A tintype of Ad Spaugh--his first photograph--taken in Dodge City, Kansas, July 4, 1876
Addison A. Spaugh in 1883, when he was a range detective for the Wyoming Stock Growers Association
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
Cheyenne had never seemed so fair and so hospitable as on the bright day early in May, 1886, when Ad and his bride rode in the hack from the Union Pacific depot up to the old Dyer House. It was like coming home—home to the hills and the high pure air, and all the hope and easy freedom on the West.
That same afternoon the secretary of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association offered him a job as cattle detective, with the specific task of inspecting all beef sold to the construction camps now building the Fremont, Elkhorn & Missouri Valley Railroad on west from Chadron, Nebraska, to the future town of Douglas, Wyoming. Two mornings later Ad helped his bride into their new buggy and proudly drove his spanking outfit up the well-worn trail of the Cheyenne-Deadwood stagecoach line.
The world was young and beautiful for both of them. In another year he would be thirty. By that time he and his lovely bride would be living in their own home at Bel Pre` ranch. He’d buy another batch of 500 head of cattle the first chance he had to get them right. Winters they would spend back East in the mine-promoting business. Summers they would ride these beautiful foothills and let their dreams come true.
For three wonderful days they drove across the green and fresh rolling country-side. Spring flowers nodded to them—primroses, mountain daffodils, Indian paintbrush. Bluebirds and robins sang for them as they trotted by. At twilight on the third day they pulled up at the little hotel in Silver Cliff. They had done the 150 miles without a change of horses.
The railroad had already pushed across the Wyoming border and was crawling toward a point marked X, that soon would be the noisy, brawling frontier town of Lusk. With the building of the Northwestern Hotel, Ad moved his bride from the boom mining town of Silver Cliff to the lively and lusty railhead. Saturday nights were especially dedicated to gunplay, but if it was more convenient any weekday night could serve for a killing.
Estelle didn’t mind as long as her beloved was not involved. But she suspected there were several of the prominent citizens of the community who were secretly interested in cattle -rustling—and who would like to see Ad’s efficient brand of beef inspection brought to an end.
Ten miles west of Lusk the Bel Pre` ranch was booming in its own right. Ad already had taken up a tree claim and now filed a desert claim for 320 acres. Next he bought an adjoining claim of 160 acres. Then his took up a school section, and decided to build a fence around both this and his own section, and include a square mile of Government land. This would give him a pasture of 2040 acres, with cross fences enclosing his hay meadows. Maybe later on he could get some cowboys to take out homesteads for him. He’d pay them wages, and then give then three or four hundred dollars for their claims.
Violence and lawlessness in Lusk at last reached such heights that the citizens secretly organized a Vigilance Committee and passed around the word that the next fellow who killed a man, no matter what the cause, would be strung up. An example must be made.
One evening soon after this grim announcement, Ad was sitting in the rear of Baker Brothers store when a man named Buff, who was the boss carpenter in charge of building Ad’s ranch house, lurched in through the door, obviously drunk and looking for trouble. He was a powerfully built man, six feet tall and weighing 200 pounds. Two or three of his men, likewise drunk, were with him.
“What are you doing here in the middle of the week?” Ad demanded. “You haven’t finished my house yet.”
“I’m through with you,” the carpenter sneered. “I got another job.”
Ad said coldly: “You’ll finish my house first, just as you agreed to.”
“Hell with you, Spaugh!”
The big man picked up a heavy chair and lurched toward him. Cornered, Ad had only one thing to do unless he wanted to be brained. In a flash he jerked out a sawed-off Colt from a hip-pocket holster and fired twice at close range. His assailant went down like a beef hit in the head.
The three men who had come in with Buff closed in on Ad, standing with his back to the wall.
“I’ll kill the first man who makes a move!” he barked. Keeping his eyes on the men, he backed out of the store. Safely reaching the board sidewalk, he hurried down the poorly lit street.
He remembered the oath that the Vigilance Committee had taken to string up the up the first one who killed a man, regardless of the justice of the cause. Down the side street stood the frame hotel where he lived. It was a June night, and he could see Estelle standing by the window of their bedroom. He called softly to her:
“Bring down my revolvers and Winchester.”
