The reedy old voice cut through Big Mac's thoughts. "A sudden blizzard," Old Timer declared, "And you'd lose ever'thing. Ain't no sensible man driven cattle that far since steel fence posts was invented. Any man in his right mind would truck 'em. It's faster. It's safer."
There was truth in what the old man said, and Mac knew it, but he and Myrtle had talked it over, and came to the same conclusion. They would have to drive their cattle to market.
Everything depended on the weather. All they needed was a few clear days.
Mac, like most of his neighbors, ran cattle, and farmed. He planted wheat so they'd have a cash crop, and sorghum or sudan grass to feed the cattle. He ran over 300 head of cattle to balance the work and the income. When one crop failed the other was supposed to pull him through but it didn't always work that way. After a long siege of crop failures--droughts, dust storms, grasshoppers, and Mormon crickets, the less hardy South Dakotans had pulled up stakes and left.
Mac had asked Myrt, "What do you think? Should we head for the city?" Myrt's reply was short and sweet, "We can't afford to," she said.
And then she added, "Who wants to live where trees and buildings get in the way every time you try to look out? No, we couldn't do that to JR. Every kid wants to live on a ranch. And neither of us could stand living all hemmed in either. Are you forgetting this is "next year country."
"You're right, Myrt. Maybe next year prices will spiral up. Maybe next year the government will do something half-way intelligent. Maybe next year we'll strike oil!"
Mac wanted to believe it. But times had been so continually bad since '33 that they had to figure out a way to bring in a few dollars to live on. Selling off the cattle would be one way to go.
But shipping cattle cost so much they couldn't afford it, so Mac set to scheming. He told Myrt, "If I could get a couple more men to help ride herd, I think Crane, and I could drive the cattle to market. And JR is 14 now. He's old enough to help. If we do it during Christmas vacation he won't even have to miss school. It would be something he'd always look back on."
Myrt liked the idea. She said, "I'll bring out hot meals for the first coupla days. And bring JR home to sleep the first night out." The plan looked feasible.
Mac's answer to Old Timer said it all. "Driving cattle can be just as safe as hauling them and the price is right! It's a heck of a lot cheaper--like the difference between going in the hole and realizing a little profit. Sure, it'll take more time, but in the winter, time is what we got." He paused a bit before adding, "Bullsitting, I call it. That's all we do most of the winter."
Myrt, never one to mince words, spoke up. "Ain't that the truth. Remember, it was you said it first!"
Mac and Myrt studied the Farmer's Almanac from cover to cover, talked it over, and decided the time was right. When Mac showed the Almanac to his hired hand, Crane, he said, "See if you read into it what I do.. If you can believe this Almanac we're in for a good spell, so now ought to be the time to start the trail drive."
Crane barely glanced at the Almanac. "If you say so," he said, disbelieving, and added, "I'll believe good weather when I see it."
"Everything else we could get hold of predicts the same thing--a good spell right about now." said Mac. "But I know as well as you do that South Dakota weather is never predictable. It has a mind of its own--like the ornery critters who live here!"
Mac continued, "I guess that's one of the reasons I stick with it." He smiled and his eyes met Myrt's as he thumped her shapely hip. He said, "South Dakota weather is the only thing as tantalizing and unpredictable as a woman."
"Crane, tell Bascom to pick up Croix and be ready to go tomorrow morning, providing the weather is favorable. I'm gonna listen to the report now." Mac yawned and stretched his rugged, six-foot frame toward the kitchen ceiling in the low homesteader's shack they called home. Every night, before he went to bed, he listened to the weather report on the little Atwater Kent.
"Pay no attention to those who say it can't be done," he thought. "It's the only way --." His thoughts were interrupted by the sputtering of the radio. He fumbled with the dial, trying to clear the static so he could hear. When the forecaster announced there'd be good weather, Mac's mind was made up; they'd start the trail drive as planned. He fell asleep with a smile playing at the corners of his mouth--he dreamed that a giant, horned, long-eared animal he'd heard described to a stranger as a jackelope, was watching a herd of rusty colored cattle making their way down a slight rise of land toward a river.
