The Fremont House, Kendrick’s hotel was near the Michigan Street Depot. In those days when Chicago had barely 300,000 inhabitants, it was an hotel of the second class. Mr. Kendrick had told me that Ms uncle, a Mr. Cotton really owned the House, but left him the chief share in the management, adding “What uncle says, goes always.” In the course of time, I understood the nephew’s loyalty; for Mr. Cotton was really kindly and an able man of business. My duties as night-clerk were simple; from eight at night till six in the morning, I was master in the office and had to apportion bedrooms to the incoming guests and give bills and collect the monies due from the outgoing public. I set myself at once to learn the good and bad points of the hundred odd bedrooms in the house and the arrival and departure times of all the night trains. When guests came in, I met them at the entrance, found out what they wanted and told this or that porter or bell-boy to take them to their rooms. However curt or irritable they were, I always tried to smoothe them down and soon found I was succeeding. In a week Mr. Kendrick told me that he had heard golden opinions of me from a dozen visitors. “You have a dandy night-clerk,” he was told; “Spares no pains . . . pleasant manners . . . knows everything . . . ‘some’ clerk; yes, sir!”
My experience in Chicago assured me that if one does his very best, he comes to success in business in a comparatively short time; so few do all they can. Going to bed at six, I was up every day at 1 o’clock for dinner as it was called and after dinner I got into the habit of going inte the billiard-room at one end of which was a large bar. By five o’clock or so, the billiard-room was crowded and there was no one to superintend things, so I spoke to Mr. Kendrick about it and took the job on my own shoulders. I had little to do but induce newcomers to await their turn patiently and to mollify old customers who expected to find tables waiting for them. The result of a little courtesy and smiling promises was so marked that at the end of the very first month the bookkeeper, a man named Curtis, told me with a grin that I was to get sixty dollars a month and not forty dollars as I had supposed. Needless to say the extra pay simply quickened my desire to make myself useful. But now I found the way up barred by two superiors, the bookkeeper was one and the steward, a dry taciturn Westerner named Payne was the other. Payne bought everything and had control of the dining-room and waiters while Curtis ruled the office and the bell-boys. I was really under Curtis; but my control of the billiard-room gave me a sort of independent position.
I soon made friends with Curtis; got into the habit of dining with him and when he found that my handwriting was very good, he gave me the day-book to keep and in a couple of months had taught me bookkeeping while entrusting me with a good deal of it. He was not lazy; but most men of forty like to have a capable assistant. By Christmas that year I was keeping all the books except the ledger and I knew, as I thought, the whole business of the hotel.
The dining room, it seemed to me was very badly managed; but as luck would have it, I was first to get control of the office. As soon as Curtis found out that I could safely be trusted to do his work, he began going out at dinner time and often stayed away the whole day. About New Year he was away for five days and confided in me when he returned, that he had been on a “bust”. He wasn’t nappy with his wife, it appeared, and he used to drink to drown her temper. In February he was away for ten days; but as he had given me the key of the safe I kept everything going. One day Kendrick found me in the office working and wanted to know about Curtis: “how long had he been away! v “A day or two,” I replied. Kendrick looked at me and asked for the ledger: “it’s written right up!” he exclaimed, “did you do it!” I had to say I did; but at once I sent a bellboy for Curtis. The boy didn’t find him at his house and next day I was brought up before Mr. Cotton. I couldn’t deny that I had kept the books and Cotton soon saw that I was shielding Curtis out of loyalty. When Curtis came in next day, he gave the whole show away; he was half-drunk still and rude to boot. He had been unwell, he said; but his work was in order. He was ‘fired’ there and then by Mr. Cotton and that evening Kendrick asked me to keep things going properly till he could persuade his uncle that I was trustworthy and older than I looked.
In a couple of days I saw Mr. Cotton and Mr. Kendrick together. “Can you keep the books and be night-clerk and take care of the billiard-room?” Mr.
Cotton asked me sharply. “I think so” I replied, “I’ll do my best.” “Hm!” he grunted: “what pay do you think you ought to have!” “I’ll leave that to you sir,” I said, “I shall be satisfied whatever you give me.” “The devil you will,” he said grumpily, “suppose I said, keep on at your present rate?” I smiled; “O. K. Sir.”
“Why do you smile?” he asked. “Because, sir, pay like water tends to find its level!” “What the devil d’ye mean by its level?” “The level,” I went on, “is surely the market price; sooner or later it’ll rise towards that and I can wait.” His keen grey eyes suddenly bored into me. “I begin to think you’re much older, than you look, as my nephew here tells me,” he said. “Put yourself down at a hundred a month for the present and in a little while we’ll perhaps find the ‘level,’” and he smiled. I thanked him and went out to my work.
