The Almost Last Roundup

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65

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Summary: 

Hank the Cowdog has seen dry summers in his years as the Head of Ranch Security, but nobody on the ranch has seen a drought like this. Ponds have dried up, the creek is down to a trickle, pastures have turned to burned toast, and the cows are kicking up clouds of dust. Then, to top it all off, Pete the Barncat hatches a dastardly plot to ruin Loper’s birthday! The last thing the cowboys need is a prairie fire, but that’s what they get, and it begins to look like the next roundup might be their last. What the ranch really needs is a good rain to bring back the grass . . . and Loper’s good mood!

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Chapter One: Hard Times

            It’s me again, Hank the Cowdog.  On my ranch, we’d seen summers that were hot and summers that were dry, but we’d never seen anything like the kind of hot and dry we were going through in…whatever year it was.

            We hadn’t gotten much snow over the winter months, and we missed the spring rains that usually come in April and May.  Then came the summer heat.  Bad.  Awful.  Not just one or two blistering days every week, but day after day of temperatures over a hundred degrees, and a constant life-sucking wind out of the southwest.

            Our hay field produced about half the number of bales it should have.  Ponds dried up.  Wolf Creek shrank down to a trickle.  Pastures turned into burned toast.  Cow trails grew deeper and dustier. 

            Trees were starting to die, and we’re talking about native trees:  hackberries, elms, cottonwoods, and even cedars.  Fellers, when the cedars turn up their toes, you know you’re in a bad drought, because those old cedars are tougher than boot leather. 

            We had no wildflowers that year, no mosquitoes, and very few grasshoppers.  Even the birds quit us.  You know me, I’m no fan of noisy birds, but for crying out loud, when all the birds moved out…I hate to admit this, but the ranch seemed kind of lonely without them.        

            This would have been a great time for a dog to take a vacation and go visit some place that had penguins and icebergs, but the Security Division gets no vacations and no days off. 

            That’s where we were when the mystery began:  roasted, toasted, hot, dehydrated, worn out, and wind-blown, and everybody on the ranch was on edge about prairie fires.  See, when the pastures are bone dry and the wind is roaring, any little spark can start a blaze, and once it starts…I guess you’ll find out. 

            I don’t want to reveal too much, but…well, we had a fire.  That comes later in the story, after I rescued Sally May from the Charlie Monsters and after Little Alfred had smuggled something out of his mother’s kitchen, but you’re not supposed to know about any of that stuff, so don’t tell anyone.

            Sh-h-h-h-h.

            Where were we?  Oh yes, the drought.

            The cowboys were sick of the heat and the dust, and disgusted that they were having to feed cattle in the summer.  And boy, you talk about being in a foul mood!  They weren’t fit to be around.  When they weren’t complaining about the drought, they were snarling at each other, and when they got tired of that, they yelled at the dogs.

            What were the dogs supposed to do about the drought?  Actually, we tried a few home remedies.  For three whole days in July, Drover and I stationed ourselves on a hill north of headquarters and barked at the clouds.  They formed up into thunderheads, then fell apart and turned into fuzzy little do-nothing puffs that gave us about fifteen drops of rain.

            Fifteen drops!  We needed fifteen inches and we got fifteen drops.  It was an outrage, a huge waste of time.  If a cloud’s too lazy and dumb to make a rain, there’s nothing a dog can do about it.

            When barking at the clouds didn’t produce any results, we tried singing our “Drought Song.”  You’re probably not familiar with that one.  Good.  That means you’ve never been locked in a drought that was so bad, you tried to sing your way out of it.

            I don’t suppose you’d want to hear it, would you?  I mean, the subject matter is kind of depressing, but it’s not a bad little song.  Pretty good, in fact.  Yes, by George, you need to hear it.  Stand by to roll tape.

 

                  Drought Song

 

Desiccated gramma grass, wilting on the ground.

Crisp yellow leaves are falling all around.

A west wind blows with cruel might

And the prairie fires burn all through the night.

 

            We need rain.

            We need rain.

            Not a cloud in the sky, in the pale blue sky.

            If we don’t get a rain, everything is gonna die.

 

Dried up sage brush, looking mighty sad.

Chinaberry trees never saw it this bad.

Cottonwoods fade, showing barren limbs,

And the fish in the ponds are forgetting how to swim.

 

            We need rain.

            We need rain.

            Not a cloud in the sky, in the pale blue sky.

            If we don’t get a rain, everything is gonna die.

           

The grass is gone, the hay’s used up.

The cows look thin and they’re hunting grub.

The people are tired and filled with doubt.

And the dogs are sick of this stinking drought.

 

            We need rain.

            We need rain.

            Not a cloud in the sky, in the pale blue sky.

            If we don’t get a rain, everything is gonna die.

 

The people are tired and filled with doubt.

And the dogs are sick of this stinking drought.

 

            So there you are, a pretty neat song about a bad subject.  I wish I could report that it brought us a big rain, but it didn’t. 

            But life goes on, doesn’t it?  In spite of the stinking drought, my day began in its normal fashion.  I was up before daylight, staked out my usual position on that little hill north of headquarters, and barked up the sun.

            Once I had that done, and while most people and dogs were still in their beds, I launched the Second Phase of my morning’s routine, a complete and thorough walk-around of ranch headquarters.  I checked it out from top to bottom:  saddle shed, feed barn, machine shed, sick pen, garden, Emerald Pond, and every square inch of the corrals.   

            It took me two hours, and I saw no signs of the Charlie Monsters who showed up later and took Sally May as a hostage.  I mean, those guys really caught us…

            Wait.  I wasn’t supposed to say anything about that, so let’s pretend that I didn’t.  I was misquoted, how does that sound?  If anyone asks about the you-know-whats, we know nothing about them at this point in the story and have no comment for the press.  I think that’ll work.

            Anyway, after two solid hours of pretty intense sniffing around, I was feeling tired and thirsty, and made a Water Stop at the stock tank in the corrals.  As I stepped up on the cement apron, my eyes caught sight of something lying on the shady side of the tank.

            I froze.

            It had a beak, two eyes, and a wild shock of something red on top of its head.  In certain respects, it resembled a chicken or maybe a rooster, but I waited for Data Control to run Identity Scan.  In my line of work, we have to be very cautious.  Our enemies are clever and often use disguises, don’t you see, and sometimes they come creeping into ranch headquarters, wearing chicken suits.

            If this was an enemy agent in a chicken disguise, I needed to know about it.

            A message clicked across the screen of my mind:  “Carbon-based organism with feathers.  Chicken.  Male.  Have a nice day.”

            I allowed myself to relax.  It was J.T. Cluck, one of our local bird-brains, loafing in the shade, and I didn’t want to waste half an hour of my life listening to him yap about whatever insignificant thoughts were floating through his little rooster mind.

            I began backing away from the tank, in hopes that he might not have seen me.  Too late.  He cocked his head to the side and squawked, “Oh, there you are.  It’s about time you showed up.”

            “Sorry, J.T., I didn’t mean to disturb you.  I need to move along.”

            “Not so fast, mister.  Every chicken on this ranch has been wanting to talk to you.”

            “I’m a busy dog.”

            “Yeah, I’ve noticed—busy sleeping.  Every time I look around, you’re spread out on that gunny sack bed, pumping out a line of Z’s.”

            “Maybe you should find something else to do, besides snoop on me.”

            “It ain’t snooping.  Somebody needs to stay awake and pay attention.”

            “Are you finished?”

 

            “No, as a matter of fact, I’m just getting cranked up.”  He stood up on his skinny legs and leaned closer to my face.  “Pooch, we’ve got a crisis a-brewing on this ranch!”