The tramping of our _remuda_ as they came trotting up to the wagon the next morning, and Honeyman's calling, "Horses, horses," brought us to the realization that another day had dawned with its duty. McCann had stretched the ropes of our corral, for Flood was as dead to the world as any of us were, but the tramping of over a hundred and forty horses and mules, as they crowded inside the ropes, brought him into action as well as the rest of us. We had had a good five hours' sleep, while our mounts had been transformed from gaunt animals to round-barreled saddle horses,--that fought and struggled amongst themselves or artfully dodged the lariat loops which were being cast after them. Honeyman reported the herd quietly grazing across the river, and after securing our mounts for the morning, we breakfasted before looking after the cattle. It took us less than an hour to round up and count the cattle, and turn them loose again under herd to graze. Those of us not on herd returned to the wagon, and our foreman instructed McCann to make a two hours' drive down the river and camp for noon, as he proposed only to graze the herd that morning. After seeing the wagon safely beyond the rocky crossing, we hunted up a good bathing pool and disported ourselves for half an hour, taking a much needed bath. There were trails on either side of the Powder, and as our course was henceforth to the northwest, we remained on the west side and grazed or trailed down it. It was a beautiful stream of water, having its source in the Big Horn Mountains, frequently visible on our left. For the next four or five days we had easy work. There were range cattle through that section, but fearful of Texas fever, their owners gave the Powder River a wide berth. With the exception of holding the herd at night, our duties were light. We caught fish and killed grouse; and the respite seemed like a holiday after our experience of the past few days. During the evening of the second day after reaching the Powder, we crossed the Crazy Woman, a clear mountainous fork of the former river, and nearly as large as the parent stream. Once or twice we encountered range riders, and learned that the Crazy Woman was a stock country, a number of beef ranches being located on it, stocked with Texas cattle.
Somewhere near or about the Montana line, we took a left-hand trail. Flood had ridden it out until he had satisfied himself that it led over to the Tongue River and the country beyond. While large trails followed on down the Powder, their direction was wrong for us, as they led towards the Bad Lands and the lower Yellowstone country. On the second day out, after taking the left-hand trail, we encountered some rough country in passing across a saddle in a range of hills forming the divide between the Powder and Tongue rivers. We were nearly a whole day crossing it, but had a well-used trail to follow, and down in the foothills made camp that night on a creek which emptied into the Tongue. The roughness of the trail was well compensated for, however, as it was a paradise of grass and water. We reached the Tongue River the next afternoon, and found it a similar stream to the Powder,--clear as crystal, swift, and with a rocky bottom. As these were but minor rivers, we encountered no trouble in crossing them, the greatest danger being to our wagon. On the Tongue we met range riders again, and from them we learned that this trail, which crossed the Yellowstone at Frenchman's Ford, was the one in use by herds bound for the Musselshell and remoter points on the upper Missouri. From one rider we learned that the first herd of the present season which went through on this route were cattle wintered on the Niobrara in western Nebraska, whose destination was Alberta in the British possessions. This herd outclassed us in penetrating northward, though in distance they had not traveled half as far as our Circle Dots.
After following the Tongue River several days and coming out on that immense plain tributary to the Yellowstone, the trail turned to the northwest, gave us a short day's drive to the Rosebud River, and after following it a few miles, bore off again on the same quarter. In our rear hung the mountains with their sentinel peaks, while in our front stretched the valley tributary to the Yellowstone, in extent, itself, an inland empire. The month was August, and, with the exception of cool nights, no complaint could be made, for that rarefied atmosphere was a tonic to man and beast, and there was pleasure in the primitive freshness of the country which rolled away on every hand. On leaving the Rosebud, two days' travel brought us to the east fork of Sweet Grass, an insignificant stream, with a swift current and rocky crossings. In the first two hours after reaching it, we must have crossed it half a dozen times, following the grassy bottoms, which shifted from one bank to the other. When we were full forty miles distant from Frenchman's Ford on the Yellowstone, the wagon, in crossing Sweet Grass, went down a sidling bank into the bottom of the creek, the left hind wheel collided with a boulder in the water, dishing it, and every spoke in the wheel snapped off at the shoulder in the felloe. McCann never noticed it, but poured the whip into the mules, and when he pulled out on the opposite bank left the felloe of his wheel in the creek behind. The herd was in the lead at the time, and when Honeyman overtook us and reported the accident, we threw the herd off to graze, and over half the outfit returned to the wagon.
