The Outlet

by Andy Adams

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Chapter XXIV. The Winter of our Discontent

The inquiry was over before noon. A lieutenant detailed a few men and made a pretense of taking possession of Lovell. But once the special commissioner was out of sight, the farce was turned into an ovation, and nearly every officer in the post came forward and extended his sympathy. Old man Don was visibly affected by the generous manifestations of the military men in general, and after thanking each one personally, urged that no unnecessary demonstration should be made, begging that the order of escort beyond the boundary of the reservation be countermanded. No one present cared to suggest it, but gave assurance that it would be so modified as not in any way to interfere with the natural movement of the herds. Some little time would be required to outfit the forage-wagons to accommodate the cavalry companies, during which my brother rode up, leading Lovell's horse, permission was given to leave in advance of the escort, and we all mounted and quietly rode away.

The sudden turn of affairs had disconcerted every man in the three outfits. Just what the next move would be was conjecture with most of us, though every lad present was anxious to know. But when we were beyond the immediate grounds, Lovell turned in his saddle and asked which one of us foremen wanted to winter in the North. No one volunteered, and old man Don continued: "Anticipating the worst, I had a long talk this morning with Sanders, and he assured me that our cattle would go through any winter without serious loss. He suggested the Little Missouri as a good range, and told me of a hay ranch below the mouth of the Beaver. If it can be bought reasonably, we would have forage for our horses, and the railroad is said to be not over forty miles to the south. If the government can afford to take the risk of wintering cattle in this climate, since there is no other choice, I reckon I'll have to follow suit. Bob and I will take fresh horses and ride through to the Beaver this afternoon, and you fellows follow up leisurely with the cattle. Sanders says the winters are dry and cold, with very little if any snowfall. Well, we're simply up against it; there's no hope of selling this late in the season, and nothing is left us but to face the music of a Northern winter."

As we turned in to ford the Missouri, some one called attention to a cavalry company riding out from their quarters at the post. We halted a moment, and as the first one entered the road, the second one swung into view, followed by forage-wagons. From maps in our possession we knew the southern boundary of the Fort Buford military reservation must be under twenty miles to the south, and if necessary, we could put it behind us that afternoon. But after crossing the river, and when the two troops again came in view, they had dropped into a walk, passing entirely out of sight long before we reached Forrest's camp. Orders were left with the latter to take the lead and make a short drive that evening, at least far enough to convince observers that we were moving. The different outfits dropped out as their wagons were reached, and when my remuda was sighted, old man Don ordered it brought in for a change of horses. One of the dayherders was at camp getting dinner, and inviting themselves to join him, my employer and my brother helped themselves while their saddles were shifted to two of my well-rested mounts. Inquiry had been made of all three of the outfits if any ranch had been sighted on the Beaver while crossing that creek, but the only recollection among the forty-odd men was that of Burl Van Vedder, who contended that a dim trail, over which horses had passed that summer, ran down on the south side of the stream.

With this meagre information Lovell and my brother started. A late dinner over and the herders relieved, we all rode for the nearest eminence which would afford us a view. The cavalry were just going into camp below O'Brien's ranch, their forage-train in sight, while Forrest's cattle were well bunched and heading south. Sponsilier was evidently going to start, as his team was tied up and the saddle stock in hand, while the herd was crossing over to the eastern side of the Yellowstone. We dismounted and lay around for an hour or so, when the greater portion of the boys left to help in the watering of our herd, the remainder of us doing outpost duty. Forrest had passed out of sight, Sponsilier's wagon and remuda crossed opposite us, going up the valley, followed by his cattle in loose grazing order, and still we loitered on the hill. But towards evening I rode down to where the cavalry was encamped, and before I had conversed very long with the officers, it was clear to me that the shorter our moves the longer it would extend their outing. Before I left the soldier camp, Sanders arrived, and as we started away together, I sent him back to tell the officers to let me know any time they could use half a beef. On reaching our wagon, the boys were just corralling the saddle stock for their night-horses, when Sanders begged me to sell him two which had caught his fancy. I dared not offer them; but remembering the fellow's faithful service in our behalf, and that my employer expected to remember him, I ordered him to pick, with Don Lovell's compliments, any horse in the remuda as a present.

