By Royce Q. Holland © 1990
Issue: March, 1990
Editor's Note: The following story is longer than most stories we print in The Mountain Laurel, but it has it all - animals, Indians, wagon trains, good guys, bad guys - and Mr. Holland states that it is a true story his father told to him. We hope you will enjoy reading about his father's adventures with Old Lop-Ear. We think it will entertain adults and children alike.
I was the happiest kid in the whole world listening to my dad tell me stories of his freighting experiences in early Oklahoma Indian Territory. Dad and Uncle Albert owned a wagon freight line. They had 12 huge freight wagons, each pulled by a "six-up." That's six large Missouri mules. It took skill to drive them. When Dad was nine, Uncle Albert cut him in for a full partnership. Owners were called wagoners and the men they hired to drive them were called teamsters. All of them were very skilled with rifles and pistols.
The roads were very poor wagon roads meandering through the trees, rivers and canyons of early Oklahoma. Dad said the longest trips were to Fort Sill from Fort Smith, Arkansas. He said some of these long trips took five months there and back. The freight wagons were the eighteen wheeler trucks of their day.
Dad said that many of the long trips were uneventful but some of the trips cost them teamsters, mules and wagons. The dangers were white raiders, grass fires and flooded streams and rivers. The Indians were civilized and the most friendly people they met along the roads. The white renegades were the ones they had to look out for. They were very mean and heartless. Some of them had come to Oklahoma Indian Territory just ahead of a Sheriff's Posse for crimes they had committed in other states. There was very little Civil Law in the Indian Territory so the raiders roamed, at will, throughout the Indian Nations of Oklahoma Territory, stealing cattle, looting freight lines, looting Indian ranches and small settlements.
Belle Starr was a female outlaw and raider. She lived on a small farm on the Canadian River near Eufaula, Oklahoma. It was, at one time, called Younger's Bend. It was said that Jessie James and his brother Frank, along with many of their cousins, the Youngers spent much of their time at Belle's ranch. Belle was later shot in the back by a person or persons unknown.
One of the stories that Dad told will stick with me forever. I believe it is Dad's best story. They hauled mostly army supplies such as dried foods and cured meats - bacon, hams and jerky; also potatoes, coffee, flour, etc. This cargo was very attractive to the raiders.
Dad said in the early days before trains, they got a telegram from the Commandant of Fort Sill in far western Oklahoma. He wanted them to pick up a high-priority cargo of rifles, ammunition and small arms from Fort Gibson Landing and freight it to the soldiers at Fort Sill Oklahoma Indian Territory. This cargo only filled two wagons, but the bonus was so high that Uncle Albert and Dad could not afford to turn it down.
They left Fort Gibson Landing with the rifles, small arms and ammunition early one morning about two o'clock. This was not to attract so much attention. If it was known what they were hauling they would be in much more danger from the raiders. A group of mounted soldiers escorted them past the Old Texas Road. Uncle Albert was very uneasy about this trip because the cargo was so attractive to any raiders.
Since they only needed two wagons, Uncle Albert hired only two teamsters. This meant that they had only five persons to protect the cargo. That was Uncle Albert, Dad, the two teamsters and Old Reb.
Old Reb was a full blooded Cherokee Indian. They called him Reb because he always wore an old Rebel (Confederate) officer's hat. Dad said it was a rough hat, on top of shoulder length hair. Reb used it to dip water from the streams to water his mule. He always rode his mule. He used the hat for a pillow when he slept. He used it to swat flies off his mule. He used it for everything imaginable. Old Reb always went with Dad and Uncle Albert on their long hauls. He would not accept teamster's pay, but from time to time he would accept a present from Dad and Uncle Albert. They once bought him a genuine Jim Bowie knife. Reb wore it tucked behind his belt proudly. Nobody knew how old Reb was but Dad said sometimes he talked of the "long march" of the Cherokees from the southern states to the Oklahoma Indian Territory. He was referring to the "Trail of Tears", Dad said. And it was about 1834-38. Rare for a Cherokee in his time, Reb finished High School at the Mission School near Sallisaw, Oklahoma. Reb was a marksman and he knew the languages of all animals in the Territory. Reb loved Uncle Albert and Dad. He trusted very few white men.
After the squad of mounted soldiers turned back, they were on their own. Sometimes U.S. Marshalls would escort them passed a town or settlement along the way.
