Flood overtook us the next morning, and as a number of us gathered round him to hear the news, told us of a letter that Mann had got at Doan's, stating that the first herd to pass Camp Supply had been harassed by Indians. The "Running W" people, Mann's employers, had a representative at Dodge, who was authority for the statement. Flood had read the letter, which intimated that an appeal would be made to the government to send troops from either Camp Supply or Fort Sill to give trail herds a safe escort in passing the western border of this Indian reservation. The letter, therefore, admonished Mann, if he thought the Indians would give any trouble, to go up the south side of Red River as far as the Pan-handle of Texas, and then turn north to the government trail at Fort Elliot.
"I told Mann," said our foreman, "that before I'd take one step backward, or go off on a wild goose chase through that Pan-handle country, I'd go back home and start over next year on the Chisholm trail. It's the easiest thing in the world for some big auger to sit in a hotel somewhere and direct the management of a herd. I don't look for no soldiers to furnish an escort; it would take the government six months to get a move on her, even in an emergency. I left Billy Mann in a quandary; he doesn't know what to do. That big auger at Dodge is troubling him, for if he don't act on his advice, and loses cattle as the result--well, he'll never boss any more herds for King and Kennedy. So, boys, if we're ever to see the Blackfoot Agency, there's but one course for us to take, and that's straight ahead. As old Oliver Loving, the first Texas cowman that ever drove a herd, used to say, 'Never borrow trouble, or cross a river before you reach it.' So when the cattle are through grazing, let them hit the trail north. It's entirely too late for us to veer away from any Indians."
We were following the regular trail, which had been slightly used for a year or two, though none of our outfit had ever been over it, when late on the third afternoon, about forty miles out from Doan's, about a hundred mounted bucks and squaws sighted our herd and crossed the North Fork from their encampment. They did not ride direct to the herd, but came into the trail nearly a mile above the cattle, so it was some little time from our first sighting them before we met. We did not check the herd or turn out of the trail, but when the lead came within a few hundred yards of the Indians, one buck, evidently the chief of the band, rode forward a few rods and held up one hand, as if commanding a halt. At the sight of this gaudily bedecked apparition, the cattle turned out of the trail, and Flood and I rode up to the chief, extending our hands in friendly greeting. The chief could not speak a word of English, but made signs with his hands; when I turned loose on him in Spanish, however, he instantly turned his horse and signed back to his band. Two young bucks rode forward and greeted Flood and myself in good Spanish.
On thus opening up an intelligible conversation, I called Fox Quarternight, who spoke Spanish, and he rode up from his position of third man in the swing and joined in the council. The two young Indians through whom we carried on the conversation were Apaches, no doubt renegades of that tribe, and while we understood each other in Spanish, they spoke in a heavy guttural peculiar to the Indian. Flood opened the powwow by demanding to know the meaning of this visit. When the question had been properly interpreted to the chief, the latter dropped his blanket from his shoulders and dismounted from his horse. He was a fine specimen of the Plains Indian, fully six feet in height, perfectly proportioned, and in years well past middle life. He looked every inch a chief, and was a natural born orator. There was a certain easy grace to his gestures, only to be seen in people who use the sign language, and often when he was speaking to the Apache interpreters, I could anticipate his requests before they were translated to us, although I did not know a word of Comanche.
Before the powwow had progressed far it was evident that begging was its object. In his prelude, the chief laid claim to all the country in sight as the hunting grounds of the Comanche tribe,--an intimation that we were intruders. He spoke of the great slaughter of the buffalo by the white hide-hunters, and the consequent hunger and poverty amongst his people. He dwelt on the fact that he had ever counseled peace with the whites, until now his band numbered but a few squaws and papooses, the younger men having deserted him for other chiefs of the tribe who advocated war on the palefaces. When he had fully stated his position, he offered to allow us to pass through his country in consideration of ten beeves. On receiving this proposition, all of us dismounted, including the two Apaches, the latter seating themselves in their own fashion, while we whites lounged on the ground in truly American laziness, rolling cigarettes. In dealing with people who know not the value of time, the civilized man is taken at a disadvantage, and unless he can show an equal composure in wasting time, results will be against him. Flood had had years of experience in dealing with Mexicans in the land of manana, where all maxims regarding the value of time are religiously discarded. So in dealing with this Indian chief he showed no desire to hasten matters, and carefully avoided all reference to the demand for beeves.
