We reached Miles City shortly after midnight. It was the recognized cattle centre of Montana at that time, but devoid of the high-lights which were a feature of the trail towns. The village boasted the usual number of saloons and dance-houses, and likewise an ordinance compelling such resorts to close on the stroke of twelve. Lovell had been there before, and led the way to a well-known hostelry. The house was crowded, and the best the night clerk could do was to give us a room with two beds. This was perfectly satisfactory, as it was a large apartment and fronted out on an open gallery. Old man Don suggested we take the mattresses outside, but as this was my first chance to sleep in a bed since leaving the ranch in March, I wanted all the comforts that were due me. Sponsilier likewise favored the idea of sleeping inside, and our employer yielded, taking the single bed on retiring. The night was warm, and after thrashing around for nearly an hour, supposing that Dave and I were asleep, old man Don arose and quietly dragged his mattress outside. Our bed was soft and downy, but in spite of the lateness of the hour and having been in our saddles at dawn, we tossed about, unable to sleep. After agreeing that it was the mattress, we took the covering and pillows and lay down on the floor, falling into a deep slumber almost instantly. "Well, wouldn't that jar your eccentric," said Dave to me the next morning, speaking of our inability to sleep in a bed. "I slept in one in Ogalalla, and I wasn't over-full either."
Lovell remained with us all the next day. He was well known in Miles City, having in other years sold cattle to resident cowmen. The day was spent in hunting up former acquaintances, getting the lay of the land, and feeling the public pulse on the matter of quarantine on Southern cattle. The outlook was to our liking, as heavy losses had been sustained from fever the year before, and steps had already been taken to isolate all through animals until frost fell. Report was abroad that there were already within the jurisdiction of Montana over one hundred and fifty thousand through Texas cattle, with a possibility of one third that number more being added before the close of the season. That territory had established a quarantine camp on the Wyoming line, forcing all Texas stock to follow down the eastern side of the Powder River. Fully one hundred miles on the north, a dead-line was drawn from Powderville on that watercourse eastward to a spur of the Powder River Mountains, thus setting aside a quarantine ground ample to accommodate half a million cattle. Local range-riders kept all the native and wintered Texas cattle to the westward of the river and away from the through ones, which was easily done by riding lines, the Southern herds being held under constant control and hence never straying. The first Texas herds to arrive naturally traveled north to the dead-line, and, choosing a range, went into camp until frost relieved them. It was an unwritten law that a herd was entitled to as much grazing land as it needed, and there was a report about Miles City that the quarantine ground was congested with cattle halfway from Powderville to the Wyoming line.
The outlook was encouraging. Quarantine was working a hardship to herds along the old Powder River route, yet their enforced isolation was like a tempered wind to our cause and cattle, the latter then leisurely grazing across Dakota from the Little Missouri to the mouth of the Yellowstone. Fortune favored us in many respects. About Miles City there was no concealment of our mission, resulting in an old acquaintance of Lovell's loaning us horses, while old man Don had no trouble in getting drafts cashed to the amount of two thousand dollars. What he expected to do with this amount of money was a mystery to Dave and myself, a mystery which instantly cleared when we were in the privacy of our room at the hotel.
"Here, boys," said old man Don, throwing the roll of money on the bed, "divide this wad between you. There might be such a thing as using a little here and there to sweeten matters up, and making yourselves rattling good fellows wherever you go. Now in the first place, I want you both to understand that this money is clear velvet, and don't hesitate to spend it freely. Eat and drink all you can, and gamble a little of it if that is necessary. You two will saddle up in the morning and ride to Powderville, while I will lie around here a few days and try the market for cattle next year, and then go on to Big Horn on my way to the Crow Agency. Feel your way carefully; locate the herds of Field, Radcliff & Co., and throw everything in their way to retard progress. It is impossible to foretell what may happen, and for that reason only general orders can be given. And remember, I don't want to see that money again if there is any chance to use it."
Powderville was a long day's ride from Miles City. By making an early start and resting a few hours at noon, we reached that straggling outpost shortly after nightfall. There was a road-house for the wayfaring man and a corral for his beast, a general store, opposition saloons, and the regulation blacksmith shop, constituting the business interests of Powderville. As arriving guests, a rough but cordial welcome was extended us by the keeper of the hostelry, and we mingled with the other travelers, but never once mentioning our business. I was uneasy over the money in our possession; not that I feared robbery, but my mind constantly reverted to it, and it was with difficulty that I refrained from continually feeling to see that it was safe. Sponsilier had concealed his in his boot, and as we rode along, contended that he could feel the roll chafing his ankle. I had tied two handkerchiefs together, and rolling my share in one of them, belted the amount between my overshirt and undershirt. The belt was not noticeable, but in making the ride that day, my hand involuntarily went to my side where the money lay, the action never escaping the notice of Sponsilier, who constantly twitted me over my nervousness. And although we were tired as dogs after our long ride, I awoke many times that night and felt to see if my money was safe; my partner slept like a log.