When we reached the scene, McCann had recovered the felloe, but every spoke in the hub was hopelessly ruined. Flood took in the situation at a glance. He ordered the wagon unloaded and the reach lengthened, took the axe, and, with The Rebel, went back about a mile to a thicket of lodge poles which we had passed higher up the creek. While the rest of us unloaded the wagon, McCann, who was swearing by both note and rhyme, unearthed his saddle from amongst the other plunder and cinched it on his nigh wheeler. We had the wagon unloaded and had reloaded some of the heaviest of the plunder in the front end of the wagon box, by the time our foreman and Priest returned, dragging from their pommels a thirty-foot pole as perfect as the mast of a yacht. We knocked off all the spokes not already broken at the hub of the ruined wheel, and after jacking up the hind axle, attached the "crutch." By cutting a half notch in the larger end of the pole, so that it fitted over the front axle, lashing it there securely, and allowing the other end to trail behind on the ground, we devised a support on which the hub of the broken wheel rested, almost at its normal height. There was sufficient spring to the pole to obviate any jolt or jar, while the rearrangement we had effected in distributing the load would relieve it of any serious burden. We took a rope from the coupling pole of the wagon and loosely noosed it over the crutch, which allowed leeway in turning, but prevented the hub from slipping off the support on a short turn to the left. Then we lashed the tire and felloe to the front end of the wagon, and with the loss of but a couple of hours our commissary was again on the move.
The trail followed the Sweet Grass down to the Yellowstone; and until we reached it, whenever there were creeks to ford or extra pulls on hills, half a dozen of us would drop back and lend a hand from our saddle pommels. The gradual decline of the country to the river was in our favor at present, and we should reach the ford in two days at the farthest, where we hoped to find a wheelwright. In case we did not, our foreman thought he could effect a trade for a serviceable wagon, as ours was a new one and the best make in the market. The next day Flood rode on ahead to Frenchman's Ford, and late in the day returned with the information that the Ford was quite a pretentious frontier village of the squatter type. There was a blacksmith and a wheelwright shop in the town, but the prospect of an exchange was discouraging, as the wagons there were of the heavy freighting type, while ours was a wide tread--a serious objection, as wagons manufactured for southern trade were eight inches wider than those in use in the north, and therefore would not track on the same road. The wheelwright had assured Flood that the wheel could be filled in a day, with the exception of painting, and as paint was not important, he had decided to move up within three or four miles of the Ford and lie over a day for repairing the wagon, and at the same time have our mules reshod. Accordingly we moved up the next morning, and after unloading the wagon, both box and contents, over half the outfit--the first and second guards--accompanied the wagon into the Ford. They were to return by noon, when the remainder of us were to have our turn in seeing the sights of Frenchman's Ford. The horse wrangler remained behind with us, to accompany the other half of the outfit in the afternoon. The herd was no trouble to hold, and after watering about the middle of the forenoon, three of us went into camp and got dinner. As this was the first time since starting that our cook was absent, we rather enjoyed the opportunity to practice our culinary skill. Pride in our ability to cook was a weakness in our craft. The work was divided up between Joe Stallings, John Officer, and myself, Honeyman being excused on agreeing to rustle the wood and water. Stallings prided himself on being an artist in making coffee, and while hunting for the coffee mill, found a bag of dried peaches.
"Say, fellows," said Joe, "I'll bet McCann has hauled this fruit a thousand miles and never knew he had it amongst all this plunder. I'm going to stew a saucepan full of it, just to show his royal nibs that he's been thoughtless of his boarders."
Officer volunteered to cut and fry the meat, for we were eating stray beef now with great regularity; and the making of the biscuits fell to me. Honeyman soon had a fire so big that you could not have got near it without a wet blanket on; and when my biscuits were ready for the Dutch oven, Officer threw a bucket of water on the fire, remarking: "Honeyman, if you was _cusi segundo_ under me, and built up such a big fire for the chef, there would be trouble in camp. You may be a good enough horse wrangler for a through Texas outfit, but when it comes to playing second fiddle to a cook of my accomplishments--well, you simply don't know salt from wild honey. A man might as well try to cook on a burning haystack as on a fire of your building."
When the fire had burned down sufficiently, the cooks got their respective utensils upon the fire; I had an ample supply of live coals for the Dutch oven, and dinner was shortly afterwards announced as ready. After dinner, Officer and I relieved the men on herd, but over an hour passed before we caught sight of the first and second guards returning from the Ford. They were men who could stay in town all day and enjoy themselves; but, as Flood had reminded them, there were others who were entitled to a holiday. When Bob Blades and Fox Quarternight came to our relief on herd, they attempted to detain us with a description of Frenchman's Ford, but we cut all conversation short by riding away to camp.
