The month of May found our Circle Dot herd, in spite of all drawbacks, nearly five hundred miles on its way. For the past week we had been traveling over that immense tableland which skirts the arid portion of western Texas. A few days before, while passing the blue mountains which stand as a southern sentinel in the chain marking the headwaters of the Concho River, we had our first glimpse of the hills. In its almost primitive condition, the country was generous, supplying every want for sustenance of horses and cattle. The grass at this stage of the season was well matured, the herd taking on flesh in a very gratifying manner, and, while we had crossed some rocky country, lame and sore-footed cattle had as yet caused us no serious trouble.
One morning when within one day's drive of the Colorado River, as our herd was leaving the bed ground, the last guard encountered a bunch of cattle drifting back down the trail. There were nearly fifty head of the stragglers; and as one of our men on guard turned them to throw them away from our herd, the road brand caught his eye, and he recognized the strays as belonging to the Ellison herd which had passed us at the Indian Lakes some ten days before. Flood's attention once drawn to the brand, he ordered them thrown into our herd. It was evident that some trouble had occurred with the Ellison cattle, possibly a stampede; and it was but a neighborly act to lend any assistance in our power. As soon as the outfit could breakfast, mount, and take the herd, Flood sent Priest and me to scout the country to the westward of the trail, while Bob Blades and Ash Borrowstone started on a similar errand to the eastward, with orders to throw in any drifting cattle in the Ellison road brand. Within an hour after starting, the herd encountered several straggling bands, and as Priest and I were on the point of returning to the herd, we almost overrode a bunch of eighty odd head lying down in some broken country. They were gaunt and tired, and The Rebel at once pronounced their stiffened movements the result of a stampede.
We were drifting them bask towards the trail, when Nat Straw and two of his men rode out from our herd and met us. "I always did claim that it was better to be born lucky than handsome," said Straw as he rode up. "One week Flood saves me from a dry drive, and the very next one, he's just the right distance behind to catch my drift from a nasty stampede. Not only that, but my peelers and I are riding Circle Dot horses, as well as reaching the wagon in time for breakfast and lining our flues with Lovell's good chuck. It's too good luck to last, I'm afraid.
"I'm not hankering for the dramatic in life, but we had a run last night that would curl your hair. Just about midnight a bunch of range cattle ran into us, and before you could say Jack Robinson, our dogies had vamoosed the ranch and were running in half a dozen different directions. We rounded them up the best we could in the dark, and then I took a couple of men and came back down the trail about twenty miles to catch any drift when day dawned. But you see there's nothing like being lucky and having good neighbors,--cattle caught, fresh horses, and a warm breakfast all waiting for you. I'm such a lucky dog, it's a wonder some one didn't steal me when I was little. I can't help it, but some day I'll marry a banker's daughter, or fall heir to a ranch as big as old McCulloch County."
Before meeting us, Straw had confided to our foreman that he could assign no other plausible excuse for the stampede than that it was the work of cattle rustlers. He claimed to know the country along the Colorado, and unless it had changed recently, those hills to the westward harbored a good many of the worst rustlers in the State. He admitted it might have been wolves chasing the range cattle, but thought it had the earmarks of being done by human wolves. He maintained that few herds had ever passed that river without loss of cattle, unless the rustlers were too busy elsewhere to give the passing herd their attention. Straw had ordered his herd to drop back down the trail about ten miles from their camp of the night previous, and about noon the two herds met on a branch of Brady Creek. By that time our herd had nearly three hundred head of the Ellison cattle, so we held it up and cut theirs out. Straw urged our foreman, whatever he did, not to make camp in the Colorado bottoms or anywhere near the river, if he didn't want a repetition of his experience. After starting our herd in the afternoon, about half a dozen of us turned back and lent a hand in counting Straw's herd, which proved to be over a hundred head short, and nearly half his outfit were still out hunting cattle. Acting on Straw's advice, we camped that night some five or six miles back from the river on the last divide. From the time the second guard went on until the third was relieved, we took the precaution of keeping a scout outriding from a half to three quarters of a mile distant from the herd, Flood and Honeyman serving in that capacity. Every precaution was taken to prevent a surprise; and in case anything did happen, our night horses tied to the wagon wheels stood ready saddled and bridled for any emergency. But the night passed without incident.