It seemed as if incidents were destined to crowd my life. A day or so after this the taciturn steward, Payne, came and asked me if I’d go out with him to dinner and some theatre or other? I had not had a day off in five or six months so I said “Yes.” He gave me a great dinner at a famous French restaurant (I forget the name now) and wanted me to drink champagne. But I had already made up my mind not to touch any intoxicating liquor till I was twenty one and so I told him simply that I had taken the pledge. He beat about the bush a great deal, but at length said that as I was bookkeeper in place of Curtis, he hoped we should get along as he and Curtis had done. I asked him just what he meant but he wouldn’t speak plainly which excited my suspicions. A day or two afterwards I got into talk with a butcher in another quarter of the town and asked him what he would supply seventy pounds of beef and fifty pounds of mutton for, daily for a hotel; he gave me a price so much below the price Payne was paying that my suspicions were confirmed. I was tremendously excited. In my turn I invited Payne to dinner and led up to the subject. At once he said “of course there’s a ‘rake-off’ and if you’ll hold in with me, I’ll give you a third as I gave Curtis. The rake-off don’t hurt anyone,” he went on, “for I buy below market-price.” Of course I was all ears and eager interest when he admitted that the ‘rake-off’ was on everything he bought and amounted to about 20 per cent. of the cost. By this he changed his wages from two hundred dollars a month into something like two hundred dollars a week.
As soon as I had all the facts clear, I asked the nephew to dine with me and laid the situation before him. I had only one loyalty — to my employers and the good of the ship. To my astonishment he seemed displeased at first; “more trouble,” he began, “why can’t you stick to your own job and leave the others alone? What’s in a commission after all?” When he came to understand what the commission amounted to and that he himself could do the buying in half an hour a day, he altered his tone. “What will my uncle say now?” he cried and went off to tell the owner his story. There was a tremendous row two days later for Mr. Cotton was a business man and went to the butcher we dealt with and ascertained for himself how important the ‘rake-off’ really was. When I was called into the uncle’s room Payne tried to hit me; but he found it was easier to receive than to give punches and that “the damned kid” was not a bit afraid of him.
Curiously enough, I soon noticed that the “rake-off” had had the secondary result of giving us an infer-ior quality of meat; whenever the butcher was left with a roast he could not sell, he used to send it to us confident that Payne wouldn’t quarrel about it. The negro cook declared that the meat now was far better; all that could be desired in fact, and our customers too were not slow to show their appreciation.
One other change the discharge of Payne brought about; it made me master of the dining room. I soon picked a smart waiter and put him as chief over the rest and together we soon improved the waiting and discipline among the waiters out of all comparison. For over a year I worked eighteen hours out of the twenty four and after the first six months or so, I got one hundred and fifty dollars a month and saved practically all of it.
Some experience in this long, icy-cold winter in Chicago enlarged my knowledge of American life and particularly of life on the lowest level. I had been about three months in the hotel when I went out one evening for a sharp walk, as I usually did, about seven o’clock. It was bitterly cold, a western gale raked the streets with icy teeth, the thermometer was about ten below zero. I had never imagined anything like the cold. Suddenly I was accosted by a stranger, a small man with red moustache and stubbly unshaven beard:
“Say, mate, can you help a man to a mean” The fellow was evidently a tramp: his clothes shabby and dirty: his manner servile with a backing of truculence. I was kindly and not critical. Without a thought, I took my roll of bills out of my pocket. I meant to take off a dollar bill. As the money came to view the tramp with a pounce grabbed at it, but caught my hand as well. Instinctively I held on to my roll like grim Death, but while I was still under the shock of surprise the hobo hit me viciously in the face and plucked at the bills again. I hung on all the tighter, and angry now, struck the man in the face with my left fist. The next moment we had clenched and fallen. As luck and youth would have it, I fell on top. At once I put out all my strength, struck the fellow hard in the face and at the same time tore my bills away. The next moment I was on my feet with my roll deep in my pocket and both fists ready for the next assault. To my astonishment the hobo picked himself up and said confidingly:
“I’m hungry, weak, or you wouldn’t have downed me so easy.” And then he went on with what to me seemed incredible impudence:
“You should peel me off a dollar at least for hittin’ me like that,” and he stroked his jaw as if to ease the pain.
“I’ve a good mind to give you in charge,” said I, suddenly realizing that I had the law on my side.
“If you don’t cash up,” barked the hobo, “I’ll call the cops and say you’ve grabbed my wad.”
“Call away,” I cried: “we’ll see who’ll be believed.”
But the hobo knew a better trick. In a familiar wheedling voice he began again:
“Come, young fellow, you’ll never miss one dollar and I’ll put you wise to a good many things here in Chicago. You had no business to pull out a wad like that in a lonely place to tempt a hungry man . . . .”
“I was going to help you,” I said hesitatingly.
“I know,” replied my weird acquaintance, “but I prefer to help myself,” and he grinned. “Take me to a hash-house: I’m hungry and I’ll put you wise to many things; you’re a tenderfoot and show it.”
Clearly the hobo was the master of the situation and somehow or other his whole attitude stirred my curiosity.
“Where are we to gof” I asked. “I don’t know any restaurant near here except the Fremont House.”
“Hell,” cried the hobo, “only millionaires and fools go to hotels. I follow my nose for grub,” and he turned on his heel and led the way without another word down a side street and into a German dive set out with bare wooden tables and sanded floor.
Here he ordered hash and I, hot coffee and when I came to pay I was agreeably surprised to find that the bill was only forty cents and we could talk in our corner undisturbed as long as we liked.
In ten minutes’ chat the hobo had upset all my preconceived ideas and given me a host of new and interesting thoughts. He was a man of some reading if not of education and the violence of his language attracted me almost as much as the novelty of his point of view.
