There is a peculiar fascination in the wild life of the cow-boys which tempts many young men of culture and refinement, reared in the enjoyment of every luxury in the East, but of adventurous dispositions, to come and live with these rude spirits on the frontier.
Often for thirty-six hours continuously in the saddle, the hardships of their lot are apparent. Cold black coffee, without sugar, drunk whenever the opportunity offers, is the sole luxury of the cow-boy. With a piece of bread in one hand and some jerked beef in the other, he will ride around a stampeded herd, eating as he goes, and as happy as a king on his throne. When night comes, provided his cattle are quiet, he will tie his horse to his leg, and, “covered with his hat,” with a hummock of grass for his pillow, will sleep peacefully on the broad prairie, and dream perchance of his sweetheart far back in “God’s country.”
Perhaps his dreams will be rudely disturbed by the thunder of a thousand hoofs, as his cattle, becoming frightened at some noise, have stampeded, and the grass fairly pops beneath their cloven feet. Then it is he does his tallest riding, and, circling around his cows, brings them back to where they started. If a wild bull becomes obstreperous and unruly, a rider dashes past him, and, seizing his tail as he goes by, gives it a twist around the horn of his saddle, and in a trice the bull is fairly slung heels over head on his back. Two or three applications of this discipline will generally reduce the stiffening in a bull’s tail to a minimum and render him as docile as a calf. An expert cow-boy can rope, throw down, and tie up a cow in just one minute from the time he rides up to her.
But a man knows nothing of “punching the heifers” who has not been through on the “trail” to Kansas. Going for days together without eating, never out of the saddle, mounting a fresh horse as fast as one is broken down, the limit of endurance is reached, and one who has stood the test, and can boast of having “busted the Indian Nation square open,” attains respect in the cow-boy’s eyes, and is considered to have taken his degree.
In 1874 the largest drive to Kansas ever recorded took place, when half a million beeves were driven through. The trail was beaten into a broad path a mile wide and extending fifteen hundred miles in length. For miles and miles the string of lowing herds stretched along, while the keen riders darted hither and thither, keeping them well on the trail. At night the voices of the men singing to their sleeping cattle could be heard all along the line, while the long string of camp-fires, throwing their lurid glare against the black vault overhead, called back to the minds of many old gray-bearded cow-boys the stormy times when similar lines of light glimmered along the Rappahannock, and pierced the murky gloom of some Virginia night. Sometimes the music of a violin, sounding strangely shrill in the calm night air, would mingle with the deep tones of voices singing “The Maid of Monterey,” or “Shamus O’Brien,” the cow-boy’s favorite tunes.
In passing through the Indian Nation it is no uncommon thing for a band of Indians, all painted and varnished up, to ride down on a beef-herd, and, singling out the finest cattle in the bunch, compel the white owners of the stock to cut them out in a separate flock, when the Indians will gather around them and run them off. Some years ago a party of five Indians came riding down on a herd which was resting on the banks of a small creek, and demanded of the boss herdsman ten of the fattest steers he had. The boss was a bold man, and, looking around on his fifteen stalwart cow-boys, swore that no five Indians should take his beeves from him, and, using the polite phraseology of the Plains, told his redskin visitors to “go to hell.” The baffled five retired into the forest, but soon returned with an increased force of fifty men, who charged down on the defiant herdsman, whom they nearly beat to death with his own ramrod, stampeded his cattle, and ran off two hundred of them into the woods.
It is a wild, rough set of men that camp around the herds after they have been driven through the Nation and are resting on the grassy plains of Kansas. Clad in the soiled and dusty jeans of the trail, for weeks in succession no water has touched their hands or faces, and, unshaven and unshorn, they give free rein to their exuberant spirits, taking some quiet Kansas village by storm, setting the tame local laws at defiance, and compelling the authorities to acknowledge the sovereignty of their native State.
