The next morning the herds moved out like brigades of an army on dress-parade. Our front covered some six or seven miles, the Buford cattle in the lead, while those intended for Indian delivery naturally fell into position on flank and rear. My beeves had enjoyed a splendid rest during the past week, and now easily took the lead in a steady walk, every herd avoiding the trail until necessity compelled us to reenter it. The old pathway was dusty and merely pointed the way, and until rain fell to settle it, our intention was to give it a wide berth. As the morning wore on and the herds drew farther and farther apart, except for the dim dust-clouds of ten thousand trampling feet on a raw prairie, it would have been difficult for us to establish each other's location. Several times during the forenoon, when a swell of the plain afforded us a temporary westward view, we caught glimpses of Forrest's cattle as they snailed forward, fully five miles distant and barely noticeable under the low sky-line. The Indian herds had given us a good start in the morning, and towards evening as the mirages lifted, not a dust-signal was in sight, save one far in our lead.
The month of June, so far, had been exceedingly droughty. The scarcity of water on the plains between Dodge and Ogalalla was the dread of every trail drover. The grass, on the other hand, had matured from the first rank growth of early spring into a forage, rich in sustenance, from which our beeves took on flesh and rounded into beauties. Lack of water being the one drawback, long drives, not in miles but hours, became the order of the day; from four in the morning to eight at night, even at an ox's pace, leaves every landmark of the day far in the rear at nightfall. Thus for the next few days we moved forward, the monotony of existence broken only by the great variety of mirage, the glare of heat-waves, and the silent signal in the sky of other voyageurs like ourselves. On reaching Pig Boggy, nothing but pools greeted us, while the regular crossing was dry and dusty and paved with cattle bones. My curiosity was strong enough to cause me to revisit the old bridge which I had helped to build two seasons before; though unused, it was still intact, a credit to the crude engineering of Pete Slaughter. After leaving the valley of the Solomon, the next running water was Pawnee Fork, where we overtook and passed six thousand yearling heifers in two herds, sold the winter before by John Blocker for delivery in Montana. The Northwest had not yet learned that Texas was the natural breeding-ground for cattle, yet under favorable conditions in both sections, the ranchman of the South could raise one third more calves from an equal number of cows.
The weather continued hot and sultry. Several times storms hung on our left for hours which we hoped would reach us, and at night the lightning flickered in sheets, yet with the exception of cooling the air, availed us nothing. But as we encamped one night on the divide before reaching the Smoky River, a storm struck us that sent terror to our hearts. There were men in my outfit, and others in Lovell's employ, who were from ten to twenty years my senior, having spent almost their lifetime in the open, who had never before witnessed such a night. The atmosphere seemed to be overcharged with electricity, which played its pranks among us, neither man nor beast being exempt. The storm struck the divide about two hours after the cattle had been bedded, and from then until dawn every man was in the saddle, the herd drifting fully three miles during the night. Such keen flashes of lightning accompanied by instant thunder I had never before witnessed, though the rainfall, after the first dash, was light in quantity. Several times the rain ceased entirely, when the phosphorus, like a prairie fire, appeared on every hand. Great sheets of it flickered about, the cattle and saddle stock were soon covered, while every bit of metal on our accoutrements was coated and twinkling with phosphorescent light. My gauntlets were covered, and wherever I touched myself, it seemed to smear and spread and refuse to wipe out. Several times we were able to hold up and quiet the cattle, but along their backs flickered the ghostly light, while across the herd, which occupied acres, it reminded one of the burning lake in the regions infernal. As the night wore on, several showers fell, accompanied by almost incessant bolts of lightning, but the rainfall only added moisture to the ground and this acted like fuel in reviving the phosphor. Several hours before dawn, great sheets of the fiery elements chased each other across the northern sky, lighting up our surroundings until one could have read ordinary print. The cattle stood humped or took an occasional step forward, the men sat their horses, sullen and morose, forming new resolutions for the future, in which trail work was not included. But morning came at last, cool and cloudy, a slight recompense for the heat which we had endured since leaving Dodge.
