THE "LAZY L"
The homeward trip was a picnic. Counting mine, we had one hundred and fifty saddle horses. All surplus men in the employ of Major Mabry had been previously sent home until there remained at the close of the season only the drover, seven men, and myself. We averaged forty miles a day returning, sweeping down the plains like a north wind until Red River Station was reached. There our ways parted, and cutting separate my horses, we bade each other farewell, the main outfit heading for Fort Worth, while I bore to the westward for Palo Pinto. Major Seth was anxious to secure my services for another year, but I made no definite promises. We parted the best of friends. There were scattering ranches on my route, but driving fifty loose horses made traveling slow, and it was nearly a week before I reached the Edwards ranch.
The branding season was nearly over. After a few days' rest, an outfit of men was secured, and we started for my little ranch on the Clear Fork. Word was sent to the county seat, appointing a date with the surveyor, and on arriving at the new ranch I found that the corrals had been in active use by branding parties. We were soon in the thick of the fray, easily holding our own, branding every maverick on the range as well as catching wild cattle. My weakness for a good horse was the secret of much of my success in ranching during the early days, for with a remuda of seventy picked horses it was impossible for any unowned animal to escape us. Our drag-net scoured the hills and valleys, and before the arrival of the surveyor we had run the "44" on over five hundred calves, mavericks, and wild cattle. Different outfits came down the Brazos and passed up the Clear Fork, always using my corrals when working in the latter valley. We usually joined in with these cow-hunting parties, extending to them every possible courtesy, and in return many a thrifty yearling was added to my brand. Except some wild-cattle hunting which we had in view, every hoof was branded up by the time the surveyor arrived at the ranch.
The locating of twenty sections of land was an easy matter. We had established corners from which to work, and commencing on the west end of my original location, we ran off an area of country, four miles west by five south. New outside corners were established with buried charcoal and stakes, while the inner ones were indicated by half-buried rock, nothing divisional being done except to locate the land in sections. It was a beautiful tract, embracing a large bend of the Clear Fork, heavily timbered in several places, the soil being of a rich, sandy loam and covered with grass. I was proud of my landed interest, though small compared to modern ranches; and after the surveying ended, we spent a few weeks hunting out several rendezvous of wild cattle before returning to the Edwards ranch.
I married during the holidays. The new ranch was abandoned during the winter months, as the cattle readily cared for themselves, requiring no attention. I now had a good working capital, and having established myself by marriage into a respectable family of the country, I found several avenues open before me. Among the different openings for attractive investment was a brand of cattle belonging to an estate south in Comanche County. If the cattle were as good as represented they were certainly a bargain, as the brand was offered straight through at four dollars and a half a head. It was represented that nothing had been sold from the brand in a number of years, the estate was insolvent, and the trustee was anxious to sell the entire stock outright. I was impressed with the opportunity, and early in the winter George Edwards and I rode down to look the situation over. By riding around the range a few days we were able to get a good idea of the stock, and on inquiry among neighbors and men familiar with the brand, I was satisfied that the cattle were a bargain. A lawyer at the county seat was the trustee, and on opening negotiations with him it was readily to be seen that all he knew about the stock was that shown by the books and accounts. According to the branding for the past few years, it would indicate a brand of five or six thousand cattle. The only trouble in trading was to arrange the terms, my offer being half cash and the balance in six months, the cattle to be gathered early the coming spring. A bewildering list of references was given and we returned home. Within a fortnight a letter came from the trustee, accepting my offer and asking me to set a date for the gathering. I felt positive that the brand ought to run forty per cent steer cattle, and unless there was some deception, there would be in the neighborhood of two thousand head fit for the trail. I at once bought thirty more saddle horses, outfitted a wagon with oxen to draw it, besides hiring fifteen cow-hands. Early in March we started for Comanche County, having in the mean time made arrangements with the elder Edwards to supply one thousand head of trail cattle, intended for the Kansas market.
