Don Lovell and Jim Flood returned from Lasalle County on the last day of February. They had spent a week along the Upper Nueces, and before returning to the ranch closed a trade on thirty-four hundred five and six year old beeves. According to their report, the cattle along the river had wintered in fine condition, and the grass had already started in the valley. This last purchase concluded the buying for trail purposes, and all absent foremen were notified to be on hand at the ranch on March 10, for the beginning of active operations. Only some ten of us had wintered at headquarters in Medina County, and as about ninety men would be required for the season's work, they would have to be secured elsewhere. All the old foremen expected to use the greater portion of the men who were in their employ the year before, and could summon them on a few days' notice. But Forrest and myself were compelled to hire entirely new outfits, and it was high time we were looking up our help.
One of Flood's regular outfit had married during the winter, and with Forrest's and my promotion, he had only to secure three new men. He had dozens of applications from good cow-hands, and after selecting for himself offered the others to Quince and me. But my brother Bob arrived at the ranch, from our home in Karnes County, two days later, having also a surplus of men at his command. Although he did not show any enthusiasm over my promotion, he offered to help me get up a good outfit of boys. I had about half a dozen good fellows in view, and on Bob's approval of them, he selected from his overplus six more as first choice and four as second. It would take me a week of constant riding to see all these men, and as Flood and Forrest had made up an outfit for the latter from the former's available list, Quince and I saddled up and rode away to hire outfits. Forrest was well acquainted in Wilson, where Lovell had put up several trail herds, and as it joined my home county, we bore each other company the first day.
A long ride brought us to the Atascosa, where we stayed all night. The next morning we separated, Quince bearing due east for Floresville, while I continued southeast towards my home near Cibollo Ford on the San Antonio River. It had been over a year since I had seen the family, and on reaching the ranch, my father gruffly noticed me, but my mother and sisters received me with open arms. I was a mature man of twenty-eight at the time, mustached, and stood six feet to a plumb-line. The family were cognizant of my checkered past, and although never mentioning it, it seemed as if my misfortunes had elevated me in the estimation of my sisters, while to my mother I had become doubly dear.
During the time spent in that vicinity, I managed to reach home at night as often as possible. Constantly using fresh horses, I covered a wide circle of country, making one ride down the river into Goliad County of over fifty miles, returning the next day. Within a week I had made up my outfit, including the horse-wrangler and cook. Some of the men were ten years my senior, while only a few were younger, but I knew that these latter had made the trip before and were as reliable as their elders. The wages promised that year were fifty dollars a month, the men to furnish only their own saddles and blankets, and at that figure I picked two pastoral counties, every man bred to the occupation. The trip promised six months' work with return passage, and I urged every one employed to make his appearance at headquarters, in Medina, on or before the 15th of the month. There was no railroad communication through Karnes and Goliad counties at that time, and all the boys were assured that their private horses would have good pasturage at the home ranch while they were away, and I advised them all to come on horseback. By this method they would have a fresh horse awaiting them on their return from the North with which to continue their homeward journey. All the men engaged were unmarried, and taken as a whole, I flattered myself on having secured a crack outfit.
I was in a hurry to get back to the ranch. There had been nothing said about the remudas before leaving, and while we had an abundance of horses, no one knew them better than I did. For that reason I wanted to be present when their allotment was made, for I knew that every foreman would try to get the best mounts, and I did not propose to stand behind the door and take the culls. Many of the horses had not had a saddle on them in eight months, while all of them had run idle during the winter in a large mesquite pasture and were in fine condition with the opening of spring. So bidding my folks farewell, I saddled at noon and took a cross-country course for the ranch, covering the hundred and odd miles in a day and a half. Reaching headquarters late at night, I found that active preparations had been going on during my absence. There were new wagons to rig, harness to oil, and a carpenter was then at work building chuck-boxes for each of the six commissaries. A wholesale house in the city had shipped out a stock of staple supplies, almost large enough to start a store. There were whole coils of new rope of various sizes, from lariats to corral cables, and a sufficient amount of the largest size to make a stack of hobbles as large as a haycock. Four new branding-irons to the wagon, the regulation "Circle Dot," completed the main essentials.
