The Oregon Trail

The Trail Drive (Volume 9)

Ralph Compton

St. Martin's Paperbacks

1
Lou and Waco didn’t talk much as they rode back to their herd and the rest of their riders. Eventually it was Lou who spoke.
“I reckon it’ll take both of us to explain this situation to the rest of the boys, so don’t just stand there lookin’ at me. Speak up.”
Waco laughed. “I don’t aim to say a word. You’re the talky one. Just make believe these seven ugly jaspers is all purty females with corn-silk hair and shapes only God could have created. You’ll have ‘em eatin’ out of your hand.”
“Once in a month of Sundays you come up with a sensible idea,” Lou said, casting him a sour look. “Just shut the hell up until it’s time to say yes or no to Applegate’s offer.”
The rest of the outfit had been watching for them, and there was an unspoken question in the eyes of every man as Lou and Waco dismounted. Lou wasted no time. He first told them of Applegate’s offer to buy half the herd at thirty dollars a head. There were unanimous shouts of approval, but Lou held up his hand.
“I’m not finished. We have more than one decision to make. Hear the rest, and then I’ll want some answers. But from one of you at a time.”
First he explained that the only emigrants with money to buy cattle had already done so. He told them there might not be another Oregon-bound wagon train for months because of the near impossibility of crossing the Rocky Mountains in winter. Finally he concluded with Applegate’s offer of forty and found and the suggestion they use the unsold half of the herd to carve out a ranch for themselves in the Willamette Valley. He allowed them a little time to digest what he’d said. They were Texans to the bone. Their boots were rough out, their trousers dark homespun, and their shirts faded blue or red flannel. Their wide-brimmed hats were in varying stages of deterioration as a result of dust, sweat, rain, and the merciless Texas sun. Lou spoke first to Red Brodie. His hair was red, his eyes green. His Colt was tied down on his left hip. He hailed from San Antonio. At twenty-four he was the oldest man in the outfit, a year older than Lou Spencer.
“Red,” said Lou, “you’re the oldest. How do you feel?”
“Thirty dollars a head is a fair price,” Brodie said, “and I’ll go along with that. But how do you know Applegate’s levelin’ with you when he says there’s nobody else to buy the other half of the herd? This old pilgrim needs cowboys, which he ain’t goin’ to have if we sell the rest of our herd and ride back to Texas.”
“Because Waco and me rode past most of the wagons in Applegate’s train,” said Lou, “and those who haven’t bought cattle for ranching are going to be farmers.”
“Except for them with sheep and goats,” Waco added helpfully.
“Sheep and goats?” the seven riders bawled in a single voice.
“Wasn’t no hogs that we could see,” said Waco.
Lou turned furious eyes on Waco, and if looks could have killed, the twenty-one-year-old rider would have been buzzard bait. Finally Lou had to face the seven riders who glared at him in varying stages of indignation.
“There are a few goats and some sheep,” Lou said, “but that won’t be a problem. All we’ll be concerned with will be the cattle. The last herd to come up the trail from Texas—three thousand head—were bought by families in Applegate’s party. The riders who sold the cattle have hired on for the drive to Oregon.”
“By God,” said Brodie, “it ain’t my ambition to have a cow ranch within a day’s ride of a damn sheepman. Not in Texas, Oregon, or nowhere else.”
There were shouts of approval from all the riders except Waco.
“In the morning,” Lou said, “we’ll deliver Applegate’s twenty-five hundred cows. Of the unsold half of the herd, I figure 277 head belong to me. I’ll want to cut them out and drive them along with the Applegate herd. I believe I’m entitled to two bulls, if nobody has any objections. I’ve got kin in Texas, but nothin’ else. If I don’t like it in Oregon, the trail runs both ways. The rest of you can do as you like with your part of the herd, and no hard feelings on my part.”
“I reckon I’ll cut out my cows and go with you,” said Waco. “Hell, if we don’t like it in Oregon, we can always drive the cows south to Nevada and sell ’em to the miners.”
