Western Short Story
Early in the summer of '78 we were rocking along with a herd of Laurel Leaf cattle, going up the old Chisholm trail in the Indian Territory. The cattle were in charge of Ike Inks as foreman, and had been sold for delivery somewhere in the Strip.
There were thirty-one hundred head, straight "twos," and in the single ranch brand. We had been out about four months on the trail, and all felt that a few weeks at the farthest would let us out, for the day before we had crossed the Cimarron River, ninety miles south of the state line of Kansas.
The foreman was simply killing time, waiting for orders concerning the delivery of the cattle. All kinds of jokes were in order, for we all felt that we would soon be set free. One of our men had been taken sick, as we crossed Red River into the Nations, and not wanting to cross this Indian country short-handed, Inks had picked up a young fellow who evidently had never been over the trail before.
He gave the outfit his correct name, on joining us, but it proved unpronounceable, and for convenience some one rechristened him Lucy, as he had quite a feminine appearance. He was anxious to learn, and was in evidence in everything that went on.
The trail from the Cimarron to Little Turkey Creek, where we were now camped, had originally been to the east of the present one, skirting a black-jack country. After being used several years it had been abandoned, being sandy, and the new route followed up the bottoms of Big Turkey, since it was firmer soil, affording better footing to cattle. These two trails came together again at Little Turkey. At no place were they over two or three miles apart, and from where they separated to where they came together again was about seven miles.
It troubled Lucy not to know why this was thus. Why did these routes separate and come together again? He was fruitful with inquiries as to where this trail or that road led. The boss-man had a vein of humor in his make-up, though it was not visible; so he told the young man that he did not know, as he had been over this route but once before, but he thought that Stubb, who was then on herd, could tell him how it was; he had been over the trail every year since it was laid out. This was sufficient to secure Stubb an interview, as soon as he was relieved from duty and had returned to the wagon. So Ike posted one of the men who was next on guard to tell Stubb what to expect, and to be sure to tell it to him scary.
A brief description of Stubb necessarily intrudes, though this nickname describes the man. Extremely short in stature, he was inclined to be fleshy. In fact, a rear view of Stubb looked as though some one had hollowed out a place to set his head between his ample shoulders. But a front view revealed a face like a full moon. In disposition he was very amiable. His laugh was enough to drive away the worst case of the blues. It bubbled up from some inward source and seemed perennial. His worst fault was his bar-room astronomy. If there was any one thing that he shone in, it was rustling coffin varnish during the early prohibition days along the Kansas border. His patronage was limited only by his income, coupled with what credit he enjoyed.
Once, about midnight, he tried to arouse a drug clerk who slept in the store, and as he had worked this racket before, he coppered the play to repeat. So he tapped gently on the window at the rear where the clerk slept, calling him by name. This he repeated any number of times. Finally, he threatened to have a fit; even this did not work to his advantage. Then he pretended to be very angry, but there was no response. After fifteen minutes had been fruitlessly spent, he went back to the window, tapped on it once more, saying, "Lon, lie still, you little son-of-a-sheep-thief," which may not be what he said, and walked away. A party who had forgotten his name was once inquiring for him, describing him thus, "He's a little short, fat fellow, sits around the Maverick Hotel, talks cattle talk, and punishes a power of whiskey."
So before Stubb had even time to unsaddle his horse, he was approached to know the history of these two trails.
''Well," said Stubb somewhat hesitatingly, "I never like to refer to it. You see, I killed a man the day that right-hand trail was made: I'll tell you about it some other time."
"But why not now?" said Lucy, his curiosity aroused, as keen as a woman's.
"Some other day," said Stubb. "But did you notice those three graves on the last ridge of sand-hills to the right as we came out of the Cimarron bottoms yesterday? You did? Their tenants were killed over that trail; you see now why I hate to refer to it, don't you? I was afraid to go back to Texas for three years afterward."
"But why not tell me?" said the young man.
