It was late that night when I reached the herd. Before I parted with my employer we had carefully reviewed the situation in its minutest details. Since the future could not be foreseen, we could only watch and wait. The Texan may have his shortcomings, but lack of fidelity to a trust is not one of them, and relying on the metal of my outfit, I at once put them in possession of the facts. At first their simple minds could hardly grasp the enormity of the injustice to our employer, but once the land lay clear, they would gladly have led a forlorn hope in Don Lovell's interests. Agitation over the matter was maintained at white heat for several days, as we again angled back towards the Cimarron. Around the camp-fires at night, the chicanery of The Western Supply Company gave place to the best stories at our command. "There ought to be a law," said Runt Pickett, in wrathy indignation, "making it legal to kill some people, same as rattlesnakes. Now, you take a square gambler and I don't think anything of losing my money against his game, but one of these sneaking, under-dealing, top-and-bottom-business pimps, I do despise. You can find them in every honest calling, same as vultures hover round when cattle are dying. Honest, fellows, I'd just dearly love to pull on a rope and watch one of the varmints make his last kick."
Several days of showery weather followed. Crossing the Cimarron, we followed up its north slope to within thirty miles of the regular western trail. Not wishing to intercept it until necessity compelled us, when near the Kansas line we made our last tack for Dodge. The rains had freshened the country and flushed the creeks, making our work easy, and early in the month of June we reached the Mulberry. Traveling at random, we struck that creek about twenty miles below the trail, and moved up the stream to within a short distance of the old crossing. The presence of a dozen other herds holding along it forced us into a permanent camp a short half-day's ride from the town. The horse-wrangler was pressed into service in making up the first guard that night, and taking Morg Tussler with me, I struck out for Dodge in the falling darkness. On reaching the first divide, we halted long enough to locate the camp-fires along the Mulberry to our rear, while above and below and beyond the river, fires flickered like an Indian encampment. The lights of Dodge were inviting us, and after making a rough estimate of the camps in sight, we rode for town, arriving there between ten and eleven o'clock. The Dodge House was a popular hostelry for trail men and cattle buyers, and on our making inquiry of the night clerk if a Mr. Siringo was stopping there, we were informed that he was, but had retired. I put up a trivial excuse for seeing him, the clerk gave me the number of his room, and Tussler and I were soon closeted with him. The detective was a medium-sized, ordinary man, badly pock-marked, with a soft, musical voice, and apparently as innocent as a boy. In a brief preliminary conversation, he proved to be a Texan, knowing every in and out of cattle, having been bred to the occupation. Our relations to each other were easily established. Reviewing the situation thoroughly, he informed me that he had cultivated the acquaintance of the parties holding the assignment of the Buford award. He had represented to them that he was the fiscal agent of some six herds on the trail that year, three of which were heavy beeves, and they had agreed to look them over, provided they arrived before the 15th of the month. He further assured me that the parties were mere figureheads of The Supply Company; that they were exceedingly bearish on the market, gloating over the recent depreciation in prices, and perfectly willing to fatten on the wreck and ruin of others.
It was long after midnight when the consultation ended. Appointing an hour for showing the herd the next day, or that one rather, Tussler and I withdrew, agreeing to be out of town before daybreak. But the blaze of gambling and the blare of dance-halls held us as in a siren's embrace until the lights dimmed with the breaking of dawn. Mounting our horses, we forded the river east of town and avoided the herds, which were just arising from their bed-grounds. On the divide we halted. Within the horizon before us, it is safe to assert that one hundred thousand cattle grazed in lazy contentment, all feeding against the morning breeze. Save for the freshness of early summer, with its background of green and the rarified atmosphere of the elevated plain, the scene before us might be compared to a winter drift of buffalo, ten years previous. Riding down the farther slope, we reached our camp in time for a late breakfast, the fifteen-mile ride having whetted our appetites. Three men were on herd, and sending two more with instructions to water the cattle an hour before noon, Tussler and I sought the shade of the wagon and fell asleep. It was some time after midday when, on sighting the expected conveyance approaching our camp, the cook aroused us. Performing a rather hasty ablution, I met the vehicle, freshened, and with my wits on tap. I nearly dragged the detective from the livery rig, addressing him as "Charley," and we made a rough ado over each other. Several of the other boys came forward and, shaking hands, greeted him with equal familiarity. As two strangers alighted on the opposite side, the detective took me around and they were introduced as Mr. Field and Mr. Radcliff, prospective beef buyers. The boys had stretched a tarpaulin, affording ample shade, and Parent invited every one to dinner. The two strangers were rather testy, but Siringo ate ravenously, repeatedly asking for things which were usually kept in a well-stocked chuck-wagon, meanwhile talking with great familiarity with Tussler and me.