"We'll just save them the trouble, and go in and see it for ourselves," said Officer to me, as we galloped along. We had left word with Honeyman what horses we wanted to ride that afternoon, and lost little time in changing mounts; then we all set out to pay our respects to the mushroom village on the Yellowstone. Most of us had money; and those of the outfit who had returned were clean shaven and brought the report that a shave was two-bits and a drink the same price. The town struck me as something new and novel, two thirds of the habitations being of canvas. Immense quantities of buffalo hides were drying or already baled, and waiting transportation as we afterward learned to navigable points on the Missouri. Large bull trains were encamped on the outskirts of the village, while many such outfits were in town, receiving cargoes or discharging freight. The drivers of these ox trains lounged in the streets and thronged the saloons and gambling resorts. The population was extremely mixed, and almost every language could be heard spoken on the streets. The men were fine types of the pioneer,--buffalo hunters, freighters, and other plainsmen, though hardly as picturesque in figure and costume as a modern artist would paint them. For native coloring, there were typical specimens of northern Indians, grunting their jargon amid the babel of other tongues; and groups of squaws wandered through the irregular streets in gaudy blankets and red calico. The only civilizing element to be seen was the camp of engineers, running the survey of the Northern Pacific railroad.
Tying our horses in a group to a hitch-rack in the rear of a saloon called The Buffalo Bull, we entered by a rear door and lined up at the bar for our first drink since leaving Ogalalla. Games of chance were running in the rear for those who felt inclined to try their luck, while in front of the bar, against the farther wall, were a number of small tables, around which were seated the patrons of the place, playing for the drinks. One couldn't help being impressed with the unrestrained freedom of the village, whose sole product seemed to be buffalo hides. Every man in the place wore the regulation six-shooter in his belt, and quite a number wore two. The primitive law of nature known as self-preservation, was very evident in August of '82 at Frenchman's Ford. It reminded me of the early days at home in Texas, where, on arising in the morning, one buckled on his six-shooter as though it were part of his dress. After a second round of drinks, we strolled out into the front street to look up Flood and McCann, and incidentally get a shave. We soon located McCann, who had a hunk of dried buffalo meat, and was chipping it off and feeding it to some Indian children whose acquaintance he seemed to be cultivating. On sighting us, he gave the children the remainder of the jerked buffalo, and at once placed himself at our disposal as guide to Frenchman's Ford. He had been all over the town that morning; knew the name of every saloon and those of several barkeepers as well; pointed out the bullet holes in a log building where the last shooting scrape occurred, and otherwise showed us the sights in the village which we might have overlooked. A barber shop? Why, certainly; and he led the way, informing us that the wagon wheel would be filled by evening, that the mules were already shod, and that Flood had ridden down to the crossing to look at the ford.
Two barbers turned us out rapidly, and as we left we continued to take in the town, strolling by pairs and drinking moderately as we went. Flood had returned in the mean time, and seemed rather convivial and quite willing to enjoy the enforced lay-over with us. While taking a drink in Yellowstone Bob's place, the foreman took occasion to call the attention of The Rebel to a cheap lithograph of General Grant which hung behind the bar. The two discussed the merits of the picture, and Priest, who was an admirer of the magnanimity as well as the military genius of Grant, spoke in reserved yet favorable terms of the general, when Flood flippantly chided him on his eulogistic remarks over an officer to whom he had once been surrendered. The Rebel took the chaffing in all good humor, and when our glasses were filled, Flood suggested to Priest that since he was such an admirer of Grant, possibly he wished to propose a toast to the general's health.
"You're young, Jim," said The Rebel, "and if you'd gone through what I have, your views of things might be different. My admiration for the generals on our side survived wounds, prisons, and changes of fortune; but time has tempered my views on some things, and now I don't enthuse over generals when the men of the ranks who made them famous are forgotten. Through the fortunes of war, I saluted Grant when we were surrendered, but I wouldn't propose a toast or take off my hat now to any man that lives."
During the comments of The Rebel, a stranger, who evidently overheard them, rose from one of the tables in the place and sauntered over to the end of the bar, an attentive listener to the succeeding conversation. He was a younger man than Priest,--with a head of heavy black hair reaching his shoulders, while his dress was largely of buckskin, profusely ornamented with beadwork and fringes. He was armed, as was every one else, and from his languid demeanor as well as from his smart appearance, one would classify him at a passing glance as a frontier gambler. As we turned away from the bar to an unoccupied table, Priest waited for his change, when the stranger accosted him with an inquiry as to where he was from. In the conversation that ensued, the stranger, who had noticed the good-humored manner in which The Rebel had taken the chiding of our foreman, pretending to take him to task for some of his remarks. But in this he made a mistake. What his friends might safely say to Priest would be treated as an insult from a stranger. Seeing that he would not stand his chiding, the other attempted to mollify him by proposing they have a drink together and part friendly, to which The Rebel assented. I was pleased with the favorable turn of affairs, for my bunkie had used some rather severe language in resenting the remarks of the stranger, which now had the promise of being dropped amicably.