"Oh," said Stubb, as he knelt down to put a hobble on his horse, "it would injure my reputation as a peaceable citizen, and I don't mind telling you that I expect to marry soon."
Having worked up the proper interest in his listener, besides exacting a promise that he would not repeat the story where it might do injury to him, he dragged his saddle up to the camp-fire. Making a comfortable seat with it, he riveted his gaze on the fire, and with a splendid sang-froid reluctantly told the history of the double trail.
"You see," began Stubb, "the Chisholm route had been used more or less for ten years. This right-hand trail was made in '73. I bossed that year from Van Zandt County, for old Andy Erath, who, by the way, was a dead square cowman with not a hide-bound idea in his make-up. Son, it was a pleasure to know old Andy. You can tell he was a good man, for if he ever got a drink too much, though he would never mention her otherwise, he always praised his wife. I've been with him up beyond the Yellowstone, two thousand miles from home, and you always knew when the old man was primed. He would praise his wife, and would call on us boys to confirm the fact that Mary, his wife, was a good woman.
"That year we had the better of twenty-nine hundred head, all steer cattle, threes and up, a likely bunch, better than these we are shadowing now. You see, my people are not driving this year, which is the reason that I am making a common hand with Inks. If I was to lay off a season, or go to the seacoast, I might forget the way. In those days I always hired my own men. The year that this right-hand trail was made, I had an outfit of men who would rather fight than eat; in fact, I selected them on account of their special fitness in the use of firearms. Why, Inks here couldn't have cooked for my outfit that season, let alone rode. There was no particular incident worth mentioning till we struck Red River, where we overtook five or six herds that were laying over on account of a freshet in the river. I wouldn't have a man those days who was not as good in the water as out. When I rode up to the river, one or two of my men were with me. It looked red and muddy and rolled just a trifle, but I ordered one of the boys to hit it on his horse, to see what it was like. Well, he never wet the seat of his saddle going or coming, though his horse was in swimming water good sixty yards. All the other bosses rode up, and each one examined his peg to see if the rise was falling. One fellow named Bob Brown, boss-man for John Blocker, asked me what I thought about the crossing. I said to him, 'If this ferryman can cross our wagon for me, and you fellows will open out a little and let me in, I'll show you all a crossing, and it'll be no miracle either.'
"Well, the ferryman said he'd set the wagon over, so the men went back to bring up the herd. They were delayed some little time, changing to their swimming horses. It was nearly an hour before the herd came up, the others opening out, so as to give us a clear field, in case of a mill or balk. I never had to give an order; my boys knew just what to do. Why, there's men in this outfit right now that couldn't have greased my wagon that year.
"Well, the men on the points brought the herd to the water with a good head on, and before the leaders knew it, they were halfway across the channel, swimming like fish. The swing-men fed them in, free and plenty. Most of my outfit took to the water, and kept the cattle from drifting downstream. The boys from the other herds--good men, too--kept shooting them into the water, and inside fifteen minutes' time we were in the big Injun Territory. After crossing the saddle stock and the wagon, I swam my horse back to the Texas side. I wanted to eat dinner with Blocker's man, just to see how they fed. Might want to work for him some time, you see. I pretended that I'd help him over if he wanted to cross, but he said his dogies could never breast that water. I remarked to him at dinner, 'You're feeding a mite better this year, ain't you?' 'Not that I can notice,' he replied, as the cook handed him a tin plate heaping with navy beans, 'and I'm eating rather regular with the wagon, too.' I killed time around for a while, and then we rode down to the river together. The cattle had tramped out his peg, so after setting a new one, and pow-wowing around, I told him good-by and said to him, 'Bob, old man, when I hit Dodge, I'll take a drink and think of you back here on the trail, and regret that you are not with me, so as to make it two-handed.' We said our 'so-longs' to each other, and I gave the gray his head and he took the water like a duck. He could outswim any horse I ever saw, but I drowned him in the Washita two weeks later. Yes, tangled his feet in some vines in a sunken treetop, and the poor fellow's light went out. My own candle came near being snuffed. I never felt so bad over a little thing since I burned my new red topboots when I was a kid, as in drownding that horse.