The strangers said little, but were amused at the lightness of our dinner chat. I could see at a glance that they were not cowmen. They were impatient to see the cattle; and when dinner was over, I explained to them that the men on herd would be relieved for dinner by those in camp, and orders would be given, if it was their wish, to throw the cattle compactly together. To this Siringo objected. "No, Mac," said he, "that isn't the right way to show beeves. Here, Morg, listen to me; I'm foreman for the time being. When you relieve the other lads, edge in your cattle from an ordinary loose herd until you have them on two or three hundred acres. Then we can slowly drive through them for an hour or so, or until these gentlemen are satisfied. They're not wild, are they, Mac?"
I assured every one that the cattle were unusually gentle; that we had not had a run so far, but urged caution in approaching them with a conveyance. As soon as the relief started, I brought in the livery team off picket, watered, and harnessed them into the vehicle. It was my intention to accompany them on horseback, but Siringo hooted at the idea, and Mr. Radcliff and I occupied the back seat, puffing splendid cigars. We met the relieved men coming in, who informed us that the herd was just over the hill on the south side of the creek. On reaching the gentle rise, there below us grazed the logy, lazy beeves, while the boys quietly rode round, silently moving them together as instructed. Siringo drove to their lead, and halting, we allowed the cattle to loiter past us on either side of the conveyance. It was an easy herd to show, for the pounds avoirdupois were there. Numerous big steers, out of pure curiosity, came up near the vehicle and innocently looked at us as if expecting a dole or sweetmeat. A snap of the finger would turn them, showing their rounded buttocks, and they would rejoin the guard of honor. If eyes could speak, the invitation was timidly extended, "Look at me, Mr. Buyer." We allowed the herd to pass by us, then slowly circled entirely around them, and finally drove back and forth through them for nearly two hours, when the prospective buyers expressed themselves as satisfied.
But the fiscal agent was not. Calling two of the boys, he asked for the loan of their horses and insisted that the buyers ride the cattle over and thoroughly satisfy themselves on the brands. The boys gladly yielded, and as Mr. Field and Mr. Radcliff mounted to ride away, the detective halted them long enough to say: "Now, gentlemen, I wish to call your attention to the fact that over one half the herd are in the single Marshall ranch brand. There are also some five hundred head in the '8=8,' that being an outside ranch, but belonging to the estate. I am informed that the remainder of nearly a thousand were turned in by neighboring ranchmen in making up the herd, and you'll find those in various mixed brands. If there's a hoof among them not in the 'Open A' road, we'll cut them out for fear of trouble to the buyer. I never sold a man cattle in my life who wasn't my customer ever afterward. You gentlemen are strangers to me; and for that reason I conceal nothing. Now look them over carefully, and keep a sharp lookout for strays--cattle not in the road brand."
I knew there were about twenty strays in the herd, and informed Siringo to that effect, but the cattle buyers noticed only two, a red and a roan, which again classed them as inexperienced men among cattle. We returned to camp, not a word being said about trading, when the buyers suggested returning to town. Siringo looked at his watch, asked if there was anything further they wished to see or know, and expressed himself like a true Texan, "that there was ample time." I was the only one who had alighted, and as they started to drive away, I said to Siringo: "Charley, let me talk to you a minute first. You see how I'm situated here--too many neighbors. I'm going to ride north of town to-morrow, and if I can find a good camp on Saw Log, why I'll move over. We are nearly out of supplies, anyhow, and the wagon can go by town and load up. There's liable to be a mix-up here some night on the Mulberry, and I'd rather be excused than present."
"That's all right, Mac; that's just what I want you to do. If we trade, we'll make the deal within a day or two, and if not you can start right on for Ogalalla. I've been selling cattle the last few years to the biggest feeders in Nebraska, and I'm not a little bit afraid of placing those 'Open A's.' About four months full feed on corn will fit those steers to go to any market. Drop into town on your way back from the Saw Log to-morrow."
