Saturday, May 19, 2012

R.M. Peck Part 4

Wagon Boss
by R.M. Peck
National Tribune
11 Aug, 1904

The town we passed through on this route showed plainly already the devastating effects of the war; streets deserted: business houses all closed up, without an exception; many of the dwellings abandoned, with windows and doors broken out; not a white man, or even a good sized boy, to be seen; if any are remaining among the few families of women and children, they prudently go into hiding on the approach of armed me; now and then a few negroes are found remaining to look after their master’s families, while the men are off in the rebel army.

Some of these devoted old servants seem to think it their duty to stay and look after their master’s interests, now that he is gone, and refuse to avail themselves of the opportunity to assert their freedom; but the great majority of them are prompt to light out to Kansas and freedom as soon as they find the way open. many of the rebels, however, have taken their slaves, and as they can move, further south to keep them out of the reach of the “D____d Yankees.”

The farms also show the ravages of war: fences thrown down or destroyed- mostly burned for firewood by passing bodies of troops of one army or the other; fields and orchards grown up in weeds; livestock nearly gone, especially mules and horses; little or no crops have been raised during the past season, and less will be produced the next. The country being overrun first by rebels and then Federals, what one doesn’t take or destroy the other does; between the two armies this border country seems destined to become a desert waste.

After I left the Indian Brigade at Flat Rock Creek last Fall, taking George Anderson’s train back to Fort Scott, General Wier, being unable to drive the rebels out of Fort Gibson, had moved eastward into Missouri and Arkansas, to find forage and subsistence for his command, and joining General Blunt’s army had seen and participated in some lively fighting at Cane Hill, Prairie Grove, Shirley’s Ford, and a few lesser fights; and after driving the rebel army of General Hindman south to Fort Smith, the Indian Brigade, with some white troops, had been left at Elm Springs, Arkansas, to winter.

Early in the Spring (1863)- just a few weeks before our present trip- this command (the Indian Brigade) had moved toward Fort Gibson again, from Maysville, Arkansas, which place the rebels, under Cooper and Stand Watie, evacuated as our men advanced, falling back across the Arkansas River, where they established a camp called Fort Davis.

It was in the fight near the site of old Fort Wayne, near Maysville, Arkansas, October 22, 1862, that Captain Henry Hopkin’s company of the 2d Kansas Cavalry had made a gallant charge on a rebel battery, and captured the guns, but the enemy had got away with the caissons. The outfit we were now taking to Fort Gibson was intended to complete the battery for Hopkins.

In the vicinity of the Fort Wayne fight, as we passed along the road, we saw plenty of signs of the battle of six months previous; such as dead horses and mules, broken down wagons, pieces of tents and tent poles, camp kettles, broken muskets and old bayonets, belts and cartridge boxes, etc. And such rubbish was strung along the road for several miles  beyond the battle ground, showing that the enemy had left there in a hurry and somewhat demoralized.

Tahlequah, the capital of the Cherokee Nation, 18 miles east of Fort Gibson, was a small village, containing, for an Indian town, some very respectable brick houses; and although now deserted, except for a few families of women and children, it looked as though its prosperous times of peace it might have contained a population of 200 people. Two miles west of the town, on the road to Fort Gibson, we passed a large brick building which, before the war, was their Male Seminary. Three miles south of the Male Seminary is another little hamlet called Park Hill, near which is the Female Seminary, a building similar to the other. The wealthy people finish up the education of their young men and young ladies by sending them to some of our Eastern institutions of learning.

The Cherokees are well advanced in civilization, and many of them are well educated- even refined. They have a written language; a printing office in Tahlequah, and before the war published a paper in Cherokee and English. Some of the mixed bloods show so little of the Indian that I was surprised to find blue-eyes, flaxen-haired, light-complexioned people here called Cherokee Indians.

They do not seem to flock together and dwell in towns as much as one would naturally expect from their aboriginal habit of living in villages, but are scattered out through the Nation, engaged in farming and stock raising- principally the latter. Many of the mixed-bloods were wealthy, before the war began, owning large numbers of slaves, horses, cattle and other stock, and living in comfortable and commodious houses, nicely furnished, and with many modern conveniences.