All the foremen had reported at the ranch, with the exception of Forrest, who came in the next evening with three men. The division of the horses had not even come up for discussion, but several of the boys about headquarters who were friendly to my interests posted me that the older foremen were going to claim first choice. Archie Tolleston, next to Jim Flood in seniority in Lovell's employ, had spent every day riding among the horses, and had even boasted that he expected to claim fifteen of the best for his own saddle. Flood was not so particular, as his destination was in southern Dakota, but my brother Bob was again ticketed for the Crow Agency in Montana, and would naturally expect a good remuda. Tolleston was going to western Wyoming, while the Fort Buford cattle were a two-weeks' later delivery and fully five hundred miles farther travel. On my return Lovell was in the city, but I felt positive that if he took a hand in the division, Tolleston would only run on the rope once.
A few days before the appointed time, the men began thronging into headquarters. Down to the minutest detail about the wagons and mule teams, everything was shipshape. The commissary department was stocked for a month, and everything was ready to harness in and move. Lovell's headquarters was a stag ranch, and as fast as the engaged cooks reported, they were assigned to wagons, and kept open house in relieving the home cocinero. In the absence of our employer, Flood was virtually at the head of affairs, and artfully postponed the division of horses until the last moment. My outfit had all come in in good time, and we were simply resting on our oars until the return of old man Don from San Antonio. The men were jubilant and light-hearted as a lot of school-boys, and with the exception of a feeling of jealousy among the foremen over the remudas, we were a gay crowd, turning night into day. But on the return of our employer, all frivolity ceased, and the ranch stood at attention. The only unfinished work was the division of the horses, and but a single day remained before the agreed time for starting. Jim Flood had met his employer at the station the night before, and while returning to the ranch, the two discussed the apportionment of the saddle stock. The next morning all the foremen were called together, when the drover said to his trail bosses:
"Boys, I suppose you are all anxious to get a good remuda for this summer's trip. Well, I've got them for you. The only question is, how can we distribute them equitably so that all interests will be protected. One herd may not have near the distance to travel that the others have. It would look unjust to give it the best horses, and yet it may have the most trouble. Our remudas last year were all picked animals. They had an easy year's work. With the exception of a few head, we have the same mounts and in much better condition than last year. This is about my idea of equalizing things. You four old foremen will use your remudas of last year. Then each of you six bosses select twenty-five head each of the Dodge horses,--turn and turn about. Add those to your old remudas, and cull back your surplus, allowing ten to the man, twelve to the foreman, and five extra to each herd in case of cripples or of galled backs. By this method, each herd will have two dozen prime saddlers, the pick of a thousand picked ones, and fit for any man who was ever in my employ. I'm breaking in two new foremen this year, and they shall have no excuse for not being mounted, and will divide the remainder. Now, take four men apiece and round up the saddle stock, and have everything in shape to go into camp to-night. I'll be present at the division, and I warn you all that I want no clashing."
A ranch remuda was driven in, and we saddled. There were about thirty thousand acres in the pasture, and by eleven o'clock everything was thrown together. The private horses of all the boys had been turned into a separate inclosure, and before the cutting out commenced, every mother's son, including Don Lovell, arrived at the round-up. There were no corrals on the ranch which would accommodate such a body of animals, and thus the work had to be done in the open; but with the force at hand we threw a cordon around them, equal to a corral, and the cutting out to the four quarters commenced.
The horses were gentle and handled easily. Forrest and I turned to and helped our old foreman cut out his remuda of the year before. There were several horses in my old mount that I would have liked to have again, but I knew it was useless to try and trade Jim out of them, as he knew their qualities and would have robbed me in demanding their equivalent. When the old remudas were again separated, they were counted and carefully looked over by both foremen and men, and were open to the inspection of all who cared to look. Everything was passing very pleasantly, and the cutting of the extra twenty-five began. Then my selfishness was weighed in the balance and found to be full weight. I had ridden over a hundred of the best of them, but when any one appealed to me, even my own dear brother, I was as dumb as an oyster about a horse. Tolleston, especially, cursed, raved, and importuned me to help him get a good private mount, but I was as innocent as I was immovable. The trip home from Dodge was no pleasure jaunt, and now I was determined to draw extra pay in getting the cream of that horse herd. There were other features governing my actions: Flood was indifferent; Forrest, at times, was cruel to horses, and had I helped my brother, I might have been charged with favoritism. Dave Sponsilier was a good horseman, as his selections proved, and I was not wasting any love and affection on Archie Tolleston that day, anyhow.