His first question, instead, was to know the distance to Fort Sill and Fort Elliot. The next was how many days it would take for cavalry to reach him. He then had us narrate the fact that when the first herd of cattle passed through the country less than a month before, some bad Indians had shown a very unfriendly spirit. They had taken many of the cattle and had killed and eaten them, and now the great white man's chief at Washington was very much displeased. If another single ox were taken and killed by bad Indians, he would send his soldiers from the forts to protect the cattle, even though their owners drove the herds through the reservation of the Indians--over the grass where their ponies grazed. He had us inform the chief that our entire herd was intended by the great white man's chief at Washington as a present to the Blackfeet Indians who lived in Montana, because they were good Indians, and welcomed priests and teachers amongst them to teach them the ways of the white man. At our foreman's request we then informed the chief that he was under no obligation to give him even a single beef for any privilege of passing through his country, but as the squaws and little papooses were hungry, he would give him two beeves.
The old chief seemed not the least disconcerted, but begged for five beeves, as many of the squaws were in the encampment across the North Fork, those present being not quite half of his village. It was now getting late in the day and the band seemed to be getting tired of the parleying, a number of squaws having already set out on their return to the village. After some further talk, Flood agreed to add another beef, on condition they be taken to the encampment before being killed. This was accepted, and at once the entire band set up a chattering in view of the coming feast. The cattle had in the mean time grazed off nearly a mile, the outfit, however, holding them under a close herd during the powwowing. All the bucks in the band, numbering about forty, now joined us, and we rode away to the herd. I noticed, by the way, that quite a number of the younger braves had arms, and no doubt they would have made a display of force had Flood's diplomacy been of a more warlike character. While drifting the herd back to the trail we cut out a big lame steer and two stray cows for the Indians, who now left us and followed the beeves which were being driven to their village.
Flood had instructed Quarternight and me to invite the two Apaches to our camp for the night, on the promise of sugar, coffee, and tobacco. They consulted with the old chief, and gaining his consent came with us. We extended the hospitality of our wagon to our guests, and when supper was over, promised them an extra beef if they would give us particulars of the trail until it crossed the North Fork, after that river turned west towards the Pan-handle. It was evident that they were familiar with the country, for one of them accepted our offer, and with his finger sketched a rude map on the ground where there had formerly been a camp-fire. He outlined the two rivers between which we were then encamped, and traced the trail until it crossed the North Fork or beyond the Indian reservation. We discussed the outline of the trail in detail for an hour, asking hundreds of unimportant questions, but occasionally getting in a leading one, always resulting in the information wanted. We learned that the big summer encampment of the Comanches and Kiowas was one day's ride for a pony or two days' with cattle up the trail, at the point where the divide between Salt and North Fork narrows to about ten miles in width. We leeched out of them very cautiously the information that the encampment was a large one, and that all herds this year had given up cattle, some as many as twenty-five head.
Having secured the information we wanted, Flood gave to each Apache a package of Arbuckle coffee, a small sack of sugar, and both smoking and chewing tobacco. Quarternight informed them that as the cattle were bedded for the night, they had better remain until morning, when he would pick them out a nice fat beef. On their consenting, Fox stripped the wagon sheet off the wagon and made them a good bed, in which, with their body blankets, they were as comfortable as any of us. Neither of them was armed, so we felt no fear of them, and after they had lain down on their couch, Flood called Quarternight and me, and we strolled out into the darkness and reviewed the information. We agreed that the topography of the country they had given was most likely correct, because we could verify much of it by maps in our possession. Another thing on which we agreed was, that there was some means of communication between this small and seemingly peaceable band and the main encampment of the tribe; and that more than likely our approach would be known in the large encampment before sunrise. In spite of the good opinion we entertained of our guests, we were also satisfied they had lied to us when they denied they had been in the large camp since the trail herds began to pass. This was the last question we had asked, and the artful manner in which they had parried it showed our guests to be no mean diplomats themselves.