An hour or two after the herd had started the next morning, four well mounted, strange men rode up from the westward, and representing themselves as trail cutters, asked for our foreman. Flood met them, in his usual quiet manner, and after admitting that we had been troubled more or less with range cattle, assured our callers that if there was anything in the herd in the brands they represented, he would gladly hold it up and give them every opportunity to cut their cattle out. As he was anxious to cross the river before noon, he invited the visitors to stay for dinner, assuring them that before starting the herd in the afternoon, he would throw the cattle together for their inspection. Flood made himself very agreeable, inquiring into cattle and range matters in general as well as the stage of water in the river ahead. The spokesman of the trail cutters met Flood's invitation to dinner with excuses about the pressing demands on his time, and urged, if it did not seriously interfere with our plans, that he be allowed to inspect the herd before crossing the river. His reasons seemed trivial and our foreman was not convinced.
"You see, gentlemen," he said, "in handling these southern cattle, we must take advantage of occasions. We have timed our morning's drive so as to reach the river during the warmest hour of the day, or as near noon as possible. You can hardly imagine what a difference there is, in fording this herd, between a cool, cloudy day and a clear, hot one. You see the herd is strung out nearly a mile in length now, and to hold them up and waste an hour or more for your inspection would seriously disturb our plans. And then our wagon and _remuda_ have gone on with orders to noon at the first good camp beyond the river. I perfectly understand your reasons, and you equally understand mine; but I will send a man or two back to help you recross any cattle you may find in our herd. Now, if a couple of you gentlemen will ride around on the far side with me, and the others will ride up near the lead, we will trail the cattle across when we reach the river without cutting the herd into blocks."
Flood's affability, coupled with the fact that the lead cattle were nearly up to the river, won his point. Our visitors could only yield, and rode forward with our lead swing men to assist in forcing the lead cattle into the river. It was swift water, but otherwise an easy crossing, and we allowed the herd, after coming out on the farther side, to spread out and graze forward at its pleasure. The wagon and saddle stock were in sight about a mile ahead, and leaving two men on herd to drift the cattle in the right direction, the rest of us rode leisurely on to the wagon, where dinner was waiting. Flood treated our callers with marked courtesy during dinner, and casually inquired if any of their number had seen any cattle that day or the day previous in the Ellison road brand. They had not, they said, explaining that their range lay on both sides of the Concho, and that during the trail season they kept all their cattle between that river and the main Colorado. Their work had kept them on their own range recently, except when trail herds were passing and needed to be looked through for strays. It sounded as though our trail cutters could also use diplomacy on occasion.
When dinner was over and we had caught horses for the afternoon and were ready to mount, Flood asked our guests for their credentials as duly authorized trail cutters. They replied that they had none, but offered in explanation the statement that they were merely cutting in the interest of the immediate locality, which required no written authority.
Then the previous affability of our foreman turned to iron. "Well, men," said he, "if you have no authority to cut this trail, then you don't cut this herd. I must have inspection papers before I can move a brand out of the county in which it is bred, and I'll certainly let no other man, local or duly appointed, cut an animal out of this herd without written and certified authority. You know that without being told, or ought to. I respect the rights of every man posted on a trail to cut it. If you want to see my inspection papers, you have a right to demand them, and in turn I demand of you your credentials, showing who you work for and the list of brands you represent; otherwise no harm's done; nor do you cut any herd that I'm driving."
"Well," said one of the men, "I saw a couple of head in my own individual brand as we rode up the herd. I'd like to see the man who says that I haven't the right to claim my own brand, anywhere I find it."
"If there's anything in our herd in your individual brand," said Flood, "all you have to do is to give me the brand, and I'll cut it for you. What's your brand?"
"The 'Window Sash.'"
"Have any of you boys seen such a brand in our herd?" inquired Flood, turning to us as we all stood by our horses ready to start.