“So you’re just goin’ to leave the rest of us here on our hunkers till another wagon train comes along,” said Sterling McCarty. He was from Austin, with black hair and deep brown eyes. He was twenty-three, and carried his Colt on his right hip.
“You can sit here, go west to St. Louis, or back to Texas,” Lou said.
“I sure as hell don’t aim to winter here,” Vic Sloan said. “We got no way of knowin’ if the next bunch of emigrants will be buyin’ cows or not.” Sloan was just nineteen, the youngest man in the outfit. From Laredo, he had sandy hair and pale blue eyes. He carried his Colt for a right-hand draw.
The six undecided riders turned their questioning eyes on Red Brodie, and he responded with a shrug of his shoulders. He was having some trouble facing them, for he had committed them and himself to a hostile position from which there seemed no retreat. Having no alternative to what Lou had proposed, Brodie was forced to pull in his horns. Each man must make his own decision, and Sterling McCarty was the first.
“Well, hell,” he grumbled, “just because a man don’t like the trail he’s bound to ride don’t mean he ain’t got the sand to do it. Havin’ no other choice, I’ll throw in, but by God, no sheep, you understand? Keep them damn woollies away from me.”
“I don’t like sheep any better than the rest of you,” Lou said, “but that don’t give us the right to round ’em all up and drive them off the edge of the world. We’re cattlemen and we’ll keep our distance. I reckon there’s enough territory in Oregon so’s we don’t have to build our spread right next to a sheep ranch. You got my word on that.”
Waco grinned in appreciation of Lou’s ability with words. Not only had he overcome their hostility, he had allowed them a means of backing away from their hasty negative decisions without too much damage to their pride.
“I’m already sick of this camp,” said Vic Sloan, “and I couldn’t last out the winter if I was of a mind to try. I’ll take Applegate’s offer.”
“Reckon I will too,” Del Konda said. He was twenty-one, from San Angelo, had brown hair and hazel eyes. His Colt was tied down on his right hip.
“I’m in,” said Josh Bryan. From Uvalde, he was a year older than Del. His hair was black, his eyes gray, and his Colt was belted for a right-hand draw.
All eyes shifted to Alonzo Gonzales and Black Jack Rhudy. Alonzo was Mexican and had been the outfit’s cook all the way from Texas. He had black hair and eyes, and carried his Colt beneath the waistband of his trousers. There was a Bowie knife down the back of his shirt, attached to a leather thong about his neck. While he looked younger, he claimed to be twenty-one. Black Jack had said he was twenty-three, and he looked it. He too was from Mexico. While he had the black hair and eyes of a Mexican, he had the high cheekbones and the coloring of an Indian. His Bowie was concealed as was Alonzo’s, but strapped about his lean middle were twin Colts in a buscadera rig.* Nobody knew Black Jack’s given name. The handle he used had been taken from the game that kept him broke most of the time. Alonzo the Mexican spoke first.
“If I am make this drive, I be cowboy, no?”
“You’ll be a cowboy, yes,” said Lou. “Applegate’s wife and daughters will do the cooking for the family and for us.”
“I think I go with you,” Alonzo said, “if I no have to cook. I start to feel like female servant.”
“Damn good thing you don’t look like one,” said Black Jack, “or you’d of been in big trouble by now. If there’s goin’ to be honest-to-God females doin’ the cooking, deal me in.”
“Since we ain’t carryin’ grub,” Waco said, “we won’t be needin’ five pack mules. What will we do with the extra ones?”
“They’ll all go with us,” said Lou. “We’ll still need our cooking and eating tools when we reach Oregon. Besides, I have the feeling this will be one hell of a drive. All the mules might not survive, and the extra ones won’t be extra anymore. We’ll move out tomorrow at first light. From what Applegate told us, the train won’t be moving out until June first. We’ll have to drive them far enough north of the river so they’ll have decent graze, and we may have to move them to new graze every day. For sure we’ll be driving them to the river to water.”
“My God,” Sterling McCarty said, “we got to loaf around these parts for two more weeks?”
“Loafing hell,” said Lou. “Except for Applegate and his family, we don’t know these people. We’ll have to watch the herd day and night. One good thunderstorm and they’ll scatter from here to yonder.”