That evening my brother Bob rode into camp. He had seen our employer at Supply, and accordingly understood the situation. The courier had returned from Fort Elliott and reported his mission successful; he had met both Forrest and Sponsilier. The latter had had a slight run in the Panhandle during a storm, losing a few cattle, which he recovered the next day. For fear of a repetition, Forrest had taken the lead thereafter, and was due at Supply within a day or two. Flood and Priest had passed Abilene, Texas, in safety, but no word had reached our employer since, and it was believed that they had turned eastward and would come up the Chisholm Trail. Bob reported the country between Abilene and Doan's Crossing as cut into dust and barren of sustenance, many weak cattle having died in crossing the dry belt. But the most startling news, seriously disturbing us both, was that Archie Tolleston was stationed at Doan's Crossing on Red River as a trail-cutter. He had come up from the south to Wichita Falls by train with trail cattle, and finding no opening as a foreman, had accepted the position of inspector for some Panhandle cattle companies. He and Bob had had a friendly chat, and Archie admitted that it was purely his own hot-headedness which prevented his being one of Lovell's foremen on the present drive. The disturbing feature was, that after leaving headquarters in Medina County, he had gone into San Antonio, where he met a couple of strangers who partially promised him a job as trail boss, in case he presented himself in Dodge about June 15. They had intimated to him that it was possible they would need a foreman or two who knew the trail from the Arkansaw to the Yellowstone and Missouri River country. Putting this and that together, the presence of Archie Tolleston in Dodge was not at all favorable to the working out of our plans. "And Arch isn't the man to forget a humiliation," concluded Bob, to which I agreed.
The next morning I rode across to the Saw Log, and up that creek beyond all the herds. The best prospect for a camp was nearly due north opposite us, as the outfit lowest down the stream expected to start for the Platte the next morning. Having fully made up my mind to move camp, I rode for town, taking dinner on Duck Creek, which was also littered with cattle and outfits. I reached town early in the afternoon, and after searching all the hotels, located the fiscal agent in company with the buyers at the Lone Star saloon. They were seated around a table, and Mr. Field, noticing my entrance, beckoned me over and offered a chair. As I took the proffered seat, both strangers turned on me, and Mr. Radcliff said: "McIndoo, this agent of yours is the hardest man I ever tried to trade with. Here we've wasted the whole morning dickering, and are no nearer together than when we started. The only concession which Mr. Siringo seems willing to admit is that cattle are off from three to five dollars a head, while we contend that heavy beeves are off seven dollars."
"Excuse me for interrupting," said the fiscal agent, "but since you have used the words HEAVY BEEVES, either one of you ask Mac, here, what those 'Open A's' will dress to-day, and what they ought to gain in the next three months on good grass and water. There he sits; ask him."
Mr. Field explained that they had also differed as to what the herd would dress out, and invited my opinion. "Those beeves will dress off from forty-five to fifty per cent.," I replied. "The Texan being a gaunt animal does not shrink like a domestic beef. Take that 'Open A' herd straight through and they will dress from four fifty to six hundred pounds, or average better than five hundred all round. In three months, under favorable conditions, those steers ought to easily put on a hundred pounds of tallow apiece. Mr. Radcliff, do you remember pointing out a black muley yesterday and saying that he looked like a native animal? I'll just bet either one of you a hundred dollars that he'll dress out over five hundred pounds; and I'll kill him in your presence and you can weigh his quarters with a steelyard."
They laughed at me, Siringo joining in, and Mr. Field ordered the drinks. "Mac," said the detective, "these gentlemen are all right, and you shouldn't take any offense, for I don't blame them for driving a hard bargain. I'd probably do the same thing if I was the buyer instead of the seller. And remember, Mac, if the deal goes through, you are to drive the herd at the seller's risk, and deliver it at any point the buyer designates, they accepting without expense or reserve the cattle only. It means over three months' further expense, with a remuda thrown back on your hands; and all these incidentals run into money fast. Gentlemen, unless you increase the advance cash payment, I don't see how you can expect me to shade my offer. What's your hurry, Mac?"
As it was growing late, I had arisen, and saying that I expected to move camp to-morrow, invited the party to join me at the bar. I informed the buyers, during the few minutes' interim, that if they wished to look the cattle over again, the herd would cross the river below old Fort Dodge about noon the next day. They thanked me for the information, saying it was quite possible that they might drive down, and discussing the matter we all passed into the street. With the understanding that the prospect of making a deal was not hopeless, Siringo excused himself, and we strolled away together. No sooner was the coast clear than I informed the detective of the arrival of my brother, putting him in possession of every fact regarding Archie Tolleston. He readily agreed with me that the recent break between the latter and his former employer was a dangerous factor, and even went so far as to say that Tolleston's posing as a trail-cutter at Doan's Crossing was more than likely a ruse. I was giving the detective a detailed description of Archie, when he stopped me and asked what his special weaknesses were, if he had any. "Whiskey and women," I replied. "That's good," said he, "and I want you to send me in one of your best men in the morning--I mean one who will drink and carouse. He can watch the trains, and if this fellow shows up, we'll keep him soaked and let him enjoy himself. Send me one that's good for a ten days' protracted drunk. You think the other herds will be here within a few days? That's all I want to know."
