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
It was turning daybreak when Ad saw something lying in the mud, half propped against a scrub oak. “Maybe that’s him,” he whispered to Bluebird, touching the flanks of the tired mount with his spurs. Bluebird trotted across the slippery red clay toward the tree. Ad strained his eyes in the weird light of the dawn.
“Ollie! Ollie! Is that you?” he shouted.
Then he saw that it was his little brother. But there was no answer to his calls.
He sank his spurs into Bluebird and pushed in closer. Then Ad pulled him up sharp, dropped his reins to the ground and slid off. In a second he was kneeling in the mud, his arms around the wet, tousled head.
“Ollie! Ollie! You—you—dead?”
He felt the little body straightening out. Then he checked his sobs. Ollie wasn’t dead. He hadn’t been killed. He was living. He wasn’t dead.
Ad’s grimy hand patted his brother’s face. Through the tears he looked down at him . Ollie’s eyes opened.
“Hello, Ad,” the little boy whispered. “Oooh! That hurts.”
“You’re all right, Ollie. Don’t worry! Everything’s all right.”
Ollie tried to sit up. “It’s my collarbone, I guess,” he stammered. “Ginger Snaps fell with me—and when I came to, he was gone.”
Ad eased him back against the tree trunk. “Don’t worry. Everything’ll be all right now, Ollie. Raymond’ll help us. . .You can ride in the chuck wagon with old Baldy. Everything’s all right.”
It hurt when he moved, but Ollie grinned and shook his head. “Guess that’s about the worst stampede ever was, Ad.”
“And you did fine, Ollie. Fella ain’t to blame when his horse falls.”
The little brother looked up and flashed his gratitude. “When I came to it was black as pitch,” he explained. “It hurt like everything to walk. When I saw this tree in a flash of lightnin’, I just came over here and laid down. Guess I musta went to sleep. “
“That’s all right, Ollie. Tell you what we’ll do; we’ll tie our two handkerchiefs together so’s they’ll hold your right arm down, and then I’ll put you on Bluebird and we’ll get back to camp.”
It took only a minute to get Ollie strapped up. Then Ad helped him to where the pony was standing, head down, half asleep. He held the stirrup for Ollie, and with his right hand boosted him to the saddle. Then, holding the reins in his left hand, he moved on out ahead on foot.
They’d been walking a minute or two when Ollie spoke: “You can get on behind, Ad. Blue won’t care.”
The older brother considered the proposition. Suddenly he felt a great weariness come over him. Fear for Ollie and then the joy of finding him alive, had sustained him up to this moment. But now it had run out.
Ollie pulled his foot from the left stirrup. “Give me the reins,” he said softly. “I’m all right now.”
It seemed as if he had suddenly become the older brother. He had to look over Ad now.
Ollie leaned forward over the pommel, and Ad managed to swing on behind the cantle. He put his arms around his younger brother. Refreshed and spiritually lifted by his new responsibility, Ollie gripped the saddle skirts with his sturdy legs.
He touched the pony’s flanks ever so lightly. “All right, Bluebird,” he whispered. “Let’s get back to camp.”
He could feel Ad’s head bumping his good shoulder. Then Ad’s body seemed to be leaning against his back. The arms about him relaxed ever so little. Ad had given up. He was sleeping.
Ollie shifted the reins to his right hand. It hurt him even to move his fingers, but he didn’t mind. With his left hand he reached back and held Ad tight against him.
It was lighter now. And off to the west, across the wet prairie, he could make out the camp.
The outfit wasted a day rounding up the scattered cattle and making a fresh count. Early in the morning the trail boss assigned George Ray to take Ollie on ahead to the doctor in Austin.
The following day the outfit nooned near rocky little Onion Creek, ten miles south of the budding capital city. The night camp was made five miles on north, and early the next day they crossed the Colorado at the regular cattle ford, three miles east of town. Hackberry and scrub oak lined the trail that led to the steep, red-clay south bank. The sandy-bottomed river, with its shifting, uncertain course, was almost a fifth of a mile wide on this March day of 1872, but it was only wading deep.
Raymond led the first bunch of steers across; he’d ordered that not more than five hundred head be put over at a time. It was an easy matter to bring over the rest of the herd in batches, with the remuda of horses at the end. Baldy looked a little askance at the wide gray waters, but decided to chance the grub wagon with his two yoke of oxen. That night the outfit camped five miles north of the river and the town of Austin.
“Thought we’d have to swim that there Colorado,” Ad confided to Levit Wells. An adventure he’d looked forward to hadn’t come off.