That no undue advantage should be taken, Lovell kept tally of every horse cut out, and once each foreman had taken his number, he was waved out of the herd. I did the selecting of my own, and with the assistance of one man, was constantly waiting my turn. With all the help he could use, Tolleston was over half an hour making his selections, and took the only blind horse in the entire herd. He was a showy animal, a dapple gray, fully fifteen hands high, bred in north Texas, and belonged to one of the whole remudas bought in Dodge. At the time of his purchase, neither Lovell nor Flood detected anything wrong, and no one could see anything in the eyeball which would indicate he was moon-eyed. Yet any horseman need only notice him closely to be satisfied of his defect, as he was constantly shying from other horses and objects and smelled everything which came within his reach. There were probably half a dozen present who knew of his blindness, but not a word was said until all the extras were chosen and the culling out of the overplus of the various remudas began. It started in snickers, and before the cutting back was over developed into peals of laughter, as man after man learned that the dapple gray in Tolleston's remuda was blind.
Among the very last to become acquainted with the fact was the trail foreman himself. After watching the horse long enough to see his mistake, Tolleston culled the gray back and rode into the herd to claim another. But the drover promptly summoned his foreman out, and, as they met, Lovell said to his trail boss, "Arch, you're no better than anybody else. I bought that gray and paid my good money for him. No doubt but the man who sold him has laughed about it often since, and if ever we meet, I'll take my hat off and compliment him on being the only person who ever sold me a moon-eyed horse. I'm still paying my tuition, and you needn't flare up when the laugh's on you. You have a good remuda without him, and the only way you can get another horse out of that herd is with the permission of Quince Forrest and Tom Quirk."
"Well, if the permission of those new foremen is all I lack, then I'll cut all the horses I want," retorted Tolleston, and galloped back towards the herd. But Quince and I were after him like a flash, followed leisurely by Lovell. As he slacked his mount to enter the mass of animals, I passed him, jerking the bridle reins from his hand. Throwing my horse on his haunches, I turned just as Forrest slapped Tolleston on the back, and said: "Look-ee here, Arch; just because you're a little hot under the collar, don't do anything brash, for fear you may regret it afterward. I'm due to take a little pasear myself this summer, and I always did like to be well mounted. Now, don't get your back up or attempt to stand up any bluffs, for I can whip you in any sized circle you can name. You never saw me burn powder, did you? Well, just you keep on acting the d----- fool if you want a little smoke thrown in your face. Just fool with me and I'll fog you till you look like an angel in the clouds."
But old man Don reached us, and raised his hand. I threw the reins back over the horse's head. Tolleston was white with rage, but before he could speak our employer waved us aside and said, "Tom, you and Quince clear right out of here and I'll settle this matter. Arch, there's your remuda. Take it and go about your business or say you don't want to. Now, we know each other, and I'll not mince or repeat any words with you. Go on."
"Not an inch will I move until I get another horse," hissed Tolleston between gasps. "If it lies between you and me, then I'll have one in place of that gray, or you'll get another foreman. Now, you have my terms and ticket."
"Very well then, Archie; that changes the programme entirely," replied Lovell, firmly. "You'll find your private horse in the small pasture, and we'll excuse you for the summer. Whenever a man in my employ gets the impression that I can't get along without him, that moment he becomes useless to me. It seems that you are bloated with that idea, and a season's rest and quiet may cool you down and make a useful man of you again. Remember that you're always welcome at my ranch, and don't let this make us strangers," he called back as he turned away.
