In gala spirits we broke camp the next morning. The herd had left the bed-ground at dawn, and as the outfit rode away to relieve the last guard, every mother's son was singing. The cattle were a refreshing sight as they grazed forward, their ragged front covering half a mile in width. The rest of the past few days had been a boon to the few tender-footed ones. The lay-over had rejuvenated both man and beast. From maps in our possession we knew we were somewhere near the western border of the Chickasaw Nation, while on our left was the reservation of three blanket tribes of Indians. But as far as signs of occupancy were concerned, the country was unmarked by any evidence of civilization. The Chisholm Cattle Trail, which ran from Red River to the Kansas line, had almost fallen into disuse, owing to encroachments of settlements south of the former and westward on the latter. With the advancement of immigration, Abilene and Ellsworth as trail terminals yielded to the tide, and the leading cattle trace of the '70's was relegated to local use in '84.
The first guard was on the qui vive for the outfit whose camp-fire they had sighted the night before. I was riding with Clay Zilligan on the left point, when he sighted what we supposed was a small bunch of cattle lying down several miles distant. When we reached the first rise of ground, a band of saddle horses came in view, and while we were trying to locate their camp, Jack Splann from the opposite point attracted our attention and pointed straight ahead. There a large band of cattle under herd greeted our view, compelling us to veer to the right and intersect the trail sooner than we intended. Keeping a clear half-mile between us, we passed them within an hour and exchanged the compliments of the trail. They proved to be "Laurel Leaf" and "Running W" cattle, the very ones for which the International Railway agent at the meeting in February had so boastfully shown my employer the application for cars. The foreman was cursing like a stranded pirate over the predicament in which he found himself. He had left Santo Gertrudo Ranch over a month before with a herd of three thousand straight two-year-old steers. But in the shipment of some thirty-three thousand cattle from the two ranches to Wichita Falls, six trains had been wrecked, two of which were his own. Instead of being hundreds of miles ahead in the lead of the year's drive, as he expected, he now found himself in charge of a camp of cripples. What few trains belonging to his herd had escaped the ditch were used in filling up other unfortunate ones, the injured cattle from the other wrecks forming his present holdings.
"Our people were anxious to get their cattle on to the market early this year," said he, "and put their foot into it up to the knee. Shipping to Red River was an experiment with them, and I hope they've got their belly full. We've got dead and dying cattle in every pasture from the falls to the river, while these in sight aren't able to keep out of the stench of those that croaked between here and the ford. Oh, this shipping is a fine thing--for the railroads. Here I've got to rot all summer with these cattle, just because two of my trains went into the ditch while no other foreman had over one wrecked. And mind you, they paid the freight in advance, and now King and Kennedy have brought suit for damages amounting to double the shipping expense. They'll get it all right--in pork. I'd rather have a claim against a nigger than a railroad company. Look at your beeves, slick as weasels, and from the Nueces River. Have to hold them in, I reckon, to keep from making twenty miles a day. And here I am--Oh, hell, I'd rather be on a rock-pile with a ball and chain to my foot! Do you see those objects across yonder about two miles--in that old grass? That's where we bedded night before last and forty odd died. We only lost twenty-two last night. Oh, we're getting in shape fast. If you think you can hold your breakfast down, just take a ride through mine. No, excuse me-- I've seen them too often already."
Several of the boys and myself rode into the herd some little distance, but the sight was enough to turn a copper-lined stomach. Scarcely an animal had escaped without more or less injury. Fully one half were minus one or both horns, leaving instead bloody stumps. Broken bones and open sores greeted us on every hand; myriads of flies added to the misery of the cattle, while in many instances there was evidence of maggots at work on the living animal. Turning from the herd in disgust, we went back to our own, thankful that the rate offered us had been prohibitory. The trials and vexations of the road were mere nothings to be endured, compared to the sights we were then leaving. Even what we first supposed were cattle lying down, were only bed-grounds, the occupants having been humanely relieved by unwaking sleep. Powerless to render any assistance, we trailed away, glad to blot from our sight and memory such scenes of misery and death.