After about six weeks they were near the settlement of Tuttle, Oklahoma. This is where Uncle Albert always bought hay and oats for the freight mules and Old Reb's mule. About two days past the Old Chisholm Trail Crossing, one evening, about dark, they heard in the thicket beside the road the most awful noise of animals fighting. Af first they thought it was a pack of dogs fighting over a female dog, but Reb said it sounded like wolves fighting.
Uncle Albert, Dad and Reb ran into the woods to investigate. In a little clearing they saw about nine wolves fighting. They all were literally destroying a large wolf who was on the ground. Dad and Reb fired their pistols into the air and all the wolves dashed into the woods. There was one large one left on the ground. The long fangs of the other wolves had torn him to pieces. He was covered with deep gashes and he was bleeding terribly. His left ear was torn almost completely off. Old Reb drew his knife and clipped the small link of hide and the ear fell into the grass. After they examined the wolf, Uncle Albert stepped back drawing his side arm. "That wolf is dying. I'm going to shoot him and get him out of his misery".
Dad stepped between Uncle Albert and the wolf. "Please don't shoot him," Dad begged. "I will take care of him." Uncle Albert smiled and asked him, "How are you going to care for him? We are on the move." Dad begged so much that Uncle Albert turned to Reb. "Let Lee stay with the wolf tonight. The wolf will be dead by morning anyway."
Uncle Albert walked back to help the teamsters hobble the mules to water and graze, and to help set up the night camp. Old Reb sat with Dad and the wolf. Then Reb said to Dad, "You can let the wolf ride in the back of the second wagon under the tarpaulin. That cover will keep him warm at night."
Reb and Dad carried the wolf to wagon number two and laid him on a small pile of hay beneath the tarpaulin. Dad tried to spoon some venison broth between the wolf's clinched teeth, but very little was swallowed by the wolf.
Early the next morning Old Reb lassoed a range mother cow. She had a small calf by her side. Reb tied her to a tree and Dad helped him lay the cow on her side. Old Reb pig-tied her. Dad washed out a quart axle grease can and milked it full of fresh milk. Then he clipped the throngs and set the cow free. Dad was able to get about half the fresh milk down the wolf's throat. Dad pulled the tarpaulin down and said, "Rest well 'Lop-Ear.' I will see you tonight". Old Reb smiled, "That's a good name. The ear is surely lopped off."
"Why did the wolves all attack old Lop-Ear?" asked Dad. After a long time Old Reb answered, "It is the way of the wolves. The wound on his left paw is an old wound. I think old Lop-Ear was their leader. He became crippled and old. It was probably a large pack and many younger wolves wanted to lead the pack. Many times if a leader will not step down, as you say in government, they will kill the old leader. But if he can whip all of them he will still be the leader. Poor Lop-Ear lost this one," said Reb.
Day after day Dad managed to get food of some kind down Lop-Ear's throat. One morning Dad opened the tarpaulin and Old Lop-Ear was lying on his stomach with his front paws out front. His chin was resting on his front paws. He ate the food Dad placed on the hay in front of him.
Old Reb rode up beside Dad. "Remember he is a wild animal and soon he will go back to the wilds. I think he is getting much better," said Reb. "That's fine," said Dad, "At least he will be able to survive in the wilds."
The day of Lop-Ear's departure came much sooner than they thought. Dad raised the tarpaulin to feed and water Lop-Ear one morning and old Lop-Ear was standing up. He raised his lips and snarled at Dad, showing his long white fangs. Dad stepped back and he leaped over Dad and ran into the trees. He was still limping a little on his left paw.
Old Reb smiled, "I told you he is a wild thing and someday he will leave." Dad looked at the woods. "A fine thanks I got!" grumbled Dad, "and he never even said goodbye after all we did for him, too."
That same evening they heard a rustling of leaves in the thicket near their campfire. Reb smiled. "I think old Lop-Ear is back for more food," he said.
Dad ran to the chuck box and took a piece of fresh venison and threw it as far as he could into the timber where they heard the noise. There was the sound of something trotting over the dry leaves to where the fresh meat landed. After a second the footsteps retreated from the camp area. "Lop-Ear carried it to a quieter place to eat it," said Reb.
Every night they heard the footsteps on the leaves. Dad always threw out some kind of food. It was a piece of bacon or sometimes it was a large chunk of left over cornbread. Every night like clockwork they heard the sound of one animal and sometimes two.
