All In The Day's Work

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?"

All Heroes But One All This War-talk About Injuns facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail