promises us the hog killingest time of our lives. I’ve accepted the invitation on behalf of the ‘J+H’s’ without consulting any one.”
“But supposing we are busy when it takes place,” said Mouse, “then what?”
“But we won’t be,” answered Miller. “It isn’t every day that we have a chance at a wedding in our little family, and when we get the word, this outfit quits then and there. Ordinary callings in life, like cattle matters, must go to the rear until important things are attended to. Every man is expected to don his best togs, and dance to the centre on the word. If it takes a week to turn the trick properly, good enough. Jack and his bride must have a blow-out right. This outfit must do themselves proud. It will be our night to howl, and every man will be a wooly wolf.”
We loaded the beeves out the next day, going back after two trains of “Turkey Track” cattle. While we were getting these out, Miller cut out two strays and a cow or two, and sent them to the horse pasture at the home camp. It was getting late in the fall, and we figured that a few more shipments would end it. Miller told the owners to load out what they wanted while the weather was fit, as our saddle horses were getting worn out fast. As we were loading out the last shipment of mixed cattle of our own, the letter came to Miller. Jack would return with his bride on a date only two days off, and the festivities were set for one day later. We pulled into headquarters that night, the first time in six weeks, and turned everything loose. The next morning we overhauled our Sunday bests, and worried around trying to pick out something for a wedding present.
Miller gave the happy pair a little “Flower Pot” cow, which he had rustled in the Cheyenne country on the round-up a few years before. Edwards presented him with a log chain that a bone-picker had lost in our pasture. Mouse gave Jack a four-tined fork which the hay outfit had forgotten when they left. Coon Floyd’s compliments went with five cow-bells, which we always thought he rustled from a boomer’s wagon that broke down over on the Reno trail. It bothered some of us to rustle something for a present, for you know we couldn’t buy anything. We managed to get some deer’s antlers, a gray wolf’s skin for the bride’s tootsies, and several colored sheepskins, which we had bought from a Mexican horse herd going up the trail that spring. We killed a nice fat little beef, the evening before we started, hanging it out over night to harden. None of the boys knew the brand; in fact, it’s bad taste to remember the brand on anything you’ve beefed. No one troubles himself to notice it carefully. That night a messenger brought a letter to Miller, ordering him to ship out the remnant of “Diamond Tail” cattle as soon as possible. They belonged to a northwest Texas outfit, and we were maturing them. The messenger stayed all night, and in the morning asked, “Shall I order cars for you?”
“No, I have a few other things to attend to first,” answered Miller.
We took the wagon with us to carry our bedding and the other plunder, driving along with us a cow and a calf of Jack’s, the little “Flower Pot” cow, and a beef. Our outfit reached Jack’s house by the middle of the afternoon. The first thing was to be introduced to the bride. Jack did the honors himself, presenting each one of us, and seemed just as proud as a little boy with new boots. Then we were given introductions to several good-looking neighbor girls. We began to feel our own inferiority.
While we were hanging up the quarters of beef on some pegs on the north side of the cabin, Edwards said, whispering, “Jack must have pictured this claim mighty hifalutin to that gal, for she’s a way up good-looker. Another thing, watch me build to the one inside with the black eyes. I claimed her first, remember. As soon as we get this beef hung up I’m going in and sidle up to her.”
“We won’t differ with you on that point,” remarked Mouse, “but if she takes any special shine to a runt like you, when there’s boys like the rest of us standing around, all I’ve got to say is, her tastes must be a heap sight sorry and depraved. I expect to dance with the bride–in the head set–a whirl or two myself.”
“If I’d only thought,” chimed in Coon, “I’d sent up to the State and got me a white shirt and a standing collar and a red necktie. You galoots out-hold me on togs. But where I was raised, back down in Palo Pinto County, Texas, I was some punkins as a ladies’ man myself–you hear me.”
“Oh, you look all right,” said Edwards. “You would look all right with only a cotton string around your neck.”
After tending to our horses, we all went into the house. There sat Miller talking to the bride just as if he had known her always, with Jack standing with his back to the fire, grinning like a cat eating paste. The neighbor girls fell to getting supper, and our cook turned to and helped. We managed to get fairly well acquainted with the company by the time the meal was over. The fiddlers came early, in fact, dined with us. Jack said if there were enough girls, we could run three sets, and he thought there would be, as he had asked every one both sides of the creek for five miles. The beds were taken down and stowed away, as there would be no use for them that night.
The company came early. Most of the young fellows brought their best girls seated behind them on saddle horses. This manner gave the girl a chance to show her trustful, clinging nature. A horse that would carry double was a prize animal. In settling up a new country, primitive methods crop out as a matter of necessity.
Ben Thorn, an old-timer in the Strip, called off. While the company was gathering, the fiddlers began to tune up, which sent a thrill through us. When Ben gave the word, “Secure your pardners for the first quadrille,” Miller led out the bride to the first position in the best room, Jack’s short leg barring him as a participant. This was the signal for the rest of us, and we fell in promptly. The fiddles struck up “Hounds in the Woods,” the prompter’s voice rang out “Honors to your pardner,” and the dance was on.
