SOWING WILD OATS
The results from driving cattle north were a surprise to every one. My employers were delighted with their experiment, the general expense of handling the herd not exceeding fifty cents a head. The enterprise had netted over fifty-two thousand dollars, the saddle horses had returned in good condition, while due credit was given me in the general management. From my sale accounts I made out a statement, and once my expenses were approved it was an easy matter to apportion each owner his just dues in the season's drive. This over I was free to go my way. The only incident of moment in the final settlement was the waggish contention of one of the owners, who expressed amazement that I ever remitted any funds or returned, roguishly admitting that no one expected it. Then suddenly, pretending to have discovered the governing motive, he summoned Miss Gertrude, and embarrassed her with a profusion of thanks, averring that she alone had saved him from a loss of four hundred beeves.
The next move was to redeem my land scrip. The surveyor was anxious to buy a portion of it, but I was too rich to part with even a single section. During our conversation, however, it developed that he held his commission from the State, and when I mentioned my intention of locating land, he made application to do the surveying. The fact that I expected to make my locations in another county made no difference to a free-lance official, and accordingly we came to an agreement. The apple of my eye was a valley on the Clear Fork, above its juncture with the main Brazos, and from maps in the surveyor's office I was able to point out the locality where I expected to make my locations. He proved an obliging official and gave me all the routine details, and an appointment was made with him to report a week later at the Edwards ranch. A wagon and cook would be necessary, chain carriers and flagmen must be taken along, and I began skirmishing about for an outfit. The three hired men who had been up the trail with me were still in the country, and I engaged them and secured a cook. George Edwards loaned me a wagon and two yoke of oxen, even going along himself for company. The commissary was outfitted for a month's stay, and a day in advance of the expected arrival of the surveyor the outfit was started up the Brazos. Each of the men had one or more private horses, and taking all of mine along, we had a remuda of thirty odd saddle horses. George and I remained behind, and on the arrival of the surveyor we rode by way of Palo Pinto, the county seat, to which all unorganized territory to the west was attached for legal purposes. Our chief motive in passing the town was to see if there were any lands located near the juncture of the Clear Fork with the mother stream, and thus secure an established corner from which to begin our survey. But the records showed no land taken up around the confluence of these watercourses, making it necessary to establish a corner.
Under the old customs, handed down from the Spanish to the Texans, corners were always established from natural landmarks. The union of creeks arid rivers, mounds, lagoons, outcropping of rock, in fact anything unchangeable and established by nature, were used as a point of commencement. In the locating of Spanish land grants a century and a half previous, sand-dunes were frequently used, and when these old concessions became of value and were surveyed, some of the corners had shifted a mile or more by the action of the wind and seasons on the sand-hills. Accordingly, on overtaking our outfit we headed for the juncture of the Brazos and Clear Fork, reaching our destination the second day. The first thing was to establish a corner or commencement point. Some heavy timber grew around the confluence, so, selecting an old patriarch pin oak between the two streams, we notched the tree and ran a line to low water at the juncture of the two rivers. Other witness trees were established and notched, lines were run at angles to the banks of either stream, and a hole was dug two feet deep between the roots of the pin oak, a stake set therein, and the excavation filled with charcoal and covered. A legal corner or commencement point was thus established; but as the land that I coveted lay some distance up the Clear Fork, it was necessary first to run due south six miles and establish a corner, and thence run west the same distance and locate another one.
The thirty sections of land scrip would entitle me to a block of ground five by six miles in extent, and I concluded to locate the bulk of it on the south side of the Clear Fork. A permanent camp was now established, the actual work of locating the land requiring about ten days, when the surveyor and Edwards set out on their return. They were to touch at the county seat, record the established corners and file my locations, leaving the other boys and me behind. It was my intention to build a corral and possibly a cabin on the land, having no idea that we would remain more than a few weeks longer. Timber was plentiful, and, selecting a site well out on the prairie, we began the corral. It was no easy task; palisades were cut twelve feet long and out of durable woods, and the gate-posts were fourteen inches in diameter at the small end, requiring both yoke of oxen to draw them to the chosen site. The latter were cut two feet longer than the palisades, the extra length being inserted in the ground, giving them a stability to carry the bars with which the gateway was closed. Ten days were spent in cutting and drawing timber, some of the larger palisades being split in two so as to enable five men to load them on the wagon. The digging of the narrow trench, five feet deep, in which the palisades were set upright, was a sore trial; but the ground was sandy, and by dint of perseverance it was accomplished. Instead of a few weeks, over a month was spent on the corral, but when it was finished it would hold a thousand stampeding cattle through the stormiest night that ever blew.