Until reaching the Washita River, we passed through a delightful country. There were numerous local trails coming into the main one, all of which showed recent use. Abandoned camp-fires and bed-grounds were to be seen on every hand, silent witnesses of an exodus which was to mark the maximum year in the history of the cattle movement from Texas. Several times we saw some evidence of settlement by the natives, but as to the freedom of the country, we were monarchs of all we surveyed. On arriving at the Washita, we encountered a number of herds, laboring under the impression that they were water-bound. Immediate entrance at the ford was held by a large herd of young cattle in charge of a negro outfit. Their stock were scattered over several thousand acres, and when I asked for the boss, a middle-aged darky of herculean figure was pointed out as in charge. To my inquiry why he was holding the ford, his answer was that until to-day the river had been swimming, and now he was waiting for the banks to dry. Ridiculing his flimsy excuse, I kindly yet firmly asked him either to cross or vacate the ford by three o'clock that afternoon. Receiving no definite reply, I returned to our herd, which was some five miles in the rear. Beyond the river's steep, slippery banks and cold water, there was nothing to check a herd.
After the noonday halt, the wrangler and myself took our remuda and went on ahead to the river. Crossing and recrossing our saddle stock a number of times, we trampled the banks down to a firm footing. While we were doing this work, the negro foreman and a number of his men rode up and sullenly watched us. Leaving our horses on the north bank, Levering and I returned, and ignoring the presence of the darky spectators, started back to meet the herd, which was just then looming up in sight. But before we had ridden any distance, the dusky foreman overtook us and politely said, "Look-ee here, Cap'n; ain't you-all afraid of losin' some of your cattle among ours?" Never halting, I replied, "Not a particle; if we lose any, you eat them, and we'll do the same if our herd absorbs any of yours. But it strikes me that you had better have those lazy niggers throw your cattle to one side," I called back, as he halted his horse. We did not look backward until we reached the herd; then as we turned, one on each side to support the points, it was evident that a clear field would await us on reaching the river. Every horseman in the black outfit was pushing cattle with might and main, to give us a clean cloth at the crossing.
The herd forded the Washita without incident. I remained on the south bank while the cattle were crossing, and when they were about half over some half-dozen of the darkies rode up and stopped apart, conversing among themselves. When the drag cattle passed safely out on the farther bank, I turned to the dusky group, only to find their foreman absent. Making a few inquiries as to the ownership of their herd, its destination, and other matters of interest, I asked the group to express my thanks to their foreman for moving his cattle aside. Our commissary crossed shortly afterward, and the Washita was in our rear. But that night, as some of my outfit returned from the river, where they had been fishing, they reported the negro outfit as having crossed and encamped several miles in our rear.
"All they needed was a good example," said Dorg Seay. "Under a white foreman, I'll bet that's a good lot of darkies. They were just about the right shade--old shiny black. As good cowhands as ever I saw were nigs, but they need a white man to blow and brag on them. But it always ruins one to give him any authority."
Without effort we traveled fifteen miles a day. In the absence of any wet weather to gall their backs, there was not a horse in our remuda unfit for the saddle. In fact, after reaching the Indian Territory, they took on flesh and played like lambs. With the exception of long hours and night-herding, the days passed in seeming indolence as we swept northward, crossing rivers without a halt which in previous years had defied the moving herds. On arriving at the Cimarron River, in reply to a letter written to my employer on leaving Texas behind us, an answer was found awaiting me at Red Fork. The latter was an Indian trading-post, located on the mail route to Fort Reno, and only a few miles north of the Chisholm Crossing. The letter was characteristic of my employer. It contained but one imperative order,--that I should touch, either with or without the herd, at Camp Supply. For some unexplained reason he would make that post his headquarters until after the Buford herds had passed that point. The letter concluded with the injunction, in case we met any one, to conceal the ownership of the herd and its destination.
The mystery was thickening. But having previously declined to borrow trouble, I brushed this aside as unimportant, though I gave my outfit instructions to report the herd to every one as belonging to Omaha men, and on its way to Nebraska to be corn-fed. Fortunately I had ridden ahead of the herd after crossing the Cimarron, and had posted the outfit before they reached the trading-station. I did not allow one of my boys near the store, and the herd passed by as in contempt of such a wayside place. As the Dodge cut-off left the Chisholm Trail some ten miles above the Indian trading-post, the next morning we waved good-bye to the old cattle trace and turned on a northwest angle. Our route now lay up the Cimarron, which we crossed and recrossed at our pleasure, for the sake of grazing or to avoid several large alkali flats. There was evidence of herds in our advance, and had we not hurried past Red Fork, I might have learned something to our advantage. But disdaining all inquiry of the cut-off, fearful lest our identity be discovered, we deliberately walked into the first real danger of the trip.
