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Fort Buford

From: The Outlet

We were at our rope's end. There were a few accounts to settle in
Glendive, after which we would shake its dust from our feet. Very few
of the quarantine guards returned to town, and with the exception of
Sheriff Wherry, none of the leading cowmen, all having ridden direct
for their ranches. Long before the train arrived which would carry us to
Little Missouri, the opposition herds appeared and crossed the railroad
west of town. Their commissaries entered the village for supplies, while
the "major-domo," surrounded by a body-guard of men, rode about on his
miserable palfrey. The sheriff, fearing a clash between the victorious
and the vanquished, kept an eye on Sponsilier and me as we walked the
streets, freely expressing our contempt of Field, Radcliff & Co., their
henchmen and their methods. Dave and I were both nerved to desperation;
Sheriff Wherry, anxious to prevent a conflict, counciled with the
opposition drovers, resulting in their outfits leaving town, while the
principals took stage across to Buford.

Meanwhile Sponsilier had wired full particulars to our employer at Big
Horn. It was hardly necessary, as the frost no doubt was general all
over Montana, but we were anxious to get into communication with Lovell
immediately on his return to the railroad. We had written him from
Miles of our failure at Powderville, and the expected second stand at
Glendive, and now the elements had notified him that the opposition
herds were within striking distance, and would no doubt appear at Buford
on or before the day of delivery. An irritable man like our employer
would neither eat nor sleep, once the delivery at the Crow Agency was
over, until reaching the railroad, and our message would be awaiting him
on his return to Big Horn. Our train reached Little Missouri early in
the evening, and leaving word with the agent that we were expecting
important messages from the west, we visited the liveryman and inquired
about the welfare of our horses. The proprietor of the stable informed
us that they had fared well, and that he would have them ready for us on
an hour's notice. It was after dark and we were at supper when the first
message came. An immediate answer was required, and arising from the
table, we left our meal unfinished and hastened to the depot. From then
until midnight, messages flashed back and forth, Sponsilier dictating
while I wrote. As there was no train before the regular passenger the
next day, the last wire requested us to have the horses ready to meet
the Eastbound, saying that Bob Quirk would accompany Lovell.

That night it frosted again. Sponsilier and I slept until noon the next
day without awakening. Then the horses were brought in from pasture, and
preparation was made to leave that evening. It was in the neighborhood
of ninety miles across to the mouth of the Yellowstone, and the chances
were that we would ride it without unsaddling. The horses had had a two
weeks' rest, and if our employer insisted on it, we would breakfast with
the herds the next morning. I was anxious to see the cattle again and
rejoin my outfit, but like a watched pot, the train was an hour late.
Sponsilier and I took advantage of the delay and fortified the inner
man against the night and the ride before us. This proved fortunate, as
Lovell and my brother had supper en route in the dining-car. A running
series of questions were asked and answered; saddles were shaken out of
gunny-sacks and cinched on waiting horses as though we were starting
to a prairie fire. Bob Quirk's cattle had reached the Crow Agency in
splendid condition, the delivery was effected without a word, and old
man Don was in possession of a letter from Flood, saying everything had
passed smoothly at the Rosebud Agency.

Contrary to the expectation of Sponsilier and myself, our employer was
in a good humor, fairly walking on the clouds over the success of his
two first deliveries of the year. But amid the bustle and rush, in view
of another frosty night, Sponsilier inquired if it would not be a good
idea to fortify against the chill, by taking along a bottle of brandy.
"Yes, two of them if you want to," said old man Don, in good-humored
approval. "Here, Tom, fork this horse and take the pitch out of him," he
continued; "I don't like the look of his eye." But before I could reach
the horse, one of my own string, Bob Quirk had mounted him, when in
testimony of the nutritive qualities of Dakota's grasses, he arched his
spine like a true Texan and outlined a worm-fence in bucking a circle.

