The Outlet

by Andy Adams

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Chapter XVI. Crossing the Niobrara

The parting of the ways was reached. On the morning of July 12, the different outfits in charge of Lovell's drive in '84 started on three angles of the compass for their final destination. The Rosebud Agency, where Flood's herd was to be delivered on September 1, lay to the northeast in Dakota. The route was not direct, and the herd would be forced to make quite an elbow, touching on the different forks of the Loup in order to secure water. The Rebel and my brother would follow up on the south side of the North Platte until near old Fort Laramie, when their routes would separate, the latter turning north for Montana, while Priest would continue along the same watercourse to within a short distance of his destination. The Buford herds would strike due north from the first tributary putting in from above, which we would intercept the second morning out.

An early start was the order of the day. My beeves were pushed from the bed-ground with the first sign of dawn, and when the relief overtook them, they were several miles back from the river and holding a northwest course. My camp being the lowest one on the North Fork, Forrest and Sponsilier, also starting at daybreak, naturally took the lead, the latter having fully a five-mile start over my outfit. But as we left the valley and came up on the mesa, there on an angle in our front, Flood's herd snailed along like an army brigade, anxious to dispute our advance. The point-men veered our cattle slightly to the left, and as the drag-end of Flood's beeves passed before us, standing in our stirrups we waved our hats in farewell to the lads, starting on their last tack for the Rosebud Agency. Across the river were the dim outlines of two herds trailing upstream, being distinguishable from numerous others by the dust-clouds which marked the moving from the grazing cattle. The course of the North Platte was southwest, and on the direction which we were holding, we would strike the river again during the afternoon at a bend some ten or twelve miles above.

Near the middle of the forenoon we were met by Hugh Morris. He was discouraged, as it was well known now that his cattle would be tendered in competition with ours at Fort Buford. There was no comparison between the beeves, ours being much larger, more uniform in weight, and in better flesh. He looked over both Forrest's and Sponsilier's herds before meeting us, and was good enough judge of cattle to know that his stood no chance against ours, if they were to be received on their merits. We talked matters over for fully an hour, and I advised him never to leave Keith County until the last dollar in payment for his beeves was in hand. Morris thought this was quite possible, as information had reached him that the buyers had recently purchased a remuda, and now, since they had failed to take possession of two of Lovell's herds, it remained to be seen what the next move would be. He thought it quite likely, though, that a settlement could be effected whereby he would be relieved at Ogalalla. Mutually hoping that all would turn out well, we parted until our paths should cross again.

We intercepted the North Fork again during the afternoon, watering from it for the last time, and the next morning struck the Blue River, the expected tributary. Sponsilier maintained his position in the lead, but I was certain when we reached the source of the Blue, David would fall to the rear, as thenceforth there was neither trail nor trace, map nor compass. The year before, Forrest and I had been over the route to the Pine Ridge Agency, and one or the other of us must take the lead across a dry country between the present stream and tributaries of the Niobrara. The Blue possessed the attributes of a river in name only, and the third day up it, Sponsilier crossed the tributary to allow either Forrest or myself to take the lead. Quince professed a remarkable ignorance and faulty memory as to the topography of the country between the Blue and Niobrara, and threw bouquets at me regarding my ability always to find water. It is true that I had gone and returned across this arid belt the year before, but on the back trip it was late in the fall, and we were making forty miles a day with nothing but a wagon and remuda, water being the least of my troubles. But a compromise was effected whereby we would both ride out the country anew, leaving the herds to lie over on the head waters of the Blue River. There were several shallow lakes in the intervening country, and on finding the first one sufficient to our needs, the herds were brought up, and we scouted again in advance. The abundance of antelope was accepted as an assurance of water, and on recognizing certain landmarks, I agreed to take the lead thereafter, and we turned back. The seventh day out from the Blue, the Box Buttes were sighted, at the foot of which ran a creek by the same name, and an affluent of the Niobrara. Contrary to expectations, water was even more plentiful than the year before, and we grazed nearly the entire distance. The antelope were unusually tame; with six-shooters we killed quite a number by flagging, or using a gentle horse for a blind, driving the animal forward with the bridle reins, tacking frequently, and allowing him to graze up within pistol range.

