The outfit were awakened out of sleep the next morning by shouts of "Whoa, _mula_! Whoa, you mongrel outcasts! Catch them blankety blank mules!" accompanied by a rattle of chain harness, and Quince Forrest dashed across our _segundo's_ bed, shaking a harness in each hand. We kicked the blankets off, and came to our feet in time to see the offender disappear behind the wagon, while Stallings sat up and yawningly inquired "what other locoed fool had got funny." But the camp was awake, for the cattle were leisurely leaving the bed ground, while Honeyman, who had been excused from the herd with the first sign of dawn, was rustling up the horses in the valley of the Beaver below camp. With the understanding that the Republican River was a short three days' drive from our present camp, the herd trailed out the first day with not an incident to break the monotony of eating and sleeping, grazing and guarding. But near noon of the second day, we were overtaken by an old, long-whiskered man and a boy of possibly fifteen. They were riding in a light, rickety vehicle, drawn by a small Spanish mule and a rough but clean-limbed bay mare. The strangers appealed to our sympathy, for they were guileless in appearance, and asked so many questions, indicating that ours might have been the first herd of trail cattle they had ever seen. The old man was a free talker, and innocently allowed us to inveigle it out of him that he had been down on the North Beaver, looking up land to homestead, and was then on his way up to take a look at the lands along the Republican. We invited him and the boy to remain for dinner, for in that monotonous waste, we would have been only too glad to entertain a bandit, or an angel for that matter, provided he would talk about something else than cattle. In our guest, however, we found a good conversationalist, meaty with stories not eligible to the retired list; and in return, the hospitality of our wagon was his and welcome. The travel-stained old rascal proved to be a good mixer, and before dinner was over he had won us to a man, though Stallings, in the capacity of foreman, felt it incumbent on him to act the host in behalf of the outfit. In the course of conversation, the old man managed to unearth the fact that our acting foreman was a native of Tennessee, and when he had got it down to town and county, claimed acquaintanceship with a family of men in that locality who were famed as breeders of racehorses. Our guest admitted that he himself was a native of that State, and in his younger days had been a devotee of the racecourse, with the name of every horseman in that commonwealth as well as the bluegrass regions of Kentucky on his tongue's end. But adversity had come upon him, and now he was looking out a new country in which to begin life over again.
After dinner, when our _remuda_ was corralled to catch fresh mounts, our guest bubbled over with admiration of our horses, and pointed out several as promising speed and action. We took his praise of our horseflesh as quite a compliment, never suspecting flattery at the hands of this nomadic patriarch. He innocently inquired which was considered the fastest horse in the _remuda_, when Stallings pointed out a brown, belonging to Flood's mount, as the best quarter horse in the band. He gave him a critical examination, and confessed he would never have picked him for a horse possessing speed, though he admitted that he was unfamiliar with range-raised horses, this being his first visit in the West. Stallings offered to loan him a horse out of his mount, and as the old man had no saddle, our _segundo_ prevailed on McCann to loan his for the afternoon. I am inclined to think there was a little jealousy amongst us that afternoon, as to who was best entitled to entertain our company; and while he showed no partiality, Stallings seemed to monopolize his countryman to our disadvantage. The two jollied along from point to rear and back again, and as they passed us riders in the swing, Stallings ignored us entirely, though the old man always had a pleasant word as he rode by.
"If we don't do something to wean our _segundo_ from that old man," said Fox Quarternight, as he rode up and overtook me, "he's liable to quit the herd and follow that old fossil back to Tennessee or some other port. Just look at the two now, will you? Old Joe's putting on as much dog as though he was asking the Colonel for his daughter. Between me and you and the gatepost, Quirk, I 'm a little dubious about the old varmint--he talks too much."