The start was made during the gathering dusk. Sponsilier further
lifted the spirits of our employer, as we rode along, by a clear-cut
description of the opposition cattle, declaring that had they ever
equaled ours, the handling they had received since leaving Ogalalla,
compared to his, would class them with short twos in the spring against
long threes in the fall. Within an hour the stars shone out, and after
following the river some ten miles, we bore directly north until
Beaver Creek was reached near midnight. The pace was set at about an
eight-mile, steady clip, with an occasional halt to tighten cinches or
shift saddles. The horses were capable of a faster gait without tiring,
but we were not sure of the route and were saving them for the finish
after daybreak. Early in the night we were conscious that a frost was
falling, and several times Sponsilier inquired if no one cared for a nip
from his bottle. Bob Quirk started the joke on Dave by declining; old
man Don uncorked the flask, and, after smelling of the contents, handed
it back with his thanks. I caught onto their banter, and not wishing
to spoil a good jest, also declined, leaving Sponsilier to drink alone.
During the night, whenever conversation lagged, some one was certain to
make reference to the remarks which are said to have passed between the
governors of the Carolinas, or if that failed to provoke a rise, ask
direct if no one had something to ward off the chilly air. After being
refused several times, Dave had thrown the bottle away, meeting these
jests with the reply that he had a private flask, but its quality was
such that he was afraid of offending our cultivated tastes by asking us
to join him.

Day broke about five in the morning. We had been in the saddle nearly
ten hours, and were confident that sunrise would reveal some landmark to
identify our location. The atmosphere was frosty and clear, and once the
gray of dawn yielded to the rising sun, the outline of the Yellowstone
was easily traced on our left, while the bluffs in our front shielded
a view of the mother Missouri. In attempting to approach the latter we
encountered some rough country and were compelled to turn towards the
former, crossing it, at O'Brien's roadhouse, some seven miles above the
mouth. The husbanded reserves of our horses were shaken out, and shortly
afterward smoke-clouds from camp-fires, hanging low, attracted our
attention. The herds were soon located as they arose and grazed away
from their bed-grounds. The outfits were encamped on the eastern side of
the Yellowstone; and before leaving the government road, we sighted in
our front a flag ascending to greet the morning, and the location of
Fort Buford was established. Turning towards the cattle, we rode for the
lower wagon and were soon unsaddling at Forrest's camp. The latter
had arrived two days before and visited the post; he told us that
the opposition were there in force, as well as our own attorneys. The
arrival of the cattle under contract for that military division was the
main topic of discussion, and Forrest had even met a number of civilian
employees of Fort Buford whose duties were to look after the government
beeves. The foreman of these unenlisted attaches, a Texan named Sanders,
had casually ridden past his camp the day before, looking over the
cattle, and had pronounced them the finest lot of beeves tendered the
government since his connection with that post.

"That's good news," said Lovell, as he threw his saddle astride the
front wheel of the wagon; "that's the way I like to hear my cattle
spoken about. Now, you boys want to make friends with all those
civilians, and my attorneys and Bob and I will hobnob around with the
officers, and try and win the good will of the entire post. You want to
change your camp every few days and give your cattle good grazing and
let them speak for themselves. Better kill a beef among the outfits, and
insist on all callers staying for meals. We're strangers here, and we
want to make a good impression, and show the public that we were born
white, even if we do handle cattle for a living. Quince, tie up the
horses for us, and after breakfast Bob and I will look over the herds
and then ride into Fort Buford.--Trout for breakfast? You don't mean