The Niobrara was a fine grazing country. Since we had over two months at our disposal, after leaving the North Platte, every advantage was given the cattle to round into form. Ten miles was a day's move, and the different outfits kept in close touch with each other. We had planned a picnic for the crossing of the Niobrara, and on reaching that stream during the afternoon, Sponsilier and myself crossed, camping a mile apart, Forrest remaining on the south side. Wild raspberries had been extremely plentiful, and every wagon had gathered a quantity sufficient to make a pie for each man. The cooks had mutually agreed to meet at Sponsilier's wagon and do the baking, and every man not on herd was present in expectation of the coming banquet. One of Forrest's boys had a fiddle, and bringing it along, the festivities opened with a stag dance, the "ladies" being designated by wearing a horse-hobble loosely around their necks. While the pies were baking, a slow process with Dutch ovens, I sat on the wagon-tongue and played the violin by the hour. A rude imitation of the gentler sex, as we had witnessed in dance-halls in Dodge and Ogalalla, was reproduced with open shirt fronts, and amorous advances by the sterner one.

The dancing ceased the moment the banquet was ready. The cooks had experienced considerable trouble in restraining some of the boys from the too free exercise of what they looked upon as the inalienable right of man to eat his pie when, where, and how it best pleased him. But Sponsilier, as host, stood behind the culinary trio, and overawed the impetuous guests. The repast barely concluded in time for the wranglers and first guard from Forrest's and my outfit to reach camp, catch night-horses, bed the cattle, and excuse the herders, as supper was served only at the one wagon. The relieved ones, like eleventh-hour guests, came tearing in after darkness, and the tempting spread soon absorbed them. As the evening wore on, the loungers gathered in several circles, and the raconteur held sway. The fact that we were in a country in which game abounded suggested numerous stories. The delights of cat-hunting by night found an enthusiast in each one present. Every dog in our memory, back to early boyhood, was properly introduced and his best qualities applauded. Not only cat-hounds but coon-dogs had a respectful hearing.

"I remember a hound," said Forrest's wrangler, "which I owned when a boy back in Virginia. My folks lived in the foot-hills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in that state. We were just as poor as our poorest neighbors. But if there was any one thing that that section was rich in it was dogs, principally hounds. This dog of mine was four years old when I left home to go to Texas. Fine hound, swallow marked, and when he opened on a scent you could always tell what it was that he was running. I never allowed him to run with packs, but generally used him in treeing coon, which pestered the cornfields during roasting-ear season and in the fall. Well, after I had been out in Texas about five years, I concluded to go back on a little visit to the old folks. There were no railroads within twenty miles of my home, and I had to hoof it that distance, so I arrived after dark. Of course my return was a great surprise to my folks, and we sat up late telling stories about things out West. I had worked with cattle all the time, and had made one trip over the trail from Collin County to Abilene, Kansas.

"My folks questioned me so fast that they gave me no show to make any inquiries in return, but I finally eased one in and asked about my dog Keiser, and was tickled to hear that he was still living. I went out and called him, but he failed to show up, when mother explained his absence by saying that he often went out hunting alone now, since there was none of us boys at home to hunt with him. They told me that he was no account any longer; that he had grown old and gray, and father said he was too slow on trail to be of any use. I noticed that it was a nice damp night, and if my old dog had been there, I think I'd have taken a circle around the fields in the hope of hearing him sing once more. Well, we went back into the house, and after talking awhile longer, I climbed into the loft and went to bed. I didn't sleep very sound that night, and awakened several times. About an hour before daybreak, I awoke suddenly and imagined I heard a hound baying faintly in the distance. Finally I got up and opened the board window in the gable and listened. Say, boys, I knew that hound's baying as well as I know my own saddle. It was old Keiser, and he had something treed about a mile from the house, across a ridge over in some slashes. I slipped on my clothes, crept downstairs, and taking my old man's rifle out of the rack, started to him.

"It was as dark as a stack of black cats, but I knew every path and byway by heart. I followed the fields as far as I could, and later, taking into the timber, I had to go around a long swamp. An old beaver dam had once crossed the outlet of this marsh, and once I gained it, I gave a long yell to let the dog know that some one was coming. He answered me, and quite a little while before day broke I reached him. Did he know me? Why, he knew me as easy as the little boy knew his pap. Right now, I can't remember any simple thing in my whole life that moved me just as that little reunion of me and my dog, there in those woods that morning. Why, he howled with delight. He licked my face and hands and stood up on me with his wet feet and said just as plain as he could that he was glad to see me again. And I was glad to meet him, even though he did make me feel as mellow as a girl over a baby.

