An Old-timers Account of Youthful Experiences in Cow Country


When I was a boy in Llano County, Texas, horses occupied the important place in the scheme of things that automobiles now do. In the cow country we were entirely dependent on horses. A man had to be mounted to take his place among men.

Long before I worked out at $5.00 a month the money to buy my first pony, I used to watch a herd of wild mustangs that sometimes ranged not far from our ranch house. A mustang, I will explain to the new generation in the West, is any western wild horse. A bronco is any horse unbroken to bridle and saddle, and a cayuse is a Spanish pony. There must have been over one hundred animals in this herd, led by a big black stallion. I enjoyed getting as near as I could approach and watch them, dreaming that some day I might catch one. There were a hundred horses to be had just for the asking —and the catching. Every cowboy and rancher chased mustangs but few caught them. I have seen captured mustangs that had been run until they had lockjaw.

My mother had told me above all things to stay away from those wild horses, as I valued my skin and my life. But I loved to watch the old stallion throw his head in the air, sniff the breeze and dash off, tail hoisted and mane flying, while the rest of the herd followed as best they could. The old boy never got too busy grazing to scent danger; he was like a mother looking out for her brood.

The headquarters of this herd was over at Pack Saddle Mountain, a wild place covered with cedar brush, the retreat of outlaw horses, cattle and men. The mountain was so named from its resemblance to the shape of a pack saddle. It was the scene of the last Indian battle in that section, an account of which is found in Captain Dan Roberts's "Ranger and Sovereignty." In that direction the mustangs always headed when pressed by the cowboys. One day I was riding along near the crest of a knoll not far from home when I saw the mustang herd swinging by on the alert like a rabbit jumped up by the hounds. They were passing on the opposite slope from where I was, and so did not see me. I stopped and sat on my horse unobserved, staring at them with great longing. They were strung out over considerable length, the black stallion leading and a mare bringing up the rear, coaxing along a young colt that followed her with its awkward, angling stride. When I saw that colt coming, a big idea hit me all of a sudden. Jerking the rope off my saddle when the herd had all raced by, I spurred out from behind and roped the colt. It offered no resistance but at once fell in close beside the comforting presence of my horse. The mother ran on a little way, started back, whinnied a time or two, then raced on to overtake the other mustangs.

I cannot remember a greater thrill or a prouder moment in my life than when I led that colt home and told my mother where I had gotten it. To this day I can close my eyes and see her throw up her hands in despair at my story. She reminded me in positive words how often I had been told to stay away from those horses, said she would never see any peace again for worrying about my capers, and finally declared that I would be turned over to the mercy of my father. But what about colt? Would I be allowed to keep it? That was the subject uppermost in my mind. Mother set me at ease on that point. There was no undoing my mischief, we would have to keep the colt because there was nothing else to do with it.

We raised my mustang, feeding her by hand until she was old enough to graze. She seemed in no way different from our other horses until after she had her first colt. Then mother warned me one day that my mare seemed unusually restless, and the next day she disappeared. You must know that in Texas back in the seventies and eighties there were no fences, so that a stray animal could go as far as its inclination led. I hunted far and wide for my mustang and her colt, and had just about given up the search in bitter disappointment when I met a man who told me he had seen them about twenty-five miles away. My father and mother insisted that I give it up as a fool's errand, but I could not be satisfied till I had followed up this clue, as I was especially attached to my first horse. I did, after a lot of hard riding, come up with them, but it was all for nothing. I could no more catch them than I could have caught a coyote on foot, so hit the trail back home with a heavy heart at having to confess defeat.

The strange part of this tale is that some time later my mare came back, bringing her colt and seeming as civilized as ever. The call of the wild came to her again after her second foal, when she left as before and returned as before, taking both her offspring along. I kept her for many years but had to learn to shut her up after each foaling time.


In those days "going up the trail" was an experience that every man and boy was keen for. Our fathers had seen the first drive from Texas to the new Union Pacific country in Nebraska. "Going up the trail" meant driving a herd through to the north plains country and there selling or pasturing it. It meant making a journey like that of the settlers who took the Oregon trail. It meant hardships like those endured by an army on the march. Yes, it took good men to go up the trail.

