However, they were both good fellows, and probably their conduct was justifiable, at least according to the rather fitful lights of the border. Sitting up late with them, around the sputtering fire, they became quite confidential. At first, our conversation touched only the usual monotonous round of subjects worn threadbare in every cow-camp.
A bunch of steers had been seen traveling over the scoria buttes to the head of Elk Creek; they were mostly Texan doggies (a name I have never seen written; it applies to young immigrant cattle), but there were some of the Hash-Knife four-year-olds among them. A stray horse with a blurred brand on the left hip had just joined the bunch of saddle-ponies. The red F. V. cow, one of whose legs had been badly bitten by a wolf, had got mired down in an alkali spring, and when hauled out had charged upon her rescuer so viciously that he barely escaped.
The old mule, Sawback, was getting over the effects of the rattlesnake bite. The river was going down, but the fords were still bad, and the quicksand at the Custer Trail crossing had worked along so that wagons had to be taken over opposite the blasted cottonwood. One of the men had seen a Three-Seven-B rider who had just left the Green River round-up, and who brought news that they had found some cattle on the reservation, and were now holding about twelve hundred head on the big brushy bottom below Rainy Butte.
Bronco Jim, our local flash rider, had tried to ride the big, bald-faced sorrel belonging to the Oregon horse-outfit, and had been bucked off and his face smashed in. This piece of information, of course, drew forth much condemnation of the unfortunate Jim’s equestrian skill. It was at once agreed that he “wasn’t the sure-enough bronco-buster he thought himself,” and he was compared very unfavorably to various heroes of the quirt and spurs who lived in Texas and Colorado; for the best rider, like the best hunter, is invariably either dead or else a resident of some other district.
These topics having been exhausted, we discussed the rumor that the vigilantes had given notice to quit to two men who had just built a shack at the head of the Little Dry, and whose horses included a suspiciously large number of different brands, most of them blurred. Then our conversation became more personal, and they asked if I would take some letters to post for them. Of course, I said yes, and two letters — evidently the product of severe manual labor — were produced. Each was directed to a girl; and my companions, now very friendly, told me that they both had sweethearts, and for the next hour I listened to a full account of their charms and virtues.
But it is not often that plainsmen talk so freely. They are rather reserved, especially to strangers; and are certain to look with dislike on any man who, when they first meet him, talks a great deal. It is always a good plan, if visiting a strange camp or ranch, to be as silent as possible.
Another time, at a ranch not far from my own, I found among the cowboys gathered for the round-up two Bible-reading Methodists. They were as strait-laced as any of their kind, but did not obtrude their opinions on anyone else, and were first-class workers so that they had no trouble with the other men. Associated with them were two or three blear-eyed, slit-mouthed ruffians, who were as loose of tongue as of life.
Generally, some form of stable government is provided for the counties as soon as their population has become at all fixed, the frontiersmen showing their national aptitude for organization. Then lawlessness is put down pretty effectively. For example, as soon as we organized the government of Medora — an excessively unattractive little hamlet, the county seat of our huge, scantily settled county — we elected some good officers, built a log jail, prohibited all shooting in the streets, and enforced the prohibition, etc., etc.
Up to that time, there had been a good deal of lawlessness of one kind or another, only checked by an occasional piece of individual retribution or by a sporadic outburst of vigilance committee work. In such a society the desperadoes of every grade flourish. Many are merely ordinary rogues and swindlers, who rob and cheat on occasion, but are dangerous only when led by some villain of real intellectual power. The gambler, with hawk eyes and lissome fingers, is scarcely classed as a criminal; indeed, he may be a very public-spirited citizen. But as his trade is so often plied in saloons, and as even if, as sometimes happens, he does not cheat, many of his opponents are certain to attempt to do so, he is of necessity obliged to be skillful and ready with his weapon, and gambling rows are very common.
Cowboys lose much of their money to gamblers; it is with them hard come and light go, for they exchange the wages of six months’ grinding toil and lonely peril for three days’ whooping carousal, spending their money on poisonous whiskey or losing it over greasy cards in the vile dance-houses. As already explained, they are in the main good men; and the disturbance they cause in a town is done from sheer rough light-heartedness. They shoot off boot-heels or tall hats occasionally or make some obnoxious butt “dance” by shooting around his feet, but they rarely meddle in this way with men who have not themselves played the fool. A fight in the streets is almost always a duel between two men who bear each other malice; it is only in a general mêlée in a saloon that outsiders often get hurt, and then it is their own fault, for they have no business to be there. One evening at Medora a cowboy spurred his horse up the steps of a rickety “hotel” piazza into the bar-room, where he began firing at the clock, the decanters, etc., the bartender meanwhile taking one shot at him, which missed. When he had emptied his revolver he threw down a roll of bank-notes on the counter, to pay for the damage he had done, and galloped his horse out through the door, disappearing in the darkness with loud yells to a rattling accompaniment of pistol shots interchanged between himself and some passer-by who apparently began firing out of pure desire to enter into the spirit of the occasion, — for it was the night of the Fourth of July, and all the country round about had come into town for a spree.
All this is mere horse-play; it is the cowboy’s method of “painting the town red,” as an interlude in his harsh, monotonous life. Of course, there are plenty of hard characters among cowboys, but no more than among lumbermen and the like; only the cowboys are so ready with their weapons that a bully in one of their camps is apt to be a murderer instead of merely a bruiser. Often, moreover, on a long trail, or in a far-off camp, where the men are for many months alone, feuds spring up that are in the end sure to be slaked in blood. As a rule, however, cowboys who become desperadoes soon are forced to drop their original business and are no longer employed on ranches, unless in counties or territories where there is very little heed paid to the law, and where, in consequence, a cattle-owner needs a certain number of hired bravos. Until within two or three years, this was the case in parts of Arizona and New Mexico, where land claims were “jumped” and cattle were stolen all the while, one effect is to ensure high wages to every individual who combined murderous proclivities with skill in the use of the six-shooter.
Even in much more quiet regions, different outfits vary greatly as regards the character of their employees: I know one or two where the men are good ropers and riders, but a gambling, brawling, hard-drinking set, always shooting each other or strangers. Generally, in such a case, the boss is himself as objectionable as his men; he is one of those who have risen by unblushing rascality and is always sharply watched by his neighbors, because he is sure to try to shift calves on to his own cows, to brand any blurred animal with his own mark, and perhaps to attempt the alteration of perfectly plain brands. The last operation, however, has become very risky since the organization of the cattle country, and the appointment of trained brand-readers as inspectors. These inspectors examine the hide of every animal slain, sold, or driven off, and it is wonderful to see how quickly one of them will detect any signs of a brand having been tampered with. Now there is, in consequence, very little of this kind of dishonesty; whereas formerly herds were occasionally stolen almost bodily.
Claim-jumpers are, as a rule, merely blackmailers. Sometimes they will by threats drive an ignorant foreigner from his claim, but never an old frontiersman. They delight to squat down beside ranchmen who are themselves trying to keep land to which they are not entitled, and who therefore know that their only hope is to bribe or to bully the intruder.