Crossing The Niobrara

The parting of the ways was reached. On the morning of July 12, the

different outfits in charge of Lovell's drive in '84 started on three

angles of the compass for their final destination. The Rosebud Agency,

where Flood's herd was to be delivered on September 1, lay to the

northeast in Dakota. The route was not direct, and the herd would be

forced to make quite an elbow, touching on the different forks of the

Loup in order to secure water. The Rebel and my brother would follow up

on the south side of the North Platte until near old Fort Laramie, when

their routes would separate, the latter turning north for Montana,

while Priest would continue along the same watercourse to within a short

distance of his destination. The Buford herds would strike due north

from the first tributary putting in from above, which we would intercept

the second morning out.

An early start was the order of the day. My beeves were pushed from the

bed-ground with the first sign of dawn, and when the relief overtook

them, they were several miles back from the river and holding a

northwest course. My camp being the lowest one on the North Fork,

Forrest and Sponsilier, also starting at daybreak, naturally took the

lead, the latter having fully a five-mile start over my outfit. But as

we left the valley and came up on the mesa, there on an angle in our

front, Flood's herd snailed along like an army brigade, anxious to

dispute our advance. The point-men veered our cattle slightly to the

left, and as the drag-end of Flood's beeves passed before us, standing

in our stirrups we waved our hats in farewell to the lads, starting on

their last tack for the Rosebud Agency. Across the river were the dim

outlines of two herds trailing upstream, being distinguishable from

numerous others by the dust-clouds which marked the moving from the

grazing cattle. The course of the North Platte was southwest, and on the

direction which we were holding, we would strike the river again during

the afternoon at a bend some ten or twelve miles above.

Near the middle of the forenoon we were met by Hugh Morris. He was

discouraged, as it was well known now that his cattle would be tendered

in competition with ours at Fort Buford. There was no comparison between

the beeves, ours being much larger, more uniform in weight, and in

better flesh. He looked over both Forrest's and Sponsilier's herds

before meeting us, and was good enough judge of cattle to know that

his stood no chance against ours, if they were to be received on their

merits. We talked matters over for fully an hour, and I advised him

never to leave Keith County until the last dollar in payment for

his beeves was in hand. Morris thought this was quite possible, as

information had reached him that the buyers had recently purchased a

remuda, and now, since they had failed to take possession of two of

Lovell's herds, it remained to be seen what the next move would be. He

thought it quite likely, though, that a settlement could be effected

whereby he would be relieved at Ogalalla. Mutually hoping that all would

turn out well, we parted until our paths should cross again.

We intercepted the North Fork again during the afternoon, watering from

it for the last time, and the next morning struck the Blue River, the

expected tributary. Sponsilier maintained his position in the lead, but

I was certain when we reached the source of the Blue, David would fall

to the rear, as thenceforth there was neither trail nor trace, map nor

compass. The year before, Forrest and I had been over the route to the

Pine Ridge Agency, and one or the other of us must take the lead

across a dry country between the present stream and tributaries of the

Niobrara. The Blue possessed the attributes of a river in name only, and

the third day up it, Sponsilier crossed the tributary to allow either

Forrest or myself to take the lead. Quince professed a remarkable

ignorance and faulty memory as to the topography of the country between

the Blue and Niobrara, and threw bouquets at me regarding my ability

always to find water. It is true that I had gone and returned across

this arid belt the year before, but on the back trip it was late in the

fall, and we were making forty miles a day with nothing but a wagon

and remuda, water being the least of my troubles. But a compromise was

effected whereby we would both ride out the country anew, leaving the

herds to lie over on the head waters of the Blue River. There were

several shallow lakes in the intervening country, and on finding the

first one sufficient to our needs, the herds were brought up, and we

scouted again in advance. The abundance of antelope was accepted as an

assurance of water, and on recognizing certain landmarks, I agreed to

take the lead thereafter, and we turned back. The seventh day out from

the Blue, the Box Buttes were sighted, at the foot of which ran a

creek by the same name, and an affluent of the Niobrara. Contrary to

expectations, water was even more plentiful than the year before, and

we grazed nearly the entire distance. The antelope were unusually tame;

