After leaving the country tributary to the Solomon River, we crossed a wide tableland for nearly a hundred miles, and with the exception of the Kansas Pacific Railroad, without a landmark worthy of a name. Western Kansas was then classified, worthily too, as belonging to the Great American Desert, and most of the country for the last five hundred miles of our course was entitled to a similar description. Once the freshness of spring had passed, the plain took on her natural sunburnt color, and day after day, as far as the eye could reach, the monotony was unbroken, save by the variations of the mirages on every hand. Except at morning and evening, we were never out of sight of these optical illusions, sometimes miles away, and then again close up, when an antelope standing half a mile distant looked as tall as a giraffe. Frequently the lead of the herd would be in eclipse from these illusions, when to the men in the rear the horsemen and cattle in the lead would appear like giants in an old fairy story. If the monotony of the sea can be charged with dulling men's sensibilities until they become pirates, surely this desolate, arid plain might be equally charged with the wrongdoing of not a few of our craft.
On crossing the railroad at Grinnell, our foreman received a letter from Lovell, directing him to go to Culbertson, Nebraska, and there meet a man who was buying horses for a Montana ranch. Our employer had his business eye open for a possible purchaser for our remuda, and if the horses could be sold for delivery after the herd had reached its destination, the opportunity was not to be overlooked. Accordingly, on reaching Beaver Creek, where we encamped, Flood left us to ride through to the Republican River during the night. The trail crossed this river about twenty miles west of Culbertson, and if the Montana horse buyer were yet there, it would be no trouble to come up to the trail crossing and look at our horses.
So after supper, and while we were catching up our night horses, Flood said to us, "Now, boys, I'm going to leave the outfit and herd under Joe Stallings as segundo. It's hardly necessary to leave you under any one as foreman, for you all know your places. But some one must be made responsible, and one bad boss will do less harm than half a dozen that mightn't agree. So you can put Honeyman on guard in your place at night, Joe, if you don't want to stand your own watch. Now behave yourselves, and when I meet you on the Republican, I'll bring out a box of cigars and have it charged up as axle grease when we get supplies at Ogalalla. And don't sit up all night telling fool stories."
"Now, that's what I call a good cow boss," said Joe Stallings, as our foreman rode away in the twilight; "besides, he used passable good judgment in selecting a segundo. Now, Honeyman, you heard what he said. Billy dear, I won't rob you of this chance to stand a guard. McCann, have you got on your next list of supplies any jam and jelly for Sundays? You have? That's right, son--that saves you from standing a guard tonight. Officer, when you come off guard at 3.30 in the morning, build the cook up a good fire. Let me see; yes, and I'll detail young Tom Quirk and The Rebel to grease the wagon and harness your mules before starting in the morning. I want to impress it on your mind, McCann, that I can appreciate a thoughtful cook. What's that, Honeyman? No, indeed, you can't ride my night horse. Love me, love my dog; my horse shares this snap. Now, I don't want to be under the necessity of speaking to any of you first guard, but flop into your saddles ready to take the herd. My turnip says it's eight o'clock now."
"Why, you've missed your calling--you'd make a fine second mate on a river steamboat, driving niggers," called back Quince Forrest, as the first guard rode away.
When our guard returned, Officer intentionally walked across Stallings's bed, and catching his spur in the tarpaulin, fell heavily across our segundo.
"Excuse me," said John, rising, "but I was just nosing around looking for the foreman. Oh, it's you, is it? I just wanted to ask if 4.30 wouldn't be plenty early to build up the fire. Wood's a little scarce, but I'll burn the prairies if you say so. That's all I wanted to know; you may lay down now and go to sleep."
Our camp-fire that night was a good one, and in the absence of Flood, no one felt like going to bed until drowsiness compelled us. So we lounged around the fire smoking the hours away, and in spite of the admonition of our foreman, told stories far into the night. During the early portion of the evening, dog stories occupied the boards. As the evening wore on, the subject of revisiting the old States came up for discussion.