The proposition stunned Sanders, but I insisted that if old man Don was there, he would make him take something. He picked a good horse out of my mount and stayed until morning, when he was compelled to return, as the probabilities were that they would receive the other cattle some time during the day. After breakfast, and as he was starting to return, he said, "Well, boys, tell the old man that I don't expect ever to be able to return his kindness, though I'd ride a thousand miles for the chance. One thing sure, there isn't a man in Dakota who has money enough to tempt me to part with my pelon. If you locate down on the Little Missouri, drop me a line where you are at, and if Lovell wants four good men, I can let him have them about the first of December. You through lads are liable to be scared over the coming winter, and a few acclimated ones will put backbone in his outfit. And tell the old man that if I can ever do him a good turn just to snap his fingers and I'll quit the government--he's a few shades whiter than it, anyhow."

The herd had already left the bed-ground, headed south. About five miles above O'Brien's, we recrossed to the eastern side of the Yellowstone, and for the next three days moved short distances, the military always camped well in our rear. The fourth morning I killed a beef, a forage-wagon came forward and took half of it back to the cavalry camp with our greetings and farewell, and we parted company. Don Lovell met us about noon, elated as a boy over his purchase of the hay ranch. My brother had gone on to the railroad and thence by train to Miles City to meet his remuda and outfit. "Boys, I have bought you a new home," was the greeting of old man Don, as he dismounted at our noon camp. "There's a comfortable dugout, stabling for about ten horses, and seventy-five tons of good hay in the stack. The owner was homesick to get back to God's country, and he'll give us possession in ten days. Bob will be in Little Missouri to-day and order us a car of sacked corn from Omaha, and within a month we'll be as snug as they are down in old Medina. Bob's outfit will go home from Miles, and if he can't sell his remuda he'll bring it up here. Two of these outfits can start back in a few days, and afterward the camp will be reduced to ten men."

Two days later Forrest veered off and turned his cattle loose below the junction of the Beaver with the Little Missouri. Sponsilier crossed the former, scattering his beeves both up and down the latter, while I cut mine into a dozen bunches and likewise freed them along the creek. The range was about ten miles in length along the river, and a camp was established at either end where men would be stationed until the beeves were located. The commissaries had run low, there was a quiet rivalry as to which outfits should go home, and we all waited with bated breath for the final word. I had Dorg Seay secretly inform my employer that I had given Sanders a horse without his permission, hoping that it might displease him. But the others pointed out the fact that my outfit had far the best remuda, and that it would require well-mounted men to locate and hold that number of cattle through the winter. Old man Don listened to them all, and the next morning, as all three of us foremen were outlining certain improvements about the hay ranch with him, he turned to me and said:

"Tom, I hear you gave Sanders a horse. Well, that was all right, although it strikes me you were rather liberal in giving him the pick of a choice remuda. But it may all come right in the long run, as Bob and I have decided to leave you and your outfit to hold these cattle this winter. So divide your men and send half of them down to Quince's camp, and have your cook and wrangler come over to Dave's wagon to bring back provision and the horses, as we'll start for the railroad in the morning. I may not come back, but Bob will, and he'll see that you are well fixed for the winter before he goes home. After he leaves, I want you to write me every chance you have to send a letter to the railroad. Now, I don't want any grumbling out of you or your men; you're a disgrace to the state that raised you if you can't handle cattle anywhere that any other man can."

I felt all along it would fall to me, the youngest of six foremen; and my own dear brother consigning me to a winter in the North, while he would bask in the sunshine of our own sunny South! It was hard to face; but I remembered that the fall before it had been my lot to drive a thousand saddle horses home to the ranch, and that I had swaggered as a trail foreman afterward as the result. It had always been my luck to have to earn every little advance or promotion, while others seemed to fall into them without any effort. Bob Quirk never saw the day that he was half the all-round cowman that I was; yet he was above me and could advise, and I had to obey.

