reward had been fairly earned, and turning to the other cattle in dispute, Joel's errors were easily corrected. All three were in one brand, and the mere failure to note the lines of difference between the figure eight and the letter S had resulted in repeating the mistake. Seay amused himself by pointing out different animals and calling for their brands, and an envious rivalry resulted between the brothers, in their ability to read range script.

"A good eye and a good memory," said Seay, as they rode homeward, "are gifts to a cowman. A brand once seen is hardly ever forgotten. Twenty years hence, you boys will remember all these brands. One man can read brands at twice the distance of another, and I have seen many who could distinguish cattle from horses, with the naked eye, at a distance of three miles. When a man learns to know all there is about cattle, he ought to be getting gray around the edges."

Forrest accepted the umpire's report. "I thought some novice might trip his toe on that equality sign," said he. "There's nothing like having studied your arithmetic. Dell's been to school, and it won him a cow and calf when he saw the sign used as a brand. I wonder how he is on driving mules."

"I can drive them," came the prompt reply.

"Very well. Hook up the old team. I'm sending you down to the trail crossing to levy on two commissary wagons. Take everything they give you and throw out a few hints for more. This afternoon we begin laying in a year's provisions. It may be a cold winter, followed by a late spring, and there's nothing like having enough. Relieve them of all their dried fruits, and make a strong talk for the staples of life. I may want to winter here myself, and a cow camp should make provision for more or less company."

Seay lent his approval. "Hitch up and rattle along ahead of me," said he. "The wagons may reach the crossing an hour or two ahead of the herds, and I'll be there to help you trim them down to light traveling form."

It proved an active afternoon. The wagon was started for the trail crossing, followed by Seay within half an hour. Joel was in a quandary, between duty and desire, as he was anxious to see the passing herds, yet a bond of obligation to the wounded man required his obedience. Forrest had noticed the horse under saddle, the impatience of the boy, but tactfully removed all uneasiness.

"I have been trying to figure out," said he, "how I could spare you this afternoon, as no doubt you would like to see the herds, but we have so much to do at home. Now that I can hobble out, you must get me four poles, and we will strip this fly off the tent and make a sunshade out of it--make an arbor in front of our quarters. Have the props ready, and in the morning Seay will show you how to stretch a tarpaulin for a sunshade. And then along towards evening, you must drift our little bunch of cattle at least a mile up the creek. I'm expecting more this evening, and until we learn the brands on this second contingent, they must be kept separate. And then, since we've claimed it, we want to make a showing of occupying the range, by scattering the cattle over it. Within a month, our cows must rest in the shade of Hackberry Grove and be watering out of those upper springs. When you take a country, the next thing is to hold it."

Something to do was a relief to Joel. Willow stays, for the arbor, were cut, the bark peeled off, and the poles laid ready at hand. When the cattle arose, of their own accord, from the noonday rest, the impatient lad was allowed to graze them around the bend of the creek. There was hardly enough work to keep an active boy employed, and a social hour ensued. "Things are coming our way," said Forrest. "This man Seay will just about rob Blocker's outfit. When it comes to making a poor mouth, that boy Dorg is in a class by himself. Dell will just about have a wagon load. You boys will have to sleep in the tent hereafter."

It proved so. The team returned an hour before sunset, loaded to the carrying capacity of the wagon. Not only were there remnants in the staples of life, but kegs of molasses and bags of flour and beans, while a good saddle, coils of rope, and a pair of new boots which, after a wetting, had proven too small for the owner, were among the assets. It was a motley assortment of odds and ends, a free discard of two trail outfits, all of which found an acceptable lodgment at the new ranch.

"They're coming up to supper," announced Dell to Forrest. "Mr. Blocker's foreman knows you, and sent word to get up a spread. He says that when he goes visiting, he expects his friends to not only put on the little and big pot, but kill a chicken and churn. He's such a funny fellow. He made me try on those boots, and when he saw they would fit, he ordered their owner, one of Mr. Seay's men, to give them to me or he would fight him at sunrise."

"Had them robbing each other for us, eh?" said Forrest, smiling. "Well, that's the kind of friend to have when settling up a new country. This ranch is like a fairy story. Here I sit and wave my crutch for a wand, and everything we need seems to just bob up out of the plain. Cattle coming along to stock a ranch, old chum coming to supper, in fact, everything coming our way. Dell, get up a banquet--who cares for expense!"

It was barely dusk when the second contingent of cattle passed above the homestead and were turned loose for the night. As before, the cripples had been dropped midway, and would be nursed up the next morning. With the assistance of crutches, Forrest managed to reach the opening, and by clinging to the tent-pole, waved a welcome to the approaching trail men.

Blocker's foreman, disdaining an invitation to dismount, saluted his host. "There's some question in my mind," said he, "as to what kind of a dead-fall you're running up here, but if it's on the square, there goes my contribution to your hospital. Of course, the gift carries the compliments of my employer, Captain John. That red-headed boy delivered my messages, I reckon? Well, now, make out that I'm somebody that's come a long way, and that you're tickled to death to see me, and order the fatted calf killed. Otherwise, I won't even dismount."