It was true, however, and our appetites did them justice. Forrest
reported Splann as having arrived a day late, and now encamped the last
herd up the valley. Taking our horses with us, Dave and I set out
to look up our herds and resume our former positions. I rode through
Sponsilier's cattle while en route to my own, and remembered the first
impression they had made on my mind,--their uniformity in size and
smoothness of build,--and now found them fatted into finished form, the
herd being a credit to any drover. Continuing on my way, I intercepted
my own cattle, lying down over hundreds of acres, and so contented
that I refused to disturb them. Splann reported not over half a dozen
sore-footed ones among them, having grazed the entire distance from
Little Missouri, giving the tender cattle a good chance to recover. I
held a circle of listeners for several hours, in recounting Sponsilier's
and my own experiences in the quarantine camps, and our utter final
failure, except that the opposition herds had been detained, which would
force them to drive over twenty miles a day in order to reach Buford on
time. On the other hand, an incident of more than ordinary moment had
occurred with the cattle some ten days previous. The slow movement of
the grazing herds allowed a great amount of freedom to the boys and was
taken advantage of at every opportunity. It seems that on approaching
Beaver Creek, Owen Ubery and Runt Pickett had ridden across to it for
the purpose of trout-fishing. They were gone all day, having struck the
creek some ten or twelve miles west of the cattle, expecting to fish
down it and overtake the herds during the evening. But about noon they
discovered where a wagon had been burned, years before, and near by were
five human skeletons, evidently a family. It was possibly the work of
Indians, or a blizzard, and to prove the discovery, Pickett had brought
in one of the skulls and proposed taking it home with him as a memento
of the drive. Parent objected to having the reminder in the wagon, and a
row resulted between them, till Splann interfered and threw the gruesome
relic away.

The next morning a dozen of us from the three herds rode into the post.
Fort Buford was not only a military headquarters, but a supply depot
for other posts farther west on the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers.
The nearest railroad connection was Glendive, seventy-six miles up the
latter stream, though steamboats took advantage of freshets in the river
to transport immense supplies from lower points on the Missouri where
there were rail connections. From Buford westward, transportation was
effected by boats of lighter draft and the regulation wagon train. It
was recognized as one of the most important supply posts in the West; as
early as five years previous to this date, it had received in a single
summer as many as ten thousand beeves. Its provision for cavalry was
one of its boasted features, immense stacks of forage flanking those
quarters, while the infantry barracks and officers' quarters were large
and comfortable. A stirring little town had sprung up on the outside,
affording the citizens employment in wood and hay contracts, and
becoming the home of a large number of civilian employees, the post
being the mainstay of the village.

After settling our quarantine bills, Sponsilier and I each had money
left. Our employer refused even to look at our expense bills until
after the delivery, but urged us to use freely any remaining funds in
cultivating the good will of the citizens and soldiery alike. Forrest
was accordingly supplied with funds, with the understanding that he was
to hunt up Sanders and his outfit and show them a good time. The beef
foreman was soon located in the quartermaster's office, and, having been
connected with the post for several years, knew the ropes. He had come
to Buford with Texas cattle, and after their delivery had accepted
a situation under the acting quartermaster, easily rising to the
foremanship through his superior abilities as a cowman. It was like a
meeting of long-lost brothers to mingle again with a cow outfit, and
the sutler's bar did a flourishing business during our stay in the post.
There were ten men in Sanders's outfit, several of whom besides himself
were Texans, and before we parted, every rascal had promised to visit us
the next day and look over all the cattle.

The next morning Bob Quirk put in an early appearance at my wagon. He
had passed the other outfits, and notified us all to have the cattle
under convenient herd, properly watered in advance, as the post
commandant, quartermaster, and a party of minor officers were going to
ride out that afternoon and inspect our beeves. Lovell, of course, would
accompany them, and Bob reported him as having made a ten-strike with
the officers' mess, not being afraid to spend his money. Fortunately the
present quartermaster at Buford was a former acquaintance of Lovell,
the two having had business transactions. The quartermaster had been
connected with frontier posts from Fort Clark, Texas, to his present
position. According to report, the opposition were active and waging an
aggressive campaign, but not being Western men, were at a disadvantage.
Champagne had flowed freely at a dinner given the night before by our
employer, during which Senator Aspgrain, in responding to a toast, had
paid the army a high tribute for the part it had played in reclaiming
the last of our western frontier. The quartermaster, in replying, had
felicitously remarked, as a matter of his own observation, that the
Californian's love for a horse was only excelled by the Texan's love for
a cow, to which, amid uproarious laughter, old man Don arose and bowed
his acknowledgment.