All rich men were thieves, all workmen, sheep and fools, was his creed. The workmen did the work, created the wealth, and the employers robbed them of nine-tenths of the product of their labor and so got rich. It all seemed simple. The tramp never meant to work; he lived by begging and went wherever he wanted to go.
“But how do you get about?” I cried.
“Here in the middle west,” he replied, “I steal rides in freight cars and box-cars and on top of coal wagons, but in the real west and south I get inside the cars and ride, and when the conductor turns me off I wait for the next train. Life is full of happenings — some of ’em painful,” he added, thoughtfully rubbing his jaw again.
He appeared to be a tough little man whose one object in life it was to avoid work and in spite of himself, he worked hard in order to do nothing.
The experience had a warning, quickening effect on me. I resolved to save all I could.
When I stood up to go the hobo grinned amicably:
“I guess I’ve earned that dollar?” I could not help laughing. “I guess you have,” I replied, but took care to turn aside as I stripped off the bill.
“So long,” said the tramp as we parted at the door and that was all the thanks I ever got.
Another experience of this time told a sadder story. One evening a girl spoke to me; she was fairly well-dressed and as we came under a gas-lamp I saw she was good looking with a tinge of nervous anxiety in her face.
“I don’t buy love,” I warned her: “but how much do you generally get?” “From one dollar to five,” she replied; “but tonight I want as much as I can get.”
“I’ll give you five,” I replied; “but you must tell me all I want to know.”
“All right,” she said eagerly, “I’ll tell all I know: it’s not much,” she added bitterly; “I’m not twenty yet; but you’d have taken me for more, now wouldn’t you?” “No,” I replied, “you look about eighteen: in a few minutes we were climbing the stairs of a tenement house. The girl’s room was poorly furnished and narrow, a hall bedroom just the width of the corridor, perhaps six feet by eight. As soon as she had taken off her thick cloak and hat, she hastened out of the room saying she’d be back in a minute. In the silence, I thought I heard her running up the stairs; a baby somewhere near cried; and then silence again, till she opened the door, drew my head to her and kissed me:
“I like you,” she said, “though you’re funny’
“Why funny?” I asked.
“It’s a scream,” she said, “to give five dollars to a girl and never touch her: but I’m glad for I was tired tonight and anxious.”
“Why anxious?” I queried, “and why did you go out if you were tired 1” “Got to,” she replied through tightly closed lips. “You don’t mind if I leave you again for a moment?” she added and before I could answer she was out of the room again. When she returned in five minutes I had grown impatient and put on my overcoat and hat.
“Goinf” she asked in surprise:
“Yes”, I replied, “I don’t like this empty cage while you go off to someone else.”
“Someone else” she repeated and then as if desperate: “it’s my baby if you must know: a friend takes care of her when I’m out or working.”
“Oh, you poor thing,” I cried, “fancy you with a baby at this life!”
“I wanted a baby”, she cried defiantly. “I wouldn’t be without her for anything! I always wanted a baby: there’s lots of girls like that.”
“Really!" I cried astounded.
“Do you know her father?" I went on.
“Of course I do,” she retorted. “He’s working in the stock yards; but he’s tough and won’t keep sober.”
“I suppose you’d marry him if he would go straight?” I asked.
“Any girl would marry a decent feller!” she replied.
“You’re pretty,” I said.
“D’ye think so?” she asked eagerly pushing her hair back from the sides of her head. “I used to be but now — this life — “ and she shrugged her shoulders expressively.
“You don’t like it!” I asked.
“No,” she cried; “though when you get a nice feller, it’s not so bad; but they’re scarce,” she went on bitterly, “and generally when they’re nice, they’ve no bucks. The nice fellers are all poor or old,” she added reflectively.
I had had the best part of her wisdom, so I stripped off a five dollar bill and gave it to her. “Thanks,” she said, “you’re a dear and if you want to come an’ see me any time, just come an’ I’ll try to give you a good time.” — Away I went. I had had my first talk with a prostitute and in her room! The idea that a girl could want a baby was altogether new to me: her temptations very different from a boy’s, very!
For the greater part of my first year in Chicago I had no taste of love: I was often tempted by this chambermaid or that; but I knew I should lose prestige if I yielded and I simply put it all out of my head resolvedly as I had abjured drink. But towards the beginning of the summer temptation came to me in a new guise. A Spanish family, named Vidal, stopped at the Fremont House.
Senor Vidal was like a French officer, middle height, trim figure, very dark with grey moustache waving up at the ends. His wife, motherly but stout, with large dark eyes and small features; a cousin, a man of about thirty, rather tall with a small black moustache, like a tooth brush, I thought, and sharp imperious ways. At first I did not notice the girl who was talking to her Indian maid. I understood at once that the Vidals were rich and gave them the best rooms: “all communicating — except yours,” I added, turning to the young man: “it is on the other side of the corridor, but large and quiet.” A shrug and contemptuous nod was all I got for my pains from Senor Arriga. As I handed the keys to the bellboy, the girl threw back her black mantilla.
“Any letters for usl” she asked quietly. For a minute I stood dumbfounded, enthralled, then “I’ll see,” I muttered and went to the rack, but only to give myself a countenance — I knew there were none.