But I had warmed up to our guest, and gave Fox's criticism very little weight, well knowing if any one of us had been left in charge, he would have shown the old man similar courtesies. In this view I was correct, for when Stallings had ridden on ahead to look up water that afternoon, the very man that entirely monopolized our guest for an hour was Mr. John Fox Quarternight. Nor did he jar loose until we reached water, when Stallings cut him off by sending all the men on the right of the herd to hold the cattle from grazing away until every hoof had had ample time to drink. During this rest, the old man circulated around, asking questions as usual, and when I informed him that, with a half mile of water front, it would take a full hour to water the herd properly, he expressed an innocent amazement which seemed as simple as sincere. When the wagon and _remuda_ came up, I noticed the boy had tied his team behind our wagon, and was riding one of Honeyman's horses bareback, assisting the wrangler in driving the saddle stock. After the wagon had crossed the creek, and the kegs had been filled and the teams watered, Stallings took the old man with him and the two rode away in the lead of the wagon and _remuda_ to select a camp and a bed ground for the night. The rest of us grazed the cattle, now thoroughly watered, forward until the wagon was sighted, when, leaving two men as usual to nurse them up to bed, the remainder of us struck out for camp. As I rode in, I sought out my bunkie to get his opinion regarding our guest. But The Rebel was reticent, as usual, of his opinions of people, so my inquiries remained unanswered, which only served to increase my confidence in the old man.
On arriving at camp we found Stallings and Honeyman entertaining our visitor in a little game of freeze-out for a dollar a corner, while McCann looked wistfully on, as if regretting that his culinary duties prevented his joining in. Our arrival should have been the signal to our wrangler for rounding in the _remuda_ for night horses, but Stallings was too absorbed in the game even to notice the lateness of the hour and order in the saddle stock. Quarternight, however, had a few dollars burning holes in his pocket, and he called our horse rustler's attention to the approaching twilight; not that he was in any hurry, but if Honeyman vacated, he saw an opportunity to get into the game. The foreman gave the necessary order, and Quarternight at once bargained for the wrangler's remaining beans, and sat into the game. While we were catching up our night horses, Honeyman told us that the old man had been joking Stallings about the speed of Flood's brown, even going so far as to intimate that he didn't believe that the gelding could outrun that old bay harness mare which he was driving. He had confessed that he was too hard up to wager much on it, but he would risk a few dollars on his judgment on a running horse any day. He also said that Stallings had come back at him, more in earnest than in jest, that if he really thought his harness mare could outrun the brown, he could win every dollar the outfit had. They had codded one another until Joe had shown some spirit, when the old man suggested they play a little game of cards for fun, but Stallings had insisted on stakes to make it interesting, and on the old homesteader pleading poverty, they had agreed to make it for a dollar on the corner. After supper our _segundo_ wanted to renew the game; the old man protested that he was too unlucky and could not afford to lose, but was finally persuaded to play one more game, "just to pass away the evening." Well, the evening passed, and within the short space of two hours, there also passed to the supposed lean purse of our guest some twenty dollars from the feverish pockets of the outfit. Then the old man felt too sleepy to play any longer, but loitered around some time, and casually inquired of his boy if he had picketed their mare where she would get a good bait of grass. This naturally brought up the proposed race for discussion.
"If you really think that that old bay palfrey of yours can outrun any horse in our _remuda_," said Stallings, tauntingly, "you're missing the chance of your life not to pick up a few honest dollars as you journey along. You stay with us to-morrow, and when we meet our foreman at the Republican, if he'll loan me the horse, I'll give you a race for any sum you name, just to show you that I've got a few drops of sporting blood in me. And if your mare can outrun a cow, you stand an easy chance to win some money."
Our visitor met Joe's bantering in a timid manner. Before turning in, however, he informed us that he appreciated our hospitality, but that he expected to make an early drive in the morning to the Republican, where he might camp several days. With this the old man and the boy unrolled their blankets, and both were soon sound asleep. Then our _segundo_ quietly took Fox Quarternight off to one side, and I heard the latter agree to call him when the third guard was aroused. Having notified Honeyman that he would stand his own watch that night, Stallings, with the rest of the outfit, soon joined the old man in the land of dreams. Instead of the rough shaking which was customary on arousing a guard, when we of the third watch were called, we were awakened in a manner so cautious as to betoken something unusual in the air. The atmosphere of mystery soon cleared after reaching the herd, when Bob Blades informed us that it was the intention of Stallings and Quarternight to steal the old man's harness mare off the picket rope, and run her against their night horses in a trial race. Like love and war, everything is fair in horse racing, but the audacity of this proposition almost passed belief. Both Blades and Durham remained on guard with us, and before we had circled the herd half a dozen times, the two conspirators came riding up to the bed ground, leading the bay mare. There was a good moon that night; Quarternight exchanged mounts with John Officer, as the latter had a splendid night horse that had outstripped the outfit in every stampede so far, and our _segundo_ and the second guard rode out of hearing of both herd and camp to try out the horses.