Mac was up early the next morning; long before anyone else was awake he'd checked out the weather. Just as he came back into the house, Crane, ace hired hand, and just as big and husky as Mac, came down the stairs, shaking the sleep out of his head.
"Morning," Crane mumbled, heading for the wash basin which sat on a chintz-draped peach crate in the corner of the kitchen. Crane cupped his hands with cold water which he splashed on his face and dried himself briskly with a khaki colored towel which hung on a nail. Then, glancing into the mirror as he used a comb to make a part in his medium brown hair, he noticed how red and leathery his fair skin had become from the cold weather. When he sat down, he was ready for the steaming coffee and hot flap jacks that Myrt set before him on the oilcloth-covered table.
Not until after Crane had buttered and poured syrup over his cakes and took his first bite, did he pause to ask, "How's it look outside?"
"Clear as a bell, sunny. And no snow left, except along the creeks. Not much ice left, either."
"Guess you know who to talk to about weather." Crane said. "Wish you knew half as much about when's a good time to sell."
And, then, chuckling, "You didn't have to call Sprout twice this morning. He's up there rushing around so fast he's putting everything on backwards and upside down!"
Mac, Jr. or JR, as his parents called him, looking like a younger clone of his father, came bouncing down the uneven steps that some makeshift carpenter had built to reach the attic. Without taking time to wash his hands, the kid sat down and started gulping down pancakes.
"Morning, Sprout. Ya'll set to drive that lead rack? Whatcha gonna do if some yokel sheep herder comes by with a passel of sheep? You gonna sit there looking fat and sassy, and let all 300 of our white-faces high-tail it? Ever try to stop a stampede?"
There was nothing JR liked better than making fast comebacks but his voice, which these days couldn't decide whether to be soprano or bass, hampered his delivery some, and before he could say anything his dad asked, "Almost ready, JR? Time's a wasting."
Crane added, "Reckon you got enough pancakes under your belt to keep a scrawny little guy like you from starving--least 'til noon!"
The roar of a gunning motor caught and held their attention. "Probably Bascom bringing Croix. I let Bascom think we'd be putting out before dawn. Figured it was the only way to get him here before noon. He'll be coming in, looking foolish, thinking he overslept, and apologizing for holding us back."
Mac and Crane donned fur-lined jackets over heavy, woolen sweaters, and pulled on old winter caps to protect their ears. They knew better than to wear their wide-brimmed Stetsons on a day like this when they were going to be outside all day. In unison they pulled on thick, heavy gloves. They had no need for conversation.
The two of them walked easily, boots solid against the frozen ground. Ducking their heads against the bite of the morning they headed for the corral. The sound of bawling yearlings echoed through the still, glorious morning. A few dried corn stalks, bent and gray in the morning cold, glittered with ice. A rooster, strutting around inside the chicken coop, crowed. Inside the corral the Herefords milled about restlessly.
JR snatched one last bite of pancake and then hurried to catch up. By the time Bascom and Croix turned into the driveway the others were ready to go.
Mac called to the latecomers as they hopped out of the pick-up, looking embarrassed, "We're going to start the herd down past the creek for a good long drink before we leave."
"Sprout," Crane motioned, "Keep an eye on these guys; don't let 'em fall asleep. It's awful early in the morning for anybody who needs sleep like these boys do."
Croix, half-French, half Sioux-Indian, remained expressionless, but good-natured Bascom countered with, "Some guys just ain't got a clear enough conscience to sleep."
Crane handed Bascom an axe and motioned for him to start chopping ice. Then, for JR's benefit, said, "Watch Sprout work circles around you both."
JR flushed and headed towards the dam, which lay in the crotch of two hills. The pasture hills were interlaced with draws, which caught and held melting snows. The dam, which had been steeply graded so as to hold water enough to last the season, had a foot thick coating of ice which had to be chopped through. The trail drive was underway by the time all the cattle were watered.