In a minute or two he had his weapons and was hurrying across the rolling prairie beyond the limits of the boom town.
Behind he could hear men shouting. They’d be organizing the vigilance posse by this time.
After some minutes of fast walking, he came to the Niobrara. It was only a narrow stream here near its headwaters, but it was deep and swift. Quickly he stepped to its edge. He might be able to leap across it.
But he hadn’t figured on the weight of the heavy Winchester and the two cartridge belts and the brace of pistols that he was carrying. He missed the opposite bank by a good yard. He was wet almost to his armpits, and his guns were soaked.
He scrambled up the bank. Nearby stood the cabin of Jess Kingman. He had been recently elected justice of the peace., and he was a fair and honest man. Ad could trust him and his mature judgement. Eight miles on west was Ad’s half-completed ranch house and barn. If he could get there he could quickly throw together an outfit and make his way across the range to the British country. Kingman might be willing to help him get started. The old J.P. was in the dooryard and Ad told him of his trouble.
“Go on to the cabin and stir up a fire and dry yourself,” he quietly ordered. “I’ll drop over to town for a while and see what’s up.”
In a half hour Kingman was back.
“Take it easy, son,” he chuckled. “Reckon you still got a chance.”
“Are they coming this way, Jess?” Ad demanded.
“Nope. They ain’t coming. You miscalculated a little, young feller. Your first shot got him through the right shoulder and your second only grazed his arm.”
Ad gripped the old man’s hand. “You mean I didn’t kill him, Jess?”
“Nope. Them forty-four slugs just knocked him over.” Kingman’s eyes twinkled. “Thought you could shoot better’n that, Ad.”
Ad’s little shooting affair was ancient history by the time fall rolled around. The only unpleasant result was that the honeymoon couple wouldn’t get to move into their home until they returned from the East next spring. Weeks passed before another carpenter could be imported from Cheyenne.
But Ad had something more important to worry about this summer. It had been unusually dry and the grass was poor. The whole country was clearly overstocked. New ranches, like his own, were being established despite the fact that there was actually not enough grass for the herds already there.
“If we get a hard winter now things will be mighty bad,” he told Estelle, as they were riding back to Lusk one afternoon.
The early part of the winter passed quickly for the couple. Most of the time they were in New York, where Ad was busy in the office of the mining company.
Just before Christmas he received a disturbing letter from the Swede he had left in charge of his Bel Pre` ranch. For weeks there had been severe cold and heavy snow. Recently there had been a thaw that had been followed by a blizzard, and now there was a heavy crust over everything. The 500 Midwestern bucket-calves that Ad had bought were being fed at the home ranch, but his steers had drifted out of the country, Things were bad, but it was hoped that the worst was over.
Three or four weeks later a letter came from Ad’s brother, Curtis Spaugh, who was foreman of an outfit to the south. Ad had brought him up to Wyoming five years before and he had done well. He wrote that he had never seen a winter that even began to equal this one of ’86 and ’87. Cattle were dying in great numbers, and if the weather didn’t break soon the losses would be unbelievable.
In late February Estelle caught a severe cold. The doctor finally ordered her to bed.
Each day there would be pink spots showing on her pale cheeks and she would have a degree or two of fever.
March drifted into April. Then one day the kindly doctor took Ad’s arm and led him out from the little sitting room into the hall. “I think you had better start West, Mr. Spaugh,” he said softly. “I’m afraid your wife has consumption.”
“Consumption?” Ad repeated, horrified.
“I’m afraid so. But the high air of your mountain country might cure her. I rather think it will.”
Ad tried to be gay and casual as he explained to Estelle that his business here in New York was finished and they could now start for home.
“And we can live in our new house,” she whispered. “oh, my sweetheart, I will be so happy.”
“You’ll soon get over this cold then,” he bravely went on.
She could not keep the tears from her great hazel eyes. “Just think—our own home. Take me soon, beloved. I am so afraid.”
He was kneeling by her side, and his face was buried in her thin white hands. He was afraid too.
Ad wired ahead and the house was ready for them when they arrived. That same afternoon they drove the ten miles on west from Lusk to Bel Pre`.
