The illustration captions at the places where they have been inserted in the HTML version, not in the exact locations where they occur in the book.
THE VOYAGE OF THE RATTLETRAP
BY HAYDEN CARRUTH
AUTHOR OF "THE ADVENTURES OF JONES" ETC.
ILLUSTRATED BY H. M. WILDER
NEW YORK HARPER & BROTHERS PUBLISHERS 1897
A POOR COOK BUT A GOOD FELLOW
CHAP I. Getting Ready II. Outward Bound III. From Lookout Lake To The Missouri River IV. Into Nebraska V. Across The Niobrara VI. By Canyons To Valentine VII. Through The Sand Hills VIII. On The Antelope Flats IX. Off For The Black Hills X. Among The Mountains XI. Deadwood XII. Homeward Bound
MAP The Voyage First Suggested Preparations Grandpa Oldberry Presages Disaster Snoozer Mutiny Of The Pony Effect Of A Strange Noise Plan For Rousing A Sound Sleeper First Lesson In Hay Twisting Investigations Hats Milking The Heifer That Wore A Sleigh Robe Wet But Hopeful Anti-Horse Thieves Jack Shoots A Grouse Flight Of The Blacksmith Studying Botany "When The Winds Are Breathing Low" Sad Result Of Dishonesty First Night Camp In The Sand Hills Dark Doings Of The Cook No Horse-Feed The Careful Corn Owner A Study In Red Men A Good Salesman Big Bear Looks Into The Educational Situation A Lesson In Finance The Rattletrap In The Storm Effect Of A Dog On A Mexican Post-Mortem On A Grizzly 'gene Starts A Cook-Book Lack Of Confidence In Mankind Flying Cord-Wood The Deserted Ranch Old "Blenty Vaters" In The Prairie Fire Well! Well! Well!
[Frontispiece: Map of the voyage]
THE VOYAGE OF THE RATTLETRAP
I: GETTING READY
Perhaps we were pretty big boys—Jack and I. In fact, I'm afraid we were so big that we haven't grown much since. But Ollie was a boy, anyhow; he couldn't have been more than a dozen years old, and we looked upon him as being a very small boy indeed; though when folks saw us starting off, some of them seemed to think that we were as boyish as he, because, they said, it was such a foolish thing to do; and in some way, I'm sure I don't know how, boys have got the reputation of always doing foolish things. "They're three of a kind," said Grandpa Oldberry, as he watched us weigh anchor; "their parents oughter be sent fer."
Well, it's hard to decide where to begin this true history. We didn't keep any log on this voyage of the Rattletrap. But I'll certainly have to go back of the time when Grandpa Oldberry expressed his opinion; and perhaps I ought to explain how we happened to be in that particular port. As I said, we—Jack and I—were pretty big boys, so big that we were off out West and in business for ourselves, though, after all, that didn't imply that we were very old, because it was a new country, and everybody was young; after the election the first fall it was found that the man who had been chosen for county judge wasn't quite twenty-one years of age yet, and therefore, of course, couldn't hold office; and we were obliged to wait three weeks till he had had his birthday, and then to have a special election and choose him again. Everybody was young except Grandpa Oldberry and Squire Poinsett.
But I was trying to account for our being in the port of Prairie Flower. Jack had a cheese-factory there, and made small round cheeses. I had a printing-office, and printed a small square newspaper. In my paper I used to praise Jack's cheeses, and keep repeating how good they were, so people bought then; and Jack used, once in a while, to give me a cheese. So we both managed to live, though I think we sometimes got a little tired of being men, and wished we were back home, far from thick round cheeses and thin square newspapers.
One evening in the first week in September, when it was raining as hard as it could rain, and when the wind was blowing as hard as it could blow, and was driving empty boxes and barrels, and old tin pails, and wash-boilers, and castaway hats and runaway hats and lost hats, and other things across the prairie before it, Jack came into my office, where I was setting type (my printer having been blown away, along with the boxes and the hats), and after he had allowed the rain to run off his clothes and make little puddles like thin mud pies on the dusty floor, he said:
"I'm tired of making poor cheeses."
"Well," I answered, "I'm tired of printing a poor newspaper."
"Let's sell out and go somewhere," continued Jack.
"All right," I said. "Let's."
So we did.
Of course the Rattletrap wasn't a boat which sailed on the water, though I don't know as I thought to mention this before. In fact, a water boat wouldn't have been of any use to us in getting out of Prairie Flower, because there wasn't any water there, except a very small stream called the Big Sioux River, which wandered along the prairie, sometimes running in one direction and sometimes in the other, and at other times standing still and wondering if it was worth while to run at all. The port of Prairie Flower was in Dakota. This was when Dakota was still a Territory, three or four years, perhaps, before it was cut into halves and made into two States. So, there being no water, we of course had to provide ourselves with a craft that could navigate dry land; which is precisely what the Rattletrap was-namely, a "prairie schooner."
"I've got a team of horses and a wagon," went on Jack, that rainy night when we were talking. "You've got a pony and a saddle. We've both got guns. When we drive out of town some stray dog will follow us. What more 'll we want?"
"Nothing," I said, as I clapped my stick down in the space-box. "We can put a canvas cover on the wagon and sleep in it at night, and cook our meals over a camp-fire, and—and—have a time."
"Of course—a big time. It's a heavy spring-wagon, and there is just about room in it behind the seat for a bed. We can put on a cover that will keep out rain as well as a tent, and carry a little kerosene-oil stove to use for cooking if we can't build a fire out-doors for any reason. We can take along flour, and-and—and salt, and other things to eat, and shoot game, and—and—and have a time."
We became so excited that we sat down and talked till midnight about it. By this time the rain had stopped, and when we went out the stars were shining, and the level ground was covered with pools of water.
"If it was always as wet as this around here we could go in a genuine schooner," said Jack.
"Yes, that's so. But what shall we call our craft?"
"I think 'Rattletrap' would be a good name," said Jack.
"I don't think it's a very pretty name," I replied.
"You wait till you get acquainted with that wagon, and you will say it's the best name in the world, whether it's pretty or not. You don't know that wagon yet. The tongue is spliced, the whiffletrees are loose, the reach is cracked, the box is tied together with a rope, the springs creak, the wheels wabble, lean different ways, and never follow one another."
"Do they all turn in the same direction?" I asked.
"I don't believe they do. It would be just like one to turn backward while the other three were going forward."
"We'll call our craft the Rattletrap, then. Good-night."
"Good-night," said Jack; and we parted, each to dream of our approaching cruise.
In a week we were busy getting ready to start. I found, when I looked over the wagon as it stood back of the cheese-factory, that it was much as Jack had described it, only I noticed that the seat as well as the springs creaked, and that a corner was broken off the dash-board. But we set to work upon it with a will. We tightened up the nuts and screws all over it, and wound the broken pole with wire. We nailed together the box so that the rope could be taken off, and oiled the creaking springs. We had no trouble in finding a top, as half the people in the country had come in wagons provided with covers only a year or so before. We got four bows and attached them to the box, one at each end, and the other two at equal distances between. These bows were made of hard-wood, and were a quarter of an inch thick and an inch and a half wide. They ran up straight on either side for two or three feet, and then rounded over, like a croquetwicket, being high enough so that as we stood upright in the wagon-box our heads would just nicely clear them. Over this skeleton we stretched our white canvas cover, and tied it down tightly along the sides. This made what we called the cabin. There was an ample flap in front, which could be let down at night and fastened back inside during the day. At the rear end the cloth folded around, and was drawn together with a "puckering-string," precisely like a button-bag. By drawing the string tightly this back end could be entirely closed up; or the string could be let out, and the opening made any size wanted. After the cover was adjusted we stood off and admired our work.
"Looks like an elephant on wheels," said Jack.
"Or an old-fashioned sun-bonnet for a giantess," I added.
"Anyhow, I'll wager a cheese it'll keep out the rain, unless it comes down too hard," said Jack. "Now for the smaller parts of our rigging, and the stores."
On the back end we fastened a feed-box for the horses, as long as the wagon-box was wide, and ten or twelve inches square, with a partition in the middle. We put stout iron rings in the corners of this, making a place to tie the horses. On the dash-board outside we built another box, for tools. This was wedge-shaped, about five inches wide at the top, but running down to an inch or two at the bottom, and had a hinged cover. We put aboard a satchel containing the little additional clothing which we thought we should need. Things in this line which did not seem to be absolutely necessary were ruled out—indeed, for the sake of lightness we decided to take just as little of everything that we could. We made another box, some two feet long, a foot deep, and fourteen inches wide, with a hinged cover, which we called the "pantry," for our supply of food. This we stood in the wagon with the satchel. Usually in the daytime after we started each of these rode comfortably on the bed back of the seat. This bed was a rather simple affair, made up of some bed-clothing and pillows arranged on a thick layer of hay in the bottom of the wagon-box. Our small two-wick oil-stove we put in front next to the dash-board, a lantern we hung up on one of the bows, and a big tin pail for the horses we suspended under the wagon.
"Since you're going to be cook," I said to Jack, "you tend to getting the dishes together."
"They'll be few enough," he answered. "I don't like to wash 'em. Tin mostly, I guess; because tin won't break."
So he put a few knives and forks and spoons, tin plates and cups, a frying-pan, a small copper kettle, and a few other utensils in another box, which also found a home on the bed. Other things which we did not forget were a small can of kerosene; two half-gallon jugs, one for milk and one for water; a basket for eggs; a nickel clock (we called it the chronometer); and in the tool-box a hatchet, a monkey-wrench, screw-driver, small saw, a piece of rope, one or two straps, and a few nails, screws, rivets, and similar things which might come handy in case of a wreck.
"Now for the armament and the life-boat," said Jack.