There had been talk about pulling the lead hay rack with the tractor, but they decided against it. Instead, the kid led the way, driving a matched buckskin team, Prince and Kate. The hay bales, stacked neatly in the rack, were supposed to lure the cattle along. In the evening the crew planned to spread the hay around both for the cattle to bed down on and for them to eat.
It made a pretty picture, the white faced herefords with their rusty backsides etched sharply against the blue of the sky. The herd strung out for a full quarter mile as the winter wind nudged them gently on, and they proceeded quietly, snatching mouthfuls of tufted grass to much on as they moved along.
Croix, tall and lean, and Bascom, short and husky, sat astride sorrel ponies which they stationed at either side of the herd. Big Mac rode behind, sitting easily in the saddle, hazing the stragglers along. The right flank of his saddle pony was scarred by a Lazy M brand, the same brand carried on the cattle. Crane, mounted on a roan, brought up the rear.
The noon sun hung low in the south when Myrt came out bringing them a hot lunch she'd fixed at the house. "Hey, she called. "You're making better time than you thought you'd make. By my watch you are averaging about a mile and a half an hour."
"That's about what we figured." said Mac. "We made better time by following the section lines; didn't worry about trespassing. Think how good cowboys had it before fences!"
Bascom, who looked as though he'd never missed a meal call in his life, was the first in line for chow and he ate hearty. Crane allowed "From now on better let Bascom chow down after the rest of us have."
"Ah, shucks," Bascom responded, "I don't eat half as much you do. I just chaw each bite well so it takes me longer, that's all. I make the most of what I chaw."
The crew took turns sitting in the pickup to eat their lunches; at least it was warmer inside the pickup than it was riding. When it was JR's turn for chow, Myrt called to him, "I'll take over the team while you eat; you better get warmed through before it turns really cold tonight."
JR climbed down clumsily; the thickness of his winter clothing made it impossible to move quickly. His back had been to the wind all morning, and the cold had penetrated through to the bone. He took off his gloves in order to rub his nose, which was cold and red. Then he cupped his hands and blew into them the way he'd seen Crane do. The heat from his warm breath eased the cold a little. He even gulped down hot coffee, something he'd never done before, until he noticed that his mother had brought a thermos of cocoa for him. To JR cocoa tasted way better than any kind of coffee.
By the time her son had finished eating Myrt was cold through and through, despite her fur-lined woolen coat, woolen slacks, and heavy overshoes. She was glad to climb back into the pickup though the heater did not throw out much heat in this weather. She was sure glad that JR would be able to sleep at home the first night out.
It was late afternoon when they reached the Little Ben River. They aimed to cross it before bedding the cattle down for the night, which meant working late. They had to spread sand over the ice so the cattle wouldn't slip; they couldn't risk any broken legs. The ice was frozen solid; that was important.
The Little Ben was shallow, even at its peak; nevertheless they couldn't chance waiting until morning to cross. Bascom and Crane rode on ahead and began to spread the gravel around. The cattle slowed, were beginning to bawl loudly; the sound carried along the hollows of the river bottom.
The cattle approached the ice cautiously, unsure of their footing, and then crowded across in a jerky, unsteady gait. When reached the other side the animals broke into a little run to get the momentum needed to proceed up the slight rise of the river bank. After they crossed JR turned his hayrack toward the flat bottom land by the river's edge, where the canyon walls provided a little shelter. With his dad's help, JR threw bales of hay off the rack; the cattle began tearing and chewing the bales of hay, and as they did their heads bobbed up and down, until they had their fill.
Croix chopped holes in the ice, again, because the animals had to have water. After long draughts of ice water the Herefords turned back for more hay. Some bedded down on the hay bales for the night, or stood quietly chewing their cuds, now and then flicking a tail, or opening an eye, teary from the cold.
Bascom, who had been gathered kindling, built a brush fire. If you stood close enough, the flames, licking high into the air, provided a welcome warmth. Some of the crew found tree stumps to lounge on; the rest had to squat down. By the time Myrt brought them supper they were half-starved and bone-weary.