"There was nothing else worth mentioning until we struck the Cimarron back here, where we overtook a herd of Chisholm's that had come in from the east. They had crossed through the Arbuckle Mountains--came in over the old Whiskey Trail. Here was another herd waterbound, and the boss-man was as important as a hen with one chicken. He told me that the river wouldn't be fordable for a week; wanted me to fall back at least five miles; wanted all this river bottom for his cattle; said he didn't need any help to cross his herd, though he thanked me for the offer with an air of contempt. I informed him that our cattle were sold for delivery on the North Platte, and that we wanted to go through on time. I assured him if he would drop his cattle a mile down the river, it would give us plenty of room. I told him plainly that our cattle, horses, and men could all swim, and that we never let a little thing like swimming water stop us.
"No! No! he couldn't do that; we might as well fall back and take our turn. "Oh, well," said I, 'if you want to act contrary about it, I'll go up to the King-Fisher crossing, only three miles above here. I've almost got time to cross yet this evening."
"Then he wilted and inquired, "Do you think I can cross if it swims them any?"
"I'm not doing your thinking, sir," I answered, "but I'll bring up eight or nine good men and help you rather than make a six-mile elbow." I said this with some spirit and gave him a mean look.
"All right," said he, "bring up your boys, say eight o'clock, and we will try the ford. Let me add right here," he continued, "and I'm a stranger to you, young man, but my outfit don't take anybody's slack, and as I am older than you, let me give you this little bit of advice: when you bring your men here in the morning, don't let them whirl too big a loop, or drag their ropes looking for trouble, for I've got fellows with me that don't turn out of the trail for anybody."
"All right, sir," I said. "Really, I'm glad to hear that you have some good men, still I'm pained to find them on the wrong side of the river for travelers. But I'll be here in the morning," I called back as I rode away. So telling my boys that we were likely to have some fun in the morning, and what to expect, I gave it no further attention. When we were catching up our horses next morning for the day, I ordered two of my lads on herd, which was a surprise to them, as they were both handy with a gun. I explained it to them all,--that we wished to avoid trouble, but if it came up unavoidable, to overlook no bets--to copper every play as it fell.
"We got to the river too early to suit Chisholm's boss-man. He seemed to think that his cattle would take the water better about ten o'clock. To kill time my boys rode across and back several times to see what the water was like. 'Well, any one that would let as little swimming water as that stop them must be a heap sight sorry outfit,' remarked one-eyed Jim Reed, as he rode out of the river, dismounting to set his saddle forward and tighten his cinches, not noticing that this foreman heard him. I rode around and gave him a look, and he looked up at me and muttered, 'Scuse me, boss, I plumb forgot!' Then I rode back and apologized to this boss-man: 'Don't pay any attention to my boys; they are just showing off, and are a trifle windy this morning."
"That's all right,' he retorted, 'but don't forget what I told you yesterday, and let it be enough said."
"Well, let's put the cattle in,' I urged, seeing that he was getting hot under the collar. 'We're burning daylight, pardner."
"Well, I'm going to cross my wagon first," said he.
"That's a good idea," I answered. "Bring her up." Their cook seemed to have a little sense, for he brought up his wagon in good shape. We tied some guy ropes to the upper side, and taking long ropes from the end of the tongue to the pommels of our saddles, the ease with which we set that commissary over didn't trouble any one but the boss-man, whose orders were not very distinct from the distance between banks. It was a good hour then before he would bring up his cattle. The main trouble seemed to be to devise means to keep their guns and cartridges dry, as though that was more important than getting the whole herd of nearly thirty-five hundred cattle over. We gave them a clean cloth until they needed us, but as they came up we divided out and were ready to give the lead a good push. If a cow changed his mind about taking a swim that morning, he changed it right back and took it. For in less than twenty minutes' time they were all over, much to the surprise of the boss and his men; besides, their weapons were quite dry; just the splash had wet them.