On the morning of the 25th of September, 1884, the two outfits started for the railroad, leaving the remainder of us in a country, save for the cattle, so desolate that there was no chance even to spend our wages. I committed to memory a curtain lecture for my brother, though somehow or other it escaped me and was never delivered. We rode lines between the upper and lower wagons, holding the cattle loosely on a large range. A delightful fall favored us, and before the first squall of winter came on, the beeves had contented themselves as though they had been born on the Little Missouri. Meanwhile Bob's wagon and remuda arrived, the car of corn was hauled to our headquarters, extra stabling was built, and we settled down like banished exiles. Communication had been opened with Fort Buford, and in the latter part of October the four promised men arrived, when Bob Quirk took part of my outfit and went home, leaving me ten men. Parent remained as cook, the new men assimilated easily, a fiddle was secured, and in fulfillment of the assertion of Sanders, we picked up courage. Two grain-fed horses, carefully stabled, were allowed to each man, the remainder of our large number of saddle stock running free on the range.

To that long winter on the Little Missouri a relentless memory turns in retrospect. We dressed and lived like Eskimos. The first blizzard struck us early in December, the thermometer dropped sixty degrees in twelve hours, but in the absence of wind and snow the cattle did not leave the breaks along the river. Three weeks later a second one came, and we could not catch the lead animals until near the railroad; but the storm drove them up the Little Missouri, and its sheltering banks helped us to check our worst winter drift. After the first month of wintry weather, the dread of the cold passed, and men and horses faced the work as though it was springtime in our own loved southland. The months rolled by scarcely noticed. During fine weather Sanders and some of his boys twice dropped down for a few days, but we never left camp except to send letters home.

An early spring favored us. I was able to report less than one per cent. loss on the home range, with the possibility of but few cattle having escaped us during the winter. The latter part of May we sold four hundred saddle horses to some men from the upper Yellowstone. Early in June a wagon was rigged out, extra men employed, and an outfit sent two hundred miles up the Little Missouri to attend the round-ups. They were gone a month and came in with less than five hundred beeves, which represented our winter drift. Don Lovell reached the ranch during the first week in July. One day's ride through the splendid cattle, and old man Don lost his voice, but the smile refused to come off. Everything was coming his way. Field, Radcliff & Co. had sued him, and the jury awarded him one-hundred thousand dollars. His bankers had unlimited confidence in his business ability; he had four Indian herds on the trail and three others of younger steers, intended for the Little Missouri ranch. Cattle prices in Texas had depreciated nearly one half since the spring before--"a good time for every cowman to strain his credit and enlarge his holdings," my employer assured me.

Orders were left that I was to begin shipping out the beeves early in August. It was the intention to ship them in two and three train-load lots, and I was expecting to run a double outfit, when a landslide came our way. The first train-load netted sixty dollars a head at Omaha--but they were beeves; cods like an ox's heart and waddled as they walked. We had just returned from the railroad with the intention of shipping two train-loads more, when the quartermaster and Sanders from Fort Buford rode into the ranch under an escort. The government had lost forty per cent. of the Field-Radcliff cattle during the winter just passed, and were in the market to buy the deficiency. The quartermaster wanted a thousand beeves on the first day of September and October each, and double that number for the next month. Did we care to sell that amount? A United States marshal, armed with a search-warrant, could not have found Don Lovell in a month, but they were promptly assured that our beef steers were for sale. It is easy to show prime cattle. The quartermaster, Sanders, and myself rode down the river, crossed over and came up beyond our camp, forded back and came down the Beaver, and I knew the sale was made. I priced the beeves, delivered at Buford, at sixty-five dollars a head, and the quartermaster took them.