"I didn't recognize it by that name," replied Quince Forrest, who rode in the swing on the branded side of the cattle and belonged to the last guard, "but I remember seeing such a brand, though I would have given it a different name. Yes, come to think, I'm sure I saw it, and I'll tell you where: yesterday morning when I rode out to throw those drifting cattle away from our herd, I saw that brand among the Ellison cattle which had stampeded the night before. When Straw's outfit cut theirs out yesterday, they must have left the 'Window Sash' cattle with us; those were the range cattle which stampeded his herd. It looked to me a little blotched, but if I'd been called on to name it, I'd called it a thief's brand. If these gentlemen claim them, though, it'll only take a minute to cut them out."
"This outfit needn't get personal and fling out their insults," retorted the claimant of the "Window Sash" brand, "for I'll claim my own if there were a hundred of you. And you can depend that any animal I claim, I'll take, if I have to go back to the ranch and bring twenty men to help me do it."
"You won't need any help to get all that's coming to you," replied our foreman, as he mounted his horse. "Let's throw the herd together, boys, and cut these 'Window Sash' cattle out. We don't want any cattle in our herd that stampede on an open range at midnight; they must certainly be terrible wild."
As we rode out together, our trail cutters dropped behind and kept a respectable distance from the herd while we threw the cattle together. When the herd had closed to the required compactness, Flood called our trail cutters up and said, "Now, men, each one of you can take one of my outfit with you and inspect this herd to your satisfaction. If you see anything there you claim, we'll cut it out for you, but don't attempt to cut anything yourselves."
We rode in by pairs, a man of ours with each stranger, and after riding leisurely through the herd for half an hour, cut out three head in the blotched brand called the "Window Sash." Before leaving the herd, one of the strangers laid claim to a red cow, but Fox Quarternight refused to cut the animal.
When the pair rode out the stranger accosted Flood. "I notice a cow of mine in there," said he, "not in your road brand, which I claim. Your man here refuses to cut her for me, so I appeal to you."
"What's her brand, Fox?" asked Flood.
"She's a 'Q' cow, but the colonel here thinks it's an 'O.' I happen to know the cow and the brand both; she came into the herd four hundred miles south of here while we were watering the herd in the Nueces River. The 'Q' is a little dim, but it's plenty plain to hold her for the present."
"If she's a 'Q' cow I have no claim on her," protested the stranger, "but if the brand is an 'O,' then I claim her as a stray from our range, and I don't care if she came into your herd when you were watering in the San Fernando River in Old Mexico, I'll claim her just the same. I'm going to ask you to throw her."
"I'll throw her for you," coolly replied Fox, "and bet you my saddle and six-shooter on the side that it isn't an 'O,' and even if it was, you and all the thieves on the Concho can't take her. I know a few of the simple principles of rustling myself. Do you want her thrown?"
"That's what I asked for."
"Throw her, then," said Flood, "and don't let's parley."
Fox rode back in to the herd, and after some little delay, located the cow and worked her out to the edge of the cattle. Dropping his rope, he cut her out clear of the herd, and as she circled around in an endeavor to reenter, he rode close and made an easy cast of the rope about her horns. As he threw his horse back to check the cow, I rode to his assistance, my rope in hand, and as the cow turned ends, I heeled her. A number of the outfit rode up and dismounted, and one of the boys taking her by the tail, we threw the animal as humanely as possible. In order to get at the brand, which was on the side, we turned the cow over, when Flood took out his knife and cut the hair away, leaving the brand easily traceable.
"What is she, Jim?" inquired Fox, as he sat his horse holding the rope taut.
"I'll let this man who claims her answer that question," replied Flood, as her claimant critically examined the brand to his satisfaction.
"I claim her as an 'O' cow," said the stranger, facing Flood.
"Well, you claim more than you'll ever get," replied our foreman. "Turn her loose, boys."