For armament Jack contributed a double-barrelled shot-gun and a heavy forty-five-calibre repeating rifle, and I a light forty-four-calibre repeating rifle, and a big revolver of the same calibre (though using a slightly shorter cartridge), with a belt and holster. This revolver we stored in the tool-box, chiefly for use in case we were boarded by pirates, while the guns we hung in leather loops in the top of the cover. In the tool-box we put a good supply of ammunition and plenty of matches. We also each carried a match-box, a pocket compass, and a stout jack-knife.
"Now, how's your life-boat?" asked Jack.
I led her out. She was a medium-sized brown Colorado pony, well decorated with brands, and with a white face and two white feet. She wore a big Mexican saddle and a horse-hair bridle with a silver bit.
"She'll do," said Jack. "In case of wreck, we'll escape on her, if possible. She'll also be very handy in making landings where the harbor is poor, and in exploring unknown coasts."
All of this work took several days, but when it was done the Rattletrap was ready for the voyage, and we decided to start the next morning.
"She's as prairie-worthy a craft as ever scoured the plain," was Jack's opinion; "and if we can keep the four wheels from starting in opposite directions we'll be all right."
But where was Ollie all this while? And who was Ollie, anyhow? Ollie was Jack's little nephew, and he lived back East somewhere—I don't remember where. The nearer we got ready to start, the more firmly Jack became convinced that Ollie would like to go along, so at last he sent for him to come, and he arrived the night before our start. Ollie liked the idea of the trip so much that he simply stood and looked at the wagon, the guns, the pony, and the horses, and was speechless. At last he managed to say:
"Uncle Jack, it'll be just like a picnic, won't it?"
The next morning we started as early as we could. But it was not before people were up.
"Where be they going?" asked Grandpa Oldberry.
"Oh, Nebraska, and Wyoming, and the Black Hills, and any crazy place they hear of," answered Squire Poinsett.
"They'll all be scalped by Injuns," said Grandpa Oldberry. "Ain't the Injuns bad this fall?"
"So I was a-reading," returned the Squire. "And in the hills I should be afeared of b'ar."
"Right," assented Grandpa. "B'ar and sim'lar varmints. And more 'specially hossthieves and sich-like cutthroats. I disremember seeing three scalawags starting off on such a fool trip since afore the war."
II: OUTWARD BOUND
The port of Prairie Flower was in the eastern part of the Territory of Dakota. It stood out on an open plain a half-dozen miles wide, which seemed to be the prairie itself, though it was really the valley of the Big Sioux River, that funny stream which could run either way, and usually stood still in the night and rested. To the east and west the edges of this valley were faintly marked by a range of very low bluffs, so low that they were mere wrinkles in the surface of the earth, and made the valley but very little lower than the great plain which rolled away for miles to the east and for leagues to the west.
It was a beautiful morning a little after the middle of September that the Rattletrap got away and left Prairie Flower behind. The sun had been up only half an hour or so, and the shadow of our craft stretched away across the dry gray plain like a long black streak without end. The air was fresh and dewy. The morning breeze was just beginning to stir, and down by the river the acres of wild sunflowers were nodding the dew off their heads, and beginning to roll in the first long waves which would keep up all day like the rolling of the ocean. We shouted "Good-bye" to Grandpa Oldberry and Squire Poinsett, but they only shook their heads very seriously. The cows and horses picketed on the prairie all about the little clump of houses which made up the town looked at us with their eyes open extremely wide, and no doubt said in their own languages, like Grandpa Oldberry, that they had no recollection of seeing any such capers as this for many years.
"See here," I said, suddenly, to Jack, "where's that dog you said was going to follow us?"
"You just hold on," answered Jack.
"Oh, are we going to have a dog, too?" asked Ollie.
"You wait a minute," insisted Jack.
Just then we passed the railroad station. Jack craned his head out of the front end of the wagon. Ollie and I did the same. Lying asleep on the corner of the station platform we saw a dog. He was about the size of a rather small collie; or, to put it another way, perhaps he was half as big as the largest-size dog. If dogs were numbered like shoes, from one to thirteen, this would have been about a No. 7 dog. He was yellow, with short hair, except that his tail was very bushy. One ear stood up straight, and the other lopped over, very much wilted. Jack whistled sharply. The dog tossed up his head, straightened up his lopped ear, let fall his other ear, and looked at us. Jack whistled again, and the dog came. He ran around the wagon, barked once or twice, sniffed at the pony's heels and got kicked at for his familiarity, yelped sharply, and came and looked up at us, and wagged his bushy tail with a great flourish.
"He wants to get in. Give him a boost, Ollie," said Jack.
Ollie clambered over the dash-board and jumped to the ground. He pushed the dog forward, and he leaped up and scrambled into the wagon, jumped over on the bed, where he folded his head and tail on his left side, turned around rapidly three times, and lay down and went to sleep, one ear up and one ear down.
"He's just the dog for the Rattletrap," said Jack. "We'll call him Snoozer."
"That looks a good deal like stealing to me, Uncle Jack," said Ollie. "Doesn't he belong to somebody?"
"No," said Jack, "he doesn't belong to anybody but us. He came here a week ago with a tramp. The tramp deserted him, and rode away on the trucks of a freight train; but Snoozer didn't like that way of travelling, because there wasn't any place to sleep, so he stayed behind. Since then he has tried to follow every man in town, but none of them would have him. He's a regular tramp dog, not good for anything, and therefore just the dog for us."
Snoozer was the last thing we shipped, and after taking him aboard we were soon out of the harbor of Prairie Flower, and bearing away across the plain to the southwest. In twenty minutes we ware among the billowing sunflowers, standing five or six feet high on other side of the road, which seemed like a narrow crack winding through them. Ollie reached out and gathered a handful of the drooping yellow blossoms. The pony was tied behind carrying her big saddle, and tossing her head about, and showing that she was very suspicious of the whole proceedings, and especially of a small flag which Ollie had fastened to the top of the wagon-cover, which fluttered in the fresh morning breeze. Snoozer slept on and never stirred. At last the road came to the river, and then followed close along beside its bank, which was only a foot or so high. Ollie was interested in watching the long grass which grew in the bottom of the stream and was brushed all in one direction by the sluggish current, like the silky fur of some animal. After a while we came to a gravelly place which was a ford, and crossed the stream, stopping to let the horses drink. The water was only a foot deep. As we came up on the higher ground beyond the river we met the south wind squarely, and it came in at the front of the cover with a rush. We heard a sharp flutter behind, and then the wagon gave a shiver and a lurch, and the horses stopped; then there was another shock and lurch, and it rolled back a few inches.
"There," exclaimed Jack, "some of those wheels have begun to turn backward! I told you!"
I looked back. Our puckering-string had given way, and the rear of the cover had blown out loosely. This had been more than the pony could stand, and she had broken her rope and run back a dozen rods, where she stood snorting and looking at the wagon.
"First accident!" I cried. "She'll run home, and we'll have to go back after her."
"Perhaps we can get around her," said Jack. "We'll try."
We left Ollie to hold the horses, and I went out around among the sunflowers, while Jack stood behind the wagon with his hat half full of oats. I got beyond her at last, and drove her slowly toward the wagon. She snorted and stamped the ground angrily with her forward feet; but at last she ventured to taste of the oats, and finding more in the feed-box on the rear of the wagon, she began eating them and forgot her fright.
"I guess we'd better not tie her, but let her follow," said Jack. "As soon as we have gone a little ways she'll come to think the wagon is home, and stick to it."
"Yes," I said. "I think she is really as great a tramp as Snoozer, and just the pony for us." "Are we all tramps?" asked Ollie.
"Well," said Jack, "I'm afraid Grandpa Oldberry thinks we don't lack much of it. He says varmints will catch us."
"Do you think they will?" went on Ollie, just a little bit anxiously.
"Oh, I guess not," said Jack. "You see, we've got four guns. Then there's Snoozer."
"But will they try to catch us?"
"Well, I don't know. Grandpa Oldberry says the varmints are awfully thick this fall."
"But what are varmints?"
"Oh, wolves, and b'ars, and painters, and—"
"What are painters?"
"Grandpa means panthers, I guess. Then there's Injuns, and hoss-thieves, and—"
"There's a prairie-chicken!" I cried, as one rose up out of the long grass.
"Perhaps we can get one for dinner," said Jack.
He took his gun and went slowly toward where the other had been. Another whirred away like a shot. Jack fired, but missed it. We started on, leaving the pony tossing her head and stamping her feet in a great passion on account of the report of the gun; but when she saw that we paid no attention to her and were rapidly going out of sight she turned, after taking a long look back at distant Prairie Flower, and came trotting along the road, with her stirrups dangling at her sides, and soon was following close behind.
Before we realized it the chronometer showed that it was almost noon. By this time we had left the sea of sunflowers and crept over the wrinkle at the western edge of the valley, and were off across the rolling prairie itself. Still Snoozer never stirred.
"I wonder when he'll wake up?" said Ollie.
"You'll see him awake enough at dinnertime," said Jack.
"Well, you'll see me awake enough then, too," answered Ollie. "I'm hungry."
"We hardy pioneers plunging into the trackless waste of a new and unexplored country never eat but one meal a day," said Jack. "And that's always raw meat—b'ar-meat, generally."
"Well," said Ollie, "I don't see any b'ar-meat, or even prairie-chicken-meat. Why didn't you hit the prairie-chicken, Uncle Jack?"
"I'm not used to shooting at such small game," answered Jack, solemnly. "My kind of game is b'ar—b'ar and other varmints."
Just then we passed a house, and down a little way from it, close to the road, was a well.
"Here's a good place to have dinner," said Jack; so we drove out by the side of the road and stopped. "If I'm to be cook," said Jack to me, "then you've got to take care of the horses and do all the outside work. I'll be cook; you'll be rancher. That's what we'll call you—rancher."
