Cattle-thieves, for the reason given above, are not common, although there are plenty of vicious, shiftless men who will kill a cow or a steer for the meat in winter if they get a chance.
Horse-thieves, however, are always numerous and formidable on the frontier; though in our own country they have been summarily thinned out of late years. It is the fashion to laugh at the severity with which horse-stealing is punished on the border, but the reasons are evident. Horses are the most valuable property of the frontiersman, whether cowboy, hunter, or settler, and are often absolutely essential to his well-being, and even to his life. They are always marketable, and they are very easily stolen, for they carry themselves off, instead of having to be carried. Horse-stealing is thus a most tempting business, especially to the more reckless ruffians, and it is always followed by armed men; and they can only be kept in check by ruthless severity. Frequently they band together with the road agents (highwaymen) and other desperadoes into secret organizations, which control and terrorize a district until overthrown by force.
After the civil war a great many guerrillas, notably from Arkansas and Missouri, went out to the plains, often drifting northward. They took naturally to horse-stealing and kindred pursuits. Since I have been in the northern cattle country I have known of half a dozen former members of Quantrill’s gang being hung or shot.
The professional man-killers, or “bad men,” maybe horse-thieves or highwaymen, but more often are neither one nor the other. Some of them, like some of the Texan Cowboys, become very expert in the use of the revolver, their invariable standby; but in the open, a cool man with a rifle is always an overmatch for one of them, unless at very close quarters, on account of the superiority of his weapon. Some of the “bad men” are quiet, good fellows, who have been driven into their career by accident. One of them has perhaps at some time killed a man in self-defense; he acquires some reputation, and the neighboring bullies get to look on him as a rival whom it would be an honor to slay; so that from that time on he must be ever on the watch, must learn to draw quick and shoot straight, — the former being even more important than the latter, — and probably has to take life after life in order to save his own.
Some of these men are brave only because of their confidence in their own skill and strength; once convince them that they are overmatched and they turn into abject cowards. Others have nerves of steel and will face any odds, or certain death itself, without flinching a hand’s breadth. I was once staying in a town where a desperately plucky fight took place. A noted desperado, an Arkansas man, had become involved in a quarrel with two others of the same ilk, both Irishmen and partners. For several days all three lurked about the saloon-infested streets of the roaring little board-and-canvas “city,” each trying to get “the drop,” — that is, the first shot, — the other inhabitants looking forward to the fight with pleased curiosity, no one dreaming of interfering. At last one of the partners got a chance at his opponent as the latter was walking into a gambling hell, and broke his back near the hips; yet the crippled, mortally wounded man twisted around as he fell and shot his slayer dead. Then, knowing that he had but a few moments to live, and expecting that his other foe would run upon hearing the shooting, he dragged himself by his arms out into the street; immediately afterward, as he anticipated, the second partner appeared and was killed on the spot. The victor did not live for twenty minutes. As in most of these encounters, all of the men who were killed deserved their fate. In my own not very extensive experience I can recall but one man killed in these fights whose death was regretted, and he was slain by a European. Generally, everyone is heartily glad to hear of the death of either of the contestants, and the only regret is that the other survives.
One curious shooting scrape that took place in Medora was worthy of being chronicled by Bret Harte. It occurred in the summer of 1884, I believe, but it may have been the year following. I did not see the actual occurrence, but I saw both men immediately afterward; and I heard the shooting, which took place in a saloon on the bank, while I was swimming my horse across the river, holding my rifle up so as not to wet it. I will not give their full names, as I am not certain what has become of them; though I was told that one had since been either put in jail or hung, I forget which. One of them was a saloon-keeper, familiarly called Welshy. The other man, Hay, had been bickering with him for some time. One day Hay, who had been defeated in a wrestling match by one of my own boys, and was out of temper, entered the other’s saloon and became very abusive. The quarrel grew more and more violent, and suddenly Welshy whipped out his revolver and blazed away at Hay.
The latter staggered slightly, shook himself, stretched out his hand, and gave back to his would-be slayer the ball, saying, “Here, man, here ‘s the bullet.” It had glanced along his breast-bone, gone into the body, and come out at the point of the shoulder, when, being spent, it dropped down the sleeve into his hand. The next day the local paper, which rejoiced in the title of “The Bad Lands Cowboy,” chronicled the event in the usual vague way as an “unfortunate occurrence” between “two of our most esteemed fellow-citizens.” The editor was a good fellow, a college graduate, and a first-class base-ball player, who always stood stoutly up against any corrupt dealing; but, like all other editors in small Western towns, he was intimate with both combatants in almost every fight.
The winter after this occurrence I was away and on my return began asking my foreman — a particular crony of mine — about the fates of my various friends. Among others I inquired after a traveling preacher who had come to our neighborhood; a good man, but irascible. After a moment’s pause, a gleam of remembrance came into my informant’s eye: “Oh, the parson! Well — he beat a man over the head with an ax, and they put him in jail!”
It certainly seemed a rather summary method of repressing a refractory parishioner. Another acquaintance had shared a like doom. “He started to go out of the country, but they ketched him at Bismarck and put him in jail” — apparently on general principles, for I did not hear of his having committed any specific crime. My foreman sometimes developed his own theories of propriety. I remember his objecting strenuously to a proposal to lynch a certain French-Canadian who had lived in his own cabin, back from the river, ever since the whites came into the land, but who was suspected of being a horse-thief. His chief point against the proposal was, not that the man was innocent, but that “it didn’t seem anyways right to hang a man who had been so long in the country.”
Sometimes we had a comic row. There was one huge man from Missouri called “The Pike,” who had been the keeper of a wood-yard for steamboats on the Upper Missouri River. Like most of his class he was a hard case, and, though pleasant enough when sober, always insisted on fighting when drunk. One day, when on a spree, he announced his intention of thrashing the entire population of Medora seriatim, and began to make his promise good with great vigor and praiseworthy impartiality. He was victorious over the first two or three eminent citizens whom he encountered, and then tackled a gentleman known as “Cold Turkey Bill.” Under ordinary circumstances Cold Turkey, though an able-bodied man, was no match for The Pike; but the latter was still rather drunk, and moreover was wearied by his previous combats. So Cold Turkey got him down, lay on him, choked him by the throat with one hand, and began pounding his face with a triangular rock held in the other. To the onlookers the fate of the battle seemed decided; but Cold Turkey better appreciated the endurance of his adversary, and it soon appeared that he sympathized with the traditional hunter who, having caught a wildcat, earnestly besought a comrade to help him let it go. While still pounding vigorously he raised an agonized wail: “Help me off, fellows, for the Lord’s sake; he ‘s tiring me out!” There was no resisting so plaintive an appeal, and the bystanders at once abandoned their attitude of neutrality for one of armed intervention.
I have always been treated with the utmost courtesy by all cowboys, whether on the round-up or in camp; and the few real desperadoes I have seen were also perfectly polite. Indeed, I never was shot at maliciously but once. This was on an occasion when I had to pass the night in a little frontier hotel where the bar-room occupied the whole lower floor and was, in consequence, the place where everyone, drunk or sober, had to sit. My assailant was neither a cowboy nor a bona fide “bad man,” but a broad-hatted ruffian of cheap and commonplace type, who had for the moment terrorized the other men in the bar-room, these being mostly sheep-herders and small grangers. The fact that I wore glasses, together with my evident desire to avoid a fight, apparently gave him the impression — a mistaken one — that I would not resent an injury.