Edwards close-herded the black-eyed girl till supper time. Not a one of us got a dance with her even. Mouse admitted next day, as we rode home, that he squeezed her hand several times in the grand right and left, just to show her that she had other admirers, that she needn’t throw herself away on any one fellow, but it was no go. After supper Billy corralled her in a corner, she seeming willing, and stuck to her until her brother took her home nigh daylight.
Jack got us boys pardners for every dance. He proved himself clean strain that night, the whitest little Injun on the reservation. We knocked off dancing about midnight and had supper,–good coffee with no end of way-up fine chuck. We ate as we danced, heartily. Supper over, the dance went on full blast. About two o’clock in the morning, the wire edge was well worn off the revelers, and they showed signs of weariness. Miller, noticing it, ordered the Indian war-dance as given by the Cheyennes. That aroused every one and filled the sets instantly. The fiddlers caught the inspiration and struck into “Sift the Meal and save the Bran.” In every grand right and left, we ki-yied as we had witnessed Lo in the dance on festive occasions. At the end of every change, we gave a war-whoop, some of the girls joining in, that would have put to shame any son of the Cheyennes.
It was daybreak when the dance ended and the guests departed. Though we had brought our blankets with us, no one thought of sleeping. Our cook and one of the girls got breakfast. The bride offered to help, but we wouldn’t let her turn her hand. At breakfast we discussed the incidents of the night previous, and we all felt that we had done the occasion justice.
A QUESTION OF POSSESSION
Along in the 80’s there occurred a question of possession in regard to a brand of horses, numbering nearly two hundred head. Courts had figured in former matters, but at this time they were not appealed to, owing to the circumstances. This incident occurred on leased Indian lands unprovided with civil courts,–in a judicial sense, “No-Man’s-Land.” At this time it seemed that _might_ graced the woolsack, while on one side Judge Colt cited his authority, only to be reversed by Judge Parker, breech-loader, short-barreled, a full-choke ten bore. The clash of opinions between these two eminent western authorities was short, determined, and to the point.
A man named Gray had settled in one of the northwest counties in Texas while it was yet the frontier, and by industry and economy of himself and family had established a comfortable home. As a ranchman he had raised the brand of horses in question. The history of this man is somewhat obscured before his coming to Texas. But it was known and admitted that he was a bankrupt, on account of surety debts which he was compelled to pay for friends in his former home in Kentucky. Many a good man had made similar mistakes before him. His neighbors spoke well of him in Texas, and he was looked upon as a good citizen in general.
Ten years of privation and hardship, in their new home, had been met and overcome, and now he could see a ray of hope for the better. The little prosperity which was beginning to dawn upon himself and family met with a sudden shock, in the form of an old judgment, which he always contended his attorneys had paid. In some manner this judgment was revived, transferred to the jurisdiction of his district, and an execution issued against his property. Sheriff Ninde of this county was not as wise as he should have been. When the execution was placed in his hands, he began to look about for property to satisfy the judgment. The exemption laws allowed only a certain number of gentle horses, and as any class of range horses had a cash value then, this brand of horses was levied on to satisfy the judgment.
The range on which these horses were running was at this time an open one, and the sheriff either relied on his reputation as a bad man, or probably did not know any better. The question of possession did not bother him. Still this stock was as liable to range in one county as another. There is one thing quite evident: the sheriff had overlooked the nature of this man Gray, for he was no weakling, inclined to sit down and cry. It was thought that legal advice caused him to take the step he did, and it may be admitted, with no degree of shame, that advice was often given on lines of justice if not of law, in the Lone Star State. There was a time when the decisions of Judge Lynch in that State had the hearty approval of good men. Anyhow, Gray got a few of his friends together, gathered his horses without attracting attention, and within a day’s drive crossed into the Indian Territory, where he could defy all the sheriffs in Texas.
When this cold fact first dawned on Sheriff Ninde, he could hardly control himself. With this brand of horses five or six days ahead of him he became worried. The effrontery of any man to deny his authority–the authority of a duly elected sheriff–was a reflection on his record. His bondsmen began to inquire into the situation; in case the property could not be recovered, were they liable as bondsmen? Things looked bad for the sheriff.
The local papers in supporting his candidacy for this office had often spoken of him and his chief deputy as human bloodhounds,–a terror to evil doers. Their election, they maintained, meant a strict enforcement of the laws, and assured the community that a better era would dawn in favor of peace and security of life and property. Ninde was resourceful if anything. He would overtake those horses, overpower the men if necessary, and bring back to his own bailiwick that brand of horse-stock. At least, that was his plan. Of course Gray might object, but that would be a secondary matter. Sheriff Ninde would take time to do this. Having made one mistake, he would make another to right it.
Gray had a brother living in one of the border towns of Kansas, and it was thought he would head for this place. Should he take the horses into the State, all the better, as they could invoke the courts of another State and get other sheriffs to help.
