I shall never forget the next morning,--August 26, 1882. As we of the third guard were relieved, about two hours before dawn, the wind veered around to the northwest, and a mist which had been falling during the fore part of our watch changed to soft flakes of snow. As soon as we were relieved, we skurried back to our blankets, drew the tarpaulin over our heads, and slept until dawn, when on being awakened by the foreman, we found a wet, slushy snow some two inches in depth on the ground. Several of the boys in the outfit declared it was the first snowfall they had ever seen, and I had but a slight recollection of having witnessed one in early boyhood in our old Georgia home. We gathered around the fire like a lot of frozen children, and our only solace was that our drive was nearing an end. The two placermen paid little heed to the raw morning, and our pilot assured us that this was but the squaw winter which always preceded Indian summer.
We made our customary early start, and while saddling up that morning, Flood and the two placer miners packed the beef on their two pack horses, first cutting off enough to last us several days. The cattle, when we overtook them, presented a sorry spectacle, apparently being as cold as we were, although we had our last stitch of clothing on, including our slickers, belted with a horse hobble. But when Flood and our guide rode past the herd, I noticed our pilot's coat was not even buttoned, nor was the thin cotton shirt which he wore, but his chest was exposed to that raw morning air which chilled the very marrow in our bones. Our foreman and guide kept in sight in the lead, the herd traveling briskly up the long mountain divide, and about the middle of the forenoon the sun came out warm and the snow began to melt. Within an hour after starting that morning, Quince Forrest, who was riding in front of me in the swing, dismounted, and picking out of the snow a brave little flower which looked something like a pansy, dropped back to me and said, "My weather gauge says it's eighty-eight degrees below freezo. But I want you to smell this posy, Quirk, and tell me on the dead thieving, do you ever expect to see your sunny southern home again? And did you notice the pock-marked colonel, baring his brisket to the morning breeze?"
Two hours after the sun came out, the snow had disappeared, and the cattle fell to and grazed until long after the noon hour. Our pilot led us up the divide between the Missouri and the headwaters of the Musselshell during the afternoon, weaving in and out around the heads of creeks putting into either river; and towards evening we crossed quite a creek running towards the Missouri, where we secured ample water for the herd. We made a late camp that night, and our guide assured us that another half day's drive would put us on the Judith River, where we would intercept the Fort Benton road.
The following morning our guide led us for several hours up a gradual ascent to the plateau, till we reached the tableland, when he left us to return to his own camp. Flood again took the lead, and within a mile we turned on our regular course, which by early noon had descended into the valley of the Judith River, and entered the Fort Maginnis and Benton military road. Our route was now clearly defined, and about noon on the last day of the month we sighted, beyond the Missouri River, the flag floating over Fort Benton. We made a crossing that afternoon below the Fort, and Flood went into the post, expecting either to meet Lovell or to receive our final instructions regarding the delivery.
After crossing the Missouri, we grazed the herd over to the Teton River, a stream which paralleled the former watercourse,--the military post being located between the two. We had encamped for the night when Flood returned with word of a letter he had received from our employer and an interview he had had with the commanding officer of Fort Benton, who, it seemed, was to have a hand in the delivery of the herd. Lovell had been detained in the final settlement of my brother Bob's herd at the Crow Agency by some differences regarding weights. Under our present instructions, we were to proceed slowly to the Blackfoot Agency, and immediately on the arrival of Lovell at Benton, he and the commandant would follow by ambulance and overtake us. The distance from Fort Benton to the agency was variously reported to be from one hundred and twenty to one hundred and thirty miles, six or seven days' travel for the herd at the farthest, and then good-by, Circle Dots!
A number of officers and troopers from the post overtook us the next morning and spent several hours with us as the herd trailed out up the Teton. They were riding fine horses, which made our through saddle stock look insignificant in comparison, though had they covered twenty-four hundred miles and lived on grass as had our mounts, some of the lustre of their glossy coats would have been absent. They looked well, but it would have been impossible to use them or any domestic bred horses in trail work like ours, unless a supply of grain could be carried with us. The range country produced a horse suitable to range needs, hardy and a good forager, which, when not overworked under the saddle, met every requirement of his calling, as well as being self-sustaining. Our horses, in fact, were in better flesh when we crossed the Missouri than they were the day we received the herd on the Rio Grande. The spectators from the fort quitted us near the middle of the forenoon, and we snailed on westward at our leisurely gait.
