Well Pard let’s roll out of our bedroll afore the sun cracks the horizon and start our day! Just maybe the ole cook has the coffee ready and maybe we can pour ourselves a cup in a old tin can with out getting too many grounds in it. Of course you might have to pick some coffee grounds out of you teeth with a whittled stick. Most likely they ain’t no eggs out here so we’ll make do with maybe salt pork and mush for breakfast. Then we’ll lasso a bronco out of the Ramada, and try to slap our saddle on his ornery back. This here is just another day on the trail on the way to market 1,500 miles away. There is most likely twelve of us hands on this drive not counting the cook and the hoss wrangler. Us cowboys are a superstitious lot and consider thirteen a unlucky number. Oh by the way you don’t really call us cowboys we are Hands. And never call us a cowpoke, a cowpoke is the fella who works at the loading pens. And he pokes the stock in to the cars with long poles.
Back to the hoss’es, each of us has a string of five we have had assigned to us before the drive starts. The Trail boss got first pick then each man in turn by seniority or ability gets next choice until each man had had a turn then it starts over until each has picked his string of five. Now you never ride another mans horse with out his permission, that’s just the way it is. Now the wrangler is the fellow who take care of the horse heard and is considered a lesser hand by the other guys of the crew. Although his job is a important one indeed. He not only handles the herd but cares for their other needs, such as saddle sores and strains and the shoeing as needed. Now adding a few spares and a few draft horses for the wagons this is a herd of well over seventy. Why so many? For every mile that a cow will travel in a days time the Hand on his horse will cover three to five, with the work of keeping the body of animals moving and in line. A horse would wear out in a few day of constant use and loose too much weight to be of any use so they are switched every day and allowed a few days comparative rest before being worked again, For this work the wrangler is the lowest on the pay scale of the crew.
The Trail Boss is the guy in charge of the drive his word is law and indisputable. He is the highest paid of the group. He could be the owner of the herd but is usually employed for his knowledge, skill and experience on previous drives. It is his job to get the herd to market. He chooses the route and speed and stopping places. He has to know where the grazing lands are and where there is water and where the many rivers can be forded. He also has to be able to control the rowdy spirits and the conflicts that will arise between bored and weary young men on the drive.
The second highest wage is paid to the cook. Surprising as it may seem, this in not the cantankerous old cot as been seen in the movies. This is a skilled horse handler of a team of hard working draft horses. He will care for his own team unless he is fortunate enough to have a assistant to help him. He has to have the ability to cook over open fires and gather his own water and fuel for the fire, Also You do not see it in the movies but there most likely is a second supply wagon with extra supplies and bedrolls for the hands. A bedroll consists of a large canvass ground sheet that can be wrapped over the blankets for extra protecton ( tents were not provided) and when rolled up in a bulky bundle to large to carry on the back of a working horse. Extra weapons and ammo will be carried in the wagons. A rifle on a working horse would be in the way. As would the popular low slung pistol seen in the movies. Beans, flower and rice are the staples carried with what ever spices and seasonings the cook adds to his start up staples. Supplies along the way are going to be rare to nonexistent. A good cook will ensure a better crew enlistment.
Once the drive is started for the day the Trail Boss will lead the way with perhaps a Scout sent on ahead. On each side will be the Point riders who keep the narrow head of the herd in line. further back will come the Swing riders on each side where the herd starts to widen out. Then the Flank Riders at the widest point of the herd. All of these riders will drive any individual or groups of cattle who try to break away from the herd back in to line, This is where the poor horses get so much work out during a days work. Finally in the rear are The Drag Riders these guys get all the dust and have the responsibility of keeping the lazy and tired and just plain ornery quitters moving. These are the lowest paid of the hands and are the newest, usually the youngest and least experienced of the hands.
All these guys will work from early light to just before dark at this dangerious work. After a few week the herd will become acustomed to the routine and settle down somewhat, but the unexpected is always on the verge of happening. The herd will move at a steady pace but not so fast that the weight will be wore off them. After all a skinny cow does not fetch the price of one with meat on them. The Long Horn Cow was not prized for its meat, it was stringy and tough but at the time that was what was available to the meat starved east.
The dangers of the trail were many. the most feared was the stampede, where the cattle would start on a panicked run often with no apparent cause. Lightning, heavy-wind, a loud noise or anything to start them off. The entire herd could scatter over vast areas with many injured or permanently lost, and many hours or days need to round them up. the standard practice was to try to race along one side of the herd and try to turn the head around into a circle where the head would eventually mingle with the body and stall the head long rush and stop it. Many men were lost in stampedes and trampled and hurt or killed. Other than accident involving horses or cattle the most common death to the cowboy was phenomena. Sleeping on the ground in damp or down right wet weather contributed to more deaths than any other single factor. Most cowboys also eventually got rheumatism at some point in their life also. As glamorous as the movies and books make it seem the life of a ranch hand was a difficult and hard life, but one it seems these hardy guys could not abandon. We like to think the cowboy is unique to our culture but they exist in Mexico , South America and even Australia. Maybe each is unique in their own way but the job is just as hard and the individual just as hardy as our our guys.
Salute to you all YEEHA!!
Here agin I will mention two of the best trail drive movies I have seen. “Red River” with John Wayne (he got the part because Jimmy Stewart thought the lead was too dark for him, John Wayne jumped at the chance in a minute). And the one with Clark Gable ” The Tall Men”. Both showed many aspects of the cattle drive including the extra wagons and large horse herds. Of course these are stories of the people but by and large the drive parts were quite good. Also in regard to the horse herd, it was sold at the end of the drive also, and a new one assembled the next time.
Maybe next time I’ll talk a little more about their equipment and other duties like roundup and bronc busting. Until Later–