After a good deal of thought, Charlie Siringo decided to hang his sign on the new iron bridge spanning Bluff Creek. It would take a bit of doing; he’d need to link chains to the top of the bridge’s battlement and then run’em through a couple of holes he’d punch in the corners of the painted board that, to his great delight, had turned out “as pretty as a picture.” Sure, Kansas, he’d come to realize, had more than its fair share of weather; on a gusty day the oval- shaped sign would be flaying about. Nevertheless, Charlie was certain. This was the perfect spot.
He remembered that two years earlier—two years? It might as well have been in another lifetime—when he’d led the LX outfit and eight hundred fat steers up the Chisholm Trail, the sight of muddy Bluff Creek had filled the worn-out cowboys with excitement and anticipation. It had been a long, slow drive up from the Texas Panhandle during the uncommonly hot summer of 1882, day after day as dry as the piles of bleached chalk-white buffalo bones they saw scattered across the flat plains. Nights took their time coming, but the thin, cool evening whistling through the scrubland was a blessing—for a while. Once they crossed the Red River, the darkness brought new concerns. They were in Indian Territory. Most of the old chiefs had made their peace, but there was always the fear of half- starved Kiowa or Cherokee renegades swooping in from out of the thickening shadows to pick off cattle from the herd, or some ponies from the remuda, and, for good measure, lift a few fresh scalps. But Bluff Creek was the landmark that told the cowboys their ordeal was over. They were coming out of Indian Territory and heading up the end of the trail. Sporting girls, whiskey, and the railroad were only a short, hard ride away in Caldwell.
The Santa Fe Railroad had come to Caldwell, Kansas, in 1880, and now that there was a shipping point to the eastern markets days closer to the Texas ranches than either Wichita or Dodge City, Caldwell quickly became a hurrah cow town. The “Queen City of the Border” the cowboys called it. And once the LX outfit got near Bluff Creek, it was as if whoring and drinking and gambling was all anyone could think about. Around the campfire, there was a lot of hot talk about the rattling good time the boys were looking forward to at Mag Wood’s celebrated Red Light Saloon.
Charlie, too, had every intention of finding himself a bottle of whiskey and a sweetheart to share it. The way he saw it, after more than two dusty months driving a herd, a cowboy had earned himself a howling night. But he was also the trail boss; a leader had a duty to his men to impart a few words of commonsense restraint. Besides, at twenty-seven he was older and more experienced than most of the outfit. He had seen the trouble a fellow could ride into when coming off the range. So as they were heading up on Bluff Creek and the talk was getting pretty feverish, Charlie decided it’d be a good time to tell the hands about the scrape he had gotten into
in Dodge City.