There was something in Joel’s voice that told Dell that his brother had not been forgotten. “And you?—don’t you?” stammered the younger boy.
“Mr. Quince picked out a cow and calf for me,” replied Joel, with a loftiness that two years’ seniority confers on healthy boys. “I left it to him to choose mine. You’d better pick out a red one. And say, this hospital of ours is the real thing. It’s the only one between Dodge and Ogalalla. This strange foreman wants to take stock in it. I wonder if that was what he meant by sawing off a little passel of cattle on Mr. Quince. Now, don’t argue or ask foolish questions, but keep your eyes and ears open.”
Fortified anew in courage, Dell accompanied the trail boss to meet his herd. It was a short hour’s ride, and on sighting the cattle, then nearing the crossing, they gave rein to their horses and rode for the rear of the long column, where, in the rear-guard of the trailing cattle, naturally the sore and tender-footed animals were to be found. The drag men knew them to a hoof, were delighted to hear that all cripples were to be dropped, and half a dozen were cut off and started up the Beaver. “Nurse them to the nearest water,” said Straw to the drag men, “and then push them up the creek until I overtake you. Here’s where we drop our strays and cripples. What? No, I’m only endowing a trail hospital.”
The herd numbered thirty-one hundred two-year-old steers. They filled the channel of the Beaver for a mile around the crossing, crowding into the deeper pools, and thrashing up and down the creek in slaking their thirst. Dell had never seen so many cattle, almost as uniform in size as that many marbles, and the ease with which a few men handled the herd became a nine-day wonder to the astonished boy. And when the word passed around to cut all strays up the creek, the facility with which the men culled out the alien down to one class and road brand, proved them masters in the craft. It seemed as easily done as selecting a knife from among the other trinkets in a boy’s pocket.
After a change of mounts for the foreman, Dell and the trail boss drifted the strays up the creek. The latter had counted and classed them as cut out of the herd, and when thrown together with the cripples, the promised little passel numbered thirty-five cattle, not counting three calves. Straw excused his men, promising to overtake them the next morning, and man and boy drifted the nucleus of a future ranch toward the homestead.
“Barring that white cow and the red one with the speckled calf,” said Straw to Dell, pointing out each, “you’re entitled to pick one for yourself. Now, I’m not going to hurry you in making your choice. Any time before we sight the tent and shack, you are to pick one for your own dear cow, and stand by your choice, good or bad. Remember, it carries my compliments to you, as one of the founders of the first hospital on the Texas and Montana cattle trail.”