"You all talk about going back to the old States," said Joe Stallings, "but I don't take very friendly to the idea. I felt that way once and went home to Tennessee; but I want to tell you that after you live a few years in the sunny Southwest and get onto her ways, you can't stand it back there like you think you can. Now, when I went back, and I reckon my relations will average up pretty well,--fought in the Confederate army, vote the Democratic ticket, and belong to the Methodist church,--they all seemed to be rapidly getting locoed. Why, my uncles, when they think of planting the old buck field or the widow's acre into any crop, they first go projecting around in the soil, and, as they say, analyze it, to see what kind of a fertilizer it will require to produce the best results. Back there if one man raises ten acres of corn and his neighbor raises twelve, the one raising twelve is sure to look upon the other as though he lacked enterprise or had modest ambitions. Now, up around that old cow town, Abilene, Kansas, it's a common sight to see the cornfields stretch out like an ocean.
"And then their stock--they are all locoed about that. Why, I know people who will pay a hundred dollars for siring a colt, and if there's one drop of mongrel blood in that sire's veins for ten generations back on either side of his ancestral tree, it condemns him, though he may be a good horse otherwise. They are strong on standard bred horses; but as for me, my mount is all right. I wouldn't trade with any man in this outfit, without it would be Flood, and there's none of them standard bred either. Why, shucks! if you had the pick of all the standard bred horses in Tennessee, you couldn't handle a herd of cattle like ours with them, without carrying a commissary with you to feed them. No; they would never fit here--it takes a range-raised horse to run cattle; one that can rustle and live on grass."
"Another thing about those people back in those old States: Not one in ten, I'll gamble, knows the teacher he sends his children to school to. But when he has a promising colt to be shod, the owner goes to the blacksmith shop himself, and he and the smith will sit on the back sill of the shop, and they will discuss how to shoe that filly so as to give her certain knee action which she seems to need. Probably, says one, a little weight on her toe would give her reach. And there they will sit and powwow and make medicine for an hour or two. And while the blacksmith is shoeing her, the owner will tell him in confidence what a wonderful burst of speed she developed yesterday, while he was speeding her on the back stretch. And then just as he turned her into the home stretch, she threw a shoe and he had to check her in; but if there'd been any one to catch her time, he was certain it was better than a two-ten clip. And that same colt, you couldn't cut a lame cow out of the shade of a tree on her. A man back there--he's rich, too, though his father made it--gave a thousand dollars for a pair of dogs before they were born. The terms were one half cash and the balance when they were old enough to ship to him. And for fear they were not the proper mustard, he had that dog man sue him in court for the balance, so as to make him prove the pedigree. Now Bob, there, thinks that old hound of his is the real stuff, but he wouldn't do now; almost every year the style changes in dogs back in the old States. One year maybe it's a little white dog with red eyes, and the very next it's a long bench-legged, black dog with a Dutch name that right now I disremember. Common old pot hounds and everyday yellow dogs have gone out of style entirely. No, you can all go back that want to, but as long as I can hold a job with Lovell and Flood, I'll try and worry along in my own way."
On finishing his little yarn, Stallings arose, saying, "I must take a listen to my men on herd. It always frets me for fear my men will ride too near the cattle."
A minute later he called us, and when several of us walked out to where he was listening, we recognized Roundtree's voice, singing:--
"Little black bull came down the hillside, Down the hillside, down the hillside, Little black bull came down the hillside, Long time ago."
"Whenever my men sing that song on guard, it tells me that everything is amply serene," remarked our segundo, with the air of a field-marshal, as we walked back to the fire.
The evening had passed so rapidly it was now almost time for the second guard to be called, and when the lateness of the hour was announced, we skurried to our blankets like rabbits to their warrens. The second guard usually got an hour or two of sleep before being called, but in the absence of our regular foreman, the mice would play. When our guard was called at one o'clock, as usual, Officer delayed us several minutes looking for his spurs, and I took the chance to ask The Rebel why it was that he never wore spurs.
"It's because I'm superstitious, son," he answered. "I own a fine pair of silver-plated spurs that have a history, and if you're ever at Lovell's ranch I'll show them to you. They were given to me by a mortally wounded Federal officer the day the battle of Lookout Mountain was fought. I was an orderly, carrying dispatches, and in passing through a wood from which the Union army had been recently driven, this officer was sitting at the root of a tree, fatally wounded. He motioned me to him, and when I dismounted, he said, 'Johnny Reb, please give a dying man a drink.' I gave him my canteen, and after drinking from it he continued, 'I want you to have my spurs. Take them off. Listen to their history: as you have taken them off me to-day, so I took them off a Mexican general the day the American army entered the capital of Mexico.'"