One morning early Uncle Albert called to Dad. "Look at the edge of the clearing. Old Lop-Ear is back to say good morning." Reb spoke up, "And he has his new bride with him." Dad stood and watched old Lop-Ear and his mate disappear into the timber.
Reb explained to Dad that now that Lop-Ear has a mate, soon she will have a litter of puppies. Then as the puppies grow up, old Lop-Ear will have another pack to follow him. "That is the way of the wolves." said Reb.
Dad continued to put all food scraps from the wagon camp into the woods, weeds or grass beside the road as the freight wagons moved slowly west. Many times Dad and Reb would sit and listen to Lop-Ear and his mate pick up their food.
Dad and Reb listened many nights to the wolves howling, all around. "Why do wolves howl?" asked Dad. After a long pause Reb said, "My father who lived long, long ago, thought the howling was a mating call sometimes. And at other times he thought that certain type howling was a 'roll-call' from one pack to another pack. It tells the other packs that theirs is a big pack to stay out of their territory. Sometimes the howls tell something else. It tells that their pack is a small pack and there is room for others to join their pack."
Old Reb paused for a long time then said, "Many Indian explanations are laughed at by the whites, but I think the Indian tales are more right than wrong."
As the freight wagons moved west they were protected sometimes by U.S. Marshalls, but the settlements grew fewer and fewer as they entered the western plains of Indian Territory. The freight wagons were open to attack more and more as the towns thinned out.
Uncle Albert inventoried all weapons. He loaded all rifles and pistols and put them in place. The wide lonely stretches of the plains were very dangerous for the freighters.
While viewing their back trail one evening, Uncle Albert spotted six or seven strange riders following the wagons. The next morning Uncle Albert took Reb and Dad with him to the top of a small rise so they could study the followers with field glasses.
The party of riders were much closer. They all had heavy beards and their clothes showed signs of a long ride. They were all armed with each a rifle and pistol and some carried a side arm on each hip.
"Do you know any of them?" asked Uncle Albert as he handed Reb the glasses. Reb studied them a long time with the glasses. Then he said, "They are not cowboys nor are they drovers. The leader is a man called Bad Thad Thompson. He is the one carrying the extra belt of cartridges over his shoulder. He and his gang live looting small Indian ranches, freight wagons, and sometimes they loot a small settlement. They sometimes ride over into Kansas and rob banks and large stores. I think they are up to something bad for us. I spotted them following us several days ago. I think they will strike this evening. They are now close enough to tell that we are but a few guarding the wagons."
Uncle Albert frowned, "I too think it will be tonight after we have camped."
It was dusk when the raiders rode into their camp. There were seven of them. The leader had the extra cartridge bandolero over his shoulder. Dad and the others hid behind the wagons and Uncle Albert walked out a few steps to meet them. Dad and the others readied their weapons.
"Hello there Mr. Wagoner. What are we hauling today?" asked the leader. "My manifest is pre-sealed and is not for public record. It is for only the eyes of the Commandant of Fort Sill." answered Uncle Albert shortly.
The leader smiled, "Mr., we are all Commandants. We're going to lift those tarpaulins for ourselves. We don't need no stinking manifests." All his men laughed loudly.
Uncle Albert jacked a cartridge into the chamber of his repeating rifle. The raiders all fanned out ready to shoot. They all cocked their weapons. There was the sound of weapons being breached from behind the wagons as Dad, Reb and the two teamsters made ready for battle.
One raider spurred his horse forward. The horse shouldered Uncle Albert to the ground. But Uncle Albert caught the foot of the raider on his way down. He twisted his leg and dragged him from the saddle. They were both on the ground wrestling and struggling for a hold on each other's weapons.
Dad was very frightened. This was a grim situation. There wasn't any fort or settlement near enough to help them. The raiders were ready to shoot. Dad and the men could not shoot until Uncle Albert fell to the ground for fear of hitting Uncle Albert. The only way now was shoot it out.
Suddenly all trigger fingers froze. Unbelieving eyes all looked toward the thicket. Dad saw old Lop-Ear and his mate leap from the thicket, their eyes blazing, bristles up and their mouths open showing deadly white fangs. Old Lop-Ear made for the nearest mounted rider and locked his long fangs on to him. The horse bolted and dumped the rider to the ground. Lop-Ear's mate landed on top of the grounded raider, tearing his flesh and clothes with her long white fangs. The raiders all were trying to hold their mounts under control. Old Lop-Ear locked his teeth onto another raider before his horse bolted, throwing him to the ground. The raider turned and fled for the cover of the timber with old Lop-Ear's long fangs sunk into his hip. The raiders all lost complete control of their mounts in the face of this vicious attack by the wolves. Some men held on to the saddle while their horses bolted in a dead run. Others without mounts were running on foot to get into the woods to escape the wolves.
