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My People of the Plains

By Ethelbert Talbot, D.D., S.T.D.
Bishop of Central Pennsylvania

New York and London: Harper and Brothers, 1906.

Chapter X. Two Familiar Type

THOSE of my readers who are familiar with Owen Wister's Lin McLean and The Virginian will have learned something of the true nature of the cow-boy, and that, despite his rough exterior, he is capable of loyal friendship and deeds of valor. It was at Fort Washakie that I first had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Wister, and I have always supposed that he was one of my hearers that night when I preached the sermon on the Prodigal Son, on which his hero, Lin McLean, makes such interesting comments.

Be that as it may, it was on the edge of that same reservation that my friend, Mr. J. K. Moore, had the round-up at which a certain famous cowboy figured conspicuously. This man had come from Texas; not voluntarily, but because the climate had become too warm for him. He had killed several men in a drinking row in that State. The Texan, for thus we shall designate him, had changed his name, so that his identity might be lost, and had apprised only his immediate friends at home of this fact.

During a long stage-ride towards the north, a drummer--a particular friend of mine--and two cow-punchers returning from Texas were among the passengers. The cow-boys happened to learn that my friend was on his way to a large supply store where they knew the Texan did his trading. Feeling entire confidence in the drummer, they intrusted to his care a letter for the Texan which some dear one at home had given them rather than run the risk of sending it through the mail.

On arriving at his destination my friend made inquiries as to the whereabouts of the Texan, and learned that he had just come in from the round-up, and was on a spree, terrorizing all who came in contact with him. When the drummer ascertained the reputation of the man whom he was seeking he discreetly bided his time until the Texan had sobered off. He then handed him the letter. It was evident that the Texan was overjoyed to receive the news from home, and, after eagerly devouring it, turned to my friend, and said:

"Runner, how in the hell did you know where to find me?"

The drummer replied that he did not know, but had. been looking for him for several days; that he had received the most explicit instructions not to part with the letter until he could deliver it personally; and failing to find him he was to mail it to a certain address in San Antonio, Texas.

"Well, stranger, you have made a friend forever of the very meanest cow-puncher in Wyoming. But it's worth standing 'twixt you and a bullet to get this letter."

The two parted, neither, perhaps, thinking any more of the incident.

A year passed, and a busy land-office had been established just across the Wyoming line in the State of Nebraska. The drummer was called there on business. As is always the case in such a motley frontier gathering, many unscrupulous characters had crowded in to prey upon the unsuspecting tenderfoot. Men of this type always wore the outward symbols of the cow-puncher, and conspicuously displayed their .44 revolvers. It was the time of a great round-up, and the company store was full of cow-boys. In this gathering the drummer was surprised to encounter "the meanest cow-puncher in Wyoming," as the Texan had styled himself. A cordial greeting passed between them, and the Texan expressed much delight in seeing his benefactor again, and then passed to the other end of the store. My friend was selling a line of hats, and happened to put on a white derby from his box of samples. Immediately one of these would-be "bad men" of the tin-horn variety, in a loud voice, accosted him.

"Say, stranger, don't you know you are transgressing one of our unwritten laws? That hat of yours can't stand this climate unless we let a little air in it." At the same time he suggestively tapped the pistol at his belt.

A crowd promptly gathered to see the fun. This was the opportunity the Texan had sought to prove his heartfelt gratitude to the man who had befriended him. With vulture-like voracity he seized it. Advancing towards my friend he said:

"Say, Mr. Runner, did you know that we have imported the best back-stepper in the States, and this is him? I know you want to see him dance." Drawing his .38 he ordered the officious bully to begin.

The Texan was no stranger to him, and he lost no time in obeying. The frail structure of the store fairly shook, and a few canned goods dropped from the shelves, but the enjoyment was too evident on all sides to allow the sport to be discontinued. Utterly worn out, time and again the victim, with his two .44's dangling uselessly at his sides, gave his tormentor a doglike look of appeal; but no mercy was shown him, and he was ordered to "keep it up." At last my friend begged that the poor fellow be allowed to rest.

"Only on one condition," said the Texan, addressing the dancer. "You either leave these diggings to-night, or I'll make a ring out here in front of this store to-morrow morning, and let this man that you have insulted beat hell out of you."

The drummer, unaccustomed to battle in the arena, was greatly relieved the next morning to find the bully had fled.

That night the drummer was destined to witness a still more painful exhibition of the Texan's cool and relentless mastery of a dangerous situation. There was to be a cow-boy dance in which all the rough element of that frontier community was expected to participate. The cow-boy insisted upon taking his new friend with him, assuring the drummer when he appeared reluctant that it would be a sight worth seeing, and that he would get him safely through. They went together. All progressed smoothly until about midnight, when the dance was in full swing, and the Texan had distinguished himself by his grace and abandon as a dancer. Suddenly an excited man rushed in to the hall, and, seizing the Texan by the arm, cried out:

"Big Steve is on a drunk, and is coming. He's here already. You'll have to be quick."

