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 a full week before the outfit struck the forks of the Platte. The trail boss concluded to follow the old Oregon Trail up the South Fork to what was still known as Lower California Crossing, five more days’ drive upstream.
It was a dry, treeless monotonous country. After crossing the South Fork the herd pointed up toward the main Platte, or North Fork. Soon the landscape began to change. Straight ahead, where the winding river cut its pathway through sandy cliffs and highlands, they could make out bizarre formations. A lone traveler on horseback nooned one day with the outfit on Pumpkin Creek, and pointed out the curious landmarks they would soon pass. The first was called Court House Rock, and ten or twelve miles beyond was Chimney Rock. This last was a great shaft of limestone that rose almost a straight in the air as the Washington Monument. Tens of thousands of weary Oregon-bound emigrants had feared their eyes on its unique beauty.
The foreman and Ad rode up to its base and, dismounting, Bill climbed part way up its steep slope. Hundreds of names and initials were carved on its soft sides. Quickly he took out his jackknife, and scratching the outlines of a lone star, carved in rough letters underneath:
Two days later they nooned in a valley that ended abruptly in a gigantic series of limestone cliffs, rising precipitously like baby mountains. The river cut a narrow channel through the escarpment, but the broad trail that ran down Mitchell Pass offered an easy grade and wide opening through the grotesque hills.
It was along about five o’clock in the afternoon when the last of the drags got through the pass, and the herd debouched on the wide grassy plains beyond. It had been a blistering hot day and the trail boss had ordered the cattle thrown off to graze.
After supper Ad mounted his night horse and pointed up the steep western slope of the cliff on the south side of the pass. Up and down he went, his trail zig-zagging across the face of the slope. Finally he could climb no farther. He pulled up and looked down on the mighty panorama before him. As far as his eye could reach stretched the rolling grass country, and fifty, maybe even a hundred, miles westward he could catch the faint outline of mountains. And this vast new world was splashed with the brilliant pink rays pf the setting sun.
Suddenly the boy realized that he was looking into Wyoming land. There, far ahead, lay the country he had dreamed about—the country of free grass and open range. Above, to the north of the great river, it was still Indian land, but before long it would be white man’s land. He could play a part in claiming it. He could be one of the white men who would make it American country.
It would be his land—his home. Someday he would bring Felicia here. Stirrup to stirrup they would ride the endless vistas of this empire of grass.
Slowly the sun dropped to the distant horizon. A chill crept into the air. Exalted, inspired, the boy turned his horse toward the tiny campfire he could see flickering in the distance, far below.
The third evening from Mitchell pass the trail boss announced at supper that an old trapper had told him that until recently the red cloud Agency had been on the north side of the river a few miles upstream, but that lately it had been moved somewhere to the north. The Ogallala Sioux had been stealing horses and raiding below the river, and it would be unsafe for the outfit to cross the Platte and try to find the new agency without proper military escort and guide. The best thing they could do was to proceed the ninety miles or so on up the trail to Fort Laramie.
“He said the Sioux were bad medicine,” Bill added quietly. “And one of these moonlight nights they’d be pretty sure to try to run off the remuda. Hear that, Pedro?”
The Mexican horse wrangler nodded, “I haf de bell on one caballo, dat Bluebird,” he explained. “An’ I watch in de night too.”
Ad’s ears pricked up when he heard Bluebird’s name mentioned. “What you got your bell on my horse for, Pedro?”
“He got de mos’ sense. He ees veery smart caballo, that Bluebird.”
The boy made no reply, but he thought plenty. He wanted to rope Bluebird and bring him in. But he knew the men would cod him about his pet horse if he tried anything like that.
It was along about midnight when he felt Bill Shaking him and yelling. He figured it was time for his turn at night herd. Then through his drowsy semiconsciousness he caught Bill’s words: “Indians! They’re stealing your pony!”
He snapped out of his blankets. He heard Bill clearly this time: “They’re stealing Bluebird!”
Ad didn’t even stop to pull on his boots. Grabbing up his holster and heavy belt, he ran to his night horse. He was mounted and away before Bill had his second boot on. He could see Pedro running from man to man spreading the alarm.