Before we were sixteen Henry Smith and I used to talk about this experience. We often had notions and we thought they were ideas. One day Henry asked, "How'd you like to go up the trail next spring, Earnest?" "Fine, let's go." "All right we'll just go."

This manly decision reached, we had a little matter or two yet to arrange before it was exactly settled. First, we asked Rile Sharp, the drive foreman, if he would take us on his next trip. "Yes, I reckon I could use you boys if your folks will let you go," was his answer. Henry already had permission from his elder brother, with whom he lived. I induced Rile to talk to my father the first time they were together, and the great experience was arranged.

When the day came to leave for the North, Henry and I felt like heroes that had joined to go to war. We got our horses ready, put them with Rile's bunch and bade everyone a solemn farewell. As we rode away, Henry in a gush of enthusiasm said to me, "Ernest, I'm a' goin' to pat 'em on the back as long as they'll bawl."

Looking back from the last range of hills overlooking home, Henry remarked that he bet they would have lots of fun down there that summer.

We had not been out long before we discovered that our experience was not by any means to be all fun. We hit the trial all day, took our turn standing guard at night, and in case of stormy weather were all in the saddle, on watch. A stampede of two or three thousand head of cattle is something to be avoided at all costs.

The memory of that first watch comes back to me across the years. I don't think I was every sleeping sounder than when I was awakened that night by the man that I was to relieve. When I shook off my blanket and got to my feet I shivered a little from the shock, for the air was very crisp. Having been posted beforehand on what I was to do, I had picketed by horse close by. In a few minutes, and without any conversation I had taken up my beat around the herd.

The cattle were huddled close in the bedding ground, which had been selected the evening before by one of our cowpunchers who had ridden ahead of the herd and found a suitable place to throw them for the night. Nearly all of them were lying down, only here and there I could see a few standing. The moon was hanging low in the West and would soon go down. It must have been somewhere around two o'clock. I could perceive my partner riding slowly along on the other side, and I heard his unmelodious voice humming a song. Off a little distance in the other direction some night birds in a mesquite bush were singing.

At first I was cold. By the time I became warmed up I was lonesome. As I rode I sang snatches from Old Black Joe and Buffalo Girls, but the songs only made me homesick. Then I got to wondering what father would say if I went back home. The moon was out of sight now, and the outlines of the cows appeared indistinct in the gloom. I had no timepiece, which made the time seem to move slower. And I could not keep my thoughts in cheerful channels.

At length I observed more movement among the cows, then detected in the East streaks of light that indicated dawn was coming at last. Before long I heard the cook stirring, and then the odor of frying bacon tickled my nostrils. It seemed that the boys were an unnecessarily long time at their breakfast. The early morning is the zero hour for a boy who is away from home and homesick. It is then his spirits and his courage reach the lowest ebb. And so I chafed and meditated till the rest of the men were in their saddles and I was told to go and get my grub, saddle my day horse and go to work. As though I was not already at work.

By the time my partner of the watch and myself had our breakfast over the chuck wagon was loaded, the mules hitched and the cook ready to go on to the noonday stop. In the meantime the other hands were getting the herd spread out on the trail. It was generally the custom to push the heard for the first few days out, in order to tire the cattle and make them easier to control. For that reason the beginning of the drive was the hardest part of it. Henry had expected to be made a pointer—to ride at the head of the herd and blaze the trail. Instead of that, Rile put him to covering the right wind, while my job was on the flank, keeping up the stragglers—a place where there was nothing else but work and more work.

On the drive the herd was drawn out for perhaps a mile or more, extending one or two hundreds yards in width. It was necessary, of course, that the cattle graze as they traveled, so that ana average days drive was only from ten to fifteen miles. When the weather was dry, the dust cloud raised by a large herd on the trail could be seen for twenty miles.

I didn't like the dust, but when it rained that was worse. About the third night out, when we bedded down the herd a cloud was rolling up in the West threatening rain and wind. Rile sent half of us to supper while the others held the herd. I was so tired and sleepy that a good bed would have looked better to me than much fine gold. But just as soon as we had bolted our supper we had to be up and about, untying our slickers and getting into them ready for the storm. Hard as it seemed to drag my weary bones back into the saddle, I was better off than the hands who had remained with the herd. We four had at least satisfied our hunger. By this time it was necessary for all hands to be on the job. The thunder was rolling in a constant mumble, and the lightning played ominously along the horns and backs of the restless, huddled animals. Darkness was falling —a bad hour for a storm because none of the cattle had yet lain down.