Sixty years of experience with an uncharitable world had made Gray distrustful of his fellow man, though he did not wish to be so. So when he reached his brother in Kansas without molestation, he exercised caution enough to leave the herd of horses in the territory. The courts of this neutral strip were Federal, and located at points in adjoining States, but there was no appeal to them in civil cases. United States marshals looked after the violators of law against the government.
Sheriff Ninde sent his deputy to do the Sherlock act for him as soon as the horses were located. This the deputy had no trouble in doing, as this sized bunch of horses could not well be hidden, nor was there any desire on the part of Gray to conceal them.
The horses were kept under herd day and night in a near-by pasture. Gray usually herded by day, and two young men, one his son, herded by night. Things went on this way for a month. In the mean time the deputy had reported to the sheriff, who came on to personally supervise the undertaking. Gray was on the lookout, and was aware of the deputy’s presence. All he could do was to put an extra man on herd at night, arm his men well, and await results.
The deputy secretly engaged seven or eight bad men of the long-haired variety, such as in the early days usually graced the frontier towns with their presence. This brand of human cattle were not the disturbing element on the border line of civilization that writers of that period depicted, nor the authors of the bloodcurdling drama portrayed. The average busy citizen paid little attention to them, considering them more ornamental than useful. But this was about the stripe that was wanted and could be secured for the work in hand. A good big bluff was considered sufficient for the end in view. This crowd was mounted, armed to the teeth, and all was ready. Secrecy was enjoined on every one. Led by the sheriff and his deputy, they rode out about midnight to the pasture and found the herd and herders.
“What do you fellows want here?” demanded young Gray, as Ninde and his posse rode up.
“We want these horses,” answered the sheriff.
“On what authority?” demanded Gray.
“This is sufficient authority for you,” said the sheriff, flashing a six-shooter in young Gray’s face. All the heelers to the play now jumped their horses forward, holding their six-shooters over their heads, ratcheting the cylinders of their revolvers by cocking and lowering the hammers, as if nothing but a fight would satisfy their demand for gore.
“If you want these horses that bad,” said young Gray, “I reckon you can get them for the present. But I want to tell you one thing–there are sixty head of horses here under herd with ours, outside the ’96’ brand. They belong to men in town. If you take them out of this pasture to-night, they might consider you a horse-thief and deal with you accordingly. You know you are doing this by force of arms. You have no more authority here than any other man, except what men and guns give you. Good-night, sir, I may see you by daylight.”
Calling off his men, they let little grass grow under their feet as they rode to town. The young man roused his father and uncle, who in turn went out and asked their friends to come to their assistance. Together with the owners of the sixty head, by daybreak they had eighteen mounted and armed men.
The sheriff paid no attention to the advice of young Gray, but when day broke he saw that he had more horses than he wanted, as there was a brand or two there he had no claim on, just or unjust, and they must be cut out or trouble would follow. One of the men with Ninde knew of a corral where this work could be done, and to this corral, which was at least fifteen miles from the town where the rescue party of Gray had departed at daybreak, they started. The pursuing posse soon took the trail of the horses from where they left the pasture, and as they headed back toward Texas, it was feared it might take a long, hard ride to overtake them. The gait was now increased to the gallop, not fast, probably covering ten miles an hour, which was considered better time than the herd could make under any circumstances.
After an hour’s hard riding, it was evident, from the trail left, that they were not far ahead. The fact that they were carrying off with them horses that were the private property of men in the rescue party did not tend to fortify the sheriff in the good opinion of any of the rescuers. It was now noticed that the herd had left the trail in the direction of a place where there had formerly been a ranch house, the corrals of which were in good repair, as they were frequently used for branding purposes. On coming in sight of these corrals, Gray’s party noticed that some kind of work was being carried on, so they approached it cautiously. The word came back that it was the horses.
Gray said to his party, “Keep a short distance behind me. I’ll open the ball, if there is any.” To the others of his party, it seemed that the supreme moment in the old man’s life had come. Over his determined features there spread a smile of the deepest satisfaction, as though some great object in life was about to be accomplished. Yet in that determined look it was evident that he would rather be shot down like a dog than yield to what he felt was tyranny and the denial of his rights. When his party came within a quarter of a mile of the corrals, it was noticed that Ninde and his deputies ceased their work, mounted their horses, and rode out into the open, the sheriff in the lead, and halted to await the meeting.
Gray rode up to within a hundred feet of Ninde’s posse, and dismounting handed the reins of his bridle to his son. He advanced with a steady, even stride, a double-barreled shotgun held as though he expected to flush a partridge. At this critical juncture, his party following him up, it seemed that reputations as bad men were due to get action, or suffer a discount at the hands of heretofore peaceable men. Every man in either party had his arms where they would be instantly available should the occasion demand it. When Gray came within easy hailing distance, his challenge was clear and audible to every one. “What in hell are you doing with my horses?”
“I’ve got to have these horses, sir,” answered Ninde.