The boy could hear the Indians shouting at the ponies in the middle of the shallow, muddy river. He could even hear the bell around the neck of Bluebird. He turned his pony toward the river, but he could find no easy approach down the dirt cut-bank. Kicking him in the flanks with his stockinged heels, he forced his pony to take the four-foot bank in a wild jump.
He whipped his pony with his bridle reins and shouted his urgings. He had to get Bluebird. It didn’t make any difference whether there were eight Indians or eight hundred.
The shallow stream was soft going, and for a few seconds he thought sure he had been caught in a quicksand trap. But his pony, Rawhide, got loose and took the next stretch of water at a gallop. Now he was coming out through the sparse cottonwoods that lined the bank. He could hear two or three of his own people in the river behind him.
On up from the river bank he struck a wide sandy stretch. It was heavy going now. In the weird light of the moon he could make out the Indians and the stolen herd in front of him. The raiders must have gained a little on him.
But he would make it up now. Bending low over his horn and riding high on his pony’s neck, he urged him to a fury of speed. He was gaining. The red thieves were having a little trouble keeping the herd from swinging back toward the river.
He figured he couldn’t be more than a hundred yards or so behind the last horses and Indians now. He jerked his gun from its holster and fired five shots as quickly as her could cock the hammer and pull the trigger of the single-action Colt. Then he yelled with all the power in his lungs.
The next thing he knew he had almost caught up with the herd. A drifting cloud blanketed the moon, but in the uncertain light he could make out the raiders riding off empty-handed. Without checking his speed he turned the herd back toward the river. Soon Bill Bland joined him, and then two or three other men came up. The ponies were back in the river now.
Bill, breathless and excited rode up close. “Damned if you didn’t drive ‘em off, son!”
Ad pulled off to the side and made his way around the herd. He could hear the bell tinkling and pretty soon he caught sight of Bluebird. The roan was sucking up mouthfuls of water as he walked along.
Bill again rode up close to Ad. “You sure got plenty of sand, boy. A man that’ll jump a bunch of Indians alone just to get his pony back is a fightin’ fool!”
Ad grinned over at his friend. “Gosh!” he said. “My feet are gettin’ cold.”
The next day the outfit nooned near the mouth of Horse Creek, and three days later camped a mile or two t below the Point where the Laramie River empties into the Platte. Early that afternoon the rail boss rode back from his scout, left his orders where to camp and suggested to Ad that he ride on into Fort Laramie with him.
The famous army post sprawled over a triangular piece of ground made by the junction of the two rivers. Forty years before it had been a fur-company fort, and in all the Western country there was no more historic spot. Sublette and Jim Bridger had both traded here; and with the end of the beaver and the coming of the road to Oregon and California, the Government had bought the old trading post and turned it into a great army fort to guard the Trail.
Bland and Ad made their way to the open gates, and explained to the sentry that they wanted to talk to the commanding officer. A few minutes later a slender, gray-haired man was shaking his head in grave doubt as to the wisdom of their going farther with the herd at this moment.
“I don’t like the temper of Red Cloud’s Indians,” the colonel said slowly. “you see, the Indian Bureau compelled them to move their agency from the Platte north a hundred and fifty miles to the country seat Fort Robinson. That’s in Nebraska. And now with this Black Hill gold rush it looks like we’re in for serious trouble.“
“How far from here is the agency, colonel?” Bill Bland asked.
“Here, I’ll show you.” The colonel walked toward a handmade map pinned to the wall of his office. “Here’s where we are now—Fort Laramie here on the Platte. Fort Robinson is better than a hundred miles on northeast of here. The agency is a couple of miles away from the fort.”
“Well, colonel, we’ve got to get this beef herd delivered up there somehow.”
“You might get through all right,” the officer surmised, “but I’d hate to see you start off without an escort. And I haven’t a soldier to spare. We’ve had to reinforce the garrisons at Fort Robinson and Fort Fetterman, on north of here.”
