THE SCHOOL OF EXPERIENCE
Success had made me daring. And yet I must have been wandering aimlessly, for had my ambition been well directed, there is no telling to what extent I might have amassed a fortune. Opportunity was knocking at my gate, a giant young commonwealth was struggling in the throes of political revolution, while I wandered through it all like a blind man led by a child. Precedent was of little value, as present environment controlled my actions. The best people in Texas were doubtful of ever ridding themselves of the baneful incubus of Reconstruction. Men on whose judgment I relied laughed at me for acquiring more land than a mere homestead. Stock cattle were in such disrepute that they had no cash value. Many a section of deeded land changed owners for a milk cow, while surveyors would no longer locate new lands for the customary third, but insisted on a half interest. Ranchmen were so indifferent that many never went off their home range in branding the calf crop, not considering a ten or twenty per cent loss of any importance. Yet through it all--from my Virginia rearing--there lurked a wavering belief that some day, in some manner, these lands and cattle would have a value. But my faith was neither the bold nor the assertive kind, and I drifted along, clinging to any passing straw of opinion.
The Indians were still giving trouble along the Texas frontier. A line of government posts, extending from Red River on the north to the Rio Grande on the south, made a pretense of holding the Comanches and their allies in check, while this arm of the service was ably seconded by the Texas Rangers. Yet in spite of all precaution, the redskins raided the settlements at their pleasure, stealing horses and adding rapine and murder to their category of crimes. Hence for a number of years after my marriage we lived at the Edwards ranch as a matter of precaution against Indian raids. I was absent from home so much that this arrangement suited me, and as the new ranch was distant but a day's ride, any inconvenience was more than recompensed in security. It was my intention to follow the trail and trading, at the same time running a ranch where anything unfit for market might be sent to mature or increase. As long as I could add to my working capital, I was content, while the remnants of my speculations found a refuge on the Clear Fork.
During the winter of 1871-72 very little of importance transpired. Several social letters passed between Major Mabry and myself, in one of which he casually mentioned the fact that land scrip had declined until it was offered on the streets of the capital as low as twenty dollars a section. He knew I had been dabbling in land certificates, and in a friendly spirit wanted to post me on their decline, and had incidentally mentioned the fact for my information. Some inkling of horse sense told me that I ought to secure more land, and after thinking the matter over, I wrote to a merchant in Austin, and had him buy me one hundred sections. He was very anxious to purchase a second hundred at the same figure, but it would make too serious an inroad into my trading capital, and I declined his friendly assistance. My wife was the only person whom I took into confidence in buying the scrip, and I even had her secrete it in the bottom of a trunk, with strict admonitions never to mention it unless it became of value. It was not taxable, the public domain was bountiful, and I was young enough man those days to bide my time.
The winter proved a severe one in Kansas. Nearly every drover who wintered his cattle in the north met with almost complete loss. The previous summer had been too wet for cattle to do well, and they had gone into winter thin in flesh. Instead of curing like hay, the buffalo grass had rotted from excessive rains, losing its nutritive qualities, and this resulted in serious loss among all range cattle. The result was financial ruin to many drovers, and even augured a lighter drive north the coming spring. Early in the winter I bought two brands of cattle in Erath County, paying half cash and getting six months' time on the remainder. Both brands occupied the same range, and when we gathered them in the early spring, they counted out a few over six thousand animals. These two contingents were extra good cattle, costing me five dollars a head, counting yearlings up, and from them I selected two thousand steer cattle for the trail. The mixed stuff was again sent to my Clear Fork ranch, and the steers went into a neighborhood herd intended for the Kansas market. But when the latter was all ready to start, such discouraging reports came down from the north that my friends weakened, and I bought their cattle outright.
My reputation as a good trader was my capital. I had the necessary horses, and, straining my credit, the herd started thirty-one hundred strong. The usual incidents of flood and storm, of begging Indians and caravans like ourselves, formed the chronicle of the trip. Before arriving at the Kansas line we were met by solicitors of rival towns, each urging the advantages of their respective markets for our cattle. The summer before a small business had sprung up at Newton, Kansas, it being then the terminal of the Santa Fé Railway. And although Newton lasted as a trail town but a single summer, its reputation for bloodshed and riotous disorder stands notoriously alone among its rivals. In the mean time the Santa Fé had been extended to Wichita on the Arkansas River, and its representatives were now bidding for our patronage. Abilene was abandoned, yet a rival to Wichita had sprung up at Ellsworth, some sixty-five miles west of the former market, on the Kansas Pacific Railway. The railroads were competing for the cattle traffic, each one advertising its superior advantages to drovers, shippers, and feeders. I was impartial, but as Wichita was fully one hundred miles the nearest, my cattle were turned for that point.
