Lovell and his attorneys joined the cavalcade which returned to the post, while we continued on south, fording the Missouri above Forrest's camp. The two recovered beeves were recognized by their ranch brands as belonging in Bee County, thus identifying them as having escaped from Bob Quirk's herd, though he had previously denied all knowledge of them. The cattle world was a small one, and it mattered little where an animal roamed, there was always a man near by who could identify the brand and give the bovine's past history. With the prospects bright for a new owner on the morrow, these two wayfarers found lodgment among our own for the night.
But when another day dawned, it brought new complications. Instead of the early arrival of any receiving party, the appointed hour passed, noon came, and no one appeared. I had ridden down to the lower camps about the latter hour, yet there was no one who could explain, neither had any word from the post reached Forrest's wagon. Sponsilier suggested that we ride into Buford, and accordingly all three of us foremen started. When we sighted the ford on the Missouri, a trio of horsemen were just emerging from the water, and we soon were in possession of the facts. Sanders, my brother, and Mike Sutton composed the party, and the latter explained the situation. Orders from the War Department had reached Fort Buford that morning, temporarily suspending the post commander and his quartermaster from receiving any cattle intended for that post, and giving notice that a special commissioner was then en route from Minneapolis with full authority in the premises. The order was signed by the first quartermaster and approved by the head of that department; there was no going behind it, which further showed the strength that the opposition were able to command. The little attorney was wearing his war-paint, and we all dismounted, when Sanders volunteered some valuable points on the wintering of Texas cattle in the North. Sutton made a memorandum of the data, saying if opportunity offered he would like to submit it in evidence at the final hearing. The general opinion was that a court of inquiry would be instituted, and if such was the case, our cause was not by any means hopeless.
"The chances are that the opposition will centre the fight on an assignment of the original contract which they claim to hold," said the lawyer, in conclusion. "The point was advanced yesterday that we were intruders, while, on the other hand, the government was in honor bound to recognize its outstanding obligation, no matter in whose hands it was presented, so long as it was accompanied by the proper tender. A great deal will depend on the viewpoint of this special commissioner; he may be a stickler for red tape, with no concern for the service, as were the post commander and quartermaster. Their possession of the original document will be self-evident, and it will devolve on us to show that that assignment was illegal. This may not be as easy as it seems, for the chances are that there may be a dozen men in the gang, with numerous stool-pigeons ready and willing to do their bidding. This contract may demonstrate the possibility of a ring within a ring, with everything working to the same end. The absence of Honest John Griscom at this delivery is significant as proving that his presence at Dodge and Ogalalla was a mistake. You notice, with the exception of Field and Radcliff, they are all new men. Well, another day will tell the story."
The special commissioner could not arrive before the next morning. An ambulance, with relay teams, had left the post at daybreak for Glendive, and would return that night. Since the following promised to be a decisive day, we were requested to bring every available man and report at Fort Buford at an early hour. The trio returned to the post and we foremen to our herds. My outfit received the news in anything but a cheerful mood. The monotony of the long drive had made the men restless, and the delay of a single day in being finally relieved, when looked forward to, was doubly exasperating. It had been over six months since we left the ranch in Medina, and there was a lurking suspicion among a number of the boys that the final decision would be against our cattle and that they would be thrown back on our hands. There was a general anxiety among us to go home, hastened by the recent frosty nights and a common fear of a Northern climate. I tried to stem this feeling, promising a holiday on the morrow and assuring every one that we still had a fighting chance.
We reached the post at a timely hour the next morning. Only three men were left with each herd, my wrangler and cook accompanying us for the day. Parent held forth with quite a dissertation on the legal aspects of the case, and after we forded the river, an argument arose between him and Jake Blair. "Don't talk to me about what's legal and what isn't," said the latter; "the man with the pull generally gets all that he goes after. You remember the Indian and the white man were at a loss to know how to divide the turkey and the buzzard, but in the end poor man got the buzzard. And if you'll just pay a little more attention to humanity, you may notice that the legal aspects don't cut so much figure as you thought they did. The moment that cattle declined five to seven dollars a head, The Western Supply Company didn't trouble themselves as to the legality or the right or wrong, but proceeded to take advantage of the situation at once. Neal, when you've lived about twenty-five years on the cold charity of strangers, you'll get over that blind confidence and become wary and cunning. It might be a good idea to keep your eye open to-day for your first lesson. Anyhow don't rely too strong on the right or justice of anything, but keep a good horse on picket and your powder dry."