"Well, when daybreak came, I shot a nice big fat Mr. Zip Coon out of an old pin-oak, and we started for home like old pardners. Old as he was, he played like a puppy around me, and when we came in sight of the house, he ran on ahead and told the folks what he had found. Yes, you bet he told them. He came near clawing all the clothing off them in his delight. That's one reason I always like a dog and a poor man--you can't question their friendship."

A circus was in progress on the other side of the wagon. From a large rock, Jake Blair was announcing the various acts and introducing the actors and actresses. Runt Pickett, wearing a skirt made out of a blanket and belted with a hobble, won the admiration of all as the only living lady lion-tamer. Resuming comfortable positions on our side of the commissary, a lad named Waterwall, one of Sponsilier's boys, took up the broken thread where Forrest's wrangler had left off.

"The greatest dog-man I ever knew," said he, "lived on the Guadalupe River. His name was Dave Hapfinger, and he had the loveliest vagabond temperament of any man I ever saw. It mattered nothing what he was doing, all you had to do was to give old Dave a hint that you knew where there was fish to be caught, or a bee-course to hunt, and he would stop the plow and go with you for a week if necessary. He loved hounds better than any man I ever knew. You couldn't confer greater favor than to give him a promising hound pup, or, seeking the same, ask for one of his raising. And he was such a good fellow. If any one was sick in the neighborhood, Uncle Dave always had time to kill them a squirrel every day; and he could make a broth for a baby, or fry a young squirrel, in a manner that would make a sick man's mouth water.

"When I was a boy, I've laid around many a camp-fire this way and listened to old Dave tell stories. He was quite a humorist in his way, and possessed a wonderful memory. He could tell you the day of the month, thirty years before, when he went to mill one time and found a peculiar bird's nest on the way. Colonel Andrews, owner of several large plantations, didn't like Dave, and threatened to prosecute him once for cutting a bee-tree on his land. If the evidence had been strong enough, I reckon the Colonel would. No doubt Uncle Dave was guilty, but mere suspicion isn't sufficient proof.

"Colonel Andrews was a haughty old fellow, blue-blooded and proud as a peacock, and about the only way Dave could get even with him was in his own mild, humorous way. One day at dinner at a neighboring log-rolling, when all danger of prosecution for cutting the bee-tree had passed, Uncle Dave told of a recent dream of his, a pure invention. 'I dreamt,' said he, 'that Colonel Andrews died and went to heaven. There was an unusually big commotion at St. Peter's gate on his arrival. A troop of angels greeted him, still the Colonel seemed displeased at his reception. But the welcoming hosts humored him forward, and on nearing the throne, the Almighty, recognizing the distinguished arrival, vacated the throne and came down to greet the Colonel personally. At this mark of appreciation, he relaxed a trifle, and when the Almighty insisted that he should take the throne seat, Colonel Andrews actually smiled for the first time on earth or in heaven.'

"Uncle Dave told this story so often that he actually believed it himself. But finally a wag friend of Colonel Andrews told of a dream which he had had about old Dave, which the latter hugely enjoyed. According to this second vagary, the old vagabond had also died and gone to heaven. There was some trouble at St. Peter's gate, as they refused to admit dogs, and Uncle Dave always had a troop of hounds at his heels. When he found that it was useless to argue the matter, he finally yielded the point and left the pack outside. Once inside the gate he stopped, bewildered at the scene before him. But after waiting inside some little time unnoticed, he turned and was on the point of asking the gate-keeper to let him out, when an angel approached and asked him to stay. There was some doubt in Dave's mind if he would like the place, but the messenger urged that he remain and at least look the city over. The old hunter goodnaturedly consented, and as they started up one of the golden streets Uncle Dave recognized an old friend who had once given him a hound pup. Excusing himself to the angel, he rushed over to his former earthly friend and greeted him with warmth and cordiality. The two old cronies talked and talked about the things below, and finally Uncle Dave asked if there was any hunting up there. The reply was disappointing.

"Meanwhile the angel kept urging Uncle Dave forward to salute the throne. But he loitered along, meeting former hunting acquaintances, and stopping with each for a social chat. When they finally neared the throne, the patience of the angel was nearly exhausted; and as old Dave looked up and saw Colonel Andrews occupying the throne, he rebelled and refused to salute, when the angel wrathfully led him back to the gate and kicked him out among his dogs."

