We were at our rope's end. There were a few accounts to settle in Glendive, after which we would shake its dust from our feet. Very few of the quarantine guards returned to town, and with the exception of Sheriff Wherry, none of the leading cowmen, all having ridden direct for their ranches. Long before the train arrived which would carry us to Little Missouri, the opposition herds appeared and crossed the railroad west of town. Their commissaries entered the village for supplies, while the "major-domo," surrounded by a body-guard of men, rode about on his miserable palfrey. The sheriff, fearing a clash between the victorious and the vanquished, kept an eye on Sponsilier and me as we walked the streets, freely expressing our contempt of Field, Radcliff & Co., their henchmen and their methods. Dave and I were both nerved to desperation; Sheriff Wherry, anxious to prevent a conflict, counciled with the opposition drovers, resulting in their outfits leaving town, while the principals took stage across to Buford.
Meanwhile Sponsilier had wired full particulars to our employer at Big Horn. It was hardly necessary, as the frost no doubt was general all over Montana, but we were anxious to get into communication with Lovell immediately on his return to the railroad. We had written him from Miles of our failure at Powderville, and the expected second stand at Glendive, and now the elements had notified him that the opposition herds were within striking distance, and would no doubt appear at Buford on or before the day of delivery. An irritable man like our employer would neither eat nor sleep, once the delivery at the Crow Agency was over, until reaching the railroad, and our message would be awaiting him on his return to Big Horn. Our train reached Little Missouri early in the evening, and leaving word with the agent that we were expecting important messages from the west, we visited the liveryman and inquired about the welfare of our horses. The proprietor of the stable informed us that they had fared well, and that he would have them ready for us on an hour's notice. It was after dark and we were at supper when the first message came. An immediate answer was required, and arising from the table, we left our meal unfinished and hastened to the depot. From then until midnight, messages flashed back and forth, Sponsilier dictating while I wrote. As there was no train before the regular passenger the next day, the last wire requested us to have the horses ready to meet the Eastbound, saying that Bob Quirk would accompany Lovell.
That night it frosted again. Sponsilier and I slept until noon the next day without awakening. Then the horses were brought in from pasture, and preparation was made to leave that evening. It was in the neighborhood of ninety miles across to the mouth of the Yellowstone, and the chances were that we would ride it without unsaddling. The horses had had a two weeks' rest, and if our employer insisted on it, we would breakfast with the herds the next morning. I was anxious to see the cattle again and rejoin my outfit, but like a watched pot, the train was an hour late. Sponsilier and I took advantage of the delay and fortified the inner man against the night and the ride before us. This proved fortunate, as Lovell and my brother had supper en route in the dining-car. A running series of questions were asked and answered; saddles were shaken out of gunny-sacks and cinched on waiting horses as though we were starting to a prairie fire. Bob Quirk's cattle had reached the Crow Agency in splendid condition, the delivery was effected without a word, and old man Don was in possession of a letter from Flood, saying everything had passed smoothly at the Rosebud Agency.
Contrary to the expectation of Sponsilier and myself, our employer was in a good humor, fairly walking on the clouds over the success of his two first deliveries of the year. But amid the bustle and rush, in view of another frosty night, Sponsilier inquired if it would not be a good idea to fortify against the chill, by taking along a bottle of brandy. "Yes, two of them if you want to," said old man Don, in good-humored approval. "Here, Tom, fork this horse and take the pitch out of him," he continued; "I don't like the look of his eye." But before I could reach the horse, one of my own string, Bob Quirk had mounted him, when in testimony of the nutritive qualities of Dakota's grasses, he arched his spine like a true Texan and outlined a worm-fence in bucking a circle.
The start was made during the gathering dusk. Sponsilier further lifted the spirits of our employer, as we rode along, by a clear-cut description of the opposition cattle, declaring that had they ever equaled ours, the handling they had received since leaving Ogalalla, compared to his, would class them with short twos in the spring against long threes in the fall. Within an hour the stars shone out, and after following the river some ten miles, we bore directly north until Beaver Creek was reached near midnight. The pace was set at about an eight-mile, steady clip, with an occasional halt to tighten cinches or shift saddles. The horses were capable of a faster gait without tiring, but we were not sure of the route and were saving them for the finish after daybreak. Early in the night we were conscious that a frost was falling, and several times Sponsilier inquired if no one cared for a nip from his bottle. Bob Quirk started the joke on Dave by declining; old man Don uncorked the flask, and, after smelling of the contents, handed it back with his thanks. I caught onto their banter, and not wishing to spoil a good jest, also declined, leaving Sponsilier to drink alone. During the night, whenever conversation lagged, some one was certain to make reference to the remarks which are said to have passed between the governors of the Carolinas, or if that failed to provoke a rise, ask direct if no one had something to ward off the chilly air. After being refused several times, Dave had thrown the bottle away, meeting these jests with the reply that he had a private flask, but its quality was such that he was afraid of offending our cultivated tastes by asking us to join him.