Several cowmen, ranching on the lower Powder River, had headquarters at this outpost. The next morning Sponsilier and I made their acquaintance, and during the course of the day got a clear outline of the situation. On the west the river was the recognized dead-line to the Wyoming boundary, while two camps of five men each patroled the dividing line on the north, drifting back the native stock and holding the through herds in quarantine. The nearest camp was some distance east of Powderville, and saddling up towards evening we rode out and spent the night at the first quarantine station. A wagon and two tents, a relay of saddle horses, and an arsenal of long-range firearms composed the outfit. Three of the five men on duty were Texans. Making ourselves perfectly at home, we had no trouble in locating the herds in question, they having already sounded the tocsin to clear the way, claiming government beef recognized no local quarantine. The herds were not over thirty miles to the south, and expectation ran high as to results when an attempt should be made to cross the deadline. Trouble had already occurred, where outfits respecting the quarantine were trespassed upon by three herds, making claim of being under government protection and entitled to the rights of eminent domain. Fortunately several of the herds on the immediate line had been bought at Ogalalla and were in possession of ranch outfits who owned ranges farther north, and were anxious to see quarantine enforced. These local cowmen would support the established authority, and trouble was expected. Sponsilier and I widened the breach by denouncing these intruders as the hirelings of a set of ringsters, who had no regard for the rights of any one, and volunteered our services in enforcing quarantine against them the same as others.
Our services were gratefully accepted. The next morning we were furnished fresh horses, and one of us was requested, as we were strangers, to ride down the country and reconnoitre the advance of the defiant drovers. As I was fearful that Field or Radcliff might be accompanying the herds, and recognize me, Sponsilier went instead, returning late that evening.
"Well, fellows," said Dave, as he dismounted at the quarantine camp, "I've seen the herds, and they propose to cross this dead-line of yours as easily as water goes through a gourd funnel. They'll be here by noon to-morrow, and they've got the big conversation right on tap to show that the government couldn't feed its army if it wasn't for a few big cowmen like them. There's a strange corporal over the three herds and they're working on five horses to the man. But the major-domo's the whole works; he's a windy cuss, and intimates that he has a card or two up his sleeve that will put these quarantine guards to sleep when he springs them. He's a new man to me; at least he wasn't with the gang at Ogalalla."
During the absence of my partner, I had ridden the dead-line on the north. A strip of country five miles wide was clear of cattle above the boundary, while below were massed four herds, claiming the range from the mountains to the Powder River. The leader of the quarantine guards, Fred Ullmer, had accompanied me on the ride, and on our return we visited three of the outfits, urging them to hold all their reserve forces subject to call, in case an attempt was made to force the dead-line. At each camp I took every possible chance to sow the seeds of dissension and hatred against the high-handed methods of The Western Supply Company. Defining our situation clearly, I asked each foreman, in case these herds defied local authority, who would indemnify the owners for the loss among native cattle by fever between Powderville and the mouth of the Yellowstone. Would the drovers? Would the government? Leaving these and similar thoughts for their consideration, Ullmer and I had arrived at the first quarantine station shortly before the return of my partner.
Upon the report of Sponsilier, Ullmer was appointed captain, and lost no time in taking action. After dark, a scout was sent to Camp No. 2, a meeting-place was appointed on Wolf Creek below, and orders were given to bring along every possible man from the local outfits and to meet at the rendezvous within an hour after sun-up the next morning. Ullmer changed horses and left for Powderville, assuring us that he would rally every man interested in quarantine, and have his posse below, on the creek by sunrise. The remainder of us at headquarters were under orders to bring all the arms and ammunition, and join the quarantine forces at the meeting-place some five miles from our camp. We were also to touch at and command the presence of one of the four outfits while en route. I liked the determined action of Captain Ullmer, who I learned had emigrated with his parents to Montana when a boy, and had grown into manhood on the frontier. Sponsilier was likewise pleased with the quarantine leader, and we lay awake far into the night, reviewing the situation and trying to anticipate any possible contingency that might thwart our plans. But to our best reasoning the horizon was clear, and if Field, Radcliff & Co.'s cattle reached Fort Buford on the day of delivery, well, it would be a miracle.
