By noon the herd had grazed out five miles on its way. The boys were so anxious to get off that on my return the camp was deserted with the exception of the cook and the horse-wrangler, none even returning for dinner. Before leaving I had lunched at Los Lobos with its owner, and on reaching the wagon, Levering and I assisted the cook to harness in and start the commissary. The general course of the Nueces River was southeast by northwest, and as our route lay on the latter angle, the herd would follow up the valley for the first day. Once outside the boundaries of our camp of the past week, the grass matted the ground with its rank young growth. As far as the eye could see, the mesas, clothed in the verdure of spring, rolled in long swells away to the divides. Along the river and in the first bottom, the timber and mesquite thickets were in leaf and blossom, while on the outlying prairies the only objects which dotted this sea of green were range cattle and an occasional band of horses.
The start was made on the 27th of March. By easy drives and within a week, we crossed the "Sunset" Railway, about thirty miles to the westward of the ranch in Medina. On reaching the divide between the Leona and Frio rivers, we sighted our first herd of trail cattle, heading northward. We learned that some six herds had already passed upward on the main Frio, while a number of others were reported as having taken the east fork of that river. The latter stream almost paralleled the line between Medina and Uvalde counties, and as we expected some word from headquarters, we crossed over to the east fork. When westward of and opposite the ranch, Runt Pickett was sent in for any necessary orders that might be waiting. By leaving us early in the evening he could reach headquarters that night and overtake us before noon the next day. We grazed leisurely forward the next morning, killing as much time as possible, and Pickett overtook us before the wagon had even gone into camp for dinner. Lovell had not stopped on his return from the west, but had left with the depot agent at the home station a letter for the ranch. From its contents we learned that the other two Buford herds had started from Uvalde, Sponsilier in the lead, one on the 24th and the other the following day. Local rumors were encouraging in regard to grass and water to the westward, and the intimation was clear that if favorable reports continued, the two Uvalde herds would intersect an old trail running from the head of Nueces Canon to the Llano River. Should they follow this route there was little hope of their coming into the main western trail before reaching the Colorado River. Sponsilier was a daring fellow, and if there was a possible chance to get through beyond the borders of any settlement, he was certain to risk it.
The letter contained no personal advice. Years of experience in trail matters had taught my employer that explicit orders were often harmful. The emergencies to be met were of such a varied nature that the best method was to trust to an outfit worming its way out of any situation which confronted it. From the information disclosed, it was evident that the other Buford herds were then somewhere to the northwest, and possibly over a hundred miles distant. Thus freed from any restraint, we held a due northward course for several days, or until we encountered some rocky country. Water was plentiful and grass fairly good, but those flinty hills must be avoided or sorefooted beeves would be the result. I had seen trails of blood left by cattle from sandy countries on encountering rock, and now the feet of ours were a second consideration to their stomachs. But long before the herd reached this menace, Morg Tussler and myself, scouting two full days in advance, located a safe route to the westward. Had we turned to the other hand, we should have been forced into the main trail below Fredericksburg, and we preferred the sea-room of the boundless plain. From every indication and report, this promised to be the banner year in the exodus of cattle from the South to the then new Northwest. This latter section was affording the long-looked-for outlet, by absorbing the offerings of cattle which came up from Texas over the trail, and marking an epoch barely covering a single decade.
Turning on a western angle, a week's drive brought us out on a high tableland. Veering again to the north, we snailed along through a delightful country, rich in flora and the freshness of the season. From every possible elevation, we scanned the west in the hope of sighting some of the herd which had followed up the main Frio, but in vain. Sweeping northward at a leisurely gait, the third week out we sighted the Blue Mountains, the first familiar landmark on our course. As the main western trail skirted its base on the eastward, our position was easily established.
