From the head of Stinking Water to the South Platte was a waterless stretch of forty miles. But by watering the herd about the middle of one forenoon, after grazing, we could get to water again the following evening. With the exception of the meeting with Nat Straw, the drive was featureless, but the night that Nat stayed with us, he regaled us with his experiences, in which he was as lucky as ever. Where we had lost three days on the Canadian with bogged cattle, he had crossed it within fifteen minutes after reaching it. His herd was sold before reaching Dodge, so that he lost no time there, and on reaching Slaughter's bridge, he was only two days behind our herd. His cattle were then en route for delivery on the Crazy Woman in Wyoming, and, as he put it, "any herd was liable to travel faster when it had a new owner."
Flood had heard from our employer at Culbertson, learning that he would not meet us at Ogalalla, as his last herd was due in Dodge about that time. My brother Bob's herd had crossed the Arkansaw a week behind us, and was then possibly a hundred and fifty miles in our rear.
We all regretted not being able to see old man Don, for he believed that nothing was too good for his men, and we all remembered the good time he had shown us in Dodge. The smoke of passing trains hung for hours in signal clouds in our front, during the afternoon of the second day's dry drive, but we finally scaled the last divide, and there, below us in the valley of the South Platte, nestled Ogalalla, the Gomorrah of the cattle trail. From amongst its half hundred buildings, no church spire pointed upward, but instead three fourths of its business houses were dance halls, gambling houses, and saloons. We all knew the town by reputation, while the larger part of our outfit had been in it before. It was there that Joel Collins and his outfit rendezvoused when they robbed the Union Pacific train in October, '77. Collins had driven a herd of cattle for his father and brother, and after selling them in the Black Hills, gambled away the proceeds. Some five or six of his outfit returned to Ogalalla with him, and being moneyless, concluded to recoup their losses at the expense of the railway company. Going eighteen miles up the river to Big Springs, seven of them robbed the express and passengers, the former yielding sixty thousand dollars in gold. The next morning they were in Ogalalla, paying debts, and getting their horses shod. In Collins's outfit was Sam Bass, and under his leadership, until he met his death the following spring at the hands of Texas Rangers, the course of the outfit southward was marked by a series of daring bank and train robberies.
We reached the river late that evening, and after watering, grazed until dark and camped for the night. But it was not to be a night of rest and sleep, for the lights were twinkling across the river in town; and cook, horse wrangler, and all, with the exception of the first guard, rode across the river after the herd had been bedded. Flood had quit us while we were watering the herd and gone in ahead to get a draft cashed, for he was as moneyless as the rest of us. But his letter of credit was good anywhere on the trail where money was to be had, and on reaching town, he took us into a general outfitting store and paid us twenty-five dollars apiece. After warning us to be on hand at the wagon to stand our watches, he left us, and we scattered like lost sheep. Officer and I paid our loans to The Rebel, and the three of us wandered around for several hours in company with Nat Straw. When we were in Dodge, my bunkie had shown no inclination to gamble, but now he was the first one to suggest that we make up a "cow," and let him try his luck at monte. Straw and Officer were both willing, and though in rags, I willingly consented and contributed my five to the general fund.