Fresh horses were secured at dawn, and breakfast would be secured en route with the cow outfit. There were a dozen large-calibre rifles in scabbards, and burdening ourselves with two heavy guns to the man and an abundance of ammunition, we abandoned Quarantine Station No. 1 for the time being. The camp which we were to touch at was the one nearest the river and north of Wolf Creek, and we galloped up to it before the sun had even risen. Since everything was coming our way, Sponsilier and I observed a strict neutrality, but a tow-headed Texan rallied the outfit, saying:
"Make haste, fellows, and saddle up your horses. Those three herds which raised such a rumpus up on Little Powder have sent down word that they're going to cross our dead-line to-day if they have to prize up hell and put a chunk under it. We have decided to call their bluff before they even reach the line, and make them show their hand for all this big talk. Here's half a dozen guns and cartridges galore, but hustle yourselves. Fred went into Powderville last night and will meet us above at the twin buttes this morning with every cowman in town. All the other outfits have been sent for, and we'll have enough men to make our bluff stand up, never fear. From what I learn, these herds belong to a lot of Yankee speculators, and they don't give a tinker's dam if all the cattle in Montana die from fever. They're no better than anybody else, and if we allow them to go through, they'll leave a trail of dead natives that will stink us out of this valley. Make haste, everybody."
I could see at a glance that the young Texan had touched their pride. The foreman detailed three men to look after the herd, and the balance made hasty preparations to accompany the quarantine guards. A relief was rushed away for the herders; and when the latter came in, they reported having sighted the posse from Powderville, heading across country for the twin buttes. Meanwhile a breakfast had been bolted by the guards, Sponsilier, and myself, and swinging into our saddles, we rounded a bluff bend of the creek and rode for the rendezvous, some three miles distant. I noticed by the brands that nearly every horse in that country had been born in Texas, and the short time in which we covered the intervening miles proved that the change of climate had added to their stability and bottom. Our first glimpse of the meeting-point revealed the summit of the buttes fairly covered with horsemen. From their numbers it was evident that ours was the last contingent to arrive; but before we reached the twin mounds, the posse rode down from the lookout and a courier met and turned us from our course. The lead herd had been sighted in trail formation but a few miles distant, heading north, and it was the intention to head them at the earliest moment. The messenger inquired our numbers, and reported those arrived at forty-five, making the posse when united a few over sixty men.
A juncture of forces was effected within a mile of the lead herd. It was a unique posse. Old frontiersmen, with patriarchal beards and sawed-off shotguns, chewed their tobacco complacently as they rode forward at a swinging gallop. Beardless youths, armed with the old buffalo guns of their fathers, led the way as if an Indian invasion had called them forth. Soldiers of fortune, with Southern accents, who were assisting in the conquest of a new empire, intermingled with the hurrying throng, and two men whose home was in Medina County, Texas, looked on and approved. The very horses had caught the inspiration of the moment, champing bits in their effort to forge to the front rank, while the blood-stained slaver coated many breasts or driveled from our boots. Before we met the herd a halt was called, and about a dozen men were deployed off on each flank, while the main body awaited the arrival of the cattle. The latter were checked by the point-men and turned back when within a few hundred yards of the main posse. Several horsemen from the herd rode forward, and one politely inquired the meaning of this demonstration. The question was met by a counter one from Captain Ullmer, who demanded to know the reason why these cattle should trespass on the rights of others and ignore local quarantine. The spokesman in behalf of the herd turned in his saddle and gave an order to send some certain person forward. Sponsilier whispered to me that this fellow was merely a segundo. "But wait till the 'major-domo' arrives," he added. The appearance of the posse and the halting of the herd summoned that personage from the rear to the front, and the next moment he was seen galloping up the column of cattle. With a plausible smile this high mogul, on his arrival, repeated the previous question, and on a similar demand from the captain of the posse, he broke into a jolly laugh from which he recovered with difficulty.
"Why, gentlemen," said he, every word dripping with honeyed sweetness, "this is entirely uncalled for. I assure you that it was purely an oversight on my part that I did not send you word in advance that these herds of mine are government cattle and not subject to local quarantine. My associates are the largest army contractors in the country, these cattle are due at Fort Buford on the 15th of this month, and any interference on your part would be looked upon as an insult to the government. In fact, the post commander at Fort Laramie insisted that he be permitted to send a company of cavalry to escort us across Wyoming, and assured us that a troop from Fort Keogh, if requested, would meet our cattle on the Montana line. The army is jealous over its supplies, but I declined all military protection, knowing that I had but to show my credentials to pass unmolested anywhere. Now, if you care to look over these papers, you will see that these cattle are en route to Fort Buford, on an assignment of the original contract, issued by the secretary of war to The Western Supply Company. Very sorry to put you to all this trouble, but these herds must not be interfered with. I trust that you gentlemen understand that the government is supreme."