The old waddie looked over at the boy and scratched his bushy beard. “That little river? Say, son, that ain’t nothin’. Wait till we hit the Red River. Now there’s a river! She’s meaner’n a she-bear with the toothache. I’m always glad when she’s behind us.”
At noon the following day George Ray and Ollie caught up the outfit. Ollie had the upper part of his right arm taped tight to his body. When the doctor cut off yards of dirty wagon-canvas stripe that Old Baldy had used to tie down the arm, the kindly physician smiled over his iron-rimmed spectacles. “I’ll bet your cook did that,” he chuckled. “Not a half-bad job. My boy, you be nice to that cooky of yours and always see that he has plenty of dry wood.”
Raymond Cloud explained to Ollie that he wouldn’t have to do his night-herd trick for a few days. When the boy asked him who’d take his place the trail boss admitted he’d do it.
“Much obliged, Raymond,” the little fellow said stubbornly. “But I’m fine now. I can do it myself.”
But that night Ollie slept right through until he heard the cook calling the men for breakfast. He was put out at Raymond, but the trail boss explained that he guessed he’d plumb forgotten to change his orders and have the man coming in from herd awaken Ollie instead of himself. When this happened again on the following night, and Ollie showed a mixture of fight and tears, the boss said he’d remember to have Ollie called. But somehow it was quite a little after the appointed hour when Lem Adams woke him up. It wasn’t until they’d passed Fort Worth that Ollie found out Lem was giving him an extra hours’ sleep.
The cow trail north from Austin was well marked and already beginning to cut deep at the river and creek crossings. In this country, and at this time of year, there was plenty of water for man and beast. Sometimes there would be wet camps both noon and night, but the trail boss was best satisfied if he had the herd well-watered at noon and then made a dry camp at night.
Off to the west of the trail, five or six miles away, ran a high ridge known as the Balcones Escarpment, or fault, stretching roughly north from San Antonio to the Fort Worth country. It was the true boundary of that mythical land of danger and hardship called the West. Beyond was Indian country—buffalo country—the restless frontier.
Landscape and terrain varied as the herd moved slowly northward, Red clay dotted with bush and scrub oak, replaced rich, black, alluvial soil, to be followed by lazy rolling grass country, cut by deep creek bottoms already flushing March rains.
For the most part the streams flowed to the southeastward. With strange, unaccountable regularity they cut in parallel strips across the prairie—Brush Creek, Salado Creek, Lampasas River, Nolan Creek, the narrow Leon River—and then near the future city of Waco, the tree-bordered Brazos, already far-famed in song and story. Then came Cobb and North Chambers creeks. Twenty miles south of the booming little trading town called Fort Worth, scrub oak and elm dotted the rolling grasslands that gave way on all sides.
Directly south of Fort Worth, boasting its 1500 population, the trail swung to the eastward and crossed the Trinity, a mile or two east of the village. There had been no rain for several days when the outfit reached the banks of the stream. Raymond had scouted ahead of the previous afternoon and was certain the herd would have no trouble in crossing. He ordered the wagon to move on ahead and use the regular ferry.
The herd neared the river well before noon, but Raymond held them a half mile back from the banks. “It’s dangerous to try to cross cattle when the sun is in their eyes,” he explained. “We’ll wait till afternoon.”
It was a little before three when Raymond had the herd strung out and moved toward the river. Most of the riders were ordered to the right flank to keep the cattle from drifting downstream. The trail boss himself led the way, the herd following close behind. They took to the river like old troopers.
The spring floods had scooped out two or three holes in the shifting sandy bottom, but horses and cattle had no difficulty in swimming these several narrow, although deep, channels. They would swim twenty or thirty feet, then their hoofs would catch the bottom of the shallower spots.
For the next two days the trail ran through rich, flat lands and then cut through broken country, with lakes shimmering in the sunlight. The fourth day out from Fort Worth they entered a rough, wooded section and passed through a timbered belt with heavy reddish soil. The land grew rougher and less inviting. Mesquite and low cactus dotted the countryside. Narrow streams, running brick-red water, roared between steep cut-banks.
They were now on the edge of the forbidding Cross timbers. In spots it was a Bad Lands in miniature, with fantastic buttes and forges cut by wind and water. Then would come sandy stretches; between were dense woods of short scrub oak. The trail wound like a snaked through the deep woods, across the sands, around the crazy buttes and across the creek bottoms.