So far the cattle were well behaved, not a run, and only a single incident occurring worth mention. About half an hour before dawn one morning, the cook aroused the camp with the report that the herd was missing. The beeves had been bedded within two hundred yards of the wagon, and the last watch usually hailed the rekindling of the cook's fire as the first harbinger of day. But on this occasion the absence of the usual salutations from the bed-ground aroused Parent's suspicion. He rushed into camp, and laboring under the impression that the cattle had stampeded, trampled over our beds, yelling at the top of his lungs. Aroused in the darkness from heavy sleep, bewildered by a bright fire burning and a crazy man shouting, "The beeves have stampeded! the herd's gone! Get up, everybody!" we were almost thrown into a panic. Many of the boys ran for their night-horses, but Clay Zilligan and I fell on the cook and shook the statement out of him that the cattle had left their beds. This simplified the situation, but before I could recall the men, several of them had reached the bed-ground. As fast as horses could be secured, others dashed through the lighted circle and faded into the darkness. From the flickering of matches it was evident that the boys were dismounting and looking for some sign of trouble. Zilligan was swearing like a pirate, looking for his horse in the murky night; but instead of any alarm, oaths and derision greeted our ears as the men returned to camp. Halting their horses within the circle of the fire, Dorg Seay said to the cook:
"Neal, the next time you find a mare's nest, keep the secret to yourself. I don't begrudge losing thirty minutes' beauty sleep, but I hate to be scared out of a year's growth. Haven't you got cow-sense enough to know that if those beeves had run, they'd have shook the earth? If they had stampeded, that alarm clock of yours wouldn't be a circumstance to the barking of the boys' guns. Why, the cattle haven't been gone thirty minutes. You can see where they got up and then quietly walked away. The ground where they lay is still steaming and warm. They were watered a little too soon yesterday and naturally got up early this morning. The boys on guard didn't want to alarm the outfit, and just allowed the beeves to graze off on their course. When day breaks, you'll see they ain't far away, and in the right direction. Parent, if I didn't sabe cows better than you do, I'd confine my attention to a cotton patch."
Seay had read the sign aright. When day dawned the cattle were in plain view about a mile distant. On the return of the last guard to camp, Vick Wolf explained the situation in a few words. During their watch the herd had grown restless, many of the cattle arising; and knowing that dawn was near at hand, the boys had pushed the sleepy ones off their beds and started them feeding. The incident had little effect on the irrepressible Parent, who seemed born to blunder, yet gifted with a sunny disposition which atoned for his numerous mistakes.
With the Blue Mountains as our guiding star, we kept to the westward of that landmark, crossing the Llano River opposite some Indian mounds. On reaching the divide between this and the next water, we sighted two dust-clouds to the westward. They were ten to fifteen miles distant, but I was anxious to hear any word of Sponsilier or Forrest, and sent Jake Blair to make a social call. He did not return until the next day, and reported the first herd as from the mouth of the Pecos, and the more distant one as belonging to Jesse Presnall. Blair had stayed all night with the latter, and while its foreman was able to locate at least a dozen trail herds in close proximity, our two from Uvalde had neither been seen nor heard of. Baffled again, necessity compelled us to turn within touch of some outfitting point. The staples of life were running low in our commissary, no opportunity having presented itself to obtain a new supply since we left the ranch in Medina over a month before. Consequently, after crossing the San Saba, we made our first tack to the eastward.
Brady City was an outfitting point for herds on the old western trail. On coming opposite that frontier village, Parent and I took the wagon and went in after supplies, leaving the herd on its course, paralleling the former route. They had instructions to camp on Brady Creek that night. On reaching the supply point, there was a question if we could secure the simple staples needed. The drive that year had outstripped all calculations, some half-dozen chuck-wagons being in waiting for the arrival of a freight outfit which was due that morning. The nearest railroad was nearly a hundred miles to the eastward, and all supplies must be freighted in by mule and ox teams. While waiting for the freight wagons, which were in sight several miles distant, I made inquiry of the two outfitting stores if our Buford herds had passed. If they had, no dealings had taken place on the credit of Don Lovell, though both merchants knew him well. Before the freight outfit arrived, some one took Abb Blocker, a trail foreman for his brother John, to task for having an odd ox in his wheel team. The animal was a raw, unbroken "7L" bull, surly and chafing under the yoke, and attracted general attention. When several friends of Blocker, noticing the brand, began joking him, he made this explanation: "No, I don't claim him; but he came into my herd the other night and got to hossing my steers around. We couldn't keep him out, and I thought if he would just go along, why we'd put him under the yoke and let him hoss that chuck-wagon to amuse himself. One of my wheelers was getting a little tenderfooted, anyhow."
