Another engagement.--The Cromptons.--Helping on the farm.--A fog.--Strayed horses.--Lost heifer.--Clearing Wilkinson's melon patch.--Snakes.--The wild bees' nest.--Mud-daubers.--The quarrel.--Bad weather.--My pony wears out
AS the weather grew warm we had to think about our cattle again. Last year, while I was at Blake's, the cattle, which had dwindled down in number from various causes, were sent out to herd; but, as I was back again, we thought to get together a herd as before. I could scarcely get enough though to make it pay, and so hearing of a man, some few miles from home, who was in want of a herder, I went to offer my services, and we soon came to terms. He was to pay me eight dollars a month and board and lodging; but as our cattle were to be herded also, there was to be a reduction
of three and a half dollars a month, leaving me four and a half. This arrangement was for six months, from the 4th of May to the 4th of November. On the first named date Jack and I drove our cattle over to the head of Wilson Creek, where lived the Cromptons,-the people for whom I was going to work. Having found the herd, I bade Jack's "good-bye" for six months, and he rode away, leading the pony I had ridden over on, while I took over the charge of the herd. The cattle soon became acquainted with one another, and in a few hours were feeding quietly together, until by-and-bye evening came on, and I drove them home to the corral for the night, when I was introduced to the Crompton family. I had not as yet seen the house or any of its inmates but Steve Crompton, the eldest son, whom I had met out on the prairie, and we had made arrangements then and there.
I found that the family consisted of Mrs. Crompton, a very old lady, a nice motherly sort; Steve and his wife; John, another son; and a daughter, Kate. They were very nice agreeable people, and I got along first rate
with them. They had a large farm, as the old lady, being the head of a family, had taken a piece of land, and the two sons, being of age, each had land as well.
They had a comfortable home and a good many horses and cattle, and I had a very good pony for herding, which Steve had bought expressly. Poor old Charlie! I guess that he had rather a rough time of it, as sometimes the cattle were rather troublesome, as will be seen later on.
We were living just on the boundary of two counties, Morris and Davis. In the latter there was no herd-law, and in the summer, when the grass was good, I could sometimes drive the cattle over the border and leave them for several hours. I was then able to help the Cromptons at work on the farm. During the harvest I loaded all the wheat, and stacked most of it. Harvest comes very early out there, in the latter part of June or the beginning of July, much earlier than in England, whereas haying is just the reverse, coming as late as September. This is, of course, wild prairie hay. Anyone just takes his mowing machine out and cuts away as much as he
likes, wherever the grass is good enough. It makes splendid hay if it is got in dry.
I had plenty of work all the time I was living here, up at four o'clock to hunt for the horses, who were turned loose at night over the border. They never came to the fields. I used to go on foot for my pony, who was turned loose too, and always went barefooted, for the grass being high and usually smothered with dew, a pair of boots would be wet through in no time. As it was, with my canvas overalls rolled up as high as they would go, they were frequently wringing wet before I got home. One of the horses had a rope dragging, so that I could catch him, and mounting drive the others in.
One morning I had found them, and was crossing a ravine on the way home, when I came into a thick fog. It was so dense that, although knowing the lay of the country pretty well, I could not find my way at all, and for two hours I wandered about in almost absolute darkness. Of course, the horses were not anxious to get home, or they would doubtless have been able to find their way. At last I got on the top a hill where the fog was not
quite so thick, and was able to take my bearings.
Fogs are very scarce indeed out there, I think I can hardly remember another; occasionally there was a little mist early in the morning, but the rising sun soon dispelled it.
One morning I started out as usual to find the horses at four o'clock, but after visiting all their usual feeding-places, and tramping about through the wet grass for three hours, I could not find them, and returned to the house. I had some breakfast, and then went to a neighbour and borrowed a pony, while Steve let the cattle out of the corral, and drove them into Davis County, where they could do no damage. Having a mount I did not care so much, and I started along the edge of all the fields anywhere near the county line to try if they had got into the corn anyhow. I could find no signs of them, however, until presently I struck their trail about three miles from home, and found that they had passed through the little town of Skiddy, and had crossed Clark's Creek. I followed them up for a time, until I at last came in sight of them seven miles away, and still traveling from home. I cannot under
stand what possessed them to stray off in this way; they must have got a fright somehow. I had my stock-whip with me, and didn't I bring them home at a fine rate! I arrived back at the farm with them at twelve o'clock. Ever after that my herding pony was picketed out at night, so as to avoid a repetition of such pranks.
One day, when I left the cattle for a few hours as I often did, to work on the farm, I lost a heifer. Perhaps a little before noon, when the cattle had eaten their fill, and were ready to lie down and chew the cud, I used to drive them up within sight of the house, round them up a little, and wait for a short time, until presently every one of them would be lying down half asleep. Then I could ride to the house, get my dinner, and work away until the cattle got up and roamed away out of sight over the hill, when I had to mount my pony and start after them, and stop with them until the evening.
