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The Long Drive
A cowboy’s own story of his experiences on the trail from Texas to Chicago
April 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 3
Old Bushnell could not do much. He could not stand the run. We did not expect him to do much; he was too old a man. Bartlett and Fred, old soldiers, been through the war and all, could face bullets and Indians with any of them, but not them steers on a stampede. They would not do it.
There is nothing for anyone to do but ride, ride with them, keep still and ride; ride until you come up to the leader. That is where Gray Eagle came in. He would ride along beside the leader. The steers would follow. He would lead them around and around in a large circle first, then make it smaller and smaller. The steers would follow. He would lead and they wouldn’t know what they was following. They would run off a cliff or jump into a river if it happened to be in the path. They couldn’t stop anyway. The ones behind pushed them forward and rushed on.
The prairie was full of stray cattle that kept getting in with our herd. We spent a good deal of time cutting them out and stampeding them in another direction, only to find at night they had been following and had overtaken us. They called the unbranded cattle mavericks, and in spite of all we could do many followed our herd all the way.
We had camped several days during which time we had butchered some mavericks. (I learned early that no driver expected to eat his own cattle.) The pasture was good and our cattle filled up ready for the big drive to the Trinity River. The river was down and we expected to start the next morning, when it started raining again. All night long the rain poured down, the thunder rolled, and the sky was lighted with flashes. The cattle never lay down. They milled around and clashed horns, uneasy all night. Everybody was in the saddle, watching and singing to the cattle to keep them quiet. We didn’t suppose anyone could sleep anyway. We missed Fred and Bartlett, and in the morning the boys said, “Where the hell was you?” The funny part of it was that Bartlett and Fred, accustomed to sleeping during the roar of battle and noises of the Army, slept through it all. It poured down rain all that day. The second night Dick and I lay down on cradle rolls with water all around us. The next day it rained. We slept on dung hills to get out of the water. There was nothing dry to burn and no fire to cook with. What we had to eat for a week was honey and crackers. The water we drank came from a mudhole. The boys all got the blues.
Then one night, came what the Texas boys called a “norther.” The wind blew in from the north on our wet clothes and we almost froze to death. We put on our overcoats and could not keep warm then. Dick said he did not know it could be cold in hell. For two days and three nights we tried to get warm. Dick lay there one night; it was too cold to sleep. He said, “Perry, are you awake? Put your hand out.” There under his arm was a little kitten, all curled up asleep. We did not know where she came from; there had been no house in ten miles. Dick put her in the wagon in the morning with Fred, and he let her ride.
After the “norther” the weather warmed up and it began raining again. One of them rainy nights we had an awful stampede. I was asleep on the ground and I heard the revolvers signal they was off. I called to Bob, but Bob was right there. He came running up and stopped. He stopped barely long enough for me to get my foot in the stirrup and he was off. We didn’t have any time to lose. The steers came on fast, about on us. I wasn’t afraid they could overtake us—they couldn’t catch Bob if he could see—but it was so dark I couldn’t see my horse’s head before me. I wasn’t afraid Bob would stumble. He never stumbled in his life, but I thought of them holes in the prairie, made by little prairie animals, where a horse running in the dark and not being able to see, might step and fall. Bob knew! He knew just as well as I did that he was running for his life as well as mine. All of a sudden I felt Bob halt—halt for just a fraction of a second and gather himself for a jump. I knew it was a jump and a big one; I was ready in the stirrup. He sprang into the air and it seemed we was off the ground two minutes. I wondered what it was and if there was any ground at all. I thought it must be a wide gulch. Then his front feet caught the ground, but I felt his back feet miss and go down. My foot in the stirrup caught the ground. I was off the saddle, pulling on it and lifting Bob with all my might. How he fought! He made it. He hesitated just an instant for me to get my foot in the stirrup, and he was off. The first cattle went into the gulch, and the others over them and on. I could feel their breath. After quite a run, the cattle scattered and we stopped.
The next morning the boys went back to gather up the cattle and found, in what they called a “wash,” fifteen head of cattle that fell in and broke their necks, or did not get out of the way of the ones coming behind. I never saw it. Dick did. When he come back he sat down and looked at me. I said, “What’s up?”
He said, “Perry, how the devil did you jump that gulch? You and Bob must have jumped at least thirty feet. There is not a spot where you could have got over less than thirty feet.”
I knew it. There was not a horse in the herd that could have jumped it; not a horse anywhere unless trained especially.
We waited near the river. Bushnell went ahead scouting and came back one afternoon with the news that the Trinity was down enough to cross. We had a clear evening. Old Fred killed a beef and got the first meal in a week. A little pig joined up with the herd. He was about the size of our kitten. I don’t know where he come from—there was not a house around for miles.