“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.”
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.”