“Do you realize what it will take to get them?” asked Gray, as he brought his gun, both barrels at full cock, to his shoulder. “Bat an eye, or crook your little finger if you dare, and I’ll send your soul glimmering into eternity, if my own goes to hell for it.” There was something in the old man’s voice that conveyed the impression that these were not idle words. To heed them was the better way, if human life had any value.
“Well, Mr. Gray,” said the sheriff, “put down your gun and take your horses. This has been a bad piece of business for us–take your horses and go, sir. My bondsmen can pay that judgment, if they have to.”
Gray’s son rode around during the conversation, opened the gate, and turned out the horses. One or two men helped him, and the herd was soon on its way to the pasture.
As the men of his party turned to follow Gray, who had remounted, he presented a pitiful sight. His still determined features, relaxed from the high tension to which he had been nerved, were blanched to the color of his hair and beard. It was like a drowning man–with the strength of two–when rescued and brought safely to land, fainting through sheer weakness. A reprieve from death itself or the blood of his fellow man upon his hands had been met and passed. It was some little time before he spoke, then he said: “I reckon it was best, the way things turned out, for I would hate to kill any man, but I would gladly die rather than suffer an injustice or quietly submit to what I felt was a wrong against me.”
It was some moments before the party became communicative, as they all had a respect for the old man’s feelings. Ninde was on the uneasy seat, for he would not return to the State, though his posse returned somewhat crestfallen. It may be added that the sheriff’s bondsmen, upon an examination into the facts in the case, concluded to stand a suit on the developments of some facts which their examination had uncovered in the original proceedings, and the matter was dropped, rather than fight it through in open court.
THE STORY OF A POKER STEER
He was born in a chaparral thicket, south of the Nueces River in Texas. It was a warm night in April, with a waning moon hanging like a hunter’s horn high overhead, when the subject of this sketch drew his first breath. Ushered into a strange world in the fulfillment of natural laws, he lay trembling on a bed of young grass, listening to the low mooings of his mother as she stood over him in the joy and pride of the first born. But other voices of the night reached his ears; a whippoorwill and his mate were making much ado over the selection of their nesting-place on the border of the thicket. The tantalizing cry of a coyote on the nearest hill caused his mother to turn from him, lifting her head in alarm, and uneasily scenting the night air.
On thus being deserted, and complying with an inborn instinct of fear, he made his first attempt to rise and follow, and although unsuccessful it caused his mother to return and by her gentle nosings and lickings to calm him. Then in an effort to rise he struggled to his knees, only to collapse like a limp rag. But after several such attempts he finally stood on his feet, unsteady on his legs, and tottering like one drunken. Then his mother nursed him, and as the new milk warmed his stomach he gained sufficient assurance of his footing to wiggle his tail and to butt the feverish caked udder with his velvety muzzle. After satisfying his appetite he was loath to lie down and rest, but must try his legs in toddling around to investigate this strange world into which he had been ushered. He smelled of the rich green leaves of the mesquite, which hung in festoons about his birth chamber, and trampled underfoot the grass which carpeted the bower.
After several hours’ sleep he was awakened by a strange twittering above him. The moon and stars, which were shining so brightly at the moment of his birth, had grown pale. His mother was the first to rise, but heedless of her entreaties he lay still, bewildered by the increasing light. Animals, however, have their own ways of teaching their little ones, and on the dam’s first pretense of deserting him he found his voice, and uttering a plaintive cry, struggled to his feet, which caused his mother to return and comfort him.
Later she enticed him out of the thicket to enjoy his first sun bath. The warmth seemed to relieve the stiffness in his joints, and after each nursing during the day he attempted several awkward capers in his fright at a shadow or the rustle of a leaf. Near the middle of the afternoon, his mother being feverish, it was necessary that she should go to the river and slake her thirst. So she enticed him to a place where the grass in former years had grown rank, and as soon as he lay down she cautioned him to be quiet during her enforced absence, and though he was a very young calf he remembered and trusted in her. It was several miles to the river, and she was gone two whole hours, but not once did he disobey. A passing ranchero reined in and rode within three feet of him, but he did not open an eye or even twitch an ear to scare away a fly.
The horseman halted only long enough to notice the flesh-marks. The calf was a dark red except for a white stripe which covered the right side of his face, including his ear and lower jaw, and continued in a narrow band beginning on his withers and broadening as it extended backward until it covered his hips. Aside from his good color the ranchman was pleased with his sex, for a steer those days was better than gold. So the cowman rode away with a pleased expression on his face, but there is a profit and loss account in all things.
When the calf’s mother returned she rewarded her offspring for his obedience, and after grazing until dark, she led him into the chaparral thicket and lay down for the night. Thus the first day of his life and a few succeeding ones passed with unvarying monotony. But when he was about a week old his mother allowed him to accompany her to the river, where he met other calves and their dams. She was but a three-year-old, and he was her first baby; so, as they threaded their way through the cattle on the river-bank the little line-back calf was the object of much attention. The other cows were jealous of him, but one old grandmother came up and smelled of him benignantly, as if to say, “Suky, this is a nice baby boy you have here.”