The trail boss hesitated. “Could you send a man along to show me the way?” he finally asked. “Reckon we’ll have to take our chances with the Indians, after all, the beef is for them, and they shouldn’t object to our delivering it.”
I’ll be glad to give you a scout,” the colonel agreed. “Old Pete Dawson knows the country, and he can talk Sioux to boot. Chances are he’d get you through.”
An hour later the two drovers, with a picturesque old plainsman riding by their side, galloped out through the fort gate. Back at camp, bill made a proposition.
“Boys,” he warned, “we got a bad stretch of country ahead. I don’t want to ask no man to go if he don’t want to. Pete Dawson here says he thinks we can make the agency, but he ain’t sure. Any of you that don’t want to go can stay back—and no hard feelings.”
For long seconds there was silence. Then Ad cleared his throat.
“I’ll go along,” he said simply.
It broke the spell. “Me too,” Charley Reed spoke out. The others quickly followed suite.
“Much obliged, boys, “Bill said simply.
Three times in that hundred-mile stretch of short-grass country it looked as if the jig was up. The first scare came when the herd was stretched out in a narrow draw that had sand hills rising on three sides. Suddenly, painted naked Indians, riding their decorated war ponies, and shouting their bloodcurdling challenges, swooped down and surrounded the column. Pete Dawson rode out alone and met the young chiefs. He talked long and earnestly.
“They want three beef and some sugar and tabacker,” he said upon returning.
Bill turned to Charley reed. “Cut ‘em out the first three head you come to,” he ordered. “Come on, Pete, we’ll git the sugar and stuff out of the wagon.”
That was the first encounter. The second was with a band of young bucks, and Pete was able to talk them out of their demands. But the third scare cost most of the supplies still left in the wagon.
Early one morning the old scout started ahead alone, and by noon came back with two white clerks from the agency and an escort of friendly agency Indians, Bill located a narrow coulee that ran between colored sandstone buttes, and they made the count. Despite stampeded and holdups they were short only thirty-two beeves from their original tally. Across fifteen hundred miles of dusty trail and five months of danger and hardship, they had rode herd on their charges. And not only had this handful of men brought them through safely but every head had taken on close to two hundred pounds of tallow, and long ago the gaunt look of the longhorns had disappeared.
After some dickering one of the clerks bought the wagon and the six work oxen; he figured he could dispose of them at a handsome profit to a freighter who had lost part of his outfit in a raid. Then papers were signed, receipts made out, and the blankets and what was left of the grub were packed on four ponies. The sun was still halfway up the western sky when the Texas men and the remuda turned back toward Fort Laramie. They would push on as rapidly as possible to safety. The old scout advised Bill to go straight on south from the fort to booming Cheyenne. He could sell his horses there, and the men could return to San Antonio by train.
In his first hour in Cheyenne, Ad bought a brand-new outfit from head to foot. The boss promised to supply each man with an emigrant’s ticket to San Antonio, so there was no worry about getting back.
Reluctantly and almost tearfully Ad sold Bluebird for $75, and this, added to his $175 in wages, gave him $250. He bought a draft for half the amount and mailed it to his father in Kansas. Even after he’d purchased his outfit he had better than $80 left. He’d need this down in San Antonio. He’d buy a right nice present for Felicia and he’d have money to tide him over.
The men didn’t seem to mind if he just trailed along with them. In the gambling room to the rear of The Mint, Bill introduced him to a handsome, finely built six-footer, whose long brown hair reached to the velvet collar of his broadcloth Prince Albert. His fancy vest had moss agate buttons, and his gray, tightly cut trousers were of expensive material.
“This is one of my boys, Mr. Hickok,” the foreman said a little proudly. “Ad Spaugh’s his name.”
The tail, dignified man smiled pleasantly when he shook hands.
“Say, you’re not Wild Bill Hickok, are you?” the boy asked incredulously.
“Well, son, some people call me that,” chuckled the famous marshal and gun fighter. “But I reckon I ain’t so very wild.”
“Sure glad to meet you, Mr. Hickok ,” Ad said, his admiration in his eyes.