An early spring favored the work. By the 10th of the month we were actively engaged in gathering the stock. It was understood that we were to have the assistance of the ranch outfit in holding the cattle, but as they numbered only half a dozen and were miserably mounted, they were of little use except as herders. All the neighboring ranches gave us round-ups, and by the time we reached the home range of the brand I was beginning to get uneasy on account of the numbers under herd. My capital was limited, and if we gathered six thousand head it would absorb my money. I needed a little for expenses on the trail, and too many cattle would be embarrassing. There was no intention on my part to act dishonestly in the premises, even if we did drop out any number of yearlings during the last few days of the gathering. It was absolutely necessary to hold the numbers down to five thousand head, or as near that number as possible, and by keeping the ranch outfit on herd and my men out on round-ups, it was managed quietly, though we let no steer cattle two years old or over escape. When the gathering was finished, to the surprise of every one the herd counted out fifty-six hundred and odd cattle. But the numbers were still within the limits of my capital, and at the final settlement I asked the privilege of cutting out and leaving on the range one hundred head of weak, thin stock and cows heavy in calf. I offered to tally-mark and send after them during the fall branding, when the trustee begged me to make him an offer on any remnant of cattle, making me full owner of the brand. I hesitated to involve myself deeper in debt, but when he finally offered me the "Lazy L" brand outright for the sum of one thousand dollars, and on a credit, I never stuttered in accepting his proposal.
I culled back one hundred before starting, there being no occasion now to tally-mark, as I was in full possession of the brand. This amount of cattle in one herd was unwieldy to handle. The first day's drive we scarcely made ten miles, it being nearly impossible to water such an unmanageable body of animals, even from a running stream. The second noon we cut separate all the steers two years old and upward, finding a few under twenty-three hundred in the latter class. This left three thousand and odd hundred in the mixed herd, running from yearlings to old range bulls. A few extra men were secured, and some progress was made for the next few days, the steers keeping well in the lead, the two herds using the same wagon, and camping within half a mile of each other at night. It was fully ninety miles to the Edwards ranch; and when about two thirds the distance was covered, a messenger met us and reported the home cattle under herd and ready to start. It still lacked two days of the appointed time for our return, but rather than disappoint any one, I took seven men and sixty horses with the lead herd and started in to the ranch, leaving the mixed cattle to follow with the wagon. We took a day's rations on a pack horse, touched at a ranch, and on the second evening reached home. My contingent to the trail herd would have classified approximately seven hundred twos, six hundred threes, and one thousand four years old or over.
The next morning the herd started up the trail under George Edwards as foreman. It numbered a few over thirty-three hundred head and had fourteen men, all told, and ninety-odd horses, with four good mules to a new wagon. I promised to overtake them within a week, and the same evening rejoined the mixed herd some ten miles back down the country. Calves were dropping at an alarming rate, fully twenty of them were in the wagon, their advent delaying the progress of the herd. By dint of great exertion we managed to reach the ranch the next evening, where we lay over a day and rigged up a second wagon, purposely for calves. It was the intention to send the stock cattle to my new ranch on the Clear Fork, and releasing all but four men, the idle help about the home ranch were substituted. In moving cattle from one range to another, it should always be done with the coming of grass, as it gives them a full summer to locate and become attached to their new range. When possible, the coming calf crop should be born where the mothers are to be located, as it strengthens the ties between an animal and its range by making sacred the birthplace of its young. From instinctive warnings of maternity, cows will frequently return to the same retreat annually to give birth to their calves.
It was about fifty miles between the home and the new ranch. As it was important to get the cattle located as soon as possible, they were accordingly started with but the loss of a single day. Two wagons accompanied them, every calf was saved, and by nursing the herd early and late we managed to average ten miles between sunrise and sunset. The elder Edwards, anxious to see the new ranch, accompanied us, his patience with a cow being something remarkable. When we lacked but a day's drive of the Clear Fork it was considered advisable for me to return. Once the cattle reached the new range, four men would loose-herd them for a month, after which they would continue to ride the range and turn back all stragglers. The veteran cowman assumed control, and I returned to the home ranch, where a horse had been left on which to overtake the trail herd. My wife caught several glimpses of me that spring; with stocking a new ranch and starting a herd on the trail I was as busy as the proverbial cranberry-merchant. Where a year before I was moneyless, now my obligations were accepted for nearly fourteen thousand dollars.