Every gambling house ran from two to three monte layouts, as it was a favorite game of cowmen, especially when they were from the far southern country. Priest soon found a game to his liking, and after watching his play through several deals, Officer and I left him with the understanding that he would start for camp promptly at midnight. There was much to be seen, though it was a small place, for the ends of the earth's iniquity had gathered in Ogalalla. We wandered through the various gambling houses, drinking moderately, meeting an occasional acquaintance from Texas, and in the course of our rounds landed in the Dew-Drop-In dance hall. Here might be seen the frailty of women in every grade and condition. From girls in their teens, launching out on a life of shame, to the adventuress who had once had youth and beauty in her favor, but was now discarded and ready for the final dose of opium and the coroner's verdict,--all were there in tinsel and paint, practicing a careless exposure of their charms. In a town which has no night, the hours pass rapidly; and before we were aware, midnight was upon us. Returning to the gambling house where we had left Priest, we found him over a hundred dollars winner, and, calling his attention to the hour, persuaded him to cash in and join us. We felt positively rich, as he counted out to each partner his share of the winnings! Straw was missing to receive his, but we knew he could be found on the morrow, and after a round of drinks, we forded the river. As we rode along, my bunkie said,--"I'm superstitious, and I can't help it. But I've felt for a day or so that I was in luck, and I wanted you lads in with me if my warning was true. I never was afraid to go into battle but once, and just as we were ordered into action, a shell killed my horse under me and I was left behind. I've had lots of such warnings, good and bad, and I'm influenced by them. If we get off to-morrow, and I'm in the mood, I'll go back there and make some monte bank look sick."
We reached the wagon in good time to be called on our guard, and after it was over secured a few hours' sleep before the foreman aroused us in the morning. With herds above and below us, we would either have to graze contrary to our course or cross the river. The South Platte was a wide, sandy river with numerous channels, and as easily crossed as an alkali flat of equal width, so far as water was concerned. The sun was not an hour high when we crossed, passing within two hundred yards of the business section of the town, which lay under a hill. The valley on the north side of the river, and beyond the railroad, was not over half a mile wide, and as we angled across it, the town seemed as dead as those that slept in the graveyard on the first hill beside the trail.
Finding good grass about a mile farther on, we threw the herd off the trail, and leaving orders to graze until noon, the foreman with the first and second guard returned to town. It was only about ten miles over to the North Platte, where water was certain; and in the hope that we would be permitted to revisit the village during the afternoon, we who were on guard threw riders in the lead of the grazing cattle, in order not to be too far away should permission be granted us. That was a long morning for us of the third and fourth guards, with nothing to do but let the cattle feed, while easy money itched in our pockets. Behind us lay Ogalalla--and our craft did dearly love to break the monotony of our work by getting into town. But by the middle of the forenoon, the wagon and saddle horses overtook us, and ordering McCann into camp a scant mile in our lead, we allowed the cattle to lie down, they having grazed to contentment. Leaving two men on guard, the remainder of us rode in to the wagon, and lightened with an hour's sleep in its shade the time which hung heavy on our hands. We were aroused by our horse wrangler, who had sighted a cavalcade down the trail, which, from the color of their horses, he knew to be our outfit returning. As they came nearer and their numbers could be made out, it was evident that our foreman was not with them, and our hopes rose. On coming up, they informed us that we were to have a half holiday, while they would take the herd over to the North River during the afternoon. Then emergency orders rang out to Honeyman and McCann, and as soon as a change of mounts could be secured, our dinners bolted, and the herders relieved, we were ready to go. Two of the six who returned had shed their rags and swaggered about in new, cheap suits; the rest, although they had money, simply had not had the time to buy clothes in a place with so many attractions.
When the herders came in deft hands transferred their saddles to waiting mounts while they swallowed a hasty dinner, and we set out for Ogalalla, happy as city urchins in an orchard. We were less than five miles from the burg, and struck a free gait in riding in, where we found several hundred of our craft holding high jinks. A number of herds had paid off their outfits and were sending them home, while from the herds for sale, holding along the river, every man not on day herd was paying his respects to the town. We had not been there five minutes when a horse race was run through the main street, Nat Straw and Jim Flood acting as judges on the outcome. The officers of Ogalalla were a different crowd from what we had encountered at Dodge, and everything went. The place suited us. Straw had entirely forgotten our "cow" of the night before, and when The Rebel handed him his share of the winnings, he tucked it away in the watch pocket of his trousers without counting. But he had arranged a fiddling match between a darky cook of one of the returning outfits and a locoed white man, a mendicant of the place, and invited us to be present. Straw knew the foreman of the outfit to which the darky belonged, and the two had fixed it up to pit the two in a contest, under the pretense that a large wager had been made on which was the better fiddler. The contest was to take place at once in the corral of the Lone Star livery stable, and promised to be humorous if nothing more. So after the race was over, the next number on the programme was the fiddling match, and we followed the crowd. The Rebel had given us the slip during the race, though none of us cared, as we knew he was hungering for a monte game. It was a motley crowd which had gathered in the corral, and all seemed to know of the farce to be enacted, though the Texas outfit to which the darky belonged were flashing their money on their dusky cook, "as the best fiddler that ever crossed Red River with a cow herd."