I knew the temper of Priest, and so did Flood and Honeyman, and we were all anxious to get him away from the stranger. So I asked our foreman as soon as they had drunk together, to go over and tell Priest we were waiting for him to make up a game of cards. The two were standing at the bar in a most friendly attitude, but as they raised their glasses to drink, the stranger, holding his at arm's length, said: "Here's a toast for you: To General Grant, the ablest"--
But the toast was never finished, for Priest dashed the contents of his glass in the stranger's face, and calmly replacing the glass on the bar, backed across the room towards us. When half-across, a sudden movement on the part of the stranger caused him to halt. But it seemed the picturesque gentleman beside the bar was only searching his pockets for a handkerchief.
"Don't get your hand on that gun you wear," said The Rebel, whose blood was up, "unless you intend to use it. But you can't shoot a minute too quick to suit me. What do you wear a gun for, anyhow? Let's see how straight you can shoot."
As the stranger made no reply, Priest continued, "The next time you have anything to rub in, pick your man better. The man who insults me'll get all that's due him for his trouble." Still eliciting no response, The Rebel taunted him further, saying, "Go on and finish your toast, you patriotic beauty. I'll give you another: Jeff Davis and the Southern Confederacy."
We all rose from the table, and Flood, going over to Priest, said, "Come along, Paul we don't want to have any trouble here. Let's go across the street and have a game of California Jack."
But The Rebel stood like a chiseled statue, ignoring the friendly counsel of our foreman, while the stranger, after wiping the liquor from his face and person, walked across the room and seated himself at the table from which he had risen. A stillness as of death pervaded the room, which was only broken by our foreman repeating his request to Priest to come away, but the latter replied, "No; when I leave this place it will not be done in fear of any one. When any man goes out of his way to insult me he must take the consequences, and he can always find me if he wants satisfaction. We'll take another drink before we go. Everybody in the house, come up and take a drink with Paul Priest."
The inmates of the place, to the number of possibly twenty, who had been witness to what had occurred, accepted the invitation, quitting their games and gathering around the bar. Priest took a position at the end of the bar, where he could notice any movement on the part of his adversary as well as the faces of his guests, and smiling on them, said in true hospitality, "What will you have, gentlemen?" There was a forced effort on the part of the drinkers to appear indifferent to the situation, but with the stranger sitting sullenly in their rear and an iron-gray man standing at the farther end of the line, hungering for an opportunity to settle differences with six-shooters, their indifference was an empty mockery. Some of the players returned to their games, while others sauntered into the street, yet Priest showed no disposition to go. After a while the stranger walked over to the bar and called for a glass of whiskey.
The Rebel stood at the end of the bar, calmly rolling a cigarette, and as the stranger seemed not to notice him, Priest attracted his attention and said, "I'm just passing through here, and shall only be in town this afternoon; so if there's anything between us that demands settlement, don't hesitate to ask for it."
The stranger drained his glass at a single gulp, and with admirable composure replied, "If there's anything between us, we'll settle it in due time, and as men usually settle such differences in this country. I have a friend or two in town, and as soon as I see them, you will receive notice, or you may consider the matter dropped. That's all I care to say at present."
He walked away to the rear of the room, Priest joined us, and we strolled out of the place. In the street, a grizzled, gray-bearded man, who had drunk with him inside, approached my bunkie and said, "You want to watch that fellow. He claims to be from the Gallatin country, but he isn't, for I live there. There 's a pal with him, and they've got some good horses, but I know every brand on the headwaters of the Missouri, and their horses were never bred on any of its three forks. Don't give him any the best of you. Keep an eye on him, comrade." After this warning, the old man turned into the first open door, and we crossed over to the wheelwright's shop; and as the wheel would not be finished for several hours yet, we continued our survey of the town, and our next landing was at The Buffalo Bull. On entering we found four of our men in a game of cards at the very first table, while Officer was reported as being in the gambling room in the rear. The only vacant table in the bar-room was the last one in the far corner, and calling for a deck of cards, we occupied it. I sat with my back to the log wall of the low one-story room, while on my left and fronting the door, Priest took a seat with Flood for his pardner, while Honeyman fell to me. After playing a few hands, Flood suggested that Billy go forward and exchange seats with some of our outfit, so as to be near the door, where he could see any one that entered, while from his position the rear door would be similarly guarded. Under this change, Rod Wheat came back to our table and took Honeyman's place. We had been playing along for an hour, with people passing in and out of the gambling room, and expected shortly to start for camp, when Priest's long-haired adversary came in at the front door, and, walking through the room, passed into the gambling department.