After finishing the corral we hunted a week. The country was alive with game of all kinds, even an occasional buffalo, while wild and unbranded cattle were seen daily. None of the men seemed anxious to leave the valley, but the commissary had to be replenished, so two of us made the trip to Belknap with a pack horse, returning the next day with meal, sugar, and coffee. A cabin was begun and completed in ten days, a crude but stable affair, with clapboard roof, clay floor, and ample fireplace. It was now late in September, and as the usual branding season was at hand, cow-hunting outfits might be expected to pass down the valley. The advantage of corrals would naturally make my place headquarters for cowmen, and we accordingly settled down until the branding season was over. But the abundance of mavericks and wild cattle was so tempting that we had three hundred under herd when the first cow-hunting outfits arrived. At one lake on what is now known as South Prairie, in a single moonlight night, we roped and tied down forty head, the next morning finding thirty of them unbranded and therefore unowned. All tame cattle would naturally water in the daytime, and anything coming in at night fell a victim to our ropes. A wooden toggle was fastened with rawhide to its neck, so it would trail between its forelegs, to prevent running, when the wild maverick was freed and allowed to enter the herd. After a week or ten days, if an animal showed any disposition to quiet down, it was again thrown, branded, and the toggle removed. We corralled the little herd every night, adding to it daily, scouting far and wide for unowned or wild cattle. But when other outfits came up or down the valley of the Clear Fork we joined forces with them, tendering our corrals for branding purposes, our rake-off being the mavericks and eligible strays. Many a fine quarter of beef was left at our cabin by passing ranchmen, and when the gathering ended we had a few over five hundred cattle for our time and trouble.
Fine weather favored us and we held the mavericks under herd until late in December. The wild ones gradually became gentle, and with constant handling these wild animals were located until they would come in of their own accord for the privilege of sleeping in a corral. But when winter approached the herd was turned free, that the cattle might protect themselves from storms, and we gathered our few effects together and started for the settlements. It was with reluctance that I left that primitive valley. Somehow or other, primal conditions possessed a charm for me which, coupled with an innate love of the land and the animals that inhabit it, seemed to influence and outline my future course of life. The pride of possession was mine; with my own hands and abilities had I earned the land, while the overflow from a thousand hills stocked my new ranch. I was now the owner of lands and cattle; my father in his palmiest days never dreamed of such possessions as were mine, while youth and opportunity encouraged me to greater exertions.
We reached the Edwards ranch a few days before Christmas. The boys were settled with and returned to their homes, and I was once more adrift. Forty odd calves had been branded as the increase of my mavericking of the year before, and, still basking in the smile of fortune, I found a letter awaiting me from Major Seth Mabry of Austin, anxious to engage my services as a trail foreman for the coming summer. I had met Major Seth the spring before at Abilene, and was instrumental in finding him a buyer for his herd, and otherwise we became fast friends. There were no outstanding obligations to my former employers, so when a protest was finally raised against my going, I had the satisfaction of vouching for George Edwards, to the manner born, and a better range cowman than I was. The same group of ranchmen expected to drive another herd the coming spring, and I made it a point to see each one personally, urging that nothing but choice cattle should be sent up the trail. My long acquaintance with the junior Edwards enabled me to speak emphatically and to the point, and I lectured him thoroughly as to the requirements of the Abilene market.
I notified Major Mabry that I would be on hand within a month. The holiday season soon passed, and leaving my horses at the Edwards ranch, I saddled the most worthless one and started south. The trip was uneventful, except that I traded horses twice, reaching my destination within a week, having seen no country en route that could compare with the valley of the Clear Fork. The capital city was a straggling village on the banks of the Colorado River, inert through political usurpation, yet the home of many fine people. Quite a number of cowmen resided there, owning ranches in outlying and adjoining counties, among them being my acquaintance of the year before and present employer. It was too early by nearly a month to begin active operations, and I contented myself about town, making the acquaintance of other cowmen and their foremen who expected to drive that year. New Orleans had previously been the only outlet for beef cattle in southern Texas, and even in the spring of '69 very few had any confidence of a market in the north. Major Mabry, however, was going to drive two herds to Abilene, one of beeves and the other of younger steers, dry cows, and thrifty two-year-old heifers, and I was to have charge of the heavy cattle. Both herds would be put up in Llano County, it being the intention to start with the grass. Mules were to be worked to the wagons, oxen being considered too slow, while both outfits were to be mounted seven horses to the man.
