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All In The Day's Work

From: The Outlet

The next morning the herds moved out like brigades of an army on
dress-parade. Our front covered some six or seven miles, the Buford
cattle in the lead, while those intended for Indian delivery naturally
fell into position on flank and rear. My beeves had enjoyed a splendid
rest during the past week, and now easily took the lead in a steady
walk, every herd avoiding the trail until necessity compelled us to
reenter it. The old pathway was dusty and merely pointed the way, and
until rain fell to settle it, our intention was to give it a wide berth.
As the morning wore on and the herds drew farther and farther apart,
except for the dim dust-clouds of ten thousand trampling feet on a raw
prairie, it would have been difficult for us to establish each other's
location. Several times during the forenoon, when a swell of the plain
afforded us a temporary westward view, we caught glimpses of Forrest's
cattle as they snailed forward, fully five miles distant and barely
noticeable under the low sky-line. The Indian herds had given us a good
start in the morning, and towards evening as the mirages lifted, not a
dust-signal was in sight, save one far in our lead.

The month of June, so far, had been exceedingly droughty. The scarcity
of water on the plains between Dodge and Ogalalla was the dread of every
trail drover. The grass, on the other hand, had matured from the first
rank growth of early spring into a forage, rich in sustenance, from
which our beeves took on flesh and rounded into beauties. Lack of water
being the one drawback, long drives, not in miles but hours, became the
order of the day; from four in the morning to eight at night, even at
an ox's pace, leaves every landmark of the day far in the rear at
nightfall. Thus for the next few days we moved forward, the monotony
of existence broken only by the great variety of mirage, the glare of
heat-waves, and the silent signal in the sky of other voyageurs like
ourselves. On reaching Pig Boggy, nothing but pools greeted us, while
the regular crossing was dry and dusty and paved with cattle bones. My
curiosity was strong enough to cause me to revisit the old bridge which
I had helped to build two seasons before; though unused, it was still
intact, a credit to the crude engineering of Pete Slaughter. After
leaving the valley of the Solomon, the next running water was Pawnee
Fork, where we overtook and passed six thousand yearling heifers in two
herds, sold the winter before by John Blocker for delivery in
Montana. The Northwest had not yet learned that Texas was the natural
breeding-ground for cattle, yet under favorable conditions in both
sections, the ranchman of the South could raise one third more calves
from an equal number of cows.

The weather continued hot and sultry. Several times storms hung on our
left for hours which we hoped would reach us, and at night the lightning
flickered in sheets, yet with the exception of cooling the air, availed
us nothing. But as we encamped one night on the divide before reaching
the Smoky River, a storm struck us that sent terror to our hearts. There
were men in my outfit, and others in Lovell's employ, who were from ten
to twenty years my senior, having spent almost their lifetime in the
open, who had never before witnessed such a night. The atmosphere seemed
to be overcharged with electricity, which played its pranks among us,
neither man nor beast being exempt. The storm struck the divide about
two hours after the cattle had been bedded, and from then until dawn
every man was in the saddle, the herd drifting fully three miles during
the night. Such keen flashes of lightning accompanied by instant thunder
I had never before witnessed, though the rainfall, after the first dash,
was light in quantity. Several times the rain ceased entirely, when the
phosphorus, like a prairie fire, appeared on every hand. Great sheets of
it flickered about, the cattle and saddle stock were soon covered, while
every bit of metal on our accoutrements was coated and twinkling with
phosphorescent light. My gauntlets were covered, and wherever I touched
myself, it seemed to smear and spread and refuse to wipe out. Several
times we were able to hold up and quiet the cattle, but along their
backs flickered the ghostly light, while across the herd, which occupied
acres, it reminded one of the burning lake in the regions infernal. As
the night wore on, several showers fell, accompanied by almost incessant
bolts of lightning, but the rainfall only added moisture to the ground
and this acted like fuel in reviving the phosphor. Several hours before
dawn, great sheets of the fiery elements chased each other across the
northern sky, lighting up our surroundings until one could have read
ordinary print. The cattle stood humped or took an occasional step
forward, the men sat their horses, sullen and morose, forming new
resolutions for the future, in which trail work was not included. But
morning came at last, cool and cloudy, a slight recompense for the heat
which we had endured since leaving Dodge.