“Like they done three times on the way from Texas,” Waco said.
“But they’re trailwise now,” said Vic Sloan, “and not so skittish.”
Red Brodie sighed. “Lou’s right. Cows never get that trailwise. You drop enough thunder and lightnin’ on a herd and they’ll just run like hell wouldn’t have it. If I got a choice, I’d ruther spend the next two weeks keepin’ a close eye on the varmints than trackin’ ’em down and draggin’ ’em out of the brush.”
“By God, Red,” said Josh Bryan, “ever’ once in a while you say somethin’ so sensible, so smart, it just plumb amazes me.”
“Damn it, Josh,” Del Konda said, “now you’ve gone and done it. You’ll have him thinkin’ he’s somethin’ more than just a cow nurse, and he’ll just be more impossibler than ever.”
The rest of the outfit laughed at Brodie’s expense, and it even drew a grudging grin from the redhead. “You sarcastic bastards,” he grunted. “I hope you all get throwed and stomped in a patch of prickly pear.”
Independence, Missouri. May 21, 1843.
“Move ’em out,” Lou shouted.
While they had been a considerable distance south of the Missouri, the terrain was level, and they crossed the river an hour past noon. Riding point, Lou led them north. They would drive the herd several miles beyond the river and then west, avoiding the emigrant camps. Somewhere to the south they could hear the bawling of the cattle bought by Higdon and Quimby. When Lou believed they were somewhere due north of the Applegate camp, he reined up and waved his hat. It was time to bunch up the herd. The graze was good and the longhorns wasted no time taking advantage of it. Lou waited until the rest of the outfit caught up to him.
“We’re near enough to Applegate’s camp,” he said. “We’ll need to let Applegate know we’re here with his herd and that we’re accepting his offer to trail the rest of our cows to Oregon with his. Since we can’t leave the herd unattended, we can’t all take our meals together. I’ll need to talk to Applegate about it, so I’ll ride in first. I want all of you to meet the Applegates, so I’ll take some of you with me. When we’ve had our supper, we’ll ride back, and Waco can take the rest of you with him. Del, Vic, Red, and Sterling, you’ll ride with me. The rest of you will ride in with Waco when we return. We’ll stand two night watches. The first until midnight and the second from midnight to dawn. As you all know, if there’s trouble with the herd, it usually comes at night, so five of us, including me, will stand the second watch. There’ll be time enough to set up the watches after all of you have met the Applegates and we’ve all eaten. I don’t look for any trouble, Waco, but if it comes, you know the warning. Three quick shots. Those of you going with me, let’s ride.”
Lou discovered they had driven the herd too far, and reaching the river, they had to ride half a mile back to the Applegate camp. Applegate saw them coming and walked out to meet them. Lou reined up, his riders fanned out on either side of him. He was blunt and to the point.
“Mr. Applegate, we’ve brought your herd and ours. They’re several miles north of here. We’re accepting your offer of forty and found for trailing your herd and ours to Oregon. We’ll need to eat and return to the herd so Waco and the rest of our outfit can ride in for supper. I think it’s only proper that your family meet the rest of our outfit, and your womenfolk need to be warned they can’t feed us all at one time. I don’t know how you feel about it, but we wouldn’t dare leave the herd unattended, day or night.”
“Nor would I want you to,” said Applegate. “I respect men who take their responsibilities seriously. Come along and introduce your men to my wife and daughters. They’ll have some food ready in a few minutes. Then you can eat, ride back to the herd, and send in the rest of your men. We’ll keep their supper hot.”
Lou and his riders dismounted, following Applegate into the camp. The rest of the Applegates were waiting, and Jesse wasted no time announcing the good news.
“Yipeee,” young Jud shouted. “Texas cowboys.”
Sarah, Sandy, and Vangie were all smiles, and Lou’s four companions were staring at the girls in open admiration. These young riders had none of Waco’s bashfulness where women were concerned, and Lou felt a sudden surge of jealousy. Sandy seemed to have forgotten him, smiling invitingly at his four companions.
“Sarah,” said Applegate, “these men need to be fed so they can relieve those who remained with the herd. We’ll save supper for them.”