There was a fair road up the Teton, which we followed for several days without incident, to the forks of that river, where we turned up Muddy Creek, the north fork of the Teton. That noon, while catching saddle horses, dinner not being quite ready, we noticed a flurry amongst the cattle, then almost a mile in our rear. Two men were on herd with them as usual, grazing them forward up the creek and watering as they came, when suddenly the cattle in the lead came tearing out of the creek, and on reaching open ground turned at bay. After several bunches had seemingly taken fright at the same object, we noticed Bull Durham, who was on herd, ride through the cattle to the scene of disturbance. We saw him, on nearing the spot, lie down on the neck of his horse, watch intently for several minutes, then quietly drop back to the rear, circle the herd, and ride for the wagon. We had been observing the proceedings closely, though from a distance, for some time. Daylight was evidently all that saved us from a stampede, and as Bull Durham galloped up he was almost breathless. He informed us that an old cinnamon bear and two cubs were berrying along the creek, and had taken the right of way. Then there was a hustling and borrowing of cartridges, while saddles were cinched on to horses as though human life depended on alacrity. We were all feeling quite gala anyhow, and this looked like a chance for some sport. It was hard to hold the impulsive ones in check until the others were ready. The cattle pointed us to the location of the quarry as we rode forward. When within a quarter of a mile, we separated into two squads, in order to gain the rear of the bears, cut them off from the creek, and force them into the open. The cattle held the attention of the bears until we had gained their rear, and as we came up between them and the creek, the old one reared up on her haunches and took a most astonished and innocent look at us.
A single "woof" brought one of the cubs to her side, and she dropped on all fours and lumbered off, a half dozen shots hastening her pace in an effort to circle the horsemen who were gradually closing in. In making this circle to gain the protection of some thickets which skirted the creek, she was compelled to cross quite an open space, and before she had covered the distance of fifty yards, a rain of ropes came down on her, and she was thrown backward with no less than four lariats fastened over her neck and fore parts. Then ensued a lively scene, for the horses snorted and in spite of rowels refused to face the bear. But ropes securely snubbed to pommels held them to the quarry. Two minor circuses were meantime in progress with the two cubs, but pressure of duty held those of us who had fastened on to the old cinnamon. The ropes were taut and several of them were about her throat; the horses were pulling in as many different directions, yet the strain of all the lariats failed to choke her as we expected. At this juncture, four of the loose men came to our rescue, and proposed shooting the brute. We were willing enough, for though we had better than a tail hold, we were very ready to let go. But while there were plenty of good shots among us, our horses had now become wary, and could not, when free from ropes, be induced to approach within twenty yards of the bear, and they were so fidgety that accurate aim was impossible. We who had ropes on the old bear begged the boys to get down and take it afoot, but they were not disposed to listen to our reasons, and blazed away from rearing horses, not one shot in ten taking effect. There was no telling how long this random shooting would have lasted; but one shot cut my rope two feet from the noose, and with one rope less on her the old bear made some ugly surges, and had not Joe Stallings had a wheeler of a horse on the rope, she would have done somebody damage.
The Rebel was on the opposite side from Stallings and myself, and as soon as I was freed, he called me around to him, and shifting his rope to me, borrowed my six-shooter and joined those who were shooting. Dismounting, he gave the reins of his horse to Flood, walked up to within fifteen steps of mother bruin, and kneeling, emptied both six-shooters with telling accuracy. The old bear winced at nearly every shot, and once she made an ugly surge on the ropes, but the three guy lines held her up to Priest's deliberate aim. The vitality of that cinnamon almost staggers belief, for after both six-shooters had been emptied into her body, she floundered on the ropes with all her former strength, although the blood was dripping and gushing from her numerous wounds. Borrowing a third gun, Priest returned to the fight, and as we slacked the ropes slightly, the old bear reared, facing her antagonist. The Rebel emptied his third gun into her before she sank, choked, bleeding, and exhausted, to the ground; and even then no one dared to approach her, for she struck out wildly with all fours as she slowly succumbed to the inevitable.
One of the cubs had been roped and afterwards shot at close quarters, while the other had reached the creek and climbed a sapling which grew on the bank, when a few shots brought him to the ground. The two cubs were about the size of a small black bear, though the mother was a large specimen of her species. The cubs had nice coats of soft fur, and their hides were taken as trophies of the fight, but the robe of the mother was a summer one and worthless. While we were skinning the cubs, the foreman called our attention to the fact that the herd had drifted up the creek nearly opposite the wagon. During the encounter with the bears he was the most excited one in the outfit, and was the man who cut my rope with his random shooting from horseback. But now the herd recovered his attention, and he dispatched some of us to ride around the cattle. When we met at the wagon for dinner, the excitement was still on us, and the hunt was unanimously voted the most exciting bit of sport and powder burning we had experienced on our trip.