Raised up as I was in the cow country, I knew something of stampedes and the dread with which all cowmen regarded them. I had only been in the saddle a few minutes before I felt a rush of cold wind, followed by a few big, scattering rain drops. Then the rain come, sweeping over us in gusts so strong that I had to turn my back to it. I could hear the other hands shouting to each other, and saw through the dazzling play of lightning how the cattle were shying and seething. Rile had wisely placed me on the windward side of the herd. Most of the men were bunched on the other side where the break would most likely occur if the cows made a dash.

I have never felt a colder rain than that. It went through me as only an early spring rain in Texas can do. After about three-quarters of an hour the storm began to abate, but we stayed with the herd till ten o'clock before any of us turned in. When at last I desposed my frame on the cold, wet ground, I knew that one of my illusions was destroyed for good—the notion that going up the trail was one big lark.

During all this time Henry had been having the same kind of experience as I had. We had been kept so busy that there was little opportunity afforded us to converse with each other. The following forenoon, however, while we were easing the cattle along and allowing them to graze, I saw Henry sitting with one leg over his saddle horn in a dejected attitude, and rode over to where he was. There was far-away look in Henry's eyes that contrasted strongly with his eager expression a few days before when he had declared that he would pat them on the back as long as they bawled. I think I detected a suspicious moisture about his eyes as he solemnly said to me, "Ernest, let's go back home." Now, as may easily be imagined, I was not exactly in a happy frame of mind, myself, that morning. I needed sympathy, and so answered that of course if he wanted to go back I guessed I'd have to go along with him.

We rode on ahead to where we could see Rile Sharp, the foreman, and Henry told him of our doleful decision. Rile expressed no surprise; he must have anticipated some such action. He merely took out his check book and said to Henry, "Who will I make this check out to?" Then to me: "And how about you?" Our monetary consideration attended to, Rile told us to rope our other horses and be on our way. I'll always believe that he expected us to turn back, and so took along enough help to allow for the defection. Somehow I felt a bit disappointed that our service could be dispensed with so easily. But that was soon forgotten when we had turned our horses' heads toward home. Homesickness is easily cured; we had been given the only prescription.


Another experience of my boyhood is unforgettable. We were gathering cattle and someone brought the news that a San Saba outfit was rounding up a large herd in our neighborhood and driving it away with many Llano brands included. This was serious information. The San Saba County ranchers had a bad reputation in Llano County. They were considered in our section to be bad men—men whose habit was take what they wanted, when they wanted it. It was customary when an outfit was gathering cattle in another neighborhood than their own to permit a local man to cut the herd for local brands. These men were ignoring that custom.

Arch Martin, the captain of our round-up, at once asked for some of the other men to volunteer to go with him and cut the San Saba herd. No one volunteered. They all considered such a move dangerous, expecting that the San Saba men would resent Martin's proposal. When no one spoke up, I volunteered to go along, being anxious to get in on all the fun that was to be had. Though I was just a boy, Mr. Martin accepted my offer, and we set out immediately to intercept the San Saba drive while it was yet time to do so.

This man Arch Martin was one of those stout-hearted Texians who feared nothing on or under the earth. By the time we came up with the San Saba drive they were well along toward getting out of our section. Martin accosted the first cowpuncher riding the flank of the herd, and asked to be directed to the boss. We found him near the head of the herd. Martin told him in a courteous but direct manner that we had come to cut his herd and get all of our own brands. I had small notion at the time of what we were doing, but afterward heard men wonder that we got away with it.

"Well, if you want to cut the herd you'll have to do it on the go," was the answer Arch got. "You can cut 'em but we can't hold the herd for you."

This was after all more concession that Arch had expected, so he made the most of it. He told me to start cutting from the tail of the herd while he took the head. I went to the task with all the speed I could. The fact that although only a boy I knew all our brands was not unusual. Every boy knew the brands, just as nowadays every boy can tell a Chevrolet from a Hudson. The herd was strung out for a mile or so and traveling along at a good gait. As fast as I cut cows out I turned them back. I continued cutting out familiar brands over a stretch of several miles. At length Mr. Martin rode back and said that his horse was played out. Mine being in the same condition, we had to knock off and return home, although there were still, no doubt, many of our cattle in the herd. Cutting, you must know, is the hardest work that a cow pony ever has to do. When a hand is cutting he must change mounts about every two hours.