Wild Bill turned toward the trail boss. “How’re some of my old ‘friends’ from down in your part of the country?” he asked with a wide grin. “haven’t heard anything about Ben Thompson or his gang for a long time. We used to have quite a little fun down in Hayes and Abilene.”
Bland, who had known the great marshal in the Kansas towns and had seen him tame more than one wild Texas outfit, grinned good-naturedly. “Understand they’ve moved over to the new cow town of Dodge City,” he answered. “Thought probably you’d be down around there too.”
Hickok shook his head. “No, I’m waiting for this Black Hills country to open up. They tell me there’s a town up there they call Deadwood that’s growing like a weed. Figured I might drift up there.”
Things were a little slow right now in Cheyenne, Wild Bill added. Maybe luck would again perch on his shoulder up in Deadwood.
But luck didn’t. A year later, almost to a day, he was shot to death while playing poker in the roaring mining town. The hand he held—kings and eights—was forever to be known as “dead man’s hand.”
It was the first time Ad had ever been on a train. Most of the time he kept his eyes glued on the landscape. When he’d get tired or sleepy, all he had to do was to lean back in the red plush seat and let the turning wheels sing their song. He could catch the words as clearly as if some human voice spoke them aloud. “Fe-li-cia! Fe-li-cia!” they kept singing.
He had made up his mind just what he was going to do. He would work hard and faithfully this winter, and in the spring he’d find a herd going north on the Long Trail. When it reached the Platte, he’d leave it and ride on west to Wyoming Territory. He’d get a job with a cow outfit there, and before very long he’d have a little herd of his own. Then, the minute the virgin range above the North Platte was opened up to the whites, he’d hunt up his own particular bit of this grass heaven and settle down there, He’d build a cabin of cottonwood logs, along some tiny stream of living water, or near some bubbling spring. As soon as he was rich enough, he’d return to Texas and lay it all at the feet of this beautiful girl.
The days and nights sang by. And now on a rose-tinted twilight the train puffed into the city of desire. It was after nine when he knocked at the door of Felicia’s dressing room. When there was no response to his repeated rappings, he tried the knob. But the door was locked.
Maybe Felicia was singing at this moment, and the old servant had bolted the door while she watched her charge.
Quickly he retraced his steps to the front of the building and entered through the double doors. He spied Marie sitting alone at a table in the far corner. He hurried up to her and put out his hand.
“Hello, Marie,” he said eagerly. “Where’s Felicia?”
The woman looked up at the boy, and suddenly her eyes filled with tears.
“Felicia?” she repeated softly. “You do not know, my fren’?” startled at the strange tone of her voice, the boy gripped her arm. “What do you mean, Marie?” Where is she? Has anything happened?”
Marie looked up at the boy and her lips quivered. Quietly she patted his hand. “I haf de beeg sorrow for you, my fren’,” she managed to say. “You wil neevair, neevair se la bonita Felicia again.”
“You mean she’s gone to Mexico for good?”
The woman slowly shook her head. Tears ran down her cheeks and dropped on the cheap deal table. “She—she ees dead.”
Ad jumped to his feet. “No! No! You—you don’t mean dead?”
“Yes, my pobre fren’. She die wan month ago. She have de bad fever—an’ wan day she go to bed. An’ then she die so queeck.”
The boy desperately fought back the tears.” But how could—how could she die?’
Again the woman shook her head. “I go see her jes’ before de las’ day. She say to me, “You tell heem adios for me.” Then she say: “Tell heem I lof heem very much.”
Ad turned away, his face old and haggard, and found his way out into the open.
So she was dead . And she would never go into the bright new country with him. And never would she ride by his side and dream with him.
He could not think. He only knew that he wanted to get away from these crowded streets, filled with happy, laughing people. He turned at the corner. It was less noisy here on the side street. He walked on. Then he realized where he was, he was standing at the little white gate. There behind was the blue cottage.
By the side of the walk a great magnolia tree raised its head. Hidden in its deep shadows he touched the friendly trunk. It was strong and protecting. He buried his face in his hands, and his head rested against the tree.
Type your search terms into the box below and his 'Search!' to begin searching the