On the Last Frontier

I

ALMOST as far back as I can remember, the frontier cast its spell over my imagination. When I was a lad of fourteen, my parents moved from Georgia, where I had been born, to Kansas City, Missouri, which at that time was a town of little more than 32,000 people on the outer fringe of civilization. It pleased me greatly to be so near the real West, of which I had read many exciting stories in the dime novels of the period. In 1874, John G. McCoy published his book, The Cattle Trade of the West and Southwest. It was not in any sense a literary classic, and its illustrations were woodcuts as crude as any ever printed, but to an adolescent boy it was a thrilling volume, for it gave a true picture of life on the prairies. From the day I read it I nursed but one ambition — a hope that some day I myself might have a chance to go out to the frontier.

The opportunity came early in 1878, when Dave Mastin purchased the old T-Heart Ranch in southeastern Colorado, on Carrizo Creek, a tributary of the Dry Cimarron in near-by New Mexico. One of his first moves was to buy several carloads of shorthorn bulls from the neighborhood of Smithville, Missouri. He agreed that I, together with Josh Proctor, my cousin, George Jones, and another boy of about our age, could go to the ranch with these bulls and remain there to try to become a cowboy at a wage of fifteen dollars a month. Being then barely seventeen years old, I was delirious with excitement, feeling that I was at last about to play a man’s part in the world. I had read of the big six-shooters that every self-respecting frontiersman carried in his belt, and determined to equip myself with one. Straining my purse to the limit, I bought a long-framed 41-calibre gun which seemed to me a young cannon. I had never before seen anything larger than a 38, and I intended to show the Westerners what a real gun was. Later, when I caught sight of their 44’s and 45’s, I decided that discretion was the better part of valor, and my gun was never flashed.

The bulls were loaded at the stockyards, and a space was boarded off in the end of one car for five ponies that were to go with us. Among them was my own pony, Buckskin, which I had used for riding to school. He had been raised on the prairies, and was now going back. Mr. Mastin took me aside and told me he wanted me to take charge of the cattle and see that they were safely landed at Las Animas, Colorado, where some cow hands from the ranch would meet us; we boys were then to help in the drive to the ranch, some eighty miles south of that place. He said he wanted me to realize the responsibility. I think he told the same story to each of the others, and certainly his little stratagem had its effect. Every time the train stopped we were out of the caboose with our prod poles to make sure none of the bulls got down.

It was understood that the stock would be unloaded at either Hutchinson or Nickerson, where the Santa Fe maintained yards for feeding and watering in transit. But before we reached Hutchinson the conductor informed us that the yards were undergoing repairs and that it would be impossible to unload there; something was also wrong at Nickerson. There was no use trying to communicate with Mastin — in those days telephones were unknown, and we realized he could do nothing anyway. The cattle, however, must soon have food and water, and we finally decided to stop off at Great Bend.

At that point there was no regular force to do anything, but we managed to get the cattle out of the cars and into the pens — only to find that the pens had no water in them. The Arkansas River was near by, but we were warned that it was full of quicksands which often swallowed up the stock that came there to drink. We went up to town and bought some heavy whips, hoping that we could keep the bulls from standing in one place long enough to bog down beyond recovery; but by this time they were maddened by thirst and, once out of the gates, they broke in a run for the water, where, in spite of all we could do, they stood belly deep until they had drunk their fill. I was in torture, feeling certain that we should lose some of them, but eventually they all floundered out and were easily penned up again, and we soon had plenty of hay for them. We were as hungry as the bulls, and I shall never forget the breakfast of ham and eggs, and then more ham and eggs, which we obtained at a shanty called ‘Traveler’s Rest.‘

All that day strange, rough-looking men sauntered over to the pens and lingered about; I knew later that they had merely come to look at the stock, but my lively imagination pictured them as cattle thieves such as I had read about, and I feared that when night fell they would settle down to business and make off with our bulls. Since there were no locks on the gates to the pens, I stood guard all night while my companions slept. I was weighed down with the sense of my responsibility, but nothing happened. A freight train was due to come through and pick us up at five-twenty in the morning, so about three o’clock I woke up the other boys and we got busy herding the cattle back into the cars. We had no time to spare, but were ready when the train arrived. I was worn out, and had little chance to rest in the crowded caboose.

