An Episode of the Spring Round-Up
By William Jones
The Harvard Monthly, 28 April 1899
THE daisies were blooming again, and the cattle were beginning to graze in huge herds over the new green of the prairies. It was the time for the spring round-up, and the cattle ranchers began to gather with their supply-wagons and mounts at Johnson's store, where the Lone Star trail crosses the Canadian River. Our outfit, the Turkey Track, from the Cimmeron River, fifty miles north, came last. We pitched our camp at nightfall, a quarter of a mile down the river in the neighborhood of other camps, hobbled our horses at once, and turned them loose to graze till morning. Most of the men—there were ten or twelve of us—had spread their tarpaulins on the grass about the wagon, and were resting after the hard day’s ride, while the cook was busily preparing the supper. I was kneeling beside the fire, helping the cook by watching the bacon that sizzled in the frying–pan, and the bubbling black coffee-pot. Suddenly a tall, lanky puncher stepped quietly from out the darkness, and, tapping me gently on the shoulder, whispered, “Say, kid, whar’s your boss?”
Looking up into the man’s face, I saw he was Bob Thompson, the foreman of the Seven-Up ranch. Then I pointed over to a pallet by they wagon-tongue, where Dick Hart lay resting. Dick saw him coming, and sat up. Bob had come over to the camp for serious business, for no sooner had he and Dick shaken hands, and he had sat down on Dick’s couch, than he dove at once into the subject foremost in his mind. “See yar, Dick,” he began with a broad Southern accent, “ain’t you got a hoss in this yar outfit to buck up against Graylock to-morrer? Ef you ain’t, thar won’t be no hoss-race this year.”
“Can’t none o’ the other outfits rake out a hoss?”
“Don’t know, Dick; I been tryin’ ‘em two days now.”
“Guess you got ‘em all bluffed, Bob!” chuckled Dick.
“Givin’ three to two, and forty yards’ start. An’ for quarter-mile race, damn ef I call that bluffn’.”
There was a short pause, after which Dick called to Wesley Warner, one of the Turkey Track men. Wesley came over, shook hands with Bob, and sat down. “You heard what Bob’s huntin’ for, Wesley?” asked Dick.
Wesley replied that he had.
“What’ll we do?” asked Dick.
“Fix it any way you want, Dick. It’ll be all right.”
“Wall,” drawled Dick as he turned to Bob, “bein’ as Wesley yar hes a quarter-mile hoss, and you got all the other camps a-sceared o’ you, guess we can ‘commodate you for a little fun to-morrer. Give us two to one, Bob, and we run you even?”
“It’s a go,” quickly replied Bob, and the two men grasped hands. After making an agreement to meet later at the store, Bob rose, and, refusing an invitation to stay to supper, stalked off again into the darkness.
I was too tired to go with the men over to the store to while away half the night there; and since I had to be up first in the morning to drive in the horses, I rolled into my tarpaulin for a good night’s rest. Wesley did not go, either. His couch was hear mine, and we lay talking low till everybody had gone from camp. Then Wesley rose, and whispered, “Kid, if Dick or any of the boys ask where I am, tell ‘em I’ve gone to Vicente’s to see about my pony.”
I told him I would.
Vicente, or Vicente Canallez, was an old Spanish-Mexican who, the cattle-men say, was once the biggest stock raiser on the Canadian. After the death of his wife he had sold his cattle, and was now conducting a small pony and mule ranch at his old headquarters, a mile across the river from the store. There were living with him Pablo, a son of fourteen, and Paca, a daughter of twenty. Wesley had told me that he had had Vicente keep his pony, Comanche, because he did not wish to have him on the round-up. I had heard the Turkey Track men whisper that Wesley was interested in Paca. Everybody knew that Vicente felt kindly toward him. Wesley was about twenty-two, and in manner reserved. His black hair and sun-browned cheeks made him look more like a Spanish-Mexican, and he usually wore the short Mexican jacket, leggins, and sombrero; but he was a Kentuckian who had gone out to the Panhandle when a child, and had been on cattle ranches ever since. He had now been riding for the Turkey Track ranch for five years. I sat up as Wesley rode away, and, listing for a while to the tinkle of pony bells and to the whinnying of mates to each other, fell back on my pallet, and went to sleep.
When I rose next morning, Wesley lay asleep, wrapped in a Mexican blanket. He still had on his boots and spurs, while his sombrero covered his face. The men rose one after the other to help me drive in the horses, and finally Wesley joined them.