“None, I’m sorry to say,” I smiled watching the girl as she moved away.
“What’s the matter with me?” I said to myself angrily. “She’s nothing wonderful, this Miss Vidal; pretty, yes, and dark with fine dark eyes, but nothing extraordinary.” But it would not do; I was shaken in a new way and would not admit it even to myself. In fact the shock was so great that my head took sides against heart and temperament at once as if alarmed. “All Spaniards are dank,” I said to myself, trying to depreciate the girl and so regain self-control; “besides her nose is beaked a little.” But there was no conviction in my criticizm. As soon as I recalled the proud grace of carriage and the magic of her glance, the fever-fit shook me again: for the first time my heart had been touched.
Next day I found out that the Vidals had come from Spain and were on their way to their hacienda near Chihuahua in Northern Mexico. They meant to rest in Chicago for three or four days because Señora Yidal had heart trouble and couldn’t stand much fatigue. I discovered besides that Señor Arriga was either courting his cousin or betrothed to her and at once I sought to make myself agreeable to the man. Senor Arriga was a fine billiard player and I took the nearest way to his heart by reserving for him the best table, getting him a fair opponent and complimenting him upon his skill. The next day Arriga opened his heart to me: “What is there to do in this dull hole? Did I know of any amusement? Any pretty women?”
I could do nothing but pretend to sympathize and draw him out and this I easily accomplished, for Senor Arriga loved to boast of his name and position in Mexico and his conquests. “Ah, you should have seen her as I led her in the baile (dance) — an angel!” and he kissed his fingers gallantly.
“As pretty as your cousin,” I ventured. Senor Arriga flashed a sharp suspicious glance at me, but apparently reassured by my frankness, went on:
“In Mexico we never talk of members of our family,” he warned: “The Señorita is pretty, of course, but very young; she has not the charm of experience, the caress of — I know so little American, I find it difficult to explain.”
But I was satisfied. “He doesn’t love her”, I said to myself; “loves no one except himself.”
In a thousand little ways I took occasion to commend myself to the Vidals. Every afternoon they drove out and I took care they should have the best buggy and the best driver and was at pains to find out new and pretty drives, though goodness knows the choice was limited. The beauty of the girl grew on me in an extraordinary way: yet it was the pride and reserve in her face that fascinated me more even than her great dark eyes or fine features or splendid coloring. Her figure and walk were wonderful; I thought: I never dared to seek epithets for her eyes,, or mouth or neck. Her first appearance in evening dress was a revelation to me: she was my idol, enskied and sacred.
It is to be presumed that the girl saw how it was with me and was gratified. She made no sign, betrayed herself in no way, but her mother noticed that she was always eager to go downstairs to the lounge and missed no opportunity of making some inquiry at the desk.
“I want to practice my English,” the girl said once--and the mother smiled: “Los ojos, you mean your eyes, my dear,” and added to herself: “But why nott Youth — “ and sighed for her own youth now fore-gone, and the petals already fallen.
One little talk I got with my goddess: she came to the office to ask about reserving a Pullman drawing-room for El Paso. I undertook at once to see to everything, and when the dainty little lady added in her funny accent: “We have so many baggage, twenty-six bits;” I said as earnestly as if my life depended on it:
“Please trust me. I shall see to everything. I only wish,” I added, “I could do more for you.”
“That’s kind,” said the coquette: “very kind,” looking full at me. Emboldened by despair at her approaching departure I added: “I’m so sorry you’re going. I shall never forget you, never.”
Taken aback by my directness, the girl laughed saucih “Never means a week, I suppose.”
“You will see,” I went on hurriedly as if driven, as indeed I was. “If I thought I should not see you again and soon, I should not wish to live.”
“A declaration”, she laughed merrily, still looking me brightly in the face.
“Not of independence,” I cried, “but of — “ as I hesitated between “affection” and “love” the girl put her finger to her lips.
“Hush, hush,” she said gravely, “you are too young to take vows and I must not listen”, but seeing my face fall, she added: “You have been very kind. I shall remember my stay in Chicago with pleasure,” and she stretched out her hand. I took it and held it treasuring every touch.
Her look and the warmth of her fingers I garnered up in my heart as purest treasure.
As soon as she had gone and the radiance with her, I cudgelled my brains to find some pretext for another talk. “She goes tomorrow,” hammered in my brain and my heartache choked me, almost prevented my thinking. Suddenly the idea of flowers came to me. I’d buy a lot. No; everyone would notice them and talk. A few would be better. How many! I thought and thought.
When they came into lounge next day ready to start I was watching my opportunity, but the girl gave me a better one than I could have picked. She waited till her father and Arriga had left the hall and then came over to the desk.
“You have ze checks!” she asked.
“Everything will be given you at the train,” I said, “but I have these for you. Please accept them!” and I handed her three splendid red rosebuds, prettily tied up with maiden hair fern.
“How kind!” she exclaimed, coloring, “and how pretty,” she added, looking at the roses. “Just three!”
“One for your hair,” I said with love’s cunning, “one for your eyes and one for your heart — will you remember!” I added in a low voice intensely.
She nodded and then looked up sparkling: “As long — as ze flowers last,” she laughed, and was back with her mother.