The Texan barely had time to throw aside the girl with whom he was dancing and to draw his six-shooter, when there was a commotion among the crowd at the other end of the hall, and there appeared at the doorway a dust-covered man and horse. It was Big Steve, the Texan's well-known enemy, whom he had vowed to shoot on sight. To the consternation of the dancers the big man rode his bronco straight through their midst to the centre of the hall, evidently seeking his foe. But, quick as a flash, before he had time to single out the object of his search, the Texan had taken careful aim and fired. For an instant a red spot appeared in Big Steve's forehead. He reeled in his saddle, and fell from his horse--dead. There was no further excitement. The dance broke up, the guests scattering to their homes. No effort was made to bring the Texan to justice. The deadly feud between these two men had become notorious, and it was generally understood that one of them must die. The survivor in this mortal combat bade the drummer good-bye, as if nothing had happened, and before morning dawned had ridden quietly out of the town.

When next I heard of the Texan he was the trusted agent of the cattle-men who had organized to rid the country of the thieves with which Wyoming was so grievously afflicted. The cow-puncher's wide acquaintance among men of his own class, the respectful awe with which he was regarded by them, his rare knowledge of human nature, and his unswerving loyalty to the righteous cause which he represented, made his services indispensable as a leader in that memorable crisis of the cattle industry of the State.

Such was the type of man who won the admiration and respect of a people who worshipped personal loyalty and physical courage. And, indeed, there was in the man's soul a genuine spark of true nobility. In his dealings with his friends he reached a higher standard of honor than is common among men, and he was never known to break his word.

Another type encountered everywhere in the West at that time and made familiar to the reading public by many works of fiction dealing with frontier life was the professional gambler. Again and again, in the prosecution of my work, I was thrown into relations more or less close with these men. I cannot recall one instance where those who followed this vocation pretended to defend their manner of life. On the contrary, they would admit they were heartily ashamed of it, usually alleging that they had been driven to this means of livelihood through force of circumstances, and assuring me that they proposed to abandon it at the first opportunity. But the life possessed a strange fascination for its devotees, and I have known only a few instances where they have carried out their purpose of amendment. There seems to be a sort of excitement connected with the element of uncertainty and chance from which it is next to impossible for the professional gambler to break away. It is the one vice which seems wellnigh hopeless, and against which I always found it difficult to make any headway.

Among the boys who attended my school in Missouri was the son of a minister of another religious body, a most devout and excellent man. This boy was his only child, and the mother had died when he was very young. As a result, the lad's early training devolved largely upon others, especially as the pastoral duties of his father kept him almost constantly from home. When placed in my school the buy seemed to be of a dreamy and unpractical turn of mind, not given to study but fond of reading stories of adventure. I would frequently find him absorbed in some cheap, sensational novel of a blood-curdling nature, and his appetite for that sort of literature was insatiable. At the same time he had an affectionate nature, and one could not but be attracted to him. After leaving school his father found some employment for him, but he evinced no aptitude for business, and became restless and discontented.

One day his father came to see me in great distress to inform me that his son had run away from home during his absence, and had not been heard of for nearly a month.

A few years later I was elected Bishop of Wyoming and Idaho, and as I was about to leave for the West the broken-hearted father again paid me a visit. His grief over the disappearance of his child was all the more acute because of his suspense as to his whereabouts. He said he had come to see me because he felt persuaded that his son had gone to the Far West; that the boy had often expressed to him his purpose of making that country his home as soon as he reached his majority; that he was constantly talking about Buffalo Bill and other Western heroes; that he had found in his room no other books but romances of miners, cow-boys, gamblers, and stage-robbers. He begged me, therefore, to bear his son in mind, and said he felt that, in God's providence, I should surely be the means of finding and saving him. It was in vain that I reminded him what a vast and almost unlimited area the West comprised, and how unlikely it was that in my journeying through such a thinly populated district as Wyoming and Idaho I should come across his boy. But so strongly was he convinced that I should surely find him that his attitude made a deep impression on my mind.

After I had entered upon my Western work I received frequent letters from the minister, imploring me not to forget his request, and assuring me that he was making the recovery of his wandering boy the subject of earnest prayer day by day. Of course, under these circumstances the matter was frequently upon my mind, but I had not the slightest hope of ever meeting the youth, nor did I share the father's opinion as to the certainty of his having gone West.

Eight or ten years must have passed when, one night, I found myself on a train bound for Boise City in Idaho. The hour was past midnight, and I could not reach my destination until early the next morning. Only a few men were in the coach, and as I took my seat I observed just opposite me a young man about thirty years of age. Something about his appearance attracted my attention. He was evidently a sporting man, as his dress, his large black mustache and general bearing clearly indicated. Tired as I was, I could not help looking at him; for there seemed something strangely familiar in his face; but I found the effort to recall where I had seen him before entirely futile. It was also evident that he was interested in my presence, and was rather critically surveying me. Just as I was about to stretch myself out on the seat for a little sleep he came across the aisle and addressed me.

"Are you not the Bishop?" he asked.