II

We reached Las Animas, our destination, early on a certain Sunday morning. The sun was glorious in a clear sky, and as I stepped out and took my first deep breath of the pure, invigorating air of Colorado my whole body tingled with a sense of perfect well-being. Moreover, when I realized that it was Sunday and that I did not have to go to church either that day or any other so far as I could see into the future, I felt utterly free, the complete master of myself. This was a boy’s natural reaction against the excessively rigid control to which I had hitherto been subjected. For many years thereafter I had no opportunity to go to church even had I wanted to, for my subsequent life on the plains, and later in the mountains, was conditioned and limited by all the circumstances of that rough, frontier country. These circumstances were summed up in a ribald saying, current in those days: ‘No church beyond Great Bend — no God beyond Pueblo.’

Las Animas was near old Fort Bent, the first and most famous of the frontier forts, which by that time had been renamed Fort Lyon. This outpost was the spearhead of campaigns against the Indians, and it played a major part in the subjugation of the Cheyennes, the Arapahoes, and other tribes in that region. We arrived to find no sign of the cowboys from the T-Heart Ranch who were supposed to meet us. Communication was very slow in those days and the message had evidently been delayed in reaching them. We were told that there was good grass about two miles from town, as well as water ‘in the ditch,’ so we herded the bulls out there, holding them with the mounts we had brought along. Without going into details concerning the adventures and mishaps which followed this unexpected turn of events, suffice it to say that two days later four of the world’s softest tenderfeet struck out for the ranch eighty miles away, driving the bulls before them. The next morning, to our enormous relief, the cowboys from the ranch met us and took full charge.

Henceforth all was lovely. With the burden of responsibility lifted from our shoulders, we became boys again and enjoyed to the full every strange new scene and each trivial episode. The country abounded in game. There were many antelopes, as well as deer, bears, and mountain lions. The last buffalo seen in those parts had been killed the preceding fall — shot by John Darby from the door of the log cabin which was our ranch headquarters. On rising one morning, he looked out and saw a lone buffalo bull standing on the bank of Carrizo Creek, and dropped him in his tracks with a long rifle shot. Our curiosity was mightily aroused by his bones, which still remained. About the ranch, rattlesnakes, centipedes, and tarantulas were plentiful, but the cowboys seemed to fear them less than the skunks, every one of which was looked upon as a potential ‘hydrophobia skunk,’ whose bite results in rabies of the most virulent type. Few men were ever known to have been bitten, but all lived in perpetual dread that they might be.

Our food was of the coarsest, consisting chiefly of sowbelly, hot biscuits, and coffee, with an occasional taste of fresh beef when a calf was killed. There was also a keg of fermented ‘lick,’ the universal cowboy name for syrup. At rare intervals we had beans, and even less frequently potatoes. Strange as it may seem, no attempt was ever made to raise vegetables on the ranch, it being considered beneath the dignity of cowpunchers to wield a hoe. They would endure hardship without murmur and never quit on any job, however difficult, so long as they were mounted, but the moment they left the saddle they seemed to become suddenly and completely emasculated. Strange, too, was the fact that we had very little milk. Sometimes we would bring in some of the half-wild cows from the range and attempt to milk them, but it was hardly worth the effort. The hind legs of each cow had to be securely tied before she could be approached with a tin cup for a milking vessel, and then, after wrestling and fighting with her, one was lucky if he got as much as a pint of milk, for the cattle had no feed except range grass. This circumstance helps explain the wit of one wag who said of the plains country, ‘Out there they have more rivers and less water, more cows and less milk, you can look further and see less, than anywhere else on earth.’