On the arrival of the freight outfit, short shift was made in transferring a portion of the cargo to the waiting chuck-wagons. As we expected to reach Abilene, a railroad point, within a week, we took on only a small stock of staple supplies. Having helped ourselves, the only delay was in getting a clerk to look over our appropriation, make out an itemized bill, and receive a draft on my employer. When finally the merchant in person climbed into our wagon and took a list of the articles, Parent started back to overtake the herd. I remained behind several hours, chatting with the other foremen.
None of the other trail bosses had seen anything of Lovell's other herds, though they all knew him personally or by reputation, and inquired if he was driving again in the same road brand. By general agreement, in case of trouble, we would pick up each other's cattle; and from half a cent to a cent a head was considered ample remuneration in buying water in Texas. Owing to the fact that many drovers had shipped to Red River, it was generally believed that there would be no congestion of cattle south of that point. All herds were then keeping well to the westward, some even declaring their intention to go through the Panhandle until the Canadian was reached.
Two days later we came into the main trail at the crossing of the Colorado River. Before we reached it, several ominous dust-clouds hung on our right for hours, while beyond the river were others, indicating the presence of herds. Summer weather had already set in, and during the middle of the day the glare of heat-waves and mirages obstructed our view of other wayfarers like ourselves, but morning and evening we were never out of sight of their signals. The banks of the river at the ford were trampled to the level of the water, while at both approach and exit the ground was cut into dust. On our arrival, the stage of water was favorable, and we crossed without a halt of herd, horses, or commissary. But there was little inducement to follow the old trail. Washed into ruts by the seasons, the grass on either side eaten away for miles, there was a look of desolation like that to be seen in the wake of an army. As we felt under obligations to touch at Abilene within a few days, there was a constant skirmish for grass within a reasonable distance of the trail; and we were early, fully two thirds of the drive being in our rear. One sultry morning south of Buffalo Gap, as we were grazing past the foot of Table Mountain, several of us rode to the summit of that butte. From a single point of observation we counted twelve herds within a space of thirty miles both south and north, all moving in the latter direction.
When about midway between the Gap and the railroad we were met at noon one day by Don Lovell. This was his first glimpse of my herd, and his experienced eye took in everything from a broken harness to the peeling and legibility of the road brand. With me the condition of the cattle was the first requisite, but the minor details as well as the more important claimed my employer's attention. When at last, after riding with the herd for an hour, he spoke a few words of approbation on the condition, weight, and uniformity of the beeves, I felt a load lifted from my shoulders. That the old man was in a bad humor on meeting us was evident; but as he rode along beside the cattle, lazy and large as oxen, the cockles of his heart warmed and he grew sociable. Near the middle of the afternoon, as we were in the rear, looking over the drag steers, he complimented me on having the fewest tender-footed animals of any herd that had passed Abilene since his arrival. Encouraged, I ventured the double question as to how this one would average with the other Buford herds, and did he know their whereabouts. As I recall his reply, it was that all Nueces Valley cattle were uniform, and if there was any difference it was due to carelessness in receiving. In regard to the locality of the other herds, it was easily to be seen that he was provoked about something.