I saw them into the omnibus and got kind words from all the party, even from Senor Arriga, but cherished most her look and word as she went out of the door.
Holding it open for her, I murmured as she passed, for the others were within hearing: “I shall come soon.”
The girl stopped, at once, pretending to look at the tag on a trunk the porter was carrying. “El Paso is far away,” she sighed, “and the hacienda ten leagues further on. When shall we arrive — when!” she added glancing up at me.
“When?” was the significant word to me for many a month; her eyes had filled it with meaning.
I’ve told of this meeting with Miss Vidal at length, because it marked an epoch in my life; it was the first time that love had cast her glamor over me making beauty superlative, intoxicating. The passion rendered it easier for me to resist ordinary temptation, for it taught me there was a whole gorgeous world in Love’s Kingdom that I had never imagined, much less explored. I had scarcely a lewd thought of Gloria. It was not till I saw her bared shoulders in evening dress that I stripped her in imagination and went almost wild in uncontrollable desire. Would she ever kiss me? What was she like undressed? My imagination was still untutored: I could picture her breasts better than her sex and I made up my mind to examine the next girl I was lucky enough to see naked, much more precisely.
At the back of my mind was the fixed resolve to get to Chihuahua somehow or other in the near future and meet my charmer again and that resolve in due course shaped my life anew.
In early June, that year, three strangers came to the Hotel, all cattlemen I was told, but of a new sort: Reece and Dell and Ford, the “Boss”, as he was called. Reece was a tall dark Englishman or rather Welshman, always dressed in brown leather riding boots, Bedford Cord breeches and dark tweed cutaway coat: he looked a prosperous gentleman farmer; Dell was almost a copy of him in clothes, about middle height and sturdier — in fact an ordinary Englishman. The Boss was fully six feet, taller even than Reece with a hatchet-thin, bronzed face and eagle profile — evidently a Western cattle-man from head to foot. The headwaiter told me about them and as soon as I saw them I had them transferred to a shady-cool table and saw that they were well waited on.
A day or two afterwards we had made friends and a little later, Reece got me measured for two pairs of cord-breeches and had promised to teach me how to ride. They were cowpunchers, he said, with his strong English accent and were going down to the Rio Grande to buy cattle and drive ’em back to market here or in Kansas City. Cattle, it appeared, could be bought in South Texas for a dollar a head or less and fetched from fifteen to twenty dollars each in Chicago.
“Of course we don’t always get through unscathed” Reece remarked, “The Plain Indians — Cherokees, Blackfeet and Sioux — take care of that; but one herd in two gets through and that pays big.”
I found they had brought up a thousand head of cattle from their ranche near Eureka, Kansas and a couple of hundred head of horses.
To cut a long story short, Reece fascinated me: he told me that Chihuahua was the Mexican province just across the Rio Grande from Texas and at once, I resolved to go on the Trail with these cowpunchers if they’d take me. In two or three days Reece told me I shaped better at riding than anyone he had ever seen, though, he added “when I saw your thick short legs I thought you’d never make much of a hand at it.” But I was strong and had grown nearly six inches in my year in the States and I turned in my toes as Reece directed and hung on to the English saddle by the grip of my knees till I was both tired and sore. In a fortnight Reece made me put five cent pieces between my knees and the saddle and keep them there when galloping or trotting.
This practice soon made a rider of me so far as the seat was concerned and I had already learned that Recce was a pastmaster in the deeper mysteries of the art for he told me he used to ride colts in the hunting field in England and “that’s how you learn to know horses” he added significantly.
One day I found out that Dell knew some poetry, literature too, and economics and that won me completely; when I asked them would they take me with them as a cowboy, they told me I’d have to ask the Boss, but there was no doubt he’d consent, and he consented, after one sharp glance.
Then came my hardest task: I had to tell Kendrick and Mr. Cotton that I must leave. Thev were more than astonished: at first they took it to be a little trick to extort a rise in salary: when they saw it was sheer boyish adventure-lust they argued with me but finally gave in. I promised to return to them as soon as I got back to Chicago or got tired of cowpunching. I had nearly eighteen hundred dollars saved, which, by Mr. Cotton’s advice, I transferred to a Kansas City bank he knew well.
On the tenth of June, we took train to Kansas City, the Gate at that time of the “Wild West”. In Kansas City I became aware of three more men belonging to the outfit: Bent, Charlie and Bob, the Mexican. Charlie, to begin with the least important, was a handsome American youth, blue-eyed and fair-haired, over six feet in height, very strong, careless, light-hearted: I always thought of him as a big, kind, Newfoundland dog, rather awkward but always well-meaning. Bent was ten years older, a war-veteran, dark, saturnine, purposeful; five feet nine or ten in height with muscles of whipcord and a mentality that was curiously difficult to fathom. Bob, the most peculiar and original man I had every met up to that time, was a little dried up Mexican, hardly five feet three in height, half Spaniard, half Indian, I believe, who might be thirty or fifty and who seldom opened his mouth except to curse all Americans in Spanish. Even Reece admitted that Bob could ride “above a bit” and knew more about cattle than anyone else in his world. Reece’s admiration directed my curiosity to the little man and I took every opportunity of talking to him and of giving him cigars — a courtesy so unusual that at first he was half inclined to resent it.
