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Authors: Ralph Moody

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Horse of a Different Color

BOOK: Horse of a Different Color
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Books by Ralph Moody

Available in Bison Books editions

American Horses

Come on Seabiscuit!

The Dry Divide

The Fields of Home

The Home Ranch

Horse of a Different Color

Kit Carson and the Wild Frontier

Little Britches

Man of the Family

Mary Emma & Company

Riders of the Pony Express

Shaking the Nickel Bush

Stagecoach West

Wells Fargo

Horse of a Different Color

Reminiscences of a Kansas Drover

By RALPH MOODY

University of Nebraska Press

Lincoln and London

Copyright © 1968 by Ralph Moody

All rights reserved

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Moody, Ralph, 1898–

Horse of a different color: reminiscenses [sic] of a Kansas drover/by Ralph Moody.

p. cm.

Originally published: New York: Norton, 1968.

“Bison.”

ISBN 0-8032-8217-6

ISBN-13: 978-0-8032-8217-9 (pbk: alk. paper)

ISBN-13: 978-0-8032-8340-4 (electronic: e-pub)

ISBN-13: 978-0-8032-8341-1 (electronic: mobi)

1. Moody, Ralph, 1898– —Homes and haunts—Kansas. 2. Ranchers—Kansas—Biography. 3. Ranch life—Kansas—History—20th century. 4. Kansas—Biography. I. Title.

CT275.M5853A3 1994

818′.5403—dc20

[B]

94-14523 CIP

Reprinted by arrangement with Edna Moody Morales and Jean S. Moody.

1

I Become a Drover

M
Y FIRST
sight of Beaver Valley, lying just south of the Nebraska boundary in western Kansas, was on July 4, 1919. I’d been a Colorado ranch boy, and following my father’s death in 1910 I’d worked a couple of summers for one of the leading cattle dealers there. Shortly before the outbreak of World War I my mother moved the family to Massachusetts. I was turned down for enlistment in the Army right after my nineteenth birthday, so I went away to work at carpentry in a munitions plant, where I lost more than fifty pounds during the fall of 1918. When, at the armistice, I went home, Boston specialists diagnosed my malady as diabetes, advanced to the stage where I could live no longer than six months. Our family doctor disagreed with the prognosis, put me on a strict diet, and sent me West to live outdoors in the sunshine.

I spent the winter, and the spring of 1919, in Arizona and New Mexico—riding horse falls for an outfit shooting cowboy and Indian movies, and making plaster busts of small-town bankers. I saved several hundred dollars, which I kept hidden in the cuffs of my Levi’s, but lost it when my buddy and I split up in Kansas City and he took my Levi’s by mistake. Dead broke and weighing barely a hundred pounds, I hopped the night mail train for Denver, sure I could get a cowhand job from my old boss. But I was caught and kicked off the train at McCook, Nebraska, on Fourth of July morning.

Before noon I’d been hired as a harvest hand by a tenant farmer from the high divide south of Beaver Valley, and not long afterward I was fortunate enough to win the confidence of Bones Kennedy, the banker at Cedar Bluffs. Without asking my age, he lent me money after harvest to buy horses and equipment and go into the grain hauling business. By the end of the hauling season I owned thirty-seven tough mustang horses, harness for them, fourteen stout grain wagons, a good saddle, and an old Maxwell touring car that would go forty miles an hour with a little coaxing. I didn’t owe a penny, had nearly three thousand dollars in the bank and a year’s lease on half a section of good pasture land with a nice little home on it.

About a year before I came to the Cedar Bluffs area, Bob Wilson, who had been working for the largest livestock feeders in Kansas, moved his family there from Junction City. Except that he had some household furniture and a fairly good Buick automobile, he came as broke as I did, but Bones Kennedy set him up in the livestock buying and shipping business, and arranged for him to buy the former drover’s place with no down payment.

The place was one of the finest livestock handling layouts in western Kansas. It was situated on the main road between Oberlin, Kansas, and McCook, Nebraska, and was separated from Cedar Bluffs only by the single-track branch of the CB&Q Railroad. Forty acres of rich valley land adjoined good shipping pens along the railroad siding and was surrounded on the north and east by Beaver Creek flowing at the bottom of a tree-lined gorge. Inside the bend of the creek, well protected from winter storms, were a good five-room house, barns, corrals, and a plank-fenced feed lot large enough to fatten a thousand head of stock at a time. Along the south side of the lot there were ten large sorting pens connected by stout gates and with a twenty-ton platform scale at the center.

Although Bob Wilson was an expert judge of livestock and its value, he failed as a drover because he soon earned a reputation for being tricky in his dealing and careless with the truth. There was, however, no doubt that he knew how to fatten cattle and hogs as well as any man in Kansas, so in the summer of 1919 Bones financed his going into the feeding business.

