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
That night following the Indian encounter, Raymond doubled the night guard and the next day pushed the herd ahead a good fifteen miles. In some ways he hadn’t come out too badly. He’d kept his remuda intact, and while he’d lost fifteen head of beef, and the grub wagon had come off second best, he felt he’d slipped out of a tight noose without losing his ears.
By the third day the men were no longer seeing eagle feathers and painted faces peering over every rise of ground or hiding in every creek bottom. The show had to go on. The herd had to move ahead despite swollen rivers, stampeded, dry marches and Indian encounters. The drive, like time and destiny, could not be stopped.
Nature, the great doctor and nurse, had almost completely healed old Levit’s deep chest wound. One warm night he asked for his fiddle and the men knew he’d soon be riding again. Two mornings later, when Pancho brought in the remuda, Levit told George Ray to rope him Two Bits. George threw on the saddle and then stepped up on the horse to see if he wanted to uncork himself. When nothing happened, George brought the mouse=colored pony over to where Levit was standing.
“Better go easy for a day or two,” he advised.
The old waddie rode all that morning, but after noon dinner he was willing to go back to his wagon seat. Two days later he announced he was ready for his trick at night-herding. Ad could have let out a whoop. He’d missed his singing partner on the lonely hours of the night circuit. And on this particular night a three-quarter moon drifted out of the clouds just as the man and the boy joined the herd. Levit started in low and easy with his old Texas lullaby. But before long he had his bushy head pushed back, and was letting it come out as it wanted to—hymns and old favorites, and bits that he just made up as his pony slowly circled the herd.
Ad thought he’d never heard anything quite so wonderful as Levit’s singing this night. The steers seemed to feel that was too. They knew everything was all right now. Their old watch-and ward was back looking after them, nursing them along. His voice was as soft as the moonbeams tumbling down on the tired earth.
The Cimarron was low and lazy looking for early May. There was nothing suspicious about it—that is, nothing unusually suspicious. All these Indian Territory rivers had to be watched. They were shifty. They couldn’t be trusted.
And Raymond was a careful and thoroughly experienced trail boss. In fact, he was almost a genius at anticipating unexpected situations. He could smell approaching danger the same as a herd of longhorns could smell a storm long before it showed its black hand on the horizon.
But this time Raymond rode without either his luck or his better judgment toed on behind the cantle of his saddle, He was like a man caught in a snowstorm without coat or slicker.
This particular morning he pulled up his horse on the low south bank, and slowly rolled a cigarette while he looked across the sandy river bed of the Cimarron, with its reddish-brown waters winding in and around the bars. Thank the Lord he wouldn’t’ have to swim the outfit. Immediately after breakfast a horse had bucked with Levit and the wound across his chest had ripped open. For the second time he’d had to go through the horrible ordeal of sewing it up. It’d been almost as hard on him as on poor Levit.
Nothing wrong with this crossing, he mused. He’d put the cattle right through, straight off. The wagon and the remuda could come last.
He turned his horse and jogged back down the wide grassless trail. They’d noon on a little creek three miles to the southward, and get well across the Cimarron by middle afternoon. A trail boss always felt better when he had this river to hos back. It had almost as bad a reputation as the red. You couldn’t trust either of them any more than you could a Yankee horse trader.
It was a little after three when the men on the point got up close enough to see the red stream twisting between the two low banks. Raymond had already given the orders; they were to push the herd straight across and keep them moving. “Don’t let ‘em bunch up or drift downstream on any of the sandy bars. Pour it on ‘em when the strike the river!”
Raymond wasn’t more than fifteen feet away from the leaders when they slid down off the sandy bank and hit the water. Behind on their flanks the men were shouting and pushing the other cattle forward. The boss lightly touched his pony with his spurs so as to keep in front but only a little in the lead; the men certainly were hitting the river on the run.
Straight across the stream he could see a low bank that would make it easy for the cattle to fain hard ground. With luck the whole herd would be over in twenty minutes, or even less. The boys certainly were laying it on them.
