The Winter Of Our Discontent

The inquiry was over before noon. A lieutenant detailed a few men and

made a pretense of taking possession of Lovell. But once the special

commissioner was out of sight, the farce was turned into an ovation, and

nearly every officer in the post came forward and extended his sympathy.

Old man Don was visibly affected by the generous manifestations of the

military men in general, and after thanking each one personally, urged

that no unnecessary demonstration should be made, begging that the order

of escort beyond the boundary of the reservation be countermanded. No

one present cared to suggest it, but gave assurance that it would be so

modified as not in any way to interfere with the natural movement of the

herds. Some little time would be required to outfit the forage-wagons

to accommodate the cavalry companies, during which my brother rode up,

leading Lovell's horse, permission was given to leave in advance of the

escort, and we all mounted and quietly rode away.

The sudden turn of affairs had disconcerted every man in the three

outfits. Just what the next move would be was conjecture with most

of us, though every lad present was anxious to know. But when we were

beyond the immediate grounds, Lovell turned in his saddle and

asked which one of us foremen wanted to winter in the North. No one

volunteered, and old man Don continued: "Anticipating the worst, I had

a long talk this morning with Sanders, and he assured me that our cattle

would go through any winter without serious loss. He suggested the

Little Missouri as a good range, and told me of a hay ranch below the

mouth of the Beaver. If it can be bought reasonably, we would have

forage for our horses, and the railroad is said to be not over forty

miles to the south. If the government can afford to take the risk of

wintering cattle in this climate, since there is no other choice, I

reckon I'll have to follow suit. Bob and I will take fresh horses and

ride through to the Beaver this afternoon, and you fellows follow up

leisurely with the cattle. Sanders says the winters are dry and cold,

with very little if any snowfall. Well, we're simply up against it;

there's no hope of selling this late in the season, and nothing is left

us but to face the music of a Northern winter."

As we turned in to ford the Missouri, some one called attention to a

cavalry company riding out from their quarters at the post. We halted a

moment, and as the first one entered the road, the second one swung into

view, followed by forage-wagons. From maps in our possession we knew the

southern boundary of the Fort Buford military reservation must be under

twenty miles to the south, and if necessary, we could put it behind us

that afternoon. But after crossing the river, and when the two troops

again came in view, they had dropped into a walk, passing entirely out

of sight long before we reached Forrest's camp. Orders were left with

the latter to take the lead and make a short drive that evening,

at least far enough to convince observers that we were moving. The

different outfits dropped out as their wagons were reached, and when my

remuda was sighted, old man Don ordered it brought in for a change of

horses. One of the dayherders was at camp getting dinner, and inviting

themselves to join him, my employer and my brother helped themselves

while their saddles were shifted to two of my well-rested mounts.

Inquiry had been made of all three of the outfits if any ranch had

been sighted on the Beaver while crossing that creek, but the only

recollection among the forty-odd men was that of Burl Van Vedder, who

contended that a dim trail, over which horses had passed that summer,

ran down on the south side of the stream.

With this meagre information Lovell and my brother started. A late

dinner over and the herders relieved, we all rode for the nearest

eminence which would afford us a view. The cavalry were just going into

camp below O'Brien's ranch, their forage-train in sight, while Forrest's

cattle were well bunched and heading south. Sponsilier was evidently

going to start, as his team was tied up and the saddle stock in hand,

while the herd was crossing over to the eastern side of the Yellowstone.

We dismounted and lay around for an hour or so, when the greater portion

of the boys left to help in the watering of our herd, the remainder of

us doing outpost duty. Forrest had passed out of sight, Sponsilier's

wagon and remuda crossed opposite us, going up the valley, followed by

his cattle in loose grazing order, and still we loitered on the hill.

But towards evening I rode down to where the cavalry was encamped, and

before I had conversed very long with the officers, it was clear to

me that the shorter our moves the longer it would extend their outing.