III

In those days there were no fences on the plains, and cowmen cared little about the ownership of land — except that around water holes. Without fences to keep the herds separate, the only means of identification were the brands on the cattle. At that time the ranchers allowed their hands to run private brands of their own — a practice which was subject to vast abuse and was later stopped. For it was the common custom to regard a maverick (an animal without marks or brands) as the legitimate prize of the first man who roped it and put his own brand upon it — but he must already possess at least a few cattle of his own to justify the claim. Thus a cow hand who had, say, ten head of cattle in his own right felt no compunctions about appropriating a maverick, even though the presumption was strong that it had been dropped by one of the cows among the ranch owner’s thousands. There was a law on the books of Colorado saying that if a maverick was found in a round-up the foreman thereof should sell it to the highest bidder for the benefit of the county school fund, but no one had ever heard of such a sale taking place, and it was the deadest statute in existence.

The Far West always had more than its share of eccentrics. One reason for this was that there were so few people scattered throughout that vast territory. Human beings are gregarious animals, and when they are cut off from their fellow men for long stretches of time or are forced to endure the companionship of just a few familiars it is no wonder that many of them become a little ‘queer.’ The loneliest occupation I know anything about is sheep herding, which compels a man to remain in utter isolation for days and weeks on end. Not far from the T-Heart Ranch, as distances go in that part of the world, there was a sheep camp occupied by one man. He lived in a sort of cave under a projecting rock; it was more like an animal lair than a human habitation. At longspaced intervals he would ride over to the ranch just to hear the sound of a human voice, then return and ‘ den up ’ until his loneliness again became insupportable.

An eccentric of another kind was an outlaw of the Cimarron country who ‘got religion’ after running amuck for years. In his time he had rustled many a calf, but now he felt the call to preach and nothing would do but he must confess his sins. He began by going to an old man named Wilcox, telling him that at such and such a time he had made off with two of his steer calves. Of course he expected Wilcox to forgive him the debt and cheer him on his exalted way, but the old fellow said: ‘Well, Ferd, that year steer calves were worth about twenty dollars, so, counting interest, you owe me about fifty dollars.’ The newfledged evangelist paid up, but we heard of no more confessions.

Time meant nothing on the ranch; frequently we did not know what day of the week it was, and sometimes even the month was a matter of uncertainty. It made no difference. We lived in a little world of our own, so completely out of touch with any other that great events could take place without our knowledge. One summer day, for example, we were working cattle when, about mid-afternoon, peculiar shadows fell over the earth, continuing to deepen until we were left in total darkness. He who has never experienced a total eclipse of the sun without warning cannot understand the mingled feelings of awe and apprehension which the event may inspire. Even the cattle seemed to be affected. We started for the ranch house, but before we arrived the shadows had passed and the bright sunshine returned. We were so mystified, however, that we did not go back to work that day. I learned later that it was the eclipse of July 29, 1878, of which people in the cities and towns had doubtless been forewarned, even to the minute.

IV

The old Santa Fe Trail passed within about fifteen miles of the ranch, and it was clearly defined by a broad, winding strip of sunflowers, which for some reason had sprung up wherever the ground had been broken by wagon traffic. On one occasion I made a trip to town over the trail on horseback. I was quite alone, and it took me the greater part of two days. During the whole time I saw no other soul and no habitation except the old abandoned place at Shell Canyon, where there was an alkali water seep and where ‘Old Man’ Shell had been killed. I had intended to spend the night there, but abandoned places are more desolate than the bare prairies and I went on to Alkali Hole.

On the return trip I had an experience which came near proving serious. At the livery stable in town I had renewed acquaintance with a man named Williams who had once been at the ranch. He told me he had a bunch of horses to take down into New Mexico and suggested that I help him drive them along the trail, since he was going my way as far as Peeled Pine Canyon. It was such a lonely trip that I gladly agreed, so we drove the horses all day and made camp together that night. Next morning we separated, he cutting across country for the Cimarron region.

It was some time later when I learned that the horses had been stolen, and that Williams was trailed, caught, and hanged the day after we parted. Had the posse overtaken us a day earlier, I should probably have shared the same fate. In those days horse stealing was considered a greater crime than murder, and it is doubtful whether I could have convinced the outraged pursuers that my connection with Williams was purely accidental. There had been nothing about his actions to make me suspicious, and his possession of the horses seemed natural enough, since he was known throughout the ranch country as a horse trader. I doubt whether he himself realized the jeopardy he was putting me in.

