Recollections of a Cowboy (Continued)
BY TEDDY BLUE ABBOTT
From 1874 to 1877 I was taking care of my father’s cattle, and after a while the neighbors began putting cattle with me, paying me a $1.50 a head for 6 months. I herded them in the daytime and penned them at night, and for the first time in my life I could rustle a little cash. In 1875 I made $29 that way, and my brother Harry and I had one hell of a time. We bought a bottle of whiskey, shot out the lights on the street corners, and run our horses through the streets of Lincoln whooping and yelling like Cheyenne Indians on the warpath. We’d have gone to jail sure if some of Gus walkers trail men had not been with us. They got the blame, as everything was laid to the Texas men, but they left the next day for Texas and so it all blew over. This was my first experience standing up to the bar buying drinks for the boys, and I sure felt big.
That summer, I remember, Ace Harmon, who was one of John T. Lytle’s trail bosses and a god to me, said: “In a year or two Teddy will be a real cowboy,” and I growed three inches and gained 10 pounds that night.
Wild Days of the 1870s—at Age Sixteen, I Shoot a Man
From the time I was fourteen and staying out with the cattle most all the time, I got to be more and more independent. The boys took turns staying out there with me, but Lincoln was only 12 miles from camp, and when we had a little money, one of us would slip off to town on his pony, leaving the other one on herd. We’d hang around the saloons, listening to those men and getting filled up with talk about gun fights and killings. One time I remember I was in a saloon, and I heard a fellow talking about the Yankees. He said: “I was coming down the road and I met a damn blue bellied abolitionist, and I paunched him [shot him in the belly]. And he laid there in the brush and belts like a beef for 3 days, and then he died in fits. The bastard!”
He told that before a whole crowd of men. I don’t know that he ever done it. But that was the way he talked to get a fight. Those early day Texans was full of that stuff. Most of them that came up with the trail herds, being from Texas and Southerners to start with, was on the side of the South, and oh, but they were bitter. That was how a lot of them got killed, because they were filled full of the old dope about the war and they wouldn’t let an abolitionist arrest them. The Marshalls in those cow towns on the trail we’re usually Northern men, and the Southerners wouldn’t go back to Texas and hear people say: “He’s a hell of a fellow. He let a Yankee lock him up.” Down home one Texas Ranger could arrest the lot of them, but up north you’d have to kill them first.
I couldn’t even guess how many was killed that way on the trail. There was several killed at every one of those shipping points in Kansas, but you get different people telling the same story over and over again and the number is bound to be exaggerated. Besides, not all that were killed were cowboys; a lot of saloon men and tin horn gamblers bit the dust. While I saw several shooting scrapes in saloons and sporting houses, I never saw a man shot dead, though some died afterwards.
But in the seventies they were a hard bunch, and I believe it was partly on account of what they came from. Down in Texas in the early days every man had to have his six-shooter always ready, every house kept a shotgun loaded with buckshot, because they were always looking for a raid by Mexicans or Comanche Indians. What is more, I guess half the people in Texas in the seventies had moved out there on the frontier from the Southern states and from the rebel armies, and was the type that did not want any restraints.
But there is one thing I would like to get straight. I punched cows from ‘71 on, and I never yet saw a cowboy with two guns. I mean two six-shooters. Wild Bill carried two guns and so did some of those other city Marshalls, like Bat Masterson, but they were professional gunmen themselves, not cow punchers. The others that carried two guns were Wes Hardin and Bill Longley and Any Allison and them Desperados. But a cowboy with two guns is all movie stuff, and so is this business of a gun on each hip.
The kind of fellows that did carry two would carry one in the scabbard and a hideout gun down under their arm.
There was other people besides Cowboys in Nebraska in the seventies, but they was not the kind that could influence a boy. The settlers were very religious and narrow- minded. I remember once, me and Harry went fishing on Sunday and caught a big catfish. One of the neighbors saw it and had us arrested, and father had to pay a $5 fine. Most of the settlers had been Union soldiers and did not like Texas people, and their love was returned plenty.