"Oh, I don't know that your man is such an Ole Bull as all that," said Nat Straw. "I just got a hundred posted which says he can't even play a decent second to my man. And if we can get a competent set of judges to decide the contest, I'll wager a little more on the white against the black, though I know your man is a cracker-jack."
A canvass of the crowd was made for judges, but as nearly every one claimed to be interested in the result, having made wagers, or was incompetent to sit in judgment on a musical contest, there was some little delay. Finally, Joe Stallings went to Nat Straw and told him that I was a fiddler, whereupon he instantly appointed me as judge, and the other side selected a redheaded fellow belonging to one of Dillard Fant's herds. Between the two of us we selected as the third judge a bartender whom I had met the night before. The conditions governing the contest were given us, and two chuck wagons were drawn up alongside each other, in one of which were seated the contestants and in the other the judges. The gravity of the crowd was only broken as some enthusiast cheered his favorite or defiantly offered to wager on the man of his choice. Numerous sham bets were being made, when the redheaded judge arose and announced the conditions, and urged the crowd to remain quiet, that the contestants might have equal justice. Each fiddler selected his own piece. The first number was a waltz, on the conclusion of which partisanship ran high, each faction cheering its favorite to the echo. The second number was a jig, and as the darky drew his bow several times across the strings tentatively, his foreman, who stood six inches taller than any man in a crowd of tall men, tapped himself on the breast with one forefinger, and with the other pointed at his dusky champion, saying, "Keep your eye on me, Price. We're going home together, remember. You black rascal, you can make a mocking bird ashamed of itself if you try. You know I've swore by you through thick and thin; now win this money. Pay no attention to any one else. Keep your eye on me."
Straw, not to be outdone in encouragement, cheered his man with promises of reward, and his faction of supporters raised such a din that Fant's man arose, and demanded quiet so the contest could proceed. Though boisterous, the crowd was good-tempered, and after the second number was disposed of, the final test was announced, which was to be in sacred music. On this announcement, the tall foreman waded through the crowd, and drawing the darky to him, whispered something in his ear, and then fell back to his former position. The dusky artist's countenance brightened, and with a few preliminaries he struck into "The Arkansaw Traveler," throwing so many contortions into its execution that it seemed as if life and liberty depended on his exertions. The usual applause greeted him on its conclusion, when Nat Straw climbed up on the wagon wheel, and likewise whispered something to his champion. The little, old, weazened mendicant took his cue, and cut into "The Irish Washerwoman" with a great flourish, and in the refrain chanted an unintelligible gibberish like the yelping of a coyote, which the audience so cheered that he repeated it several times. The crowd now gathered around the wagons and clamored for the decision, and after consulting among ourselves some little time, and knowing that a neutral or indefinite verdict was desired, we delegated the bartender to announce our conclusions. Taking off his hat, he arose, and after requesting quietness, pretended to read our decision.
"Gentlemen," he began, "your judges feel a delicacy in passing on the merits of such distinguished artists, but in the first number the decision is unanimously in favor of the darky, while the second is clearly in favor of the white contestant. In regard to the last test, your judges cannot reach any decision, as the selections rendered fail to qualify under the head of"--
But two shots rang out in rapid succession across the street, and the crowd, including the judges and fiddlers, rushed away to witness the new excitement. The shooting had occurred in a restaurant, and quite a mob gathered around the door, when the sheriff emerged from the building.