I unhitched the horses, tied them behind the wagon, and gave them some oats and corn in the feed-box. The pony I fed in the big tin pail near by. The grass beside the road was so dry, and it was so windy, that we decided it was not safe to build a fire outdoors, so Jack cooked pancakes over the oil-stove inside. These with some cold meat he handed out to Ollie and me as we sat on the wagon-tongue, while he sat on the dash-board. We were half-way through dinner when we heard a peculiar whine, followed by a low bark, in the wagon, and then Snoozer leaped out, stretched himself, and began to wag his tail so fast that it looked exactly like a whirling feather duster. We fed him on pancakes, and he ate so many that if Jack had not fried some more we'd have certainly gone hungry.
"I told you he was a true tramp," said Jack. "Just see his appetite!"
After we had finished, and the horses had grazed about on the dry grass some time, we started on. We hoped to reach a little lake which we saw marked on the map, called Lake Lookout, for the night camp; so we hurried along, it being a good distance ahead. All the afternoon we were passing 'between either great fields where the wheat had been cut, leaving the stubble, or beside long stretches of prairie. There were a few houses, many of them built of sod. Not much happened during the afternoon. Ollie followed the example of Snoozer, and curled up on the bed and had a long nap. We saw a few prairie-chickens, but did not try to shoot any of them. The pony trotted contentedly behind. Just before night I rode her ahead, looking for the lake. I found it to be a small one, perhaps a half-mile wide, scarcely below the level of the prairie, and generally with marshy shores, though on one side the beach was sandy and stony, with a few stunted cottonwood-trees, and here I decided we would camp. I went back and guided the Rattletrap to the spot. Soon Jack had a roaring fire going from the dry wood which Ollie had collected. I fed the horses and turned them loose, and they began eagerly on the green grass which grew on the damp soil near the lake. The pony I picketed with a long rope and a strap around one of her forward ankles, between her hoof and fetlock, as we scarcely felt like trusting her all night. Snoozer got up for his supper, and after that stretched himself by the fire and blinked at it sleepily. The rest of us did much the same. After a while Ollie said.
"I think that bed in the wagon looks pretty narrow for two. How are three going to sleep in it?"
"I don't think three are going to sleep in it," said Jack.
"Where are you going to sleep, then, Uncle Jack?"
Jack laughed. "I think," he said, "that the rancher and the cook will sleep in the wagon, and let you sleep under the wagon. Nothing makes a boy grow like sleeping rolled up in a blanket under a wagon. You'll be six inches taller if you do it every night till we get back."
"Well, I don't think so," said Ollie, just a little alarmed at the prospect. "I'd prefer to sleep in the wagon. Maybe what Grandpa Oldberry said about wild animals is so. You say you like to shoot 'em, so you stay outside and do it—I don't."
At last it was arranged that Ollie and I should sleep inside and Jack under the wagon. We were surprised to find how early we were ready for bed. The long ride and the fresh air had given us an appetite for sleep. So we soon turned in, the dog staying outside with Jack.
"Good-night, Uncle Jack!" called Ollie, as we put out the lantern and covered up in the narrow bed. "Look out for painters!"
I was almost asleep when Ollie shook me, and whispered, "What's that noise?"
I listened, and heard a regular, hollow, booming sound, something like the very distant discharge of cannon.
"It's the horses walking on the ground-always sounds that way in the night," I answered.
Again I was almost asleep when Ollie took hold of my arm, and said, "What's that?"
I once more listened, and recognized a peculiar creaking noise as that made by the horses cropping off the grass. I explained to Ollie, and then dropped off sound asleep. I don't know how long it was, but after some time I was again roused up by a nervous shake.
"Listen to that," whispered Ollie. "What can it be?"
I sat up cautiously and listened. It was a strange, rattling, unearthly sound, which I could not account for any better than Ollie.
"It's a bear," he whispered. "I heard them make that noise at the park back home."
I was puzzled, and concluded that it must be some wild animal. I took down one of the guns, crept softly to the front end of the wagon, raised the flap, and looked out. The wind was still, and the night air met my face with a cool, damp feeling. The moon had just risen and the lake was like silver. I could see the horses lying asleep like dark mounds. But the mysterious noise kept up, and even grew louder. I grasped the gun firmly, and let myself cautiously out of the front end of the wagon. Then I climbed back in less softly and hung up the gun.
"Wh-what is it?" asked Ollie, in a faint whisper.
"It's your eloquent Uncle Jack snoring," I said. "He's one of Grandpa Oldberry's sim'lar varmints."
III: FROM LOOKOUT LAKE TO THE MISSOURI RIVER
Our first night in the Rattletrap passed without further incident—that is, the greater part of it passed, though Ollie declared that it lacked a good deal of being all passed when we got up. The chief reason for our early rise was Old Blacky, a member of our household (or perhaps wagonhold) not yet introduced in this history. Old Blacky was the mate of Old Browny, and the two made up our team of horses. Old Browny was a very well-behaved, respectable old nag, extremely fond of quiet and oats. He invariably slept all night, and usually much of the day; he was a fit companion for our dog. It was the firm belief of all on board that Old Browny could sleep anywhere on a fairly level stretch of road without stopping.
But Old Blacky was another sort of beast. He didn't seem to require any sleep at all. What Old Blacky wanted was food. He loved to sit up all night and eat, and keep us awake. He seldom even lay down at night, but would moon about the camp and blunder against things, fall over the wagon-tongue, and otherwise misbehave. Sometimes when we camped where the grass was not just to his liking he would put his head into the wagon and help himself to a mouthful of bedquilt or a bite of pillow. He was little but an appetite mounted on four legs, and next to food he loved a fight. Besides the name of Old Blacky, we also knew him as the Blacksmith's Pet; but this will have to be explained later on.
On this first morning, just as it was becoming light in the east, Old Blacky began to make his toilet by rubbing his shoulder against one corner of the wagon. As he was large and heavy, and rubbed as hard as he could, he soon had the wagon tossing about like a boat; and as the easiest way out of it, we decided to get up. It was cool and dewy, with the larger stars still shining faintly. We found Jack under the wagon. Ollie stirred him up, and said:
"See any varmints in the night, Uncle Jack?"
"Yes," answered Jack, as he unrolled himself from his blanket. "Or at least I felt one. That disgraceful Old Blacky nibbled at my ear twice. The first time I thought it was nothing less than a bear."
"Did he disturb Snoozer?"
"I guess nothing ever disturbs Snoozer. He never moved all night. How's the firewood department, Ollie?"
"All right," replied Ollie. "Got up enough last night."
"Then build the fire while I get breakfast."
This pleased Ollie, and he soon had a good fire going. I caught Old Blacky, who had started off to walk around the lake, woke up Old Browny, who was sleeping peacefully with his nose resting on the ground, quieted the pony, who was still suspicious, with a few pats on the neck, and gave them all their oats. Soon the rest of us also had our breakfast, including Snoozer, who seemed to wake up by instinct, and after waiting a little for somebody to come and stretch him, stretched himself, and began waving his tail to attract our attention to his urgent need of food.
"Before we get back home that dog will want us to feed him with a spoon," said Jack.
It was only a little while after sunrise when we were off for another day's voyage. We were headed almost due south, and all that day and the three or four following (including Sunday, when we stayed in camp), we did not change our general direction. We were aiming to reach the town of Yankton, where we intended to cross the Missouri River and turn to the west in Nebraska. The country through which we travelled was much of it prairie, but more was under cultivation, and the houses of settlers were numerous. The land on which wheat or other small grains had been grown was bare, but as we got farther south we passed great fields of corn, some of it standing almost as high as the top of our wagon-cover.
For much of the way we were far from railroads and towns, and got most of our supplies of food from the settlers whose houses we passed or, indeed, sighted, since the pony proved as convenient for making landings as Jack had predicted she would. Ollie usually went on these excursions after milk and eggs and such like foods. The different languages which he encountered among the settlers somewhat bewildered him, and he often had hard work in making the people he found at the houses understand what he wanted. There Were many Norwegians, and the third day we passed through a large colony of Russians, saw a few Finns, and heard of some Icelanders who lived around on the other side of a lake.
"It wouldn't surprise me," said Ollie one day, "to find the man in the moon living here in a sod house."
Perhaps a majority—certainly a great many—of all these people lived in houses of this kind. Ollie had never seen anything of the sort before, and he became greatly interested in them. The second day we camped near one for dinner.
"You see," said Jack, "a man gets a farm, takes half his front yard and builds a house with it. He gains space, though, because the place he peels in the yard will do for flowerbeds, and the roof and sides of his house are excellent places to grow radishes, beets, and similar vegetables."
"Why not other things besides radishes and beets?" asked Ollie.
"Oh, other things would grow all right, but radishes and beets seem to be the natural things for sod-house growing. You can take hold of the lower end and pull 'em from the inside, you know, Ollie."
"I don't believe it, Uncle Jack," said Ollie, stoutly. "Ask the rancher," answered Jack. "If you're ever at dinner in a sod house, and want another radish, just reach up and pull one down through the roof, tops and all. Then you're sure they're fresh. I'd like to keep a summer hotel in a sod house. I'd advertise 'fresh vegetables pulled at the table.'"
"I'm going to ask the man about sod houses," returned Ollie. He went up to where the owner of the house was sitting outside, and said:
"Will you please tell me how you make a sod house?"
"Yes," said the man, smiling. "Thinking of making one?"
"Well, not just now," replied Ollie. "But. I'd like to know about them. I might want to build one—sometime," he added, doubtfully.
"Well," said the man, "it's this way: First we plough up a lot of the tough prairie sod with a large plough called a breaking-plough, intended especially for ploughing the prairie the first time. This turns it over in a long, even, unbroken strip, some fourteen or sixteen inches wide and three or four inches thick. We cut this up into pieces two or three feet long, take them to the place where we are building the house, on a stone-boat or a sled, and use them in laying up the walls in just about the same way that bricks are used in making a brick house. Openings are left for the doors and windows, and either a shingle or sod roof put on. If it's sod, rough boards are first laid on poles, and then sods put on them like shingles. I've got a sod roof on mine, you see."
