A tintype of Ad Spaugh--his first photograph--taken in Dodge City, Kansas, July 4, 1876
Last updated: March 3, 2020
Niobrara County Historical Society / Stagecoach Museum
March 1, 1940
As told by Frazier Hunt, originally published in The Country Gentleman, December 1939, January, February, and March 1940
The herd was on the well-marked trail for Kansas-the Chisholm Trail. Up to now it had been a lucky drive. At the San Antonio River crossing, Raymond had made a fresh count that showed actually five head over the number they had started with.
At the start the trail boss had pushed the herd fast, and when night came the big steers and she-stuff were always so tired they were glad enough to lie down and rest. For the initial week, half the men stood guard half of each night, There’d been one or two little stampeded despite even these precautions, but the animals had never run more than a mile or two before the men got them turned and milling. Soon they’d have them drifted back to their bed ground, and the singing would lull them to rest.
After that first week on the trail, two men, working in two-hour shifts, rode night herd. Each evening Pancho brought in the remuda, and every man in the outfit roped and saddled his favorite night horse. He’d either tie him to the wagon or stake him out close to hand.
Once or twice when it looked as if there might be a heavy storm, George Ray and one or two of the men knotted their bridle reins and slipped the nooses over their elbows; then they slept with their boots and clothes on, with their horses at their heads. In five seconds from the moment a call for help came they could be in the saddle.
Ad was paired off to night herd with Old Levit Wells. Levit was steady and experienced, and in point of years the oldest man in the outfit. He had served through out the war with a Texas cavalry brigade, and he was known on the rails as the sweetest-singing night herder that ever put a bunch of ornery critters to rest. When he sang a Texas lullaby to a herd of longhorns it seemed as if he hypnotically charmed them with his voice, just as an East Indian fakir charms a basket of flat-headed cobras with his flute.
Levit had a heavy brown beard, and he’d sort of part it, and leaning back in his saddle, throw up his head and cut loose. His special cow tamer had the strange cadence and soothing rhythm of a Sioux love song; most of the time it had no words except that he would end it with a “who-o-a, boys!”
Then again Old Levit sang hymns, and often on warm moonlit nights. Nellie Gray was his favorite. Ad would ride one way around the night herd and Levit the other. Inside the circle, lying peacefully with their legs folded under them, and contentedly chewing their cuds, would be the 2800 steers and cows.
Levit and Ad had the twelve-to-two trick, and usually that was the time of the night when the stars were popping the loudest and the moon was warmest and brightest. That old blue army coat Porcupine had given Ad on the Cottonwood sure came in handy. Even if the night was clear and alluring, and Levit was singing his level best, the cool air and sharp breezes sweeping down from off the North Star sent a chill into a fellow’s bones.
The ponies needed no guiding as they slowly circled the bunched-up herd. But a man didn’t dare to get down because his horse might shake himself, and the strange sound of flapping stirrups might easily bring a herd to its feet and start it stampeding. Anything unusual could do that; a match being struck, a horse stumbling, a coyote or lobo wolf barking close by, a buffalo bull bellowing in the distance, the smell of a skunk. Even less than that might snap a herd to its feet if it was in the wrong mood.
Men could tell instinctively when cattle were restless and on the prod. They were always that way if they were bedded down hungry and thirsty. At times trouble seemed to be in the very air.
Animals could sense a storm or change in the weather, just as an old campaigner packing his battle wounds could feel the weather in his joints. Singing helped keep them quiet on these nights. They knew everything was all right then, and that they were being cared for.
At nights it seemed to Ad that he hardly got to sleep before Joe Wing, one of the men on the ten-to -twelve shift, rode in from the herd and touched him on the shoulder. Half awake, Ad would roll out of his blankets, pull on his boots, slip on his old army overcoat and hat, and hustle quietly over to his pony, nodding by the wagon. Old Levit would catch up with him before they reached the herd, maybe a quarter mile away. Lem Adams, the second night herder, would be singing softly to the cattle, and when the two men came in sight Lem’d drift on back to camp.
Often Ad nodded in his saddle as Bluebird slowly circled the herd. Sometimes it seemed like hours before Old Levit spoke low to him when they met, making their opposite circles, and motioned for him to go on back to camp and awaken the next guard.
It took Ad a long time to figure out how Levit knew when the two hours were up. Ad was sure he didn’t have a watch- Raymond had the only one in camp, and at night that was kept in the coffee grinder nailed to the back end of the grub box, so anyone could make use of it.
One night after he’d awakened the new guard, Ad rode back toward the herd, and when the relief came pulled up alongside Levit on his way to camp. “You said you’d show me how you told time by the stars,” the boy reminded the old troubadour.
“All right, son, Now look. See that there North Star? Now see the near corner of the Big dipper? Then you see that star between ‘em, and a little off to the left? Now when that star gets just there at this time of year, I know it’s right on to two o’clock. And if I get singing and carried away with my own music, Rawhide here, he starts a-leanin’ on the reins and I know it’s time to pull for camp.”