Then the young cow, embarrassed by so much attention, crossed the shallow river and went up among some hills where she had once ranged and where the vining mesquite grass grew luxuriantly. There they spent several months, and the calf grew like a weed, and life was one long summer day. He could have lived there always and been content, for he had many pleasures. Other cows, also, brought their calves up to the same place, and he had numerous playmates in his gambols on the hillsides. Among the other calves was a speckled heifer, whose dam was a great crony of his own mother. These two cows were almost inseparable during the entire summer, and it was as natural as the falling of a mesquite bean that he should form a warm attachment for his speckled playmate.
But this June-time of his life had an ending when late in the fall a number of horsemen scoured the hills and drove all the cattle down to the river. It was the first round-up he had ever been in, so he kept very close to his mother’s side, and allowed nothing to separate him from her. When the outriders had thrown in all the cattle from the hills and had drifted all those in the river valley together, they moved them back on an open plain and began cutting out. There were many men at the work, and after all the cows and calves had been cut into a separate herd, the other cattle were turned loose. Then with great shoutings the cows were started up the river to a branding-pen several miles distant. Never during his life did the line-back calf forget that day. There was such a rush and hurrah among these horsemen that long before they reached the corrals the line-back’s tongue lolled out, for he was now a very fat calf. Only once did he even catch sight of his speckled playmate, who was likewise trembling like a fawn.
Inside the corral he rested for a short time in the shade of the palisades. His mother, however, scented with alarm a fire which was being built in the middle of the branding-pen. Several men, who seemed to be the owners, rode through the corralled cows while the cruel irons were being heated. Then the man who directed the work ordered into their saddles a number of swarthy fellows who spoke Spanish, and the work of branding commenced.
The line-back calf kept close to his mother’s side, and as long as possible avoided the ropers. But in an unguarded moment the noose of a rope encircled one of his hind feet, and he was thrown upon his side, and in this position the mounted man dragged him up to the fire. His mother followed him closely, but she was afraid of the men, and could only stand at a distance and listen to his piteous crying. The roper, when asked for the brand, replied, “Bar-circle-bar,” for that was the brand his mother bore. A tall quiet man who did the branding called to a boy who attended the fire to bring him two irons; with one he stamped the circle, and with the other he made a short horizontal bar on either side of it. Then he took a bloody knife from between his teeth and cut an under-bit from the calf’s right ear, inquiring of the owner as he did so, “Do you want this calf left for a bull?”
“No; yearlings will be worth fourteen dollars next spring. He’s a first calf–his mother’s only a three-year-old.”
As he was released he edged away from the fire, forlorn looking. His mother coaxed him over into a corner of the corral, where he dropped exhausted, for with his bleeding ear, his seared side, and a hundred shooting pains in his loins, he felt as if he must surely die. His dam, however, stood over him until the day’s work was ended, and kept the other cows from trampling him. When the gates were thrown open and they were given their freedom, he cared nothing for it; he wanted to die. He did not attempt to leave the corral until after darkness had settled over the scene. Then with much persuasion he arose and limped along after his mother. But before he could reach the river, which was at least half a mile away, he sank down exhausted. If he could only slake his terrible thirst he felt he might possibly survive, for the pain had eased somewhat. With every passing breeze of the night he could scent the water, and several times in his feverish fancy he imagined he could hear it as it gurgled over its pebbly bed.
Just at sunrise, ere the heat of the day fell upon him, he struggled to his feet, for he felt it was a matter of life and death with him to reach the river. At last he dragged his pain-racked body down to the rippling water and lowered his head to drink, but it seemed as if every exertion tended to reopen those seared scars, and with the one thing before him that he most desired, he moaned in misery. A little farther away was a deep pool. This he managed to crawl to, and there he remained for a long time, for the water laved his wounds, and he drank and drank. The sun now beat down on him fiercely, and he must seek some shady place for the day, but he started reluctantly to leave, and when he reached the shallows, he turned back to the comfort of the pool and drank again.
A thickety motte of chaparral which grew back from the scattering timber on the river afforded him the shelter and seclusion he wanted, for he dared not trust himself where the grown cattle congregated for the day’s siesta. During all his troubles his mother had never forsaken him, and frequently offered him the scanty nourishment of her udder, but he had no appetite and could scarcely raise his eyes to look at her. But time heals all wounds, and within a week he followed his dam back into the hills where grew the succulent grama grass which he loved. There they remained for more than a month, and he met his speckled playmate again.
One day a great flight of birds flew southward, and amidst the cawing of crows and the croaking of ravens the cattle which ranged beyond came down out of the hills in long columns, heading southward. The line-back calf felt a change himself in the pleasant day’s atmosphere. His mother and the dam of the speckled calf laid their heads together, and after scenting the air for several minutes, they curved their tails–a thing he had never seen sedate cows do before–and stampeded off to the south. Of course the line-back calf and his playmate went along, outrunning their mothers. They traveled far into the night until they reached a chaparral thicket, south of the river, much larger than the one in which he was born. It was well they sought its shelter, for two hours before daybreak a norther swept across the range, which chilled them to the bone. When day dawned a mist was falling which incrusted every twig and leaf in crystal armor.