Ollie was looking at the grass and weeds growing on the top and sides of the house. They must have made a pretty sight when they were green and thrifty earlier in the season, but they were dry and withered now.
"Do you ever have prairie-fires on your roofs?" asked Ollie, with a smile.
"Oh, they do burn off sometimes," answered the man. "Catch from the chimney, you know. Did you ever see a hay fire?"
"Come inside and I'll show you one."
In the house, which consisted of one large room divided across one end by a curtain, Ollie noticed a few chairs and a table, and opposite the door a stove which looked very much like an ordinary cook-stove, except that the place for the fire was rather larger. Back of it stood a box full of what seemed to be big hay rope. The man's wife was cooking dinner on the stove.
"Here's a young tenderfoot," said the man, "who's never seen a hay fire."
"Wish I never had," answered the woman. The man laughed. "They're hardly as good as a wood fire or a coal fire," he said to Ollie; "but when you're five hundred miles, more or less, from either wood or coal they do very well." The man took off one of the griddles and put in another "stick" of hay. Then he handed one to Ollie, who was surprised to find it almost as heavy as a stick of wood. "It makes a fairly good fire," said the man. "Come outside and I'll show you how to twist it."
They went out to a haystack near by, and the man twisted a rope three or four inches in diameter, and about four feet long. He kept hold of both ends till it was wound up tight; then he brought the ends together, and it twisted itself into a hard two-strand rope in the same way that a bit of string will do when similarly treated. There was quite a pile of such twisted sticks on the ground. "You see," said the man, "in this country, instead of splitting up a pile of fuel we just twist up one." Ollie bade the man good-bye, took another look at the queer house, and came down to the wagon.
"So you saw a hay-stove, did you?" said Jack. "I could have told you all about 'em. I once stayed all night with a man who depended on a hay-stove for warmth. It was in the winter. Talk about appetites! I never saw such an appetite as that stove had for hay. Why, that stove had a worse appetite than Old Blacky. It devoured hay all the time, just as Old Blacky would if he could; and even then its stomach always seemed empty. The man twisted all of the time, and I fed it constantly, and still it was never satisfied."
"How did you sleep?" asked Ollie.
"Worked right along in our sleep—like Old Browny," answered Jack.
The last day before reaching Yankton was hot and sultry. The best place we could find to camp that night was beside a deserted sod house on the prairie. There was a well and a tumble-down sod stable. There were dark bands of clouds low down on the southeastern horizon, and faint flashes 'of lightning.
"It's going to rain before morning," I said. "Wonder if it wouldn't be better in the sod house?"
We examined it, but found it in poor condition, so decided not to give up the wagon. "The man that lived there pulled too many radishes and parsnips and carrots and such things into it, and then neglected to hoe his roof and fill up the holes," said Jack. "Besides, Old Blacky will have it rubbed down before morning. 'When I sleep in anything that Old Blacky can get at, I want it to be on wheels so it can roll out of the way."
We went to bed as usual, but at about one o'clock we were awakened by a long rolling peal of thunder. Already big drops of rain were beginning to fall. Ollie and I looked out, and found Jack creeping from under the wagon.
"That's a dry-weather bedroom of mine," he observed, "and I think I'll come up-stairs."
The flashes of lightning followed each other rapidly, and by them we could see the horses. Old Browny was sleeping and Old Blacky eating, but the pony stood with head erect, very much interested in the storm. Jack helped Snoozer into the wagon, and came in himself. We drew both ends of the cover as close as possible, lit the lantern, and made ourselves comfortable, while Jack took down his banjo and tried to play. Jack always tried to play, but never quite succeeded. But he made a considerable noise, and that was better than nothing.
The wind soon began to blow pretty fresh, and shake the cover rather more than was pleasant. But. nothing gave way, and after, as it seemed, fifty of the loudest claps of thunder we had ever heard, the rain began to fall in torrents.
"That is what I've been waiting for," said Jack. "Now we'll see if there's a good cover on this wagon, or if we've got to put a sod roof on it, like that man's house."
The rain kept coming down harder and harder, but though there seemed to be a sort of a light spray in the air of the wagon, the water did not beat through. In some places along the bows it ran down on the inside of the cover in little clinging streams, but as a household we remained dry. Jack was still experimenting on the banjo, and the dog had gone to sleep. Suddenly a flash of lightning dazzled our eyes as if there were no cover at all over and around us, with a crash of thunder which struck our ears like a blow from a fist. Jack dropped the banjo, and the dog shook his head as if his ears tingled. We all felt dizzy, and the wagon seemed to be swaying around.
"That struck pretty close," I said. "I hope it didn't hit one of the horses." "If it hit Old Blacky, I'll bet a cooky it got the worst of it," answered Jack, taking up his banjo again. "Look out, Ollie, and maybe you'll see the lightning going off limping."
It was still raining, though not so hard. Soon we began to hear a peculiar noise, which seemed to come from behind the wagon. It was a breaking, splintering sort of noise, as if a board was being smashed and split up very gradually.
"Sounds as if a slow and lazy kind of lightning was striking our wagon," said Jack.
Ollie's face was still white from the scare at the stroke of lightning, and his eyes now opened very wide as he listened to the mysterious noise. Jack pulled open the back cover an inch and peeped out. Then he said:
"I guess Old Blacky's tussle with the lightning left him hungry; he's eating up one side of the feed-box."
Then we laughed at the strange noise, and in a few minutes, the rain having almost ceased, we put on our rubber boots and went out to look after the other horses. Old Browny we found in the lee of the sod house, not exactly asleep, but evidently about to take a nap. The pony had pulled up her picket-pin and retreated to a little hollow a hundred yards away. We caught her and brought her back. By the light of the lantern we found that the great stroke of lightning had struck the curb of the well, shattering it, and making a hole in the ground beside it. The storm had gone muttering off to the north, and the stars were again shining overhead.
"What a stroke of lightening that must have been to do that!" said Ollie, as he looked at the curb with some awe.
"It wasn't the lightning that did that," returned his truthful Uncle Jack. "That's where Old Blacky kicked at the lightning and missed it."
Then we returned to the wagon and went to bed. The next morning at ten o'clock we drove into Yankton. We found the ferry-boat disabled, and that we should have to go forty miles up the river to Running Water before we could cross. We drove a mile out of town, and went into camp on a high bank overlooking the milky, eddying current of the Missouri.
IV: INTO NEBRASKA
We were a good deal disappointed in not getting over into Nebraska, because we had seen enough of Dakota, but there was no help for it. A log had got caught in the paddlewheel of the ferry-boat and wrecked it, and there was no other way of crossing.
"Old Blacky could swim across," said Jack, "but Browny would go to sleep and drown."
It is rather doubtful, however, about even Blacky's ability to have swum the river, since it was a half-mile wide, and with a rather swift current. In the afternoon we walked back to Yankton and bought the biggest felt hats we could find, with wide and heavy leather bands. We knew that we should now soon be out in the stock-growing country, and that, as Jack said, "the cowboys wouldn't have any respect for us unless we were top-heavy with hat."
We were camped on the high bank of the river, opposite a farm-house. It was getting dusk when we got back to the wagon, with our heads aching from our new hats, which seemed to weigh several pounds apiece. Jack, as cook, announced that there was no milk on hand, and sent Ollie over to the neighboring house to see if he could get some. Ollie returned, and reported that the man was away from home, but that the woman said we could have some if we were willing to go out to the barn-yard and milk one of the cows. The others decided that it was my duty to milk, but I asked so many foolish questions about the operation that Jack became convinced that I didn't know how, and said he would do it himself. We all went over to the house, borrowed a tin pail from the woman, and went out to the yard.
We found about a dozen cows inside, of various sizes, but all long-legged and long-horned.
"Must be this man belongs to the National Trotting-Cow Association," said Jack, as he crawled under the barbed-wire fence into the yard. "That red beast over there in the corner ought to be able to trot a mile in less than three minutes."
He cautiously went up to a spotted cow which seemed to be rather tamer than the rest, holding out one hand, and saying, "So, bossy," in oily tones, as if he thought she was the finest cow he had ever seen. When he was almost to her she looked at him quickly, kicked her nearest hind-foot at him savagely, and walked off, switching her tail, and shaking her head so that Ollie was afraid it would come off and be lost.
"Can't fool that cow, can I?" said Jack, as he turned to another. But he had no better luck this time, and after trying three or four more he paused and said:
"These must be the same kind of cows Horace Greeley found down in Texas before the war. When he came back he said the way they milked down there was to throw a cow on her back, have a nigger hold each leg, and extract the milk with a clothes-pin."
But at last he found a brindled animal in the corner which allowed him to sit down and begin. He was getting on well when, without the least warning, the cow kicked, and sent the pail spinning across the yard, while Jack went over backwards, and his new hat fell off. There was one calf in the yard which had been complaining ever since we came, because it had not yet had its supper. The pail stopped rolling right side up, and this calf ran over and put his head in it, thinking that his food had come at last. Jack picked himself up and ran to rescue the pail. The calf raised his head suddenly, the pail caught on one of his little horns, and he started off around the yard, unable to see, and jumping wildly over imaginary objects. Jack followed. A cow, which was perhaps the mother of the calf, started after Jack. The family dog, hearing the commotion, came running down from the house and began to pursue the cow. This wild procession went around the yard several times, till at last the pail came off the calf's head, and Jack secured it. Then he picked up his hat, the brim of which another calf had been chewing, rinsed out the pail at the pump, and tried another cow.
This time he selected the worst-looking one of the lot, but to the surprise of all of us she stood perfectly still, only switching him a few times with her tail. As soon as he got a couple of quarts of milk he stopped and came out of the yard. Ollie and I had, of course, been laughing at him a good deal, but Jack paid no attention to it. As we walked towards the house he said:
"Well, there's one consolation: after all of that work and trouble, the woman can't put on the face to charge us for the milk." A moment later he said to her: "I've got about two quarts; how much is it?"