Well! on this occasion I rounded them up and counted them, and found them all right; but, on returning to them in the afternoon, I found them in rather a wild excited state, and
discovered that there was a heifer missing, as well as a young stray steer that did not belong to the herd, but which had taken to it and fed with it for several weeks. Of course, from time to time as I could leave the cattle for a little while, I hunted around in all the little hollows and likely places, but could not find her, and so took the herd home without her. The next day John Crompton tended the herd while I spent all my time in searching high and low for the missing heifer, but all to no purpose. We had been able to find out to whom the stray steer belonged, and now came to the conclusion that its owners had been after it, and possibly taken our heifer along for some reason or other.
The next day Steve and I rode over to the owner, who lived ten miles away, to see if we could get any information. We found their herd and the steer with it, but no signs of the heifer, and as their house was empty, they being but two bachelors, we were unable to gain any tidings here. On our way back, hardly knowing what to do next, when passing through my usual herding-ground, we -found the poor thing, lying down in the long grass
in a slight hollow, with a broken leg. It was evident that while cutting out the stray steer, they had run the cattle about over the rocks a good deal, which accounted for their being so excited when I found them that afternoon, and the heifer had been injured in this way. Still, as we could not prove anything, we had to let the matter drop, and the heifer was killed. The loss fell upon the owner, as Steve did not guarantee the well-being of cattle which he undertook to herd. Of course, there was no blame attached to me, as I was absent from the herd at the time, according to instructions, but I did not half like losing the animal. It had the effect of keeping me entirely with the herd afterwards.
We had very few neighbours about us. A few miles down the creek, in Davis County, there lived an old man named Wilson, who had been there very many years, in fact, so long that the creek was named after him. He was pretty well off, had a fine herd of cattle and several good horses, and, of course, having been the first settler, he had picked out the best farm in the neighbourhood. He was an old bachelor, and lived in a little log hut in
a very primitive manner, and alone, save for a boy about a year or two older than myself, who looked after his cattle. He was not exactly a herder, as there was no herd-law, but, having a number of cattle, he had to look them up every day to see that they did not stray into the next county. He was not a nice youth, for though often meeting him on the prairie, he seldom spoke. I guess he was rather proud, for he used to come out sometimes in a collar and a blue necktie,-articles rarely sported on the prairie. (I remember once my brother Jack was going to have his photograph taken, and for the life of us among the four we could not find a collar. He was taken with a tie on though, one that my father had brought from England.) He was always well dressed, and rode a splendid pony, while I had only canvas overalls and a couple of hickory shirts, which were worn right along for months.
Although living very comfortably with the Cromptons, money was mighty scarce; I received no advance, and once kept a letter for two months for want of a five-cent stamp, and was then ashamed to send it to an old
school-fellow back in England for whom it was intended.
Another neighbour was an Englishman, named Wilkinson. He had been a windowdresser in a hosier's shop on Ludgate Hill Rather a change for him, this quiet country life and farming, after the noise and bustle of London. He had not got thoroughly Americanised when I knew him, and was rather conservative on some points. For instance, he threatened to shoot anybody who dared take a melon out of his patch without his permission. It is quite a regular thing here for a traveller to enter a field or an orchard and help himself to a water melon or a peach or apple, and being universally allowed it falls no harder on one than another. Any man that disapproved was quite at liberty to help himself when out travelling, when he would find a nice ripe melon very acceptable. It cannot be called stealing, for all is done openly; it is simply a neighbourly action. Still Mr. Wilkinson did not like the practice, and in our hearing threatened dire punishment on any one who should rob his fruit. John Crompton and I resolved to give him a lesson.
One dark night, when there was no moon, we took a couple of horses and two big sacks, and rode over near to his farm. We left the horses in a hollow, out of sight of his house, and then taking the sacks, crawled on hands and knees through the long grass and into his melon patch. We cut a good many and ate the best parts, leaving the remainder so that he could see that someone had been enjoying themselves, and then filled our sacks with the finest in the patch. We rolled them down the ravine to where we had left our horses, threw them across their backs, and went home, without even having disturbed old Wilkinson's dogs. We covered up the melons in the stable with a lot of hay in case he should come around, which he did the next day, complaining bitterly; but I don't think he had any suspicion as to who the culprits were. It was perhaps rather rough on him, but if the stupid man had but borne the loss of an occasional melon in a neighbourly manner, we should not have cleared his patch for him.
The farmers, as a rule, are very hospitable, and one could ride across country hunting up stray cattle or horses for days together,
without being asked to pay for his board and night's lodging, or for his horse's provender. Of course, a man usually offered something, but the almost invariable reply was, "Oh! that's all right, stranger, just you do the same for me when I'm in your parts!" Where a house was near a main road, running from town to town, such for instance as old Blake's on Monkres Creek, one was bound to make some charge for accommodation.