In some of their houses I saw pianos, fine mirrors, fine furniture, paintings, fine carpets, and many other nice things that one would not expect to find among Indians; and in their barns I saw some fine carriages and harness, but the most of their good horses and mules had disappeared. The country was yet full of other stock, however, on our advent, such as cattle, hogs, sheep, and poultry.

I was surprised at the scarcity of towns in so extensive a settled country; for, besides Tahlequah and Park Hill, Fort Gibson is the only other town I remember to have found in the Cherokee Nation- and I have since been over most of it. Fort Gibson seems to the trade center. Outside of these places there were few country stores scattered through the settlements.

At Fort Gibson we found the Indian Brigade getting itself pretty comfortably established on the site of the camp recently vacated by the rebels. The principle buildings are taken for Commissary and Quartermaster’s stores, hospitals, officer’s quarters, and other public purposes. The place is built in the style of a military post, which it was until abandoned by Uncle Sam a few years before the war. It is located on the south or left bank of Grand River, two miles from its mouth at the Arkansas. On the opposite bank of the Arkansas River the rebel pickets are stationed.

Next day after our arrival we turned over our battery outfit to Captain Hopkins’ company, the train unloaded its cargo, and with its escort started back by the same route to Fort Scott; Jeff Anthony and crew of battery drivers going with it, except myself. I got my time from Jeff for my services on the trip, and moved my blankets and “Saratoga” to the camp of the 2d Indian train, where I took a six-mule team to drive temporarily.

Here in the 2d Indian train I again met my old acquaintance, Pat Hagan, the gambler, whom I and some comrades had brought away from Fort Union, New Mexico, in the Winter of 1859-60, to save him from being hanged by a Mexican mob, and whom we had again met at Lost Springs, Kansas, in November 1861, operating with a gang of “Jayhawkers;” all of which I have mentioned in my narrative entitled “Rough Riding on the Plains.” Pat was now driving an ambulance connected with the train of the 2d Indian regiment, and incidentally playing a little poker when he found an opportunity to “skin” some man.

As the regimental train already had a competent and satisfactory Wagon Boss and Assistant, Bill Richmond and Hugh Poland, I opposed Colonel “Shorty’s” offer to “fire” one of them in order to give me the place, and told him I would prefer to wait for an opening elsewhere. In the train of the 1st Indian regiment, camped close by us, I found a number of my old teamsters still with the outfit that I had transferred to the Indian Brigade at Humboldt, Kansas. Abe Merrill, my former lead “skinner,” is now Wagon Boss of that train.

I kept my eyes and ears open inquiring for a prospective opening for a Wagon Master, and after some time heard that Captain Chester Thomas, the Brigade Quartermaster, was in need of one. I asked Colonel “Shorty” to go up to Captain Thomas’ office and introduce me, which he cheerfully did, recommending me in the highest terms as “a first-class and thoroughly competent Wagon Master.”

I told Captain Thomas (who, by the way, was an old man, a Kansas politician, and quite an eccentric character) that I had heard that he needed a Wagon Master, and I was looking for a job of that kind.

The old captain took his quid of tobacco out of his mouth and stood reflecting rolling it between his thumb and finger (a habit he had) as he answered:

“I have a Wagon Master- or at least a man drawing the salary- but he ain’t worth a D--n, and never will be, in that capacity. . He’s a son-in-law of mine; a good-enough fellow- that is, a good farmer or something of that sort- but he’s out of his element in this teaming business, and has just fairly run my train into the ground. Yes, on the whole, I guess I may safely say I need a Wagon Master, and need one bad.” And looking me over, he added: “You couldn’t have brought a better endorser. Although ‘Shorty’ has only been with us a short time, he is fast proving himself a first-class officer- one of them old Regulars, you know, that knows everything about military service- and what ‘Shorty’ says goes. I think it would suit me, but maybe the job won’t suit you. It’s a hard-looking outfit new. Maybe, after you see it you won’t want to have anything to do with it. Come, go up to the corral with men, and I’ll show you the lay-out, and then if you think you can reconstruct the rawhide outfit you can have the job.”

“But, Captain,” I interposed, “I don’t want to rob your son-in-law of his position>”

“O, he be blanked,” exclaimed the old man, “He’s no earthly account there. The longer he stays with it the worse the outfit gets, and he’s got to get out when I can find a man who can run the train. He’s just letting the teamsters run the whole shebang and him too. I’ll find him some sort of soft job about my office. He’ll be glad to give up the train. It’s a devil of an outfit; and them teamsters- they’re pizen. Have you got a good six-shooter?”