I overtook the herd within one day's drive of Red River. Everything was moving nicely, the cattle were well trail-broken, not a run had occurred, and all was serene and lovely. We crossed into the Nations at the regular ford, nothing of importance occurring until we reached the Washita River. The Indians had been bothering us more or less, but we brushed them aside or appeased their begging with a stray beef. At the crossing of the Washita quite an encampment had congregated, demanding six cattle and threatening to dispute our entrance to the ford. Several of the boys with us pretended to understand the sign language, and this resulted in an animosity being engendered between two of the outfit over interpreting a sign made by a chief. After we had given the Indians two strays, quite a band of bucks gathered on foot at the crossing, refusing to let us pass until their demand had been fulfilled. We had a few carbines, every lad had a six-shooter or two, and, summoning every mounted man, we rode up to the ford. The braves outnumbered us about three to one, and it was easy to be seen that they had bows and arrows concealed under their blankets. I was determined to give up no more cattle, and in the powwow that followed the chief of the band became very defiant. I accused him and his band of being armed, and when he denied it one of the boys jumped a horse against the chief, knocking him down. In the mêlée, the leader's blanket was thrown from him, exposing a strung bow and quiver of arrows, and at the same instant every man brought his carbine or six-shooter to bear on the astonished braves. Not a shot was fired, nor was there any further resistance offered on the part of the Indians; but as they turned to leave the humiliated chief pointed to the sun and made a circle around his head as if to indicate a threat of scalping.
It was in interpreting this latter sign that the dispute arose between two of the outfit. One of the boys contended that I was to be scalped before the sun set, while the other interpreted the threat that we would all he scalped before the sun rose again. Neither version troubled me, but the two fellows quarreled over the matter while returning to the herd, until the lie was passed and their six-shooters began talking. Fortunately they were both mounted on horses that were gun-shy, and with the rearing and plunging the shots went wild. Every man in the outfit interfered, the two fellows were disarmed, and we started on with the cattle. No interference was offered by the Indians at the ford, the guards were doubled that night, and the incident was forgotten within a week. I simply mention this to give some idea of the men of that day, willing to back their opinions, even on trivial matters, with their lives. "I'm the quickest man on the trigger that ever came over the trail," said a cowpuncher to me one night in a saloon in Abilene. "You're a blankety blank liar," said a quiet little man, a perfect stranger to both of us, not even casting a glance our way. I wrested a six-shooter from the hand of my acquaintance and hustled him out of the house, getting roundly cursed for my interference, though no doubt I saved human life.
On reaching Stone's Store, on the Kansas line, I left the herd to follow, and arrived at Abilene in two days and a half. Only some twenty-five herds were ahead of ours, though I must have passed a dozen or more in my brief ride, staying over night with them and scarcely ever missing a meal on the road. My motive in reaching Abilene in advance of our cattle was to get in touch with the market, secure my trading-corrals again, and perfect my arrangements to do a commission business. But on arriving, instead of having the field to myself, I found the old corrals occupied by a trio of jobbers, while two new ones had been built within ten miles of town, and half a dozen firms were offering their services as salesmen. There was a lack of actual buyers, at least among my acquaintances, and the railroads had adjusted their rates, while a largely increased drive was predicted. The spring had been a wet one, the grass was washy and devoid of nutriment, and there was nothing in the outlook of an encouraging nature. Yet the majority of the drovers were very optimistic of the future, freely predicting better prices than ever before, while many declared their intention of wintering in case their hopes were not realized. By the time our herd arrived, I had grown timid of the market in general and was willing to sell out and go home. I make no pretension to having any extra foresight, probably it was my outstanding obligations in Texas that fostered my anxiety, but I was prepared to sell to the first man who talked business.
Our cattle arrived in good condition. The weather continued wet and stormy, the rank grass harbored myriads of flies and mosquitoes, and the through cattle failed to take on flesh as in former years. Rival towns were competing for the trail business, wintered cattle were lower, and a perfect chaos existed as to future prices, drovers bolstering and pretended buyers depressing them. Within a week after their arrival I sold fifteen hundred of our heaviest beeves to an army contractor from Fort Russell in Dakota. He had brought his own outfit down to receive the cattle, and as his contract called for a million and a half pounds on foot, I assisted him in buying sixteen hundred more. The contractor was a shrewd Yankee, and although I admitted having served in the Confederate army, he offered to form a partnership with me for supplying beef to the army posts along the upper Missouri River. He gave me an insight into the profits in that particular trade, and even urged the partnership, but while the opportunity was a golden one, I was distrustful of a Northern man and declined the alliance. Within a year I regretted not forming the partnership, as the government was a stable patron, and my adopted State had any quantity of beef cattle.