About this time, 1876, when I had that picture taken, the one with the cigar in my mouth. I had a bottle of whiskey in the other hand, but it doesn’t show, because I had a fight with the other fellow in the picture and tore off his half of it. I was drunk when the picture was made, and I guess I wanted the world to know it. I was sixteen then and dead tough. Oh, god, I was tough. I had a terrible reputation, and I was sure proud of it. I’ll never forget the time I walked home with a nice girl. Her people were English, some of those cart-horse-bred English that my father looked down on, and she had walked up to our house to visit with the girls and stayed to supper. I took her home afterwards. It was only about half a mile. Her family just tore her to pieces. They saw to it she never went out with me again.
My own family wasn’t taking any notice of what I was doing. they knew I was around in saloons all the time, but they never bothered about it, until one day an old preacher saw me get off my horse and go into a sporting house, and he told my father about that. The old man went up in the air. But when he called me down for it, I stuck out my chin and said: “Why, didn’t you know?” and I told him I was keeping a girl at one of the honky tonks for a mistress, and a whole lot of other big talk which wasn’t true, because I didn’t have money enough to keep a mistress. My mother was behind the kitchen door listening—and I remember the old man walking out through the kitchen and saying: “Hmph! Hmph!, the young fools making fun of me. There’s nothing to it.” That’s the thing to do whenever you’re accused of anything; make it out so much worse that nobody will believe you.
But what could he expect? He’d kept me out there with the cattle, living with all those men, and all they talked about was bucking horses and shooting scrapes and women. I never had a boy hood. I never had but three winters at school, and they was only parts of winters. I was a man from the time I was 12 years old—doing a man’s work, living with men, having men’s ideas.
And I was really dangerous. A kid is more dangerous than a man because he’s so sensitive about his personal courage. He’s just itching to shoot somebody in order to prove himself. I did shoot a man once. I was only sixteen, and drunk. A bunch of us left town on a dead run, shooting at the gas lamps. I was in the lead and the town marshal was right in front of me with his gun in his hand calling, “Halt! Halt! Throw ’em up!” And I throwed ’em up alright, right in his face. I always had that idea in my head—”Shoot your way out.” I did not go to town for a long time afterwards, but he never knew who shot him, because it was dark enough so he could not see. He was a saloon man’s martial anyway and they wanted our trade, so did not do much about it. That was how us cowboys got away with a lot of such stunts. Besides the bullet went through his shoulder and he was only sick a few days and then back on the job. But they say he never tried to get in front of running horses again.
But I was worse than ever afterwards. I remember about this time there was a big banker in this Nebraska country who had been a gambler, and he had straightened out and wanted to marry a decent girl. So he began courting one of my sisters and one day he came to take her buggy riding. I wouldn’t see anything wrong with it now. But I came up and told them both to get out of that buggy or I’d shoot them out of it, and I would have. I was insulted because my sister was going around with a gambler. I wasn’t going to have my sister talked about that— and all that kind of thing.
I Become an Infidel
To show you what kids can be, I had a fight with my brother Harry when I was twelve years old and he was fourteen. We tried to cut each other with knives and we made a pretty good job of it too. He had rode one of my ponies. I thought I was a cow puncher, and it’s a deadly insult to a cow puncher to ride one of his horses without his permission. We got out our jackknives and flew at each other like a pair of little tigers. He cut me all over the hands, and I cut his chin—I was aiming at his throat. Little damn fools. And that night we slept together as though nothing had happened.
In spite of the fights we had— and that one with jackknives was the worst—Harry and I were really friends. But my oldest brother, Jimmy, was my favorite. I just worshipped him. He died when he was nineteen. I never got over it, though I was nothing but a little kid. They buried him in the cemetery in Lincoln, and the wind blowed my hat in his grave.
