WITH clicking horns and hoofs the lanky Texas steers moved northward. Their shuffling pace raised a heavy pall of dust which hung almost motionless in the air above them. A steady, rolling organ note swelled from the midst of the dust cloud. Those steers were dry; they needed water.
Jed Banning, trail boss, who had gathered the steers below Childress and who was now responsible for them until delivered to the buyer at Dodge, rode at a trot toward the point of the herd where Bud Norton, his segundo, set the pace for the steady onward thrust of the cattle. To the right and left in the dust pall he could see the other men of his outfit shoving stragglers into the line, picking up the drag.
It was that drag that was worrying Jed Banning, for it was increasing hourly. Thirsty, tired cattle, some nearly blinded by their need of water, no longer hurried their pace as the punchers slapped at them with quirts or the braided ends of riatas.
Jed urged his pony on and drew up alongside of Norton. "Did the Kid get back, Bud?" he asked, referring to the cowboy who had ridden forward to see if there was water in Squaw Creek, a small stream which flowed into the Canadian.
"Here he comes now," replied Norton, pointing to a small dark speck approaching from the north. "I sure hope there's water in the Squaw; these critters are gettin' too darn dry. They'll not all of them make the Canadian if we have to make a dry camp tonight."
"We're not making any more dry camps," said the trail boss. "It's a case now of keeping them rolling. If we ever stop 'em overnight a lot of 'em will never get up in the morning. We're either watering at the Squaw or going on to the Canadian itself. Who in blazes would have thought the Antelope was dry?"
Bud did not answer and the two men looked toward the approaching rider, who now could be seen clearly. In a short time he joined them.
"She's dry, Jed," he reported as he rode up. "And there's more grief between us and the river. There's a bunch of Indians ahead of us. I saw their sign along the banks of the Squaw and they moved out toward the Canadian crossing. The sign is still fresh -- not more than eight or ten hours old at most."
"How many?" asked the trail boss, his face even more serious than before.
"About twenty," replied the Kid. "I don't think they're looking for trouble. They've got some women and kids along with them. Had two or three travois, from the tracks."
"Hell, they're always looking for trouble," said Jed. "Especially when it means other people's beef. But Indians or no Indians we're watering at the Canadian tonight. Ride back and tell the boys to shove 'em along and tell that grease ball to keep his wagon behind the herd."
"Don't worry, Jed," said the other. "He'll stay back when I tell him about the Indians. Cooky don't like 'em any better than a mule does."
The Kid pulled out to one side and then drifted back toward the wagon, and the herd moved on.
Jed Banning was worried. He had ten men, not counting the cook. They were good men and he could depend on them, but they could not handle the cattle and twenty Indians. Comanches were erratic. Sometimes a man could deal with them, other times not. It depended on the humor of the band at the moment.
"Well, Bud, we'll worry about those Indians when we get there," he told his segundo. "We'll have to get these steers to the river. We've got to have water even if old Bear Paw himself is squatting on the river bank."
The long day dragged on and the weary cattle continued their shuffling, bawling march. Banning and his men, tired and dusty, worked steadily with the increasing drag, forcing the trailworn weaklings into line and forward.
Squaw Creek was passed, its dusty bed showing no signs of moisture, and it was late in the afternoon when the big steers in the lead lengthened their stride and a new note was heard in their plaintive bellowing. They had smelled water!
The men rode forward to aid Bud Norton at the point and to prevent if possible a rush for the banks of the Canadian. Despite their thirst the trail-broken steers handled well and the veteran cowpunchers held them to a steady pace. Now the whole line was bunching and forging ahead at a pace which in the leaders came near to being a trot. The cowboys were too busy to bother much about what lay ahead; they had enough to do to handle the herd. Dust clouds soared and stragglers increased as the herd neared the river.
As the tips of the trees and scrub along the river came into sight the men at the point swung aside and the herd moved on to the water. Even had the men tried there would have been no stopping them now. But they had been slowed enough so that they would not jam badly at the river bank and the punchers could spread them along so that all could drink. Soon the banks and shallows of the Canadian were filled with thirsty cattle, sucking up the muddy water in huge gulps.
