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There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. That will be the beginning.
Pa said that when I was a boy. There was a hot, dry wind moaning through the hot, dry trees, and we were scared of fire in the woods, knowing that if fire came, all we had would go.
We had crops in the ground, but there’d been no rain for weeks. We were scrapin’ the bottom of the barrel for flour and drinkin’ coffee made from ground-up beans. We’d had our best cow die, and the rest was ganted up, so’s you could count every rib.
Two years before, pa had set us to diggin’ a well. “Pa?” I asked. “Why dig a well? We’ve got the creek yonder and three flowin’ springs on the place. It’s needless work.”
He lifted his head, and he looked me right in the eye and said, “Dig a well.”
We dug a well.
We grumbled, but when pa said dig, you just naturally dug. And lucky it was, too.
For there came the time when the bed of the creek was dust and the springs that had always flowed weren’t flowin’. We had water, though. We had water from a deep, cold well. We watered our stock, we watered our kitchen garden, and we had what was needful for drinkin’ because of that well.
Now, years later and far out on the grass prairie, I was remembering and wondering what I could do that I hadn’t done.
No matter which way you looked between you and anywhere else, there was a thousand miles of grass—and the Sioux.
The Sioux hadn’t come upon us yet, but they were about, and every man-jack of us knew it. It could be they hadn’t cut our sign yet, but cut it they would, and when they did, they would come for us.
We were seven men, including the Chinese cook, in no shape to fight off a bunch of Sioux warriors if they came upon us. Scattered around the cattle, we’d be in no shape at all.
“If it comes,” I told them, “center on me and we’ll kill enough cattle for a fort and make a stand.”
Have you seen that Dakota country? It varies some, but it’s likely to be flat or low, rolling hills, with here and there a slough. You don’t find natural places to fort. The buffalo wallows offer the best chance if there’s one handy. The trouble was, if the Sioux came upon us, it would be a spot of their choosing, not ours.
The buffalo-chip fire had burned down to a sullen red glow by the time Tyrel rode back into camp. He stripped the gear from his mount and carried his saddle up to the fire for a pillow. He took off his chaps, glancing over at me, knowing I was awake.
“They’re quiet, Tell”—he spoke soft so’s not to wake the others, who were needful of sleep—“but every one of them is awake.”
“There’s something out there. Something or somebody.”
“This here is Injun country.” Tyrel shucked his gun belt and placed it handy to his bed. He sat down to pull off his boots. “We knew that before we started.”
He went to the blackened, beat-up coffee pot and looked over at me. “Toss me your cup.”
Well, I wasn’t sleeping, nohow. I sat up and took the coffee. “It ain’t Injuns,” I said. “Least it doesn’t feel like Injuns. This is something else. We’ve been followed, Tyrel. You know that as well as me. We’ve been followed for the last three or four days.”
The coffee was strong enough to grow hair on a saddle. “Tye? You recall the time pa wanted us to dig that well? He was always one to be ready for whatever might come. Not that he went around expecting trouble. He just wanted to be ready for whatever happened. For anything.”
“That was him, alright.”
“Tyrel, something tells me I forgot to dig my well. There’s something I should have done that I’ve missed, something we’ve got to think of or plan for.”
Tyrel, he just sipped his coffee, squatting there in his sock feet, feeling good to have his boots off. “Don’t know what it could be,” Tyrel said. “We’ve got rifles all around and ammunition to fight a war. At Fort Garry, Orrin will pick up some Red River carts and a man or two. He’ll load those carts with grub and such.” He pushed his hat back, sweat-wet hair plastered against his forehead. “The stock are fat—eleven hundred head of good beef, and we’ve gotten an early start.”
“Don’t make no difference, Tyrel. I’ve forgotten something, or somebody.”
“Wait’ll we meet up with Orrin. When he joins us at Fort Garry, he’ll know right away if anything’s wrong.”
“I’ve been thinkin’ about Fort Garry, Tyrel. Seems foolish to drive east even a little way when we’ve got to go back west.”
Tyrel refilled his cup and held up the pot. I shook my head. “It’s the boys,” he said. “This here shapes up to be a rough, mean drive. Oh, we’ll see some new country, an’ mighty beautiful country, but any way you take it, it will be rough. We’d better give the boys a chance to blow off some steam.”
“They’d better blow it careful,” I said. “Some of those Canadians are mighty rough. Nice folks, but they can handle themselves.”
Low clouds blotted out the stars; wind whispered in the grass. Sleep was needed, but I was wakeful as a man with three sparkin’-age daughters. “You were there when the word came, Tyrel. D’you figure there’s more to this than Logan let on?”
“You know Logan better’n I do. He cut his stick for trouble before he was knee-high to a short hog, and you know any time Logan calls for help, there’s no telling what’s involved. There’s mighty little in the way of trouble Logan can’t handle all by himself.”
“He never lied to us.”
“He never lied to nobody. Nolan and Logan have done things here and there that you and me wouldn’t, but they never broke their given word.”
Tyrel bedded down, but I lay awake, trying to think it out, tired though I was.
We were pushing eleven hundred head of fat steers across the Dakota plains, headed for the gold mines in far western Canada. The Dakota country was new to us. Wide, wide plains but good grass so far, and we’d been lucky enough to come upon water when needed. Cap Rountree had been up this way before, but aside from Tyrel, who had been marshal of a gold-minin’ town in Idaho, none of us had been so far north.
We’d put the herd together in a hurry because Logan was in need and started the drive short-handed, which meant extra work for all. Orrin was coming up by steamboat and was to meet us at Fort Garry for the long drive west.
Those to whom we’d talked, who might or might not know what they were talkin’ about, said there were no towns to the west. There were trading posts here and yonder, however, one of them being Fort Whoop-Up.
Even about that we heard two stories. Some said it was simply a trading post, but others said it was a hangout for rustlers, whiskey peddlers, and the like. If it was kin to such places as we’d known, it could be both.
We Sacketts had come west from the Tennessee–North Carolina country in search of new lands. Ours had been among the earliest folk to settle back yonder, but somehow we stuck to the high-up hills where the game was and let the good bottom lands slip away to latecomers. Most newcomers to the west found the life hard and the ways rough, but to mountain-bred folks it was no different from what we were accustomed to.
Any time a Sackett had meat on the table, it was likely to be meat he’d shot, and if pa was away from home, it was we youngsters who did the shootin’. Those who lived ’round about used to say that Sacketts and shootin’ went together like hog meat an’ hominy.
Stock driving had been our way of life since first we settled in the hills. It was old Yance Sackett who began it some two hundred years back, and he started it with turkey drives to market. After that, it was hogs, and, like turkeys, we drove them afoot, for the most part.
If you had turkeys or hogs to sell, you just naturally drove them to market or sold them to a drover.
Word came from Logan just after we’d sold nine hundred head of prime beef in Kansas. We’d actually sold fourteen hundred head, but some of the stock belonged to neighbors.