Each morning after an early breakfast the boys’ first job was to hold the ends of the heavy fifty-foot ropes that were tied to the front and rear wheels of the wagon, forming three sides of a crude horse corral. Raymond or George Ray would dab ropes on whatever mount the two boys sung out they wanted for the morning’s work-Brandy, Hard Tack, Big Enough, Sandy, Ginger Snaps, Bluebird, or maybe Arizona or Comanche, or one of the other ponies in their string.
By the time the men reached the bedding ground, possibly a half mile away from the camp, the cattle would be spread out and grazing. After two or three hours some of the older steers seemed to know that it was time to hit the trail and get down to business.
Three or four rangy old critters always took the lead, and the rest of them strung along more or less in the same relative position day after day. The straggles, and those with sore feet, naturally dropped behind and made up the drags.
Behind them, walking their ponies in the rising dust, rode Ad and Ollie. Far ahead, scouting for water and a camp ground, was the trail boss. A few rods back from the leaders, riding on each side of the herd, came the points, Levit Wells and George Ray. They saw to it that the herd was headed right, and by a little pressure on the leaders turned the long line as they chose.
The 2800 head strung out for the best part of a mile. In some places they bunched up eight or ten head deep. But usually they walked along by twos and threes, and sometimes even in single file. Back a hundred yards on each side of the herd from the points rode the swing men. Then below them, one on each side, came the flankers. This gave three mounted men on each side of the long column, with two dragmen in the rear, urging on the lazy and the lame. Part of the time the chuck wagon trailed behind the herd, with Pancho and his remuda taking the dust of the whole outfit.
It wasn’t much fun for the little boys riding the drags. Often for hours the dust kicked up was so heavy Ad would have to tie the big red bandana he’d bought at San Antonio around his face so that only his red-rimmed eyes were exposed. Then he’d ride over to Ollie and motion him to pull up his own handkerchief around his face. Ollie was good around horses and stock, but he was wild and scatterbrained. Ad worried about him a good deal.
The long hours in the saddle, with the strain of the night herd, naturally was harder on Ollie than anyone else. After all, he was barely thirteen.
And sometimes in the afternoons when Ollie’s pony lolled along, nosing ahead some lazy cow of his own accord, Ad would suddenly realize that his little brother was asleep in his saddle, plumb worn out. Ad’d be nearly played out too. For one thing packing that big Colt was a task in itself. But Ad figured some day he’d have to use it on Buck Jenkins, and he wanted it where he could get at it.
It was all hard, monotonous work. Now and again there’d be moments that lifted the dreary hours out of the dust of the trail and make them shine like jewels. When they crossed rolling bits of country, and the tail end of the herd topped a rise of ground where there was breeze enough to blow away the dust, the little boys would pull up their ponies and drink in the picture that spread out before their eyes. Almost as far ahead as their vision reached, wound the moving herd, with horns flashing in the bright sunlight-and the whole living scene blanketed by a primeval silence, broken only by the solemn lowing of thirty steers dreaming of water. Then the hearts of the two brave little pilgrims filled with a strange, unexplainable exaltation-and elemental joy at being part of this epic adventure.
Around noon each day the herd left the trail and watered at some chosen creek. Then for two or three hours half the men rested under the shade of the wagon or in some tiny grove of trees on a creek bottom, while Baldy prepared dinner. As soon as they finished eating, they relieved their mates guarding the grazing herd.
Around two o’clock they threw the cattle back on the trail and did another five or six miles before they checked the herd to graze again. Each day they pounded off around twelve miles before twilight dropped down. Then the men slowly eased the herd into a tight circle. Old Levit or George Ray soon started singing, and before long the whole 2800 animals were lying down, chewing their cuds and lazily swishing their long tails. Then the two men on the first night trick took over the herd.
Slowly the western half of the sky turned to rose, while rich blues and purples captured the eastern half. The stars popped out; at times they seemed so close that Ad felt that if he rose high in his stirrups he could pluck a handful.
After supper the tired men sat on their heels around the fire, or sprawled out in the grass a s rested on their elbows. Then came the tales of stampeded and pardners killed, of bad horses and big nights, and soft-eyed Mexican senoritas in border fandangos; and stories of Indian raids, that were followed by long moments of silence. From fat away sounded the bark of a sneaking coyote, or the dreaded night cry of a lobo wolf.
A lonesome waddie’d dig in the back of the chuck wagon and fish out Old Levit’s fiddle and hand it to him. And before long George would be singing the words of The Dying Cowboy;
“Oh bury me not on the lone prairie,” These words came low and mournfully, From the pallid lips of a youth who, On his dying bed at the close of the day."
Before the embers of the fire died out there might be a hymn or two. Always death seemed to ride close at hand. And never was relentless Nature, hard and unpitying, far behind. Lives were snuffed out, tragedies enacted, harsh dreams unfolded-yet the drive went on.