Day broke about five in the morning. We had been in the saddle nearly ten hours, and were confident that sunrise would reveal some landmark to identify our location. The atmosphere was frosty and clear, and once the gray of dawn yielded to the rising sun, the outline of the Yellowstone was easily traced on our left, while the bluffs in our front shielded a view of the mother Missouri. In attempting to approach the latter we encountered some rough country and were compelled to turn towards the former, crossing it, at O'Brien's roadhouse, some seven miles above the mouth. The husbanded reserves of our horses were shaken out, and shortly afterward smoke-clouds from camp-fires, hanging low, attracted our attention. The herds were soon located as they arose and grazed away from their bed-grounds. The outfits were encamped on the eastern side of the Yellowstone; and before leaving the government road, we sighted in our front a flag ascending to greet the morning, and the location of Fort Buford was established. Turning towards the cattle, we rode for the lower wagon and were soon unsaddling at Forrest's camp. The latter had arrived two days before and visited the post; he told us that the opposition were there in force, as well as our own attorneys. The arrival of the cattle under contract for that military division was the main topic of discussion, and Forrest had even met a number of civilian employees of Fort Buford whose duties were to look after the government beeves. The foreman of these unenlisted attaches, a Texan named Sanders, had casually ridden past his camp the day before, looking over the cattle, and had pronounced them the finest lot of beeves tendered the government since his connection with that post.
"That's good news," said Lovell, as he threw his saddle astride the front wheel of the wagon; "that's the way I like to hear my cattle spoken about. Now, you boys want to make friends with all those civilians, and my attorneys and Bob and I will hobnob around with the officers, and try and win the good will of the entire post. You want to change your camp every few days and give your cattle good grazing and let them speak for themselves. Better kill a beef among the outfits, and insist on all callers staying for meals. We're strangers here, and we want to make a good impression, and show the public that we were born white, even if we do handle cattle for a living. Quince, tie up the horses for us, and after breakfast Bob and I will look over the herds and then ride into Fort Buford.--Trout for breakfast? You don't mean it!"
It was true, however, and our appetites did them justice. Forrest reported Splann as having arrived a day late, and now encamped the last herd up the valley. Taking our horses with us, Dave and I set out to look up our herds and resume our former positions. I rode through Sponsilier's cattle while en route to my own, and remembered the first impression they had made on my mind,--their uniformity in size and smoothness of build,--and now found them fatted into finished form, the herd being a credit to any drover. Continuing on my way, I intercepted my own cattle, lying down over hundreds of acres, and so contented that I refused to disturb them. Splann reported not over half a dozen sore-footed ones among them, having grazed the entire distance from Little Missouri, giving the tender cattle a good chance to recover. I held a circle of listeners for several hours, in recounting Sponsilier's and my own experiences in the quarantine camps, and our utter final failure, except that the opposition herds had been detained, which would force them to drive over twenty miles a day in order to reach Buford on time. On the other hand, an incident of more than ordinary moment had occurred with the cattle some ten days previous. The slow movement of the grazing herds allowed a great amount of freedom to the boys and was taken advantage of at every opportunity. It seems that on approaching Beaver Creek, Owen Ubery and Runt Pickett had ridden across to it for the purpose of trout-fishing. They were gone all day, having struck the creek some ten or twelve miles west of the cattle, expecting to fish down it and overtake the herds during the evening. But about noon they discovered where a wagon had been burned, years before, and near by were five human skeletons, evidently a family. It was possibly the work of Indians, or a blizzard, and to prove the discovery, Pickett had brought in one of the skulls and proposed taking it home with him as a memento of the drive. Parent objected to having the reminder in the wagon, and a row resulted between them, till Splann interfered and threw the gruesome relic away.
The next morning a dozen of us from the three herds rode into the post. Fort Buford was not only a military headquarters, but a supply depot for other posts farther west on the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers. The nearest railroad connection was Glendive, seventy-six miles up the latter stream, though steamboats took advantage of freshets in the river to transport immense supplies from lower points on the Missouri where there were rail connections. From Buford westward, transportation was effected by boats of lighter draft and the regulation wagon train. It was recognized as one of the most important supply posts in the West; as early as five years previous to this date, it had received in a single summer as many as ten thousand beeves. Its provision for cavalry was one of its boasted features, immense stacks of forage flanking those quarters, while the infantry barracks and officers' quarters were large and comfortable. A stirring little town had sprung up on the outside, affording the citizens employment in wood and hay contracts, and becoming the home of a large number of civilian employees, the post being the mainstay of the village.
