“Letters of a Woman Homesteader” continued:
Dear Mrs. Coney,—
… I am so afraid that you will get an overdose of culture from your visit to the Hub and am sending you an antidote of our sage, sand, and sunshine.
Mrs. Louderer had come over to see our boy. Together we had prepared supper and were waiting for Clyde, who had gone to the post-office. Soon he came, and after the usual friendly wrangling between him and Mrs. Louderer we had supper. Then they began their inevitable game of cribbage, while I sat near the fire with Baby on my lap. Clyde was telling us of a raid on a ranch about seventy-five miles away, in which the thieves had driven off thirty head of fine horses. There were only two of the thieves, and the sheriff with a large posse was pursuing them and forcing every man they came across into the chase, and a regular man-hunt was on. It was interesting only because one of the thieves was a noted outlaw then out on parole and known to be desperate. We were in no way alarmed; the trouble was all in the next county, and somehow that always seems so far away. We knew if the men ever came together there would be a pitched battle, with bloodshed and death, but there seemed little chance that the sheriff would ever overtake the men.
I remember I was feeling sorry for the poor fellows with a price on their heads,—the little pink man on my lap had softened my heart wonderfully. Jerrine was enjoying the pictures in a paper illustrating early days on the range, wild scenes of roping and branding. I had remarked that I didn’t believe there were any more such times, when Mrs Louderer replied, “Dot yust shows how much it iss you do not know. You shall come to mine house and when away you come it shall be wiser as when you left.” I had kept at home very closely all summer, and a little trip seemed the most desirable thing I could think of, particularly as the baby would be in no way endangered. But long ago I learned that the quickest way to get what I want is not to want it, outwardly, at least. So I assumed an indifference that was not very real. The result was that next morning every one was in a hurry to get me started,—Clyde greasing the little old wagon that looks like a twin to Cora Belle’s, and Mrs. Louderer, who thinks no baby can be properly brought up without goose-grease, busy greasing the baby “so as he shall not some cold take yet.” Mrs. Louderer had ridden over, so her saddle was laid in the wagon and her pony, Bismarck, was hitched in with Chub, the laziest horse in all Wyoming. I knew Clyde could manage very well while I should be gone, and there wasn’t a worry to interfere with the pleasure of my outing.
We jogged along right merrily, Mrs. Louderer devoting her entire attention to trying to make Chub pull even with Bismarck, Jerrine and myself enjoying the ever-changing views. I wish I could lay it all before you. Summer was departing with reluctant feet, unafraid of Winter’s messengers, the chill winds. That day was especially beautiful. The gleaming snow peaks and heavy forest south and at our back; west, north, and east, long, broken lines of the distant mountains with their blue haze. Pilot Butte to the north, one hundred miles away, stood out clear and distinct as though we could drive there in an hour or two. The dull, neutral-colored “Bad Land” hills nearer us are interesting only because we know they are full of the fossil remains of strange creatures long since extinct.
For a distance our way lay up Henry’s Fork valley; prosperous little ranches dotted the view, ripening grain rustled pleasantly in the warm morning sunshine, and closely cut alfalfa fields made bright spots of emerald against the dun landscape. The quaking aspens were just beginning to turn yellow; everywhere purple asters were a blaze of glory except where the rabbit-bush grew in clumps, waving its feathery plumes of gold. Over it all the sky was so deeply blue, with little, airy, white clouds drifting lazily along. Every breeze brought scents of cedar, pine, and sage. At this point the road wound along the base of cedar hills; some magpies were holding a noisy caucus among the trees, a pair of bluebirds twittered excitedly upon a fence, and high overhead a great black eagle soared. All was so peaceful that horse-thieves and desperate men seemed too remote to think about.
Presently we crossed the creek and headed our course due north toward the desert and the buttes. I saw that we were not going right to reach Mrs. Louderer’s ranch, so I asked where we were supposed to be going. “We iss going to the mouth of Dry Creek by, where it goes Black’s Fork into. Dere mine punchers holdts five huntert steers. We shall de camp visit and you shall come back wiser as when you went.”
Well, we both came away wiser. I had thought we were going only to the Louderer ranch, so I put up no lunch, and there was nothing for the horses either. But it was too beautiful a time to let such things annoy us. Anyway, we expected to reach camp just after noon, so a little delay about dinner didn’t seem so bad. We had entered the desert by noon; the warm, red sands fell away from the wheels with soft, hissing sounds. Occasionally a little horned toad sped panting along before us, suddenly darting aside to watch with bright, cunning eyes as we passed. Some one had placed a buffalo’s skull beside a big bunch of sage and on the sage a splendid pair of elk’s antlers. We saw many such scattered over the sands, grim reminders of a past forever gone.