Destiny itself was no more certain or no more determined.
There was something ominous and foreboding in the air this night. Clouds rolled in and banked up to the north and west. For a time, the heated atmosphere was almost oppressive. Soon it was replaced by a wave of cold air.
“You men of the second night guard better get out to the cattle pronto,” Raymond ordered. “If this storm hits, we’ll need everybody.”
The trail boss rode out to the bed grounds with the two men. The cattle were already on their feet and restless. The extra riders began circling, but their singing didn’t seem to help quiet the animals.
The angry, yellow-red sun had gone down an hour before. Nothing was right or natural. And now the echoes of rolling thunder drifted in. Then lightning in crazy-quilt designs began zigzagging across the distant sky.
Almost as quickly as the turn of a stage switch the sickly yellow blacked out and darkness covered everything. It was midnight-cold. Then a high wind, chased by blinding rain, hit the herd. At the same moment lightning let loose close at hand.
“Keep ‘em millin’ to the right,” Raymond shouted, as a zigzag sheet of lightning flashed the picture of the four men of the last two guards coming in to help. All hands but the cook and the horse wrangler were out with the herd now.
Between claps of thunder the bawling of the terrified steers could be heard above the swish and fury of the rain. The break might come at any moment. The lightning was cracking as regularly as shots from a six-gun, snaking across the horizon like the crazy throw of some giants’ lasso.
Balls of fire spun for the fraction of a second on the tips of the long horns, leaping from one head to another as if they were playing some fantastic game of follow the leader. Again these globes of fire hugged the wet earth, darting to and from like frightened red squirrels.
Then a bolt hit squarely into the herd. The frenzied animals broke toward the south, thundering through the wild storm.
The men caught directly in the path gave their ponies their heads. Riders and mounts alike raced madly for their lives. They could almost feel the hot breath of the fear-crazed animals on their backs.
The tossing field of horns swept by. . . Men could reach out and touch the heaving sides of the terrified creatures. Cattle and horsed were racing neck and neck in the turbulent darkness.
A minute-two minutes went by. Old Levit and George, saved form the certain death that would have been theirs if the mad charge had swept over them, pressed against the left flank of the leaders. Their only hope of checking the wild run was to force the herd to circle. A flash showed them a third rider. It was Ollie; his pony was keeping up with them, and he was close to the herd. But Death was still riding stirrup to stirrup.
It seemed to the men that they had raced for miles when they sensed that they were slowly turning the leaders to the right. Shouting, quirting, swearing, they bent the maddened herd. Soon the steers were running in a great circle.
The storm had exhausted itself. The rain slackened and the thunders ceased playing its fantastic kettle-drums.
Off to the left, Old Levit’s voice could be heard singing his night lullaby--the one that sounded like and Indian love song. The night was still black, and men and animals were far from home. But the trail boss was certain that he had the big end of his herd in this single bunch which was slowly quieting down.
He recognized Ad’s voice in the darkness. “Seen Ollie?” the boy questioned.
Raymond shouted in the negative. He hadn’t even thought about the two punks.
A distant flash showed the boy the outline of a figure on a gray horse. He rode over close. “Seen Ollie?”
Old Levit shouted his no. The he eased off his lullaby and megaphoned his words: “He was ridin’ with me and George at the start.”
He’d be all right, Ad figured. He could ride like a regular peeler. And Ginger Snaps, the night horse that Raymond had cut out for him, was as sure-footed as a mountain mule.
The intense darkness eased up a little. The men were slowly bringing the herd into a smaller circle. After a while Ad could make out four other figures. None of them was Ollie, but that didn’t mean anything. His little brother would be off with some of the other men trying to locate bunches that had broken loose.
Raymond rode up and recognized Ad. “Go on in and get some coffee,” he said in a kindly voice. “Camp’s straight behind you.”
Ad could see a distant glow. Old Baldy always carried a little cache of dry wood in his rawhide caddy, under his wagon bed, and he’d got a fire going.
Ad was just finishing his big tin cup of black coffee when Pancho came up, leading a riderless horse, with empty stirrups flapping like broken wings. It was Ginger Snaps, right enough.
“Where—where’s Ollie?” Ad stammered.
“Quien sabe, muchacho?—who knows, boy?” Thees pony he come hisself to the remuda.”
Ad ran to his horse and mounted. For a second he studied the night. Then he headed to the left, at right angles to the spot where the animals were being held.
Ollie’ll be out there somewhere—lying in the mud, crumpled up and cold. Maybe he couldn’t move, maybe he’d been stamped to death. “Oh god,” he murmured. “Oh God, help me find him.”
Then, wrapped in awful certainty, with his eyes searching the ground, he slowly walked his horse into the black night. He didn’t bother to tell the others. They had all they could tend to: they had to hold the herd.
Now and again he lifted his head and shouted into the darkness: “Ollie! Ollie! Ollie!”
But there was not even an echo for an answer.
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