The commissioner had arrived early that morning and would take up matters at once. Nine o'clock was set for the hearing, which would take place in the quartermaster's office. Consultations were being held among the two factions, and the only ray of light was the reported frigidity of the special officer. He was such a superior personage that ordinary mortals felt a chill radiating from his person on their slightest approach. His credentials were from the War Department and were such as to leave no doubt but that he was the autocrat of the situation, before whom all should render homage. A rigid military air prevailed about the post and grounds, quite out of the ordinary, while the officers' bar was empty and silent.
The quartermaster's office would comfortably accommodate about one hundred persons. Fort Buford had been rebuilt in 1871, the adobe buildings giving place to frame structures, and the room in which the hearing was to be held was not only commodious but furnished with good taste. Promptly on the stroke of the hour, and escorted by the post adjutant, the grand mogul made his appearance. There was nothing striking about him, except his military bearing; he was rather young and walked so erect that he actually leaned backward a trifle. There was no prelude; he ordered certain tables rearranged, seated himself at one, and called for a copy of the original contract. The post adjutant had all the papers covering the situation in hand, and the copy was placed at the disposal of the special commissioner, who merely glanced at the names of the contracting parties, amount and date, and handed the document back. Turning to the table at which Lovell and his attorneys sat, he asked for the credentials under which they were tendering beeves at Fort Buford. The sub-contract was produced, some slight memorandum was made, and it was passed back as readily as was the original. The opposition were calmly awaiting a similar request, and when it came, in offering the papers, Congressman Y-- took occasion to remark: "Our tender is not only on a sub-contract, but that agreement is fortified by an assignment of the original award, by and between the War Department and The Western Supply Company. We rely on the latter; you will find everything regular."
The customary glance was given the bulky documents. Senator Aspgrain was awaiting the opportune moment to attack the assignment. When it came, the senator arose with dignity and, addressing the commissioner, attempted to enter a protest, but was instantly stopped by that high functionary. A frozen silence pervaded the room. "There is no occasion for any remarks in this matter," austerely replied the government specialist. "Our department regularly awarded the beef contract for this post to The Western Supply Company. There was ample competition on the award, insuring the government against exorbitant prices, and the required bonds were furnished for the fulfillment of the contract. Right then and there all interest upon the part of the grantor ceased until the tender was made at this post on the appointed day of delivery. In the interim, however, it seems that for reasons purely their own, the grantees saw fit to sub-let their contract, not once but twice. Our department amply protected themselves by requiring bonds, and the sub-contractors should have done the same. That, however, is not the matter at issue, but who is entitled to deliver on the original award. Fortunately that point is beyond question; an assignment of the original has always been recognized at the War Office, and in this case the holders of the same are declared entitled to deliver. There is only one provision,--does the article of beef tendered qualify under the specifications? That is the only question before making this decision final. If there is any evidence to the contrary, I am ready to hear it."
This afforded the opportunity of using Sanders as a witness, and Sutton grasped the opportunity of calling him to testify in regard to wintering Southern cattle in the North. After stating his qualifications as a citizen and present occupation, he was asked by the commissioner regarding his experience with cattle to entitle his testimony to consideration. "I was born to the occupation in Texas," replied the witness. "Five years ago this summer I came with beef cattle from Uvalde County, that State, to this post, and after the delivery, accepted a situation under the quartermaster here in locating and holding the government's beeves. At present I am foreman and have charge of all cattle delivered at or issued from this post. I have had five years' experience in wintering Texas cattle in this vicinity, and have no hesitancy in saying that it is a matter of the utmost importance that steers should be in the best possible flesh to withstand our winters. The losses during the most favorable seasons have averaged from one to five per cent., while the same cattle in a severe season will lose from ten to twenty-five, all depending on the condition of the stock with the beginning of cold weather. Since my connection with this post we have always received good steers, and our losses have been light, but above and below this military reservation the per cent. loss has run as high as fifty among thin, weak animals."
"Now, Mr. Sanders," said the special commissioner, "as an expert, you are testifying as to the probable loss to the government in this locality in buying and holding beef on its own account. You may now state if you have seen the tender of beef made by Field, Radcliff & Co., and if so, anticipating the worst, what would be the probable loss if their cattle were accepted on this year's delivery?"