I told him I had.

“Have you got the nerve to shoot some of them infernal rascals if they undertake to run you over?”

I told him that I had been used to commanding such fellows, and thought if he would give me good backing I could manage them.

“You’ll bet I’ll stand by you,” replied the old man, “and give you all the help you want if you’ll only just fetch ‘en to time, and make ‘em do their duty- show ‘em that you’re going to be Boss. But you’ll have trouble with ‘em. They’re a hard lot, Injins, niggers and no-account white men. You see, we can’t discharge a man very often here, because we can’t find one to take his place. You’ll just have to keep ‘em and punish ‘em like they do soldiers, when they don’t do what you tell ‘em. I’ll give you the whole force of the provost guard, if it’s necessary, to enforce your orders. Lindley (that’s my son-in-law) is afraid of ‘em, and he just let’s ‘em run the shebang.”

When I reached the camp it make me feel almost sick of my bargain to see what a ragged, rawhide outfit it really was. The wagons were scattered about in the utmost disorder, as if each skinner had located his wagon to suit himself, which was really the case- some of them facing one way, some another, no semblance of any alignment or parking. Some had bows and sheets, some had none; harness scattered here and thereon the ground; most of it had been thrown down  just where it had been stripped off the mules as they stood in team at stopping, without the traces being unhooked from the single trees; mules- a hard-looking lot of half-starved things- tied here and there, some to the wagons, some to trees, and some staked out on bare ground. The wagons nearly all needed repairing, harness ditto, and half the mules barefooted. Out of the 25 teams I don’t think there were six in serviceable condition.

The teamsters- a motley-looking lot- instead of showing some deference to their Quartermaster as we passed among them, paid no more respect to Captain Thomas, as he expressed it, “than if he was a common Justice of the Peace.”

When he asked one of them, as we approached a group who were playing cards, “Where’s Mr. Lindley?” He was answered with an indifferent “Don’t know,” as they went on with their game.

After looking the outfit over, the old man asked me, “Well, what do you think of the lay-out?”

“Well, Captain,” I answered in rather a discouraging tone, “it’s the hardest-looking outfit I ever struck; but if you will give me the necessary assistance I will tackle the job and try to rebuild mules, wagons, and harness.”

“You can rely on all the help within my command,” he replied, “and if you will straighten out  that bunch of rawhide mules and scraps of wagons and harness, and get ‘em into some semblance of a train I’ll say you’re the best Wagon Master I ever saw.”

“Have you a blacksmith and wagon shop and a harness shop, and material for repairs?”

“And will you give me an order on these shops for what work I want done?”

“I’ll place the shops and workmen at your command.”

“All right.” Then I added, “I don’t think, from the looks of things, that your Assistant Wagon Master can be a competent man. Will you provide him some other jib, and allow me to select my Assistant?”

“Certainly, pick you’re man and bring him on.”

“Well, Captain, if you will notify Mr. Lindley of the change, and have him to give notice to the teamsters that I am to be their future Boss I’ll take charge in the morning, if that suits you.”

“It’s a whack!” exclaimed the old Captain, apparently glad to unload the outfit onto my shoulders.

Just them Mr. Lindley approached, and Captain Thomas introduced me, and explained the arrangements we had made. Mr. Lindley seemed as glad as the old man to find someone to take the ugly job off his hands.

I found him a much better man than the Captain’s disparaging remarks had led me to believe; but he seemed to have no conception of the management of a mule train, nor any desire to acquire the necessary knowledge or experience. It was entirely out of his line.

At my suggestion he called his “skinners” together and informed him that I had been employed to run the train, which information they received in a sullen sort of way, as though they already saw from my looks or manner that they would not probably have their own way so much in future as they had been used to.

“Mr. Lindley,” I remarked in hearing all, “I have made arrangements with the Captain here to bring my own Assistant Wagon Master with me. I will be sorry to throw your Assistant out of a job, but the Captain has promised to provide him with other employment, so that he will not suffer by the change. I will be here in the morning after breakfast to take charge.”