There were many such northers during the first winter. The one mysterious thing which bothered him was, how it was that his mother could always foretell when one was coming. But he was glad she could, for she always sought out some cosy place; and now he noticed that his coat had thickened until it was as heavy as the fur on a bear, and he began to feel a contempt for the cold. But springtime came very early in that southern clime, and as he nibbled the first tender blades of grass, he felt an itching in his wintry coat and rubbed off great tufts of hair against the chaparral bushes. Then one night his mother, without a word of farewell, forsook him, and it was several months before he saw her again. But he had the speckled heifer yet for a companion, when suddenly her dam disappeared in the same inexplicable manner as had his own.
He was a yearling now, and with his playmate he ranged up and down the valley of the Nueces for miles. But in June came a heavy rain, almost a deluge, and nearly all the cattle left the valley for the hills, for now there was water everywhere. The two yearlings were the last to go, but one morning while feeding the line-back got a ripe grass burr in his mouth. Then he took warning, for he despised grass burrs, and that evening the two cronies crossed the river and went up into the hills where they had ranged as calves the summer before Within a week, at a lake which both well remembered, they met their mothers face to face. The steer was on the point of upbraiding his maternal relative for deserting him, when a cream-colored heifer calf came up and nourished itself at the cow’s udder. That was too much for him. He understood now why she had left him, and he felt that he was no longer her baby. Piqued with mortification he went to a near-by knoll where the ground was broken, and with his feet pawed up great clouds of dust which settled on his back until the white spot was almost obscured. The next morning he and the speckled heifer went up higher into the hills where the bigger steer cattle ranged. He had not been there the year before, and he had a great curiosity to see what the upper country was like.
In the extreme range of the hills back from the river, the two spent the entire summer, or until the first norther drove them down to the valley. The second winter was much milder than the first one, snow and ice being unknown. So when spring came again they were both very fat, and together they planned–as soon as the June rains came–to go on a little pasear over north on the Frio River. They had met others of their kind from the Frio when out on those hills the summer before, and had found them decently behaved cattle.
But though the outing was feasible and well planned, it was not to be. For after both had shed their winter coats, the speckled heifer was as pretty a two-year-old as ever roamed the Nueces valley or drank out of its river, and the line-back steer had many rivals. Almost daily he fought other steers of his own age and weight, who were paying altogether too marked attention to his crony. Although he never outwardly upbraided her for it, her coquetry was a matter of no small concern with him. At last one day in April she forced matters to an open rupture between them. A dark red, arch-necked, curly-headed animal came bellowing defiance across their feeding-grounds. Without a moment’s hesitation the line-back had accepted the challenge and had locked horns with this Adonis. Though he fought valiantly the battle is ever with the strong, and inch by inch he was forced backward. When he realized that he must yield, he turned to flee, and his rival with one horn caught him behind the fore shoulder, cutting a cruel gash nearly a foot in length. Reaching a point of safety he halted, and as he witnessed his adversary basking in the coquettish, amorous advances of her who had been his constant companion since babyhood, his wrath was uncontrollable. Kneeling, he cut the ground with his horns, throwing up clouds of dust, and then and there he renounced kith and kin, the speckled heifer and the Nueces valley forever. He firmly resolved to start at once for the Frio country. He was a proud two-year-old and had always held his head high. Could his spirit suffer the humiliation of meeting his old companions after such defeat? No! Hurling his bitterest curses on the amorous pair, he turned his face to the northward.
On reaching the Nueces, feverish in anger, he drank sparingly, kneeling against the soft river’s bank, cutting it with his horns, and matting his forehead with red mud. It was a momentous day in his life. He distinctly remembered the physical pain he had suffered once in a branding-pen, but that was nothing compared to this. Surely his years had been few and full of trouble. He hardly knew which way to turn. Finally he concluded to lie down on a knoll and rest until nightfall, when he would start on his journey to the Frio. Just how he was to reach that country troubled him. He was a cautious fellow; he knew he must have water on the way, and the rains had not yet fallen.
Near the middle of the afternoon an incident occurred which changed the whole course of his after-life. From his position on the knoll he witnessed the approach of four horsemen who apparently were bent on driving all the cattle in that vicinity out of their way. To get a better view he arose, for it was evident they had no intention of disturbing him. When they had drifted away all the cattle for a mile on both sides of the river, one of the horsemen rode back and signaled to some one in the distance. Then the line-back steer saw something new, for coming over the brow of the hill was a great column of cattle. He had never witnessed such a procession of his kind before. When the leaders had reached the river, the rear was just coming over the brow of the hill, for the column was fully a mile in length. The line-back steer classed them as strangers, probably bound for the Frio, for that was the remotest country in his knowledge. As he slowly approached the herd, which was then crowding into the river, he noticed that they were nearly all two-year-olds like himself. Why not accompany them? His resolution to leave the Nueces valley was still uppermost in his mind. But when he attempted to join in, a dark-skinned man on a horse chased him away, cursing him in Spanish as he ran. Then he thought they must be exclusive, and wondered where they came from.