Late that afternoon a forage wagon from Fort Benton passed us with four loose ambulance mules in charge of five troopers, who were going on ahead to establish a relay station in anticipation of the trip of the post commandant to the Blackfoot Agency. There were to be two relay stations between the post and the agency, and this detachment expected to go into camp that night within forty miles of our destination, there to await the arrival of the commanding officer and the owner of the herd at Benton. These soldiers were out two days from the post when they passed us, and they assured us that the ambulance would go through from Benton to Blackfoot without a halt, except for the changing of relay teams. The next forenoon we passed the last relay camp, well up the Muddy, and shortly afterwards the road left that creek, turning north by a little west, and we entered on the last tack of our long drive. On the evening of the 6th of September, as we were going into camp on Two Medicine Creek, within ten miles of the agency, the ambulance overtook us, under escort of the troopers whom we had passed at the last relay station. We had not seen Don Lovell since June, when we passed Dodge, and it goes without saying that we were glad to meet him again. On the arrival of the party, the cattle had not yet been bedded, so Lovell borrowed a horse, and with Flood took a look over the herd before darkness set in, having previously prevailed on the commanding officer to rest an hour and have supper before proceeding to the agency.
When they returned from inspecting the cattle, the commandant and Lovell agreed to make the final delivery on the 8th, if it were agreeable to the agent, and with this understanding continued their journey. The next morning Flood rode into the agency, borrowing McCann's saddle and taking an extra horse with him, having left us instructions to graze the herd all day and have them in good shape with grass and water, in case they were inspected that evening on their condition. Near the middle of the afternoon quite a cavalcade rode out from the agency, including part of a company of cavalry temporarily encamped there. The Indian agent and the commanding officer from Benton were the authorized representatives of the government, it seemed, as Lovell took extra pains in showing them over the herd, frequently consulting the contract which he held, regarding sex, age, and flesh of the cattle.
The only hitch in the inspection was over a number of sore-footed cattle, which was unavoidable after such a long journey. But the condition of these tender-footed animals being otherwise satisfactory, Lovell urged the agent and commandant to call up the men for explanations. The agent was no doubt a very nice man, and there may have been other things that he understood better than cattle, for he did ask a great many simple, innocent questions. Our replies, however, might have been condensed into a few simple statements. We had, we related, been over five months on the trail; after the first month, tender-footed cattle began to appear from time to time in the herd, as stony or gravelly portions of the trail were encountered,--the number so affected at any one time varying from ten to forty head. Frequently well-known lead cattle became tender in their feet and would drop back to the rear, and on striking soft or sandy footing recover and resume their position in the lead; that since starting, it was safe to say, fully ten per cent of the entire herd had been so affected, yet we had not lost a single head from this cause; that the general health of the animal was never affected, and that during enforced layovers nearly all so affected recovered. As there were not over twenty-five sore-footed animals in the herd on our arrival, our explanation was sufficient and the herd was accepted. There yet remained the counting and classification, but as this would require time, it went over until the following day. The cows had been contracted for by the head, while the steers went on their estimated weight in dressed beef, the contract calling for a million pounds with a ten per cent leeway over that amount.
I was amongst the first to be interviewed by the Indian agent, and on being excused, I made the acquaintance of one of two priests who were with the party. He was a rosy-cheeked, well-fed old padre, who informed me that he had been stationed among the Blackfeet for over twenty years, and that he had labored long with the government to assist these Indians. The cows in our herd, which were to be distributed amongst the Indian families for domestic purposes, were there at his earnest solicitation. I asked him if these cows would not perish during the long winter--my recollection was still vivid of the touch of squaw winter we had experienced some two weeks previous. But he assured me that the winters were dry, if cold, and his people had made some progress in the ways of civilization, and had provided shelter and forage against the wintry weather. He informed me that previous to his labors amongst the Blackfeet their ponies wintered without loss on the native grasses, though he had since taught them to make hay, and in anticipation of receiving these cows, such families as were entitled to share in the division had amply provided for the animals' sustenance.
Lovell returned with the party to the agency, and we were to bring up the herd for classification early in the morning. Flood informed us that a beef pasture had been built that summer for the steers, while the cows would be held under herd by the military, pending their distribution. We spent our last night with the herd singing songs, until the first guard called the relief, when realizing the lateness of the hour, we burrowed into our blankets.
"I don't know how you fellows feel about it," said Quince Forrest, when the first guard were relieved and they had returned to camp, "but I bade those cows good-by on their beds to-night without a regret or a tear. The novelty of night-herding loses its charm with me when it's drawn out over five months. I might be fool enough to make another such trip, but I 'd rather be the Indian and let the other fellow drive the cows to me--there 's a heap more comfort in it."