After breakfast I drove my horses across the river into a broad, level valley, where they could graze as wide as they pleased and yet remain in sight. Horse-rustlers from the other camps also rode over with their herds. Dannie Weber, the little Seven-Up horse-rustler, brought his herd over near mine. Presently he and I met in a grove of cottonwoods by the river. We dismounted, threw the bridle reins over our ponies’ heads, and let them feed, while we stretched ourselves on the grass in the shade. The morning shone bright, and the crackling silvery leaves of the cottonwoods reflected along the river the light of the sun. There was just wind enough to make a gentle moan among the trees. Our herds grazed quietly over the valley. We had lain there hardly a minute when Dannie brushed aside the things we were talking about by asking,
“Johnnie, s’pose you’ll ride Wesley’s hoss this evenin’?”
“Not that I know of. Why?”
“Just wanted to know; ’cause I’m goin’ to ride Jim King’s hoss.”
The name Jim King set my thoughts going. He was the man who owned Graylock, the horse that had won the big race the spring before. The praises of that horse had been on the lips of every cowboy ever since. The horse was here again this spring. Would he win again? I hoped not, partly because I wanted to see Wesley’s horse win, and partly because I did not like King. His old slouch hat, blue flannel shirt, and leather leggins, his coarse red face and sandy mustache, came up before my mind unpleasantly. I broke the short silence since Dannie spoke by asking how the betting went.
“Oh, Jim King’s hoss’s backed heaviest, the punchers say,” answered Dannie, who continued, “but there’s bad blood between ‘im and Wesley.”
“Why is that?”
“You know Vicente’s daughter?”
“Well, her and Jim used to be pretty thick, but seems Wesley’s got the inside track now. Don’t the boys talk about it in your camp?”
“Oh, no; Wesley’ll never say anything, and the boys won’t talk about it when he’s round.”
“Jim doesn’t say much either. We knew he was mad as hell about something, but it wasn’t till yesterday before we caught on. There was a lot of punchers at the store yesterday afternoon when that Mexican gal came ridin’ up on Wesley’s strawberry roan. The boys begun to ask each other, ‘What’s up now? Wesley cuttin’ Jim out?’ And that’s the way the boys are talking now! Worst of it was when she rode up to the door. I guess she must have asked someone to get her mail. Jim came out to meet her. You ought to seen the way she wheeled that pony round and showed tracks to Jim! Some of the Seven-Up men say there’ll be hell to pay yet, ‘cause Jim was goin’ to marry that gal this fall when he’s done shippin’ beeves.”
We drifted away on other things, till Dannie suggested that I go to the store to find out what was going on, while he rode round the horses to bunch them closer together. Near the ford, I met Paca on her way home from the store. She was riding Comanche, and at first hardly noticed me; but when she saw the small Turkey Track brand on the left hip of my pony, her little plump olive cheeks deep back in a white linen bonnet suddenly beamed up, and her large, sparkling black eyes seemed to ask me to speak. Her complexion, eyes, and hair were so much like Wesley’s that I would have taken her at once for his sister. Just before I started down the river bank, I stopped and turned in the saddle. She was then galloping leisurely up the trail; her bonnet had blown back on her shoulders, and her loose black heir streamed out behind.
Late that afternoon, when Donnie and I were riding round our herds together, Bob Thompson and Jim King came over to us. They called Dannie to one side for a few minutes, and then returned towards the ford. Dannie galloped up to me and said hurriedly, “it’s time for the race, Johnnie. Let’s get our hosses back ‘cross the river.” He went ahead with his herd. The other horse rustlers with their herds scattered over the valley saw what Dannie and I were doing, and so followed us with their horses. I left my herd grazing round the camp, galloped up the valley beyond the store to the race-track, and joined the crowd of cattle-men who were assembled at the finish.
It was a straightaway quarter-mile track of two narrow parallel paths twenty feet apart. Betting was still going on, and the Seven-Up horse was still the favorite. I got into the crowd in time to watch the ponies go by. Bob, Jim, and three or four men accompanied Dannie, who was riding the mouse-colored Graylock. Shortly afterwards came young Pablo on Comanche, in company with Wesley and a half-dozen other cowboys. Everybody was comparing the ponies. Comanche’s heavy flowing mane and tail made him look heavier, but his movement was light and springy. Graylock stepped lazily and slowly, but he looked and carried himself like a greyhound.
Each party held a brief conference round its horse and rider. Suddenly there was breathless silence in the crowd, as a cowboy rode down to the start, and called the horses on. Dannie and Pablo walked their ponies about forty yards below the start, then wheeled them round together in a cloud of dust and came leaping up to the line: The pop of the starter’s six-shooter sent them over like a bullet.