As the papers mentioned were produced, Sponsilier kicked me on the shin, gave me a quiet wink, and nodded towards the documents then being tendered to Captain Ullmer. Groping at his idea, I rode forward, and as the papers were being returned with a mere glance on the part of the quarantine leader, I politely asked if I might see the assignment of the original contract. But a quizzical smile met my request, and shaking out the heavy parchment, he rapped it with the knuckles of his disengaged hand, remarking as he returned it to his pocket, "Sorry, but altogether too valuable to allow out of my possession." Just what I would have done with the beribboned document, except to hand it over to Sponsilier, is beyond me, yet I was vaguely conscious that its destruction was of importance to our side of the matter at issue. At the same instant in which my request was declined, the big medicine man turned to Captain Ullmer and suavely remarked, "You found everything as represented, did you?"
"Why, I heard your statement, and I have also heard it disputed from other sources. In fact I have nothing to do with you except to enforce the quarantine now established by the cattlemen of eastern Montana. If you have any papers showing that your herds were wintered north of latitude 37, you can pass, as this quarantine is only enforced against cattle from south of that degree. This territory lost half a million dollars' worth of native stock last fall from Texas fever, and this season they propose to apply the ounce of preventive. You will have ample time to reach your destination after frost falls, and your detention by quarantine will be a good excuse for your delay. Now, unless you can convince me that your herds are immune, I'll show you a good place to camp on the head of Wolf Creek. It will probably be a matter of ten to fifteen days before the quarantine is lifted, and we are enforcing it against citizens of Montana and Texas alike, and no exception can be made in your case."
"But, my dear sir, this is not a local or personal matter. Whatever you do, don't invite the frown of the government. Let me warn you not to act in haste. Now, remember--"
"You made your cracks that you would cross this quarantine line," interrupted Ullmer, bristlingly, "and I want you to find out your mistake. There is no occasion for further words, and you can either order your outfit to turn your cattle east, or I'll send men and do it myself."
The "major-domo" turned and galloped back to his men, a number of whom had congregated near at hand. The next moment he returned and haughtily threatened to surrender the cattle then and there unless he was allowed to proceed. "Give him a receipt for his beeves, Fred," quietly remarked an old cowman, gently stroking his beard, "and I'll take these boys over here on the right and start the cattle. That will be the safest way, unless the gentleman can indemnify us. I lost ten thousand dollars' worth of stock last fall, and as a citizen of Montana I have objections to leaving a trail of fever from here to the mouth of the Yellowstone. And tell him he can have a bond for his cattle," called back the old man as he rode out of hearing.
The lead herd was pointed to the east, and squads of men rode down and met the other two, veering them off on an angle to the right. Meanwhile the superintendent raved, pleaded, and threatened without avail, but finally yielded and refused the receipt and dispossession of his cattle. This was just what the quarantine captain wanted, and the dove of peace began to shake its plumage. Within an hour all three of the herds were moving out for the head of Wolf Creek, accompanied only by the quarantine guards, the remainder of the posse returning to their homes or their work. Having ample time on our hands, Sponsilier and I expected to remain at Station No. 1 until after the 10th of September, and accordingly made ourselves at home at that camp. To say that we were elated over the situation puts it mildly, and that night the two of us lost nearly a hundred dollars playing poker with the quarantine guards. A strict vigilance was maintained over the herds in question, but all reports were unanimous that they were contentedly occupying their allotted range.
But at noon on the third day of the enforced isolation, a messenger from Powderville arrived at the first station. A troop of cavalry from Fort Keogh, accompanied by a pack-train, had crossed the Powder River below the hamlet, their avowed mission being to afford an escort for certain government beef, then under detention by the local authorities. The report fell among us like a flash of lightning. Ample time had elapsed for a messenger to ride to the Yellowstone, and, returning with troops, pilot them to the camps of Field, Radcliff & Co. A consultation was immediately held, but no definite line of action had been arrived at when a horseman from one of the lower camps dashed up and informed us that the three herds were already trailing out for the dead-line, under an escort of cavalry. Saddling up, we rallied what few men were available, determined to make a protest, at least, in the interest of humanity to dumb brutes. We dispatched couriers to the nearest camps and the outer quarantine station; but before a posse of twenty men arrived, the lead herd was within a mile of the dead-line, and we rode out and met them. Fully eighty troopers, half of which rode in column formation in front, halted us as we approached. Terse and to the point were the questions and answers exchanged between the military arm of the government and the quarantine authorities of Montana. When the question arose of indemnity to citizens, in case of death to native cattle, a humane chord was touched in the young lieutenant in command, resulting in his asking several questions, to which the "major-domo" protested. Once satisfied of the justice of quarantine, the officer, in defense of his action, said:
"Gentlemen, I am under instructions to give these herds, intended for use at Fort Buford, a three days' escort beyond this quarantine line. I am very much obliged to you all for making so clear the necessity of isolating herds of Texas cattle, and that little or no hardship may attend my orders, you may have until noon to-morrow to drift all native stock west of the Powder River. When these herds encamp for the night, they will receive instructions not to move forward before twelve to-morrow. I find the situation quite different from reports; nevertheless orders are orders."