His pony had left the yellow stream itself, and was feeling his way across a wide sandy bar. It was probably a hundred feet wide, and between its far side and the north bank ran a finger of water, not more than twenty or thirty feet across.
He could feel his horse having rather heavy going in wet sand. He was riding Arrowhead, a gallant little pony that didn’t weigh more than 800 pounds. With the rider and saddle the pony was carrying a good two hundred pounds. No wonder he wasn’t finding it too easy crossing this wet bar.
Then in a flash Raymond knew that something was wrong. His horse was straining. He was floundering. Gathering his strength, Arrowhead tried to spring himself loose, just as a clay pigeon trap shoots out its iron arm when released.
In a second Raymond threw himself from the pony, and horse and man struggled to get back to running water. He could almost feel the hot breath of the frightened cattle on the back of his neck.
He didn’t make it a second too soon. The leaders were being crowded ahead. Sharp-pointed horns, a yard and more across, missed horse and man by inches.
The animals were being pushed on the sandbar now; the pressure of the herd behind could not be denied. The leaders wallowed in the treacherous sand. The seething mass of steers spread out on both sided of the vanguard.
Raymond somehow or other managed to get on his horse. “Turn ‘em back!” he shouted. “Hold “em! It’s quicksand! Its’ quicksand!”
Ad and George charged into the tossing horns at the edge of the bar. Slowly they bent the pushing, crazed herd away from the death trap and drove then downstream. Let them scatter—or even mill. Anything was better than this bottomless sink there in the middle of the river bottom. But in first mad rush fully a hundred head had been trapped in the murderous sand.
The helpless animals were sinking in to their knees. Some had stopped struggling and bellowing, apparently resigned to their fate.
The men riding the flanks in the middle of the herd and seeing the jack pot they were in managed to cut off the cattle not already in the river and swing them in a circle to the rear. Here the two dragmen held them well back from the south bank. At any cost they must keep the cattle now in the river, but still free from the quicksand, from joining their doomed mates on the bar of torture and death.
Then a long-geared dun-colored critter with a great spread of horns and almost old enough to vote, turned from the river and climbed back up the south bank. Others followed. Bellowing and wild-eyed, they gained the bank and pointed toward the rest of the herd held back from the stream. All but that doomed hundred head, slowly sinking into the quicksand, were now safely out of danger.
Raymond picked up Ad and a Mexican, and led the way at a gallop to the grub wagon, still a half mile to the southward.
“Give us all the ropes you got,” he shouted to Baldy. “There’ a hundred head in the quicksand. Maybe we can drag ‘em out.”
Loaded down with ropes of all kinds, the men returned to the river. The rail boss told off two men and Ollie to hold the herd, and then he turned to the five cowboys remaining. Counting himself, there were six to tackle this difficult job of trying to save some $2500 worth of beef on the hoof.
“Boys,” he began, “I should have known better’n to get you into this mess…We’ll have to pull the critters out one at a time. George, you and Ad stay on your horses and do the pulling. The rest of us might as well strip down and wade right into that mess. Only thing we can do is work their legs free from them quicksand traps, and then let George and Ad drag ‘em out.”
He tied his horse to a box elder and stripped off his clothes. The others followed his lead. “The drinks are on me when we hit Wichita,” he said with a broad grin, “Come on, boys.”
Mighty few of the ninety-odd head seemed to be the least grateful for their retrieve from death. The second each longhorn found hos feet on the hard bottom he charged the nearest thing in sight. A dozen times Ad missed having his pony ripped open by some unappreciative steer’s needle-pointed horns. One of the men hold the herd had to heel each critter and stretch him out before Ad and George could get their ropes off.
But theirs was the easy job. The men working in the dangerous quicksand, or along the water’s edge, had to dig down with their bare hands and slowly release each foot. Sometimes only two legs would be sucked down, but so tenacious was the sand trap that it had to be unlocked before it would give up its catch.