The cow was freed and turned back into the herd, but the claimant tried to argue the matter with Flood, claiming the branding iron had simply slipped, giving it the appearance of a "Q" instead of an "O" as it was intended to be. Our foreman paid little attention to the stranger, but when his persistence became annoying checked his argument by saying,--
"My Christian friend, there's no use arguing this matter. You asked to have the cow thrown, and we threw her. You might as well try to tell me that the cow is white as to claim her in any other brand than a 'Q.' You may read brands as well as I do, but you're wasting time arguing against the facts. You'd better take your 'Window Sash' cattle and ride on, for you've cut all you're going to cut here to-day. But before you go, for fear I may never see you again, I'll take this occasion to say that I think you're common cow thieves."
By his straight talk, our foreman stood several inches higher in our estimation as we sat our horses, grinning at the discomfiture of the trail cutters, while a dozen six-shooters slouched languidly at our hips to give emphasis to his words.
"Before going, I'll take this occasion to say to you that you will see me again," replied the leader, riding up and confronting Flood. "You haven't got near enough men to bluff me. As to calling me a cow thief, that's altogether too common a name to offend any one; and from what I can gather, the name wouldn't miss you or your outfit over a thousand miles. Now in taking my leave, I want to tell you that you'll see me before another day passes, and what's more, I'll bring an outfit with me and we'll cut your herd clean to your road brand, if for no better reasons, just to learn you not to be so insolent."
After hanging up this threat, Flood said to him as he turned to ride away, "Well, now, my young friend, you're bargaining for a whole lot of fun. I notice you carry a gun and quite naturally suppose you shoot a little as occasion requires. Suppose when you and your outfit come back, you come a-shooting, so we'll know who you are; for I 'll promise you there's liable to be some powder burnt when you cut this herd."
Amid jeers of derision from our outfit, the trail cutters drove off their three lonely "Window Sash" cattle. We had gained the point we wanted, and now in case of any trouble, during inspection or at night, we had the river behind us to catch our herd. We paid little attention to the threat of our disappointed callers, but several times Straw's remarks as to the character of the residents of those hills to the westward recurred to my mind. I was young, but knew enough, instead of asking foolish questions, to keep mum, though my eyes and ears drank in everything. Before we had been on the trail over an hour, we met two men riding down the trail towards the river. Meeting us, they turned and rode along with our foreman, some distance apart from the herd, for nearly an hour, and curiosity ran freely among us boys around the herd as to who they might be. Finally Flood rode forward to the point men and gave the order to throw off the trail and make a short drive that afternoon. Then in company with the two strangers, he rode forward to overtake our wagon, and we saw nothing more of him until we reached camp that evening. This much, however, our point man was able to get from our foreman: that the two men were members of a detachment of Rangers who had been sent as a result of information given by the first herd over the trail that year. This herd, which had passed some twenty days ahead of us, had met with a stampede below the river, and on reaching Abilene had reported the presence of rustlers preying on through herds at the crossing of the Colorado.
On reaching camp that evening with the herd, we found ten of the Rangers as our guests for the night. The detachment was under a corporal named Joe Hames, who had detailed the two men we had met during the afternoon to scout this crossing. Upon the information afforded by our foreman about the would-be trail cutters, these scouts, accompanied by Flood, had turned back to advise the Ranger squad, encamped in a secluded spot about ten miles northeast of the Colorado crossing. They had only arrived late the day before, and this was their first meeting with any trail herd to secure any definite information.
Hames at once assumed charge of the herd, Flood gladly rendering every assistance possible. We night herded as usual, but during the two middle guards, Hames sent out four of his Rangers to scout the immediate outlying country, though, as we expected, they met with no adventure. At daybreak the Bangers threw their packs into our wagon and their loose stock into our _remuda_, and riding up the trail a mile or more, left us, keeping well out of sight. We were all hopeful now that the trail cutters of the day before would make good their word and return. In this hope we killed time for several hours that morning, grazing the cattle and holding the wagon in the rear. Sending the wagon ahead of the herd had been agreed on as the signal between our foreman and the Ranger corporal, at first sight of any posse behind us. We were beginning to despair of their coming, when a dust cloud appeared several miles back down the trail. We at once hurried the wagon and _remuda_ ahead to warn the Rangers, and allowed the cattle to string out nearly a mile in length.