Overhasty vigilantes had been known to make mistakes, for their tactics were to act first and ask questions afterward. I heard about one instance when they got the wrong man and discovered it before his body was quite cold. On such occasions etiquette required that the newly made widow be apprised of what had happened, with due explanations and apologies; so the posse rode up to the ranch house of their victim, and the spokesman, hat in hand, set matters right by saying, ‘Well, madam, the joke’s on us!’

I remained on the T-Heart Ranch until September 1878, when I was approaching my eighteenth birthday. During this period I had developed physically and had enjoyed life immensely, but I began to see that I could never hope to become rich on my wages of fifteen dollars a month. When word came out of the mountains to the westward that a second Leadville was developing in the San Juan country, where men were in great demand at three dollars and a half a day, I determined to go there — and did. I tried my hand at mining, and eventually bought and edited a newspaper, the Dolores News, in the boom town of Rico, Colorado. Later still I returned to Kansas City, where for many years I was associated with one of the large packing houses until, unexpectedly, a new opening sent me back to my first love — the cattle country.

V

It was in 1907 that E. P. and S. A. Swenson of New York, together with some associates, purchased the Spur Ranch in the southern Panhandle of Texas, and installed me as manager to take charge of it. The ranch comprised 673 square miles of land in one body, covering substantial parts of four counties — Dickens, Kent, Garza, and Crosby. On it ranged 25,000 head of cattle, with some sixty cowboys to work them and several hundred horses to mount the outfit.

The manager’s residence at ranch headquarters was a comfortable, onestory building called the ‘White House,’ constructed of lumber hauled from historic old Fort Griffin in 1884. Here I established myself in August, and was joined two months later by my wife.

My first job was to acquire firsthand knowledge of the land itself, and in general to acquaint myself with the cow outfits and with the details of ranch operation. I wanted also to meet the few settlers within our territory, as well as our neighbors along the approximately two hundred miles of boundary fence. Since there were few roads in those days, and no automobiles, all my rounds had to be made on horseback. It was a horseback job anyway.

The Spur Ranch, so named because the outline of a spur was its brand, lay partly on the Llano Estacado, or staked plains, but chiefly in the rolling country below ‘The Caprock,’ — generally known locally as ‘The Cap,’ — the precipitous dividing line between the plains and the breaks. It is a region of comparatively high altitudes, ranging from around 2000 feet at our southern line to about 2600 at the northern line. The climate runs to extremes in both directions. In summer the temperature may rise as high as 116 degrees, but since it is very dry there is no enervating effect, and heat prostrations and sunstrokes are absolutely unknown. Because of the altitude, the nights are cool. In winter, zero weather is not unusual, and I have known the mercury to fall to 17 below.

When we first went there, we were pretty effectually cut off from the rest of the world. It was about ninety miles to the nearest railroad. We had a telephone line of a sort, precariously attached to fence posts, mesquite trees, or anything that afforded a little elevation, and it was maintained in some fashion by each ranch between us and Seymour, more than one hundred miles away. To make a call over the line was always a gamble, with heavy odds against success. We could not ring straight through, but had to get help as we stepped along. First we had to call Dickens, a small town at the edge of the ranch, then Dickens would ring the Pitchforks, the Pitchforks would ring Guthrie, Guthrie would ring the Scab 8s, the Scab 8s would ring Benjamin, Benjamin would ring Seymour.

To complete the links in this chain was a great undertaking, often requiring hours, and once it was accomplished the chances were that we could neither hear nor make ourselves heard. Some wag has said that if you ring a number in a city you get nobody; in the country you ring a number and get everybody. So it was with us, and it helped tremendously. The hunger for bits of news or gossip was appeased whenever an opportunity presented itself, and at every phone along the line willing ears and voices relayed our messages stage by stage. Such was our method of communication under the most favorable circumstances. We could not use the telephone at all in wet weather, or even when there was a trace of moisture in the air. The lightest rain would ground the current somewhere at the thousands of contacts with damp fence posts.