One by one George and Ad roped the animals being released, and then quietly sat their mounts, with ropes taut, until Raymond gave then the word to pull. Then their ponies dug in their hoofs and slowly they could feel the jaws of the sand trap loosening. Freed and out of danger, the frightened, bewildered animal seemed to get his breath and for a moment studied the situation. Then invariably he would charge one or the other of the horsemen.
All afternoon the men sweated and swore. Twilight dropped so swiftly that it was night before they knew it. And now they were working on the last steer. The men’s fingers were raw from digging in the sand. Their backs were aching and their legs stiff from the cold. But they kept on.
“All right,” Raymond shouted, straightening up. “Pull ‘em out!”
Again, Ad’s pony managed to duck when the charged.
The boy was too tired even to swear.
Shortly after daybreak the following morning Raymond and George set out from camp to make a careful reconnaissance. Yesterday’s performance had permanently cured the trail boss of ever again passing snap judgements on these water handiworks of the devil, these rivers of the nations. He even took his segundo along to check his findings.
Riding upstream, the two men studied a spot where the Cimarron’s channel narrowed, yet had easy approaches on bottom banks. “Maybe this’n will do,” Raymond drawled. “Come on, Apache, let’s try ‘er.”
George followed a dozen paces in the rear; there was no need to involve both horses in some unforeseen jack pot.
Except for a small sandbar on the north side, the reddish-yellow waters covered the whole river bottom. The bed was sound and hard as a gold dollar.
The two men pulled up on the opposite bank and nodded to each other. “You could cross a railroad train on that bottom,” George declared.
It would be an easy crossing, but Raymond decided to let the cattle graze and rest up until afternoon. He was taking no chances of snarling up a herd by crossing them with the sun in their eyes. Longhorns didn’t need much encouragement at anytime to go plumb loco.
This afternoon he was as extra careful as he had been overlax the previous day. He sent the remuda over first, and then had them turned back and recross to make doubly certain that he hadn’t been fooled. The chuck wagon, with Baldy and Levit on the seat, came next. The herd followed.
By three he had the whole outfit over and hitting the trail. Before he ordered a halt, he made a good eight miles. When the herd was bedded down, and the men sprawled out around the fire, he was happy when old Levit raided his head from his blankets and opened up the meeting with Mustang Grey:
“There was once a noble ranger,
They called him Mustang Grey;
He left his home when but a youth,
Went ranging far away.
But he’ll go no more a-ranging,
The sa-vage to affright;
He has heard his last war whoop,
And fought his last fight,”
Everything was forgiven now. Yesterday’s grueling work and dangers were as dead as Santa Anna. Tomorrow it was always another day. Even it would be dead and forgotten within twenty-four hours.
Day after day the herd swung on up the trail. Just beyond Salt Fork five painted and well-armed Pawnee bucks stopped the herd and demanded five beef. Ad hoped they’d fight, but Raymond compromised. He had George cut out two lame cows from the drags. They didn’t even have his own brand of 7 on the left shoulder. They’d be good riddance.
“Take ‘em or you don’t get none,” Raymond curtly announced. “And tell your friends some of ‘em are liable to die of lead poisoning if they don’t leave us alone."
On the night after crossing Salt Fork the herd stampeded in a lightening storm. But late the following afternoon when the men came in with the stragglers, Raymond found his count was right. He’d got his luck back.
Two days of rain just south of the Kansas lien put men and beasts in a vile mood—but the herd kept moving on. From hilltops Ad could see other herds far ahead and far behind. It occurred to the boy that a trail herd was like some living, twisting monster that nothing could stop—an army of ants that would go around, or over, or under and object in its path, but never turning back.
And now they crossed into Kansas. The country appeared rougher, with red soil and tiny weird -shaped buttes. At noon they made a wet camp, and that night some of the men rode to a trading post called Caldwell.
The trail bent toward the east through sweet rolling country. They crossed tiny Slate Creek, and next came Cowskin Creek. Then, some twenty miles on north and east of the Ninnescah they could trace the banks of the Arkansas. They made camp four or five miles to the south of the big river, and that night Ad with Raymond and half the crew rode northeast and pulled up at a little group of dance halls and barrooms huddled on the south bank of the Arkansas. Across the river lay the new cow town of Wichita, shouting the praises of its railroad that had just pushed the twenty-five miles southward from Newton on the main line of the Santa Fe.