His death was what made an infidel of me. I asked my mother if God could have kept him from dying, and she said, yes, God was all powerful and could have prevented it if he had wished. So I said: “I’ll never go in one of your damn churches again.” And I never have. That family stuffed me full of that religious bull when I was a kid, but I never had any more use for it after I was grown, and in that I was like the rest of the cow punchers. Ninety percent of them was infidels. The life they led had a lot to do with that. After you come in contact with nature, you get all that stuff knocked out of you—praying to God for aid, divine Providence, and so on—because it don’t work. You could pray all you damn pleased, but it wouldn’t get you water where there wasn’t water. Talking about trusting in Providence, hell, if I trusted in Providence I’d have starved to death.
But the settlers would all get in there churches Sundays, and that exhorter would be hollering hell-fire and brimstone so you could hear him a mile. We’d all go to hell, the way they looked at it. If they were right there was no hope for me. You know you ride around alone at night, looking at the stars, and you get to thinking of those things.
Most of southeastern Nebraska and the whole state west of Lincoln was open range when we got there in ‘71, but about 1876 a flock of settlers took the country, and after that there was only a few places where you could hold title. Father was lucky. There was a lot of rough country adjoining him that did not get settled till ‘79 or ‘80, and he run cattle until then, but afterwards he went to farming with the rest of them. That was how I came to leave home for good when I was eighteen. I was back for visits afterwards, because I wanted to see my mother, but except for those visits my family and I went separate ways, and they stayed separate forever after. My father was all for farming by that time, and all my brothers turned out farmers except one, and he ended up the worst of the lot—a sheep man and a Republican [Party of Lincoln abolitionist]. But I stayed with the cattle and went north with them. You see, environment—that’s a big word for me, but I got on to it— does everything for a boy. I was with Texas cow punchers from the time I was eleven years old. And then my father expected to make a farmer of me after that! It couldn’t be done.
The summer of 1878 I ran a herd of beef for some men in Lincoln, and I took them up on Cheese Creek— that was the last open range in that country. They limited me to 500 head so the cattle would do well, but they paid me 25 cents a head all month, and for four months I got $125 a month out of it. That was big money for a boy in those days, when the usual wages ran as low as $10, and believe me I thought I was smart. In the fall these fellows sold their cattle to feeders in the eastern part of the state and I took them down there, driving them right through the streets of Lincoln. Then I went home. After I got home my father said to me one night: “You can take old Morgan and Kit and Charlie and plow the West Ridge tomorrow.”
Like hell I’d plow the rest ridge. And when he woke up next morning, Teddy was gone.
Up the Trail in ‘79, All Horses and Men
When I pulled out in the fall of 78, I was just about broke, in spite of all the money I’d been making. Earlier that year I had went in debt for three horses, a tent, a bed, and a six- shooter and belt, and besides that I had been spending quite a lot of money on a girl. My first one. Of course she loved me. They always do as long as you’ve got money. I was just one more sucker on the string.
I had my bed and my war bag and stuff up in the hayloft, and I packed them on a horse that night and I drifted. Boy, I sure drifted. I went up the Platte River visiting at the different cow ranches, and I struck an outfit late in the fall. Was going to take some cattle up to the Pine Ridge Indian Agency in South Dakota, and I hired out for that trip. After turning over their cattle we all went up to Deadwood to see the sights. And after that I drifted some more. I stayed a while with a rancher I knew and then drifted south, sometimes stopping a week at a place and always welcome because I brought the news. I had almost $100 when we were paid off after delivering that beef herd, and when I got to Austin, Texas, that winter I had 50 of it left. I was being careful because it was my first time on my own, with no home to go to.
I hired out in Austin to Print Olive’s outfit and came up the trail with them in the spring of ‘79. It was easy to get a job. The cow outfits were looking for men and every town you went to in Texas they tackle you to go north with a herd. You’d be leaning against the bar and one of the bosses would come up to you.
“Want to go up the trail?”
“Olive’s outfit. Thirty dollars a month and found” —and, as the saying was, when they found you, they expected to find you in the gap.