John Officer, after winning a few dollars in the card room, was standing alongside watching our game; and as the stranger passed by, Priest gave him the wink, on which Officer followed the stranger and a heavy-set companion who was with him into the rear room. We had played only a few hands when the heavy-set man came back to the bar, took a drink, and walked over to watch a game of cards at the second table from the front door. Officer came back shortly afterward, and whispered to us that there were four of them to look out for, as he had seen them conferring together. Priest seemed the least concerned of any of us, but I noticed he eased the holster on his belt forward, where it would be ready to his hand. We had called for a round of drinks, Officer taking one with us, when two men came out of the gambling hell, and halting at the bar, pretended to divide some money which they wished to have it appear they had won in the card room. Their conversation was loud and intended to attract attention, but Officer gave us the wink, and their ruse was perfectly understood. After taking a drink and attracting as much attention as possible over the division of the money, they separated, but remained in the room.
I was dealing the cards a few minutes later, when the long-haired man emerged from the gambling hell, and imitating the maudlin, sauntered up to the bar and asked for a drink. After being served, he walked about halfway to the door, then whirling suddenly, stepped to the end of the bar, placed his hands upon it, sprang up and stood upright on it. He whipped out two six-shooters, let loose a yell which caused a commotion throughout the room, and walked very deliberately the length of the counter, his attention centred upon the occupants of our table. Not attracting the notice he expected in our quarter, he turned, and slowly repaced the bar, hurling anathemas on Texas and Texans in general.
I saw The Rebel's eyes, steeled to intensity, meet Flood's across the table, and in that glance of our foreman he evidently read approval, for he rose rigidly with the stealth of a tiger, and for the first time that day his hand went to the handle of his six-shooter. One of the two pretended winners at cards saw the movement in our quarter, and sang out as a warning, "Cuidado, mucho." The man on the bar whirled on the word of warning, and blazed away with his two guns into our corner. I had risen at the word and was pinned against the wall, where on the first fire a rain of dirt fell from the chinking in the wall over my head. As soon as the others sprang away from the table, I kicked it over in clearing myself, and came to my feet just as The Rebel fired his second shot. I had the satisfaction of seeing his long-haired adversary reel backwards, firing his guns into the ceiling as he went, and in falling crash heavily into the glassware on the back bar.
The smoke which filled the room left nothing visible for a few moments. Meantime Priest, satisfied that his aim had gone true, turned, passed through the rear room, gained his horse, and was galloping away to the herd before any semblance of order was restored. As the smoke cleared away and we passed forward through the room, John Officer had one of the three pardners standing with his hands to the wall, while his six-shooter lay on the floor under Officer's foot. He had made but one shot into our corner, when the muzzle of a gun was pushed against his ear with an imperative order to drop his arms, which he had promptly done. The two others, who had been under the surveillance of our men at the forward table, never made a move or offered to bring a gun into action, and after the killing of their picturesque pardner passed together out of the house. There had been five or six shots fired into our corner, but the first double shot, fired when three of us were still sitting, went too high for effect, while the remainder were scattering, though Rod Wheat got a bullet through his coat, close enough to burn the skin on his shoulder.
The dead man was laid out on the floor of the saloon; and through curiosity, for it could hardly have been much of a novelty to the inhabitants of Frenchman's Ford, hundreds came to gaze on the corpse and examine the wounds, one above the other through his vitals, either of which would have been fatal. Officer's prisoner admitted that the dead man was his pardner, and offered to remove the corpse if released. On turning his six-shooter over to the proprietor of the place, he was given his freedom to depart and look up his friends.
As it was after sundown, and our wheel was refilled and ready, we set out for camp, where we found that Priest had taken a fresh horse and started back over the trail. No one felt any uneasiness over his absence, for he had demonstrated his ability to protect himself; and truth compels me to say that the outfit to a man was proud of him. Honeyman was substituted on our guard in The Rebel's place, sleeping with me that night, and after we were in bed, Billy said in his enthusiasm: "If that horse thief had not relied on pot shooting, and had been modest and only used one gun, he might have hurt some of you fellows. But when I saw old Paul raising his gun to a level as he shot, I knew he was cool and steady, and I'd rather died right there than see him fail to get his man."