But when the line-back steer once resolved to do anything, the determination became a consuming desire. He threw the very intensity of his existence into his resolution of the morning. He would leave the Nueces valley with those cattle–or alone, it mattered not. So after they had watered and grazed out from the river, he followed at a respectful distance. Once again he tried to enter the herd, but an outrider cut him off. The man was well mounted, and running his horse up to him he took up his tail, wrapped the brush around the pommel of his saddle, and by a dexterous turn of his horse threw him until he spun like a top. The horseman laughed. The ground was sandy, and while the throwing frightened him, never for an instant did it shake his determination.
So after darkness had fallen and the men had bedded their cattle for the night, he slipped through the guard on night-herd and lay down among the others. He complimented himself on his craftiness, but never dreamed that this was a trail herd, bound for some other country three hundred miles beyond his native Texas. The company was congenial; it numbered thirty-five hundred two-year-old steers like himself, and strangely no one ever noticed him until long after they had crossed the Frio. Then a swing man one day called his foreman’s attention to a stray, line-backed, bar-circle-bar steer in the herd. The foreman only gave him a passing glance, saying, “Let him alone; we may get a jug of whiskey for him if some trail cutter don’t claim him before we cross Red River.”
Now Red River was the northern boundary of his native State, and though he was unconscious of his destination, he was delighted with his new life and its constant change of scene. He also rejoiced that every hour carried him farther and farther from the Nueces valley, where he had suffered so much physical pain and humiliation. So for several months he traveled northward with the herd. He swam rivers and grazed in contentment across flowery prairies, mesas and broken country. Yet it mattered nothing to him where he was going, for his every need was satisfied. These men with the herd were friendly to him, for they anticipated his wants by choosing the best grazing, so arranging matters that he reached water daily, and selecting a dry bed ground for him at night. And when strange copper-colored men with feathers in their hair rode along beside the herd he felt no fear.
The provincial ideas of his youth underwent a complete change within the first month of trail life. When he swam Red River with the leaders of the herd, he not only bade farewell to his native soil, but burned all bridges behind him. To the line-back steer, existence on the Nueces had been very simple. But now his views were broadening. Was not he a unit of millions of his kind, all forging forward like brigades of a king’s army to possess themselves of some unconquered country? These men with whom he was associated were the vikings of the Plain. The Red Man was conquered, and, daily, the skulls of the buffalo, his predecessors, stared vacantly into his face.
By the middle of summer they reached their destination, for the cattle were contracted to a cowman in the Cherokee Strip, Indian Territory. The day of delivery had arrived. The herd was driven into a pasture where they met another outfit of horsemen similar to their own. The cattle were strung out and counted. The men agreed on the numbers. But watchful eyes scanned every brand as they passed in review, and the men in the receiving outfit called the attention of their employer to the fact that there were several strays in the herd not in the road brand. One of these strays was a line-back, bar-circle-bar, two-year-old steer. There were also others; when fifteen of them had been cut out and the buyer asked the trail foreman if he was willing to include them in the bill of sale, the latter smilingly replied: “Not on your life, Captain. You can’t keep them out of a herd. Down in my country we call strays like them _poker steers_.”
And so there were turned loose in the Coldwater Pool, one of the large pastures in the Strip, fifteen strays. That night, in a dug-out on that range, the home outfit of cowboys played poker until nearly morning. There were seven men in the camp entitled to share in this flotsam on their range, the extra steer falling to the foreman. Mentally they had a list of the brands, and before the game opened the strays were divided among the participants. An animal was represented by ten beans. At the beginning the boys played cautiously, counting every card at its true worth in a hazard of chance. But as the game wore on and the more fortunate ones saw their chips increase, the weaker ones were gradually forced out. At midnight but five players remained in the game. By three in the morning the foreman lost his last bean, and ordered the men into their blankets, saying they must be in their saddles by dawn, riding the fences, scattering and locating the new cattle. As the men yawningly arose to obey, Dick Larkin defiantly said to the winners, “I’ve just got ten beans left, and I’ll cut high card with any man to see who takes mine or I take one of his poker steers.”
“My father was killed in the battle of the Wilderness,” replied Tex, “and I’m as game a breed as you are. I’ll match your beans and pit you my bar-circle-bar steer.”
“My sire was born in Ireland and is living yet,” retorted Bold Richard. “Cut the cards, young fellow.”
“The proposition is yours–cut first yourself.”