As we walked back to the Quartermaster’s office Lindley remarked:

“I don’t want to discourage you, Mr. Peck, but I think I ought to warn you that you have assumed the command of a tough lot of men. Several of those fellows have the name of being desperate men and man-killers. You may be used to such fellows, and know how to manage them, but for my part I must confess there are several men in that outfit that I have been afraid to offend. There’s old Isaac Marshall, and his big son, Louie, and Steve Forman and John Smith- each of whom are said to have killed a man or two, and I don’t want to be the next victim of either of them.”

“There’s just where you made you’re mistake, Mr. Lindley,” I suggested. “You allowed those fellows to find out that you would rather not have any trouble with them, and they were going to keep you in that way of thinking.”

“That is,” interjected Captain Thomas, with more bluntness than I had used, “they soon found out that Lindley was afraid of them, and by bluster they have scared him into letting them have their own way in everything.”

“It is in my line of business to control such fellows,” I concluded, without openly endorsing the Captain’s plain way of putting it. “We frequently find such men among mule-skinners, and although I’m not much of a killer I’m a pretty good bluffer, and in such affairs I find that a stiff bluff is all that is necessary. I am going to make them believe at the start that I am going to be master, and I’ll never let them lose sight of that idea. I’ll keep them at a distance and in their places, allowing no familiarities, for you know ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ the world over. I’ll show them that I am thoroughly posted in my duties and theirs, and require them to perform their work well and promptly. I carry a good pistol and know how to use it when necessary, but it is more for ornament than use- just to be fashionable, you know- just to put me on equal footing with other men who carry them. When I’m among people who don’t carry arms I don’t want a gun; but when I’m among men who go armed I find it’s a good plan to be in the fashion. And among these rough fellows the fact of a man’s having a good revolver hung to him will often save him from being imposed upon.”

“your head’s level!” exclaimed the Captain. “You’ve got that subject down fine. I believe you’ll know how to handle those fellows, but if you find it necessary to make an example of some fellow, and kill him, don’t hesitate to do it. You shall have no trouble about it. Or if you want to put one in the guard-house occasionally, or administer military punishment of any kind, I’ll arrange to have the guard instructed and ready to take care of them for you.”

“All right, Captain, but I don’t anticipate any serious trouble.” And then we parted.

On going back to take charge of the train in the morning, Lindley was there to render me any assistance, or give any information in his power. I had brought one of my old teamsters, Simpson, as my Assistant. I found that the skinners were all messing together instead of being divided into convenient small messes, and they had also appropriated the Wagon Boss’s tent, as Lindley had allowed them to do- he having been messing and staying with Captain Thomas.

I told the men what many of them already knew, that the tent was for the Boss, and the teamster’s place was with his wagon, and directed them to gather up their stuff and go to their places. I also informed them that as soon as ration day came around again I should divide them up into proper messes of five to six men, in regulation style, and also would organize my own mess.

I had given them my orders to pick up their harness off the ground where they had dropped it and hang it onto their hindwheels- wheel harness first, swing’ next- and leaders’ on top- and to put their collars and bridles under the wagons. While some of them were complying with this order, one big mulatto fellow, Louie Marshall, stepped up and began to inform me that:

“Lindley allows us to...”

I shut him up instantly with “

“That’ll do, sir! When you speak of your Wagon Master put ‘Mister’ before his name. I don’t care to know what Mr. Lindley did or didn’t do. I’m running this outfit, now, and I think I understand my business. I don’t want any of your advice or suggestions. You do just what I tell you to do, and do it promptly, and you’ll have no trouble.” And I give him a look that must have convinced him that he had better obey my orders without trying to argue the question, for after looking at me for a moment he mumbled out some apology for speaking and moved off with alacrity and hung up his harness as directed. And this was one of Lindley’s desperadoes.

Thereafter, whenever opportunities occurred, I took particular pains to give my orders to these bullies- these dangerous men of whom Lindley had warned me to beware- in a very decisive manner, and also to require their prompt obedience. I gave them to understand that they would be allowed no special privileges, as heretofore, nor shown any favors above the other men- that all must obey orders alike, and do their duty promptly. I knew that if these worst ones were brought to proper discipline I would have no trouble with the others, and therefore devoted my special attention to them. They soon seemed to arrive at the conclusion that I was going to be master there, and would put up with no foolishness; and although for a while they were a little sullen, they gave me more prompt obedience than I had expected.

