A tintype of Ad Spaugh--his first photograph--taken in Dodge City, Kansas, July 4, 1876
Last updated: February 27, 2020
March 1, 1940
That winter Ad nursed his sorrow on the wild, lonely Staked Plains of Texas. The one beautiful thing that had touched his life was gone. With Felicia dead, there no longer seemed to be any point or purpose in the plans he had made for a ranch in Wyoming. Through Bill Bland’s influence, he had landed this job range-herding 1500 head of mossyhorns throughout the winter season. His companion and helper was a Mexican lad, Crispine Reyes.
It was a primeval country, this vast level prairie wilderness of Northwestern Texas—a land of buffalo and Indians and outlaws—the two boys passed a dangerous and exciting winter. There was plenty of trouble with brand blotchers and a brush or two with young Indian bucks.
Running off buffalo, however, was just about the hardest job the boys faced. Sometimes Ad would shoot two or three head, partly in fun and partly to frighten the herd. Five thousand professional hunters were slaughtering the animals by the millions, but there were still great herds roaming the No Man’s Land that stretched southward from the North Fork of the Canadian in Central Oklahoma. This was a sacred Indian hunting preserve, but Government treaties meant nothing to white men armed with .50 caliber Sharps buffalo guns. Professional hide hunters not only made small fortunes, but they were conscious that they were striking the Indian in his one vulnerable spot. Kill off his buffalo, and his wild, free days were over.
A hunter who drifted into camp one night told Ad that the Indian situation up north was rapidly heading to a showdown. Redskins wintering in their camps around the Powder River in Wyoming and Montana had been notified that they must return to their reservations by the last day of January in this year of 1876. Those who refused would be considered “Hostiles” and the Army would settle with them. That probably meant Custer and his hard-riding Seventh Cavalry.
Presently Ad was surprised to find that it was March, and one day Bill Bland showed up with another thousand head of longhorns and a trail outfit. The herd Ad had guarded was thrown in with these, and the 2500 beeves were headed north. For the third time in his life Ad was in the saddle pushing steers northward with the grass. But this time he was to help break a new trail across unknown territory.
For six weeks the outfit drove straight north from the Fort Griffith country. For most of the way it had followed its own nose, breaking what was soon to be known as the Western Trail. An experienced, hard-riding Texan by the name of Mac Stewart had been in charge of the outfit, Bill Bland returned south to get together a second herd. Mac drove his men and cattle alike without letup.
Jim Cook, a Yankee boy Ad’s own age, confided to Ad his opinion of the new boss. “The big auger’d send this herd over Niagara Falls if it was in his way,” he announced, his criticism well-seasoned with frank admiration.
“Did you see him tell the cook to point his wagon pole right on the North Star when he turned in at nights?” Ad asked his new friend. “Said it might be bad by morning and the outfit wouldn’t be able to tell which way was north.“
And now on the morning of July 3, 1876, they could see the breaks of the Arkansas River. By noon they made a camp a half mile south of the stream, and near a ford three or four miles west of Dodge City.
Dodge City—the incomparable cow town! Dodge City—that had captured, and for ten hectic years would hold, the romantic imagination of the whole word!
“We’ll lay over tomorrow so everyone can have a whack at Dodge,” the trail boss explained. Then he doled out twenty dollars in gold to each man.
“Just a second, boys,” Mac said, when the punchers were tightening cinches before they stepped up on their ponies. “Texas men ain’t none too popular in this town of Dodge—I mean boys that get to feeling their oats a little too much. They got a marshal by the name of Wyatt Earp, and he’s plenty bad medicine. So, you better try not to tree Dodge City or to hurray this Earp feller. And there’s a young deputy sheriff in there, name of Bat Masterson, that they say is plumb poison too. Seems like they got a sort of Dead Line that’s the railroad tracks. Everything goes south of the Dead Line, but you ain’t supposed to go packing no artillery and shooting out lights and kiyi-in’ on up north where the stores are. . . “
First thing Ad and Charley Reed did, after they’d crossed the two-bit toll bridge and checked their horses and guns at the livery stable, was to hurry over the tracks across the Dead Line and inspect the town. The Santa Fe railroad cut the town squarely in half. On the north side of the tracks stood the row of frame building that comprised Dodge City’s foremost hotels, mercantile houses and more respectable saloons and gambling places. Rath & Wright’s general store—with more than 100,000 buffalo hides stacked up like cordwood behind—the Long Branch Saloon, D.C. Zimmerman’s Hardware and Gun shop, and the Dodge Hotel shouldered one another in their false front elegance.
A block to the north and east rose the local Boot Hill. Twenty-seven unmarked mounds of earth lay as silent testimonials to the fatal theory that the slow draw can compete with the fast draw. Twenty-seven times “Judge” Overly, who ran the town’s dray, had backed his blind gray team to the rear of one or another of the twenty-old bars and dance halls and had assisted in carrying out, feet first, the blanket-shrouded, lifeless form of some unfortunate who had been taught a valuable lesson, but too late to do him any good.
At the Long Branch, crowded even in the morning because it was the Fourth of July, Charley Reed tasted the excellent Bourbon and then took a seat at the faro table. In a half hour he pushed back his chair and joined Ad. His twenty was gone. Ad led him to the long bar and bought him a pair of drinks. Later that afternoon he staked him to a gold piece, and when the boy tapped him on the shoulder Charley had run it up to ninety dollars.