Only Mac and Crane figured to stay the night; somebody had to be there, in case the cattle got spooked. With sleeping bags for warmth they'd dig down, horn-toad style, into the hayrack. Mac knew JR would put up a fight about being sent home to sleep, and he did, but he went anyhow. JR was so near asleep when they reached home that Myrt had trouble getting him into the house. She helped him tug off his heavy overshoes and plaid jacket and let him sleep fully clothed on the front room couch. He slept like a dead man!
Before dawn the next morning Bascom and Croix came for JR. Bascom, who was always looking for an easier way for himself, said. "It's too gol-dern cold for me. This boy's gonna ride herd in his Ford 4 V8 today." And then, turning to JR, said, "Your dad probably won't think much of it." JR knew what his dad would think: no vehicle is as reliable with cattle as a good horse is.
All Mac said to Bascom was, "What are you going to do with Beauty? She's your responsibility."
Their second day out passed uneventfully, the air continuing bright and clear, the sun still posed haughtily, diffusing little warmth. By noon Bascom asked, "Isn't this Indian territory?" Mac nodded, and said, "It's all right; Chiefs a friend of mine. He allowed as it was all right for us to pass through. And Croix grew up on the Reservation." They stopped the second night at the old County Fair Grounds and Stockyard, once located there because of the water supply. "Here's where the stockyards stood. Some of the old posts are still here, dad," shouted JR, excitedly. "You can see the size of it.. My teacher said they used to ship thousands of cattle out of here every year in the old days. When she heard I was going on a trail drive she made me read about the early cowboys and the cattle rustlers in these parts, and how they hated the settlers guts."
"Yeah," said Bascom, "there was once range wars right here. And Indian wars, too. Hey, Croix, did you hear that?" But Croix was nowhere to be seen.
While JR and Bascom were loafing, Mac and Crane set about getting settled in. Mac said, "This lean-to was once used for a hot dog stand; it'll come in handy tonight. This old laundry stove is where the auctioneers warmed their hands on cold days. We'll soon have it so red hot you'll be backing away from it."
Myrt brought lunch and supper out again on the second day, and melted snow from the creek in an old pan so there was hot water to wash up with. As they sat savoring the evening meal Crane thanked Myrt. "This sure beats camping out and eating chow around the campfire," he observed, "Though I spoze Sprout feels cheated."
The coffee pot sat on the laundry stove all night, despite grumbling by Bascom, who, though he shied away from even a taste of alcohol, said, for JR's benefit, "Coffee? Is that all the liquid refreshments we're getting? We might just as well be them WCTUers? My pappy tole me a little whiskey in the summer keeps you safe from sunstroke, and a little more in the winter will keep you from freezing to death."
Dead tired from their restless night before, Mac and Crane fell asleep almost as soon as they'd eaten and when the warmth from the stove hit them; their plans were to wake up to take the midnight shift. JR fell asleep almost as soon, but the other two lit a kerosene lantern and got out a deck of cards.
"I'll teach you how to play Pitch," Bascom said, shuffling the red bicycle cards. Croix appeared to be a willing student, so they sat smack in front of the laundry stove where their bodies absorbed the heat before it got very far. There were no windows inside the shack. Hinged shutters once swung down to make tables, but now the hooks that held the shutters in place were rusty, and so were the hinges. Only a fool would try to open a window on a night like this, but it would have been nice to have one so they could peek out. As it was they had to poke their heads out the door now and then to check on the herd.
It was close to midnight when Mac awakened. Despite banking it, the little laundry stove had almost gone out, and the shack was getting cold. Bascom and Croix were both snoring loudly, mouths open, huddled under heavy wool blankets where they sat in front of the stove, arms limp at their sides. Mac stomped around, gathering the logs they'd laid in, trying to get the fire going again. Suddenly, Croix slumped over, coming to with a start. Bascom never did waken; instead he flopped over onto the floor, grunted a little, and snored louder.
Croix followed Mac out to look the herd over. They needn't have bothered; the herd was quiet. The sky seemed darker and the myriad stars more aloof than ever. In the distance a coyote howled, and a startled deer appeared momentarily at the river's edge and then slipped quickly away into the shadows, leaving only the telltale cleft hoof tracks.