Wichita was a frontier village of about two thousand inhabitants. We found a convenient camp northwest of town, and went into permanent quarters to await the opening of the market. Within a few weeks a light drive was assured, and prices opened firm. Fully a quarter-million less cattle would reach the markets within the State that year, and buyers became active in securing their needed supply. Early in July I sold the last of my herd and started my outfit home, remaining behind to await the arrival of my brother. The trip was successful; the purchased cattle had afforded me a nice profit, while the steers from the two brands had more than paid for the mixed stuff left at home on the ranch. Meanwhile I renewed old acquaintances among drovers and dealers, Major Mabry among the former. In a confidential mood I confessed to him that I had bought, on the recent decline, one hundred certificates of land scrip, when he surprised me by saying that there had been a later decline to sixteen dollars a section. I was unnerved for an instant, but Major Mabry agreed with me that to a man who wanted the land the price was certainly cheap enough,--two and a half cents an acre. I pondered over the matter, and as my nerve returned I sent my merchant friend at Austin a draft and authorized him to buy me two hundred sections more of land scrip. I was actually nettled to think that my judgment was so short-sighted as to buy anything that would depreciate in value.
My brother arrived and reported splendid success in feeding Colorado cattle. He was anxious to have me join forces with him and corn-feed an increased number of beeves the coming winter on his Missouri farm. My judgment hardly approved of the venture, but when he urged a promised visit of our parents to his home, I consented and agreed to furnish the cattle. He also encouraged me to bring as many as my capital would admit of, assuring me that I would find a ready sale for any surplus among his neighbors. My brother returned to Missouri, and I took the train for Ellsworth, where I bought a carload of picked cow-horses, shipping them to Kit Carson, Colorado. From there I drifted into the Fountain valley at the base of the mountains, where I made a trade for seven hundred native steers, three and four years old. They were fine cattle, nearly all reds and roans. While I was gathering them a number of amusing incidents occurred. The round-ups carried us down on to the main Arkansas River, and in passing Pueblo we discovered a number of range cattle impounded in the town. I cannot give it as a fact, but the supposition among the cowmen was that the object of the officials was to raise some revenue by distressing the cattle. The result was that an outfit of men rode into the village during the night, tore down the pound, and turned the cattle back on the prairie. The prime movers in the raid were suspected, and the next evening when a number of us rode into town an attempt was made to arrest us, resulting in a fight, in which an officer was killed and two cowboys wounded. The citizens rallied to the support of the officers, and about thirty range men, including myself, were arrested and thrown into jail. We sent for a lawyer, and the following morning the majority of us were acquitted. Some three or four of the boys were held for trial, bonds being furnished by the best men in the town, and that night a party of cowboys reëntered the village, carried away the two wounded men and spirited them out of the country.
Pueblo at that time was a unique town. Live-stock interests were its main support, and I distinctly remember Gann's outfitting store. At night one could find anywhere from ten to thirty cowboys sleeping on the counters, the proprietor turning the keys over to them at closing time, not knowing one in ten, and sleeping at his own residence. The same custom prevailed at Gallup the saddler's, never an article being missed from either establishment, and both men amassing fortunes out of the cattle trade in subsequent years. The range man's patronage had its peculiarities; the firm of Wright, Beverly & Co. of Dodge City, Kansas, accumulated seven thousand odd vests during the trail days. When a cow-puncher bought a new suit he had no use for an unnecessary garment like a vest and left it behind. It was restored to the stock, where it can yet be found.
Early in August the herd was completed. I accepted seven hundred and twenty steers, investing every cent of spare money, reserving only sufficient to pay my expenses en route. It was my intention to drive the cattle through to Missouri, the distance being a trifle less than six hundred miles or a matter of six weeks' travel. Four men were secured, a horse was packed with provisions and blankets, and we started down the Arkansas River. For the first few days I did very little but build air castles. I pictured myself driving herds from Texas in the spring, reinvesting the proceeds in better grades of cattle and feeding them corn in the older States, selling in time to again buy and come up the trail. I even planned to send for my wife and baby, and looked forward to a happy reunion with my parents during the coming winter, with not a cloud in my roseate sky. But there were breakers ahead.
An old military trail ran southeast from Fort Larned to other posts in the Indian Territory. Over this government road had come a number of herds of Texas cattle, all of them under contract, which, in reaching their destination, had avoided the markets of Wichita and Ellsworth. I crossed their trail with my Colorado natives,--the through cattle having passed a month or more before,--never dreaming of any danger. Ten days afterward I noticed a number of my steers were ailing; their ears drooped, they refused to eat, and fell to the rear as we grazed forward. The next morning there were forty head unable to leave the bed-ground, and by noon a number of them had died. I had heard of Texas fever, but always treated it as more or less a myth, and now it held my little herd of natives in its toils. By this time we had reached some settlement on the Cottonwood, and the pioneer settlers in Kansas arose in arms and quarantined me. No one knew what the trouble was, yet the cattle began dying like sheep; I was perfectly helpless, not knowing which way to turn or what to do. Quarantine was unnecessary, as within a few days half the cattle were sick, and it was all we could do to move away from the stench of the dead ones.