About three o’clock we reached our destination, but no camp was there. We were more disappointed than I can tell you, but Mrs. Louderer merely went down to the river, a few yards away, and cut an armful of willow sticks wherewith to coax Chub to a little brisker pace, and then we took the trail of the departed mess-wagon. Shortly, we topped a low range of hills, and beyond, in a cuplike valley, was the herd of sleek beauties feeding contentedly on the lush green grass. I suppose it sounds odd to hear desert and river in the same breath, but within a few feet of the river the desert begins, where nothing grows but sage and greasewood. In oasis-like spots will be found plenty of grass where the soil is nearer the surface and where sub-irrigation keeps the roots watered. In one of these spots the herd was being held. When the grass became short they would be moved to another such place.
It required, altogether, fifteen men to take care of the herd, because many of the cattle had been bought in different places, some in Utah, and these were always trying to run away and work back toward home, so they required constant herding. Soon we caught the glimmer of white canvas, and knew it was the cover of the mess-wagon, so we headed that way.
The camp was quite near the river so as to be handy to water and to have the willows for wood. Not a soul was at camp. The fire was out, and even the ashes had blown away. The mess-box was locked and Mrs. Louderer’s loud calls brought only echoes from the high rock walls across the river. However, there was nothing to do but to make the best of it, so we tethered the horses and went down to the river to relieve ourselves of the dust that seemed determined to unite with the dust that we were made of. Mrs. Louderer declared she was “so mat as nodings and would fire dot Herman so soon as she could see him alreaty.”
Presently we saw the most grotesque figure approaching camp. It was Herman, the fat cook, on Hunks, a gaunt, ugly old horse, whose days of usefulness under the saddle were past and who had degenerated into a workhorse. The disgrace of it seemed to be driving him into a decline, but he stumbled along bravely under his heavy load. A string of a dozen sage chickens swung on one side, and across the saddle in front of Herman lay a young antelope. A volley of German abuse was hurled at poor Herman, wound up in as plain American as Mrs. Louderer could speak: “And who iss going to pay de game warden de fine of dot antelope what you haf shot? And how iss it that we haf come de camp by und so starved as we iss hungry, and no cook und no food? Iss dat for why you iss paid?”
Herman was some Dutch himself, however. “How iss it,” he demanded, “dat you haf not so much sense as you haf tongue? How haf you lived so long as always in de West und don’t know enough to hunt a bean-hole when you reach your own camp. Hey?”
Mrs. Louderer was very properly subdued and I delighted when he removed the stones from where the fire had been, exposing a pit from which, with a pair of pot-hooks, he lifted pots and ovens of the most delicious meat, beans, and potatoes. From the mess-box he brought bread and apricot pie. From a near-by spring he brought us a bright, new pail full of clear, sparkling water, but Mrs. Louderer insisted upon tea and in a short time he had it ready for us. The tarpaulin was spread on the ground for us to eat from, and soon we were showing an astonished cook just how much food two women and a child could get away with. I ate a good deal of ashes with my roast beef and we all ate more or less sand, but fastidiousness about food is a good thing to get rid of when you come West to camp.
When the regular supper-time arrived the punchers began to gather in, and the “boss,” who had been to town about some business, came in and brought back the news of the man-hunt. The punchers sat about the fire, eating hungrily from their tin plates and eagerly listening to the recital. Two of the boys were tenderfeet: one from Tennessee called “Daisy Belle,” because he whistled that tune so much and because he had nose-bleed so much,—couldn’t even ride a broncho but his nose would bleed for hours afterwards; and the other, “N’Yawk,” so called from his native State. N’Yawk was a great boaster; said he wasn’t afraid of no durned outlaw,—said his father had waded in bloody gore up to his neck and that he was a chip off the old block,—rather hoped the chase would come our way so he could try his marksmanship.
The air began to grow chill and the sky was becoming overcast. Preparations for the night busied everybody. Fresh ponies were being saddled for the night relief, the hard-ridden, tired ones that had been used that day being turned loose to graze. Some poles were set up and a tarpaulin arranged for Mrs. Louderer and me to sleep under. Mrs. Louderer and Jerrine lay down on some blankets and I unrolled some more, which I was glad to notice were clean, for Baby and myself. I can’t remember ever being more tired and sleepy, but I couldn’t go to sleep. I could hear the boss giving orders in quick, decisive tones. I could hear the punchers discussing the raid, finally each of them telling exploits of his favorite heroes of outlawry. I could hear Herman, busy among his pots and pans. Then he mounted the tongue of the mess-wagon and called out, “We haf for breakfast cackle-berries, first vot iss come iss served, und those vot iss sleep late gets nodings.”
I had never before heard of cackle-berries and asked sleepy Mrs. Louderer what they were. “Vait until morning and you shall see,” was all the information that I received.
