The summer flamed up into sudden heat, and seared all the grasses, and cut down the timid flowers. Then gradually there came the time of shorter days and cooler nights. The grass curled tight down to the ground. The air carried a suspicion of frost upon some steel-clear mornings. The golden-backed plover had passed to the south in long, waving lines, which showed dark against the deep blue sky. Great flocks of grouse now and then rocked by at morning or evening. On the sand bars along the infrequent streams thousands of geese gathered, pausing in their flight to warmer lands. On the flats of the Rattlesnake, a pond-lined stream, myriads of ducks, cranes, swans, and all manner of wild fowl daily made mingled and discordant chorus. Obviously all the earth was preparing for the winter time.
It became not less needful for mankind to take thought for the morrow. Winter on the Plains was a season of severity for the early settlers, whose resources alike in fuel and food were not too extensive. Franklin’s forethought had provided the houses of himself and Battersleigh with proper fuel, and he was quite ready to listen to Curly when the latter suggested that it might be a good thing for them to follow the usual custom and go out on a hunt for the buffalo herd, in order to supply themselves with their winter’s meat.
Before the oncoming white men these great animals were now rapidly passing away, from month to month withdrawing farther back from the settlements. Reports from the returning skin-hunters set the distance of the main herd at three to five days’ journey. The flesh of the buffalo was now a marketable commodity at any point along the railway; but the settler who owned a team and a rifle was much more apt to go out and kill his own meat than to buy it of another. There were many wagons which went out that fall from Ellisville besides those of the party with which Franklin, Battersleigh, and Curly set out. These three had a wagon and riding horses, and they were accompanied by a second wagon, owned by Sam, the liveryman, who took with him Curly’s mozo, the giant Mexican, Juan. The latter drove the team, a task which Curly scornfully refused when it was offered him, his cowboy creed rating any conveyance other than the saddle as far beneath his station.
“Juan can drive all right,” he said. “He druv a cook wagon all the way from the Red River up here. Let him and Sam drive, and us three fellers’ll ride.”