"I was present at their inspection by the officers of this post," replied the witness, "and have no hesitancy in saying that should the coming one prove as hard a winter as '82 was, there would be a loss of fully one half these cattle. At least that was my opinion as expressed to the post commander and quartermaster at the inspection, and they agreed with me. There are half a dozen other boys here whose views on wintering cattle can be had--and they're worth listening to."
This testimony was the brutal truth, and though eternal, was sadly out of place. The opposition lawyers winced; and when Sutton asked if permission would be given to hear the testimony of the post commander and quartermaster, both familiar with the quality of cattle the government had been receiving for years, the commissioner, having admitted damaging testimony, objected on the ground that they were under suspension, and military men were not considered specialists outside their own vocation. Other competent witnesses were offered and objected to, simply because they would not admit they were experts. Taking advantage of the opening, Congressman Y--- called attention to a few facts in passing. This unfortunate situation, he said, in substance, was deeply regretted by his clients and himself. The War Department was to be warmly commended for sending a special commissioner to hear the matter at issue, otherwise unjust charges might have been preferred against old and honored officers in the service. However, if specialists were to be called to testify, and their testimony considered, as to what per cent. of cattle would survive a winter, why not call on the weather prophets to testify just what the coming one would be? He ridiculed the attestations of Sanders as irrelevant, defiantly asserting that the only question at issue was, were there five million pounds of dressed beef in the tender of cattle by Field, Radcliff & Co. He insisted on the letter in the bond being observed. The government bought cattle one year with another, and assumed risks as did other people. Was there any man present to challenge his assertion that the pounds quantity had been tendered?
There was. Don Lovell arose, and addressing the special commissioner, said: "Sir, I am not giving my opinion as an expert but as a practical cowman. If the testimony of one who has delivered over ninety thousand cattle to this government, in its army and Indian departments, is of any service to you, I trust you will hear me patiently. No exception is taken to your ruling as to who is entitled to deliver on the existing award; that was expected from the first. I have been contracting beef to this government for the past fifteen years, and there may be tricks in the trade of which I am ignorant. The army has always demanded the best, while lower grades have always been acceptable to the Indian Department. But in all my experience, I have never tendered this government for its gut-eating wards as poor a lot of cattle as I am satisfied that you are going to receive at the hands of Field, Radcliff & Co. I accept the challenge that there are not five million pounds of dressed beef in their tender to-day, and what there is would be a disgrace to any commonwealth to feed its convicts. True, these cattle are not intended for immediate use, and I make the counter-assertion that this government will never kill out fifty per cent. of the weight that you accept to-day. Possibly you prefer the blandishments of a lobbyist to the opinion of a practical cowman like Sanders. That's your privilege. You refuse to allow us to show the relationship between The Western Supply Company and the present holders of its assignment, and in doing so I charge you with being in collusion with these contractors to defraud the government!"
"You're a liar!" shouted Congressman Y----, jumping to his feet. The only reply was a chair hurled from the hand of Sutton at the head of the offender, instantly followed by a rough house. Several officers present sprang to the side of the special commissioner, but fortunately refrained from drawing revolvers. I was standing at some distance from the table, and as I made a lunge forward, old man Don was hurled backward into my arms. He could not whip a sick chicken, yet his uncontrollable anger had carried him into the general melee and he had been roughly thrown out by some of his own men. They didn't want him in the fight; they could do all that was necessary. A number of soldiers were present, and while the officers were frantically commanding them to restore order, the scrap went merrily on. Old man Don struggled with might and main, cursing me for refusing to free him, and when one of the contractors was knocked down within easy reach, I was half tempted to turn him loose. The "major-domo" had singled out Sponsilier and was trying issues with him, Bob Quirk was dropping them right and left, when the deposed commandant sprang upon a table, and in a voice like the hiss of an adder, commanded peace, and the disorder instantly ceased.
The row had lasted only a few seconds. The opposing sides stood glaring daggers at each other, when the commissioner took occasion to administer a reproof to all parties concerned, referring to Texas in not very complimentary terms. Dave Sponsilier was the only one who had the temerity to offer any reply, saying, "Mr. Yank, I'll give you one hundred dollars if you'll point me out the grave of a man, woman, or child who starved to death in that state."