During my stay at Austin I frequently made inquiry for land scrip. Nearly all the merchants had more or less, the current prices being about five cents an acre. There was a clear distinction, however, in case one was a buyer or seller, the former being shown every attention. I allowed the impression to circulate that I would buy, which brought me numerous offers, and before leaving the town I secured twenty sections for five hundred dollars. I needed just that amount to cover a four-mile bend of the Clear Fork on the west end of my new ranch,--a possession which gave me ten miles of that virgin valley. My employer congratulated me on my investment, and assured me that if the people ever overthrew the Reconstruction usurpers the public domain would no longer be bartered away for chips and whetstones. I was too busy to take much interest in the political situation, and, so long as I was prosperous and employed, gave little heed to politics.
Major Mabry owned a ranch and extensive cattle interests northwest in Llano County. As we expected to start the herds as early as possible, the latter part of February found us at the ranch actively engaged in arranging for the summer's work. There were horses to buy, wagons to outfit, and hands to secure, and a busy fortnight was spent in getting ready for the drive. The spring before I had started out in debt; now, on permission being given me, I bought ten horses for my own use and invested the balance of my money in four yoke of oxen. Had I remained in Palo Pinto County the chances were that I might have enlarged my holdings in the coming drive, as in order to have me remain several offered to sell me cattle on credit. But so long as I was enlarging my experience I was content, while the wages offered me were double what I received the summer before.
We went into camp and began rounding up near the middle of March. All classes of cattle were first gathered into one herd, after which the beeves were cut separate and taken charge of by my outfit. We gathered a few over fifteen hundred of the latter, all prairie-raised cattle, four years old or over, and in the single ranch brand of my employer. Major Seth had also contracted for one thousand other beeves, and it became our duty to receive them. These outside contingents would have to be road-branded before starting, as they were in a dozen or more brands, the work being done in a chute built for that purpose. My employer and I fully agreed on the quality of cattle to be received, and when possible we both passed on each tender of beeves before accepting them. The two herds were being held separate, and a friendly rivalry existed between the outfits as to which herd would be ready to start first. It only required a few days extra to receive and road-brand the outside cattle, when all were ready to start. As Major Seth knew the most practical route, in deference to his years and experience I insisted that he should take the lead until after Red River was crossed. I had been urging the Chisholm trail in preference to more eastern ones, and with the compromise that I should take the lead after passing Fort Worth, the two herds started on the last day of March.
There was no particular trail to follow. The country was all open, and the grass was coming rapidly, while the horses and cattle were shedding their winter coats with the change of the season. Fine weather favored us, no rains at night and few storms, and within two weeks we passed Fort Worth, after which I took the lead. I remember that at the latter point I wrote a letter to the elder Edwards, inclosing my land scrip, and asking him to send a man out to my new ranch occasionally to see that the improvements were not destroyed. Several herds had already passed the fort, their destination being the same as ours, and from thence onward we had the advantage of following a trail. As we neared Red River, nearly all the herds bore off to the eastward, but we held our course, crossing into the Chickasaw Nation at the regular Chisholm ford. A few beggarly Indians, renegades from the Kiowas and Comanches on the west, annoyed us for the first week, but were easily appeased with a lame or stray beef. The two herds held rather close together as a matter of mutual protection, as in some of the encampments were fully fifty lodges with possibly as many able-bodied warriors. But after crossing the Washita River no further trouble was encountered from the natives, and we swept northward at the steady pace of an advancing army. Other herds were seen in our rear and front, and as we neared the Kansas line several long columns of cattle were sighted coming in over the safer eastern routes.
The last lap of the drive was reached. A fortnight later we went into camp within twelve miles of Abilene, having been on the trail two months and eleven days. The same week we moved north of the railroad, finding ample range within seven miles of town. Herds were coming in rapidly, and it was important to secure good grazing grounds for our cattle. Buyers were arriving from every territory in the Northwest, including California, while the usual contingent of Eastern dealers, shippers, and market-scalpers was on hand. It could hardly be said that prices had yet opened, though several contracted herds had already been delivered, while every purchaser was bearing the market and prophesying a drive of a quarter million cattle. The drovers, on the other hand, were combating every report in circulation, even offering to wager that the arrivals of stock for the entire summer would not exceed one hundred thousand head. Cowmen reported en route with ten thousand beeves came in with one fifth the number, and sellers held the whip hand, the market actually opening at better figures than the summer before. Once prices were established, I was in the thick of the fight, selling my oxen the first week to a freighter, constantly on the skirmish for a buyer, and never failing to recognize one with whom I had done business the summer before. In case Major Mabry had nothing to suit, the herd in charge of George Edwards was always shown, and I easily effected two sales, aggregating fifteen hundred head, from the latter cattle, with customers of the year previous.