The outfit had been four months on the trail. Since leaving Fort Worth the men had gone without shaves or haircuts, and their clothes were torn and ragged. Now and again when they nooned at some friendly creek, the men had bathed and even washed their shirts and underwear. But the last time had seemed a long time ago.
They were an army without banners—unless the long horns of steers, flashing in the bright sunlight of a Kansas June, might be called banners. Yet they were a victorious army. Ad and his brother could now wear their service stripes proudly. They were veterans of the Chisholm Trail. They were hard and lean and experienced. They could push back their wide-brimmed Texan hats and jingle the spurs on their high-heeled Texan boots. What did it matter if they had barely turned fifteen and thirteen? They had done a man’s work—they belonged.
But Mother Nature seemed to feel she still had a final account to settle with this particular herd. Along toward midnight a heavy hail and lightening storm broke that sent every man galloping to the cattle in a last-minute effort to hold them in their night circle. But they might as well have tried to hold a cloud of grasshoppers.
At daybreak the men came riding back for a cup of coffee and fresh mounts. The remuda had been brought in and Raymond had ordered Buck and George Ray to get out the heavy ropes and run the crude temporary corral.
Ad and Ollie rode up and dismounted just as the horses were being corralled. Several of the men quickly roped their mounts and led them out. Buck had the heavy rope wrapped around his middle and was leaning back on it with his whole weight in order to hold it taut. The far end was tied to a wagon wheel. Whenever a man missed his throw Buck swore vilely, and sneeringly reproached him. No one even bothered to reply.
Ollie quietly built himself a small loop and with a quick backhand throw tried to catch a bald-faced bay that belonged to his string. He missed his throw, and Buck let out a string of oaths. “You damned milk-fed suckling!” he snarled. “This is what we get for having Yankee punks along.”
Ollie smarted under the insult, but without answering went on building himself a fresh loop. The small space inside the corral was muddy and slippery, and his rope was wet and hard to handle. Even the horses were worn out and mean from the hard grind.
He caught his snorting bay the next throw, but before he could tighten the rope and set back on it, the horse lunged against the temporary corral, pulling Buck, with the rope wrapped around his waist, to the slippery ground and rolling him in the mud, Ollie, putting his weight in his own rope, finally brought the plunging animal to a stop and then, hand over hand walked toward him.
Buck, cursing loudly, got to his feet and shook himself free of the loop made by the heavy, three-quarter-inch corral rope. The end was tied in a hard knot, and swinging this free he brought it down with all his force across the boy’s shoulders. It knocked Ollie to his knees, and the thirteen-year-old boy, unable to hold back the sobs, buried his face in his hands.
“Damn you, you’re next!” Buck swore, turning toward Ad, who had at that moment stepped around from the far side of his horse and caught sight of his brother whimpering in the mud at Buck’s feet.
Lunging toward Ad the maddened puncher lifted the heavy knot over his shoulder. He’d bring it down across the boy’s face. If it didn’t brain him it’d knock him cold. He’d been waiting for this chance for weeks.
Ad jerked his Colt from its holster. Both of Buck’s arms were flung far to his right as he prepared to make his murderous swing with the knot of the heavy rope. The movement left the side of his face and jaw exposed. Ad leaped in close, smashing the heavy barrel of his .45 alongside Buck’s jaw. The blow knocked the man half unconscious to the ground.
White with anger, Ad pointed his gun at Buck’s stomach and cocked it.
“Don’t kill him!” Raymond shouted. Ad backed off, still covering Buck. Dazed, the bully struggled to his feet.
"Don’t believe I'd kill him, Ad,” the rail boss advised. “You’re even with him now.”
Then he turned on Buck. “Better leave those buttons alone from now on.” He said coldly. “Any time you’re looking for trouble, you can come to me.”
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