It appeared that these three men had been left in Kansas City to dispose of another herd of cattle and to purchase stores needed at the ranch. They were all ready, so the next day we rode out of Kansas City, about four o’clock in the morning; our course roughly south by west. Everything was new and wonderful to me. In three days we had finished with roads and farmsteads and were on the open prairie; in two or three days more, the prairie became the great plains which stretched four or five thousand miles from north to south with a breadth of some seven hundred. The plains wore buffalo grass and sage-brush for a garment, and little else save in the river-bottoms, trees like the cottonwood; everywhere rabbits, prairie chicken, deer and buffalo abounded.
We covered about thirty miles a day: Bob sat in the wagon and drove the four mules, while Bent and Charlie made us coffee and biscuits in the morning and cooked us sow-belly and any game we might bring in for dinner and supper. There was a small keg of rye whisky on the wagon; but we kept it for snake-bite or some emergency.
I became the hunter to the outfit, for it was soon discovered that by some sixth sense I could always find my way back to the wagon on a bee-line, and only Bob of the whole party possessed the same instinct. Bob explained it by muttering “No Americano!” The instinct itself which has stood me in good stead more times than I can count, is in essence inexplicable: I feel the direction; but the vague feeling is strengthened by observing the path of the sun and the way the halms of grass lean, and the bushes grow. But it made me a valuable member of the outfit instead of a mere parasite midway between master and man, and it was the first step to Bob’s liking which taught me more than all the other haps of my early life. I had bought a shotgun and and a Winchester rifle and revolver in Kansas City and Reece had taught me how to get weapons that would fit me and this fact helped to make me a fair shot almost at once. But soon to my grief I found that I would never be a great shot; for Bob and Charlie and even Dell could see things far beyond my range of vision. I was shortsighted in fact through astimatism and even glasses I discovered later, could not clear my blurred sight.
It was the second or third disappointment of my life the others being the conviction of my personal ugliness and the fact that I should always be too short and small to be a great fighter or athlete.
As I went on in life I discovered more serious disabilities but they only strengthened my deep-seated resolve to make the most of any qualities I might possess and meanwhile the life was divinely new and strange and pleasureful.
After breakfast, about five o’clock in the morning, I would ride away from the wagon till it was out of sight and then abandon myself to the joy of solitude, with no boundary between plain and sky. The air was brisk and dry, as exhilarating as champagne and even when the sun reached the zenith and became blazing hot, the air remained lightsome and invigorating. Mid Kansas is 2000 odd feet above sea-level and the air is so dry that an animal when killed, dries up without stinking and in a few months the hide’s filled with mere dust. Game was plentiful, hardly an hour would elapse before I had got half a dozen ruffed grouse or a deer and then I would walk my pony back to the midday camp with perhaps a new wild flower in hand whose name I wished to learn.
After the midday meal I used to join Bob in the wagon and learn some Spanish words or phrases from him or question him about his knowledge of cattle. In the first week we became great friends: I found to my amusement that Bob was just as voluble in Spanish as he was tongue-tied in English, and his command of Spanish oaths, objurgations and indecencies was astounding. Bob despised all things American with an unimaginable ferocity and this interested me by its apparent unreason.
Once or twice on the way down we had a race; but Reece on a big Kentucky thoroughbred called ‘Shiloh’ won easily. He told me however, that there was a young mare called ‘Blue Devil’ at the ranch which was as fast as Shiloh and of rare stay and stamina: “You can have her, if you can ride her,” he threw out carelessly and I determined to win the ‘Devil’ if I could.
In about ten days we reached the ranch near Eureka; it was set in five thousand acres of prairie, a big frame dwelling, that would hold twenty men; but it wasn’t nearly so well-built as the great, brick stable, the pride of Reece’s eye, which would house forty horses and provide half a dozen with good loose boxes besides, in the best English style.
The house and stable were situated on a long billowy rise perhaps three hundred yards away from a good-sized creek which I soon christened Snake–Creek for snakes of all sorts and sizes simply swarmed in the brush and woodland of the banks. The big sitting room of the ranch was decorated with revolvers and rifles of a dozen different kinds and pictures, strange to say, cut out of the illustrated papers: the floor was covered with buffalo and bear rugs and rarer skins of mink and beaver hung here and there on the wooden walls. We got to the ranch late one night and I slept in a room with Dell, he taking the bed while I rolled myself in a rug on the couch. But I slept like a top and next morning was out before sunrise to take stock so to speak. An Indian lad showed me the stable and as luck would have it Blue Devil in a loose box, all to herself and very uneasy.
“What’s the matter with her!” I asked, and the Indian told me she had rubbed her ear raw where it joins the head and the flies had got on it and plagued her: I went to the house and got Peggy, the mulatto cook to fill a bucket with warm water and with this bucket and a sponge I entered the loose box: Blue Devil came for me and nipped my shoulder but as soon as I clapped the sponge with warm water on her ear, she stopped biting and we soon became friends. That same afternoon, I led her out in front of the ranch saddled and bridled, got on her and walked her off as quiet as a lamb. “She’s yours!” said Reece; “but if she ever gets your foot in her mouth, you’ll know what pain is!”