After an hour, the quartette returned, and under solemn pledges of secrecy Stallings said, "Why, that old bay harness mare can't run fast enough to keep up with a funeral. I rode her myself, and if she's got any run in her, rowel and quirt won't bring it out. That chestnut of John's ran away from her as if she was hobbled and side-lined, while this coyote of mine threw dust in her face every jump in the road from the word 'go.' If the old man isn't bluffing and will hack his mare, we'll get back our freeze-out money with good interest. Mind you, now, we must keep it a dead secret from Flood--that we've tried the mare; he might get funny and tip the old man."
We all swore great oaths that Flood should never hear a breath of it. The conspirators and their accomplices rode into camp, and we resumed our sentinel rounds. I had some money, and figured that betting in a cinch like this would be like finding money in the road.
But The Rebel, when we were returning from guard, said, "Tom, you keep out of this race the boys are trying to jump up. I've met a good many innocent men in my life, and there's something about this old man that reminds me of people who have an axe to grind. Let the other fellows run on the rope if they want to, but you keep your money in your pocket. Take an older man's advice this once. And I'm going to round up John in the morning, and try and beat a little sense into his head, for he thinks it's a dead immortal cinch."
I had made it a rule, during our brief acquaintance, never to argue matters with my bunkie, well knowing that his years and experience in the ways of the world entitled his advice to my earnest consideration. So I kept silent, though secretly wishing he had not taken the trouble to throw cold water on my hopes, for I had built several air castles with the money which seemed within my grasp. We had been out then over four months, and I, like many of the other boys, was getting ragged, and with Ogalalla within a week's drive, a town which it took money to see properly, I thought it a burning shame to let this opportunity pass. When I awoke the next morning the camp was astir, and my first look was in the direction of the harness mare, grazing peacefully on the picket rope where she had been tethered the night before.
Breakfast over, our venerable visitor harnessed in his team, preparatory to starting. Stallings had made it a point to return to the herd for a parting word.
"Well, if you must go on ahead," said Joe to the old man, as the latter was ready to depart, "remember that you can get action on your money, if you still think that your bay mare can outrun that brown cow horse which I pointed out to you yesterday. You needn't let your poverty interfere, for we'll run you to suit your purse, light or heavy. The herd will reach the river by the middle of the afternoon, or a little later, and you be sure and stay overnight there,--stay with us if you want to,--and we'll make up a little race for any sum you say, from marbles and chalk to a hundred dollars. I may be as badly deceived in your mare as I think you are in my horse; but if you're a Tennesseean, here's your chance."
But beyond giving Stallings his word that he would see him again during the afternoon or evening, the old man would make no definite proposition, and drove away. There was a difference of opinion amongst the outfit, some asserting that we would never see him again, while the larger portion of us were at least hopeful that we would. After our guest was well out of sight, and before the wagon started, Stallings corralled the _remuda_ a second time, and taking out Flood's brown and Officer's chestnut, tried the two horses for a short dash of about a hundred yards. The trial confirmed the general opinion of the outfit, for the brown outran the chestnut over four lengths, starting half a neck in the rear. A general canvass of the outfit was taken, and to my surprise there was over three hundred dollars amongst us. I had over forty dollars, but I only promised to loan mine if it was needed, while Priest refused flat-footed either to lend or bet his. I wanted to bet, and it would grieve me to the quick if there was any chance and I didn't take it--but I was young then.