The Olives were noted as a tough outfit—a gun outfit—which was one reason I wanted to get in with them. It would show I was tough as they were. I knew their reputation in Nebraska, and I had knowed Prints all over himself at Fort Kearney and other places, when I was hanging around the trail herds. They were violent and overbearing men, and it taken a hard man to work for them, and believe me, they had several of those all the time.
The Olive brothers, Prince (I.P. Olive), Ira, Marion, and Bob was born and raised on a cow ranch about 40 miles north of Austin, Texas, which was where we started from in the spring of ‘79. I don’t know where the old man come from, but it was some place in the south. All the boys was dark, like so many Texas men of that early day, with them black eyes just like a rattlesnakes and a temper to match. It was told that Print had killed nine [negroes]. Now I couldn’t swear as to that number being right, but there is no doubt about it, they were a tough crowd.
About ‘77 or ‘78 they had put in a lot of cattle on the South Loop River in western Nebraska, and they was always on the trail with a half a dozen herds. The year I went with them, I was told they drove 7,000 horses north, and I don’t know how many head of cattle. Print himself was in Nebraska that summer waiting to stand trial for the murder of some settlers, so his brother Ira was the head trail boss. While I liked Print and Marian all right I never did liked Ira, and that was the reason for an incident, I suppose you would call it, that happened on the trail. To show you the kind of man I was, when the Olives first moved north, they built a big corral on the Republican River, called the Olive pens, because like so many Texas men at that time they would pen their herd at night. Ira gave orders to have one man ride his horse and set right in the gate to make the cattle come out slow, so they would not jam and knock off their horns. One morning he found several horns in the gate, and he cussed a Mexican name Leon, who pulled his knife out of his boot to throw it. Ira shot him dead. Afterwards he paid Leon’s widow a lot of money and nothing was done. all this happened before I joined the outfit, but coming up in ‘79 he started to pull the same thing on a [negro] named Kelly. One morning I got on the prod and started to cuss Kelly, and the first thing he hit him in the mouth with his gun, knocking out two teeth. He wanted Kelly to reach for his gun so he could kill him. I told him if he hit that boy again I would shoot his damn eyes out. I was a fool alright, but I wasn’t scared of nothing in those days. I was just looking for that kind of a rep. Besides, he knew he was wrong, and that helped me out. He put his gun in the scabbard and got on his horse and left the herd, and I never saw him again till ‘82. He just rode from one herd to another anyhow.
That was the only trouble I ever had in the outfit. The Olives was mostly hard on Mexicans and [negroes], and because being from Texas they was born and raised with that intense hatred of a Mexican, and being southerners, free [negroes] was poison to them. But they hired them because they were cheaper than white men. This Kelly that I was telling about was quite a character. They called him Olive’s bad [negro], because he was a gun man and fighter himself. The Olives used to send him ahead to talk turkey to the settlers; where one of these fellows had taken up a homestead on good water, not to work it you understand, but just so he could charge the trail herds a big fee. They were doing that all along the trail, especially in Kansas; it was just a draft, but a lot of those bosses would pay what they asked rather than have trouble. The Olives never would. They would send Kelly, and that big black boy with his gun would sure tell them punkin rollers where to head in at. He roll up his eyes like a duck in a thunderstorm and grits his teeth—Lord, he could play a tune with his teeth. Most of the settlers were poor northern folks that had never seen many [negroes] and was scared of them anyway, and when they saw Kelly they would come down quick enough from 20 to 25 dollars as the price for watering the herd.