With the breaking of day, the herd was turned back on its course. For an hour or more the cattle grazed freely, and as the sun broke through the clouds, they dropped down like tired infantry on a march, and we allowed them an hour's rest. We were still some three or four miles eastward of the trail, and after breakfasting and changing mounts we roused the cattle and started on an angle for the trail, expecting to intercept it before noon. There was some settlement in the Smoky River Valley which must be avoided, as in years past serious enmity had been engendered between settlers and drovers in consequence of the ravages of Texas fever among native cattle. I was riding on the left point, and when within a short distance of the trail, one of the boys called my attention to a loose herd of cattle, drifting south and fully two miles to the west of us. It was certainly something unusual, and as every man of us scanned them, a lone horseman was seen to ride across their front, and, turning them, continue on for our herd. The situation was bewildering, as the natural course of every herd was northward, but here was one apparently abandoned like a water-logged ship at sea.
The messenger was a picture of despair. He proved to be the owner of the abandoned cattle, and had come to us with an appeal for help. According to his story, he was a Northern cowman and had purchased the cattle a few days before in Dodge. He had bought the outfit complete, with the understanding that the through help would continue in his service until his range in Wyoming was reached. But it was a Mexican outfit, foreman and all, and during the storm of the night before, one of the men had been killed by lightning. The accident must have occurred near dawn, as the man was not missed until daybreak, and like ours, his cattle had drifted with the storm. Some time was lost in finding the body, and to add to the panic that had already stricken the outfit, the shirt of the unfortunate vaquero was burnt from the corpse. The horse had escaped scathless, though his rider met death, while the housings were stripped from the saddle so that it fell from the animal. The Mexican foreman and vaqueros had thrown their hands in the air; steeped in superstition, they considered the loss of their comrade a bad omen, and refused to go farther. The herd was as good as abandoned unless we could lend a hand.
The appeal was not in vain. Detailing four of my men, and leaving Jack Splann as segundo in charge of our cattle, I galloped away with the stranger. As we rode the short distance between the two herds and I mentally reviewed the situation, I could not help but think it was fortunate for the alien outfit that their employer was a Northern cowman instead of a Texan. Had the present owner been of the latter school, there would have been more than one dead Mexican before a valuable herd would have been abandoned over an unavoidable accident. I kept my thoughts to myself, however, for the man had troubles enough, and on reaching his drifting herd, we turned them back on their course. It was high noon when we reached his wagon and found the Mexican outfit still keening over their dead comrade. We pushed the cattle, a mixed herd of about twenty-five hundred, well past the camp, and riding back, dismounted among the howling vaqueros. There was not the semblance of sanity among them. The foreman, who could speak some little English, at least his employer declared he could, was carrying on like a madman, while a majority of the vaqueros were playing a close second. The dead man had been carried in and was lying under a tarpaulin in the shade of the wagon. Feeling that my boys would stand behind me, and never offering to look at the corpse, I inquired in Spanish of the vaqueros which one of the men was their corporal. A heavy-set, bearded man was pointed out, and walking up to him, with one hand I slapped him in the face and with the other relieved him of a six-shooter. He staggered back, turned ashen pale, and before he could recover from the surprise, in his own tongue I berated him as a worthless cur for deserting his employer over an accident. Following up the temporary advantage, I inquired for the cook and horse-wrangler, and intimated clearly that there would be other dead Mexicans if the men were not fed and the herd and saddle stock looked after; that they were not worthy of the name of vaqueros if they were lax in a duty with which they had been intrusted.
"But Pablo is dead," piped one of the vaqueros in defense.
"Yes, he is," said G--G Cederdall in Spanish, bristling up to the vaquero who had volunteered the reply; "and we'll bury him and a half-dozen more of you if necessary, but the cattle will not be abandoned--not for a single hour. Pablo is dead, but he was no better than a hundred other men who have lost their lives on this trail. If you are a lot of locoed sheep-herders instead of vaqueros, why didn't you stay at home with the children instead of starting out to do a man's work. Desert your employer, will you? Not in a country where there is no chance to pick up other men. Yes, Pablo is dead, and we'll bury him."