Riding over with us to where a group were sitting on their horses, our employer scanned the crowd without saying a word. Turning halfway in his saddle, he looked over towards Flood's remuda and said: "One of you boys please ride over and tell Paul I want him." During the rather embarrassing interim, the conversation instantly changed, and we borrowed tobacco and rolled cigarettes to kill time.
Priest was rather slow in making his appearance, riding leisurely, but on coming up innocently inquired of his employer, "Did you want to see me?"
"Yes. Paul, I've just lost one of my foremen. I need a good reliable man to take a herd to Fort Washakie. It's an Indian agency on the head waters of the North Platte in Wyoming. Will you tackle the job?"
"A good soldier is always subject to orders," replied The Rebel with a military salute. "If you have a herd for delivery in Wyoming, give me the men and horses, and I'll put the cattle there if possible. You are the commandant in the field, and I am subject to instructions."
"There's your remuda and outfit, then," said Lovell, pointing to the one intended for Tolleston, "and you'll get a commissary at the ranch and go into camp this evening. You'll get your herd in Nueces County, and Jim will assist in the receiving. Any other little details will all be arranged before you get away."
Calling for all the men in Tolleston's outfit, the two rode away for that remuda. Shortly before the trouble arose, our employer instructed those with the Buford cattle to take ten extra horses for each herd. There were now over a hundred and forty head to be culled back, and Sponsilier was entitled to ten of them. In order to be sure of our numbers, we counted the remaining band, and Forrest and I trimmed them down to two hundred and fifty-four head. As this number was too small to be handled easily in the open, we decided to take them into the corrals for the final division. After the culling back was over, and everything had started for the ranch, to oblige Sponsilier, I remained behind and helped him to retrim his remuda. Unless one knew the horses personally, it was embarrassing even to try and pick ten of the best ones from the overplus. But I knew many of them at first hand, and at Dave's request, after picking out the extra ones, continued selecting others in exchange for horses in his old band. We spent nearly an hour cutting back and forth, or until we were both satisfied that his saddle stock could not be improved from the material at hand.
The ranch headquarters were fully six miles from the round-up. Leaving Sponsilier delighted with the change in his remuda, I rode to overtake the undivided band which were heading for the ranch corrals. On coming up with them, Forrest proposed that we divide the horses by a running cut in squads of ten, and toss for choice. Once they were in the corrals, this could have been easily done by simply opening a gate and allowing blocks of ten to pass alternately from the main into smaller inclosures. But I was expecting something like this from Quince, and had entirely different plans of my own. Forrest and I were good friends, but he was a foxy rascal, and I had never wavered in my determination to get the pick of that horse herd. Had I accepted his proposal, the chance of a spinning coin might have given him a decided advantage, and I declined his proposition. I had a remuda in sight that my very being had hungered for, and now I would take no chance of losing it. But on the other hand, I proposed to Forrest that he might have the assistance of two men in Flood's outfit who had accompanied the horse herd home from Dodge. In the selecting of Jim's extra twenty-five, the opinion of these two lads, as the chosen horses proved, was a decided help to their foreman. But Quince stood firm, and arguing the matter, we reached the corrals and penned the band.
The two top bunches were held separate and were left a mile back on the prairie, under herd. The other remudas were all in sight of the ranch, while a majority of the men were eating a late dinner. Still contending for his point, Forrest sent a lad to the house to ask our employer to come over to the corrals. On his appearance, accompanied by Flood, each of us stated our proposition.
"Well, the way I size this up," said old man Don, "one of you wants to rely on his own judgment and the other don't. It looks to me, Quince, you want a gambler's chance where you can't lose. Tom's willing to bank on his own judgment, but you ain't. Now, I like a man who does his own thinking, and to give you a good lesson in that line, why, divide them, horse and horse, turn about. Now, I'll spin this coin for first pick, and while it's in the air, Jim will call the turn. . . . Tom wins first choice."
"That's all right, Mr. Lovell," said Quince, smilingly. "I just got the idea that you wanted the remudas for the Buford herds to be equally good. How can you expect it when Tom knows every horse and I never saddled one of them. Give me the same chance, and I might know them as well as the little boy knew his pap."