As for Print, it was the year before I come up the trail that he had his run in with the settlers in Nebraska, and they got him for it, too, though he was not all to blame. It started because some of those fellows was butchering his steers and selling them for elk meat. Print got his brother appointed stock inspector, and he found out that two men named Ketchum and Mitchell was doing the butchering. When they went to arrest the two men, Bob Olive was killed. Rather than face Print’s vengeance the two settlers give themselves up to be tried, and to make a long story short, Print follow them up when they was on their way to trial, took them away from the sheriff, and hanged them to a lone Elm Tree near Plum Creek. It was told afterwards that he poured coal oil on them and burned them alive. That was a damned lie. They were burnt all right, but a man who was there told me that when they were hanging print shot them, and the powder was what set their clothes on fire. Afterwards their clothes was analyzed, and the state’s attorney claimed that there was coal oil showing. But where would you find a farmer without some coal oil on his clothes? And why would Print have stopped for coal oil, in a hurry like he was? Print was a bad actor, and I ain’t out to make excuses for him, but he had my sympathy there.
The burned bodies of those two settlers was put on exhibition, and the excitement was something serious. All the cowboys was on the side of print, and during the trial they came from all over to take him out of jail. But Mrs. olive begged him not to because it would make an outlaw of him. I went to see him in the penitentiary afterwards. He was just like a caged lion, fit to tear himself to pieces. When he had been in there a year, maybe two, the judge let him out on a writ of error, and he went free after that. But it broke him. He was killed in Trail City, Colorado, in ‘86, over a $10 livery bill a cowboy owed him.
That trip up the trail in ‘79 was my second, but in a way it was the first that counted, because I was only a button the other time. I wasn’t nineteen years old when I come up the trail with the olive herd, but don’t let that fool you. I was a man in my own estimation and a man in fact. I was no kid with the outfit but a top cow hand, doing a top hand’s work, and there is nothing so wonderful about that. All I ever thought about was being a good cow hand. I’d been listening to these Texas men and watching them and studying the disposition of the cattle ever since I was eleven years old.
Even in years I was no younger than a lot of them. The average age of cowboys then, I suppose, was twenty three or four. Except for those of the bosses there was very few 30-year-old-men on the trail. I heard a story once about a school teacher who asked one of these old Texas cow dogs to tell her all about how he punched horses on the trail. She said: “Oh, mister So-and-So, didn’t the boys use to have a lot of fun riding their ponies?”
He said: “Madame, there wasn’t any boys or ponies. They was all horses and men.”
Well, they had to be, to stand the life they led. Look at the chances they took and the kind of riding they done, all the time, over rough country. Even in the daytime those deep coulees could open up all at once in front of you, before you had a chance to see where you were going, and at night it was something awful if you’d stop to think about it, which none of them ever did. If a storm come and the cattle started running —you’d hear that low rumbling noise along the ground and a man on herd wouldn’t need to come in and tell you, you know—then you jump for your horse and get out there in the lead, trying to head them and get them into a mill before they scattered to hell and gone. It was riding at a dead run in the dark, with cut banks and prairie dog holes all around you, not knowing if the next jump would land you in a shallow grave.
I helped to bury three of them in very shallow graves. The first one was after a run on the Blue River in ‘76. I was working for my father then, herding cattle outside Lincoln, and this outfit that had the run was part of a Texas trail heard belonging to John Lytle. He had sold 500 cows to an Englishman named Jones— Lord Jones, they called him—on the Blue River. Three of Lytle’s old men were delivering the cows, and they took me a long to help them because I knew the country, though I was only fifteen years old. We were camped close to Blue River one night, near a prairie dog town that was the furthest east of any prairie dog town I ever saw—it’s from there on to the Rockies that you strike them.
And that night it come up an awful storm. It took all four of us to hold the cattle and we didn’t hold them, and when morning come there was one man missing. We went back to look for him, and we found him among the prairie dog holes beside his horse. The horses ribs was scraped bear of hide, and all the rest of horse and man was smashed into the ground as flat as a pancake. The only thing you could recognize was the handle of his six-shooter. We tried to think the lightning hit him, and that was what we wrote his folks down in Henrietta, Texas. But we couldn’t really believe it ourselves. I am afraid it wasn’t the lightning. I’m afraid his horse stepped into one of them holes and they both went down before the stampede.
