All We Need’s More Rain
Where were we on this cattle drive business? Several of you emailed me about Abilene, Texas. That was typo, not actually in my original script. Abilene, Kan., was Joe McCoys’ shipping point on the Chisholm Trail. Several years later when they incorporated Abilene, Texas, the good memories of Abilene, Kan., and all its economic effects from the cattle shipping point led them to choose that name.
People said those cowboys shot so many holes in the sky, it was daylight in Abilene, Kan., at midnight. But of all the things that contributed to the death of cowboys, pneumonia was first, drowning in rivers, horse wrecks in stampedes, food poisoning, gyp water. Actually dying from gunshot wounds came in last.
Charlie Goodnight who’d been a Texas Ranger and recovered Cynthia Parker was given credit for inventing the chuck wagon—the first RV. He also would allow no fighting, no gambling and no drinking while in his employment. He once fired his best ranch foremen for playing cards in town.
The average size herd was 2,000 head of two and three-year-old steers. Cows were later sent north to stock the northern ranges. In such drives new born calves had to be killed each day or the cows would not leave them. They traveled ten to fifteen miles a day then let the cattle graze so they didn’t lose weight.
It required 15 cowboys, 80 to 100 horses in a remuda, a horse wrangler, a cook and boy to help him. All the horses they took were geldings. Mares were for having colts and considered undependable on such a drive. Most were never shod. Goodnight and others had a bell steer that the cattle would follow. Highly prized, he would lead the herd into raging rivers headed for the far side. At night his clabber was silenced with rags. One night when a bad storm was coming, Charlie ordered his men to un-stuff the clapper and get old Blue up. They set out with the cattle across the prairie. Goodnight felt that on the move like that they would not stampede. He proved himself right.
Two thousand cattle stretched out for miles and had to be brought into water so the first weren’t shoved out in the river by the back ones. Two swing riders controlled this. If they moved in close on each side of the herd, they went faster. Everyone drew a shift during the night riding around the herd keeping them calm.
Stampedes in the night meant everyone had to chase the herd until they could be circled and bunched. This took a heavy toll on the hands. Many reported night after night stampedes, one such outfit told the boss two steers were the main problem. He mounted his horse and went down and shot both of them. They had no more stampedes.
Cowboys could tell time at night by the North Star and dipper. You can find that explanation in the Time-Life book on Cowboys. On cloudy nights, the cook had an alarm clock he set for the shift changes. And every night up on those endless rolling plains, the cook pointed the wagon tongue at that old North Star in case it was foggy or cloudy in the morning.
Cooks were the outfit’s doctor. He had some medicines and usually knew how to cure most ailments and could set broken bones. He was usually an older man who’d made some previous drives and was unfit for the long days in the saddle. You never rode into his camp with the wind at your back and brought a cloud of dust with you. He was a dutch oven cook deluxe. One outfit went on strike down in southern Oklahoma over a sorry cook and the boss fired him.
It took six weeks to drive a herd from San Antonio to the Red River, four weeks to cross what is now Oklahoma and another two to three weeks to reach Abilene, Kan. So if you left south Texas when the new grass popped up in mid-March, you arrived there about the Fourth of July give or take a little.
Many times when the herd was sold, so were the horses. And any cowboy without a horse of his own had to ride back in the chuck wagon. They earned about $30 a month. Black, white or Hispanic they were mostly teenage boys looking for adventure. After three months in the saddle, fighting Indians and rustlers, packing guns they weren’t to be reckoned with.
An Indian chief confronted Charlie Goodnight just across the Red River. His word for cattle was wahoos.
“Me want ten wahoos to cross my land.”
Charlie rather matter of factly said, “I have three limbers I’ll give you.”
“No,” the chief said. “Me want ten wahoos or I bring my warriors.”
“You better bring a shovel when you come.”
"My cook broke the handle out of our shovel and I’ll need one to bury you.”
“Me take three wahoos.”
Herds were stolen. Cowboys murdered. It was not easy nor was it a place for the faint of heart, but it was an exciting time in our history when millions of head of cattle were driven north. Because of the choice of Abilene, Kan., and the direct line to Chicago. Chicago instead of St. Louis or Kansas City became butcher shop of America.
Western novelist Dusty Richards and his wife Pat live on Beaver Lake in northwest Arkansas. For more information about his books, call1-866-532-1960 or email him at email@example.com.