Before I left the soldier camp, Sanders arrived, and as we started away

together, I sent him back to tell the officers to let me know any time

they could use half a beef. On reaching our wagon, the boys were just

corralling the saddle stock for their night-horses, when Sanders begged

me to sell him two which had caught his fancy. I dared not offer them;

but remembering the fellow's faithful service in our behalf, and that

my employer expected to remember him, I ordered him to pick, with Don

Lovell's compliments, any horse in the remuda as a present.

The proposition stunned Sanders, but I insisted that if old man Don was

there, he would make him take something. He picked a good horse out of

my mount and stayed until morning, when he was compelled to return, as

the probabilities were that they would receive the other cattle some

time during the day. After breakfast, and as he was starting to return,

he said, "Well, boys, tell the old man that I don't expect ever to be

able to return his kindness, though I'd ride a thousand miles for the

chance. One thing sure, there isn't a man in Dakota who has money enough

to tempt me to part with my pelon. If you locate down on the Little

Missouri, drop me a line where you are at, and if Lovell wants four good

men, I can let him have them about the first of December. You through

lads are liable to be scared over the coming winter, and a few

acclimated ones will put backbone in his outfit. And tell the old man

that if I can ever do him a good turn just to snap his fingers and I'll

quit the government--he's a few shades whiter than it, anyhow."

The herd had already left the bed-ground, headed south. About five miles

above O'Brien's, we recrossed to the eastern side of the Yellowstone,

and for the next three days moved short distances, the military

always camped well in our rear. The fourth morning I killed a beef, a

forage-wagon came forward and took half of it back to the cavalry camp

with our greetings and farewell, and we parted company. Don Lovell met

us about noon, elated as a boy over his purchase of the hay ranch. My

brother had gone on to the railroad and thence by train to Miles City

to meet his remuda and outfit. "Boys, I have bought you a new home," was

the greeting of old man Don, as he dismounted at our noon camp. "There's

a comfortable dugout, stabling for about ten horses, and seventy-five

tons of good hay in the stack. The owner was homesick to get back to

God's country, and he'll give us possession in ten days. Bob will be in

Little Missouri to-day and order us a car of sacked corn from Omaha, and

within a month we'll be as snug as they are down in old Medina. Bob's

outfit will go home from Miles, and if he can't sell his remuda he'll

bring it up here. Two of these outfits can start back in a few days, and

afterward the camp will be reduced to ten men."

Two days later Forrest veered off and turned his cattle loose below the

junction of the Beaver with the Little Missouri. Sponsilier crossed the

former, scattering his beeves both up and down the latter, while I cut

mine into a dozen bunches and likewise freed them along the creek. The

range was about ten miles in length along the river, and a camp was

established at either end where men would be stationed until the beeves

were located. The commissaries had run low, there was a quiet rivalry as

to which outfits should go home, and we all waited with bated breath for

the final word. I had Dorg Seay secretly inform my employer that I

had given Sanders a horse without his permission, hoping that it might

displease him. But the others pointed out the fact that my outfit had

far the best remuda, and that it would require well-mounted men to

locate and hold that number of cattle through the winter. Old man Don

listened to them all, and the next morning, as all three of us foremen

were outlining certain improvements about the hay ranch with him, he

turned to me and said:

"Tom, I hear you gave Sanders a horse. Well, that was all right,

although it strikes me you were rather liberal in giving him the pick of

a choice remuda. But it may all come right in the long run, as Bob and

I have decided to leave you and your outfit to hold these cattle this

winter. So divide your men and send half of them down to Quince's camp,

and have your cook and wrangler come over to Dave's wagon to bring

back provision and the horses, as we'll start for the railroad in the

morning. I may not come back, but Bob will, and he'll see that you are

well fixed for the winter before he goes home. After he leaves, I want

you to write me every chance you have to send a letter to the railroad.

Now, I don't want any grumbling out of you or your men; you're a

disgrace to the state that raised you if you can't handle cattle

anywhere that any other man can."

I felt all along it would fall to me, the youngest of six foremen; and

my own dear brother consigning me to a winter in the North, while he

would bask in the sunshine of our own sunny South! It was hard to face;

but I remembered that the fall before it had been my lot to drive a

thousand saddle horses home to the ranch, and that I had swaggered as

a trail foreman afterward as the result. It had always been my luck to

have to earn every little advance or promotion, while others seemed to

fall into them without any effort. Bob Quirk never saw the day that he

was half the all-round cowman that I was; yet he was above me and could

advise, and I had to obey.