It appeared that that was a little trick she had, to tug and tug at the reins till the rider let them go loose and then at once she would twist her head round, get the rider’s toes in her mouth and bite like a fiend. No one she disliked could mount her; for she fought like a man with her fore — feet; but I never had any difficulty with her and she saved my life more than once. Like most feminine creatures she responded immediately to kindness and was faithful to affection.
I’m compelled to notice that if I tell the other happenings in this eventful year at as great length as I’ve told the incidents of the fortnight that brought me from Chicago to the ranch at Eureka, I’d have to devote at least a volume to them, so I prefer to assure my readers that one of these days if I live, I’ll publish my novel “On the Trail” which gives the whole story in great detail. Now I shall content myself with saying that two days after reaching the ranch we set out, ten men strong and two wagons filled with our clothes and provender and dragged by four mules each, to cover the twelve hundred miles to Southern Texas or New Mexico where we hoped to buy 5000 or 6000 head of cattle at a dollar a head and drive them to Kansas City, the nearest train point.
When we got on the Great Trail a hundred miles from Port Dodge, the days passed in absolute monotony. After sunset a light breeze usually sprang up to make the night pleasantly cool and we would sit and chat about the camp-fire for an hour or two. Strange to say the talk usually turned to bawd or religion or the relations of capital and labor. It was curious how eagerly these rough cattle-men would often discuss the mysteries of this unintelligible world, and as a militant sceptic I soon got a reputation among them; for Dell usually backed me up and his knowledge of books and thinkers seemed to us extraordinary.
These constant evening discussions, this perpetual arguing, had an unimaginable effect on me. I had no books with me and I was often called on to deal with two or three different theories in a night: I had to think out the problems for myself and usually I thought them out when hunting by myself in the daytime. It was as a cowpuncher that I taught myself how to think:— a rare art among men and seldom practised. Whatever originality I possess comes from the fact that in youth, while my mind was in process of growth, I was confronted with important modern problems and forced to think them out for myself and find some reasonable answer to the questionings of half a dozen different minds.
For example, Bent asked one night what the proper wage should be of the ordinary workman. I could only answer that the workman’s wage should increase at least in measure as the productivity of labor increased; but I could not then see how to approach this ideal settlement. When I read Herbert Spencer ten years later in Germany, I was delighted to find that I had divined the best of his sociology and added to it materially. His idea that the amount of individual liberty in a country depends on “the pressure from the outside”, I knew to be only half-true. Pressure from the outside is one factor but not even the most important: the centripetal force in the society itself is often much more powerful: how else can one explain the fact that during the world-war, liberty almost disappeared in these States in spite of the First Amendment to the Constitution. At all times indeed there is much less regard for liberty here than in England or even in Germany or in France: one has only to think of prohibition to admit this. The pull towards the centre in every country is in direct proportion to the mass and accordingly the herd-feeling in America is unreasonably strong.
If we were not arguing or telling smutty stories, Bent would be sure to get out cards and the gambling instinct would keep the boys busy till the stars paled in the eastern sky.
One incident I must relate here, for it broke the monotony of the routine in a curious way.
Our fire at night was made up of buffalo “chips” as the dried excrement was called, and Peggy had asked me, as I got up the earliest, always to replenish the fire before riding away. One morning I picked up a chip with my left hand and as luck would have it, disturbed a little prairie rattlesnake that had been attracted probably by the, heat of the camp-fire. As I lifted the chip, the snake struck me on the back of my thumb, then coiled up in a flash and began to rattle. Angered I put my right foot on him and killed him, and at the same moment bit out the place on my thumb where I had been stung, and then, still unsatisfied, rubbed my thumb in the red embers, especially above the wound. I paid little further attention to the matter; it seemed to me that the snake was too small to be very poisonous; but on returning to the wagon to wake Peggy, he cried out and called the Boss and Reece and Dell and was manifestly greatly perturbed and even anxious. Reece too agreed with him that the bite of the little prairie rattlesnake was just as venomous as that of his big brother of the woods.
The Boss produced a glass of whisky and told me to drink it: I didn’t want to take it; but he insisted and I drank it off. “Did it burn?” he asked: “No, ’twas just like water!” I replied and noticed that the Boss and Reece exchanged a meaning look.
At once the Boss declared I must walk up and down and each taking an arm they walked me solemnly round and round for half an hour. At the end of that time I was half asleep; the Boss stopped and gave me another jorum of whisky: for a moment it awakened me, then I began to get numb again and deaf. Again they gave me whisky: I revived but in five minutes I sagged down and begged them to let me sleep.
“Sleep be d — d!” cried the Boss, “you’d never wake. Pull yourself together,” and again I was given whisky. Then, dimly I began to realise that I must use my will power and so I started to jump about and shake off the overpowering drowsiness. Another two or three drinks of whisky and much frisking about occupied the next couple of hours, when suddenly I became aware of a sharp, intense pang of pain in my left thumb.
“Now you can sleep,” said the Boss, “if you’re minded to; I guess whisky has wiped out the rattler!”
The pain in my burnt thumb was acute: I found too I had a headache for the first time in my life. But Peggy gave me hot water to drink and the headache soon disappeared. In a day or two I was as well as ever, thanks, to the vigorous regimen of the Boss; in the course of a single year we lost two young men just through the little prairie snakes that seemed so insignificant.