After settling our quarantine bills, Sponsilier and I each had money left. Our employer refused even to look at our expense bills until after the delivery, but urged us to use freely any remaining funds in cultivating the good will of the citizens and soldiery alike. Forrest was accordingly supplied with funds, with the understanding that he was to hunt up Sanders and his outfit and show them a good time. The beef foreman was soon located in the quartermaster's office, and, having been connected with the post for several years, knew the ropes. He had come to Buford with Texas cattle, and after their delivery had accepted a situation under the acting quartermaster, easily rising to the foremanship through his superior abilities as a cowman. It was like a meeting of long-lost brothers to mingle again with a cow outfit, and the sutler's bar did a flourishing business during our stay in the post. There were ten men in Sanders's outfit, several of whom besides himself were Texans, and before we parted, every rascal had promised to visit us the next day and look over all the cattle.
The next morning Bob Quirk put in an early appearance at my wagon. He had passed the other outfits, and notified us all to have the cattle under convenient herd, properly watered in advance, as the post commandant, quartermaster, and a party of minor officers were going to ride out that afternoon and inspect our beeves. Lovell, of course, would accompany them, and Bob reported him as having made a ten-strike with the officers' mess, not being afraid to spend his money. Fortunately the present quartermaster at Buford was a former acquaintance of Lovell, the two having had business transactions. The quartermaster had been connected with frontier posts from Fort Clark, Texas, to his present position. According to report, the opposition were active and waging an aggressive campaign, but not being Western men, were at a disadvantage. Champagne had flowed freely at a dinner given the night before by our employer, during which Senator Aspgrain, in responding to a toast, had paid the army a high tribute for the part it had played in reclaiming the last of our western frontier. The quartermaster, in replying, had felicitously remarked, as a matter of his own observation, that the Californian's love for a horse was only excelled by the Texan's love for a cow, to which, amid uproarious laughter, old man Don arose and bowed his acknowledgment.
My brother changed horses and returned to Sponsilier's wagon. Dave had planned to entertain the post beef outfit for dinner, and had insisted on Bob's presence. They arrived at my herd near the middle of the forenoon, and after showing the cattle and remuda, we all returned to Sponsilier's camp. These civilian employees furnished their own mounts, and were anxious to buy a number of our best horses after the delivery was over. Not even a whisper was breathed about any uncertainty of our filling the outstanding contract, yet Sanders was given to understand that Don Lovell would rather, if he took a fancy to him, give a man a horse than sell him one. Not a word was said about any opposition to our herds; that would come later, and Sanders and his outfit were too good judges of Texas cattle to be misled by any bluster or boastful talk. Sponsilier acted the host, and after dinner unearthed a box of cigars, and we told stories and talked of our homes in the sunny South until the arrival of the military party. The herds had been well watered about noon and drifted out on the first uplands, and we intercepted the cavalcade before it reached Sponsilier's herd. They were mounted on fine cavalry horses, and the only greeting which passed, aside from a military salute, was when Lovell said: "Dave, show these officers your beeves. Answer any question they may ask to the best of your ability. Gentlemen, excuse me while you look over the cattle."
There were about a dozen military men in the party, some of them veterans of the civil war, others having spent their lifetime on our western frontier, while a few were seeing their first year's service after leaving West Point. In looking over the cattle, the post commander and quartermaster were taken under the wing of Sanders, who, as only a man could who was born to the occupation, called their attention to every fine point about the beeves. After spending fully an hour with Sponsilier's herd, the cavalcade proceeded on to mine, Lovell rejoining the party, but never once attempting to draw out an opinion, and again excusing himself on reaching my cattle. I continued with the military, answering every one's questions, from the young lieutenant's to the veteran commandant's, in which I was ably seconded by the quartermaster's foreman. My cattle had a splendid fill on them and eloquently spoke their own praises, yet Sanders lost no opportunity to enter a clincher in their favor. He pointed out beef after beef, and vouched for the pounds net they would dress, called attention to their sameness in build, ages, and general thrift, until one would have supposed that he was a salesman instead of a civilian employee.