With the breaking of day, the herd was turned back on its course. For an
hour or more the cattle grazed freely, and as the sun broke through the
clouds, they dropped down like tired infantry on a march, and we allowed
them an hour's rest. We were still some three or four miles eastward
of the trail, and after breakfasting and changing mounts we roused the
cattle and started on an angle for the trail, expecting to intercept it
before noon. There was some settlement in the Smoky River Valley which
must be avoided, as in years past serious enmity had been engendered
between settlers and drovers in consequence of the ravages of Texas
fever among native cattle. I was riding on the left point, and when
within a short distance of the trail, one of the boys called my
attention to a loose herd of cattle, drifting south and fully two miles
to the west of us. It was certainly something unusual, and as every man
of us scanned them, a lone horseman was seen to ride across their
front, and, turning them, continue on for our herd. The situation was
bewildering, as the natural course of every herd was northward, but here
was one apparently abandoned like a water-logged ship at sea.

The messenger was a picture of despair. He proved to be the owner of the
abandoned cattle, and had come to us with an appeal for help. According
to his story, he was a Northern cowman and had purchased the cattle a
few days before in Dodge. He had bought the outfit complete, with the
understanding that the through help would continue in his service until
his range in Wyoming was reached. But it was a Mexican outfit, foreman
and all, and during the storm of the night before, one of the men had
been killed by lightning. The accident must have occurred near dawn,
as the man was not missed until daybreak, and like ours, his cattle had
drifted with the storm. Some time was lost in finding the body, and to
add to the panic that had already stricken the outfit, the shirt of the
unfortunate vaquero was burnt from the corpse. The horse had escaped
scathless, though his rider met death, while the housings were stripped
from the saddle so that it fell from the animal. The Mexican foreman
and vaqueros had thrown their hands in the air; steeped in superstition,
they considered the loss of their comrade a bad omen, and refused to go
farther. The herd was as good as abandoned unless we could lend a hand.

The appeal was not in vain. Detailing four of my men, and leaving Jack
Splann as segundo in charge of our cattle, I galloped away with the
stranger. As we rode the short distance between the two herds and I
mentally reviewed the situation, I could not help but think it was
fortunate for the alien outfit that their employer was a Northern cowman
instead of a Texan. Had the present owner been of the latter school,
there would have been more than one dead Mexican before a valuable
herd would have been abandoned over an unavoidable accident. I kept my
thoughts to myself, however, for the man had troubles enough, and on
reaching his drifting herd, we turned them back on their course. It was
high noon when we reached his wagon and found the Mexican outfit still
keening over their dead comrade. We pushed the cattle, a mixed herd
of about twenty-five hundred, well past the camp, and riding back,
dismounted among the howling vaqueros. There was not the semblance of
sanity among them. The foreman, who could speak some little English,
at least his employer declared he could, was carrying on like a madman,
while a majority of the vaqueros were playing a close second. The dead
man had been carried in and was lying under a tarpaulin in the shade
of the wagon. Feeling that my boys would stand behind me, and never
offering to look at the corpse, I inquired in Spanish of the vaqueros
which one of the men was their corporal. A heavy-set, bearded man was
pointed out, and walking up to him, with one hand I slapped him in the
face and with the other relieved him of a six-shooter. He staggered
back, turned ashen pale, and before he could recover from the surprise,
in his own tongue I berated him as a worthless cur for deserting his
employer over an accident. Following up the temporary advantage, I
inquired for the cook and horse-wrangler, and intimated clearly that
there would be other dead Mexicans if the men were not fed and the herd
and saddle stock looked after; that they were not worthy of the name of
vaqueros if they were lax in a duty with which they had been intrusted.

"But Pablo is dead," piped one of the vaqueros in defense.

"Yes, he is," said G--G Cederdall in Spanish, bristling up to the
vaquero who had volunteered the reply; "and we'll bury him and a
half-dozen more of you if necessary, but the cattle will not be
abandoned--not for a single hour. Pablo is dead, but he was no better
than a hundred other men who have lost their lives on this trail. If you
are a lot of locoed sheep-herders instead of vaqueros, why didn't you
stay at home with the children instead of starting out to do a man's
work. Desert your employer, will you? Not in a country where there is no
chance to pick up other men. Yes, Pablo is dead, and we'll bury him."

The aliens were disconcerted, and wilted. The owner picked up courage
and ordered the cook to prepare dinner. We loaned our horses to the
wrangler and another man, the remuda was brought in, and before we sat
down to the midday meal, every vaquero had a horse under saddle, while
two of them had ridden away to look after the grazing cattle. With order
restored, we set about systematically to lay away the unfortunate man.
A detail of vaqueros under Cederdall prepared a grave on the nearest
knoll, and wrapping the corpse in a tarpaulin, we buried him like a
sailor at sea. Several vaqueros were visibly affected at the graveside,
and in order to pacify them, I suggested that we unload the wagon of
supplies and haul up a load of rock from a near-by outcropping ledge.
Pablo had fallen like a good soldier at his post, I urged, and it was
befitting that his comrades should mark his last resting-place. To
our agreeable surprise the corporal hurrahed his men and the wagon was
unloaded in a jiffy and dispatched after a load of rock. On its return,
we spent an hour in decorating the mound, during which time lament was
expressed for the future of Pablo's soul. Knowing the almost universal
faith of this alien race, as we stood around the finished mound,
Cederdall, who was Catholic born, called for contributions to procure
the absolution of the Church. The owner of the cattle was the first to
respond, and with the aid of my boys and myself, augmented later by the
vaqueros, a purse of over fifty dollars was raised and placed in charge
of the corporal, to be expended in a private mass on their return to San
Antonio. Meanwhile the herd and saddle stock had started, and reloading
the wagon, we cast a last glance at the little mound which made a new
landmark on the old trail.