"You had the same chance," I put in, "but didn't want it. You were offered the Pine Ridge horses last year to take back to Dodge, and you kicked like a bay steer. But I swallowed their dust to the Arkansaw, and from there home we lived in clouds of alkali. You went home drunk and dressed up, with a cigar in your mouth and your feet through the car window, claiming you was a brother-in-law to Jay Gould, and simply out on a tour of inspection. Now you expect me to give you the benefit of my experience and rob myself. Not this summer, John Quincy."
But rather than let Forrest feel that he was being taken advantage of, I repeated my former proposition. Accepting it as a last resort, the two boys were sent for and the dividing commenced. Remounting our horses, we entered the large corral, and as fast as they were selected the different outfits were either roped or driven singly through a guarded gate. It took over an hour of dusty work to make the division, but when it was finished I had a remuda of a hundred and fifty-two saddle horses that would make a man willing to work for his board and the privilege of riding them. Turning out of the corrals, Priest and I accompanied the horses out on the prairie where our toppy ones were being grazed. Paul was tickled over my outfit of saddle stock, but gave me several hints that he was entitled to another picked mount. I attempted to explain that he had a good remuda, but he still insisted, and I promised him if he would be at my wagon the next morning when we corralled, he should have a good one. I could well afford to be generous with my old bunkie.
There now only remained the apportionment of the work-stock. Four mules were allowed to the wagon, and in order to have them in good condition they had been grain-fed for the past month. In their allotment the Buford herds were given the best teams, and when mine was pointed out by my employer, the outfit assisted the cook to harness in. Giving him instructions to go into camp on a creek three miles south of headquarters, my wagon was the second one to get away. Some of the teams bolted at the start, and only for timely assistance Sponsilier's commissary would have been overturned in the sand. Two of the wagons headed west for Uvalde, while my brother Bob's started southeast for Bee County. The other two belonging to Flood and The Rebel would camp on the same creek as mine, their herds being also south. Once the wagons were off, the saddle stock was brought in and corralled for our first mounts. The final allotment of horses to the men would not take place until the herds were ready to be received, and until then, they would be ridden uniformly but promiscuously. With instructions from our employer to return to the ranch after making camp, the remudas were started after the wagons.
On our return after darkness, the ranch was as deserted as a school-house on Saturday. A Mexican cook and a few regular ranch hands were all that were left. Archie Tolleston had secured his horse and quit headquarters before any one had even returned from the round-up. When the last of the foremen came in, our employer delivered his final messages. "Boys," said he, "I'll only detain you a few minutes. I'm going west in the morning to Uvalde County, and will be present at the receiving of Quince and Dave's herds. After they start, I'll come back to the city and take stage to Oakville. But you go right ahead and receive your cattle, Bob, for we don't know what may turn up. Flood will help Tom first, and then Paul, to receive their cattle. That will give the Buford herds the first start, and I'll be waiting for you at Abilene when you reach there. And above all else, boys, remember that I've strained my credit in this drive, and that the cattle must be A 1, and that we must deliver them on the spot in prime condition. Now, that's all, but you'd better be riding so as to get an early start in the morning."
Our employer walked with us to the outer gate where our horses stood at the hitch-rack. That he was reticent in his business matters was well known among all his old foremen, including Forrest and myself. If he had a confidant among his men, Jim Flood was the man--and there were a few things he did not know. As we mounted our horses to return to our respective camps, old man Don quietly took my bridle reins in hand and allowed the others to ride away. "I want a parting word with you, Tom," said he a moment later. "Something has happened to-day which will require the driving of the Buford herds in some road brand other than the 'Circle Dot.' The first blacksmith shop you pass, have your irons altered into 'Open A's,' and I'll do the same with Quince and Dave's brands. Of the why or wherefore of this, say nothing to any one, as no one but myself knows. Don't breathe a word even to Flood, for he don't know any more than he should. When the time comes, if it ever does, you'll know all that is necessary--or nothing. That's all."