"It's nothing," said he; "just a couple of punchers, who had been drinking a little, were eating a snack, and one of them asked for a second dish of prunes, when the waiter got gay and told him that he couldn't have them,--'that he was full of prunes now.' So the lad took a couple of shots at him, just to learn him to be more courteous to strangers. There was no harm done, as the puncher was too unsteady."
As the crowd dispersed from the restaurant, I returned to the livery stable, where Straw and several of our outfit were explaining to the old mendicant that he had simply outplayed his opponent, and it was too bad that they were not better posted in sacred music. Under Straw's leadership, a purse was being made up amongst them, and the old man's eyes brightened as he received several crisp bills and a handful of silver. Straw was urging the old fiddler to post himself in regard to sacred music, and he would get up another match for the next day, when Rod Wheat came up and breathlessly informed Officer and myself that The Rebel wanted us over at the Black Elephant gambling hall. As we turned to accompany him, we eagerly inquired if there were any trouble. Wheat informed us there was not, but that Priest was playing in one of the biggest streaks of luck that ever happened. "Why, the old man is just wallowing in velvet," said Rod, as we hurried along, "and the dealer has lowered the limit from a hundred to fifty, for old Paul is playing them as high as a cat's tack. He isn't drinking a drop, and is as cool as a cucumber. I don't know what he wants with you fellows, but he begged me to hunt you up and send you to him."
The Black Elephant was about a block from the livery, and as we entered, a large crowd of bystanders were watching the playing around one of the three monte games which were running. Elbowing our way through the crowd, we reached my bunkie, whom Officer slapped on the back and inquired what he wanted.
"Why, I want you and Quirk to bet a little money for me," he replied. "My luck is with me to-day, and when I try to crowd it, this layout gets foxy and pinches the limit down to fifty. Here, take this money and cover both those other games. Call out as they fall the layouts, and I'll pick the card to bet the money on. And bet her carelessly, boys, for she's velvet."
As he spoke he gave Officer and myself each a handful of uncounted money, and we proceeded to carry out his instructions. I knew the game perfectly, having spent several years' earnings on my tuition, and was past master in the technical Spanish terms of the game, while Officer was equally informed. John took the table to the right, while I took the one on the left, and waiting for a new deal, called the cards as they fell. I inquired the limit of the dealer, and was politely informed that it was fifty to-day. At first our director ordered a number of small bets made, as though feeling his way, for cards will turn; but as he found the old luck was still with him, he gradually increased them to the limit. After the first few deals, I caught on to his favorite cards, which were the queen and seven, and on these we bet the limit. Aces and a "face against an ace" were also favorite bets of The Rebel's, but for a smaller sum. During the first hour of my playing--to show the luck of cards--the queen won five consecutive times, once against a favorite at the conclusion of a deal. My judgment was to take up this bet, but Priest ordered otherwise, for it was one of his principles never to doubt a card as long as it won for you.
The play had run along some time, and as I was absorbed with watching, some one behind me laid a friendly hand on my shoulder. Having every card in the layout covered with a bet at the time, and supposing it to be some of our outfit, I never looked around, when there came a slap on my back which nearly loosened my teeth. Turning to see who was making so free with me when I was absorbed, my eye fell on my brother Zack, but I had not time even to shake hands with him, for two cards won in succession and the dealer was paying me, while the queen and seven were covered to the limit and were yet to be drawn for. When the deal ended and while the dealer was shuffling, I managed to get a few words with my brother, and learned that he had come through with a herd belonging to one-armed Jim Reed, and that they were holding about ten miles up the river. He had met Flood, who told him that I was in town; but as he was working on first guard with their herd, it was high time he was riding. The dealer was waiting for me to cut the cards, and stopping only to wring Zack's hand in farewell, I turned again to the monte layout.