The owner of the cattle was elated over the restoration of order. My
contempt for him, however, had not decreased; the old maxim of fools
rushing in where angels feared to tread had only been again exemplified.
The inferior races may lack in courage and leadership, but never in
cunning and craftiness. This alien outfit had detected some weakness
in the armor of their new employer, and when the emergency arose, were
ready to take advantage of the situation. Yet under an old patron, these
same men would never dare to mutiny or assert themselves. That there
were possible breakers ahead for this cowman there was no doubt; for
every day that those Mexicans traveled into a strange country,
their Aztec blood would yearn for their Southern home. And since the
unforeseen could not be guarded against, at the first opportunity I
warned the stranger that it was altogether too soon to shout. To his
anxious inquiries I replied that his very presence with the herd was a
menace to its successful handling by the Mexican outfit. He should throw
all responsibility on the foreman, or take charge himself, which was
impossible now; for an outfit which will sulk and mutiny once will do
so again under less provocation. When my curtain lecture was ended,
the owner authorized me to call his outfit together and give them such
instructions as I saw fit.

We sighted our cattle but once during the afternoon. On locating the
herd, two of my boys left us to return, hearing the message that the
rest of us might not put in an appearance before morning. All during
the evening, I made it a point to cultivate the acquaintance of several
vaqueros, and learned the names of their master and rancho. Taking my
cue from the general information gathered, when we encamped for the
night and all hands, with the exception of those on herd, had
finished catching horses, I attracted their attention by returning the
six-shooter taken from their corporal at noontime. Commanding attention,
in their mother tongue I addressed myself to the Mexican foreman.

"Felipe Esquibil," said I, looking him boldly in the face, "you were
foreman of this herd from Zavalla County, Texas, to the Arkansaw River,
and brought your cattle through without loss or accident.

"The herd changed owners at Dodge, but with the understanding that you
and your vaqueros were to accompany the cattle to this gentleman's ranch
in the upper country. An accident happens, and because you are not in
full control, you shift the responsibility and play the baby act by
wanting to go home. Had the death of one of your men occurred below
the river, and while the herd was still the property of Don Dionisio of
Rancho Los Olmus, you would have lost your own life before abandoning
your cattle. Now, with the consent and approval of the new owner, you
are again invested with full charge of this herd until you arrive at the
Platte River. A new outfit will relieve you on reaching Ogalalla, and
then you will be paid your reckoning and all go home. In your immediate
rear are five herds belonging to my employer, and I have already sent
warning to them of your attempted desertion. A fortnight or less
will find you relieved, and the only safety in store for you is to go
forward. Now your employer is going to my camp for the night, and may
not see you again before this herd reaches the Platte. Remember, Don
Felipe, that the opportunity is yours to regain your prestige as
a corporal--and you need it after to-day's actions. What would Don
Dionisio say if he knew the truth? And do you ever expect to face
your friends again at Los Olmus? From a trusted corporal back to a
sheep-shearer would be your reward--and justly."

Cederdall, Wolf, and myself shook hands with several vaqueros, and
mounting our horses we started for my camp, taking the stranger with us.
Only once did he offer any protest to going. "Very well, then," replied
G--G, unable to suppress his contempt, "go right back. I'll gamble that
you sheathe a knife before morning if you do. It strikes me you don't
sabe Mexicans very much."

Around the camp-fire that night, the day's work was reviewed. My rather
drastic treatment of the corporal was fully commented upon and approved
by the outfit, yet provoked an inquiry from the irrepressible Parent.
Turning to the questioner, Burl Van Vedder said in dove-like tones:
"Yes, dear, slapped him just to remind the varmint that his feet were
on the earth, and that pawing the air and keening didn't do any good.
Remember, love, there was the living to be fed, the dead to bury,
and the work in hand required every man to do his duty. Now was there
anything else you'd like to know?"

Next: Marshaling The Forces

Previous: A Family Reunion

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