VI

The management of the ranch was extremely interesting to me. It was like going back home. Range practices, I discovered, were unchanged; the round-ups, the roping, branding, earmarking, and castrating of cattle, were just the same as they had always been, and always will be. Cow hands, whatever else their disadvantages, are safe from the competition of machinery.

As I have said, we had some sixty cow hands to look after the ranch, and they were as fine a bunch of men as one could hope to know. The territory over which they ranged measured about forty miles from east to west between boundary fences; from north to south the distance was about twenty-five miles in the east pasture block and about eighteen in the west pasture block — making the total of 673 square miles. This figure always seemed to me to give a better idea of the extent of the ranch than to say that it comprised 437,000 acres.

To look after the affairs of this great cattle empire, most of the cowboys lived in the saddle by day and at night camped out under the stars wherever they happened to be. We also had eight permanent camps at which the few married men were stationed. Each of these had to live in the area assigned to him, where he was a sort of divisional overseer whose responsibility it was to keep informed of the conditions within his jurisdiction as to grass, water, fences, and so forth, and to report to headquarters any need for action. Matrimony was discouraged among the cowboys because domestic ties interfered seriously with range work. In fact, it was generally understood that marriage meant farewell to the pay roll of Spur Ranch. This was a little hard on Cupid, but it was best for the cows. Occasionally one of the boys would have a girl on the waiting list and would file with me a request for the first vacant camp job.

The real frontiersman — and the cowboys at Spur ran true to type — was naturally, and almost without exception, an illiterate man, brought up in a region where he had had no chance to attend school. But what he lacked in book learning was more than compensated for by his rugged, unspoiled nature. He was open, frank, fearless, and his very speech revealed the man, for he never hid his real meaning behind specious words.

There is no more characteristic picture of the early cattle life of the West before ranges were fenced than that of the line riders. They worked out from the permanent camps, and their job was to turn back drifting cattle in an effort to keep them on their own proper range. This called for great hardihood in winter when the bitter northers were blowing and the temperature might drop far below zero. In the sections where mesquite grew, the cattle would penetrate deep into the thickets and hardly kno the storm was raging. The protection of the thickets is of immense value at a time when range cattle are at their thinnest and weakest. But up in the plains section there is no mesquite. Here, as the cowboys say, ‘there is nothing except a barbed-wire fence to tangle the wind.’ Picture the line rider of the plains as he tries to hold back cattle that are drifting south under the resistless force of a norther. Half frozen, he turns into his lonely camp at the end of an exhausting day’s work, knowing that by morning his cattle, driven by the fierce blasts that are tattering his tepee-tent, will be miles below the line. But he has done what he could and shivers in his blankets until morning, when his work must be resumed.

Such a life would kill most men, but not these; instead, it has developed a hardy type of manhood unequaled anywhere. The Texas cattleman of the early days is now generally retired from his work with rope and spur, but you will find him still hugging the frontier, so far as its fast-vanishing lines will allow, with a fine home in some small but thriving town. He may be a banker or merchant in his chosen place, where he pridefully watches his children take advantage of the educational opportunities which were denied him. Often his name is cut in stone over the entrance to the best building in town. He does not seek the cities, or if he does he soon deserts them, for he must keep in touch with his old compadres of the range. Still wearing his broad-brimmed white hat, bronzed of skin, clear of eye, with muscles of steel, and rich red blood flowing through his veins, he keeps his youth till death overtakes him. Originally he may not have ‘known much but cow,’ and he probably spelled that with a k, but his strong native intelligence, matured by years of hardship amid the exigencies of frontier life, overbalanced his want of the superficial educational graces and made him the same dominant factor in the business affairs of the New West that he was on the range under the old conditions.