My brother paid me a visit during the latter part of June. We had not seen each other in five years, during which time he had developed into a prosperous stockman, feeding cattle every winter on his Missouri farm. He was anxious to interest me in corn-feeding steers, but I had my hands full at home, and within a week he went on west and bought two hundred Colorado natives, shipping them home to feed the coming winter. Meanwhile a perfect glut of cattle was arriving at Abilene, fully six hundred thousand having registered at Stone's Store on passing into Kansas, yet prices remained firm, considering the condition of the stock. Many drovers halted only a day or two, and turned westward looking for ranges on which to winter their herds. Barely half the arrivals were even offered, which afforded fair prices to those who wished to sell. Before the middle of July the last of ours was closed out at satisfactory prices, and the next day the outfit started home, leaving me behind. I was anxious to secure an extra remuda of horses, and, finding no opposition in that particular field, had traded extensively in saddle stock ever since my arrival at Abilene. Gentle horses were in good demand among shippers and ranchmen, and during my brief stay I must have handled a thousand head, buying whole remudas and retailing in quantities to suit, not failing to keep the choice ones for my own use. Within two weeks after George Edwards started home, I closed up my business, fell in with a returning outfit, and started back with one hundred and ten picked saddle horses. After crossing Red River, I hired a boy to assist me in driving the remuda, and I reached home only ten days behind the others.
I was now the proud possessor of over two hundred saddle horses which had actually cost me nothing. To use a borrowed term, they were the "velvet" of my trading operations. I hardly feel able to convey an idea of the important rôle that the horses play in the operations of a cowman. Whether on the trail or on the ranch, there is a complete helplessness when the men are not properly mounted and able to cope with any emergency that may arise. On the contrary, and especially in trail work, when men are well mounted, there is no excuse for not riding in the lead of any stampede, drifting with the herd on the stormiest night, or trailing lost cattle until overtaken. Owing to the nature of the occupation, a man may be frequently wet, cold, and hungry, and entitled to little sympathy; but once he feels that he is no longer mounted, his grievance becomes a real one. The cow-horse subsisted on the range, and if ever used to exhaustion was worthless for weeks afterward. Hence the value of a good mount in numbers, and the importance of frequent changes when the duties were arduous. The importance of good horses was first impressed on me during my trips to Fort Sumner, and I then resolved that if fortune ever favored me to reach the prominence of a cowman, the saddle stock would have my first consideration.
On my return it was too early for the fall branding. I made a trip out to the new ranch, taking along ample winter supplies, two extra lads, and the old remuda of sixty horses. The men had located the new cattle fairly well, the calf crop was abundant, and after spending a week I returned home. I had previously settled my indebtedness in Comanche County by remittances from Abilene, and early in the fall I made up an outfit to go down and gather the remnant of "Lazy L" cattle. Taking along the entire new remuda, we dropped down in advance of the branding season, visited among the neighboring ranches, and offered a dollar a head for solitary animals that had drifted any great distance from the range of the brand. A camp was established at some corrals on the original range, extra men were employed with the opening of the branding season, and after twenty days' constant riding we started home with a few over nine hundred head, not counting two hundred and odd calves. Little wonder the trustee threatened to sue me; but then it was his own proposition.
On arriving at the Edwards ranch, we halted a few days in order to gather the fruits of my first mavericking. The fall work was nearly finished, and having previously made arrangements to put my brand under herd, we received two hundred and fifty more, with seventy-five thrifty calves, before proceeding on to the new ranch on the Clear Fork. On arriving there we branded the calves, put the two brands under herd, corralling them at night and familiarizing them with their new home, and turning them loose at the end of two weeks. Moving cattle in the fall was contrary to the best results, but it was an idle time, and they were all young stuff and easily located. During the interim of loose-herding this second contingent of stock cattle, the branding had been finished on the ranch, and I was able to take an account of my year's work. The "Lazy L" was continued, and from that brand alone there was an increase of over seventeen hundred calves. With all the expenses of the trail deducted, the steer cattle alone had paid for the entire brand, besides adding over five thousand dollars to my cash capital. Who will gainsay my statement that Texas was a good country in the year 1871?