My second journey "Up the Trail" did not end as ingloriously as the first. On this occasion we took the trail to deliver a large herd to Southern Colorado. I was very young man then—about nineteen, I think—but my experience was sufficient that I had been pronounced a cow hand.

In the dry, almost desert country in New Mexico we got in a pinch for water. When we made camp on a certain night I saw that the drive boss was plainly worried. He called me over to where he was sitting by the fire and told me and one of the other hands that he wanted us to go ahead early next morning and find water. We could note the position of the north star and chart ourselves accordingly, he said.

Next morning, before the herd was thrown on the trail, we were on our way north, each of us well mounted and with a pack horse between us. We had not gotten far before I realized that my partner was a weak sister. He began to complain about this and that; his saddle galled him, he knew we would lose our way, and besides we didn't have a chance to find water in such a God forsaken country. By noon he wanted to turn back, and when late in the afternoon there was still no water in sight, he was in despair, nothing but a liability to me. Near dark we found a small water hole, almost dried up but enough for our horses, and there we camped for the night. It was a cloudy night. I could not tell by the stars how accurately I had steered our course. I was, of course, thoroughly disgusted with the weakling that was with me. Though he was much older than me, it was clear that if our mission was performed I would have to do it. I had been sent to find water and I had no intention of going back with out finding it..

When we resumed our search at dawn the next day, our course continued through a hot, dry, hilly country with nothing in sight to relieve the monotony of the landscape. As the hours slipped by I began to feel anxious. Toward the middle of the forenoon I heard a sound that made my heart beat faster. I told my companion that it could be nothing else in the world but a rooster crowing. Following the direction of this welcome sound we saw a wisp of smoke and came on a nester's hut and dug-out in the side of a small canyon. As we rode up, an old man came out, called off his dogs and told us to get down. He had a Winchester in his hands, and peered at us suspiciously through a hedge of whiskers that hid his eyes and mouth till they completely concealed all his facial expression. We were not slow in telling our business, being particular, incidentally, to disabuse the old man's mind of any notion that we had any connection with the law. I felt a great deal more comfortable when he set his rifle down and told us to water and feed our horses. There was well and pulley in the yard.

The old nester had bet the government $24 against one hundred and sixty acres of dry land that he could stay on it for three years, and was, he admitted, about ready to concede that the government had won the wager. He was one of those southwestern pioneers who had survived by dint of "diggin' for his water and climbing for his wood." His conversion was eloquent with reticence about his past. He knew were water was to be found. As we had thought, the Canadian River was near and he was willing to pilot us to it.

Leaving my useless partner at the dug-out, I went with the nester almost immediately to get the location of the river. Arrived there, he further volunteered to guide me back by the nearest route to our herd. Time was now important. The herd was two days' drive from the river at the closest point, with not enough water on the way to be worth considering. When we put this information before the drive boss, the boys were just hitting the trail on the morning of the third day from my departure on the search for water. The bedding ground the night before was by a small water hole that was now nothing but mud. All day we pushed the cattle with all the speed possible, dinner being eaten on the go. That night the herd was very restless, milling around and bawling till all hands had to be up at midnight to hold them.

At four o'clock the next morning we started the drive. About noon the thirsty leaders sniffed the water and broke into a trot. The herd soon became scattered our over a long stretch. No use trying to hold them together. The weaker animals and the calves trailed farther and farther behind, some dropping out entirely from exhaustion. The nester and I were at the head of the drive to point the herd, though they needed no pointing now. It was a scene of dust and noise and confusion. The larger steers and cows were running ahead and bawling, mouths open, slavering. It somewhat resembled a stampede, though the cattle were actuated, not by fear but by pressing, burning thirst. The leaders reached the water and plunged into its cooling current by three o'clock, while the tail enders were not all there by dark. Some never reached the goal, but left their hides and bones to mark their trail.