The next morning, before we reached the agency, a number of gaudily bedecked bucks and squaws rode out to meet us. The arrival of the herd had been expected for several weeks, and our approach was a delight to the Indians, who were flocking to the agency from the nearest villages. Physically, they were fine specimens of the aborigines. But our Spanish, which Quarternight and I tried on them, was as unintelligible to them as their guttural gibberish was to us.
Lovell and the agent, with a detachment of the cavalry, met us about a mile from the agency buildings, and we were ordered to cut out the cows. The herd had been grazed to contentment, and were accordingly rounded in, and the task begun at once. Our entire outfit were turned into the herd to do the work, while an abundance of troopers held the herd and looked after the cut. It took about an hour and a half, during which time we worked like Trojans. Cavalrymen several times attempted to assist us, but their horses were no match for ours in the work. A cow can turn on much less space than a cavalry horse, and except for the amusement they afforded, the military were of very little effect.
After we had retrimmed the cut, the beeves were started for their pasture, and nothing now remained but the counting to complete the receiving. Four of us remained behind with the cows, but for over two hours the steers were in plain sight, while the two parties were endeavoring to make a count. How many times they recounted them before agreeing on the numbers I do not know, for the four of us left with the cows became occupied by a controversy over the sex of a young Indian--a Blackfoot--riding a cream-colored pony. The controversy originated between Fox Quarternight and Bob Blades, who had discovered this swell among a band who had just ridden in from the west, and John Officer and myself were appealed to for our opinions. The Indian was pointed out to us across the herd, easily distinguished by beads and beaver fur trimmings in the hair, so we rode around to pass our judgment as experts on the beauty. The young Indian was not over sixteen years of age, with remarkable features, from which every trace of the aborigine seemed to be eliminated. Officer and myself were in a quandary, for we felt perfectly competent when appealed to for our opinions on such a delicate subject, and we made every endeavor to open a conversation by signs and speech. But the young Blackfoot paid no attention to us, being intent upon watching the cows. The neatly moccasined feet and the shapely hand, however, indicated the feminine, and when Blades and Quarter-night rode up, we rendered our decision accordingly. Blades took exception to the decision and rode alongside the young Indian, pretending to admire the long plaits of hair, toyed with the beads, pinched and patted the young Blackfoot, and finally, although the rest of us, for fear the Indian might take offense and raise trouble, pleaded with him to desist, he called the youth his "squaw," when the young blood, evidently understanding the appellation, relaxed into a broad smile, and in fair English said, "Me buck."
Blades burst into a loud laugh at his success, at which the Indian smiled but accepted a cigarette, and the two cronied together, while we rode away to look after our cows. The outfit returned shortly afterward, when The Rebel rode up to me and expressed himself rather profanely at the inability of the government's representatives to count cattle in Texas fashion. On the arrival of the agent and others, the cows were brought around; and these being much more gentle, and being under Lovell's instruction fed between the counters in the narrowest file possible, a satisfactory count was agreed upon at the first trial. The troopers took charge of the cows after counting, and, our work over, we galloped away to the wagon, hilarious and care free.
McCann had camped on the nearest water to the agency, and after dinner we caught out the top horses, and, dressed in our best, rode into the agency proper. There was quite a group of houses for the attaches, one large general warehouse, and several school and chapel buildings. I again met the old padre, who showed us over the place. One could not help being favorably impressed with the general neatness and cleanliness of the place. In answer to our questions, the priest informed us that he had mastered the Indian language early in his work, and had adopted it in his ministry, the better to effect the object of his mission. There was something touching in the zeal of this devoted padre in his work amongst the tribe, and the recognition of the government had come as a fitting climax to his work and devotion.
As we rode away from the agency, the cows being in sight under herd of a dozen soldiers, several of us rode out to them, and learned that they intended to corral the cows at night, and within a week distribute them to Indian families, when the troop expected to return to Fort Benton. Lovell and Flood appeared at the camp about dusk--Lovell in high spirits. This, he said, was the easiest delivery of the three herds which he had driven that year. He was justified in feeling well over the year's drive, for he had in his possession a voucher for our Circle Dots which would crowd six figures closely. It was a gay night with us, for man and horse were free, and as we made down our beds, old man Don insisted that Flood and he should make theirs down alongside ours. He and The Rebel had been joking each other during the evening, and as we went to bed were taking an occasional fling at one another as opportunity offered.
"It's a strange thing to me," said Lovell, as he was pulling off his boots, "that this herd counted out a hundred and twelve head more than we started with, while Bob Quirk's herd was only eighty-one long at the final count;"
"Well, you see," replied The Rebel, "Quirk's was a steer herd, while ours had over a thousand cows in it, and you must make allowance for some of them to calve on the way. That ought to be easy figuring for a foxy, long-headed Yank like you."