with six-shooters we killed quite a number by flagging, or using a

gentle horse for a blind, driving the animal forward with the bridle

reins, tacking frequently, and allowing him to graze up within pistol


The Niobrara was a fine grazing country. Since we had over two months at

our disposal, after leaving the North Platte, every advantage was given

the cattle to round into form. Ten miles was a day's move, and the

different outfits kept in close touch with each other. We had planned

a picnic for the crossing of the Niobrara, and on reaching that stream

during the afternoon, Sponsilier and myself crossed, camping a mile

apart, Forrest remaining on the south side. Wild raspberries had been

extremely plentiful, and every wagon had gathered a quantity sufficient

to make a pie for each man. The cooks had mutually agreed to meet at

Sponsilier's wagon and do the baking, and every man not on herd was

present in expectation of the coming banquet. One of Forrest's boys

had a fiddle, and bringing it along, the festivities opened with a stag

dance, the "ladies" being designated by wearing a horse-hobble loosely

around their necks. While the pies were baking, a slow process with

Dutch ovens, I sat on the wagon-tongue and played the violin by the

hour. A rude imitation of the gentler sex, as we had witnessed in

dance-halls in Dodge and Ogalalla, was reproduced with open shirt

fronts, and amorous advances by the sterner one.

The dancing ceased the moment the banquet was ready. The cooks had

experienced considerable trouble in restraining some of the boys from

the too free exercise of what they looked upon as the inalienable right

of man to eat his pie when, where, and how it best pleased him. But

Sponsilier, as host, stood behind the culinary trio, and overawed the

impetuous guests. The repast barely concluded in time for the wranglers

and first guard from Forrest's and my outfit to reach camp, catch

night-horses, bed the cattle, and excuse the herders, as supper was

served only at the one wagon. The relieved ones, like eleventh-hour

guests, came tearing in after darkness, and the tempting spread soon

absorbed them. As the evening wore on, the loungers gathered in several

circles, and the raconteur held sway. The fact that we were in a country

in which game abounded suggested numerous stories. The delights of

cat-hunting by night found an enthusiast in each one present. Every dog

in our memory, back to early boyhood, was properly introduced and

his best qualities applauded. Not only cat-hounds but coon-dogs had a

respectful hearing.

"I remember a hound," said Forrest's wrangler, "which I owned when a

boy back in Virginia. My folks lived in the foot-hills of the Blue Ridge

Mountains in that state. We were just as poor as our poorest neighbors.

But if there was any one thing that that section was rich in it was

dogs, principally hounds. This dog of mine was four years old when I

left home to go to Texas. Fine hound, swallow marked, and when he opened

on a scent you could always tell what it was that he was running. I

never allowed him to run with packs, but generally used him in treeing

coon, which pestered the cornfields during roasting-ear season and

in the fall. Well, after I had been out in Texas about five years, I

concluded to go back on a little visit to the old folks. There were

no railroads within twenty miles of my home, and I had to hoof it that

distance, so I arrived after dark. Of course my return was a great

surprise to my folks, and we sat up late telling stories about things

out West. I had worked with cattle all the time, and had made one trip

over the trail from Collin County to Abilene, Kansas.

"My folks questioned me so fast that they gave me no show to make any

inquiries in return, but I finally eased one in and asked about my dog

Keiser, and was tickled to hear that he was still living. I went out and

called him, but he failed to show up, when mother explained his absence

by saying that he often went out hunting alone now, since there was none

of us boys at home to hunt with him. They told me that he was no account

any longer; that he had grown old and gray, and father said he was too

slow on trail to be of any use. I noticed that it was a nice damp night,

and if my old dog had been there, I think I'd have taken a circle around

the fields in the hope of hearing him sing once more. Well, we went back

into the house, and after talking awhile longer, I climbed into the

loft and went to bed. I didn't sleep very sound that night, and awakened

several times. About an hour before daybreak, I awoke suddenly and

imagined I heard a hound baying faintly in the distance. Finally I got

up and opened the board window in the gable and listened. Say, boys,

I knew that hound's baying as well as I know my own saddle. It was old

Keiser, and he had something treed about a mile from the house, across

a ridge over in some slashes. I slipped on my clothes, crept downstairs,

and taking my old man's rifle out of the rack, started to him.

"It was as dark as a stack of black cats, but I knew every path and

byway by heart. I followed the fields as far as I could, and later,

taking into the timber, I had to go around a long swamp. An old beaver

dam had once crossed the outlet of this marsh, and once I gained it,

I gave a long yell to let the dog know that some one was coming. He

answered me, and quite a little while before day broke I reached him.

Did he know me? Why, he knew me as easy as the little boy knew his pap.

Right now, I can't remember any simple thing in my whole life that moved

me just as that little reunion of me and my dog, there in those woods

that morning. Why, he howled with delight. He licked my face and hands

and stood up on me with his wet feet and said just as plain as he could

that he was glad to see me again. And I was glad to meet him, even

though he did make me feel as mellow as a girl over a baby.