"I told the boss that we would not need any help to cross ours, but to keep well out of our way, as we would try and cross by noon, which ought to give him a good five-mile start. Well, we crossed and nooned, lying around on purpose to give them a good lead, and when we hit the trail back in these sand-hills, there he was, not a mile ahead, and you can see there was no chance to get around. I intended to take the Dodge trail, from this creek where we are now, but there we were, blocked in! I was getting a trifle wolfish over the way they were acting, so I rode forward to see what the trouble was.
"Oh, I'm in no hurry. You're driving too fast. This is your first trip, isn't it?" he inquired, as he felt of a pair of checked pants drying on the wagon wheel.
"Don't you let any idea like that disturb your Christian spirit, old man,' I replied with some resentment. 'But if you think I am driving too fast, you might suggest some creek where I could delude myself with the idea, for a week or so, that it was not fordable."
"Assuming an air of superiority he observed, 'You seem to have forgot what I said to you yesterday.'
"No, I haven't," I answered, "but are you going to stay all night here?"
"I certainly am, if that's any satisfaction to you," he answered.
"I got off my horse and asked him for a match, though I had plenty in my pocket, to light a cigarette which I had rolled during the conversation. I had no gun on, having left mine in our wagon, but fancied I'd stir him up and see how bad he really was. I thought it best to stroke him with and against the fur, try and keep on neutral ground, so I said,--
"You ain't figuring none that in case of a run to-night we're a trifle close together for cow-herds. Besides, my men on a guard last night heard gray wolves in these sand-hills. They are liable to show up to-night. Didn't I notice some young calves among your cattle this morning? Young calves, you know, make larruping fine eating for grays."
"Now, look here, Shorty,' he said in a patronizing tone, as though he might let a little of his superior cow-sense shine in on my darkened intellect, 'I haven't asked you to crowd up here on me. You are perfectly at liberty to drop back to your heart's content. If wolves bother us to-night, you stay in your blankets snug and warm, and pleasant dreams of old sweethearts on the Trinity to you. We won't need you. We'll try and worry along without you."
"Two or three of his men laughed gruffly at these remarks, and threw leer-eyed looks at me. I asked one who seemed bad, what calibre his gun was. 'Forty-five ha'r trigger,' he answered. I nosed around over their plunder purpose. They had things drying around like Bannock squaws jerking venison.
"When I got on my horse, I said to the boss, 'I want to pass your outfit in the morning, as you are in no hurry and I am.'
>"That will depend," said he.
"Depend on what?" I asked.
"Depend on whether we are willing to let you," he snarled.
"I gave him as mean a look as I could command and said tauntingly, 'Now, look here, old girl: there's no occasion for you to tear your clothes with me this way. Besides, I sometimes get on the prod myself, and when I do, I don't bar no man, Jew nor Gentile, horse, mare or gelding. You may think different, but I'm not afraid of any man in your outfit, from the gimlet to the big auger. I've tried to treat you white, but I see I've failed. Now I want to give it out to you straight and cold, that I'll pass you to-morrow, or mix two herds trying. Think it over to-night and nominate your choice--be a gentleman or a hog. Let your own sweet will determine which.'
"I rode away in a walk, to give them a chance to say anything they wanted to, but there were no further remarks. My men were all hopping mad when I told them, but I promised them that to-morrow we would fix them plenty or use up our supply of cartridges if necessary. We dropped back a mile off the trail and camped for the night. Early the next morning I sent one of my boys out on the highest sand dune to Injun around and see what they were doing. After being gone for an hour he came back and said they had thrown their cattle off the bed-ground up the trail, and were pottering around like as they aimed to move. Breakfast over, I sent him back again to make sure, for I wanted yet to avoid trouble if they didn't draw it on. It was another hour before he gave us the signal to come on. We were nicely strung out where you saw those graves on that last ridge of sand-hills, when there they were about a mile ahead of us, moseying along. This side of Chapman's, the Indian trader's store, the old route turns to the right and follows up this black-jack ridge. We kept up close, and just as soon as they turned in to the right,--the only trail there was then,--we threw off the course and came straight ahead, cross-country style, same route we came over to-day, except there was no trail there; we had to make a new one.
"Now they watched us a plenty, but it seemed they couldn't make out our game. When we pulled up even with them, half a mile apart, they tumbled that my bluff of the day before was due to take effect without further notice. Then they began to circle and ride around, and one fellow went back, only hitting the high places, to their wagon and saddle horses, and they were brought up on a trot. We were by this time three quarters of a mile apart, when the boss of their outfit was noticed riding out toward us. Calling one of my men, we rode out and met him halfway. 'Young man, do you know just what you are trying to do?' he asked.
"I think I do. You and myself as cowmen don't pace in the same class, as you will see, if you will only watch the smoke of our tepee. Watch us close, and I'll pass you between here and the next water."
"We will see you in hell first!' he said, as he whirled his horse and galloped back to his men. The race was on in a brisk walk. His wagon, we noticed, cut in between the herds, until it reached the lead of his cattle, when it halted suddenly, and we noticed that they were cutting off a dry cowskin that swung under the wagon. At the same time two of his men cut out a wild steer, and as he ran near their wagon one of them roped and the other heeled him. It was neatly done. I called Big Dick, my boss roper, and told him what I suspected,--that they were going to try and stampede us with a dry cowskin tied to that steer's tail they had down. As they let him up, it was clear I had called the turn, as they headed him for our herd, the flint thumping at his heels. Dick rode out in a lope, and I signaled for my crowd to come on and we would back Dick's play. As we rode out together, I said to my boys, 'The stuff's off, fellows! Shoot, and shoot to hurt!"
"It seemed their whole outfit was driving that one steer, and turning the others loose to graze. Dick never changed the course of that steer, but let him head for ours, and as they met and passed, he turned his horse and rode onto him as though he was a post driven in the ground. Whirling a loop big enough to take in a yoke of oxen, he dropped it over his off fore shoulder, took up his slack rope, and when that steer went to the end of the rope, he was thrown in the air and came down on his head with a broken neck. Dick shook the rope off the dead steer's forelegs without dismounting, and was just beginning to coil his rope when those varmints made a dash at him, shooting and yelling.
"That called for a counter play on our part, except our aim was low, for if we didn't get a man, we were sure to leave one afoot. Just for a minute the air was full of smoke. Two horses on our side went down before you could say 'Jack Robinson,' but the men were unhurt, and soon flattened themselves on the ground Indian fashion, and burnt the grass in a half-circle in front of them. When everybody had emptied his gun, each outfit broke back to its wagon to reload. Two of my men came back afoot, each claiming that he had got his man all right, all right. We were no men shy, which was lucky. Filling our guns with cartridges out of our belts, we rode out to reconnoitre and try and get the boys' saddles.
"The first swell of the ground showed us the field. There were the dead steer, and five or six horses scattered around likewise, but the grass was too high to show the men that we felt were there. As the opposition was keeping close to their wagon, we rode up to the scene of carnage. While some of the boys were getting the saddles off the dead horses, we found three men taking their last nap in the grass. I recognized them as the boss-man, the fellow with the ha'r-trigger gun, and a fool kid that had two guns on him when we were crossing their cattle the day before. One gun wasn't plenty to do the fighting he was hankering for; he had about as much use for two guns as a toad has for a stinger.