"Ten cents," answered the woman. "Didn't them cows seem to take kindly to you?"
"Well, they didn't exactly crowd around me and moo with delight," replied Jack, as he handed over a dime with rather bad grace.
That evening a neighbor called on us as we sat about our camp-fire, and we told him the experience with the cows.
"Puts me in mind of the time a fellow had over at the Santee Agency a year or so ago," said our visitor. "There's a man there named Hawkins that's got a tame buffalo cow. Of course you might as well try to milk an earthquake as a buffalo. Well, one day a man came along looking for work, and Hawkins hired him. Milking-time came, and Hawkins sent the man out to milk, but forgot to tell hint about the buffalo. The man was a little green, and it was sort of dark in the barn, and the first thing he tried to milk was the buffalo cow. She kicked the pail through the window, smashed the stall, and half broke the man's leg the first three kicks. He hobbled to the house, and says to Hawkins: 'Old man, that there high-shouldered heifer of yourn out there has busted the barn and half killed me, and I reckon I'll quit and go back East, where the cows don't wear sleigh-robes and kick with four feet at once.'"
Bright and early the next morning we got off again. Nothing of importance happened that day. We were travelling through a comparatively old-settled part of the country, and the houses were numerous. A young Indian rode with us a few miles, but he was a very civilized sort of red man. He had been at work on a farm down near Yankton, and was on his way to the Ponca Reservation to visit his mother. As an Indian he rather disgusted Ollie.
"If I were a big six-foot Indian," he said, after our passenger had gone, "I think I'd carry a tomahawk, and wear a feather or two at least. I don't see what's the advantage of being an Indian if you're going to act just like a white man."
We camped that night in a beautiful nook in a bluff near a little stream. The next day we reached Running Water. The ferry-boat was a little thing, with a small paddle-wheel on each side operated by two horses on tread-mills. A man stood at the stern with a long oar to steer it. The river was not so wide here as at Yankton, but the current was swifter, which no doubt gave the place its name. It looked very doubtful if we should ever get across in the queer craft, but after a long time we succeeded in doing so. It gave us a good opportunity to study the water of the river, which looked more like milk than water, owing to the fine clay dissolved in it. The ferry-man thought very highly of the water, and told us proudly that a glass of it would never settle and become clear.
"It's the finest drinking-water in the world," he said. "I never drink anything else. Take a bucket of it up home every evening to drink overnight. You don't get any of this clear well-water down me."
We tasted of it, but couldn't see that it was much different from other water.
"Boil it down a little, and give it a lower crust, and I should think it would make a very good custard-pie," said Jack.
We found Niobrara to be a little place of a few hundred houses. We went into camp on the edge of the town, where we stayed the next day, as it was Sunday. Early Monday morning we were out on the road which led along the banks of the Niobrara River. We were somewhat surprised at the smallness of this stream. It was of considerable width but very shallow, and in many places bubbled along over the rocks like a wide brook. We spoke of its size to a man whom we met. Said he:
"Yes, it ain't no great shakes down here around its mouth, but you just wait till you get up in the neighborhood of its head-waters. It's a right smart bit of a river up there."
"But I thought a river was usually bigger at its mouth than at its source," I said.
"Depends on the country it runs through," answered the man. "Some rivers in these parts peter out entirely, and don't have no mouth a' tall—just go into the ground and leave a wet spot. This here Niobrara comes through a dry country, and what the sun don't dry up and the wind blow away the sand swallers mostly, though some water does sneak through, after all; and in the spring it's about ten times as big as it is now. The Niobrara goes through the Sand Hills. Anything that goes through the Sand Hills comes out small. You fellers are going through the Sand Hills—you'll come out smaller than you be now."
This was the first time we had heard of the Sand Hills, but after this everybody was talking about them and warning us against them.
"Why," said one man, "you know that there Sarah Desert over in Africa somewhere? Well, sir, that there Sarah is a reg'lar flower-garden, with fountains a-squirting and the band playing 'Hail Columbia,' 'longside o' the Newbraska Sand Hills. You'll go through 'em for a hundred miles, and you'll wish you'd never been born!"
This was not encouraging, but as they were still several days' travel ahead, we resolved not to worry about them.
But the country rapidly began to grow drier and more sandy, especially after the road ceased to follow the river. Before we left the river valley, however, Ollie made an important discovery in a thicket on the edge of the bank. This was a number of wild plum-trees full of fruit. We gathered at least a half-bushel of plums, and several quarts of wild grapes.
About the middle of the afternoon we came up on a great level prairie stretching away to the west as far as we could see. There seemed to be but few houses, and the scattering fields of corn were stunted and dried up. It had apparently been an extremely dry season, though the prospects for rain that night were good, and grew better. It was hot, and a strong south wind was blowing. Night soon began to come on, but we could find no good camping-place. We had not passed a house for four or five miles, nor a place where we could get water for the horses. As it grew dark, however, it began to rain. It kept up, and increased to such an extent that in half an hour there were pools of water standing along the road in many places, and we decided to stop. It was wet work taking care of the horses, but the most discouraging thing was the report from the cook that there was no milk with which to make griddle-cakes for supper, and as he did not know how to make anything else, the prospect was rather gloomy. But through the rain we finally discovered a light a quarter of a mile away, and Ollie and I started out to find it. Jack refused to go, on the plea that he was still lame from his Yankton trip after milk.
We blundered away through the rain and darkness, and after stumbling in a dozen holes, running into a fence, and getting tangled up in an abandoned picket-rope, at last came up to the house. It was a little one-room board house such as the settlers call a "shack." The door was open, and inside we could see a man and woman and half a dozen children and a full dozen dogs. We walked up, and when the man saw us he called "Come in!" tossed two children on the bed in the corner, picked up their chairs, which were home-made, and brought them to us.
"Wet, ain't it?" he exclaimed. "Rainy as the day Noah yanked the gang-plank into the Ark. I was a-telling Martha there was a right smart chance of a shower this afternoon. What might you-uns' names be, and where might you be from, and where might you be going?"
We told him all about ourselves, and he went on:
"Rainy night. Too late to help the co'n, though. Co'n's poor this year; reckon we'll have to live on taters and hope. Tater crop ain't no great shakes, though. Nothing much left but hope, and dry for that. Reckon I'll go back to old Missouri in the spring, and work in a saw-mill. No saw-mills here, 'cause there ain't nothing to saw. Hay don't need sawing. Martha," he added, turning to his wife, "was it you said our roof didn't need mending?"
"I said it did need it a powerful sight," answered the woman, as she put another stick of hay in the stove, and a stream of rain-water sputtered in the fire.
"Mebby you're right," said the man. "There's enough dry spots for the dogs and children, but when we have vis'tors somebody has got to get wet. Reckon I oughter put on two shingles for vis'tors to set under. You fellers will stay to supper, of course. We 'ain't got much but bacon and taters, but you're powerful welcome."
"No," I said, "we really mustn't stop. What we wanted was to see if we couldn't get a little milk from you."
"Well, I'll be snaked!" exclaimed the man. "That makes me think I ain't milked the old cow yet."
"I milked her more'n two hours ago, while you was cleaning your rifle," said his wife.
"That so?" replied the man. "Where's the milk?"
The woman looked around a little. "Reckon the dogs or the young Uns must 'a' swallered it. 'Tain't in sight, nohow."
"Oh, we can milk 'er again!" exclaimed the man. "Old Spot sometimes comes down heavier on the second or third milking than she does on the first."
He took a gourd from a shelf, and told us to "come on;" and started out. He wore a big felt hat, but no coat, and he was barefooted. Just outside the door stood a bedstead and two or three chairs. "We move 'em out in the daytime to make more room," explained the man. The rain was still pouring down. The man took our lantern and began looking for the cow. He soon found her, and while I held the lantern, and Ollie our jug, he went down on his knees beside the cow and began to milk with one hand, holding the gourd in the other. The cow stood perfectly still, as if it was no new thing to be milked the second time. We had on rubber coats, but the man was without protection, and as he sat very near the cow a considerable stream ran off of her hip-bone and down the back of his neck. When the gourd was full he poured it in our jug, and at my offering to pay for it he was almost insulted. "Not a cent, not a cent!" he exclaimed. "Al'ays glad to 'commodate a neighbor. Good-night; coming down in the morning to swap hosses with you."
He went back to the house, and we started for the wagon.
"He wouldn't have got quite so wet if he hadn't kept so close to the cow," said Ollie, as we walked along.
"What he needs," said I, "are eave-troughs on his cow."
V: ACROSS THE NIOBRARA
The next morning dawned fair. We were awakened by Old Blacky kicking the side of the wagon-box with both hind-feet.
"If that man with the ever-blooming cow comes down," said Jack, "I'll swap him Old Blacky."
Just then we heard a loud "Hello!" and, looking out, we found the man leading a small yellow pony.
"I just 'lowed I'd come down and let you fellers make something out of me on a hoss-trade," said the man.
"Well," answered Jack, "we're willing to swap that black horse over there. He's a splendid animal."
"Isn't he rather much on the kick?" the man asked. "He does kick a little," admitted Jack, "but only for exercise. He wouldn't hurt a fly. But he is so high-lifed that he has to kick to ease his nerves once in a while."
"Thought I seen him whaling away at your wagon," returned the man. "Couldn't have him round my place, 'cause my house ain't very steady, and I reckon he'd have it kicked all to flinders inside of a week."
He talked for some time, but finally went off when he found that Jack was not willing to part with any horse except Old Blacky.