As suddenly as it all started, it all ended. Uncle Albert was on his knees shoving the barrel of his old Navy .36 into the Adam's apple of the raider. The raider was begging for his life.
All eyes turned to the thicket and saw old Lop-Ear and his mate trot stiff-legged into the middle of the battle area. Old Lop-Ear stood straight and scratched the earth with his right paw. He then shifted his weight and scratched the earth with each paw respectively. He then sniffed the new marks he had made. Then he trotted to a large weed growing in the edge of the battle ground. He lifted his hind leg and wet the weed down. He then trotted to another weed on the other side of the battle ground. He lifted his hind leg and wet it down. He turned and looked at his mate and they both trotted boldly into the thicket.
Dad looked at Reb, who was not prone to laughter, but he was holding his sides laughing.
Dad waited for Reb to calm down. "What in heck was old Lop-Ear doing scratching the ground and squirting on the weeds?" asked Dad.
Old Reb stopped laughing and said, "It is like when I write my name or as you say, signature on a contract. Old Lop-Ear put his signature on this spot. He's telling them to stay away from it. It is the same as the big bear who reaches as high on a tree as he can and leaves claw marks to tell other bears that 'I'm this tall and I say stay away from my ground.'"
Dad looked into the wrinkled face of the old Indian and remembered some things that Uncle Albert had told him. "Someday soon Old Reb will die and the people of Oklahoma will be so busy with their farming, building their industry and cities that they will forget to learn the language of the land and animals which, if not recorded somewhere, will all be buried with Old Reb and others like him." What a pity Dad thought.
They sat gazing into the camp fire. Old Reb was talking, but more to himself than to Dad. He looked at Dad and said, "After today none of us will ever die. My people like stories like this. When I tell them our story of the wolves who protected the freight wagons, it will be preserved in the Cherokee Legend, a legend that will live forever, among my people."
Uncle Albert shackled the raider to a wagon wheel. "You will have a chance to tell this to the Commandant at Fort Sill. This is U.S. Army goods you were trying to take. There is a sound law in the Territory about that," he said.
They were all seated on the ground eating supper, their tin plates on the ground beside them. Everyone was silent until Dad spoke up. "Why did old Lop-Ear come to help us?" he asked. All eyes turned to Uncle Albert. Uncle Albert pushed his plate aside. "I am a God believing man. And today I think we saw one of God's miracles. I cannot figure out any other answer." said Uncle Albert. He turned to Reb. "What do you think, Reb?"
Old Reb waited a long time to answer. "The Great Spirit is always present. But I do not see a Spirit working here. It was old Lop-Ear. He has no pack and for the last month we have protected him from the other wolves, cared for him, dressed his wounds and we fed him day after day. Then Lee put food out for him every day. We were protection and food to him. Why, unless you are a wolf? We passed all his tests to be part of his pack. He was only protecting part of his pack which was us. He heard the loud noises that told him that the raiders were enemies trying to hurt us. To him Albert and the raider were fighting like wolves on the ground. I don't think old Lop-Ear had to be a human to figure out who were the enemies of us, his pack, so he leaped into it. The mate always follows."
Uncle Albert's eyes opened wide with understanding. "Reb, that suits me. And I am glad I am part of old Lop-Ear's pack because you wouldn't believe how far I looked into his mouth when he sprang at that first raider." They all laughed.
When Dad finished the story he just gazed off into space. I think he was remembering the old days with Reb on the freight lines.
"How did old Reb die?" I asked. Dad waited a long time to answer. I thought he was going to cry. Then he turned to me and said, "Old Reb was on his way from Talequah, Oklahoma, the Cherokee Capital, to Fort Smith. He watered his mule at a small stream. Then he picketed his mule with a long tie rope so his mule could eat the lush grass beside the stream. Reb always took good care of his old mule. He then held the end of the rope and sat down leaning back against a large tree in the shade. When they found him he was still holding the end of the rope in death-set-hands. His old mule was standing patiently by. The marshal of Fort Smith told me that Old Reb sat down and just fell off to sleep."
Neither Dad nor I said another word for almost a half-hour.