My brother changed horses and returned to Sponsilier's wagon. Dave had
planned to entertain the post beef outfit for dinner, and had insisted
on Bob's presence. They arrived at my herd near the middle of the
forenoon, and after showing the cattle and remuda, we all returned to
Sponsilier's camp. These civilian employees furnished their own mounts,
and were anxious to buy a number of our best horses after the delivery
was over. Not even a whisper was breathed about any uncertainty of our
filling the outstanding contract, yet Sanders was given to understand
that Don Lovell would rather, if he took a fancy to him, give a man a
horse than sell him one. Not a word was said about any opposition to our
herds; that would come later, and Sanders and his outfit were too good
judges of Texas cattle to be misled by any bluster or boastful talk.
Sponsilier acted the host, and after dinner unearthed a box of cigars,
and we told stories and talked of our homes in the sunny South until
the arrival of the military party. The herds had been well watered
about noon and drifted out on the first uplands, and we intercepted the
cavalcade before it reached Sponsilier's herd. They were mounted on
fine cavalry horses, and the only greeting which passed, aside from a
military salute, was when Lovell said: "Dave, show these officers your
beeves. Answer any question they may ask to the best of your ability.
Gentlemen, excuse me while you look over the cattle."

There were about a dozen military men in the party, some of them
veterans of the civil war, others having spent their lifetime on our
western frontier, while a few were seeing their first year's service
after leaving West Point. In looking over the cattle, the post commander
and quartermaster were taken under the wing of Sanders, who, as only
a man could who was born to the occupation, called their attention to
every fine point about the beeves. After spending fully an hour with
Sponsilier's herd, the cavalcade proceeded on to mine, Lovell rejoining
the party, but never once attempting to draw out an opinion, and again
excusing himself on reaching my cattle. I continued with the military,
answering every one's questions, from the young lieutenant's to
the veteran commandant's, in which I was ably seconded by the
quartermaster's foreman. My cattle had a splendid fill on them and
eloquently spoke their own praises, yet Sanders lost no opportunity to
enter a clincher in their favor. He pointed out beef after beef, and
vouched for the pounds net they would dress, called attention to their
sameness in build, ages, and general thrift, until one would have
supposed that he was a salesman instead of a civilian employee.

My herd was fully ten miles from the post, and it was necessary for the
military to return that evening. Don Lovell and a number of the boys had
halted at a distance, and once the inspection was over, we turned and
rode back to the waiting group of horsemen. On coming up, a number of
the officers dismounted to shift saddles, preparatory to starting on
their return, when the quartermaster halted near our employer and said:

"Colonel Lovell, let me say to you, in all sincerity, that in my
twenty-five years' experience on this frontier, I never saw a finer
lot of beeves tendered the government than these of yours. My position
requires that I should have a fair knowledge of beef cattle, and the
perquisites of my office in a post of Buford's class enable me to employ
the best practical men available to perfect the service. I remember
the quality of cattle which you delivered four years ago to me at Fort
Randall, when it was a six-company post, yet they were not as fine a lot
of beeves as these are. I have always contended that there was nothing
too good in my department for the men who uphold the colors of our
country, especially on the front line. You have been a soldier yourself
and know that I am talking good horsesense, and I want to say to you
that whatever the outcome of this dispute may be, if yours are the best
cattle, you may count on my support until the drums beat tattoo. The
government is liberal and insists on the best; the rank and file are
worthy, and yet we don't always get what is ordered and well paid for.
Now, remember, comrade, if this difference comes to an issue, I'm right
behind you, and we'll stand or be turned down together."