“We’ll hit red river crossing by noon tomorrow,” Ad heard Raymond prophesy. “Hope it don’t rain tonight; reckon the river is plenty high enough as it is.”
But it did rain, and all hands were in the saddle most of the night keeping the cattle bunched on the bed ground. It slackened toward dawn and there was no stampede. But the men were soaked and sullen from exposure and hunger. For twenty-four hours they been on duty, without sleep or rest. The wet and chill were soaking into their bones.
The outfit started moving northward in a cold drizzle. The longhorns reflected the weather and the uncertainty. It kept the men on the flanks riding hard to turn back the bellowing revolters that were constantly making wild breaks for the brush. Such makeshifts for raincoats and ponchos as the hands possessed were long before wet through, and there was not a dry man in the outfit.
A few years later, when the study yellow slickers became popular, cowboys had a better chance to keep dry. Even Ad’s blue army overcoat, with the flapping cape, was no longer turning the steady drizzle.
By four that afternoon the trail boss, who had been scouting ahead, slowed up the herd. “Might as well let ‘em graze and then throw them on the bed ground early,” he explained. “The river’s higher’n a cat’s back and still rising. There’s two other herds camped on Salt Creek right behind us. Mac Stewart, who’s boss of the first on ‘em, says he’s never seen the Red looking any meaner.“
When Old Baldy got his instructions, he pointed his oxen toward a clump of scrub oak, swearing none too softly at his double yoke, the weather, the longhorns, the river and the universe in general. He still had a little dry wood left in the caddy nailed to the bottom of the wagon, but there wouldn’t be much to eat this night. The men would be lucky if they got hot coffee and half -cooked bacon and biscuits.
The men caught their fresh mounts and transferred their soggy blankets and saddles. They had had thirty-six hours of misery without a moment’s letup. But Buck Jenkins was the only one in the outfit who made no effort to control the raw edges of his exhaustion and bad temper. As usual he took it out on the two boys.
“How can anybody expect to tun an outfit with a coupla punks like you two yellow-bellied Yanks around?” he snarled, as he pushed his horse up to Ollie, who was getting ready to step up on his mount.
Ollie cringed under the tongue lashing, and for a moment it looked to Ad as if Buck were going to slap down his young brother. Ad’s hand dropped to side, but he realized he was not wearing his six gun. There was nothing to do but keep still and take the insult. Ollie was on the verge of tears when Buck swung his horse around and sank in his spurs. “Don’t mind that, Ollie,” Ad said gently. “We’ll get even with him one of these days.”
“He might kill us, Ad.“
The herd was getting mean and unreasonable too. All that was needed was a little lightening to bring on a stampede that all the cow hands in Texas couldn’t check. Every man was on his horse and out with the herd. Slowly and with what passed for patience they pushed the cattle into a tighter night circle. They wouldn’t bed down in this wet, but the men had a chance of holding them together if they kept them bunched up, and then started them milling if anything did happen. That night there was no sleep for anyone except the cook.
Baldy somehow or other managed a little breakfast. The men didn’t even bother to swear anymore; they were too exhausted from their forty-eight hours constantly in the saddle—and besides they were sworn out. They figured they’d better save their breath for the river. They had that still to cross. And they all realized what this steady rain was doing to it.
During the day the men rode by pairs the two miles to the bank of the wide, rolling stream. It was swimming high, and sprawled over its mile-wide channel. In stretches it tossed and rolled, and now and again trunks of trees and heavy chunks of driftwood swung by, bobbing and dancing in the yellow-red waters as if they had been made of cork. Ad stared wide-eyed and open-mouthed at the terrifying spectacle.
“How in the world can a horse or steer swim a mile in water like that, Levit?” he finally asked of his night-herd partner.
The old waddie, hunched up over the pommel of his saddle like a wet crow, shook his head. “Ain’t no horse livin’ can swim a mile straight off with a man on his back,” he said with a grunt. “That river bottom’s sand and when she comes sweepin’ in big, like she is now, she cuts out deep holes. That’s where you have to swim. Half the time it’s shallow enough to walk your horse. Something like the Colorado was, only ten times worse. It’s them tree trunks, and that sand that comes a-churnin’ to the top, that knocks a man."
Reckon Raymond’ll try it?” Ad questioned.
“Not unless he’s gone plumb loco.”
At noon that day the drizzle ceased and by midafternoon the sun came out. The men and animals could dry out a little now. But the river was still to cross. Before night dropped down, the men made second and even third trips to the steep, slippery south bank, examining the country up and down the mouth of Salt Creek. It was rumored that Mac Stewart, who was holding his herd just to the south, wanted to push through and cross his three thousand steers the next morning in spite of hell and high water.