“Just lean on me, sweetheart,” Ad said softly. “We’ll be home in a little over an hour.”
“Home! Say it again, darling.”
“Our home’” he repeated. You’ll be all well again before you know it. And then we’ll ride every afternoon.”
Pretty soon the sick girl whispered: “Are those things we’re passing dead cows, Addison?”
“Guess they are, honey. But don’t you worry. Most of our stock wintered through pretty fair. We won’t lose more’n forty percent at the outside.”
“But that’s more than a third, darling.”
“Yes, but that’s nothing to what the big outfits suffered. Some of ‘em lost ninety percent of their stock. Why, they’re completely wiped out. The old open range is done forever. This bad winter, and the railroad, and the nesters have killed it. There’s a new deal coming ow. Men’ll have to fence and look after their stock better in winter.”
“You’ll win out, my darling. Don’t worry.” After a while she asked another question. “You love the cow business, don’t you, Addison?”
“More’n anything else in the world-except you.”
Ad swallowed hard before he spoke again. “You’ll be all right now that you’re home, honey,” he finally said. “You’ll get well fast.”
When she coughed it was if someone twisted a knife in his heart.
It was late October when he got back from the East. Shortly before Estelle died she had whispered to him that she wanted to be buried in Elmira, where her mother lay. So, of course, he carried out her wish.
It seemed as if he were still walking in a nightmare when he got off the train at Lusk. Faces and scenes were familiar, but they were strangely unreal.
The Swede met him with the team of bays that had carried him and Estelle through so many hours of hope and happiness. He’d always take god car of them if for no other reason than that. But somehow he didn’t want to ride in the buggy again. At least not for a long, long time.
When he pulled up at the house that had promised so much and yet given only pain and sorrow, a horse whinnied to him from the pole corral, next to the barn. He walked directly there. It was Standing Elk that was welcoming him. He couldn’t keep the tears from his eyes when Traveler came up, too, and rubbed his nose against his open hand. He’d have him turned out. He didn’t want anyone ever to ride Estelle’s horse again.
He told the man to take the bags into the house. Quickly he stepped into the saddle room and pulled down his saddle and bridle. There was dust on both.
He had no trouble catching Standing Elk and bridling him. The horse seemed to know that something was wrong, but he was glad his master was home at last.
Ad headed him north toward the O W headquarters on Old Woman Creek. But his own fences forced him to make a wide detour.
Way off to his right he could hear the sound of hammers. Some nester was building himself a home. Well, maybe he had a right to. But home wasn’t just some boards nailed together.
Standing Elk jogged on. They were in the open country now. The hills were still bare. And there was good fall grass in the valleys and on the rolling hillsides.
Cattle country! That’s what this was. And he was a cattleman. Nothing else.
this thing of trying to be a city promoter was all foolish. His business in life was cows.
He couldn’t have everything. But he could have horses and cattle—and these everlasting hills. He’d have to go ahead and build himself a new type of ranch. Much of the incentive was gone, but he couldn’t give up. He couldn’t be stopped by railroads, or nesters, or barbed wire, or sheep, or bad winters—or even death. He’d stick to his cows and his grass.
Maybe that was what the Lord intended him to be; a lonely cowboy, riding forever through a vast world of dreams and memories—and driving ambitions.
All this, gentle reader, happened more than a half century ago. Today, in this spring of 1940, a short stocky man, who will soon celebrate his eighty-third birthday, drives his car across the same rolling grassland that old Standing Elk used to gallop over.
The Bel Pre` ranch and the old 77 still belong to him, and much of the country that O W cattle roamed over in the long ago is now his own land. Through sunshine and shadow he has held on to the grass. Time and again fortune and tragedy have alternately been his lot. Cities have lured him but he has always gone back to his land. For throughout the years grass and cattle have never failed him.
It has been a long and adventurous ride for him- this journey that started at dawn on the dusty Chisholm Trail in south Texas and ends at twilight in the rolling cow country of Wyoming.
Sixty-five years ago in San Antonio one of his of his old trail companions said: “He’ll do to ride the rivers with.”
That still holds good of Ad Spaugh.
He’ll do to ride the rivers with.
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