The road was so sandy that the rain had not made much difference with it, and we were soon again moving on at a good rate. We were travelling in a direction a little north of west, and from one to half a dozen miles south of the Niobrara River. It would have been nearer to have kept north of the river, but we were prevented by the Sioux and Ponca Indian reservations, through which no one was allowed to go. Our intention was to cross to the north of the river at Grand Rapids and get into the Keya Paha country, about which we heard a great deal, keep Straight west, and, after crossing the river twice more, reach Fort Niobrara and the town of Valentine, beyond which were the Sand Hills. This route would keep us all the time from twenty to thirty miles north of the railroad.
We had not gone far this morning when we met two men on horseback riding side by side. They looked like farmers, only we noticed that each carried a big revolver in a belt and one of them a gun. They simply said "Good-morning," and passed on. In about half an hour we met another pair similarly mounted and armed, and in another half-hour still two more.
"Must be a wedding somewhere, or a Sunday—school picnic," said Jack.
"But why do they all have the guns?" asked Ollie, innocently.
"Oh, I don't know," answered Jack. "Varmints about, I suppose."
In a few minutes we came to a man working beside the road, and asked him what it all meant. He looked around in a very mysterious manner, and then half whispered the one word "Vigilantees!" with a strong accent on each syllable.
"Oh!" said Jack, "vigilance committee."
"Correct," returned the man.
"After horse-thieves, I suppose?" went on Jack.
"Exactly," replied the man. "Stole two horses at Black Bird last night at ten o'clock. Holt County Anti-Horse-thief Association after 'em this morning at four. That's the way we do business in this country!"
We drove on, and Jack said:
"What the Association wants to do is to buy Old Blacky and put him in a pasture for bait. In the morning the members can go out and gather up a wagon-load of disabled horse-thieves that have tried to steal him in the night and got kicked over the fence."
We either met or saw a dozen other men on horseback, always in pairs; but whether or not they caught the thief we never heard.
So far we had had very poor luck in finding game; but in the afternoon of this day Jack shot a grouse, and we camped rather earlier than usual, so that he might have ample time to cook it. There were also the plums and grapes to stew. We made our camp not far from a house, and, after a vast amount of extremely serious labor on the part of the cook, had a very good supper.
The next day passed with but one incident worth recalling. In the afternoon we crossed the Niobrara at Grand Rapids on a tumbledown wooden bridge, and turned due west through the Keya Paha country. This is so called from the Keya Paha River (pronounced Key-a-paw), a branch of the Niobrara which comes down out of Dakota and joins it a few miles below Grand Rapids. The country seemed to be much the same as that through which we had travelled, perhaps a little flatter and sandier. Just across the river we saw the first large herd of stock, some five or six hundred head being driven east by half a dozen cowboys.
A short distance beyond the river we came to a little blacksmith shop beside the road. As soon as Jack saw it he said:
"We ought to stop and get the horses shod. I was looking at the holes the calks of Old Blacky's shoes made in the wagon-box last night, and they are shallow and irregular. He needs new shoes to do himself justice. If this blacksmith seems like a man of force of character, we'll see what he can do."
Jack looked at the blacksmith quizzically when we drove up, and whispered to us, "He'll do," and we unhitched. The pony had never been shod, and did not seem to need any artificial aids, so we left her to graze about while the others were being attended to.
"Just shoe the brown one first, if it doesn't make any difference," said Jack.
"All right," answered the blacksmith, and he went to work on this decent old nag, who slept peacefully throughout the whole operation.
He then began On Old Blacky. He soon had shoes nailed on the old reprobate's forward feet, and approached his rear ones. Old Blacky had made no resistance so far, and had contented himself with gnawing at the side of the shop and switching his tail. He even allowed the blacksmith to take one of his hind-feet between his knees and start to pull off the old shoe. Then he began to struggle to free his leg. The blacksmith held on. Old Blacky saw that the time for action had arrived, so he drew his leg, with the foolish blacksmith still clinging to it, well up forward, and then threw it back with all his strength. The leg did not fly off, but the blacksmith did, and half-way across the shop. He picked himself up, and, after looking at the horse, said:
"'Pears's if that ain't a colt any more."
"No," answered Jack; "he's fifteen or sixteen."
"Old enough to know better," observed the blacksmith. "I'll try him again."
He once more got the leg up, and again Old Blacky tried to throw him off. But this time the man hung on. After the third effort Blacky looked around at him with a good deal of surprise. Then he put down the leg to which the man was still clinging, and with the other gave him a blow which was half a kick and half a push, which sent the man sprawling over by his anvil.
"The critter don't seem to take to it nohow, does he?" said the blacksmith, cheerfully, as he again got up.
"He's a very peculiar horse," answered Jack. "Has violent likes and dislikes. His likes are for food, and his dislikes for everything else."
"I'll tackle him again, though," said the man.
But Blacky saw that he could no longer afford to temporize with the fellow, and now began kicking fiercely with both feet in all directions, swinging about like a warship to get the proper range on everything in sight, and finally ending up by putting one foot through the bellows.
"Reckon I've got to call in assistance," said the man, as he started off. He came back with another man, who laid hold of one of Blacky's forward legs and held it up off the floor. The blacksmith then seized one of his hind ones and got it up. This left the old sinner so that if he would kick he would have to stand on one foot while he did it, and this was hardly enough for even so bad a horse as he was. He did not wholly give up, however, but after a great amount of struggling they at last got him shod.
"We'll call him the Blacksmith's Pet," said Jack.
Good camping-places did not seem to be numerous, and just after the sun had gone down we turned out beside the road near a half-completed sod house. There was no other house in sight, and this had apparently been abandoned early in the season, as weeds and grass were growing on top of the walls, which were three or four feet high. There was also a peculiar sort of well, a few of which we had seen during the day. It consisted of four one-inch boards nailed together and sunk into the ground. The boards were a foot wide, thus making the inside of the shaft ten inches square. This one was forty or fifty feet deep, but there was a long rope and slender tin bucket beside it. The water was not good, but there was no other to be had. Near the house Ollie found the first cactus we had seen, which showed, if nothing else did, that we were getting into a dry country. He took it up carefully and stowed it away in the cabin to take back home as evidence of his extensive travels.
For several days we had not been able to have a camp-fire, owing to the wind and dryness of the prairie, for had we started a prairie fire it might have done great damage.
"We don't want the Holt County Anti-Prairie Fire Society after us," Jack had said; so we bad been using our oil-stove.
But this evening was very still, and there seemed to be no danger in building a camp-fire within the walls of the house, and we soon had one going with wood which we had gathered along the river, since to have found wood enough for a camp-fire in that neighborhood would have been as impossible as to have found a stone or a spring of water.
We were sitting about on the sods after supper when a man rode up on horseback, who said he was looking for some lost stock. We asked him to have something to eat, and he accepted the invitation, and afterwards talked a long time, and gave us much information which we wished about the country. Somebody mentioned the little well, and the man turned to Ollie and said:
"How would you like to slip down such a well?"
"I'm afraid I'm too big," answered Ollie. "Well, perhaps you are; but there was a child last summer over near where I live who wasn't too big. He was a little fellow not much over two years old. The well was a new one, and the curb was almost even with the top of the ground. He slipped down feet first. It was a hundred and twenty feet deep, with fifteen feet of water at the bottom; but he fitted pretty snug, and only went down about fifty feet at first. His mother missed him, saw that the cover was gone from the well, and listened. She heard his voice, faint and smothered. There was no one else at home. She called to him not to stir, and went to the barn, where there was a two-year-old colt. He had never been ridden before, but he was ridden that afternoon, and I guess he hasn't forgotten the lesson. She came to my place first, told me, and rode away to another neighbor's. In half an hour there were twenty men there, and soon fifty, and before morning two hundred.
"There was no way to fish the child out-the only thing was to dig down beside the small shaft. We could hear him faintly, and we began to dig. We started a shaft about four feet square. The sandy soil caved badly, but men with horses running all the way brought out lumber from Grand Rapids for curbing.
"The child's father came too. He listened a second at the small shaft, and then went down the other. Two men could work at the bottom of it. One of the men was relieved every few minutes by a fresh worker, but the father worked on, and did more than the others, not-withstanding the changes. All of the time the mother sat on the ground beside the small shaft with her arms about its top. At four o'clock in the morning we were down opposite the prisoner. He was still crying faintly. We saw that to avoid the danger of causing him to slip farther down we must dig below him, bore a hole in the board, and push through a bar. But a few shovelfuls more were needed. The work jarred the shaft, and the child slipped twenty—-five feet deeper. At seven o'clock we were down to where he was again, though we could no longer bear him. We dug a little below, bored a bole, and the father slipped through a pickaxe handle, and fainted away as he felt the little one slide down again but rest on the handle. We tore off the boards, took the baby out, and drew him and his father to the surface. There were two doctors waiting for them, and the next day neither was much the worse for it."
The man got on his horse and rode away. We agreed that he had told us a good story, but the next day others assured us that it had all happened a year before.
VI: BY CAYNONS TO VALENTINE
Besides the cactus, another form of vegetation which began to attract more and more of Ollie's attention was the red tumbleweed. Indeed, Jack and I found ourselves interested in it also. The ordinary tumbleweed, green when growing and gray when tumbling, had long been familiar to us, but the red variety was new. The old kind which we knew seldom grew more than two feet in diameter; it was usually almost exactly round, and with its finely branched limbs was almost as solid as a big sponge, and when its short stem broke off at the top of the ground in the fall it would go bounding away across the prairie for miles. The red sort seemed to be much the same, except for its color and size. We saw many six or seven feet, perhaps more, in diameter, though they were rather flat, and not probably over three or four feet high.
The first one we saw was on edge, and going at a great rate across the prairie, bounding high into the air, and acting as if it had quite gone crazy, as there was a strong wind blowing.
"Look at that overgrown red tumbleweed!" exclaimed Jack. "I never saw anything like that before. Jump on the pony, Ollie, and catch the varmint and bring it back here!"