“Ma’am,” Lou said, “I know this means more work for you all, having to feed our outfit twice, but I reckon there’s no help for it. We just don’t feel comfortable leavin’ the herd unattended. When we return to the herd, Waco and three more hungry hombres will be along pronto.”
“We understand,” said Sarah. “Really, there’s no extra work. Once we’ve cooked the food, we’ll just have to wait longer to start cleaning up, until all of you have eaten. We’re just thankful you’re going with us, and we’ll do whatever we must to feed you plentifully and quickly.”
The meal was soon ready. Lou and his four companions hunkered down with full plates and big tin cups of scalding coffee. There were slabs of fried ham, potatoes, onions, beans, corn bread, and dried apple pie. When they had finished, the women collected their empty plates, cups, and eating tools. Before anybody could utter a word of thanks, Sterling McCarty spoke up.
“Ma’am, when Lou Spencer was tellin’ us about this drive to Oregon an’ suggestin’ we throw in with your wagon train, I just naturally thought he’d lost what little sense he had. But after that feed, I got to admit ol’ Lou is a hell . . . er, whole lot smarter than I thought he was.”
His slip of the tongue bothered the Applegate women not at all, but McCarty’s face flamed with embarrassment. His companions roared with laughter and Applegate grinned. Lou caught Sandy’s eye and winked. To his delight, she winked back and something passed between them. All too soon the moment passed and it was time for the cowboys to return to the herd.
“First breakfast at first light,” Sarah said as the five men mounted, “and the second when the rest of your riders get here.”
The riders tipped their hats and rode north. When they reached the herd, Waco, Alonzo, Black Jack, and Josh were ready.
“Waco,” said Vic Sloan with a straight face, “I ain’t sure what kind of welcome you hombres will get. McCarty’s been cussin’ before the women.”
“Damn you,” McCarty howled, “I didn’t mean to, it just—”
The four who had witnessed the event again roared with mirth as they recalled McCarty’s discomfiture.
“Don’t let it worry you, Waco,” said Lou, drying his eyes on the sleeve of his faded shirt. “Just keep in mind, if you ever take McCarty to be fed, see that he only uses his mouth to eat his grub.”
The night passed uneventfully, and the following morning, Lou and his four companions from the second watch got first choice at breakfast. Reaching the Applegate camp, they found three riders already there. One of them Lou immediately recognized as Jap Buckalew. The pair with him wore rough clothes, flop hats, and tied-down Colts. The trio stood facing the incoming riders, their thumbs hooked in their pistol belts. Lou and his men reined up just shy of the Applegate camp.
“Mr. Spencer,” Applegate shouted, “you and your riders are welcome. I have asked Mr. Buckalew and his men to leave. They are not welcome here.”
Lou and his companions dismounted, ground-reining their horses where they stood. Slowly the five began walking toward the Applegate camp, Buckalew and his men directly in their path. Without slowing his pace, Lou spoke.
“You men have been asked to leave. Mount up and ride.”
“Applegate don’t own this land,” Buckalew sneered, “and neither do you. I’m here to court Miss Sandy, and that’s between me and her.”
“Then we’ll let her decide whether you stay or go,” said Lou. “Sandy?”
“I wouldn’t have Jap Buckalew if he was the last man on earth,” Sandy said furiously. “I want him to go, and if I never see him again, it’ll be too soon.”
While Buckalew and one of his men hesitated, the third became victim of poor judgment. He went for his gun, and before he cleared leather, Lou’s slug tore into his shoulder. He stumbled backward, his companion catching him before he fell.
“I allow a man one mistake,” said Lou quietly. “Draw on me again, any one of you, and I’ll kill you. And Buckalew, when you’re tempted to ride back this way, keep in mind that from here to Oregon me and my outfit are part of Mr. Applegate’s train. There’s nine of us, and not a damn one that’s opposed to shootin’ a skunk that’s needful of it.”
The trio mounted, the wounded man doing so with difficulty. Without a word they rode west, none of them looking back.
“I’m sorry it came to this,” Applegate said when the five men reached camp.