Soon those gold dollars were burning a hole in Charley’s pocket. Things were far too quiet for him on this side of the Dead Line. He craved action. Ad suggested the Variety Show in the new theater. But it sounded a little too tame for Charley. Ad could take in the show and later on in the evening look him up south of the tracks. Charley’d be circulating around the dance halls. Ninety dollars ought to last him up to midnight.
A full moon was hanging straight overhead when the two cowboys paid their bill at the livery stable, strapped on their guns and stepped up on their horses. It was the high moment of uncertainty that every Texas man faced at the end of his first night off trail. With the comforting feel of his heavy gun belt, confidence and a natural sense of superiority seemed to surge up in a man. It was all right for Yankee shorthorns and buffalo hunters to fight dog-fashion with their bare hands, but not for a Texas cowboy.
“Sure’d like to ride down that Front Street and cut loose at a few lampposts,” Charley drawled, looking speculatively across the tracks toward the forbidden district. He was rolling just a bit in his saddle. But he could ride when he couldn’t walk.
“That Wyatt Earp might shotgun us,” Ad said quietly.
“Say, I got a better idea,” Charley solemnly suggested. “Watch us have some fun."
Charley slowly took down his rope from the right side of his saddle horn. Then he made an extra big loop. “Come on, son,” he said.
At the gallop Charley led the way down the street alongside the noisy dance halls. At the corner he turned toward the river. Forty feet in the rear of the corner dance hall stood a small outhouse. Letting out his horse, he swung his big loop. It settled squarely over the tiny roof.
His rope was tied fast to his horn, and when his pony hit the end it almost upset him. Again Charley socked in his spurs. The first jolt had turned over the little building and Charley could see that he was dragging it over open ground.
Ad had never partaken of this pastime before, and he thought it was about the funniest thing he’d ever seen. Then he heard muffled screams. Suddenly the building hit a little rise in ground and the cries were clearer. In the bright light of the full moon he could see flying skirts and a pair of tangled legs bounce out of the dragging structure.
Charley pulled back his pony to rescue his rope. Ad jumped down to release the loop. A few yards behind the building a girl was sitting up in the grass, hurling curses and vituperation at them. The back door of the dance hall flung open and a half-dozen men piled out. There were shouts for guns, and by the time Ad had released the rope and reached his pony, lead was singing by his ears.
Humor on the American frontier was rarely subtle.
The next morning the herd forded the Arkansas and struck north. Three weeks later they hit the South Fork of the Platte, and the buzzing cow town of Ogallala, Nebraska.
That evening when Ad and half the men forded the stream and rode into town, there was great excitement everywhere. “They’re tryin’ to organize a troop of Rangers to fight the Indians,” a stray informant told them.
“Has there been trouble?” Ad questioned.
“Trouble? Say, where you been? Custer and most of his Seventh Cavalry’s been massacred up in Montana by Sitting Bull. I’d remark there’s been plenty trouble.”
The whole north country was aflame. No one had the faintest idea of what might happen. Above the North Fork of the Platte, in the forbidden Country, no white man was safe.
“Looks kind of bad for us, don’t it?” Mac Stewart suggested, slowly turning his empty whiskey glass on the polished bar of The Silver Dollar.
“I was figuring on leaving the outfit here and heading for Wyoming Territory,” Ad said slowly. The young cow hand had got back his dreams.
“Well, we’re going on north,” Mac said stubbornly. “My orders are to deliver this herd to the Standing Rock agency. Nobody had to go along that don’t want to.” Ad pondered. It seemed hardly fair to Mac and Charley and the others to pull out now. To leave in the face of danger would be yellow. “I’m going on with you,” the boy said simply. “I’ll stay.”
Mac patted his shoulder. “Good for you, Ad. Little thing like Indians ain’t going to stop us.”
And in the end the outfit got through safely. It was late October when the outfit reached Ogallala on the return trip. Ad knew that it would be little use trying to land a ranch job with the fall roundups ended and half the regular men in every outfit already turned off for the winter. There’d be enough grub-line riders in Wyoming without his joining up. So he’d better go on back to Texas with the rest of the men.
But somehow the flavor of Texas, the magic pull that had always drawn him back to its warm embrace, was gone for him.
He never wanted to see San Antonio again. He never wanted to ride again through chaparral and mesquite, nor watch the lovely colors of a Texas twilight, nor behold the low-hanging stars—for these would forever remind him of Felicia.
Yet he could not escape. So it was that this winter of 1876 found him once more range-herding longhorns in the country west of Fort Griffin. And when spring came he was again riding the flanks of a herd bound for the Platte.
At Ogallala he left the outfit buying from Mac Stewart a pack pony named Arrow, and the bright little bay, with the star on his forehead, named Diamond, that had been his night horse on the drive.
“You’re heading into a bad country,” Mac warned. “Wyoming’s got winters that’d freeze a brass monkey. And the country’s full of horse thieves and rustlers.”
Charley Reed was a little more encouraging. “Hate to see you heading for the North Pole,” he said when he shook hands, “But good luck, no matter where you go. “ Poor Charley might better have saved the luck for himself. A year later a friend at Sidney Bridge got him to surrender after he’d had to kill, in self-defense, a gambler who was the outraged and jealous sweetheart of a girl who had fallen in love with the attractive Texan. The sheriff had promised Charley a swift trial and a verdict of not guilty if he’d surrender, and Charley had believed him. That night the dead man’s friends got together a mob of gun fighters and killers, stormed the jail and took the high-hearted Charley out and hanged him.
But no foreboding of tragedy touched ad on this day in September 1877. He knew only that Wyoming lay ahead—Wyoming the beautiful and the dangerous.
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