Everyone saw that Comanche had a lead, but that Graylock was closing in upon him. At the three hundred flag the two ponies were even, and Graylock seemed to be gradually slipping ahead. The Seven Up men and their friends began to yell, “Come on, Dannie! Come on!” Dannie howled and screamed to distract Comanche, and at the same time laid the switch heavily upon his own pony. But Graylock could not increase his lead. They came down the trail in a flurry of hoof-beats. About thirty feet from the finish, Pablo cut Comanche for the first time across the flanks with his whip, and sent the little roan over the line a full neck ahead of Graylock. Instantly six-shooters popped, men whooped, yelled, swung sombreros in the air, and then rushed like cattle in a stampede behind the two boys, who headed their ponies straight for the Turkey Track and Seven-Up camps.
Wesley had sent Pablo home on Comanche with a message that he would come as soon as the mounts were hobbled. It was now sunset and there was still a large crowd of cowboys in our camp when we began hobbling our ponies for the night. Presently the horses, which three of us were trying to hold in a V-shaped rope corral while the rest of the men did the hobbling, began to cut up, disturbed by the approach of a galloping body of horsemen. And in the midst of the confusion, Jim King, his face flushed with anger, dashed up to where we were. Quickly dismounting, he approached Wesley, who was in the act of dropping a lasso over the head of a pony he was going to hobble, and brusquely demanded—“Wesley, I’ve come for another race!”
“Guess you can have it,” replied Wesley calmly, turning about, and at the same time dropping his lasso.
“It’s six hundred yards this time,” said Jim harshly.
“Can’t do it, Jim,” replied Wesley, shaking his head. “My horse can’t run six hundred.”
“Split the difference, boys, an’ make it five!” a cowboy yelled from the crowd, which had now thronged about us in such a hubbub that we had to drop the corral ropes and turn the horses loose.
“I’ll do that,” said Wesley, good-naturedly.
“It’s six hundred yards or no race!” exclaimed Jim, whose temper began to show that it was not another race he was so anxious for, after all.
“Then it’s no race.”
“Don’t give a man chance to win his money back, eh?” sneered Jim.
Wesley instantly grew pale to the lips. Jim watched him reach into his hip-pocket and pull out the roll of bills that Comanche had won. Wesley stepped within reach of Jim, and, handing the money over to him, said in a voice slightly trembling, “Take you money, Jim. I don’t want it.”
Jim refused; whereupon Wesley stepped back a yard or two and flung the money in the grass at Jim’s feet. Then both exchanged looks for a second.
“Wesley,” said Jim coolly, edging slowly backward and looking Wesley sharply in the face, “take your money an’ your hoss an’ go straight to hell with ‘em!” And then, with his right hand on his Colt’s six-shooter that hung at his side, he added defiantly, “An’ you can take that little Mexican bitch ‘long too!”
Instantly Wesley whipped out his revolver; but before he could fire, Jim sent a bullet into his left shoulder. Wesley spun once round, and fired the instant Jim made his second shot. Both men took each other in the breast. Wesley dropped like an empty meal-sac, dead in the very instant; while Jim, reeling towards his pony, was caught and laid on the grass by four or five cowboys, who had scrambled, as most of us had, out of line of the shooting. They tore open his shirt to stop the flow of blood; but at the end of a minute or two he too had ceased breathing.
In the dawn of the following morning, while the gray mist still hung heavily over the river and valley, we Turkey Track men wrapped Wesley in his blankets and tarpaulin and buried him in Vicente’s pony pasture, close by the Lone Star trail. Pablo, Vicente and the girl were there with us; and when we were done, we climbed into our saddles, and rode away as quietly as we had come, leaving the three figures standing there against a background of scattered ponies.
It was nearly sunrise before we began rounding up our mounts, and by this time all the other camps were breaking. The Seven-Up outfit had already gone. On the way to our wagon with our horses, we saw under a tall cottonwood, a step or two from the place where the Seven-Up men had camped, a mound of fresh earth. At one end of it was stuck a pine slab from a cracker-box, which bore very indistinctly this inscription printed with charcoal:
Cevn uP punCHER goD
Nose wen oR wHar Hee waZ
Born jiM Ran ginst Hes joKR
FuLin witH WimiN AN raCe
Hoses Then OL mAn KaLLd
Hem To HedKwarTers
wiTH Hes BooTS oN APrl
30 18—Day BFoR
ThE SpriNg Rond