Officer was not so fortunate as I was, partly by reason of delays, the dealer in his game changing decks on almost every deal, and under Priest's orders, we counted the cards with every change of the deck. A gambler would rather burn money than lose to a citizen, and every hoodoo which the superstition of the craft could invoke to turn the run of the cards was used to check us. Several hours passed and the lamps were lighted, but we constantly added to the good--to the discomfiture of the owners of the games. Dealers changed, but our vigilance never relaxed for a moment. Suddenly an altercation sprang up between Officer and the dealer of his game. The seven had proved the most lucky card to John, which fact was as plain to dealer as to player, but the dealer, by slipping one seven out of the pack after it had been counted, which was possible in the hands of an adept in spite of all vigilance, threw the percentage against the favorite card and in favor of the bank. Officer had suspected something wrong, for the seven had been loser during several deals, when with a seven-king layout, and two cards of each class yet in the pack, the dealer drew down until there were less than a dozen cards left, when the king came, which lost a fifty dollar bet on the seven. Officer laid his hand on the money, and, as was his privilege, said to the dealer, "Let me look over the remainder of those cards. If there's two sevens there, you have won. If there isn't, don't offer to touch this bet."
But the gambler declined the request, and Officer repeated his demand, laying a blue-barreled six-shooter across the bet with the remark, "Well, if you expect to rake in this bet you have my terms."
Evidently the demand would not have stood the test, for the dealer bunched the deck among the passed cards, and Officer quietly raked in the money. "When I want a skin game," said John, as he arose, "I'll come back and see you. You saw me take this money, did you? Well, if you've got anything to say, now's your time to spit it out."
But his calling had made the gambler discreet, and he deigned no reply to the lank Texan, who, chafing under the attempt to cheat him, slowly returned his six-shooter to its holster. Although holding my own in my game, I was anxious to have it come to a close, but neither of us cared to suggest it to The Rebel; it was his money. But Officer passed outside the house shortly afterward, and soon returned with Jim Flood and Nat Straw.
As our foreman approached the table at which Priest was playing, he laid his hand on The Rebel's shoulder and said, "Come on, Paul, we're all ready to go to camp. Where's Quirk?"
Priest looked up in innocent amazement,--as though he had been awakened out of a deep sleep, for, in the absorption of the game, he had taken no note of the passing hours and did not know that the lamps were burning. My bunkie obeyed as promptly as though the orders had been given by Don Lovell in person, and, delighted with the turn of affairs, I withdrew with him. Once in the street, Nat Straw threw an arm around The Rebel's neck and said to him, "My dear sir, the secret of successful gambling is to quit when you're winner, and before luck turns. You may think this is a low down trick, but we're your friends, and when we heard that you were a big winner, we were determined to get you out of there if we had to rope and drag you out. How much are you winner?"
Before the question could be correctly answered, we sat down on the sidewalk and the three of us disgorged our winnings, so that Flood and Straw could count. Priest was the largest winner, Officer the smallest, while I never will know the amount of mine, as I had no idea what I started with. But the tellers' report showed over fourteen hundred dollars among the three of us. My bunkie consented to allow Flood to keep it for him, and the latter attempted to hurrah us off to camp, but John Officer protested.
"Hold on a minute, Jim," said Officer. "We're in rags; we need some clothes. We've been in town long enough, and we've got the price, but it's been such a busy afternoon with us that we simply haven't had the time."
Straw took our part, and Flood giving in, we entered a general outfitting store, from which we emerged within a quarter of an hour, wearing cheap new suits, the color of which we never knew until the next day. Then bidding Straw a hearty farewell, we rode for the North Platte, on which the herd would encamp. As we scaled the bluffs, we halted for our last glimpse of the lights of Ogalalla, and The Rebel remarked, "Boys, I've traveled some in my life, but that little hole back there could give Natchez-under-the-hill cards and spades, and then outhold her as a tough town."