My herd was fully ten miles from the post, and it was necessary for the military to return that evening. Don Lovell and a number of the boys had halted at a distance, and once the inspection was over, we turned and rode back to the waiting group of horsemen. On coming up, a number of the officers dismounted to shift saddles, preparatory to starting on their return, when the quartermaster halted near our employer and said:
"Colonel Lovell, let me say to you, in all sincerity, that in my twenty-five years' experience on this frontier, I never saw a finer lot of beeves tendered the government than these of yours. My position requires that I should have a fair knowledge of beef cattle, and the perquisites of my office in a post of Buford's class enable me to employ the best practical men available to perfect the service. I remember the quality of cattle which you delivered four years ago to me at Fort Randall, when it was a six-company post, yet they were not as fine a lot of beeves as these are. I have always contended that there was nothing too good in my department for the men who uphold the colors of our country, especially on the front line. You have been a soldier yourself and know that I am talking good horsesense, and I want to say to you that whatever the outcome of this dispute may be, if yours are the best cattle, you may count on my support until the drums beat tattoo. The government is liberal and insists on the best; the rank and file are worthy, and yet we don't always get what is ordered and well paid for. Now, remember, comrade, if this difference comes to an issue, I'm right behind you, and we'll stand or be turned down together."
"Thank you, Colonel," replied Mr. Lovell. "It does seem rather fortunate, my meeting up with a former business acquaintance, and at a time when I need him bad. If I am successful in delivering on this Buford award, it will round out, during my fifteen years as a drover, over a hundred thousand cattle that I have sold to the government for its Indian and army departments. There are no secrets in my business; the reason of my success is simple--my cattle were always there on the appointed day, humanely handled, and generally just a shade better than the specifications. My home country has the cattle for sale; I can tell within two bits a head what it will cost to lay them down here, and it's music to my ear to hear you insist on the best. I agree with you that the firing-line is entitled to special consideration, yet you know that there are ringsters who fatten at the expense of the rank and file. At present I haven't a word to say, but at noon to-morrow I shall tender the post commander at Ford Buford, through his quartermaster, ten thousand beeves, as a sub-contractor on the original award to The Western Supply Company." The post commander, an elderly, white-haired officer, rode over and smilingly said: "Now, look here, my Texas friend, I'm afraid you are borrowing trouble. True enough, there has been a protest made against our receiving your beeves, and I don't mince my words in saying that some hard things have been said about you. But we happen to know something about your reputation and don't give credit for all that is said. Your beeves are an eloquent argument in your favor, and if I were you I wouldn't worry. It is always a good idea in this Western country to make a proviso; and unless the unforeseen happens, the quartermaster's cattle foreman will count your beeves to-morrow afternoon; and for the sake of your company, if we keep you a day or two longer settling up, I don't want to hear you kick. Now, come on and go back with us to the post, as I promised my wife to bring you over to our house this evening. She seems to think that a man from Texas with ten thousand cattle ought to have horns, and I want to show her that she's mistaken. Come on, now, and not a damned word of protest out of you."
The military party started on their return, accompanied by Lovell. The civilian attaches followed at a respectful distance, a number of us joining them as far as Sponsilier's camp. There we halted, when Sanders insisted on an explanation of the remarks which had passed between our employer and his. Being once more among his own, he felt no delicacy in asking for information--which he would never think of doing with his superiors. My brother gave him a true version of the situation, but it remained for Dave Sponsilier to add an outline of the opposition herds and outfits.
"With humane treatment," said Dave, "the cattle would have qualified under the specifications. They were bought at Ogalalla, and any of the boys here will tell you that the first one was a good herd. The market was all shot to pieces, and they picked them up at their own price. But the owners didn't have cow-sense enough to handle the cattle, and put one of their own gang over the herds as superintendent. They left Cabin Creek, below Glendive, on the morning of the 10th, and they'll have to travel nearly twenty miles a day to reach here by noon to-morrow. Sanders, you know that gait will soon kill heavy cattle. The outfits were made up of short-card men and dance-hall ornaments, wild enough to look at, but shy on cattle sabe. Just so they showed up bad and wore a six-shooter, that was enough to win a home with Field and Radcliff. If they reach here on time, I'll gamble there ain't ten horses in the entire outfit that don't carry a nigger brand. And when it comes to the big conversation-- well, they've simply got the earth faded."
It was nearly sundown when we mounted our horses and separated for the day. Bob Quirk returned to the post with the civilians, while I hastened back to my wagon. I had left orders with Splann to water the herd a second time during the evening and thus insure an easy night in holding the cattle. On my return, they were just grazing out from the river, their front a mile wide, making a pretty picture with the Yellowstone in the background. But as I sat my horse and in retrospect reviewed my connection with the cattle before me and the prospect of soon severing it, my remuda came over a near-by hill in a swinging trot for their second drink. Levering threw them into the river below the herd, and turning, galloped up to me and breathlessly asked: "Tom, did you see that dust-cloud up the river? Well, the other cattle are coming. The timber cuts off your view from here, besides the sun's gone down, but I watched their signal for half an hour from that second hill yonder. Oh, it's cattle all right; I know the sign, even if they are ten miles away."