It was to be a three hundred yard race, with an ask and answer start between the riders. Stallings and the old man stepped off the course parallel with the river, and laid a rope on the ground to mark the start and the finish. The sun had already set and twilight was deepening when the old man signaled to his boy in the distance to bring up the mare. Wheat was slowly walking the brown horse over the course, when the boy came up, cantering the mare, blanketed with an old government blanket, over the imaginary track also. These preliminaries thrilled us like the tuning of a fiddle for a dance. Stallings and the old homesteader went out to the starting point to give the riders the terms of the race, while the remainder of us congregated at the finish. It was getting dusk when the blanket was stripped from the mare and the riders began jockeying for a start. In that twilight stillness we could hear the question, “Are you ready?” and the answer “No,” as the two jockeys came up to the starting rope. But finally there was an affirmative answer, and the two horses were coming through like arrows in their flight. My heart stood still for the time being, and when the bay mare crossed the rope at the outcome an easy winner, I was speechless. Such a crestfallen-looking lot of men as we were would be hard to conceive. We had been beaten, and not only felt it but looked it. Flood brought us to our senses by calling our attention to the approaching darkness, and setting off in a gallop toward the herd. The rest of us trailed along silently after him in threes and fours. After the herd had been bedded and we had gone in to the wagon my spirits were slightly lightened at the sight of the two arch conspirators, Stallings and Quarternight, meekly riding in bareback. I enjoyed the laughter of The Rebel and McCann at their plight; but when my bunkie noticed my six-shooter missing, and I admitted having bet it, he turned the laugh on me.
“That’s right, son,” he said; “don’t you take anybody’s advice. You’re young yet, but you’ll learn. And when you learn it for yourself, you’ll remember it that much better.”
That night when we were on guard together, I eased my conscience by making a clean breast of the whole affair to my bunkie, which resulted in his loaning me ten dollars with which to redeem, my six-shooter in the morning. But the other boys, with the exception of Officer, had no banker to call on as we had, and when Quarternight and Stallings asked the foreman what they were to do for saddles, the latter suggested that one of them could use the cook’s, while the other could take it bareback or ride in the wagon. But the Montana man interceded in their behalf, and Flood finally gave in and advanced them enough to redeem their saddles. Our foreman had no great amount of money with him, but McCann and the horse buyer came to the rescue for what they had, and the guns were redeemed; not that they were needed, but we would have been so lonesome without them. I had worn one so long I didn’t trim well without it, but toppled forward and couldn’t maintain my balance. But the most cruel exposure of the whole affair occurred when Nat Straw, riding in ahead of his herd, overtook us one day out from Ogalalla.