Soon a gentle, drizzling rain began, and the punchers hurriedly made their beds, as they did so twitting N’Yawk about making his between our tent and the fire. “You’re dead right, pard,” I heard one of them say, “to make your bed there, fer if them outlaws comes this way they’ll think you air one of the women and they won’t shoot you. Just us men air in danger.”
“Confound your fool tongues, how they goin’ to know there’s any women here? I tell you, fellers, my old man waded in bloody gore up to his neck and I’m just like him.”
They kept up this friendly parleying until I dozed off to sleep, but I couldn’t stay asleep. I don’t think I was afraid, but I certainly was nervous. The river was making a sad, moaning sound; the rain fell gently, like tears. All nature seemed to be mourning about something, happened or going to happen. Down by the river an owl hooted dismally. Half a mile away the night-herders were riding round and round the herd. One of them was singing,—faint but distinct came his song: “Bury me not on the lone prairie.” Over and over again he sang it. After a short interval of silence he began again. This time it was, “I’m thinking of my dear old mother, ten thousand miles away.”
Two punchers stirred uneasily and began talking. “Blast that Tex,” I heard one of them say, “he certainly has it bad to-night. What the deuce makes him sing so much? I feel like bawling like a kid; I wish he’d shut up.” “He’s homesick; I guess we all are too, but they ain’t no use staying awake and letting it soak in. Shake the water off the tarp, you air lettin’ water catch on your side an’ it’s running into my ear.”
That is the last I heard for a long time. I must have slept. I remember that the baby stirred and I spoke to him. It seemed to me that something struck against the guy-rope that held our tarpaulin taut, but I wasn’t sure. I was in that dozy state, half asleep, when nothing is quite clear. It seemed as though I had been listening to the tramp of feet for hours and that a whole army must be filing past, when I was brought suddenly into keen consciousness by a loud voice demanding, “Hello! Whose outfit is this?” “This is the 7 Up,—Louderer’s,” the boss called back; “what’s wanted?” “Is that you, Mat? This is Ward’s posse. We been after Meeks and Murdock all night. It’s so durned dark we can’t see, but we got to keep going; their horses are about played. We changed at Hadley’s, but we ain’t had a bite to eat and we got to search your camp.” “Sure thing,” the boss answered, “roll off and take a look. Hi, there, you Herm, get out of there and fix these fellers something to eat.”
We were surrounded. I could hear the clanking of spurs and the sound of the wet, tired horses shaking themselves and rattling the saddles on every side. “Who’s in the wickiup?” I heard the sheriff ask. “Some women and kids,—Mrs. Louderer and a friend.”
In an incredibly short time Herman had a fire coaxed into a blaze and Mat Watson and the sheriff went from bed to bed with a lantern. They searched the mess-wagon, even, although Herman had been sleeping there. The sheriff unceremoniously flung out the wood and kindling the cook had stored there. He threw back the flap of our tent and flashed the lantern about. He could see plainly enough that there were but the four of us, but I wondered how they saw outside where the rain made it worse, the lantern was so dirty. “Yes,” I heard the sheriff say, “we’ve been pushing them hard. They’re headed north, evidently intend to hit the railroad but they’ll never make it. Every ford on the river is guarded except right along here, and there’s five parties ranging on the other side. My party’s split,—a bunch has gone on to the bridge. If they find anything they’re to fire a volley. Same with us. I knew they couldn’t cross the river nowhere but at the bridge or here.”
The men had gathered about the fire and were gulping hot coffee and cold beef and bread. The rain ran off their slickers in little rivulets. I was sorry the fire was not better, because some of the men had on only ordinary coats, and the drizzling rain seemed determined that the fire should not blaze high.
Before they had finished eating we heard a shot, followed by a regular medley of dull booms. The men were in their saddles and gone in less time than it takes to tell it. The firing had ceased save for a few sharp reports from the revolvers, like a coyote’s spiteful snapping. The pounding of the horse’s hoofs grew fainter, and soon all was still. I kept my ears strained for the slightest sound. The cook and the boss, the only men up, hurried back to bed. Watson had risen so hurriedly that he had not been careful about his “tarp” and water had run into his bed. But that wouldn’t disconcert anybody but a tenderfoot. I kept waiting in tense silence to hear them come back with dead or wounded, but there was not a sound. The rain had stopped. Mrs. Louderer struck a match and said it was three o’clock. Soon she was asleep. Through a rift in the clouds a star peeped out. I could smell the wet sage and the sand. A little breeze came by, bringing Tex’s song once more:—
Oh, dear! the world seemed so full of sadness. I kissed my baby’s little downy head and went to sleep.