"Well, when daybreak came, I shot a nice big fat Mr. Zip Coon out of an

old pin-oak, and we started for home like old pardners. Old as he was,

he played like a puppy around me, and when we came in sight of the

house, he ran on ahead and told the folks what he had found. Yes, you

bet he told them. He came near clawing all the clothing off them in his

delight. That's one reason I always like a dog and a poor man--you can't

question their friendship."

A circus was in progress on the other side of the wagon. From a large

rock, Jake Blair was announcing the various acts and introducing the

actors and actresses. Runt Pickett, wearing a skirt made out of a

blanket and belted with a hobble, won the admiration of all as the only

living lady lion-tamer. Resuming comfortable positions on our side of

the commissary, a lad named Waterwall, one of Sponsilier's boys, took up

the broken thread where Forrest's wrangler had left off.

"The greatest dog-man I ever knew," said he, "lived on the Guadalupe

River. His name was Dave Hapfinger, and he had the loveliest vagabond

temperament of any man I ever saw. It mattered nothing what he was

doing, all you had to do was to give old Dave a hint that you knew where

there was fish to be caught, or a bee-course to hunt, and he would stop

the plow and go with you for a week if necessary. He loved hounds better

than any man I ever knew. You couldn't confer greater favor than to

give him a promising hound pup, or, seeking the same, ask for one of

his raising. And he was such a good fellow. If any one was sick in the

neighborhood, Uncle Dave always had time to kill them a squirrel every

day; and he could make a broth for a baby, or fry a young squirrel, in a

manner that would make a sick man's mouth water.

"When I was a boy, I've laid around many a camp-fire this way and

listened to old Dave tell stories. He was quite a humorist in his way,

and possessed a wonderful memory. He could tell you the day of the

month, thirty years before, when he went to mill one time and found a

peculiar bird's nest on the way. Colonel Andrews, owner of several large

plantations, didn't like Dave, and threatened to prosecute him once for

cutting a bee-tree on his land. If the evidence had been strong enough,

I reckon the Colonel would. No doubt Uncle Dave was guilty, but mere

suspicion isn't sufficient proof.

"Colonel Andrews was a haughty old fellow, blue-blooded and proud as a

peacock, and about the only way Dave could get even with him was in his

own mild, humorous way. One day at dinner at a neighboring log-rolling,

when all danger of prosecution for cutting the bee-tree had passed,

Uncle Dave told of a recent dream of his, a pure invention. 'I dreamt,'

said he, 'that Colonel Andrews died and went to heaven. There was an

unusually big commotion at St. Peter's gate on his arrival. A troop

of angels greeted him, still the Colonel seemed displeased at his

reception. But the welcoming hosts humored him forward, and on nearing

the throne, the Almighty, recognizing the distinguished arrival, vacated

the throne and came down to greet the Colonel personally. At this mark

of appreciation, he relaxed a trifle, and when the Almighty insisted

that he should take the throne seat, Colonel Andrews actually smiled for

the first time on earth or in heaven.'

"Uncle Dave told this story so often that he actually believed it

himself. But finally a wag friend of Colonel Andrews told of a dream

which he had had about old Dave, which the latter hugely enjoyed.

According to this second vagary, the old vagabond had also died and gone

to heaven. There was some trouble at St. Peter's gate, as they refused

to admit dogs, and Uncle Dave always had a troop of hounds at his

heels. When he found that it was useless to argue the matter, he finally

yielded the point and left the pack outside. Once inside the gate he

stopped, bewildered at the scene before him. But after waiting inside

some little time unnoticed, he turned and was on the point of asking the

gate-keeper to let him out, when an angel approached and asked him to

stay. There was some doubt in Dave's mind if he would like the place,

but the messenger urged that he remain and at least look the city over.

The old hunter goodnaturedly consented, and as they started up one of

the golden streets Uncle Dave recognized an old friend who had once

given him a hound pup. Excusing himself to the angel, he rushed over to

his former earthly friend and greeted him with warmth and cordiality.

The two old cronies talked and talked about the things below, and

finally Uncle Dave asked if there was any hunting up there. The reply

was disappointing.

"Meanwhile the angel kept urging Uncle Dave forward to salute the

throne. But he loitered along, meeting former hunting acquaintances,

and stopping with each for a social chat. When they finally neared the

throne, the patience of the angel was nearly exhausted; and as old Dave

looked up and saw Colonel Andrews occupying the throne, he rebelled and

refused to salute, when the angel wrathfully led him back to the gate

and kicked him out among his dogs."