The temperature was decidedly colder--their second night out and an icy blast of frigid air had enveloped them. They hurried back in to the welcome warmth of the laundry stove. Mac beat the palms of his hands together, cracking his knuckles to get the circulation going again, and moved his shoulder blades up and down to get rid of some of the stiffness. He wished he had a radio so he could hear the weather reports. His pocket watch said one a.m. He figured to take the rest of the night watch, and let the others sleep a little longer.
It was about four in the morning when the men started to stir. The little laundry stove hadn't gone out but it just couldn't throw out enough heat to warm the shack with the cold as bitter as it had gotten. The water in the basin had a thin layer of ice on it, though it had been next to the stove all night. Bascom scurried around, apologetic for having fallen asleep when he was supposed to stand watch, and outdid himself preparing grub. Tossing flapjacks into the air, he caught them expertly with the pan they'd brought from home, and served them, hot and inviting, on tin plates. "As a night watchman, Bascom," drawled Crane, smacking his lips over the cakes. "You'd shore make somebody a good wife."
When they left the blue bluffs along the river and came out from the valley they felt the cold even more. Maybe it was a matter of getting cold to the marrow and not really warming up at night, but Mac felt himself bracing against the piercing wind.
The weeds which stuck through the snow along the fences had saucily weathered the winter, yet they seemed to arch against the onslaught of the wind. Snow birds, insulated by fluffed feathers, pecked furiously at whatever seeds they found. Along the ridge, a land mark lone tree stood chilled and forlorn, as though still vulnerable to the weather, despite years of exposure.
The herd moved right along, no problem there. Even a pasture filled with sheep didn't alarm them. "Never see anything like it," said Bascom. "These cows must be so blamed cold their imaginations are froze. Either that or they are so damn numb they can't tell a sheep from a fence post."
When it began to get dark JR motioned to his dad to come closer to the hayrack and asked, "You sure you know where we're going, dad? Maybe we got turned around somewhere."
"Trust me," said Mac. "These December days are the shortest days of the year; it gets dark by five o'clock. It won't be long until we reach the old school buildings where we're going to put up for the night."
"I hope those school buildings are still there." said JR. "Since they're not used any more somebody could have torn them down."
Mac responded, "Old school houses are still being used for township elections, and now and then, for a revival meeting or two. And they always keep coal on hand in case some hunter or trapper loses his way. Can't let 'em freeze to death. Don't worry, son. The buildings are still standing."
It was late when they finally arrived at their school. The ground was frozen hard and icy underfoot. The herd was weary. Usually they licked at the blocks of salt before they drank of the water, but they didn't bother this time. The cattle crowded against the sheltered side of the school building to be away from the wind. They huddled close together, seeking warmth from each other, or laid down, beat from the travel. The horses, glad for shelter, brushed against one another for warmth.
Mac's crew went into the schoolhouse to case the facilities. The first thing Bascom spotted was the teacher's desk. He stepped in place behind it, saying, "Ah. At last I know how it feels to be on the other side of the desk. I've always waited for the moment when I'd have a bunch of teachers in front of me so I could give the orders." Then, in a high falsetto voice, "Come to order now kiddies, and let us not throw any more spit balls at the stove. Teacher doesn't approve of the vulgar way they sizzle."
Croix, too, found his niche. He went directly to the blackboard and began drawing pictures with chalk--landscapes of prairies, horses, dogs--pictures of the land that he loved as a his people brown. He revealed with the chalk what he could never reveal with words. Mac had seen him thus before, absorbed for hours, painting in the village cafe, on cardboard with cans of enamel paint from the dime store. He sold the pictures for whatever he could get for them.
The school house was well equipped with a kerosene stove for cooking, a heater, a lantern, and even a cot, which the last schoolmom who taught in that school had used when roads became impassible. When Bascom saw the kerosene range he offered to make the evening meal. "First one to complain," he said, "does the dishes."
"I saw the couch first. It's mine." said JR, but Crane made a flying leap at the same time and captured it broadside. "It's mine fair and square, " Crane said, "First come, first served." Then he picked JR up and stuck him under his arm as though he were a kicking, wriggling sack of flour.
"Be good? Promise? No more shenanigans?" But when Crane had extracted the promise and let JR loose, the kid turned back squealing and tried to latch on to the cot again. That time Crane sat on him and pretended to be absorbed in reading an old schoolbook. JR struggled and kicked but Crane wouldn't let him go until he wore himself out.
Crane said, "I'm not moving until morning." He didn't either, though nobody would bring him anything to eat, and when he stretched out towards the improvised table to snatch a bite to eat he had to make sure he had one foot firmly anchored on the couch.
The exercise did them all good, and they felt warm and relaxed. They even played cat and mouse on the blackboard, and hang-the-man like they'd done as kids.
Croix had gone outside while they were rough housing and hadn't returned. After a while Crane said, "I wonder where Croix could have gone? He went out into the night without saying a word to anybody." Mac looked thoughtfully, hand on chin "Croix grew up near here. You don't suppose he is out looking up relatives?
"Probably out chasing a squaw," yawned Bascom. "Don't wait up for him. He'll be back. I promise you." Bascom spread his bed roll next to the heater, stretched and scratched, and got ready to bury his head under the covers for the night.
Concerned about Croix, Mac peered out into the school yard then, and noticed that large snowflakes had begun to float down. They were drifting lazily, intermittently, but the sky had turned black, and there were no stars visible. Mac looked at Crane and without speaking each knew the others thoughts. Any change in the weather could be a change for the worse this time of year. What if the wind switched? They had only one long day left before they would reach the railroad shipping yard. Surely the storm would hold off that long.
Croix appeared then as silently as he had gone; his weather beaten face grim. "Soon will a storm be upon us. My brothers say that before the dawn the north wind will bring sleet and ice."
They were back in the saddles and ready to go within the half hour. The cattle bunched closer together, not stringing out as they'd done before and they were easier to drive. They seemed to sense the urgency the snow had brought; the pending storm stirred both man and beast and their tiredness was replaced with energy.
They were only a mile from the shipping yards when the blizzard began in earnest. The wind had switched again and was whipping down from the northwest. It was blowing gusts of snow across the road, whirling and tantalizing in its onslaught. The crew turned up their collars and hunched their necks deep down into their coats, and still they were cold.
The herd pushed forward, tired and hungry, filled with fear. Snow thickened their lashes so they had to peer through heavy lids; their tails became ice-matted, their nostrils encrusted with sleet. The team balked, then, in the face of the sleet, and the Kid couldn't manage alone. Mac turned his horse loose, sure that his horse could find his own way, got into the rack, and worked for control with the team. Croix was not stoical in the excitement of the storm; he urged the herd onward, lashing at them with his lariat to keep them moving.
Snowflakes fringed the bleary eyes and leathery hides of man and beast, and ice clung to the corners of their mouths where the saliva had frozen, and to their ears and nostrils. The horses, heads down, were nearly exhausted.
When they turned into the stockyards in Redbud the fence posts along the trail were barely visible. When Hathaway's crew saw them they came running out to help, shouting at them, marveling at their stamina. They corralled the herd, unsaddled the horses, cussed the weather. Everyone talked at the same time, asking different questions. "Where were you when the storm hit? How did you manage to make it through? How far did you come? You mean this kid stayed with you all the way?"
Mac's crew, shielding their faces against the piercing sleet, ran towards the Hathaway house. They wiped numb hands across ruddy half-frozen faces, stomped snow from their boots, and shook their Mackinaws when they got inside.
The house inside was warm and steamy; a teakettle bubbled merrily on the kitchen range. Around the kitchen Mrs. Hathaway moved, setting the table, preparing something hot for them to eat.
"We made it, thank the Almighty," Mac droned wearily. He mumbled something else, before he nodded off. It sounded like ".. ...enough money to tide us over for another year. Next year has gotta be better than this one."