A fortunate rise in the trail gave us a glimpse of the cavalcade in our rear, which was entirely too large to be any portion of Straw's outfit; and shortly we were overtaken by our trail cutters of the day before, now increased to twenty-two mounted men. Flood was intentionally in the lead of the herd, and the entire outfit galloped forward to stop the cattle. When they had nearly reached the lead, Flood turned back and met the rustlers.
"Well, I'm as good as my word," said the leader, "and I'm here to trim your herd as I promised you I would. Throw off and hold up your cattle, or I'll do it for you."
Several of our outfit rode up at this juncture in time to hear Flood's reply: "If you think you're equal to the occasion, hold them up yourself. If I had as big an outfit _as_ you have, I wouldn't ask any man to help me. I want to watch a Colorado River outfit work a herd,--I might learn something. My outfit will take a rest, or perhaps hold the cut or otherwise clerk for you. But be careful and don't claim anything that you are not certain is your own, for I reserve the right to look over your cut before you drive it away."
The rustlers rode in a body to the lead, and when they had thrown the herd off the trail, about half of them rode back and drifted forward the rear cattle. Flood called our outfit to one side and gave us our instructions, the herd being entirely turned over to the rustlers. After they began cutting, we rode around and pretended to assist in holding the cut as the strays in our herd were being cut out. When the red "Q" cow came out, Fox cut her back, which nearly precipitated a row, for she was promptly recut to the strays by the man who claimed her the day before. Not a man of us even cast a glance up the trail, or in the direction of the Rangers; but when the work was over, Flood protested with the leader of the rustlers over some five or six head of dim-branded cattle which actually belonged to our herd. But he was exultant and would listen to no protests, and attempted to drive away the cut, now numbering nearly fifty head. Then we rode across their front and stopped them.
In the parley which ensued, harsh words were passing, when one of our outfit blurted out in well feigned surprise,--
"Hello, who's that, coming over there?"
A squad of men were riding leisurely through our abandoned herd, coming over to where the two outfits were disputing.
"What's the trouble here, gents?" inquired Hames as he rode up.
"Who are you and what might be your business, may I ask?" inquired the leader of the rustlers.
"Personally I'm nobody, but officially I'm Corporal in Company B, Texas Rangers--well, if there isn't smiling Ed Winters, the biggest cattle thief ever born in Medina County. Why, I've got papers for you; for altering the brands on over fifty head of 'C' cattle into a 'G' brand. Come here, dear, and give me that gun of yours. Come on, and no false moves or funny work or I'll shoot the white out of your eye. Surround this layout, lads, and let's examine them more closely."
At this command, every man in our outfit whipped out his six-shooter, the Rangers leveled their carbines on the rustlers, and in less than a minute's time they were disarmed and as crestfallen a group of men as ever walked into a trap of their own setting. Hames got out a "black book," and after looking the crowd over concluded to hold the entire covey, as the descriptions of the "wanted" seemed to include most of them. Some of the rustlers attempted to explain their presence, but Hames decided to hold the entire party, "just to learn them to be more careful of their company the next time," as he put it.
The cut had drifted away into the herd again during the arrest, and about half our outfit took the cattle on to where the wagon camped for noon. McCann had anticipated an extra crowd for dinner and was prepared for the emergency. When dinner was over and the Rangers had packed and were ready to leave, Hames said to Flood,--
"Well, Flood, I'm powerful glad I met you and your outfit. This has been one of the biggest round-ups for me in a long time. You don't know how proud I am over this bunch of beauties. Why, there's liable to be enough rewards out for this crowd to buy my girl a new pair of shoes. And say, when your wagon comes into Abilene, if I ain't there, just drive around to the sheriff's office and leave those captured guns. I'm sorry to load your wagon down that way, but I'm short on pack mules and it will be a great favor to me; besides, these fellows are not liable to need any guns for some little time. I like your company and your chuck, Flood, but you see how it is; the best of friends must part; and then I have an invitation to take dinner in Abilene by to-morrow noon, so I must be a-riding. Adios, everybody."