The end of the Colorado drive found the cowpunchers with their pay in their pockets, turned loose on their own. Mine was a free and easy life for a while. I had taken up with Olden Lovelace who had come along with our crew from Llano County. This Lovelace was full-grown man, a Texan altogether capable of taking care of himself at all times and in all company. We were wandering leisurely back toward home, about as free from care as two cowpunchers with plenty of health and some money can be. One morning we woke up in Carlsbad to discover that our combined financial resources amounted to something like seventy -five cents. Of course we had our saddle horse and pack horse between us. But they were not to be classed as resources. A horse in those days was a necessity.

We went into council. It would not do to go back home broke. We must make some money some way, so we went out to see what two improvident but ambitious punchers might run into. That was forty years ago. And I have not been in Carlsbad since, but I am sure I could go back there now and point out the corner where Olden and I were standing when two men approached and asked if we wanted to work. They were ranch men, not friendly or cordial looking by any means, but we could not afford to be particular. What they wanted was two men to break a bunch of horses for them. I had it on my tongue to decline with thanks any such a job as that, but Olden, who being older was a sort of stepmother to me, answered without hesitation, "Shore, we'll do it. When do we start?" You see Olden was a man of decision. He had no trouble deciding for two. We were told that our pay would start immediately at $30 a month, which was bout double the wages of a cow hand on the range. We would have to stick around a day or two till our employers were ready to go out to their ranch. And, what was of pressing concern to us, they took us over to a restaurant and gave orders that we were to be fed at their expense.

That restaurant still sticks in my memory. It had a dirt floor, a greasy counter and smoky walls. The keeper, who was cook and waiter as well, came paddling out from the kitchen barefoot. His cooking was an outrage, but we were not particular then. When I was young man on the range, to me food was food. I only rated it by quantity. After we had struck up an acquaintance with the old restaurant keeper we asked him about our new employers. His report was not reassuring. "All them men has got is lots of horses and a bad reputation," he told us. I was in favor of giving up such a dubious proposition but Olden wouldn't hear of it.

In a couple of days we were told by the ranchmen that they were ready to go. Their place was some fifteen or twenty miles from Carlsbad. What they expected of us was simply stated. They had something over one hundred head of unbroken horses that they wanted ridden at least twice each and marked so that they could be sold as animals broken to the saddle. Our instructions were, in brief, to ride 'em, cowboy. Having shown us what they wanted, the two ranchmen left us by ourselves at the ranch house.

Now Olden, being a resourceful young man, knew how we wanted to proceed. He informed me as though I had been his son, that I was not to get out of doing my share of the work. Here's the way we'll work it, he outlined to me. We'll corral a bunch of these horses and you can have first pick; you pick one out and I'll ride him. Then I'll choose one and you'll ride him. We will just make it turn about till they're all broke." I assented. There was nothing else to do.

The weeks that followed brought the hardest work that I ever did or expect to do. Those horses proved to be tough meat. Some days I was so bruised and sore I could hardly walk. I was thrown, kicked, dragged, bitten and walked on. None of them had ever felt a rope before, and they were as mean and dangerous as Comanches. But we rode them and I stuck to our fifty-fifty arrangement.

There was one big gray in the herd that towered over every other horse. We tried to maneuver him into the corral but he had always managed to get away from us. Finally, one day we got the gap closed on him, to Olden's great delight, for it was his turn to pick one for me. I regarded my task with consternation and misgiving, and suggested that we let the gray go. "Not on your life," was Olden's unrelenting response. "You rope that horse and ride him, just like I would if it was my turn." We got him roped and put a hackamore on him—that much was accomplished. Outside the corral where we did the riding some large rocks were laying, to which we were in the habit of anchoring our ropes to snub the horses down. The added advantage in this was that the rocks were movable. They were sufficiently heavy to hold a horse from running away but not so solid as to throw him with great force. The ropes we used were some forty feet or so in length. At my first opportunity I hitched my rope near its end to the most convenient rock. The gray made an impetuous dash, running twice the rope's length. When he came to the end of his slack the unexpected happened. The big gray turned a somersault in the air, came down on his back with a heavy thud, kicked convulsively once or twice, then lay quite still. He was stone dead. His neck broken by the fall. When we had examined him Olden and I looked at each other a minute or so without speaking a word. I confess my first sensation was one of vast relief. "Well, Olden, I broke him," was what I finally said. And his words were, "I'll be damned."