The wages earned by these cow-boys are twenty-five dollars a month while they are herding on Texan ranges; but, as the toil and hardship encountered on the trail are so great, they are paid thirty-five dollars a month during the drive, and each man furnished with eight ponies to ride. Some of them return home by rail, visiting the cities of St. Louis and New Orleans, and managing to be despoiled of all their hard-earned money during their brief sojourn in “God’s country;” but the greater number straddle their wiry little ponies and ride back through the Nation to Texas.
Not every one that started out to go up the trail lives to get back, and the nameless mounds that dot the sides of that broad path bear mute but powerful testimony to the danger that every hour surrounds the cow-boy. Whether they fall by a shot from some hostile savage lurking in a ravine near by, or are dropped by a six-shooter in the hands of a fellow-herder, they are hastily buried and soon forgotten. Entirely free from the restraining power of the law, men give free rein to their passions, and the six-shooter or Winchester rifle—the inseparable companions of the stock-drivers—is freely resorted to to settle disputed questions. It is very common for two bosses having charge of different herds to jump down from their horses and proceed to crack away at each other until one has bitten the dust.
When a violent storm, accompanied by thunder and lightning, stampedes the cattle, they will probably get mixed up with two or three other herds, and much labor and confusion results, and a considerable amount of tall swearing and fighting takes place before they can be separated and each herd gotten to itself. Every animal, besides the regular brand of the owner, has his tail bobbed and a “road-mark” put upon him during the drive, and in a mixed herd the rider goes in and “cuts out” all the cattle that bear his brand and runs them into a separate flock.
When cattle are sleeping it requires very little to stampede them. A loud breath, the clank of a chain tied to the leg of a wagon-mule, or the galloping of a horse will sometimes cause them to be up and gone in the twinkling of an eye. They will run over whatever is in their path, and the only way to stop them is to get them to “milling,” or travelling in a circle, when they will wind themselves up like a ball and stop. It is instinctive with them to run when anything else is running, and away they go at the slightest noise, with the cow-boys in wild pursuit after them.
Living on Stinking Creek, in the Indian Territory, just off the great trail, is an Irishman named Fitzpatrick, who came to this country not many years ago, a common specimen of the bog-trotting Tipperary Paddy. Floating on the tide of emigration westward, he finally went into the Indian Nation, and, building a cabin in the timber where the trail crossed Stinking Creek, he proceeded to gather up the cattle that dropped from the great herds going through or were lost in some big stampede. His business throve, and in time he married a Choctaw wife and went to housekeeping, and to day he is the owner of many thousand beeves, and is regarded as a rising stock-man. He still collects the stampeded cattle in the creek timber,—a striking example of the strange ways in which men become rich. More than one big stock-man in Texas began his career by branding the mavericks, or wild unbranded and unclaimed heifers, found in the river timber. As an instance of the manner in which they worked up a herd, it is related of a successful stock-man that he started with a solitary steer, which he turned loose on the prairie, and the first year he branded forty calves!…
It was with a feeling of sincere regret that the writer of these lines, meeting with a severe accident, prepared to return to where his home nestled in the Alleghanies, after a sojourn of eighteen months with these wild riders of the plains. Lest the impression be conveyed that these are irreligious and godless men, let the reader fancy a group of men, belted and spurred, seated in a rude arbor, listening reverently to a tall cow-boy who has been selected by unanimous choice to read the Scriptures, and he can form an idea of the last Sunday I spent with the cow-boys. With slow and deliberate utterance, Phil Claiborne read out the words of the golden rule, “As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.” Then he proceeded: “These, my hearers, were the words of the Lord Jesus Christ, who spoke as no man ever spoke; and I pledge you my word, gentlemen, the Bible is a good egg.” Profound attention greeted the speaker, and continuing, he said, “Whatsoever is earthly can be soon replaced, but that which is on yon side of the grave is eternal. If you lose your property, you may acquire more; if you lose your wife, you may marry again; if you lose your children, you may have more; but if you lose your immortal soul, then up the spout you go.”