Our camp was astir by daybreak, and after breakfast, as we were catching our mounts for the day, one of the Apaches offered to take a certain pinto horse in our remuda in lieu of the promised beef, but Flood declined the offer. On overtaking the herd after breakfast, Quarternight cut out a fat two year old stray heifer, and he and I assisted our guests to drive their beef several miles toward their village. Finally bidding them farewell, we returned to the herd, when the outfit informed us that Flood and The Rebel had ridden on ahead to look out a crossing on the Salt Fork. From this move it was evident that if a passable ford could be found, our foreman intended to abandon the established route and avoid the big Indian encampment.
On the return of Priest and Flood about noon, they reported having found an easy ford of the Salt Fork, which, from the indications of their old trails centring from every quarter at this crossing, must have been used by buffalo for generations. After dinner we put our wagon in the lead, and following close at hand with the cattle, turned off the trail about a mile above our noon camp and struck to the westward for the crossing. This we reached and crossed early that evening, camping out nearly five miles to the west of the river. Rain was always to be dreaded in trail work, and when bedding down the herd that night, we had one of the heaviest downpours which we had experienced since leaving the Rio Grande. It lasted several hours, but we stood it uncomplainingly, for this fortunate drenching had obliterated every trace left by our wagon and herd since abandoning the trail, as well as the sign left at the old buffalo crossing on the Salt Fork. The rain ceased about ten o'clock, when the cattle bedded down easily, and the second guard took them for their watch. Wood was too scarce to afford a fire, and while our slickers had partially protected us from the rain, many of us went to bed in wet clothing that night. After another half day's drive to the west, we turned northward and traveled in that direction through a nice country, more or less broken with small hills, but well watered. On the morning of the first day after turning north, Honeyman reported a number of our saddle horses had strayed from camp. This gave Flood some little uneasiness, and a number of us got on our night horses without loss of time and turned out to look up the missing saddle stock. The Rebel and I set out together to the southward, while others of the outfit set off to the other points of the compass.
I was always a good trailer, was in fact acknowledged to be one of the best, with the exception of my brother Zack, on the San Antonio River, where we grew up as boys. In circling about that morning, I struck the trail of about twenty horses--the missing number--and at once signaled to Priest, who was about a mile distant, to join me. The ground was fortunately fresh from the recent rain and left an easy trail. We galloped along it easily for some little distance, when the trail suddenly turned and we could see that the horses had been running, having evidently received a sudden scare. On following up the trail nearly a mile, we noticed where they had quieted down and had evidently grazed for several hours, but in looking up the trail by which they had left these parts, Priest made the discovery of signs of cattle. We located the trail of the horses soon, and were again surprised to find that they had been running as before, though the trail was much fresher, having possibly been made about dawn. We ran the trail out until it passed over a slight divide, when there before us stood the missing horses. They never noticed us, but were standing at attention, cautiously sniffing the early morning air, on which was borne to them the scent of something they feared. On reaching them, their fear seemed not the least appeased, and my partner and I had our curiosity sufficiently aroused to ride forward to the cause of their alarm. As we rounded the spur of the hill, there in plain view grazed a band of about twenty buffalo. We were almost as excited as the horses over the discovery. By dropping back and keeping the hill between us and them, then dismounting and leaving our horses, we thought we could reach the apex of the hill. It was but a small elevation, and from its summit we secured a splendid view of the animals, now less than three hundred yards distant. Flattening ourselves out, we spent several minutes watching the shaggy animals as they grazed leisurely forward, while several calves in the bunch gamboled around their mothers. A buffalo calf, I had always heard, made delicious veal, and as we had had no fresh meat since we had started, I proposed to Priest that we get one. He suggested trying our ropes, for if we could ever get within effective six-shooter range, a rope was much the surest. Certainly such cumbrous, awkward looking animals, he said, could be no match for our Texas horses. We accordingly dropped back off the hill to our saddle stock, when Priest said that if he only had a certain horse of his out of the band we had been trailing he would promise me buffalo veal if he had to follow them to the Pan-handle. It took us but a few minutes to return to our horses, round them in, and secure the particular horse he wanted. I was riding my Nigger Boy, my regular night horse, and as only one of my mount was in this bunch,--a good horse, but sluggish,--I concluded to give my black a trial, not depending on his speed so much as his staying qualities. It took but a minute for The Rebel to shift his saddle from one horse to another, when he started around to the south, while I turned to the north, so as to approach the buffalo simultaneously. I came in sight of the band first, my partner having a farther ride to make, but had only a few moments to wait, before I noticed the quarry take alarm, and the next instant Priest dashed out from behind a spur of the hill and was after them, I following suit. They turned westward, and when The Rebel and I came together on the angle of their course, we were several hundred yards in their rear. My bunkie had the best horse in speed by all odds, and was soon crowding the band so close that they began to scatter, and though I passed several old bulls and cows, it was all I could do to keep in sight of the calves. After the chase had continued over a mile, the staying qualities of my horse began to shine, but while I was nearing the lead, The Rebel tied to the largest calf in the bunch. The calf he had on his rope was a beauty, and on overtaking him, I reined in my horse, for to have killed a second one would have been sheer waste. Priest wanted me to shoot the calf, but I refused, so he shifted the rope to the pommel of my saddle, and, dismounting, dropped the calf at the first shot. We skinned him, cut off his head, and after disemboweling him, lashed the carcass across my saddle. Then both of us mounted Priest's horse, and started on our return.