Flood met us at noon about seven miles out from the Republican with the superintendent of a cattle company in Montana, and, before we started the herd after dinner, had sold our _remuda_, wagon, and mules for delivery at the nearest railroad point to the Blackfoot Agency sometime during September. This cattle company, so we afterwards learned from Flood, had headquarters at Helena, while their ranges were somewhere on the headwaters of the Missouri. But the sale of the horses seemed to us an insignificant matter, compared with the race which was on the tapis; and when Stallings had made the ablest talk of his life for the loan of the brown, Flood asked the new owner, a Texan himself, if he had any objections.
"Certainly not," said he; "let the boys have a little fun. I'm glad to know that the _remuda_ has fast horses in it. Why didn't you tell me, Flood?--I might have paid you extra if I had known I was buying racehorses. Be sure and have the race come off this evening, for I want to see it."
And he was not only good enough to give his consent, but added a word of advice. "There's a deadfall down here on the river," said he, "that robs a man going and coming. They've got booze to sell you that would make a pet rabbit fight a wolf. And if you can't stand the whiskey, why, they have skin games running to fleece you as fast as you can get your money to the centre. Be sure, lads, and let both their whiskey and cards alone."
While changing mounts after dinner, Stallings caught out the brown horse and tied him behind the wagon, while Flood and the horse buyer returned to the river in the conveyance, our foreman having left his horse at the ford. When we reached the Republican with the herd about two hours before sundown, and while we were crossing and watering, who should ride up on the Spanish mule but our Tennessee friend. If anything, he was a trifle more talkative and boastful than before, which was easily accounted for, as it was evident that he was drinking; and producing a large bottle which had but a few drinks left in it, insisted on every one taking a drink with him. He said he was encamped half a mile down the river, and that he would race his mare against our horse for fifty dollars; that if we were in earnest, and would go back with him and post our money at the tent, he would cover it. Then Stallings in turn became crafty and diplomatic, and after asking a number of unimportant questions regarding conditions, returned to the joint with the old man, taking Fox Quarternight. To the rest of us it looked as though there was going to be no chance to bet a dollar even. But after the herd had been watered and we had grazed out some distance from the river, the two worthies returned. They had posted their money, and all the conditions were agreed upon; the race was to take place at sundown over at the saloon and gambling joint. In reply to an earnest inquiry by Bob Blades, the outfit were informed that we might get some side bets with the gamblers, but the money already posted was theirs, win or lose. This selfishness was not looked upon very favorably, and some harsh comments were made, but Stallings and Quarternight were immovable.
We had an early supper, and pressing in McCann to assist The Rebel in grazing the herd until our return, the cavalcade set out, Flood and the horse buyer with us. My bunkie urged me to let him keep my money, but under the pretense of some of the outfit wanting to borrow it, I took it with me. The race was to be catch weights, and as Rod Wheat was the lightest in our outfit, the riding fell to him. On the way over I worked Bull Durham out to one side, and after explaining the jacketing I had got from Priest, and the partial promise I had made not to bet, gave him my forty dollars to wager for me if he got a chance. Bull and I were good friends, and on the understanding that it was to be a secret, I intimated that some of the velvet would line his purse. On reaching the tent, we found about half a dozen men loitering around, among them the old man, who promptly invited us all to have a drink with him. A number of us accepted and took a chance against the vintage of this canvas roadhouse, though the warnings of the Montana horse buyer were fully justified by the quality of the goods dispensed. While taking the drink, the old man was lamenting his poverty, which kept him from betting more money, and after we had gone outside, the saloonkeeper came and said to him, in a burst of generous feeling,--
"Old sport, you're a stranger to me, but I can see at a glance that you're a dead game man. Now, if you need any more money, just give me a bill of sale of your mare and mule, and I'll advance you a hundred. Of course I know nothing about the merits of the two horses, but I noticed your team as you drove up to-day, and if you can use any more money, just ask for it."