The other players languidly returned to the table. Larkin cut a five spot of clubs and was in the act of tearing it in two, when Tex turned the tray of spades. Thus, on the turn of a low card, the line-back steer passed into the questionable possession of Dick Larkin. The Cherokee Strip wrought magic in a Texas steer. One or two winters in its rigorous climate transformed the gaunt long-horn into a marketable beef. The line-back steer met the rigors of the first winter and by June was as glossy as a gentleman’s silk tile. But at that spring round-up there was a special inspector from Texas, and no sooner did his eye fall upon the bar-circle-bar steer than he opened his book and showed the brand and his authority to claim him. When Dick Larkin asked to see his credentials, the inspector not only produced them, but gave the owner’s name and the county in which the brand was a matter of record. There was no going back on that, and the Texas man took the line-back steer. But the round-up stayed all night in the Pool pasture, and Larkin made it his business to get on second guard in night-herding the cut. He had previously assisted in bedding down the cattle for the night, and made it a point to see that the poker three-year-old lay down on the outer edge of the bed ground. The next morning the line-back steer was on his chosen range in the south end of the pasture. How he escaped was never known; there are ways and ways in a cow country.
At daybreak the round-up moved into the next pasture, the wagons, cut and saddle horses following. The special inspector was kept so busy for the next week that he never had time to look over the winter drift and strays, which now numbered nearly two thousand cattle. When the work ended the inspector missed the line-back steer. He said nothing, however, but exercised caution enough to take what cattle he had gathered up into Kansas for pasturage.
When the men who had gone that year on the round-up on the western division returned, there was a man from Reece’s camp in the Strip, east on Black Bear, who asked permission to leave about a dozen cattle in the Pool. He was alone, and, saying he would bring another man with him during the shipping season, he went his way. But when Reece’s men came back after their winter drift during the beef-gathering season, Bold Richard Larkin bantered the one who had left the cattle for a poker game, pitting the line-back three-year-old against a white poker cow then in the Pool pasture and belonging to the man from Black Bear. It was a short but spirited game. At its end the bar-circle-bar steer went home with Reece’s man. There was a protective code of honor among rustlers, and Larkin gave the new owner the history of the steer. He told him that the brand was of record in McMullen County, Texas, warned him of special inspectors, and gave him other necessary information.
The men from the Coldwater Pool, who went on the eastern division of the round-up next spring, came back and reported having seen a certain line-back poker steer, but the bar-circle-bar had somehow changed, until now it was known as the _pilot wheel_. And, so report came back, in the three weeks’ work that spring, the line-back pilot-wheel steer had changed owners no less than five times. Late that fall word came down from Fant’s pasture up west on the Salt Fork to send a man or two up there, as Coldwater Pool cattle had been seen on that range. Larkin and another lad went up to a beef round-up, and almost the first steer Bold Richard laid his eyes on was an under-bit, line-back, once a bar-circle-bar but now a pilot-wheel beef. Larkin swore by all the saints he would know that steer in Hades. Then Abner Taylor called Bold Richard aside and told him that he had won the steer about a week before from an Eagle Chief man, who had also won the beef from another man east on Black Bear during the spring round-up. The explanation satisfied Larkin, who recognized the existing code among rustlers.
The next spring the line-back steer was a five-year-old. Three winters in that northern climate had put the finishing touches on him. He was a beauty. But Abner Taylor knew he dared not ship him to a market, for there he would have to run a regular gauntlet of inspectors. There was another chance open, however. Fant, Taylor’s employer, had many Indian contracts. One contract in particular required three thousand northern wintered cattle for the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in northeast Montana. Fant had wintered the cattle with which to fill this contract on his Salt Fork range in the Cherokee Strip. When the cowman cast about for a foreman on starting the herd for Fort Peck, the fact that Abner Taylor was a Texan was sufficient recommendation with Fant. And the line-back beef and several other poker steers went along.
The wintered herd of beeves were grazed across to Fort Peck in little less than three months. On reaching the agency, the cattle were in fine condition and ready to issue to the Indian wards of our Christian nation. In the very first allotment from this herd the line-back beef was cut off with thirty others. It was fitting that he should die in his prime. As the thirty head were let out of the agency corral, a great shouting arose among the braves who were to make the kill. A murderous fire from a hundred repeaters was poured into the running cattle. Several fell to their knees, then rose and struggled on. The scene was worthy of savages. As the cattle scattered several Indians singled out the line-back poker steer. One specially well-mounted brave ran his pony along beside him and pumped the contents of his carbine into the beef’s side. With the blood frothing from his nostrils, the line-back turned and catching the horse with his horn disemboweled him. The Indian had thrown himself on the side of his mount to avoid the sudden thrust, and, as the pony fell, he was pinned under him. With admirable tenacity of life the pilot-wheel steer staggered back and made several efforts to gore the dying horse and helpless rider, but with a dozen shots through his vitals, he sank down and expired. A destiny, over which he had no seeming control, willed that he should yield to the grim reaper nearly three thousand miles from his birthplace on the sunny Nueces.
Abner Taylor, witnessing the incident, rode over to a companion and inquired: “Did you notice my line-back poker steer play his last trump? From the bottom of my heart I wish he had killed the Indian instead of the pony.”