At low water the Cimarron was a brackish stream. But numerous tributaries put in from either side, and by keeping above the river's ebb, an abundance of fresh water was daily secured from the river's affluents. The fifth day out from Red Rock was an excessively sultry one, and suffering would have resulted to the herd had we not been following a divide where we caught an occasional breeze. The river lay some ten miles to our right, while before us a tributary could be distinctly outlined by the cottonwoods which grew along it. Since early morning we had been paralleling the creek, having nooned within sight of its confluence with the mother stream, and consequently I had considered it unnecessary to ride ahead and look up the water. When possible, we always preferred watering the herd between three and four o'clock in the afternoon. But by holding our course, we were certain to intersect the creek at about the usual hour for the cattle's daily drink, and besides, as the creek neared the river, it ran through an alkali flat for some distance. But before the time arrived to intersect the creek on our course, the herd turned out of the trail, determined to go to the creek and quench their thirst. The entire outfit, however, massed on the right flank, and against their will we held them on their course. As their thirst increased with travel, they made repeated attempts to break through our cordon, requiring every man to keep on the alert. But we held them true to the divide, and as we came to the brow of a small hill within a quarter-mile of the water, a stench struck us until we turned in our saddles, gasping for breath. I was riding third man in the swing from the point, and noticing something wrong in front, galloped to the brow of the hill. The smell was sickening and almost unendurable, and there before us in plain view lay hundreds of dead cattle, bloated and decaying in the summer sun.
I was dazed by the awful scene. A pretty, greenswarded little valley lay before me, groups of cottonwoods fringed the stream here and there, around the roots of which were both shade and water. The reeking stench that filled the air stupefied me for the instant, and I turned my horse from the view, gasping for a mouthful of God's pure ozone. But our beeves had been scenting the creek for hours, and now a few of the leaders started forward in a trot for it. Like a flash it came to me that death lurked in that water, and summoning every man within hearing, I dashed to the lead of our cattle to turn them back over the hill. Jack Splann was on the point, and we turned the leaders when within two hundred yards of the creek, frequently jumping our horses over the putrid carcasses of dead cattle. The main body of the herd were trailing for three quarters of a mile in our rear, and none of the men dared leave their places. Untying our slickers, Splann and I fell upon the leaders and beat them back to the brow of the hill, when an unfortunate breeze was wafted through that polluted atmosphere from the creek to the cattle's nostrils. Turning upon us and now augmented to several hundred head, they sullenly started forward. But in the few minutes' interim, two other lads had come to our support, and dismounting we rushed them, whipping our slickers into ribbons over their heads. The mastery of man again triumphed over brutes in their thirst, for we drove them in a rout back over the divide.
Our success, however, was only temporary. Recovering our horses we beat the cattle back, seemingly inch by inch, until the rear came up, when we rounded them into a compact body. They quieted down for a short while, affording us a breathing spell, for the suddenness of this danger had not only unnerved me but every one of the outfit who had caught a glimpse of that field of death. The wagon came up, and those who needed them secured a change of horses. Leaving the outfit holding the herd, Splann and I took fresh mounts, and circling around, came in on the windward side of the creek. As we crossed it half a mile above the scene of disaster, each of us dipped a hand in the water and tasted it. The alkali was strong as concentrated lye, blistering our mouths in the experiment. The creek was not even running, but stood in long, deep pools, clear as crystal and as inviting to the thirsty as a mountain spring. As we neared the dead cattle, Splann called my attention to the attitude of the animals when death relieved them, the heads of fully two thirds being thrown back on their sides. Many, when stricken, were unable to reach the bank, and died in the bed of the stream. Making a complete circle of the ghastly scene, we returned to our own, agreeing that between five and six hundred cattle had met their fate in those death-dealing pools.
We were not yet out of the woods. On our return, many of the cattle were lying down, while in the west thunder-clouds were appearing. The North Fork of the Canadian lay on our left, which was now our only hope for water, yet beyond our reach for the day. Keeping the slight divide between us and the creek, we started the herd forward. Since it was impossible to graze them in their thirsty condition, I was determined to move them as far as possible before darkness overtook us. But within an hour we crossed a country trail over which herds had passed on their way northwest, having left the Chisholm after crossing the North Fork. At the first elevation which would give me a view of the creek, another scene of death and desolation greeted my vision, only a few miles above the first one. Yet from this same hill I could easily trace the meanderings of the creek for miles as it made a half circle in our front, both inviting and defying us. Turning the herd due south, we traveled until darkness fell, going into camp on a high, flat mesa of several thousand acres. But those evening breezes wafted an invitation to come and drink, and our thirsty herd refused to bed down. To add to our predicament, a storm thickened in the west. Realizing that we were confronting the most dangerous night in all my cattle experience, I ordered every man into the saddle. The remuda and team were taken in charge by the wrangler and cook, and going from man to man, I warned them what the consequences would be if we lost the herd during the night, and the cattle reached the creek.