Ollie was willing enough to do this, and the pony was willing enough to go, so off they went. I think if the weed had had a fair field that Ollie would never have overtaken it, but it got caught in the long grass occasionally, and he soon came up to it. But the pony was not used to tumbleweed-coursing, and shied off with a startled snort. Ollie brought her about and made another attempt. But again the frightened pony ran around it. Half a dozen times this was repeated. At last she happened to dash around it on the wrong side just as it bounded into the air before the wind. It struck both horse and rider like a big dry-land wave, and Ollie seized it. If the poor pony had been frightened before, she was now terror-stricken, and gave a jump like a tiger, and shot away faster than we had ever seen her run before. Ollie had lost control of her, and could only cling to the saddle with one hand and hold to the big blundering weed with the other. Fortunately the pony ran toward the wagon. As they came up we could see little but tumbleweed and pony legs, and it looked like nothing so much as a hay-stack running away on its own legs. When the pony came up to the wagon she stopped so suddenly that Ollie went over her head. But he still clung to the weed, and struck the ground inside of it. He jumped up, still in the weed, so that it now looked like a hay-stack on two legs. We pulled him out of it, and found him none the worse for his adventure. But he was a little frightened, and said:
"I don't think I'll chase those things again, Uncle Jack—not with that pony."
"Oh, that's all right, Ollie," said Jack. "I'm going to organize the Nebraska Cross-Country Tumbleweed Club, and you'll want to come to the meets. We'll give the weed one minute start, and the first man that catches it will get a prize of—of a watermelon, for instance."
"Well, I think I'll take another horse before I try it," returned Ollie.
"Might try Old Browny," I said. "If he ever came up to a tumbleweed he would lie right down on it and go to sleep."
"Yes, and Blacky would hold it with one foot and eat it up," said Jack. "Unless he took a notion to turn around and kick it out of existence."
We looked the queer plant over carefully, and found it so closely branched that it was impossible to see into it more than a few inches. The branched were tough and elastic, and when it struck the ground after being tossed up it would rebound several inches. But it was almost as light asa thistle-ball, and when we turned it loose it rolled away across the prairie again as if nothing had happened.
"They're bad things sometimes when there is a prairie tire," said Jack. "No matter how wide the fire-break may be, a blazing tumbleweed will often roll across it and set tire to the grass beyond. They've been known to leap over streams of considerable width, too, or fall in the water and float across, still blazing. Two years ago the town of Frontenac was burned up by a tumbleweed, though the citizens had made ah approved fire-break by ploughing two circles of furrows around their village and burning off the grass between them. These big red ones must be worse than the others. I believe," he went on, "that tumbleweeds might be used to carry messages, like carrier-pigeons. The next one we come across we'll try it."
That afternoon we caught a fine specimen, and Jack securely fastened this message to it and turned it adrift:
"Schooner Rattletrap, September —, 188-: Latitude. 42.50; Longitude, 99.35. To Whom it may Concern: From Prairie Flower, bound for Deadwood. All well except Old Blacky, who has an appetite."
The night after our stop by the unfinished house we again camped on the open prairie, a quarter of a mile from a settler's house, where we got water for the horses. This house was really a "dugout," being more of a cellar than a house. It was built in the side of a little bank, the back of the sod roof level with the ground, and the front but two or three feet above it.
"I'd be afraid, if I were living in it, that a heavy rain in the night might fill it up, and float the bedstead, and bump my nose on the ceiling," said Jack.
Ir had been a warm afternoon, but when we went to bed it was cooler, though there was no wind stirring. The smoke of our camp-fire went straight up. There was no moon, but the sky was clear, and we remarked that we had not seen the stars look so bright any night before. The front of our wagon stood toward the northwest. We went to bed, but at two o'clock we were awakened by a most violent shaking of the cover. The wind was blowing a gale, and the whole top seemed about to be going by the board. We scrambled up, and I heard Jack's voice calling for me to come out. The cover-bows were bent far over, and the canvas pressed in on the side to the southwest till it seemed as if it must burst. The front end of the top had gone out and was cracking in the wind. I crept forward, and us I did so I felt the wagon rise up on the windward side and bump back on the ground. I concluded we were doomed to u wreck, and called to Ollie to get out as fast us he could. I supposed a hard storm had struck us, but as I went over the dash-board I was astonished to see the stars shining us brightly as ever in the deep, dark sky. Jack was clinging to the rear wagon wheel on the windward side, which was all that had saved it from capsizing. He called to me to take hold of the tongue and steer the craft around with the stern to the gale. I did so, while he turned on the wheel.
As it came around the loose sides of the cover began to flutter and crack, while the puckering-string gave way, and the wind swept through the wagon, carrying everything that was loose before it, including Ollie, who was just getting over the dash-board. He was not hurt, but just then we heard a most pitiful yelping, as Jack's blankets and pillow went rolling away from where the wagon had stood. It was Snoozer going with them. The yelping disappeared in the darkness, and we heard frying-pans, tin plates, and other camp articles clattering away with the rest. The Rattletrap itself had tried to run before the gale, but I had put on the brake and stopped it. The three of us then crouched in front of it, and waited for the wind to blow itself out. We could see or hear nothing of the horses. There was nota cloud in sight, and the stars still shone down calmly and unruffled, while the wind cut and hissed through the long prairie grass all about us. It kept up for about ten minutes, when it began to stop as suddenly as it had begun. In twenty minutes there was nothing but a cool, gentle breeze coming out of the southwest. We lit the lantern and tried to gather up our things, but soon realized that we could not do much that night. We found the unfortunate Snoozer crouched in a little depression which was perhaps an old buffalo wallow, but could see nothing of the horses. We concluded to go to bed and wait for morning.
When it came we found our things scattered for over a quarter of a mile. We recovered everything, though the wagon-seat was broken. The horses had come back, so we could not tell how far they had gone before the wind.
"I've read about those night winds on the plains," said Jack, "and we'll look out for 'em in the future. We'll put an anchor on Snoozer at least."
This intelligent animal had not forgotten his night's experience, and stuck closely in the wagon, where he even insisted on taking his breakfast.
The road we were following was gradually drawing closer to the Niobrara, and we began to see scattering pine-trees, stunted and broken, along the heads of the canyons or ravines leading down to the river. There was less sand, and we made better progress. The country was but little settled, and game was more plentiful. We got two or three grouse. We went into camp at night by the head of what appeared to be a large canyon, under a tempest-tossed old pine-tree, through which the wind constantly sighed. There was no water, but we counted on getting it down the canyon. A man went by on horseback, driving some cattle, who told us that we could find a spring down about half a mile.
"Can we get any hay down there?" I asked him. "We're out of feed for the horses, and the grass seems pretty poor here."
"Down a mile beyond the spring I have a dozen stacks," answered the man, "and you're welcome to all you can bring up on your pony. Just go down and help yourselves."
We thanked him and he went on. As soon as we could we started down. It was beginning to get dark, and grew darker rapidly as we went down the ravine, as its sides were high and the trees soon became numerous. There was no road, nothing but a mere cattle-path, steep and stony in many places. We found the spring and watered all the horses, left Blacky and Browny, and went on after the hay with the pony, Jack leading her, and Ollie and I walking ahead with the lantern. It seemed a long way as we stumbled along in the darkness, all the time downhill. "I guess that man wasn't so liberal as he seemed," said Jack. "The pony will be able to carry just about enough hay up here to make Snoozer a bed."
We plunged on, till at last the path became a little nearer level. It crossed a small open tract and then wound among bushes and low trees. Suddenly we saw something gleam in the light of the lantern, and stopped right on the river's bank. The water looked deep and dark, though not very wide. The current was swift and eddying.
"We've passed the hay," I said. "Ir must be on that open flat we crossed."
We went back, and, turning to the right, soon found it. I set the lantern down and began to pull hay from one of the stacks, when the pony made a sudden movement, struck the lantern with her foot, and smashed the globe to bits.
"There," exclaimed Jack, "we'll have a fine time going up that badger-hole of a canyon in the dark!"
But there was nothing else to do, and we made up two big bundles of hay and tied them to the pony's back.
"She'll think it's tumbleweeds," said Ollie.
"If she's headed in the right direction I hope she will," answered Jack.
We started up, but it was a long and toilsome climb. In many places Jack and I had to get down on our hands and knees and feel out the path. The worst place was a scramble up a bank twenty feet high, and covered with loose stones. I was ahead. The heroic little pony with her unwieldy load sniffed at the prospect a little, and then started bravely up, "hanging on by her toe-nails," as Ollie said. When she was almost to the top she stepped on a loose stone, lost her footing, went over, and rolled away into the darkness and underbrush. Jack stumbled over a little of the hay which had come off in the path, hastily rolled up a torch, and lit it with a match. By this light we found the pony on her back, like a tumble-bug, with her load for a cushion and her feet in the air, and kicking wildly in every direction. While Ollie held the torch, Jack and I went to her rescue, and, after a vast deal of pulling and lifting, got her to her feet just as the hay torch died out. Again she scrambled up the bank, and this time with success. We went on, found the other horses, and were soon at the wagon. We voted the pony all the hay she wanted, and went to bed tired.
The next day, the ninth out from Yankton, though it was a long run, brought us to Valentine, the first town on the railroad which we had seen since leaving the former place. Before we reached it we went several miles along the upper ends of the canyons, down a long hill so steep that we had to chain both hind wheels, forded the Niobrara twice, followed the river several miles, went out across the military reservation, which was like a desert, saw six or eight hundred negro soldiers at Fort Niobrara, and finally drove through Valentine, and went into camp a mile west of town. On the way we saw thousands of the biggest and reddest tumbleweeds, and two or three new sorts of cactus. The colored troops surprised Ollie, as he had never seen any before.
"It's the western winds and the hot sun that's tanned those soldiers," said Jack. "We'll look just that way, too, before we get back."
Ollie was half inclined to believe this astonishing statement at first, but concluded that his uncle was joking.