"Yes," I replied, "and your face recalls some one whom I have known."

He smiled, and I recognized him as my former pupil, and called his name.

"You are right," he said, "only I am not known by that name any longer. My name here is Henry D. Waters. I knew you were out in this Western country," he continued, "and I have been anxious to look you up; but the fact is I have been rather afraid to meet you. I knew you would feel it your duty to write my father that you had found me, and then I felt sure you would ask me what I was doing, and when you learned my business you would be ashamed of me."

As I realized that, after all these years, I had actually come face to face with my young friend, I was profoundly impressed with the significance of the occasion, and deeply anxious to learn all that he would reveal of himself. I gradually drew him out, and finally he frankly told me that he was a professional gambler. He had recently been running a faro-bank.

"Did you ever see one, Bishop?" he asked. "If you will step across here I would like to show it to you, and also let you see some of my other deals. I have one of the best outfits in the Rockies. I think some of my games will interest you."

It was a novel situation in which I found myself, and I was not a little amazed at the cool nonchalance with which he proceeded to display his paraphernalia. In his manner there was not the slightest suggestion of compunction of conscience.

"Now, first of all," he remarked, "to show you that I am not in this business for my health, look at this."

As he spoke he reached down and produced an ornamental hand-bag, and took out of it a buckskin wallet which must have contained a quart of gold coins in five, ten, and twenty-dollar gold-pieces. As I was examining it I also noticed in the hand-bag a revolver. He pointed out the superb workmanship of this weapon, and said:

"Of course, I always carry another gun in my hip-pocket."

Then reaching up, he brought down from the rack a gilt-mounted and highly polished wooden box which contained "two or three secrets of the trade," as he called them. I can only recall distinctly now the "faro-bank lay-out" upon whose merits he discoursed for some time. As he explained the working of this device I was painfully impressed with the feeling that it was an ill-disguised swindle. I ventured to say to him:

"Is this a fair and square deal?"

He smiled and replied:

"Well, of course, the fellow who runs the bank has a big advantage in the end."

Referring again to the bag of gold, he said:

"This is all mine, Bishop, and I am on my way to Boise to add to my pile. You know the legislature is now in session up there, and there is always plenty of money at this time, and I am expecting quite a 'rake-in.'"

He seemed to be afraid that I should attempt to lecture him, and I thought I could see on his part a plan to kill time by monopolizing the conversation so as to forestall me. After he had quite finished telling me about some of his "big hauls," and explaining to me the several gambling devices which he had with him, he suddenly turned to me and said:

"Now I see you want to talk to me. If you are going to advise me to give up this business, I'll just say I've already made up my mind to do so. I have had enough of it. It is a dog's life. It keeps a man on the strain day and night, and I don't wonder that so many gamblers lose their minds. Then it throws a man into the meanest and most unprincipled crowd of rascals that walk the earth. The only thing that has kept me going all these years is the fact that I don't touch a drop, and so keep cool. I have been at times mighty lucky, and then again I lose every red. Just now, as you see," looking at his wallet, "I am well heeled. But after this session of the legislature is over I am going to swear off for good."

I thought he had put forth a rather clever argument against the evils of a life of gambling, and felt that he had decidedly anticipated me. I am not prepared to assert that my young friend was deliberately trying to deceive me as to his future course. Indeed, I am rather disposed to believe that at that time he really meant to abandon a life which, in those better moments that come to all men, he found so very unsatisfactory. All through the night I talked with him, and tried to make him realize the inevitable end of a career such as he had espoused. I dwelt upon the pain and humiliation the knowledge of it would give his father; told him of the long and anxious years of prayer and solicitude through which the old man had passed on his account; and pleaded with him to free himself from the debasing associations of his environment before it was too late. He stoutly reaffirmed his good resolution of amendment, expressing much affection for his father, and begged me not to inform "the governor" as to his manner of life; he also promised to write him a good letter, and to keep in touch with him henceforth. But, as through years of sad experience with men of his type I had been made familiar with the terrible fascination of the gambling habit, I confess I had but little hope of the successful outcome of our interview. As a matter of fact, he did, for a little while, embark in the real-estate business, married an estimable young woman, and settled down. But he soon got tired of a life which seemed to him so prosaic, and went back to the more congenial atmosphere of his old profession. It was at least a great comfort to the aged parent to hear from me that I had found his boy, and that he was looking so well. One or two letters actually passed between them. Subsequently, all correspondence ceased, and the letters sent by his father were unclaimed and returned. His habit of assuming different names as the fancy struck him, and thus hiding his identity, made it next to impossible to trace him. In a recent letter from the father, I learn that he has no idea of his son's present whereabouts. No tidings have come from him for years. But the old man's loving solicitude and heart-felt anxiety have never ceased. One can only hope that the object of such tender affection and so many prayers may even yet "come to himself" and cheer the declining years of a father so steadfast in his devotion. The story is typical of a certain class of young men who have not the moral stamina to resist the influences of an environment which in a new country is very seductive.

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