On reaching the horse stock, we succeeded in catching a sleepy old horse belonging to Rod Wheat's mount, and I rode him bridleless and bareback to camp. We received an ovation on our arrival, the recovery of the saddle horses being a secondary matter compared to the buffalo veal. "So it was buffalo that scared our horses, was it, and ran them out of camp?" said McCann, as he helped to unlash the calf. "Well, it's an ill wind that blows nobody good." There was no particular loss of time, for the herd had grazed away on our course several miles, and after changing our mounts we overtook the herd with the news that not only the horses had been found, but that there was fresh meat in camp--and buffalo veal at that! The other men out horse hunting, seeing the cattle strung out in traveling shape, soon returned to their places beside the trailing herd.
We held a due northward course, which we figured ought to carry us past and at least thirty miles to the westward of the big Indian encampment. The worst thing with which we had now to contend was the weather, it having rained more or less during the past day and night, or ever since we had crossed the Salt Fork. The weather had thrown the outfit into such a gloomy mood that they would scarcely speak to or answer each other. This gloomy feeling had been growing on us for several days, and it was even believed secretly that our foreman didn't know where he was; that the outfit was drifting and as good as lost. About noon of the third day, the weather continuing wet with cold nights, and with no abatement of the general gloom, our men on point noticed smoke arising directly ahead on our course, in a little valley through which ran a nice stream of water. When Flood's attention was directed to the smoke, he rode forward to ascertain the cause, and returned worse baffled than I ever saw him.
It was an Indian camp, and had evidently been abandoned only that morning, for the fires were still smouldering. Ordering the wagon to camp on the creek and the cattle to graze forward till noon, Flood returned to the Indian camp, taking two of the boys and myself with him. It had not been a permanent camp, yet showed evidence of having been occupied several days at least, and had contained nearly a hundred lean-tos, wickyups, and tepees--altogether too large an encampment to suit our tastes. The foreman had us hunt up the trail leaving, and once we had found it, all four of us ran it out five or six miles, when, from the freshness of it, fearing that we might be seen, we turned back. The Indians had many ponies and possibly some cattle, though the sign of the latter was hard to distinguish from buffalo. Before quitting their trail, we concluded they were from one of the reservations, and were heading for their old stamping ground, the Pan-handle country,--peaceable probably; but whether peaceable or not, we had no desire to meet with them. We lost little time, then, in returning to the herd and making late and early drives until we were out of that section.