We went into camp on the banks of the Minichaduza River, a little brook which flows into the Niobrara from the northwest. All night it gurgled and bubbled almost under our wheels. A man stopped to chat with us as we sat around our camp-fire after supper. We told him of our experience in getting the hay the night before. He laughed and said: "Ever steal any of your horse feed?"
"We haven't yet," answered Jack. "We try to be reasonably honest."
"Some don't, though," replied the man. "Most of 'em that are going West in a covered wagon seem to think corn in the field is public property. A fellow camped right here one afternoon last fall. He was out of feed, and took a grain sack on one arm and a big Winchester rifle on the other, and went over to old Brown's cornfield. He took the gun along not to shoot anybody, but to sort of intimidate Brown if he should catch him. Suddenly he saw an old fellow coming towards him carrying a gun about a foot longer than his own. The young fellow wilted right down on the ground and never moved. He happened to go down on a big prickly cactus, but he never stirred, cactus or no cactus. He thought Brown had caught him, and that he was done for. The old man kept coming nearer and nearer. He was almost to him. The young fellow concluded to make a brave fight. So he jumped up and yelled. The old man dropped his gun and ran like a scared wolf. Then the young fellow noticed that the other also had a sack in which he had been gathering corn. He called him back, they saw that they were both thieves, shook hands, and went ahead and robbed old Brown together."
The man got up to go. "Well, good-night, boys," he said. "Rest as hard as you can tomorrow. You'll strike into the Sand Hills at about nine o'clock Monday morning. Take three days' feed, and every drop of water you can carry; and it you waste any of it washing your hands you're bigger fools than I think you are."
VII: THROUGH THE SAND HILLS
"Come, stir out of that and get the camels ready for the desert!"
This was Jack's cheery way of warning Ollie and me that it was time to get up on the morning of our start into the Sand Hills.
"Any simooms in sight?" asked Ollie, by way of reply to Jack's remark.
"Well, I think Old Browny scents one; he has got his nose buried in the sand like a camel," answered Jack.
It was only just coming daylight, but we were agreed that an early start was best. It was another Monday morning, and we knew that it would take three good days' driving to carry us through the sand country. We had learned that, notwithstanding what our visitor of the first night had said, there were several places on the road where we could get water and feed for the horses. We should have to carry some water along, however, and had got two large kegs from Valentine, and filled them and all of our jugs and pails the night before. We also had a good stock of oats and corn, and a big bundle of hay, which we put in the cabin on the bed.
"Just as soon as Old Blacky finds that there is no water along the road he will insist on having about a barrel a day," said Jack. "And if he can't get it he will balk, and kick the dash-board into kindling-wood."
A little before sunrise we started. It was agreed, owing to the increase in the load and the deep sand, that no one, not even Snoozer, should be allowed to ride in the wagon. If Ollie got tired he was to ride the pony. So we started off, walking beside the wagon, with the pony lust behind, as usual, dangling her stirrups, and the abused Snoozer, looking very much hurt at the insult put upon him, following behind her.
For three or four miles the road was much like that to which we had been accustomed. Then it gradually began to grow sandier. We were following an old trail which ran near the railroad, sometimes on one side and sometimes on the other; and this was the case all the way through the hills. The railroad was new, having been built only a year or two before. There was a station on it every fifteen or twenty miles, with a side-track, and a water-tank for the engines, but not much else.
There was no well-marked boundary to the Sand Hills, but gradually, and almost before we realized it, we found ourselves surrounded by them. We came to a crossing of the railroad, and in a little cut a few rods away we saw the sand drifted over the rails three or four inches deep, precisely like snow.
"Well," said Jack, "I guess we're in the Sand Hills at last if we've got where it drifts."
"I wonder if they have to have sand-ploughs on their engines?" said Ollie.
"I've heard that they frequently have to stop and shovel it off," answered Jack.
As we got farther among the sand dunes we found them all sizes and shapes, though usually circular, and from fifteen to forty feet high. Of course the surface of the county was very irregular, and there would be places here and there where the grass had obtained a little footing and the sand had not drifted up. There were also some hills which seemed to be independent of the sand piles.
We stopped for noon on a little flat where there was some struggling grass, This flat ran off to the north, and narrowed into a small valley through which in the spring probably a little water flowed. We had finished dinner when we noticed a flock of big birds circling about the little valley, and, on looking closer, saw that some of them were on the ground.
"They are sand-hill cranes," said Jack. "I've seen them in Dakota, but this must be their home."
They were immense birds, white and gray, and with very long legs. Jack took his rifle and tried to creep up on them, but they were too shy, and soared away to the south.
We soon passed the first station on the railroad, called Crookston. The telegraph-operator came out and looked at us, admitted that it was a sandy neighborhood, and went back in. We toiled on without any incident of note during the whole afternoon. Toward night we passed another station, called Georgia, and the man in charge allowed us to fill our kegs from the water-tank.
We went on three or four miles and stopped beside the trail, and a hundred yards from the railroad, for the night. The great drifts of sand were all around us, and no desert could have been lonelier. We had a little wood and built a camp-fire. The evening was still and there was not a sound. Even the Blacksmith's Pet, wandering about seeking what he could devour, and finding nothing, made scarcely a sound in the soft sand. The moon was shining, and it was warm as any summer evening. Jack sat on the ground beside the wagon and played the banjo for half an hour. After a while we walked over to the railroad. We could hear a faint rumble, and concluded that a train was approaching.
"Let's wait for it," proposed Jack. "It will be along in a moment."
We waited and listened. Then we distinctly heard the whistle of a locomotive, and the faint roar gradually ceased.
"It's stopped somewhere," I said.
"Don't see what it should stop around here for," said Jack, "unless to take on a sand-hill crane."
Then we heard it start up, run a short distance, and again stop; this it repeated half a dozen times, and then after a pause it settled down to a long steady roar again.
"It isn't possible, is it, that that train has been stopped at the next station west of here?" I said.
"The next station is Cody, and it's a dozen miles from here," answered Jack. "It doesn't seem as if we could hear it so far, but we'll time it and see."
He looked at his watch and we waited. For a long time the roar kept up, occasionally dying away as the train probably went through a deep cut or behind a hill. It gradually increased in volume, till at last it seemed as if the train must certainly be within a hundred yards. Still it did not appear, and the sound grew louder and louder. But at the end of thirty-five minutes it came around the curve in sight and thundered by, a long freight train, and making more noise, it seemed, that any train ever made before.
"That's where it was!" exclaimed Jack—"at Cody, twelve miles from here; and we first heard it I don't know how far beyond. If I ever go into the telephone business I'll keep away from the Sand Hills. A man here ought to be able to hold a pleasant chat with a neighbor two miles off, and by speaking up loud ask the postmaster ten miles away if there is any mail for him."
We were off ploughing through the sand again early the next morning. We could not give the horses quite all the water they wanted, but we did the best we could. We were in the heart of the hills all day. There were simply thousands of the great sand drifts in every direction. Buffalo bones half buried were becoming numerous. We saw several coyotes, or prairie wolves, skulking about, but we shot at them without success. We got water at Cody, and pressed on. In the afternoon we sighted some antelope looking cautiously over the crest of a sand billow. Ollie mounted the pony and I took my rifle, and we went after them, while Jack kept on with the wagon. They retreated, and we followed them a mile or more back from the trail, winding among the drifts and attempting to get near enough for a shot. But they were too wary for us. At last we mounted a hill rather higher than the rest, and saw them scampering away a mile or more to the northwest. We were surprised more by something which we saw still on beyond them, and that was a little pond of water deep down between two great ridges of sand.
"I didn't expect to see a lake in this country," said Ollie.
I studied the lay of the land a moment, and said: "I think it's simply a place where the wind has scooped out the sand down below the water-line and it has filled up. The wind has dug a well, that's all. You know the telegraph-operator at Georgia told us the wells here were shallow—that there's plenty of water down a short distance."
We could see that there was considerable grass and quite an oasis around the pond. But in every other direction there was nothing but sand billows, all scooped out on their northwest sides where the fierce winds of winter had gnawed at them. The afternoon sun was sinking, and every dune cast a dark shadow on the light yellow of the sand, making a great landscape of glaring light covered with black spots. A coyote sat on a buffalo skull on top of the next hill and looked at us. A little owl flitted by and disappeared in one of the shadows.
"This is like being adrift in an open boat," I said to Ollie. "We must hurry on and catch the Rattletrap."
"I'm in the open boat," answered Ollie. "You're just simply swimming about without even a life-preserver on."
We turned and started for the trail. We found it, but we had spent more time in the hills than we realized, and before we had gone far it began to grow dark. We waded on, and at last saw Jack's welcome camp-fire. When we came up we smelled grouse cooking, and he said:
"While you fellows were chasing about and getting lost I gathered in a brace of fat grouse. What you want to do next time is to take along your hat full of oats, and perhaps you can coax the antelope to come up and eat."
The camp was near another railroad station called Eli. We had been gradually working north, and were now not over three or four miles from the Dakota line; but Dakota here consisted of nothing but the immense Sioux Indian Reservation, two or three hundred miles long.
The next morning Jack complained of not feeling well.
"What's the matter, Jack?" I asked.
"Gout," answered Jack, promptly. "I'm too good a cook for myself. I'm going to let you cook for a few days, and give my system a rest."
This seemed very funny to Ollie and me, who had been eating Jack's cooking for two or three weeks. The fact was that the gouty Jack was the poorest cook that ever looked into a kettle, and he knew it well enough. He could make one thing—pancakes—nothing else. They were usually fairly good, though he would sometimes get his recipes mixed up, and use his sour-milk one when the milk was sweet, or his sweet-milk one when it was sour; but we got accustomed to this. Then it was hard to spoil young and tender fried grouse, and the stewed plums had been good, though he had got some hay mixed with them; but the flavor of hay is not bad. We bought frequently of "canned goods" at the stores, and this he could not injure a great deal.