There being but few settlers in Crompton's neighbourhood, snakes were pretty plentiful, and I used to kill lots of them when out on the prairie with the herd. One day I had a big battle with a bull snake, about the largest I had seen. After I had killed him, I held him up by the tail, and reaching as high as I could, could scarcely get his head off the ground. I settled him with my whip, which made a fine weapon for the purpose. It was a regular stock whip, with a short stout handle about a foot long, loaded at the end with lead, and had a lash fifteen feet long, made of plaited raw hide, round and tapering like a snake. It was enough to damp the ardour of any "rampagious" bullock, as when properly
handled it would pop like a pistol, and draw blood every time. Sometimes I found snakes in such positions that I could not kill them. I was riding through the brushwood one day, when I saw a nest of five copperheads, all in a heap, but the trees were so thick that I could not swing my whip, and as there were no rocks near at hand I was reluctantly obliged to pass on.
Early one morning I had a high time with a wild bees' nest. It was about half a mile from the house, and I had determined to take it for the honey. This is how I set to work. The nest was a hole in the ground out on the open prairie, an old burrow of some animal; and I went just before daybreak with two small flat sticks of wood, and began to thump on the ground to wake them up. I heard a big buzzing and humming, and then two or three crawled slowly out to see what was the matter. They came out gaping and rubbing their eyes, but before they discovered the cause of their being awakened so early, I had smashed them between my two sticks.
They continued coming up, and rather more quickly, but I managed them all right by
covering the hole with one stick, and just letting them out one at a time to be killed with the other. Things were going on nicely for me, not for the bees,-when, to my alarm, I saw that there was another exit,-a backdoor to their residence-quite beyond my reach, and from there they began to fly out in great numbers, for by this time they were wide awake, and angry at being disturbed; there was quite a roar in the nest. Immediately I saw this I knew that I must give up the job, so I took to my heels, and ran about a quarter of a mile, and then dropping to a walk was just congratulating myself on my lucky escape, when-buzz! like a bullet a bee was down on me. He lit on the back of my neck, gave a sting, and then slid down my back under my shirt, and began again; but I soon grabbed him and smashed him in my fingers. He was alone fortunately, but I had quite enough from him, and serve me right, too, some will say, for trying to rob their nest.
These bees are not like the regular honey bee, but large things, more like the humble bee, and capable, like the wasp, of stinging repeatedly. They build almost entirely in
holes in the earth. Wasps are plentiful, also another insect, very similar, but black, and termed "mud-daubers," from their practice of building nests of mud all over the place, indoors or under the eaves like swallows.
The nests are very peculiar in construction, and contain inside, in a semi-torpid state, numbers of little spiders, which serve as food for the young when hatched.
One morning I found that one of the work horses was very ill, and had much difficulty in getting him home to the house, where he died almost immediately. He was suffering from the colic, and when I found him it was too late to save him. We dragged him down the ravine a little way, and there was no danger of his body proving a source of trouble at the house, for in a few hours his bones were stripped by the buzzards and bleaching in the sun.
It is wonderful to see how soon these birds find out a dead body. You might ride about the country for miles without seeing one, but let a carcass be thrown out on the prairie, and in a short time you will see first one black speck in the sky, and then another, and,
another, until soon there may be some dozens of the natural scavengers, the ugly, baldheaded turkey-buzzards, engaged in tearing it to pieces.
About the first of October old Mrs. Crompton left us on a visit to her old home in Iowa, and shortly afterwards Steve and John had a big quarrel. John could not agree with Steve's wife, and, of course, Steve had to take her part. Words came to blows, and there was a rush for weapons; John got an axe, and Steve a pitch-fork, and there would doubtless have been murder if the two women and myself had not parted them. After this they could not live in the same house; so John built a shanty on his own land, and his sister kept house for him.
Of course, I stopped with Steve, as I had been hired by him, but my sympathies were entirely on the other side. I liked John firstrate. Shortly after this the weather broke, and we had it very rough. Almost every day it rained fearfully hard, and sometimes froze as it fell, so that the cattle and myself were covered with ice. At such times it required
all my energy to prevent a general stampede. I had to gallop continually up and down before the face of the cattle, using my whip as they scuttled along before the bitter north wind. This continual strain wore out my pony. He was quite sore where I had to keep spurring him, and at last he got so used up, that when passing over a piece of rough ground, if I was in a hurry, I was obliged to jump off and leave him, and rush after the cattle on foot.
Of course, this could not last long, and the pony gave out completely, and died two or three weeks before the end of the season, and Steve had to get me another.
The last three weeks of the herding was terrible work; wet through or half-frozen nearly every day, and kept in a chronic state of anxiety, not knowing but that at any moment the brutes might make a stampede which I should be powerless to stop. As it was I often had to just let them go before the storm, keeping them together as well as I could, until they struck some creek under cover of which I could work them round by degrees towards home.
How I counted the days and even the hours
of the last two or three weeks, looking forward to the 4th of November! I don't know that I was ever more anxious for a time to come than I was for that date to arrive; the anxiety and strain combined with the unpleasant wet and cold work were so great. At last the long-looked-for day arrived, the herd was broken up, the different cattle sent home to their respective owners, and I returned home with ours, after receiving my pay.