A short recess was taken, after which apologies followed, and the commissioner resumed the hearing. A Western lawyer, named Lemeraux, made a very plausible plea for the immediate acceptance of the tender of Field, Radcliff & Co. He admitted that the cattle, at present, were not in as good flesh as his clients expected to offer them; that they had left the Platte River in fine condition, but had been twice quarantined en route. He was cautious in his remarks, but clearly intimated that had there been no other cattle in competition for delivery on this award, there might have been no quarantine. In his insinuations, the fact was adroitly brought out that the isolation of their herds, if not directly chargeable to Lovell and his men, had been aided and abetted by them, retarding the progress of his clients' beeves and forcing them to travel as fast as twenty-five miles a day, so that they arrived in a jaded condition. Had there been no interference, the tender of Field, Radcliff & Co. would have reached this post ten days earlier, and rest would soon have restored the cattle to their normal condition. In concluding, he boldly made the assertion that the condition of his client's tender of beef was the result of a conspiracy to injure one firm, that another drover might profit thereby; that right and justice could be conserved only by immediately making the decision final, and thus fearlessly silencing any and all imputations reflecting on the character of this government's trusted representatives.
The special commissioner assumed an air of affected dignity and announced that a conclusion had been arrived at. Turning to old man Don, he expressed the deepest regret that a civilian was beyond his power to punish, otherwise he would have cause to remember the affront offered himself; not that he personally cared, but the department of government which he had the honor to serve was jealous of its good name. Under the circumstances he could only warn him to be more guarded hereafter in choosing his language, and assured Lovell that it was in his power to escort any offender off that military reservation. Pausing a moment, he resumed a judicial air, and summed up the situation:
"There was no occasion," said he, in an amiable mood, "to refer this incident to the War Department if the authorities here had gone about their work properly. Fortunately I was in Minneapolis adjusting some flour accounts, when I was ordered here by the quartermaster-general. Instead of attempting to decide who had the best tender of cattle, the one with the legal right alone should have been considered. Our department is perfectly familiar with these petty jealousies, which usually accompany awards of this class, and generally emanate from disappointed and disgruntled competitors. The point is well taken by counsel that the government does not anticipate the unforeseen, and it matters not what the loss may be from the rigors of winter, the contractor is exempt after the day of delivery. If the cattle were delayed en route, as has been asserted, and it was necessary to make forced drives in order to reach here within the specified time, all this should be taken into consideration in arriving at a final conclusion. On his reinstatement, I shall give the quartermaster of this post instructions, in receiving these cattle, to be governed, not so much by their present condition as by what they would have been had there been no interference. Now in behalf of the War Department, I declare the award to The Western Supply Company, and assigned to Field, Radcliff, and associates, to have been fulfilled to the satisfaction of all parties concerned. This closes the incident, and if there is nothing further, the inquiry will stand adjourned without date."
"One moment, if you please," said Don Lovell, addressing the commissioner and contractors; "there is a private matter existing between Field, Radcliff & Co. and myself which demands an understanding between us. I hold a sum of money, belonging to them, as indemnity against loss in driving ten thousand cattle from Southern Texas to this post. That I will sustain a heavy loss, under your decision, is beyond question. I am indemnified to the amount of about six dollars and a half a head, and since the government is exempt from garnishment and the contractors are wholly irresponsible, I must content myself with the money in hand. To recover this amount, held as indemnity, suit has been threatened against me. Of course I can't force their hands, but I sincerely hope they will feel exultant enough over your kangaroo decision to file their action before taking their usual outing in Europe. They will have no trouble in securing my legal address, my rating can be obtained from any commercial agency, and no doubt their attorneys are aware of the statute of limitation in my state. I believe that's all, except to extend my thanks to every one about Fort Buford for the many kind attentions shown my counsel, my boys, and myself. To my enemies, I can only say that I hope to meet them on Texas soil, and will promise them a fairer hearing than was accorded me here to-day. Mr. Commissioner, I have always prided myself on being a good citizen, have borne arms in defense of my country, and in taking exception to your decision I brand you as the most despicable member of The Western Supply Company. Any man who will prostitute a trust for a money consideration--"
"That's enough!" shouted the special commissioner, rising. "Orderly, call the officer of the day, and tell him I want two companies of cavalry to furnish an escort for this man and his herds beyond the boundaries of this military reservation." Looking Lovell in the face, he said: "You have justly merited a severe punishment, and I shall report your reflections to the War and Indian departments, and you may find it more difficult to secure contracts in the future. One of you officers detail men and take charge of this man until the escort is ready. The inquiry is adjourned."