On the morning of the 25th of September, 1884, the two outfits started

for the railroad, leaving the remainder of us in a country, save for the

cattle, so desolate that there was no chance even to spend our wages. I

committed to memory a curtain lecture for my brother, though somehow or

other it escaped me and was never delivered. We rode lines between the

upper and lower wagons, holding the cattle loosely on a large range. A

delightful fall favored us, and before the first squall of winter came

on, the beeves had contented themselves as though they had been born on

the Little Missouri. Meanwhile Bob's wagon and remuda arrived, the car

of corn was hauled to our headquarters, extra stabling was built, and

we settled down like banished exiles. Communication had been opened with

Fort Buford, and in the latter part of October the four promised men

arrived, when Bob Quirk took part of my outfit and went home, leaving

me ten men. Parent remained as cook, the new men assimilated easily, a

fiddle was secured, and in fulfillment of the assertion of Sanders, we

picked up courage. Two grain-fed horses, carefully stabled, were allowed

to each man, the remainder of our large number of saddle stock running

free on the range.

To that long winter on the Little Missouri a relentless memory turns in

retrospect. We dressed and lived like Eskimos. The first blizzard struck

us early in December, the thermometer dropped sixty degrees in twelve

hours, but in the absence of wind and snow the cattle did not leave

the breaks along the river. Three weeks later a second one came, and we

could not catch the lead animals until near the railroad; but the storm

drove them up the Little Missouri, and its sheltering banks helped us to

check our worst winter drift. After the first month of wintry weather,

the dread of the cold passed, and men and horses faced the work as

though it was springtime in our own loved southland. The months rolled

by scarcely noticed. During fine weather Sanders and some of his boys

twice dropped down for a few days, but we never left camp except to send

letters home.

An early spring favored us. I was able to report less than one per cent.

loss on the home range, with the possibility of but few cattle having

escaped us during the winter. The latter part of May we sold four

hundred saddle horses to some men from the upper Yellowstone. Early in

June a wagon was rigged out, extra men employed, and an outfit sent two

hundred miles up the Little Missouri to attend the round-ups. They

were gone a month and came in with less than five hundred beeves, which

represented our winter drift. Don Lovell reached the ranch during the

first week in July. One day's ride through the splendid cattle, and old

man Don lost his voice, but the smile refused to come off. Everything

was coming his way. Field, Radcliff & Co. had sued him, and the jury

awarded him one-hundred thousand dollars. His bankers had unlimited

confidence in his business ability; he had four Indian herds on the

trail and three others of younger steers, intended for the Little

Missouri ranch. Cattle prices in Texas had depreciated nearly one half

since the spring before--"a good time for every cowman to strain his

credit and enlarge his holdings," my employer assured me.

Orders were left that I was to begin shipping out the beeves early in

August. It was the intention to ship them in two and three train-load

lots, and I was expecting to run a double outfit, when a landslide came

our way. The first train-load netted sixty dollars a head at Omaha--but

they were beeves; cods like an ox's heart and waddled as they walked. We

had just returned from the railroad with the intention of shipping two

train-loads more, when the quartermaster and Sanders from Fort Buford

rode into the ranch under an escort. The government had lost forty per

cent. of the Field-Radcliff cattle during the winter just passed, and

were in the market to buy the deficiency. The quartermaster wanted a

thousand beeves on the first day of September and October each, and

double that number for the next month. Did we care to sell that amount?

A United States marshal, armed with a search-warrant, could not have

found Don Lovell in a month, but they were promptly assured that

our beef steers were for sale. It is easy to show prime cattle. The

quartermaster, Sanders, and myself rode down the river, crossed over

and came up beyond our camp, forded back and came down the Beaver, and

I knew the sale was made. I priced the beeves, delivered at Buford, at

sixty-five dollars a head, and the quartermaster took them.