I reached camp a little before dark, and learned that Bob's herd had dropped in just below us on the Mulberry. He expected to lie over a few days in passing Dodge, and I lost no time in preparing to visit his camp. While riding out that evening, I had made up my mind to send in Dorg Seay, as he was a heady fellow, and in drinking had an oak-tan stomach. Taking him with me, I rode down the Mulberry and reached the lower camp just as my brother and his outfit were returning from bedding-down the cattle. Bob readily agreed that the detective's plans were perfectly feasible, and offered to play a close second to Seay if it was necessary. And if his own brother does say so, Bob Quirk never met the man who could drink him under the table.
My herd started early for the Saw Log, and the wagon for town. Bob had agreed to go into Dodge in the morning, so Dorg stayed with our outfit and was to go in with me after crossing the river. We threaded our way through the other herds, and shortly before noon made an easy ford about a mile below old Fort Dodge. As we came down to the river, a carriage was seen on the farther bank, and I dropped from the point back to the drag end. Sure enough, as we trailed out, the fiscal agent and the buyers were awaiting me. "Well, Mac, I sold your herd last night after you left," said Siringo, dejectedly. "It was a kind of compromise trade; they raised the cash payment to thirty thousand dollars, and I split the difference in price. The herd goes at $29 a head all round. So from now on, Mac, you're subject to these gentlemen's orders."
Mr. Field, the elder of the two buyers, suggested that if a convenient camp could be found, we should lie over a few days, when final instructions would be given me. He made a memorandum of the number of head that I claimed in our road brand, and asked me if we could hold up the herd for a closer inspection. The lead cattle were then nearly a mile away, and galloping off to overtake the point, I left the party watching the saddle horses, which were then fording in our rear. But no sooner had I reached the lead and held up the herd, than I noticed Siringo on the wrangler's horse, coming up on the opposite side of the column of cattle from the vehicle. Supposing he had something of a private nature to communicate, I leisurely rode down the line and met him.
"Did you send that man in this morning?" he sternly demanded. I explained that my brother had done, properly coached, and that Seay would go in with me in the course of an hour.
"Give him any money you have and send him at once," commanded the detective. "Tolleston was due on the ten o'clock train, but it was an hour late. Those buyers wanted me to wait for it, so he could come along, but I urged the importance of catching you at the ford. Now, send your man Seay at once, get Tolleston beastly drunk, and quarter him in some crib until night."
Unobserved by the buyers, I signaled Seay, and gave him the particulars and what money I had. He rode back through the saddle stock, recrossed the river, and after rounding the bend, galloped away. Siringo continued: "You see, after we traded, they inquired if you were a safe man, saying if you didn't know the Yellowstone country, they had a man in sight who did. That was last night, and it seems that this morning they got a letter from Tolleston, saying he would be there on the next train. They're either struck on him, or else he's in their employ. Mark my words."
When we had showed the herd to the satisfaction of the purchasers, they expressed themselves as anxious to return to town; but the fiscal agent of the Marshall estate wished to look over the saddle horses first. Since they were unsold, and amounted to quite an item, he begged for just a few minutes' time to look them over carefully. Who could refuse such a reasonable request? The herd had started on for the Saw Log, while the remuda had wandered down the river about half a mile, and it took us nearly an hour to give them a thorough inspection. Once by ourselves, the detective said, with a chuckle: "All I was playing for was to get as large a cash payment as possible. Those mixed brands were my excuse for the money; the Marshall estate might wait for theirs, but the small ranchmen would insist on an immediate settlement the moment the cattle were reported sold. If it wasn't for this fellow Tolleston, I'd sell the other two Buford herds the day they arrive, and then we could give The Western Supply Company the laugh. And say, when they drew me a draft for thirty thousand dollars on a Washington City bank, I never let the ink dry on it until I took it around to Wright, Beverly & Co., and had them wire its acceptance. We'll give Seay plenty of time, and I think there'll be an answer on the check when we get back to town."