The cattle surged and drifted almost at will, for we were compelled to hold them loose to avoid milling. Before ten o'clock the lightning was flickering overhead and around us, revealing acres of big beeves, which in an instant might take fright, and then, God help us. But in that night of trial a mercy was extended to the dumb brutes in charge. A warm rain began falling, first in a drizzle, increasing after the first hour, and by midnight we could hear the water slushing under our horses' feet. By the almost constant flashes of lightning we could see the cattle standing as if asleep, in grateful enjoyment of the sheeting downpour. As the night wore on, our fears of a stampede abated, for the buffalo wallows on the mesa filled, and water was on every hand. The rain ceased before dawn, but owing to the saturated condition underfoot, not a hoof lay down during the night, and when the gray of morning streaked the east, what a sense of relief it brought us. The danger had passed.
Near noon that day, and within a few miles of the North Fork, we rounded an alkaline plain in which this deadly creek had its source. Under the influence of the season, alkali had oozed up out of the soil until it looked like an immense lake under snow. The presence of range cattle in close proximity to this creek, for we were in the Cherokee Strip, baffled my reasoning; but the next day we met a range-rider who explained that the present condition of the stream was unheard of before, and that native cattle had instinct enough to avoid it. He accounted for its condition as due to the dry season, there being no general rains sufficient to flood the alkaline plain and thoroughly flush the creek. In reply to an inquiry as to the ownership of the unfortunate herds, he informed me that there were three, one belonging to Bob Houston, another to Major Corouthers, and the third to a man named Murphy, the total loss amounting to about two thousand cattle.
From this same range-man we also learned our location. Camp Supply lay up the North Fork some sixty miles, while a plain trail followed up the first bottom of the river. Wishing to avoid, if possible, intersecting the western trail south of Dodge, the next morning I left the herd to follow up, and rode into Camp Supply before noon. Lovell had sighted me a mile distant, and after a drink at the sutler's bar, we strolled aside for a few minutes' chat. Once I had informed him of the locality of the herd and their condition, he cautioned me not to let my business be known while in the post. After refreshing the inner man, my employer secured a horse and started with me on my return. As soon as the flag over Supply faded out of sight in our rear, we turned to the friendly shade of the timber on the North Fork and dismounted. I felt that the precaution exercised by the drover was premonitory of some revelation, and before we arose from the cottonwood log on which we took seats, the scales had fallen from my eyes and the atmosphere of mystery cleared.
"Tom," said my employer, "I am up against a bad proposition. I am driving these Buford cattle, you understand, on a sub-contract. I was the second lowest bidder with the government, and no sooner was the award made to The Western Supply Company than they sent an agent who gave me no peace until they sublet their contract. Unfortunately for me, when the papers were drawn, my regular attorney was out of town, and I was compelled to depend on a stranger. After the articles were executed, I submitted the matter to my old lawyer; he shook his head, arguing that a loophole had been left open, and that I should have secured an assignment of the original contract. After studying the matter over, we opened negotiations to secure a complete relinquishment of the award. But when I offered the company a thousand dollars over and above what they admitted was their margin, and they refused it, I opened my eyes to the true situation. If cattle went up, I was responsible and would have to fill my contract; if they went down, the company would buy in the cattle and I could go to hell in a hand-basket for all they cared. Their bond to the government does me no good, and beyond that they are irresponsible. Beeves have broken from four to five dollars a head, and unless I can deliver these Buford herds on my contract, they will lose me fifty thousand dollars."
"Have you any intimation that they expect to buy in other cattle?" I inquired.
"Yes. I have had a detective in my employ ever since my suspicions were aroused. There are two parties in Dodge this very minute with the original contract, properly assigned, and they are looking for cattle to fill it. That's why I'm stopping here and lying low. I couldn't explain it to you sooner, but you understand now why I drove those Buford herds in different road brands. Tom, we're up against it, and we've got to fight the devil with fire. Henceforth your name will be Tom McIndoo, your herd will be the property of the Marshall estate, and their agent, my detective, will be known as Charles Siringo. Any money or supplies you may need in Dodge, get in the usual form through the firm of Wright, Beverly & Co.--they understand. Hold your herd out south on Mulberry, and Siringo will have notice and be looking for you, or you can find him at the Dodge House. I've sent a courier to Fort Elliott to meet Dave and Quince, and once I see them, I'll run up to Ogalalla and wait for you. Now, until further orders, remember you never knew a man by the name of Don Lovell, and by all means don't forget to use what wits Nature gave you."