"The boys got the saddles off the dead horses, and went flying back to our men afoot, and then rejoined us. The fight seemed over, or there was some hitch in the programme, for we could see them hovering near their wagon, tearing up white biled shirts out of a trunk and bandaging up arms and legs, that they hadn't figured on any. Our herd had been overlooked during the scrimmage, and had scattered so that I had to send one man and the horse wrangler to round them in. We had ten men left, and it was beginning to look as though hostilities had ceased by mutual consent. You can see, son, we didn't bring it on. We turned over the dead steer, and he proved to be a stray; at least he hadn't their road brand on. One-eyed Jim said the ranch brand belonged in San Saba County; he knew it well, the X--2. Well, it wasn't long until our men afoot got a remount and only two horses shy on the first round. We could stand another on the same terms in case they attacked us. We rode out on a little hill about a quarter-mile from their wagon, scattering out so as not to give them a pot shot, in case they wanted to renew the unpleasantness.
"When they saw us there, one fellow started toward us, waving his handkerchief. We began speculating which one it was, but soon made him out to be the cook; his occupation kept him out of the first round. When he came within a hundred yards, I rode out and met him. He offered me his hand and said, 'We are in a bad fix. Two of our crowd have bad flesh wounds. Do you suppose we could get any whiskey back at this Indian trader's store?'
"If there is any man in this territory can get any I can if they have it,' I told him. 'Besides, if your lay-out has had all the satisfaction fighting they want, we'll turn to and give you a lift. It seems like you all have some dead men over back here. They will have to be planted. So if your outfit feel as though you had your belly-full of fighting for the present, consider us at your service. You're the cook, ain't you?"
"Yes,> sir," he answered. "Are all three dead?" he then inquired.
"Dead as heck," I told him.
"Well, we are certainly in a bad box,' said he meditatingly. 'But won't you all ride over to our wagon with me? I think our fellows are pacified for the present."
"I motioned to our crowd, and we all rode over to their wagon with him. There wasn't a gun in sight. The ragged edge of despair don't describe them. I made them a little talk; told them that their boss had cashed in, back over the hill; also if there was any segundo in their outfit, the position of big augur was open to him, and we were at his service.
"There wasn't a man among them that had any sense left but the cook. He told me to take charge of the killed, and if I could rustle a little whiskey to do so. So I told the cook to empty out his wagon, and we would take the dead ones back, make boxes for them, and bury them at the store. Then I sent three of my men back to the store to have the boxes ready and dig the graves. Before these three rode away, I said, aside to Jim, who was one of them, 'Don't bother about any whiskey; branch water is plenty nourishing for the wounded. It would be a sin and shame to waste good liquor on plafry like them.'
"The balance of us went over to the field of carnage and stripped the saddles off their dead horses, and arranged the departed in a row, covering them with saddle blankets, pending the planting act. I sent part of my boys with our wagon to look after our own cattle for the day. It took us all the afternoon to clean up a minute's work in the morning.
"I never like to refer to it. Fact was, all the boys felt gloomy for weeks, but there was no avoiding it. Two months later, we met old man Andy, way up at Fort Laramie on the North Platte. He was tickled to death to meet us all. The herd had come through in fine condition. We never told him anything about this until the cattle were delivered, and we were celebrating the success of that drive at a near-by town.
"Big Dick told him about this incident, and the old man feeling his oats, as he leaned with his back against the bar, said to us with a noticeable degree of pride, 'Lads, I'm proud of every one of you. Men who will fight to protect my interests has my purse at their command. This year's drive has been a success. Next year we will drive twice as many. I want every rascal of you to work for me. You all know how I mount, feed, and pay my men, and as long as my name is Erath and I own a cow, you can count on a job with me.''
"But why did you take them back to the sand-hills to bury them?" cut in Lucy.
"Oh, that was Big Dick's idea. He thought the sand would dig easier, and laziness guided every act of his life. That was five years ago, son, that this lower trail was made, and for the reasons I have just given you. No, I can't tell you any more personal experiences to-night; I'm too sleepy."