As may be imagined I was kept very busy for some time reconstructing that rawhide outfit. But I kept the teamsters and workmen at the shops busy. The foremen of the blacksmith, wagon and harness shops were a little sulky at first about doing all the work I was taking them, for they, too, had been doing about as they pleased previously. But when they found that Captain Thomas was backing me, and were told that if they didn’t do my work promptly he would get other men who would, they came to nicely.

As the young spring grass was now getting good growth I had the mules that were not needed for work kept out on herd everyday from daylight till dark, instead of having them tied up to the wagons most of the time, as had been the rule, and the poor beasts soon began to show a great improvement in flesh on their bones and new coats of hair.

Most of the skinners seemed to soon take up the new order of things, and evinced considerable interest in the reconstruction of the train, which I was carrying out. But still some of them seemed desirous of trying me now and  then in some new way. Among other things they appeared to want to find out whether I could use the fine ivory-handled navy that I carried on my belt, and if it was just for ornamental purposes I carried it. In those days I kept myself in good practice, and could shoot pretty well at short distances of from 20 to 30 steps.

I had bought a turkey from a woman who came around selling poultry, and kept it  staked out near my tent, tied by the leg, feeding it up for a future dinner. One day a skinner came rushing into the tent to tell me that my turkey had got loose. Going out I found the bird walking off through the weeds, and from the looks and actions of the teamsters who had gathered around I felt sure that some of them had turned it loose for devilment. I knew the turkey would be difficult to catch, and concluded that I would just shoot it as the surest way. When some of the boys offered to run it down for me I suspected that it was a ruse to run it off, and so told them to keep quiet and I would stop the fowl.

Taking out my pistol I walked quickly up to good shooting distance, and as I could only see its head and neck bobbing through the weeds as it walked I thought it would be too difficult to hit the head, and there fore made a careful estimate of about where the body was and fired, aiming to hit the larger part.

The turkey dropped, and I supposed that I had hit where I aimed to, in the body. I told one of the negro boys to pick it up and take it to the cook, and returning my pistol walked back to my tent. When the bird was picked up I heard a shout from the fellow whom I had sent for it, and on asking what was the matter, he answered:

“Why, Boss, you done shot its head clean off!”

“Of course,” I answered, as though it was just what I had intended. “Where did you suppose I was going to hit it?”

They expressed great astonishment and admiration of my marksmanship, as they passed the turkey around for inspection, and appeared to jump at the conclusion that in their new Boss they had found a crack pistol shot and that this was but an ordinary exhibition of his skill. I wisely concluded to rest on the fame and that this chance shot had given me as an expert, and to give no further exhibition of my dexterity.

I heard one of the skinners remark in earnest admonition to his comrades as he joined the crowd who had been looking on from a distance:

“Fellers, don’t you fool with him, don’t you fool with him! He’s a bad one! Jest took out his pistol, cool as you please, an stuck it out without hardly lookin’ at the turkey, an’ turned loose an’ shot its head off clean as if you’d cut it off with a knife. Bet you he kin put them bullets jest where he wants to every time. I tell you, don’t you pester him.”

This seemed to satisfy them as to my ability to handle a pistol, and as I prudently avoided giving any further test of my reputation rested on that accident. I often, however, in practicing in those days could put five out of six balls inside the size of a playing card at 20 steps (and this was about the only use I made of cards). But in this instance the hitting of the turkey’s head had been purely accidental.

In those days I was also an expert “rough rider,” and if anyone could bring me a wild horse or mule that was difficult to ride I would accept it as a favor, and take great delight in saddling and riding it. It seems strange to me now that I, or anyone having common sense, could be so foolish as to risk neck- or limb-breaking for fun, and I would not be guilty of such folly now for big money. But in the days of my youth and foolishness I used to believe and declare that there never was a horse or mule that I couldn’t ride.

I found this riding-mule that Lindley had turned over to me was a very inferior beast, and so began looking through the teams to select another. The mules were all so worn and starved out and poor, that it was a hard matter to find one with life enough to suit me. The Quartermaster had been receiving a few contraband or captured mules, but these also were rather scrawny. As usual somebody else had got away with the good ones and only the scrubs were turned in to Uncle Sam.