"Yes, I know where they are," said he, snappishly, "but that's all the good it does me. They crossed the railroad, west, at Sweetwater, about a week ago. I don't blame Quince, for he's just trailing along, half a day behind Dave's herd. But Sponsilier, knowing that I wanted to see him, had the nerve to write me a postal card with just ten words on it, saying that all was well and to meet him in Dodge. Tom, you don't know what a satisfaction it is to me to spend a day or so with each of the herds. But those rascals didn't pay any more attention to me than if I was an old woman. There was some reason for it--sore-footed cattle, or else they have skinned up their remudas and didn't want me to see them. If I drive a hundred herds hereafter, Dave Sponsilier will stay at home as far as I'm concerned. He may think it's funny to slip past, but this court isn't indulging in any levity just at present. I fail to see the humor in having two outfits with sixty-seven hundred cattle somewhere between the Staked Plain and No-Man's-Land, and unable to communicate with them. And while my herds are all contracted, mature beeves have broke from three to five dollars a head in price since these started, and it won't do to shout before we're out of the woods. Those fool boys don't know that, and I can't get near enough to tell them."
I knew better than to ask further questions or offer any apologies for others. My employer was naturally irritable, and his abuse or praise of a foreman was to be expected. Previously and under the smile of prosperity, I had heard him laud Sponsilier, and under an imaginary shadow abuse Jim Flood, the most experienced man in his employ. Feeling it was useless to pour oil on the present troubled waters, I excused myself, rode back, and ordered the wagon to make camp ahead about four miles on Elm Creek. We watered late in the afternoon, grazing thence until time to bed the herd. When the first and second guards were relieved to go in and catch night-horses and get their supper, my employer remained behind with the cattle. While feeding during the evening, we allowed the herd to scatter over a thousand acres. Taking advantage of the loose order of the beeves, the old man rode back and forth through them until approaching darkness compelled us to throw them together on the bedground. Even after the first guard took charge, the drover loitered behind, reluctant to leave until the last steer had lain down; and all during the night, sharing my blankets, he awoke on every change of guards, inquiring of the returning watch how the cattle were sleeping.
As we should easily pass Abilene before noon, I asked him as a favor that he take the wagon in and get us sufficient supplies to last until Red River was reached. But he preferred to remain behind with the herd, and I went instead. This suited me, as his presence overawed my outfit, who were delirious to see the town. There was no telling how long he would have stayed with us, but my brother Bob's herd was expected at any time. Remaining with us a second night, something, possibly the placidness of the cattle, mellowed the old man and he grew amiable with the outfit, and myself in particular. At breakfast the next morning, when I asked him if he was in a position to recommend any special route, he replied:
"No, Tom, that rests with you. One thing's certain; herds are going to be dangerously close together on the regular trail which crosses Red River at Doan's. The season is early yet, but over fifty herds have already crossed the Texas Pacific Railway. Allowing one half the herds to start north of that line, it gives you a fair idea what to expect. When seven hundred thousand cattle left Texas two years ago, it was considered the banner year, yet it won't be a marker to this one. The way prices are tumbling shows that the Northwest was bluffing when they offered to mature all the cattle that Texas could breed for the next fifty years. That's the kind of talk that suits me, but last year there were some forty herds unsold, which were compelled to winter in the North. Not over half the saddle horses that came up the trail last summer were absorbed by these Northern cowmen. Talk's cheap, but it takes money to buy whiskey. Lots of these men are new ones at the business and may lose fortunes. The banks are getting afraid of cattle paper, and conditions are tightening. With the increased drive this year, if the summer passes without a slaughter in prices, the Texas drovers can thank their lucky stars. I'm not half as bright as I might be, but this is one year that I'm smooth enough not to have unsold cattle on the trail."