"Thank you, Colonel," replied Mr. Lovell. "It does seem rather
fortunate, my meeting up with a former business acquaintance, and at
a time when I need him bad. If I am successful in delivering on this
Buford award, it will round out, during my fifteen years as a drover,
over a hundred thousand cattle that I have sold to the government for
its Indian and army departments. There are no secrets in my business;
the reason of my success is simple--my cattle were always there on the
appointed day, humanely handled, and generally just a shade better than
the specifications. My home country has the cattle for sale; I can tell
within two bits a head what it will cost to lay them down here, and it's
music to my ear to hear you insist on the best. I agree with you that
the firing-line is entitled to special consideration, yet you know that
there are ringsters who fatten at the expense of the rank and file. At
present I haven't a word to say, but at noon to-morrow I shall tender
the post commander at Ford Buford, through his quartermaster, ten
thousand beeves, as a sub-contractor on the original award to The
Western Supply Company." The post commander, an elderly, white-haired
officer, rode over and smilingly said: "Now, look here, my Texas friend,
I'm afraid you are borrowing trouble. True enough, there has been a
protest made against our receiving your beeves, and I don't mince my
words in saying that some hard things have been said about you. But we
happen to know something about your reputation and don't give credit for
all that is said. Your beeves are an eloquent argument in your favor,
and if I were you I wouldn't worry. It is always a good idea in this
Western country to make a proviso; and unless the unforeseen happens,
the quartermaster's cattle foreman will count your beeves to-morrow
afternoon; and for the sake of your company, if we keep you a day or two
longer settling up, I don't want to hear you kick. Now, come on and go
back with us to the post, as I promised my wife to bring you over to our
house this evening. She seems to think that a man from Texas with ten
thousand cattle ought to have horns, and I want to show her that she's
mistaken. Come on, now, and not a damned word of protest out of you."

The military party started on their return, accompanied by Lovell. The
civilian attaches followed at a respectful distance, a number of us
joining them as far as Sponsilier's camp. There we halted, when Sanders
insisted on an explanation of the remarks which had passed between our
employer and his. Being once more among his own, he felt no delicacy
in asking for information--which he would never think of doing with his
superiors. My brother gave him a true version of the situation, but it
remained for Dave Sponsilier to add an outline of the opposition herds
and outfits.

"With humane treatment," said Dave, "the cattle would have qualified
under the specifications. They were bought at Ogalalla, and any of the
boys here will tell you that the first one was a good herd. The market
was all shot to pieces, and they picked them up at their own price. But
the owners didn't have cow-sense enough to handle the cattle, and put
one of their own gang over the herds as superintendent. They left Cabin
Creek, below Glendive, on the morning of the 10th, and they'll have
to travel nearly twenty miles a day to reach here by noon to-morrow.
Sanders, you know that gait will soon kill heavy cattle. The outfits
were made up of short-card men and dance-hall ornaments, wild enough to
look at, but shy on cattle sabe. Just so they showed up bad and wore a
six-shooter, that was enough to win a home with Field and Radcliff.
If they reach here on time, I'll gamble there ain't ten horses in the
entire outfit that don't carry a nigger brand. And when it comes to the
big conversation--well, they've simply got the earth faded."

It was nearly sundown when we mounted our horses and separated for the
day. Bob Quirk returned to the post with the civilians, while I hastened
back to my wagon. I had left orders with Splann to water the herd a
second time during the evening and thus insure an easy night in holding
the cattle. On my return, they were just grazing out from the river,
their front a mile wide, making a pretty picture with the Yellowstone
in the background. But as I sat my horse and in retrospect reviewed my
connection with the cattle before me and the prospect of soon severing
it, my remuda came over a near-by hill in a swinging trot for their
second drink. Levering threw them into the river below the herd, and
turning, galloped up to me and breathlessly asked: "Tom, did you see
that dust-cloud up the river? Well, the other cattle are coming. The
timber cuts off your view from here, besides the sun's gone down, but I
watched their signal for half an hour from that second hill yonder.
Oh, it's cattle all right; I know the sign, even if they are ten miles

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