But my zeal for bartering in cattle came to a sudden end near the close of June. A conservative estimate of the arrivals then in sight or known to be en route for Abilene was placed at one hundred and fifty thousand cattle. Yet instead of any weakening in prices, they seemed to strengthen with the influx of buyers from the corn regions, as the prospects of the season assured a bountiful new crop. Where States had quarantined against Texas cattle the law was easily circumvented by a statement that the cattle were immune from having wintered in the north, which satisfied the statutes--as there was no doubt but they had wintered somewhere. Steer cattle of acceptable age and smoothness of build were in demand by feeders; all classes in fact felt a stimulus. My beeves were sold for delivery north of Cheyenne, Wyoming, the buyers, who were ranchmen as well as army contractors, taking the herd complete, including the remuda and wagon. Under the terms, the cattle were to start immediately and be grazed through. I was given until the middle of September to reach my destination, and at once moved out on a northwest course. On reaching the Republican River, we followed it to the Colorado line, and then tacked north for Cheyenne. Reporting our progress to the buyers, we were met and directed to pass to the eastward of that village, where we halted a week, and seven hundred of the fattest beeves were cut out for delivery at Fort Russell. By various excuses we were detained until frost fell before we reached the ranch, and a second and a third contingent of beeves were cut out for other deliveries, making it nearly the middle of October before I was finally relieved.
With the exception of myself, a new outfit of men had been secured at Abilene. Some of them were retained at the ranch of the contractors, the remainder being discharged, all of us returning to Cheyenne together, whence we scattered to the four winds. I spent a week in Denver, meeting Charlie Goodnight, who had again fought his way up the Pecos route and delivered his cattle to the contractors at Fort Logan. Continuing homeward, I took the train for Abilene, hesitating whether to stop there or visit my brother in Missouri before returning to Texas. I had twelve hundred dollars with me, as the proceeds of my wages, horses, and oxen, and, feeling rather affluent, I decided to stop over a day at the new trail town. I knew the market was virtually over, and what evil influence ever suggested my stopping at Abilene is unexplainable. But I did stop, and found things just as I expected,--everybody sold out and gone home. A few trail foremen were still hanging around the town under the pretense of attending to unsettled business, and these welcomed me with a fraternal greeting. Two of them who had served in the Confederate army came to me and frankly admitted that they were broke, and begged me to help them out of town by redeeming their horses and saddles. Feed bills had accumulated and hotel accounts were unpaid; the appeals of the rascals would have moved a stone to pity.
The upshot of the whole matter was that I bought a span of mules and wagon and invited seven of the boys to accompany me overland to Texas. My friends insisted that we could sell the outfit in the lower country for more than cost, but before I got out of town my philanthropic venture had absorbed over half my savings. As long as I had money the purse seemed a public one, and all the boys borrowed just as freely as if they expected to repay it. I am sure they felt grateful, and had I been one of the needy no doubt any of my friends would have shared his purse with me.
It was a delightful trip across the Indian Territory, and we reached Sherman, Texas, just before the holidays. Every one had become tired of the wagon, and I was fortunate enough to sell it without loss. Those who had saddle horses excused themselves and hurried home for the Christmas festivities, leaving a quartette of us behind. But before the remainder of us proceeded to our destinations two of the boys discovered a splendid opening for a monte game, in which we could easily recoup all our expenses for the trip. I was the only dissenter to the programme, not even knowing the game; but under the pressure which was brought to bear I finally yielded, and became banker for my friends. The results are easily told. The second night there was heavy play, and before ten o'clock the monte bank closed for want of funds, it having been tapped for its last dollar. The next morning I took stage for Dallas, where I arrived with less than twenty dollars, and spent the most miserable Christmas day of my life. I had written George Edwards from Denver that I expected to go to Missouri, and asked him to take my horses and go out to the little ranch and brand my calves. There was no occasion now to contradict my advice of that letter, neither would I go near the Edwards ranch, yet I hungered for that land scrip and roundly cursed myself for being a fool. It would be two months and a half before spring work opened, and what to do in the mean time was the one absorbing question. My needs were too urgent to allow me to remain idle long, and, drifting south, working when work was to be had, at last I reached the home of my soldier crony in Washington County, walking and riding in country wagons the last hundred miles of the distance. No experience in my life ever humiliated me as that one did, yet I have laughed about it since. I may have previously heard of riches taking wings, but in this instance, now mellowed by time, no injustice will be done by simply recording it as the parting of a fool and his money.