Only then did Jed Banning turn his attention to his other worry, the Comanches.
The Indians, well aware of the approach of the herd, had watched it as it moved in its final rush to the river, then as the rumbling with the helper was already tossing out materials for the night camp and the evening meal.
Banning reached the wagon before they did, leaned down from his horse and spoke to the cook. "Leave those soogans in there," he said. "Just throw a fire together and get some grub hot. We're going to cross that river as soon as we can. I'm not staying on the same side as these Indians."
The cook nodded.
"And when they come over here don't start anything," the trail boss went on. "Tell the Kid to get that remuda bunched close to the wagon and see that they stay there. We may need those horses."
The camp was already shaping up as the Indians rode in. The horse herd, watered and bunched, was nipping the sparse grass near the wagon, with the Kid and the cook's helper watching them. Banning, still in the saddle, greeted the Comanches with a terse, "Howdy!"
The Indian leader looked over the camp, then back to the trail boss.
"Ponies pretty good, eh?" he said. "Maybe you like to trade."
"No," said Jed. "I ain't trading horses. I need 'em."
"We got some good robe," said the Indian, pointing back to his companions, each of whom carried one or more beautifully tanned buffalo robes thrown across his pony's withers. "Trade for ponies or tobacco or cartridges," he finished.
Banning shook his head, explaining that he needed all his supplies except some tobacco but would be glad to swap that with them. The trade for the tobacco was made and the robe given to Banning was tossed into the wagon. Again the Indian turned to the ponies.
"Ponies pretty fast'? Maybe you like to race?" he wanted to know.
Banning, who had been watching his herd all the time he was chatting with the Indian, saw that Bud Norton once more had bunched the cattle and was edging the herd toward the ford of the Canadian. Already the lead steers were entering the water as the cowboys slowly worked them along. Tired as they were they handled easily and the few men with them were having no trouble. For the first time that afternoon the trail boss smiled. He knew how well a Comanche loved a race and how with one in prospect nothing else could claim his attention.
Soon the bets were arranged -- a buffalo robe against a five-dollar goldpiece -- and a course was laid out for the first race. While the Indians were debating among themselves as to which of their ponies were to run in this first race Banning called the Kid from the remuda.
"Listen, you're the lightest in the bunch," he said. "Pick a couple of our ponies that can run and come over here. We're going to race with these Indians and keep their minds off the cow business."
The Kid grinned and turned to the remuda, shaking a loop in his rope. He rode back with a bald-faced roan pony that looked fast and was. Soon the race was on.
But Bud Norton and several of the men paid little attention to the shouting of either the Comanches or the cowboys who were watching the running horses. Norton and his group were moving the steers across the ford, and more than half of the herd already were on the opposite bank and were moving slowly northward.
The Kid won the first race and the Indian rider paid the robe. An Indian won the second and Baning handed him the five-dollar gold-piece. Several other races were run, some of them won by cowboys, some by Indians. Inasmuch as the Kid, as the riding representative of the cowboys, picked a fresh mount from the remuda for each race, the score stood slightly in favor of the cowboys when one of them rode up to Banning to tell him that the last of the herd had crossed the river.
"Cooky, pack up your outfit, we're moving on," the trail boss called.
While the Indians clamored for one more race the cowboy messenger started the remuda toward the ford.
The Kid rode again, lost the race, and Banning handed over another five-dollar gold-piece. Then seeing all of the outfit well on its way across the river Banning and the Kid prepared to leave.
The Comanches, who had been too much interested in the races to bother about what else was happening, suddenly realized that except for a few stragglers the entire herd was on the other side of the Canadian. At this they rode toward Banning demanding meat. The boss with the Kid beside him motioned to the stragglers and told the Indians to take them as a gift. With their horses at a run he and the Kid hit for the ford.
As they splashed into the water a few scattered shots followed them but the two rode out on the northern bank unhurt.
Banning grinned at the Kid as they dashed ahead to catch up with their outfit and the Kid laughed back.
They knew the danger they had just been in, but what of it? The herd had water and was on its way to Dodge.