But one cannot foresee impending trouble on the cattle trail, any more than elsewhere, and although we encamped that night a long distance to the north of the abandoned Indian camp, the next morning we came near having a stampede. It happened just at dawn. Flood had called the cook an hour before daybreak, and he had started out with Honeyman to drive in the remuda, which had scattered badly the morning before. They had the horses rounded up and were driving them towards camp when, about half a mile from the wagon, four old buffalo bulls ran quartering past the horses. This was tinder among stubble, and in their panic the horses outstripped the wranglers and came thundering for camp. Luckily we had been called to breakfast, and those of us who could see what was up ran and secured our night horses. Before half of the horses were thus secured, however, one hundred and thirty loose saddle stock dashed through camp, and every horse on picket went with them, saddles and all, and dragging the picket ropes. Then the cattle jumped from the bed ground and were off like a shot, the fourth guard, who had them in charge, with them. Just for the time being it was an open question which way to ride, our saddle horses going in one direction and the herd in another. Priest was an early riser and had hustled me out early, so fortunately we reached our horses, though over half the outfit in camp could only look on and curse their luck at being left afoot. The Rebel was first in the saddle, and turned after the horses, but I rode for the herd. The cattle were not badly scared, and as the morning grew clearer, five of us quieted them down before they had run more than a short mile.
The horses, however, gave us a long, hard run, and since a horse has a splendid memory, the effects of this scare were noticeable for nearly a month after. Honeyman at once urged our foreman to hobble at night, but Flood knew the importance of keeping the remuda strong, and refused. But his decision was forced, for just as it was growing dusk that evening, we heard the horses running, and all hands had to turn out, to surround them and bring them into camp. We hobbled every horse and side-lined certain leaders, and for fully a week following, one scare or another seemed to hold our saddle stock in constant terror. During this week we turned out our night horses, and taking the worst of the leaders in their stead, tied them solidly to the wagon wheels all night, not being willing to trust to picket ropes. They would even run from a mounted man during the twilight of evening or early dawn, or from any object not distinguishable in uncertain light; but the wrangler now never went near them until after sunrise, and their nervousness gradually subsided. Trouble never comes singly, however, and when we struck the Salt Fork, we found it raging, and impassable nearly from bank to bank. But get across we must. The swimming of it was nothing, but it was necessary to get our wagon over, and there came the rub. We swam the cattle in twenty minutes' time, but it took us a full half day to get the wagon over. The river was at least a hundred yards wide, three quarters of which was swimming to a horse. But we hunted up and down the river until we found an eddy, where the banks had a gradual approach to deep water, and started to raft the wagon over--a thing none of the outfit had ever seen done, though we had often heard of it around camp-fires in Texas. The first thing was to get the necessary timber to make the raft. We scouted along the Salt Fork for a mile either way before we found sufficient dry, dead cottonwood to form our raft. Then we set about cutting it, but we had only one axe, and were the poorest set of axemen that were ever called upon to perform a similar task; when we cut a tree it looked as though a beaver had gnawed it down. On horseback the Texan shines at the head of his class, but in any occupation which must be performed on foot he is never a competitor. There was scarcely a man in our outfit who could not swing a rope and tie down a steer in a given space of time, but when it came to swinging an axe to cut logs for the raft, our lustre faded. "Cutting these logs," said Joe Stallings, as he mopped the sweat from his brow, "reminds me of what the Tennessee girl who married a Texan wrote home to her sister. 'Texas,' so she wrote, 'is a good place for men and dogs, but it's hell on women and oxen.'"
Dragging the logs up to the place selected for the ford was an easy matter. They were light, and we did it with ropes from the pommels of our saddles, two to four horses being sufficient to handle any of the trees. When everything was ready, we ran the wagon out into two-foot water and built the raft under it. We had cut the dry logs from eighteen to twenty feet long, and now ran a tier of these under the wagon between the wheels. These we lashed securely to the axle, and even lashed one large log on the underside of the hub on the outside of the wheel. Then we cross-timbered under these, lashing everything securely to this outside guard log. Before we had finished the cross-timbering, it was necessary to take an anchor rope ashore for fear our wagon would float away. By the time we had succeeded in getting twenty-five dry cottonwood logs under our wagon, it was afloat. Half a dozen of us then swam the river on our horses, taking across the heaviest rope we had for a tow line. We threw the wagon tongue back and lashed it, and making fast to the wagon with one end of the tow rope, fastened our lariats to the other. With the remainder of our unused rope, we took a guy line from the wagon and snubbed it to a tree on the south bank. Everything being in readiness, the word was given, and as those on the south bank eased away, those on horseback on the other side gave the rowel to their horses, and our commissary floated across. The wagon floated so easily that McCann was ordered on to the raft to trim the weight when it struck the current. The current carried it slightly downstream, and when it lodged on the other side, those on the south bank fastened lariats to the guy rope; and with them pulling from that side and us from ours, it was soon brought opposite the landing and hauled into shallow water. Once the raft timber was unlashed and removed, the tongue was lowered, and from the pommels of six saddles the wagon was set high and dry on the north bank. There now only remained to bring up the cattle and swim them, which was an easy task and soon accomplished.