There was one fine-looking mule, however, among the contrabands that had been turned over to Captain Thomas, and on expressing my surprise that such an animal had not been gobbled up before it reached the Quartermaster’s hands, I was told that the probable reason was the mule was found to be such a vicious devil that no one could handle him. He had been christened “Jim Lane” after our Kansas senator, as Captain Thomas explained, “because he’s so tricky.”

I decided to try “Jim Lane” for a riding mule, and ordering one of the teamsters to lead him down to my tent and tie him to the wheel of my mess wagon, so that I could saddle him up and ride him, I was amused at the surprised and consternation manifested among the skinners at the idea of my riding “Jim Lane,” There were a number of good riders among them, but none, it seemed, had cared to tackle this “wicked devil,” as they called him. I knew that my riding that mule would convince them that I possessed still another enviable accomplishment, in the eyes of the average skinner- another confirmation of my abilities as a Wagon Boss.

Some of the teamsters tried to dissuade from the undertaking, declaring that I would certainly get hurt and maybe killed. Whether they thought so, or were only trying to scare me out of the notion, it only made me more determined to show them that I could ride that mule.

I had an excellent saddle- a Mexican tree- and had tested its adaptability and strengths in many a tussle with wild mules and bronchos. After “bucking” Jim Lane to the side of the wagon, a process familiar to mule whackers, and making ready to saddle him, old Isaac Marshall, an old darky with a bad record- one of the so-called bad men of the train- came up to add his discouragement to those already volunteered by the groups of skinners who stood around.

“What, boys!” he exclaimed in apparent astonishments, directing his remarks to the bystanders. “He shorley ain’t a-gwin’ ter try ter ride that fightin’ devil! Did you tell him what a bad mule he is?”

“Yes, we done tol’ him,” one fellow answered, “but don’t make a bit o’ differ’nce. He won’t lis’en to us.”

After a pause, as I seemed to pay no attention to these remarks, old Isaac ventured to advise me:

“Say, Boss, is you got any family? ‘Cause if you is, you’d better leave word with Mr. Simpson, or somebody, where to write to ‘em to let ‘em know what ‘come of you.”

Without making any reply to such “joshing” I went on saddling the mule, and with Simpson’s assistance soon had him bridled and cinched up in good shape.

In riding a wild animal I always used a good, strong crupper to my saddle. This is especially useful on a mule, as they are so low in front that without a crupper to hold the saddle back to its place they will often “buck” it onto their withers and thus easily throw the rider over their heads.

After getting him saddled I released the “Honorable Jim” from the wagon wheel and let him play around at the end of the lariat until he seemed satisfied that he couldn’t buck the saddle off, and then drew him up to me gently, got two men  to hold him by the bit, one on each side; coiled up the lariat and tied it to the horn of the saddle, unbuckled my belt and handed my pistol to Simpson, mounted and gave the word, “Turn him loose!”

And such a circus as I had then in the next few minutes? That mule tried all the tactics he was master of- bucking, kicking, trying to reach my legs with his teeth, kicking at my feet, and finally crowding me up to a wagon and trying to rake me off.

At this stage of the game I put the spurs to him and let him out down the road to Tahlequah, and kept him going pretty lively for several miles. When he seemed somewhat subdued and willing to behave like I thought a Senator’s namesake should I turned him around and rode back to camp.  He was just tired enough to be very docile just them, but not yet entirely subdued, and I had a similar circus with him everyday for sometime before I could say he was “broke.”

During the time that I had been with the 2d Indian train before I had got the job of running Captain Thomas’ train I had amused myself by riding some wild contraband mules, to gentle them a little for Richmond, the Wagon Master of that outfit.

Shortly after Colonel “Shorty” had occasion to send out a mounted scouting party of his Indians, and having no horses to mount them on, he ordered Richmond to bring some mules that would do for his soldiers to ride. Richmond brought up, among the lot, some of the contrabands that I had ridden, and as they seemed rather skittish “Shorty” asked,

“Wagon Master, have these mules ever been ridden?”

“Yes, sir,” said Richmond, “Peck used to ride ‘em.”

“”O, thunder! That won’t do!” exclaimed “Shorty.” “Don’t bring me mules that nobody but Peck has ever ridden. I know that Peck! He’d ride the devil if he could get a rope on him! Bring me mules that anyone can ride!”

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