Morning came clear and bright, and the day promised to be warm. The men were out with the herd when George Ray and the trail boss came back from inspection. All hands, on fresh mounts and refreshed with a hot breakfast and three or four hours of sleep, gathered to hear the news.
“We’ll try it,” Raymond said slowly, “We’ll try to put the whole herd in at the same time. Mac Stewart’s men will give us a hand. We’ll need to haze ‘em hard when they get to the water.”
They strung out the herd and moved them down the well-beaten trail. The country was rough, and at this point the trail was a good two hundred yards wide, winding in and out of the creek bottom. Near where the Salt emptied into the Red, the cut bank was worn down by the tens of thousands of steers that had used this crossing during the past four years.
“Keep ‘em moving fast and then pour it on ‘em when the leaders hit water,” Raymond shouted.
Mac Stewart and four of his men joined the flankers. The trail boss galloped back to Ad and Ollie on the drags.
“You boys stay out of the water until the herd gets across,” he ordered. “I’ll come back for you then. We don’t want to get anybody drowned.”
The lead steers were on the run when they hit the water. There was a three-foot drop from the bank, and before the animals knew it they were in the stream and swimming.
The men popped their quirts and shouted, pushing the cattle almost on top of the beeves already in the river. In two minutes a third of the herd was swimming. Then somehow or other the herd broke in two and the last half refused to take the river. Nothing could stop them as they broke back through the brush.
In the wild muddy waters, dotted with floating tree trunks, the fifteen hundred head were swimming toward the middle of the stream. The two foremen and a half dozen men swam their horses on the lower flanks, sighting to keep the animals headed straight across. Downstream the opposite bank was steep and unapproachable. Men and animals could easily drown there trying to get out of the river. At all cost the herd must be kept from being swept downstream in the strong current. It would be suicide if the herd tried to leave the river below the point where the trail hit the high cut-banks on the opposite shore line.
From a high point on the south bank Ad got a glimpse of the drama that spread out below him. He could make out Raymond and Levit and the others of the right side of the herd, heading their low swimming horses close to the cattle. They were struggling desperately to keep the animals headed upstream.
Then the thing happened—the thing he had heard all men tell about in tense sentences around campfires. The longhorns began to mill. In a moment the fifteen hundred were a mad, senseless whirlpool of tossing horns. All reason, all instinct for self-preservation, had gone.
Like some giant top they spun in a great circle in the dangerous waters.
Raymond, George, Levit—all of them—headed into the maelstrom. Horses were as brave and unafraid as the men. They knew the job they had to do—to get this crazed herd headed for one bank or the other. Nothing mattered as long as they got them to land.
The men turned their swimming horses straight into the tossing horns. They charged. They yelled. They fired their six guns.
Ad forgot about the rest of the herd scattering in the brush behind him. He urged his horse toward the riverbank. Then he saw something that made him turn cold with fear and horror.
Old Levit, swimming alongside his pony and holding fast by his right had to the pommel of his saddle, had worked his way into the outer rim of the milling herd. Ad, fascinated with his mad courage, suddenly saw him disappear almost directly underneath a flashing pair of long horns. The sharp hoofs of the maddened creature’s feet must have caught him, ripping him with the force of a dull ax. His horse, riderless and out of control, headed for the opposite bank.
Ad caught a fleeting glimpse of his old partner in the swirling red waters. The murderous current was sweeping him downstream.
The boy put his spurs to Bluebird and turned him toward the river. His rope was already down; he had been whipping steers with the hondoo. Instinctively he shook out the hemp and built a loop.
Levit, half-conscious, was bobbing In the rusty waters thirty yards away, when Ad headed Bluebird from the bank into the river. For a second he lost sight of the drowning, injured man. Then he saw him again. He was not more than twenty yards away. The tawny waters swept over him. Again he appeared. He was a scant fifteen feet distant now. Ad shouted and threw his loop. “Grab it,” he yelled. “Hold it! Hold it!”
He headed the swimming Bluebird for the bank. He could feel his rope tighten. By some freak the loop had caught his partner’s arm.
In a moment he had the bearded old cowboy dragged up the bank. Men watching on the shore rushed up to help. Ad jumped from his horse and ran back.
Old Levit was unconscious not. Blood was oozing form his torn shirt. Anxious hands ripped open the front. There across his chest was a horrible gash, cutting through the right breast halfway down to the stomach.
