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.”
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.