The days passed quickly till we came near the first towns in southern Texas: then every man wanted his arrears of salary from the Boss and proceeded to shave and doll up in wildest excitement. Charlies was like a madman. Half an hour after reaching the chief saloon in the town, everyone of them save Bent was crazy drunk and intent on finding some girl with whom to spend the night. I didn’t even go to the saloon with them and begged Charlie in vain not to play the fool. “That’s what I live for”, he shouted, and raced off.
I had got accustomed to spend all my spare time with Reece, Dell, Bob or the Boss, and from all of them I learned a good deal. In a short time I had exhausted the Boss and Reece; but Dell and Bob each in his own way was richly equipped, and while Dell introduced me to literature and economics, Bob taught me some of the mysteries of cow-punching and the peculiar morals of Texan cattle. Every little herd of those half-wild animals had its own leader, it appeared and followed him fanatically. When we brought together a few different bunches in our corral, there was confusion worse confounded till after much hooking and some fighting a new leader would be chosen whom all would obey. But sometimes we lost five or six animals in the mellay. I found that Bob could ride his pony in among the half-savage brutes and pick out the future leader for them. Indeed, at the great sports held near Taos, he went in on foot where many herds had been corralled and led out the leader amid the triumphant cheers of his compatriots who challenged los Americanos to emulate that feat. Bob’s knowledge of cattle was uncanny and all I know I learned from him.
For the first week or so, Reece and the Boss were out all day buying cattle; Reece would generally take Charlie and Jack Freeman, young Americans, to drive his purchases home to the big corral; while the Boss called indifferently first on one and then on another to help him. Charlie was the first to lay off: he had caught a venereal disease, the very first night and had to lie up for more than a month. One after the other, all the younger men fell to the same plague. I went into the nearest town and consulted doctors and did what I could for them; but the cure was often slow for they would drink now and again to drown care and several in this way, made the disease chronic. I could never understand the temptation; to get drunk was bad enough; but in that state to go with some dirty Greaser woman, or half-breed prostitute was incomprehensible to me.
Naturally I enquired about the Vidals; but no one seemed to have heard of them and though I did my best, the weeks passed without my finding a trace of them. I wrote, however, to the address Gloria had given me before leaving Chicago so that I might be able to forward any letters; but I had left Texas before I heard from her: indeed her letter reached me in the Fremont House when I got back to Chicago. She simply told me that they had crossed the Rio Grande and had settled in their hacienda on the other side, where perhaps, she added coyly, I would pay them a visit some day. I wrote thanking her and assuring her that her memory transfigured the world for me — which was the bare truth: I took infinite pains to put this letter into good Spanish though I fear that in spite of Bob’s assistance it had a dozen faults. But I’m outrunning my story.
Rapidly the herd was got together. Early in July we started northwards driving before us some 6000 head of cattle which certainly hadn’t cost five thousand dollars. That first year everything went well with us; we only saw small bands of Plain Indians and we were too strong for them. The Boss had allowed me to bring 500 head of cattle on my own account: he wished to reward me, he said, for my incessant hard work; but I was sure it was Reece and Dell who put the idea into his head.
The fact that some of the cattle were mine made me a most watchful and indefatigable herdsman.
More than once my vigilances sharpened by Bob’s instinct, made a difference to our fortunes. When we began to skirt the Indian Territery, Bob warned me that a small band or even a single Indian might try some night to stampede the herd. About a week later, I noticed that the cattle were uneasy: “Indians!” said Bob when I told him the signs, “cunning beasts!” That night I was off duty, but was on horseback circling round as usual, when about midnight, I saw a white figure leap from the ground with an unearthly yell. The cattle began to run together so I threw my rifle up and fired at the Indian and though I didn’t hit him, he thought it better to drop the sheet and decamp. In five minutes we had pacified the cattle again and nothing unfortunate happened that night or indeed till we reached Wichita which was then the outpost of civilization. In ten days more we were in Kansas City entraining, though we sold a fourth of our cattle there at about fifteen dollars a head. We reached Chicago about the first of October and put the cattle in the yards about the Michigan St. Depot. Next day we sold more than half the herd and I was lucky enough to get a purchaser at fifteen dollars a head for three hundred of my beasts. If it hadn’t been for the Boss who held out for three cents a pound, I should have sold all I had. As it was I came out with more than five thousand dollars in the Bank and felt myself another Croesus. My joy, however, was shortlived.
Of course I stayed in the Fremont, and was excellently received. The management had slipped back a good deal, I thought, but I was glad that I was no longer responsible and could take my ease in my inn. But my six months on the Trail had marked my very being. It made a workman of me and above all, it taught me that tense resolution, will-power was the most important factor of success in life. I made up my mind to train my will by exercise as I would train a musele and each day I proposed to myself a new test. For example I liked potatoes so I resolved not to eat one for a week, or again I fore-swore coffee that I loved, for a month, and I was careful to keep to my determination. I had noticed a French saying that intensified my decision, celui qui veut, celui-la, peut:— ‘he who wills, can.’ My mind should govern me, not my appetites, I decided.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55