It seems that cowboys are rather sleepy-headed in the morning and it is a part of the cook’s job to get them up. The next I knew, Herman had a tin pan on which he was beating a vigorous tattoo, all the time hollering, “We haf cackle-berries und antelope steak for breakfast.” The baby was startled by the noise, so I attended to him and then dressed myself for breakfast. I went down to the little spring to wash my face. The morning was lowering and gray, but a wind had sprung up and the clouds were parting. There are times when anticipation is a great deal better than realization. Never having seen a cackle-berry, my imagination pictured them as some very luscious wild fruit, and I was so afraid none would be left that I couldn’t wait until the men should eat and be gone. So I surprised them by joining the very earliest about the fire. Herman began serving breakfast. I held out my tin plate and received some of the steak, an egg, and two delicious biscuits. We had our coffee in big enameled cups, without sugar or cream, but it was piping hot and so good. I had finished my egg and steak and so I told Herman I was ready for my cackle-berries.
“Listen to her now, will you?” he asked. And then indignantly, “How many cackle-berries does you want? You haf had so many as I haf cooked for you.” “Why, Herman, I haven’t had a single berry,” I said. Then such a roar of laughter. Herman gazed at me in astonishment, and Mr. Watson gently explained to me that eggs and cackle-berries were one and the same.
N’Yawk was not yet up, so Herman walked over to his bed, kicked him a few times, and told him he would scald him if he didn’t turn out. It was quite light by then. N’Yawk joined us in a few minutes. “What the deuce was you fellers kicking up such a rumpus fer last night?” he asked. “You blamed blockhead, don’t you know?” the boss answered. “Why, the sheriff searched this camp last night. They had a battle down at the bridge afterwards and either they are all killed or else no one is hurt. They would have been here otherwise. Ward took a shot at them once yesterday, but I guess he didn’t hit; the men got away, anyway. And durn your sleepy head! you just lay there and snored. Well, I’ll be danged!” Words failed him, his wonder and disgust were so great.
N’Yawk turned to get his breakfast. His light shirt was blood-stained in the back,—seemed to be soaked. “What’s the matter with your shirt, it’s soaked with blood?” some one asked. “Then that durned Daisy Belle has been crawling in with me, that’s all,” he said. “Blame his bleeding snoot. I’ll punch it and give it something to bleed for.”
Then Mr. Watson said, “Daisy ain’t been in all night. He took Jesse’s place when he went to town after supper.” That started an inquiry and search which speedily showed that some one with a bleeding wound had gotten in with N’Yawk. It also developed that Mr. Watson’s splendid horse and saddle were gone, the rope that the horse had been picketed with lying just as it had been cut from his neck.
Now all was bustle and excitement. It was plainly evident that one of the outlaws had lain hidden on N’Yawk’s bed while the sheriff was there, and that afterwards he had saddled the horse and made his escape. His own horse was found in the willows, the saddle cut loose and the bridle off, but the poor, jaded thing had never moved. By sunup the search-party returned, all too worn-out with twenty-four hours in the saddle to continue the hunt. They were even too worn-out to eat, but flung themselves down for a few hours’ rest. The chase was hopeless anyway, for the search-party had gone north in the night. The wounded outlaw had doubtless heard the sheriff talking and, the coast being clear to the southward, had got the fresh horse and was by that time probably safe in the heavy forests and mountains of Utah. His getting in with N’Yawk had been a daring ruse, but a successful one. Where his partner was, no one could guess. But by that time all the camp excepting Herman and Mrs. Louderer were so panicky that we couldn’t have made a rational suggestion.
N’Yawk, white around his mouth, approached Mrs. Louderer. “I want to quit,” he said. “Well,” she said, calmly sipping her coffee, “you haf done it.” “I’m sick,” he stammered. “I know you iss,” she said, “I haf before now seen men get sick when they iss scared to death.” “My old daddy—” he began. “Yes, I know, he waded the creek vone time und you has had cold feet effer since.”
Poor fellow, I felt sorry for him. I had cold feet myself just then, and I was powerfully anxious to warm them by my own fire where a pair of calm blue eyes would reassure me.
I didn’t get to see the branding that was to have taken place on the range that day. The boss insisted on taking the trail of his valued horse. He was very angry. He thought there was a traitor among the posse. Who started the firing at the bridge no one knew, and Watson said openly that it was done to get the sheriff away from camp.
My own home looked mighty good to me when we drove up that evening. I don’t want any more wild life on the range,—not for a while, anyway.
Elinore Rupert Stewart.
- The Arrival at Burnt Fork
- Filing a Claim
- A Busy, Happy Summer
- A Charming Adventure and Zebulon Pike
- Sedalia and Regalia
- A Thanksgiving-Day Wedding
- Zebulon Pike Visits His Old Home
- A Happy Christmas
- A Confession
- The Story of Cora Belle
- Zebbie’s Story
- A Contented Couple
- Proving Up
- The New House
- The “Stocking-Leg” Dinner