The old man jumped at the proposition in delighted surprise; the two reentered the tent, and after killing considerable time in writing out a bill of sale, the old graybeard came out shaking a roll of bills at us. He was promptly accommodated, Bull Durham making the first bet of fifty; and as I caught his eye, I walked away, shaking hands with myself over my crafty scheme. When the old man's money was all taken, the hangers-on of the place became enthusiastic over the betting, and took every bet while there was a dollar in sight amongst our crowd, the horse buyer even making a wager. When we were out of money they offered to bet against our saddles, six-shooters, and watches. Flood warned us not to bet our saddles, but Quarternight and Stallings had already wagered theirs, and were stripping them from their horses to turn them over to the saloonkeeper as stakeholder. I managed to get a ten-dollar bet on my six-shooter, though it was worth double the money, and a similar amount on my watch. When the betting ended, every watch and six-shooter in the outfit was in the hands of the stakeholder, and had it not been for Flood our saddles would have been in the same hands.
It was to be a three hundred yard race, with an ask and answer start between the riders. Stallings and the old man stepped off the course parallel with the river, and laid a rope on the ground to mark the start and the finish. The sun had already set and twilight was deepening when the old man signaled to his boy in the distance to bring up the mare. Wheat was slowly walking the brown horse over the course, when the boy came up, cantering the mare, blanketed with an old government blanket, over the imaginary track also. These preliminaries thrilled us like the tuning of a fiddle for a dance. Stallings and the old homesteader went out to the starting point to give the riders the terms of the race, while the remainder of us congregated at the finish. It was getting dusk when the blanket was stripped from the mare and the riders began jockeying for a start. In that twilight stillness we could hear the question, "Are you ready?" and the answer "No," as the two jockeys came up to the starting rope. But finally there was an affirmative answer, and the two horses were coming through like arrows in their flight. My heart stood still for the time being, and when the bay mare crossed the rope at the outcome an easy winner, I was speechless. Such a crestfallen-looking lot of men as we were would be hard to conceive. We had been beaten, and not only felt it but looked it. Flood brought us to our senses by calling our attention to the approaching darkness, and setting off in a gallop toward the herd. The rest of us trailed along silently after him in threes and fours. After the herd had been bedded and we had gone in to the wagon my spirits were slightly lightened at the sight of the two arch conspirators, Stallings and Quarternight, meekly riding in bareback. I enjoyed the laughter of The Rebel and McCann at their plight; but when my bunkie noticed my six-shooter missing, and I admitted having bet it, he turned the laugh on me.
"That's right, son," he said; "don't you take anybody's advice. You're young yet, but you'll learn. And when you learn it for yourself, you'll remember it that much better."
That night when we were on guard together, I eased my conscience by making a clean breast of the whole affair to my bunkie, which resulted in his loaning me ten dollars with which to redeem, my six-shooter in the morning. But the other boys, with the exception of Officer, had no banker to call on as we had, and when Quarternight and Stallings asked the foreman what they were to do for saddles, the latter suggested that one of them could use the cook's, while the other could take it bareback or ride in the wagon. But the Montana man interceded in their behalf, and Flood finally gave in and advanced them enough to redeem their saddles. Our foreman had no great amount of money with him, but McCann and the horse buyer came to the rescue for what they had, and the guns were redeemed; not that they were needed, but we would have been so lonesome without them. I had worn one so long I didn't trim well without it, but toppled forward and couldn't maintain my balance. But the most cruel exposure of the whole affair occurred when Nat Straw, riding in ahead of his herd, overtook us one day out from Ogalalla.
"I met old 'Says I' Littlefield," said Nat, "back at the ford of the Republican, and he tells me that they won over five hundred dollars off this Circle Dot outfit on a horse race. He showed me a whole basketful of your watches. I used to meet old 'Says I' over on the Chisholm trail, and he's a foxy old innocent. He told me that he put tar on his harness mare's back to see if you fellows had stolen the nag off the picket rope at night, and when he found you had, he robbed you to a finish. He knew you fool Texans would bet your last dollar on such a cinch. That's one of his tricks. You see the mare you tried wasn't the one you ran the race against. I've seen them both, and they look as much alike as two pint bottles. My, but you fellows are easy fish!"
And then Jim Flood lay down on the grass and laughed until the tears came into his eyes, and we understood that there were tricks in other trades than ours.