Although woefully short on experience, I started dabbling in livestock buying and shipping just before the end of the wheat-hauling season that fall. Soon afterward I worked out an arrangement with Bones for buying stock that was mortgaged to his bank. He gave me a list showing the percentage of equity each borrower had in his livestock; and I agreed to pay the farmer his equity in cash, to assume the mortgage balance, and to pay it off with interest at 10 per cent per annum when I shipped the stock to market.

I’d met Bob Wilson several times, but we’d had no business dealings, and I was never on his place until October, 1919. I was then hauling corn to the Cedar Bluffs elevator for an absentee divide landlord for whom Bones was agent, and stopped in at the bank to ask where I should deliver the nubbins.

“Deliver ’em to Bob Wilson,” Bones told me, “and bring me a signed duplicate of the weight slip.”

Bob, with two hired men, was weighing cattle when I drove into his dooryard. I called to him that I’d brought a load of nubbin corn from the Knapp place at Bones Kennedy’s orders.

“Unload it on one of them piles,” he called back, motioning toward half a dozen long corn piles outside the far end of the feed lot. To reach them I had to drive past an equal number of the worst looking haystacks imaginable. There was a ten-foot border of trampled hay around each one, and several steers were feeding at them.

The corn piles were even worse. Hogs were rooting in them, the borders were wider, and countless wagons had been driven over them in getting close enough to the piles for unloading. I drove onto one of the borders and had scooped off a dozen shovelfuls when I heard Bob shout, “Doggone you, Betty Mae! You keep away from that feed lot! One of them old sows’ll chomp you up like a roastin’ ear. You go play with Arvis!”

The shout was loud, but lacked any conviction that it would be obeyed.

I had the corn nearly unloaded when a little voice that sounded as if it came from under the horses called, “Hi, man!” I looked over the wagon side and saw a chubby, red cheeked little girl standing less than a foot from the lightning-fast heels of my off mustang, looking up at me with big deep-blue eyes. Afraid to make a quick move that might startle the horse, I climbed slowly down over the wheel and picked the little girl up. She snuggled against my shoulder as if she’d known me all her life, and when I asked her name she told me, “Betty Mae Wi’son, fee years old. What your name?”

“Ralph,” I told her, “but they call me Bud around here.”

She snuggled closer and told me, “I like you, Balp.”

From that moment I was hooked. I told Betty Mae I liked her too, sat her up on the wagon seat, and went back to shoveling corn. I had thrown out all but the last few ears when from the dooryard there came a musical call, “Betty Maeeeee!”

Musical as the voice was, I recognized a note of authority in it, and so did Betty Mae. She rolled onto her stomach and started sliding off the seat. I wouldn’t risk having her down behind that mustang’s heels again, so caught her up and called, “She’ll be right there!” Then I picked up the reins with my free hand, clucked to the team, and turned it back toward the dooryard.

As we passed the haystacks I saw a slender, dark-haired woman walking toward the scales, a baby in her arms and a pretty little girl at her side. She didn’t look to be more than a year or two older than I, though Bob was at least thirty-five, but it was evident that she was his wife and thoroughly annoyed. When I pulled up at the scales she was saying, “My Lord! Anymore it seems like every time I turn my back she’s off to the barns or the feed lot getting into mischief, and all you do is encourage her.”

“Aw now, Marguerite,” Bob answered in a half-mocking tone, “you know I don’t encourage her none. Didn’t you hear me holler at her a couple of times to go play with Arvis?” Then he glanced up at me and said, “This is Bud Moody, the young fella I was tellin’ you about that aims to be a livestock . . . ”

“No! Balp!” Betty Mae cut in.

It was just the right thing to break the tension. We all laughed, and I said, “That’s right, Mrs. Wilson. The people here call me Bud, but my real name is Ralph.”

“Mine’s Marguerite,” she told me. “That’s what I like to be called, and I’m not this ornery all the time. Bob had his heart set on a boy when Betty Mae got here, and I’ll swear he’s still bound to make her into one. You men go on with your business; I’ll try to keep her out from under your feet.”

I passed Betty Mae down, and as Marguerite and the girls started toward the house Bob told me, “Come on over to the scales and I’ll learn you a little something about the livestock-dealin’ business.”

There was plenty I needed to learn, so I tied my team and went to the scales. In the next hour I picked up several good tips, but learned more about Bob Wilson than about livestock buying. He hadn’t checked the quality of the corn I brought, but signed the duplicate weight slip, crumpled the original, and threw it away. Time after time he demonstrated his ability to “guess the weight of any cow critter to within one per cent,” and he bragged outrageously—apparently in an effort to show his hired men how much smarter he was than I, and to impress me with his great wealth, his independence of operation, and the fabulous profits he was making from livestock feeding.