Jack Splann told a yarn about the friendship of a pet lamb and dog which

he owned when a boy. It was so unreasonable that he was interrupted on

nearly every assertion. Long before he had finished, Sponsilier checked

his narrative and informed him that if he insisted on doling out fiction

he must have some consideration for his listeners, and at least tell it

within reason. Splann stopped right there and refused to conclude

his story, though no one but myself seemed to regret it. I had a true

incident about a dog which I expected to tell, but the audience had

become too critical, and I kept quiet. As it was evident that no more

dog stories would be told, the conversation was allowed to drift at

will. The recent shooting on the North Platte had been witnessed by

nearly every one present, and was suggestive of other scenes.

"I have always contended," said Dorg Seay, "that the man who can control

his temper always shoots the truest. You take one of these fellows that

can smile and shoot at the same time--they are the boys that I want to

stand in with. But speaking of losing the temper, did any of you ever

see a woman real angry,--not merely cross, but the tigress in her raging

and thirsting to tear you limb from limb? I did only once, but I have

never forgotten the occasion. In supreme anger the only superior to this

woman I ever witnessed was Captain Cartwright when he shot the slayer of

his only son. He was as cool as a cucumber, as his only shot proved, but

years afterward when he told me of the incident, he lost all control

of himself, and fire flashed from his eyes like from the muzzle of a

six-shooter. 'Dorg,' said he, unconsciously shaking me like a terrier

does a rat, his blazing eyes not a foot from my face, 'Dorg, when I shot

that cowardly ---- -- -- ----, I didn't miss the centre of his forehead

the width of my thumb nail.'

"But this woman defied a throng of men. Quite a few of the crowd had

assisted the night before in lynching her husband, and this meeting

occurred at the burying-ground the next afternoon. The woman's husband

was a well-known horse-thief, a dissolute, dangerous character, and had

been warned to leave the community. He lived in a little village, and

after darkness the evening before, had crept up to a window and shot

a man sitting at the supper-table with his family. The murderer had

harbored a grudge against his victim, had made threats, and before he

could escape, was caught red-handed with the freshly fired pistol in

his hand. The evidence of guilt was beyond question, and a vigilance

committee didn't waste any time in hanging him to the nearest tree.

"The burying took place the next afternoon. The murdered man was a

popular citizen, and the village and country turned out to pay their

last respects. But when the services were over, a number of us lingered

behind, as it was understood that the slayer as well as his victim would

be interred in the same grounds. A second grave had been prepared, and

within an hour a wagon containing a woman, three small children, and

several Mexicans drove up to the rear side of the inclosure. There was

no mistaking the party, the coffin was carried in to the open grave,

when every one present went over to offer friendly services. But as we

neared the little group the woman picked up a shovel and charged on

us like a tigress. I never saw such an expression of mingled anger and

anguish in a human countenance as was pictured in that woman's face. We

shrank from her as if she had been a lioness, and when at last she found

her tongue, every word cut like a lash. Livid with rage, the spittle

frothing from her mouth, she drove us away, saying:

"'Oh, you fiends of hell, when did I ask your help? Like the curs you

are, you would lick up the blood of your victim! Had you been friends to

me or mine, why did you not raise your voice in protest when they were

strangling the life out of the father of my children? Away, you cowardly

hounds! I've hired a few Mexicans to help me, and I want none of your

sympathy in this hour. Was it your hand that cut him down from the tree

this morning, and if it was not, why do I need you now? Is my shame not

enough in your eyes but that you must taunt me further? Do my innocent

children want to look upon the faces of those who robbed them of a

father? If there is a spark of manhood left in one of you, show it

by leaving me alone! And you other scum, never fear but that you will

clutter hell in reward for last night's work. Begone, and leave me with

my dead!'"

The circus had ended. The lateness of the hour was unobserved by any one

until John Levering asked me if he should bring in my horse. It lacked

less than half an hour until the guards should change, and it was high

time our outfit was riding for camp. The innate modesty of my wrangler,

in calling attention to the time, was not forgotten, but instead of

permitting him to turn servant, I asked him to help our cook look after

his utensils. On my return to the wagon, Parent was trying to quiet a

nervous horse so as to allow him to carry the Dutch oven returning.

But as Levering was in the act of handing up the heavy oven, one of

Forrest's men, hoping to make the animal buck, attempted to place a

briar stem under the horse's tail. Sponsilier detected the movement in

time to stop it, and turning to the culprit, said: "None of that, my

bully boy. I have no objection to killing a cheap cow-hand, but these

cooks have won me, hands down. If ever I run across a girl who can make

as good pies as we had for supper, she can win the affections of my

young and trusting heart."

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