A hundred yards upstream Ad could hear the shouting men, and then the roar of the herd thundering up the bank. They had broken the mill and the maddened cattle were turning back to the south bank that they had left only a few minutes before.
“A steer’s hoof caught him when he was swimming close in,” someone explained. “Looks like he’s a goner.”
Ad ran to his horse and galloped toward the cattle that were clambering up the riverbank. “Raymond! Raymond! For God’s sake come here!” he shouted.
With the last animal out of the river, the trail boss hurried toward the boy. “What’s the matter, Ad?” What’s up?”
The boy pointed to where Levit was lying on the riverbank. “Old Levit’s dying! A steer ripped him wide open!”
The boss led the way on the gallop. In ten seconds he was off his horse and examining the wound.
Pushing his soaked hat back from his dripping head, he said softly: “Maybe we can save him. We got a chance. Here. Carry him back out of this mud.”
The men gently lifted the unconscious man and placed him on a dry, grassy spot. The boss turned to the boy. “Ad, ride back to the wagon and see if Baldy’s got a heavy needle and thread. Get the biggest one he’s got.”
In a few minutes the boy was back. Raymond took the two-inch needle and the spool of heavy black thread.
He shook his head. “All I can do is to try my best,” he said slowly. Then he threaded the needle and went to work.
He could see the bare ribs of Levit’s chest. The old cowhand was a well-fleshed man and this cut, fully ten inches long, made a gash bigger than a man’s hand. It was bleeding dangerously.
“Get me a little chunk of hard wood,” he ordered, when he tried unsuccessfully with his fingers to push the needle through the tough skin. With the block of wood in the heel of his right hand, he finally managed to shove through the heavy needle.
Slowly, patiently, devotedly, he worked on. It wasn’t a very neat job, and toward the end when Levit became conscious it took four men to hold him down. But the trail boss kept at it until he finished sewing together the ragged edges of the deep cut.
Ad held old Levit’s head tight in his arms and talked to him. Not a tear showed in the boy’s eyes. This was man’s work. You had to be a full man to do this.
“Just a little longer, old partner,” Ad begged. “Just take it easy. You’re going to be all right.”
When it was over Baldy laid out blankets and they got Levit fixed up as comfortable as they could. Then Ad lifted his head and poured a cup of hot coffee down his throat. It was the only comforting thing the outfit had.
Two days later the river had gone down until the sandbars began to show in its mile-wide bottom. Raymond studied it carefully at early morning and then turned his horse straight into it.
Most of the way across it wasn’t more than saddle-skirt deep, but there were still holes where cattle and horses would have to would have to swim thirty or forty yards at a stretch.
He pointed his horse back to the south bank. The previous day he had the men cut eight logs, a good foot and a half across, and fifteen feet long. They had dragged then close to the trail near the river. This time he’d sent the remuda in first, let the cattle follow the horses, and then raft over the grub wagon, the last thing.
Hurrying back to the herd, he told the men not to water the cattle before attempting the crossing. Then he had Baldy drive his wagon down to the bank and turn his oxen out with the herd. It didn’t take long to unfasten the tongue, put it in the wagon and lash logs to the running gear parallel to the wagon box, with one log inside and a second outside each front and rear wheel. The remaining four logs he tied under the wagon bed.
After the men finished their noon dinner, and the sun was to their backs, Raymond gave the word to bring up the remuda and push the herd close up behind.
At the riverbank some of the lead steers that had been in the mess two days before tried to turn back, but they delayed their break too long; the pressure of the animals behind shoved them forward. A hundred feet ahead the remuda was crossing easily and quickly. It was only following the line of least resistance for the herd to trail the horses.
In thirty minutes the entire herd was safely across. Raymond and three men returned to the south bank and rode up to the wagon. They were stripped to their hats and underwear, and had tightened the saddle cinches on their horses.
Quickly they took down their ropes and tied them to the front wheels of the wagon. Inside, Levit was stretched out on a bed of blankets. He was still a little delirious from fever, but apparently Raymond’s heroic surgery had done the trick. Baldy had the sick man’s head up toward the front seat, where he could keep an eye on his patient and his outfit at the same time.
It was rough going when they hit the narrow, swift-running channels where horses and wagon had to swim, but the raft worked like a charm. The wagon bed was a dry as the bottom of a new boat.
The Red River, treacherous and willful, was behind them. Indian Territory—The Nations—lay ahead.
There were many worse dangers to face. It was almost five hundred miles to the railhead in Kansas, and there were wild Indians roaming over every inch.
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