I wasn’t impressed. He claimed to have three hundred steers and half that many hogs in his lot, but I noticed a wide variation in their size, type, and condition—indicating clearly that they had been accumulated over a period of at least two months with little or no regard for quality. Since Bones had told me to deliver the nubbin corn without consulting Bob, I suspected that the off-grade stock had been acquired in the same way, and that Bob’s bragging was an attempt to cover it up. At first his belittling annoyed me, but I soon realized that it was a cheap price to pay, for in order to do it he would teach me all he knew about livestock shipping and feeding.

I delivered three or four loads of nubbins a week to the Wilson place, and each time Betty Mae met me in the dooryard. She’d ride to the feed yard with me and jabber from the wagon seat as I unloaded. When I found Bob at home he was always at the scales, sharpening his guessing eye as the hired men drove steers on and off the platform. As soon as I’d unload he’d call, “Come on over here so’s’t I can learn you the livestock business before you lose your shirt at it.” He always threw away the weight slips I brought him from the elevator, and he never failed to ridicule me when I misjudged an animal’s weight. But with each session my eye became sharper, and I gained more confidence in my buying judgment. By mid-November I was shipping one or two carloads of livestock every Saturday, and making an average profit of fifty dollars a car on them.

Early on the Monday morning before Thanksgiving, Bones phoned and asked me to come to the bank right away. When I went in he told me, “A lot of poor quality hogs and cattle accumulated around here during the war, but that kind of breeding stock has to be cleared out if these farmers are to prosper. Before this week is over I aim to rid every mortgaged herd in Beaver Township of low grade stock. There’s not a man on my books that wouldn’t take George Miner’s word for the worth of any animal on his place, so I’ve got George starting out this morning to do the culling and set the amounts to be credited against the mortgages. What I want is for you to go with him, keep books on the stock he culls, and take care of the rounding up and shipping. If you do a good job of it I’ll pay you fifty dollars a carload. Is that fair?”

I told him that nothing could be fairer, drove home as fast as my old Maxwell would climb the divide, saddled my tough little mustang mare, Kitten, and set out for the Miner place at a canter. I knew George only by sight, but had heard a good deal about him, for he was invariably agreed upon as arbitrator when a dispute arose between Beaver Township farmers. He was middle-aged, of medium height, slender, tight-wound, a bit stooped, and unhurried in his movements. His farm, on the low bench that skirted the north side of Beaver Valley, was one of the best in Decatur County, and his herd of nearly pure-blooded Hereford cattle was unquestionably the best.

George was waiting with a saddled horse, and I soon found that he was as unhurried and mild in speaking as in his actions. He had evidently talked with Bones since I had, and knew that I understood the purpose of what we were to do. His only comment about it was that we were lucky to have Bones as our banker, and that weeding the culls out of the herds would do the township as much good as spring dipping would do a lousy calf.

We started at the northeast corner of the township, working southward onto the high divide, for it was there rather than in the herds of the prosperous valley farmers that most of the poor stock was to be found. When we rode into a man’s place George visited with him a few minutes, then explained the reason for our call, saying that the value of any culled stock would be credited against his bank loan. No man objected to having his cattle and hogs culled, or to the value George placed on any animal. As each was weeded out I squirted it with a line of identification dye and entered it in a notebook for Bones, showing description, approximate weight, and the value George had placed on it.

There was no newspaper in Beaver Township, but none was needed, because we had a party-line telephone system and Effie Simons. Half a dozen one-to-four-party lines in Cedar Bluffs, and four rural lines—each serving from ten to fifteen ranches—covered the entire thirty-six square miles of the township. To hear all that was being said over a party line, anyone with a phone on it had only to take the receiver off the hook, so there were few private conversations. Life for the average western Kansas farmer’s wife was hard, lonely, and monotonous, and when she could spare half an hour from her work her sole means of entertainment was “listening in” on the party line.

Effie Simons—in her mid-forties, wife of the mail carrier on the high divide route, garrulous, gossipy, and ample in beam and bosom with a heart to match—operated the telephone switchboard from a little ten-by-fifteen-foot central office building in Cedar Bluffs. She was not only the telephone operator, but newscaster for the township, listened in on all conversations, and handled all local advertising by making “line calls.” The line-call signal was three rounds of four short rings, and at the sound of it every woman with a phone on the line dropped whatever she was doing to run and listen. Effie’s enthusiasm for the subject of each line call was always reflected in her voice, and the results were usually in direct ratio to the ardor of her sales pitch.

BOOK: Horse of a Different Color
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