The aliens were disconcerted, and wilted. The owner picked up courage and ordered the cook to prepare dinner. We loaned our horses to the wrangler and another man, the remuda was brought in, and before we sat down to the midday meal, every vaquero had a horse under saddle, while two of them had ridden away to look after the grazing cattle. With order restored, we set about systematically to lay away the unfortunate man. A detail of vaqueros under Cederdall prepared a grave on the nearest knoll, and wrapping the corpse in a tarpaulin, we buried him like a sailor at sea. Several vaqueros were visibly affected at the graveside, and in order to pacify them, I suggested that we unload the wagon of supplies and haul up a load of rock from a near-by outcropping ledge. Pablo had fallen like a good soldier at his post, I urged, and it was befitting that his comrades should mark his last resting-place. To our agreeable surprise the corporal hurrahed his men and the wagon was unloaded in a jiffy and dispatched after a load of rock. On its return, we spent an hour in decorating the mound, during which time lament was expressed for the future of Pablo's soul. Knowing the almost universal faith of this alien race, as we stood around the finished mound, Cederdall, who was Catholic born, called for contributions to procure the absolution of the Church. The owner of the cattle was the first to respond, and with the aid of my boys and myself, augmented later by the vaqueros, a purse of over fifty dollars was raised and placed in charge of the corporal, to be expended in a private mass on their return to San Antonio. Meanwhile the herd and saddle stock had started, and reloading the wagon, we cast a last glance at the little mound which made a new landmark on the old trail.
The owner of the cattle was elated over the restoration of order. My contempt for him, however, had not decreased; the old maxim of fools rushing in where angels feared to tread had only been again exemplified. The inferior races may lack in courage and leadership, but never in cunning and craftiness. This alien outfit had detected some weakness in the armor of their new employer, and when the emergency arose, were ready to take advantage of the situation. Yet under an old patron, these same men would never dare to mutiny or assert themselves. That there were possible breakers ahead for this cowman there was no doubt; for every day that those Mexicans traveled into a strange country, their Aztec blood would yearn for their Southern home. And since the unforeseen could not be guarded against, at the first opportunity I warned the stranger that it was altogether too soon to shout. To his anxious inquiries I replied that his very presence with the herd was a menace to its successful handling by the Mexican outfit. He should throw all responsibility on the foreman, or take charge himself, which was impossible now; for an outfit which will sulk and mutiny once will do so again under less provocation. When my curtain lecture was ended, the owner authorized me to call his outfit together and give them such instructions as I saw fit.
We sighted our cattle but once during the afternoon. On locating the herd, two of my boys left us to return, hearing the message that the rest of us might not put in an appearance before morning. All during the evening, I made it a point to cultivate the acquaintance of several vaqueros, and learned the names of their master and rancho. Taking my cue from the general information gathered, when we encamped for the night and all hands, with the exception of those on herd, had finished catching horses, I attracted their attention by returning the six-shooter taken from their corporal at noontime. Commanding attention, in their mother tongue I addressed myself to the Mexican foreman.
"Felipe Esquibil," said I, looking him boldly in the face, "you were foreman of this herd from Zavalla County, Texas, to the Arkansaw River, and brought your cattle through without loss or accident.
"The herd changed owners at Dodge, but with the understanding that you and your vaqueros were to accompany the cattle to this gentleman's ranch in the upper country. An accident happens, and because you are not in full control, you shift the responsibility and play the baby act by wanting to go home. Had the death of one of your men occurred below the river, and while the herd was still the property of Don Dionisio of Rancho Los Olmus, you would have lost your own life before abandoning your cattle. Now, with the consent and approval of the new owner, you are again invested with full charge of this herd until you arrive at the Platte River. A new outfit will relieve you on reaching Ogalalla, and then you will be paid your reckoning and all go home. In your immediate rear are five herds belonging to my employer, and I have already sent warning to them of your attempted desertion. A fortnight or less will find you relieved, and the only safety in store for you is to go forward. Now your employer is going to my camp for the night, and may not see you again before this herd reaches the Platte. Remember, Don Felipe, that the opportunity is yours to regain your prestige as a corporal--and you need it after to-day's actions. What would Don Dionisio say if he knew the truth? And do you ever expect to face your friends again at Los Olmus? From a trusted corporal back to a sheep-shearer would be your reward--and justly."
Cederdall, Wolf, and myself shook hands with several vaqueros, and mounting our horses we started for my camp, taking the stranger with us. Only once did he offer any protest to going. "Very well, then," replied G--G, unable to suppress his contempt, "go right back. I'll gamble that you sheathe a knife before morning if you do. It strikes me you don't sabe Mexicans very much."
Around the camp-fire that night, the day's work was reviewed. My rather drastic treatment of the corporal was fully commented upon and approved by the outfit, yet provoked an inquiry from the irrepressible Parent. Turning to the questioner, Burl Van Vedder said in dove-like tones: "Yes, dear, slapped him just to remind the varmint that his feet were on the earth, and that pawing the air and keening didn't do any good. Remember, love, there was the living to be fed, the dead to bury, and the work in hand required every man to do his duty. Now was there anything else you'd like to know?"