After putting the Salt Fork behind us, our spirits were again dampened, for it rained all the latter part of the night and until noon the next day. It was with considerable difficulty that McCann could keep his fire from drowning out while he was getting breakfast, and several of the outfit refused to eat at all. Flood knew it was useless to rally the boys, for a wet, hungry man is not to be jollied or reasoned with. Five days had now elapsed since we turned off the established trail, and half the time rain had been falling. Besides, our doubt as to where we were had been growing, so before we started that morning, Bull Durham very good-naturedly asked Flood if he had any idea where he was.
"No, I haven't. No more than you have," replied our foreman. "But this much I do know, or will just as soon as the sun comes out: I know north from south. We have been traveling north by a little west, and if we hold that course we're bound to strike the North Fork, and within a day or two afterwards we will come into the government trail, running from Fort Elliot to Camp Supply, which will lead us into our own trail. Or if we were certain that we had cleared the Indian reservation, we could bear to our right, and in time we would reenter the trail that way. I can't help the weather, boys, and as long as I have chuck, I'd as lief be lost as found."
If there was any recovery in the feelings of the outfit after this talk of Flood's, it was not noticeable, and it is safe to say that two thirds of the boys believed we were in the Pan-handle of Texas. One man's opinion is as good as another's in a strange country, and while there wasn't a man in the outfit who cared to suggest it, I know the majority of us would have indorsed turning northeast. But the fates smiled on us at last. About the middle of the forenoon, on the following day, we cut an Indian trail, about three days old, of probably fifty horses. A number of us followed the trail several miles on its westward course, and among other things discovered that they had been driving a small bunch of cattle, evidently making for the sand hills which we could see about twenty miles to our left. How they had come by the cattle was a mystery,--perhaps by forced levy, perhaps from a stampede. One thing was certain: the trail must have contributed them, for there were none but trail cattle in the country. This was reassuring and gave some hint of guidance. We were all tickled, therefore, after nooning that day and on starting the herd in the afternoon, to hear our foreman give orders to point the herd a little east of north. The next few days we made long drives, our saddle horses recovered from their scare, and the outfit fast regained its spirits.
On the morning of the tenth day after leaving the trail, we loitered up a long slope to a divide in our lead from which we sighted timber to the north. This we supposed from its size must be the North Fork. Our route lay up this divide some distance, and before we left it, some one in the rear sighted a dust cloud to the right and far behind us. As dust would hardly rise on a still morning without a cause, we turned the herd off the divide and pushed on, for we suspected Indians. Flood and Priest hung back on the divide, watching the dust signals, and after the herd had left them several miles in the rear, they turned and rode towards it,--a move which the outfit could hardly make out. It was nearly noon when we saw them returning in a long lope, and when they came in sight of the herd, Priest waved his hat in the air and gave the long yell. When he explained that there was a herd of cattle on the trail in the rear and to our right, the yell went around the herd, and was reechoed by our wrangler and cook in the rear. The spirits of the outfit instantly rose. We halted the herd and camped for noon, and McCann set out his best in celebrating the occasion. It was the most enjoyable meal we had had in the past ten days. After a good noonday rest, we set out, and having entered the trail during the afternoon, crossed the North Fork late that evening. As we were going into camp, we noticed a horseman coming up the trail, who turned out to be smiling Nat Straw, whom we had left on the Colorado River. "Well, girls," said Nat, dismounting, "I didn't know who you were, but I just thought I'd ride ahead and overtake whoever it was and stay all night. Indians? Yes; I wouldn't drive on a trail that hadn't any excitement on it. I gave the last big encampment ten strays, and won them all back and four ponies besides on a horse race. Oh, yes, got some running stock with us. How soon will supper be ready, cusi? Get up something extra, for you've got company."