Then we went to work in earnest. Sanders remained to receive the first

contingent for Buford, which would leave our range on the 25th of each

month. A single round-up and we had the beeves in hand. The next morning

after Splann left for the mouth of the Yellowstone, I started south

for the railroad with two train-loads of picked cattle. Professional

shippers took them off our hands at the station, accompanied them en

route to market, and the commission house in Omaha knew where to remit

the proceeds. The beef shipping season was on with a vengeance. Our

saddle stock had improved with a winter in the North, until one was

equal to two Southern or trail horses. Old man Don had come on in the

mean time, and was so pleased with my sale to the army post that he

returned to Little Missouri Station at once and bought two herds of

three-year-olds at Ogalalla by wire. This made sixteen thousand steer

cattle en route from the latter point for Lovell's new ranch in Dakota.

"Tom," said old man Don, enthusiastically, "this is the making of a fine

cattle ranch, and we want to get in on the flood-tide. There is always

a natural wealth in a new country, and the goldmines of this one are in

its grass. The instinct that taught the buffalo to choose this as their

summer and winter range was unerring, and they found a grass at hand

that would sustain them in any and all kinds of weather. This country

to-day is just what Texas was thirty years ago. All the early settlers

at home grew rich without any effort, but once the cream of the virgin

land is gone, look out for a change. The early cowmen of Texas flatter

themselves on being shrewd and far-seeing--just about as much as I was

last fall, when I would gladly have lost twenty-five thousand dollars

rather than winter these cattle. Now look where I will come out, all due

to the primitive wealth of the land. From sixty to sixty-five dollars a

head beats thirty-seven and a half for our time and trouble."

The first of the through cattle arrived early in September. They avoided

our range for fear of fever, and dropped in about fifteen miles below

our headquarters on the Little Missouri. Dorg Seay was one of the three

foremen, Forrest and Sponsilier being the other two, having followed the

same route as our herds of the year before. But having spent a winter

in the North, we showed the through outfits a chilling contempt. I had

ribbed up Parent not even to give them a pleasant word about our wagon

or headquarters; and particularly if Bob Quirk came through with one

of the purchased herds, he was to be given the marble heart. One outfit

loose-herded the new cattle, the other two going home, and about the

middle of the month, my brother and The Rebel came trailing in with

the last two herds. I was delighted to meet my old bunkie, and had him

remain over until the last outfit went home, when we reluctantly parted

company. Not so, however, with Bob Quirk, who haughtily informed me that

he came near slapping my cook for his effrontery. "So you are another

one of these lousy through outfits that think we ought to make a fuss

over you, are you?" I retorted. "Just you wait until we do. Every one of

you except old Paul had the idea that we ought to give you a reception

and ask you to sleep in our beds. I'm glad that Parent had the gumption

to give you a mean look; he'll ride for me next year."

The month of October finished the shipping. There was a magic in that

Northern climate that wrought wonders in an animal from the South.

Little wonder that the buffalo could face the blizzard, in a country of

his own choosing, and in a climate where the frost king held high revel

five months out of the twelve. There was a tonic like the iron of wine

in the atmosphere, absorbed alike by man and beast, and its possessor

laughed at the fury of the storm. Our loss of cattle during the first

winter, traceable to season, was insignificant, while we sold out over

two hundred head more than the accounts called for, due to the presence

of strays, which went to Buford. And when the last beef was shipped, the

final delivery concluded to the army, Don Lovell was a quarter-million

dollars to the good, over and above the contract price at which he

failed to deliver the same cattle to the government the fall before.

As foreman of Lovell's beef ranch on the Little Missouri I spent five

banner years of my life. In '89 the stock, good-will, and range were

sold to a cattle syndicate, who installed a superintendent and posted

rules for the observance of its employees. I do not care to say why, but

in a stranger's hands it never seemed quite the same home to a few of us

who were present when it was transformed into a cattle range. Late that

fall, some half-dozen of us who were from Texas asked to be relieved and

returned to the South. A traveler passing through that country to-day

will hear the section about the mouth of the Beaver called only by the

syndicate name, but old-timers will always lovingly refer to it as the

Don Lovell Ranch.

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