A veterinary was sent for, who pronounced it Texas fever. I had previously cut open a number of dead animals, and found the contents of their stomachs and manifolds so dry that they would flash and burn like powder. The fever had dried up their very internals. In the hope of administering a purgative, I bought whole fields of green corn, and turned the sick and dying cattle into them. I bought oils by the barrel, my men and myself worked night and day, inwardly drenching affected animals, yet we were unable to stay the ravages of death. Once the cause of the trouble was located,--crossing ground over which Texas cattle had passed,--the neighbors became friendly, and sympathized with me. I gave them permission to take the fallen hides, and in return received many kindnesses where a few days before I had been confronted by shotguns. This was my first experience with Texas fever, and the lessons that I learned then and afterward make me skeptical of all theories regarding the transmission of the germ.
The story of the loss of my Colorado herd is a ghastly one. This fever is sometimes called splenic, and in the present case, where animals lingered a week or ten days, while yet alive, their skins frequently cracked along the spine until one could have laid two fingers in the opening. The whole herd was stricken, less than half a dozen animals escaping attack, scores dying within three days, the majority lingering a week or more. In spite of our every effort to save them, as many as one hundred died in a single day. I stayed with them for six weeks, or until the fever had run through the herd, spent my last available dollar in an effort to save the dumb beasts, and, having my hopes frustrated, sold the remnant of twenty-six head for five dollars apiece. I question if they were worth the money, as three fourths of them were fever-burnt and would barely survive a winter, the only animals of value being some half dozen which had escaped the general plague. I gave each of my men two horses apiece, and divided my money with them, and they started back to Colorado, while I turned homeward a wiser but poorer man. Whereas I had left Wichita three months before with over sixteen thousand dollars clear cash, I returned with eighteen saddle horses and not as many dollars in money.
My air-castles had fallen. Troubles never come singly, and for the last two weeks, while working with the dying cattle, I had suffered with chills and fever. The summer had been an unusually wet one, vegetation had grown up rankly in the valley of the Arkansas, and after the first few frosts the very atmosphere reeked with malaria. I had been sleeping on the ground along the river for over a month, drinking impure water from the creeks, and I fell an easy victim to the prevailing miasma. Nearly all the Texas drovers had gone home, but, luckily for me, Jim Daugherty had an outfit yet at Wichita and invited me to his wagon. It might be a week or ten days before he would start homeward, as he was holding a herd of cows, sold to an Indian contractor, who was to receive the same within two weeks. In the interim of waiting, still suffering from fever and ague, I visited around among the few other cow-camps scattered up and down the river. At one of these I met a stranger, a quiet little man, who also had been under the weather from malaria, but was then recovering. He took an interest in my case and gave me some medicine to break the chills, and we visited back and forth. I soon learned that he had come down with some of his neighbors from Council Grove; that they expected to buy cattle, and that he was banker for the party. He was much interested in everything pertaining to Texas; and when I had given him an idea of the cheapness of lands and live stock in my adopted State, he expressed himself as anxious to engage in trailing cattle north. A great many Texas cattle had been matured in his home county, and he thoroughly understood the advantages of developing southern steers in a northern climate. Many of his neighbors had made small fortunes in buying young stock at Abilene, holding them a year or two, and shipping them to market as fat cattle.
The party bought six hundred two-year-old steers, and my new-found friend, the banker, invited me to assist in the receiving. My knowledge of range cattle was a decided advantage to the buyers, who no doubt were good farmers, yet were sadly handicapped when given pick and choice from a Texas herd and confined to ages. I cut, counted, and received the steers, my work giving such satisfaction that the party offered to pay me for my services. It was but a neighborly act, unworthy of recompense, yet I won the lasting regard of the banker in protecting the interests of his customers. The upshot of the acquaintance was that we met in town that evening and had a few drinks together. Neither one ever made any inquiry of the other's past or antecedents, both seeming to be satisfied with a soldier's acquaintance. At the final parting, I gave him my name and address and invited him to visit me, promising that we would buy a herd of cattle together and drive them up the trail the following spring. He accepted the invitation with a hearty grasp of the hand, and the simple promise "I'll come." Those words were the beginning of a partnership which lasted eighteen years, and a friendship that death alone will terminate.
The Indian contractor returned on time, and the next day I started home with Daugherty's outfit. And on the way, as if I were pursued by some unrelenting Nemesis, two of my horses, with others, were stolen by the Indians one night when we were encamped near Red River. We trailed them westward nearly fifty miles, but, on being satisfied they were traveling night and day, turned back and continued our journey. I reached home with sixteen horses, which for years afterwards, among my hands and neighbors, were pointed out as Anthony's thousand-dollar cow-ponies. There is no denying the fact that I keenly felt the loss of my money, as it crippled me in my business, while my ranch expenses, amounting to over one thousand dollars, were unpaid. I was rich in unsalable cattle, owned a thirty-two-thousand-acre ranch, saddle horses galore, and was in debt. My wife's trunk was half full of land scrip, and to have admitted the fact would only have invited ridicule. But my tuition was paid, and all I asked was a chance, for I knew the ropes in handling range cattle. Yet this was the second time that I had lost my money and I began to doubt myself. "You stick to cows," said Charlie Goodnight to me that winter, "and they'll bring you out on top some day. I thought I saw something in you when you first went to work for Loving and me. Reed, if you'll just imbibe a little caution with your energy, you'll make a fortune out of cattle yet."