Then we went to work in earnest. Sanders remained to receive the first contingent for Buford, which would leave our range on the 25th of each month. A single round-up and we had the beeves in hand. The next morning after Splann left for the mouth of the Yellowstone, I started south for the railroad with two train-loads of picked cattle. Professional shippers took them off our hands at the station, accompanied them en route to market, and the commission house in Omaha knew where to remit the proceeds. The beef shipping season was on with a vengeance. Our saddle stock had improved with a winter in the North, until one was equal to two Southern or trail horses. Old man Don had come on in the mean time, and was so pleased with my sale to the army post that he returned to Little Missouri Station at once and bought two herds of three-year-olds at Ogalalla by wire. This made sixteen thousand steer cattle en route from the latter point for Lovell's new ranch in Dakota.

"Tom," said old man Don, enthusiastically, "this is the making of a fine cattle ranch, and we want to get in on the flood-tide. There is always a natural wealth in a new country, and the goldmines of this one are in its grass. The instinct that taught the buffalo to choose this as their summer and winter range was unerring, and they found a grass at hand that would sustain them in any and all kinds of weather. This country to-day is just what Texas was thirty years ago. All the early settlers at home grew rich without any effort, but once the cream of the virgin land is gone, look out for a change. The early cowmen of Texas flatter themselves on being shrewd and far-seeing--just about as much as I was last fall, when I would gladly have lost twenty-five thousand dollars rather than winter these cattle. Now look where I will come out, all due to the primitive wealth of the land. From sixty to sixty-five dollars a head beats thirty-seven and a half for our time and trouble."

The first of the through cattle arrived early in September. They avoided our range for fear of fever, and dropped in about fifteen miles below our headquarters on the Little Missouri. Dorg Seay was one of the three foremen, Forrest and Sponsilier being the other two, having followed the same route as our herds of the year before. But having spent a winter in the North, we showed the through outfits a chilling contempt. I had ribbed up Parent not even to give them a pleasant word about our wagon or headquarters; and particularly if Bob Quirk came through with one of the purchased herds, he was to be given the marble heart. One outfit loose-herded the new cattle, the other two going home, and about the middle of the month, my brother and The Rebel came trailing in with the last two herds. I was delighted to meet my old bunkie, and had him remain over until the last outfit went home, when we reluctantly parted company. Not so, however, with Bob Quirk, who haughtily informed me that he came near slapping my cook for his effrontery. "So you are another one of these lousy through outfits that think we ought to make a fuss over you, are you?" I retorted. "Just you wait until we do. Every one of you except old Paul had the idea that we ought to give you a reception and ask you to sleep in our beds. I'm glad that Parent had the gumption to give you a mean look; he'll ride for me next year."

The month of October finished the shipping. There was a magic in that Northern climate that wrought wonders in an animal from the South. Little wonder that the buffalo could face the blizzard, in a country of his own choosing, and in a climate where the frost king held high revel five months out of the twelve. There was a tonic like the iron of wine in the atmosphere, absorbed alike by man and beast, and its possessor laughed at the fury of the storm. Our loss of cattle during the first winter, traceable to season, was insignificant, while we sold out over two hundred head more than the accounts called for, due to the presence of strays, which went to Buford. And when the last beef was shipped, the final delivery concluded to the army, Don Lovell was a quarter-million dollars to the good, over and above the contract price at which he failed to deliver the same cattle to the government the fall before.

As foreman of Lovell's beef ranch on the Little Missouri I spent five banner years of my life. In '89 the stock, good-will, and range were sold to a cattle syndicate, who installed a superintendent and posted rules for the observance of its employees. I do not care to say why, but in a stranger's hands it never seemed quite the same home to a few of us who were present when it was transformed into a cattle range. Late that fall, some half-dozen of us who were from Texas asked to be relieved and returned to the South. A traveler passing through that country to-day will hear the section about the mouth of the Beaver called only by the syndicate name, but old-timers will always lovingly refer to it as the Don Lovell Ranch.

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