The herd had started an hour before, and when the wagon was ready to move, I rode a short distance with my employer. It was possible that he had something to say of a confidential nature, for it was seldom that he acted so discouraged when his every interest seemed protected by contracts. But at the final parting, when we both had dismounted and sat on the ground for an hour, he had disclosed nothing. On the contrary, he even admitted that possibly it was for the best that the other Buford herds had held a westward course and thus avoided the crush on the main routes. The only intimation which escaped him was when we had remounted and each started our way, he called me back and said, "Tom, no doubt but you've noticed that I'm worried. Well, I am. I'd tell you in a minute, but I may be wrong in the matter. But I'll know before you reach Dodge, and then, if it's necessary, you shall know all. It's nothing about the handling of the herds, for my foremen have always considered my interests first. Keep this to yourself, for it may prove a nightmare. But if it should prove true, then we must stand together. Now, that's all; mum's the word until we meet. Drop me a line if you get a chance, and don't let my troubles worry you."
While overtaking the herd, I mused over my employer's last words. But my brain was too muddy even to attempt to solve the riddle. The most plausible theory that I could advance was that some friendly cowmen were playing a joke on him, and that the old man had taken things too seriously. Within a week the matter was entirely forgotten, crowded out of mind by the demands of the hour. The next night, on the Clear Fork of the Brazos, a stranger, attracted by our camp-fire, rode up to the wagon. Returning from the herd shortly after his arrival, I recognized in our guest John Blocker, a prominent drover. He informed us that he and his associates had fifty-two thousand cattle on the trail, and that he was just returning from overtaking two of their five lead herds. Knowing that he was a well-posted cowman on routes and sustenance, having grown up on the trail, I gave him the best our camp afforded, and in return I received valuable information in regard to the country between our present location and Doan's Crossing. He reported the country for a hundred miles south of Red River as having had a dry, backward spring, scanty of grass, and with long dry drives; and further, that in many instances water for the herds would have to be bought from those in control.
The outlook was not to my liking. The next morning when I inquired of our guest what he would advise me to do, his answer clearly covered the ground. "Well, I'm not advising any one," said he, "but you can draw your own conclusions. The two herds of mine, which I overtook, have orders to turn northeast and cross into the Nations at Red River Station. My other cattle, still below, will all be routed by way of Fort Griffin. Once across Red River, you will have the Chisholm Trail, running through civilized tribes, and free from all annoyance of blanket Indians. South of the river the grass is bound to be better than on the western route, and if we have to buy water, we'll have the advantage of competition."
With this summary of the situation, a decision was easily reached. The Chisholm Trail was good enough for me. Following up the north side of the Clear Fork, we passed about twenty miles to the west of Fort Griffin. Constantly bearing east by north, a few days later we crossed the main Brazos at a low stage of water. But from there to Red River was a trial not to be repeated. Wire fences halted us at every turn. Owners of pastures refused permission to pass through. Lanes ran in the wrong direction, and open country for pasturage was scarce. What we dreaded most, lack of drink for the herd, was the least of our troubles, necessity requiring its purchase only three or four times. And like a climax to a week of sore trials, when we were in sight of Red River a sand and dust storm struck us, blinding both men and herd for hours. The beeves fared best, for with lowered heads they turned their backs to the howling gale, while the horsemen caught it on every side. The cattle drifted at will in an uncontrollable mass. The air was so filled with sifting sand and eddying dust that it was impossible to see a mounted man at a distance of fifty yards. The wind blew a hurricane, making it impossible to dismount in the face of it. Our horses trembled with fear, unsteady on their feet. The very sky overhead darkened as if night was falling. Two thirds of the men threw themselves in the lead of the beeves, firing six-shooters to check them, which could not even be heard by the ones on the flank and in the rear. Once the herd drifted against a wire fence, leveled it down and moved on, sullen but irresistible. Towards evening the storm abated, and half the outfit was sent out in search of the wagon, which was finally found about dark some four miles distant.
That night Owen Ubery, as he bathed his bloodshot eyes in a pail of water, said to the rest of us: "Fellows, if ever I have a boy, and tell him how his pa suffered this afternoon, and he don't cry, I'll cut a switch and whip him until he does."