Jack Splann told a yarn about the friendship of a pet lamb and dog which he owned when a boy. It was so unreasonable that he was interrupted on nearly every assertion. Long before he had finished, Sponsilier checked his narrative and informed him that if he insisted on doling out fiction he must have some consideration for his listeners, and at least tell it within reason. Splann stopped right there and refused to conclude his story, though no one but myself seemed to regret it. I had a true incident about a dog which I expected to tell, but the audience had become too critical, and I kept quiet. As it was evident that no more dog stories would be told, the conversation was allowed to drift at will. The recent shooting on the North Platte had been witnessed by nearly every one present, and was suggestive of other scenes.

"I have always contended," said Dorg Seay, "that the man who can control his temper always shoots the truest. You take one of these fellows that can smile and shoot at the same time--they are the boys that I want to stand in with. But speaking of losing the temper, did any of you ever see a woman real angry,--not merely cross, but the tigress in her raging and thirsting to tear you limb from limb? I did only once, but I have never forgotten the occasion. In supreme anger the only superior to this woman I ever witnessed was Captain Cartwright when he shot the slayer of his only son. He was as cool as a cucumber, as his only shot proved, but years afterward when he told me of the incident, he lost all control of himself, and fire flashed from his eyes like from the muzzle of a six-shooter. 'Dorg,' said he, unconsciously shaking me like a terrier does a rat, his blazing eyes not a foot from my face, 'Dorg, when I shot that cowardly --- ---- --- ---, I didn't miss the centre of his forehead the width of my thumb nail.'

"But this woman defied a throng of men. Quite a few of the crowd had assisted the night before in lynching her husband, and this meeting occurred at the burying-ground the next afternoon. The woman's husband was a well-known horse-thief, a dissolute, dangerous character, and had been warned to leave the community. He lived in a little village, and after darkness the evening before, had crept up to a window and shot a man sitting at the supper-table with his family. The murderer had harbored a grudge against his victim, had made threats, and before he could escape, was caught red-handed with the freshly fired pistol in his hand. The evidence of guilt was beyond question, and a vigilance committee didn't waste any time in hanging him to the nearest tree.

"The burying took place the next afternoon. The murdered man was a popular citizen, and the village and country turned out to pay their last respects. But when the services were over, a number of us lingered behind, as it was understood that the slayer as well as his victim would be interred in the same grounds. A second grave had been prepared, and within an hour a wagon containing a woman, three small children, and several Mexicans drove up to the rear side of the inclosure. There was no mistaking the party, the coffin was carried in to the open grave, when every one present went over to offer friendly services. But as we neared the little group the woman picked up a shovel and charged on us like a tigress. I never saw such an expression of mingled anger and anguish in a human countenance as was pictured in that woman's face. We shrank from her as if she had been a lioness, and when at last she found her tongue, every word cut like a lash. Livid with rage, the spittle frothing from her mouth, she drove us away, saying:

"'Oh, you fiends of hell, when did I ask your help? Like the curs you are, you would lick up the blood of your victim! Had you been friends to me or mine, why did you not raise your voice in protest when they were strangling the life out of the father of my children? Away, you cowardly hounds! I've hired a few Mexicans to help me, and I want none of your sympathy in this hour. Was it your hand that cut him down from the tree this morning, and if it was not, why do I need you now? Is my shame not enough in your eyes but that you must taunt me further? Do my innocent children want to look upon the faces of those who robbed them of a father? If there is a spark of manhood left in one of you, show it by leaving me alone! And you other scum, never fear but that you will clutter hell in reward for last night's work. Begone, and leave me with my dead!'"

The circus had ended. The lateness of the hour was unobserved by any one until John Levering asked me if he should bring in my horse. It lacked less than half an hour until the guards should change, and it was high time our outfit was riding for camp. The innate modesty of my wrangler, in calling attention to the time, was not forgotten, but instead of permitting him to turn servant, I asked him to help our cook look after his utensils. On my return to the wagon, Parent was trying to quiet a nervous horse so as to allow him to carry the Dutch oven returning. But as Levering was in the act of handing up the heavy oven, one of Forrest's men, hoping to make the animal buck, attempted to place a briar stem under the horse's tail. Sponsilier detected the movement in time to stop it, and turning to the culprit, said: "None of that, my bully boy. I have no objection to killing a cheap cow-hand, but these cooks have won me, hands down. If ever I run across a girl who can make as good pies as we had for supper, she can win the affections of my young and trusting heart."

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It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.