When we rode a bronc we clipped his forelock to mark him. But this was not the only sign of our mastery that were visible. The ropes generally marked them quite legibly for future buyers. And then we had no scruples about using our spurs when their civilizing influence was needed. One animal in particular, I remember, showed so much evidence of having matched his will against ours that one of our bosses was moved to ask as he looked the bronco over, "Boys, did that one kick very much when you skinned him?"

A brilliant idea occurred to us after we had endured a lot of violent pitching. We took the bronco out to a very stony hillside near the corral to ride them. There they would do very little pitching. The stones were too hard on their feet.

One or other of our employers came out every week or two to see how we were progressing. They nearly always asked us if we needed any money, and gave us some even though we told them we had no place to spend it. I was holding my own with Olden and he admitted it. But I was not willing to continue breaking horses indefinitely. There came a day when I told Olden that I was through. He could stay as long as he pleased but I was quitting. When I put it that way he at once announced that he would go with me.

When our employers came again we informed them of our decision. Since we had nearly finished the task anyway, they said little, only asked how much they owed us. I was bout to answer that we were already overpaid for our serviced when Olden named some figure, which they promptly paid. When we left to pursue our interrupted course in the direction of Llano we had money in our jeans again. The woes of the world weighed lightly on us.

Near the finish of this my first long journey from home, I came with Olden Lovelace into the old town of San Angelo. San Angelo in those days was one of the frontier places that Hollywood tries to reproduce on the screen for this generation. On the day that we rode into that thriving burg there was some special occasion afoot. The streets and places of business were full of cowpunchers in all conditions of inebriaty, enjoying a frolic. We quite naturally gravitated into one of the principal thirst-quenching emporiums that were the pride of San Angelo. It had a long bar, well-lined with thirsty, loud and bragging cowpunchers. The beer and other liquor being dispensed there had been hauled overland from Austin, at that time the nearest railway point.

We joined this group, quenched a long-standing thirst and amused ourselves observing the men about us. None of them carried guns, at least not visibly. The law against toting fire-arms was being enforced. It was a good-natured, peaceful bunch of men—that is until we were joined by a big, broad, important looking man who came into the saloon in a way to impress us that he was somebody . Passing down the bar by several spaces where there was plenty of room for him to be served, this worthy went down near the rear and deliberately and discourteously shouldered a small, unoffending man who stood there sipping his beer. He was plainly hard and wanted it to be known. The man to whom he had gone out of his way to be rude protested mildly against the indignity, only to get himself loudly and roundly cursed. There was nothing the little man could do about it. The matter had to rest right there. But the incident had interested Olden Lovelace. Olden was a stickler for fair play. He loved a contest but he wanted it to be well-matched.

"I think I'll go down and get acquainted with this gentlemen" he remarked to me. I tried to keep him from mixing in this affair, reminding him that we were strangers there and that this big fellow had the ear marks of a bad man—one it would be well to let alone. But Olden insisted he only desired to meet the gentlemen, and with that walked down to where he stood. With every courtesy he said, holding out his hand in friendly greeting, "My name is Lovelace." The stranger stared at him insolently for a minute, ignored the proffered hand and asked, "Well, what of it?" "Oh! I only wanted to be friendly and make your acquaintances," Olden answered. "I'm not making any more acquaintances," was the rejoinder. Something else was said. I saw the big man make some kind of a move toward Olden, and then Olden cut loose. There was plenty of action then for a few minutes. Olden went through the big man in whirlwind fashion. Through the tangle of flying fists I saw the gentlemen knocked down two or tree times, kicked in the seat of his pants, thrown through the door into the street and his hat tossed out after him. Yes, as I have intimated previously, Olden was very self-reliant, capable young man. His antagonist rose from the ground, felt to see if any bones were broken and then broke out in a stream of abuse, mixed with threats of the dire deeds he would do when he came back. Olden only told him to run along home—that he would be waiting. But we never saw the gentleman any more.

This introduction to San Angelo put Olden ace-high with the boys around the saloon. Cowmen as a rule have little use for one who would put any kind of indignity on a weaker man, and corresponding respect for one who asserts right against might. I shined in Olden's reflected glory. They all thought that since I was Olden's partner, I must be a plumb fighter like him. And I said nothing to disabuse their minds on that score. It's no business of mine to correct people's wrong notions.