We got a shovel—I remember it had a broken handle—and we buried him near by, on a hillside covered with round smooth rocks that we called n***** heads. We dug a little ground away underneath him and slipped his saddle blanket under him and piled n***** heads on top. That was the best we could do. The ground was hard and we didn’t have no proper tools.
But the awful part of it was that we had milled them cattle over him all night, not knowing he was there. That was what we couldn’t get out of our minds. And after that, orders were given to sing when you were running with a stampede, so the others would know where you were as long as they heard you singing, and if they didn’t hear you they would figure that something had happened. After a while this grew to be a custom on the range, but you know this was still a new business in the seventies and they was learning all the time.
Coming up the trail in ‘81 we had a man killed in a big mix up on the Wachita, in the Nations, when six or seven herds was waiting for the river to go down, and a storm come and they all run together one night. And when I was coming up in ‘83, a man was killed in another outfit, going over a bank in broad daylight. His name was Davis, and he had a nickname I couldn’t even tell you. He was with a roundup outfit on the French Fork of the Republican River, right where the trail crosses it. We pulled into water at noon and we could see the round up working further up the creek. It seems that two of them were trying to rope a dim branded steer, and he went over a 30-foot cut bank, and they both went over after him. Davis was a dally welter (a roper who wraps the end of his rope around the saddle horn, Oregon style, instead of tying it fast the way the Texans do. From the Spanish, de la vuelta.), and he had lost his rope; he was reaching down to pick it up, at a gallop, and he didn’t see what was coming. The second man saw it in time. He pulled his horse’s head way up, and he lit more or less right side on top. It shook him up something terrible and he spent a long time in the hospital, but he lived through it. Davis was killed better than hell.
The roundup boys saw all this happen. When they got down there, a rider taken him up in front of his saddle and carried him to camp in his arms. Our outfit laid off that afternoon to rest the herd and help bury him, and I remember after we got the grave dug one of the fellows said: “Somebody ought to say something. Don’t nobody knows the Lord’s Prayer?” I said: “I do.” So they asked me to say it over him, but I only got as far as “Thy I will be done” and got to thinking about my brother and had to quit. You know why. I was kind of rattled anyhow.
Coming up in ‘79, we ran into rustlers in the Nations. These fellows were Mexicans and some good-for-nothing white men and half-breeds who picked up on the trail herds after they crossed Red River. They would follow you up for days with a pack horse, waiting there chance and keeping out of sight among the hills. A dark night was what they were looking for, especially if it was raining hard, because the rain would wipe out the tracks—they figured all that out. They would watch you as you rode around the herd on night guard—always two men, and you rode to meet—and then when the two of you come together they would slip up on the other side of the herd and pop (wave) a blanket. And the whole herd would get up like one animal and light out. These rustlers had very good horses, and they would cut in ahead of you as you tried to get up in front of the herd, and would cut off anywhere from 50 to 200 head of big, strong lead steers.
Our outfits saw them just after they had popped the blanket. The fellows on night heard started shooting, and the rest of us woke up and grabbed for our horses. It’s funny how long ago it seems. All I remember is a wild goose chase. The rustlers just left our little night horses, and of course they got away with the cattle. But next morning another fellow and I cut for sign and we found their trail. We followed it until we saw a man’s hat sticking up over the top of a hill and on the other side of the hill we found our steers. We hit the Western trail that trip crossing Red River at Doan’s store, and we came up on to Loupe River in Nebraska and turned the cattle over there. After that I went home to see my mother. I had been away a solid year. No, I hadn’t wrote to her. Didn’t have nothing to tell her—didn’t want any of them to know where I was. I was her pet and all that, but she was always bully ragging me about drinking and spending my money in town, and so on—afraid I was going to turn out bad. I thought I knew more than she did. And I didn’t know straight up.
To be continued…
By E.C. “Teddy Blue” Abbott (with Helena Huntington Smith). Published 1939. Oklahoma University Press e-book available. Reprinted with permission.