VII

When my wife joined me at the Spur Ranch, it was the first time in her life that she had been separated from our two sons, around whom her activities had hitherto centred. Her ever-present desire to be helping somebody now found new outlets in various ways among our cowboys, as well as among the few other people who lived in and around that great, undeveloped body of land. Her knowledge of medicine and first aid was considerable, and was often drawn upon when injuries or sickness afflicted our community. In emergencies she always found reserve strength to equal the need, and more than once her skill was responsible for saving a life.

Her splendid influence for good made itself universally felt at our first Christmas on the ranch. Usually Christmas on a cow ranch is just an occasion for slackening all restraints, an annual festival at which nearly everybody gets drunk. Before our coming, Spur Ranch had had a long, unbroken record of fidelity to this custom. There was little giving or receiving of presents, no exchange of good will except that represented by friendly invitations to ‘have another.’ As our first Christmas at Spur approached, my wife decided that she would try to inaugurate a more wholesome custom. To this end she enlisted the help of the cowboys in getting a fine tree out of the cedar breaks to serve as the rallying point for the festivities. The big commissary was cleared out and given over to the occasion. After the tree was set in place she took charge, allowing no one to enter except her helpers. From home she had brought with her a quantity of Christmas-tree decorations; they would have looked pretty anywhere, and were absolutely gorgeous in that remote spot. It was arranged that all the people from the home ranch and from the camps were to come in for the party, and gifts were provided for every cowboy as well as for all the children. Since cowboys are, at heart, just grown-up children, these preparations succeeded in exciting curiosity and the Christmas spirit to high pitch.

On Christmas Eve my wife was almost heartbroken to discover that the usual signs of liquor were beginning to appear. One of our top hands, who had probably never known a sober Christmas since childhood, was rapidly becoming ‘organized.’ He was a fine fellow, ordinarily very gentlemanly, and particularly fond of my wife. So she went to him and confided diplomatically that she noticed some of the boys were drinking, and if it continued it would spoil Christmas entirely. She told him she knew he could influence them more than anybody else, and she was going to depend on him to check the drinking. His devotion to her would never allow him, drunk or sober, to deny any request she made, so in his most courtly manner, though a bit thickly, he said, ‘Mrs. Jones, I’ll fix it. If any of the boys get too drunk, we just won’t let ’em go in.’

‘But, Dave,’ she remonstrated, ‘that is not the idea. I want you to see to it that they stay sober for my sake, so they can come and enjoy it. I am going to keep track, and if any boy is not there I’ll know he is drunk.’

This appeal to the old bellwether of the bottle did the trick. He not only stopped his own drinking, but worked so faithfully among the rest that every man was able to sit up and enjoy the biggest Christmas of his life. The dance which followed the distribution of gifts was free from the sordid drunkenness to which all had been accustomed on such occasions. One of the women said afterward, ’This is the first Christmas the Spur Ranch ever saw when every man was not drunk.’

My wife was especially successful in winning the affection of the old pioneers, both men and women. I have often thought that the average city woman would have been as cordially hated as she was loved, but my wife was always adaptable and her natural kindliness was her passport into the hearts of all sorts and conditions of men. She had been conspicuously kind and helpful to one young woman whose path through life had been peculiarly difficult. When this woman’s son lay seriously ill and in need of a delicate operation, my wife raised a fund to send him to Dallas, where the operation was successfully performed. Years later, when my wife died, I received innumerable expressions of sympathy, but none more touching than the following tribute from this mother. I quote from it because it illuminates the character of my wife better, perhaps, than anything I can add. It appeared in the Dickens County Times, a Spur newspaper, on August 27, 1931.

Mrs. C. A. Jones was a friend to the friendless. She did not care for praise. I can see her now, holding a tiny blue-eyed curly-headed baby boy — my own. My, how she loved children. Twelve years later that same baby lay bruised and helpless, and then she stood one day by his mother and with great tenderness said, ‘Minnie, God will lead us through, some way.’ And He did. Then the call she made from her friends and mine, and the boy was made well. What is love? ‘If I give all my goods to feed the poor and have not love — ’ she said. . . .

All of us have placed flowers at some time in our lives upon the graves of loved ones, with memories too rare to talk about. The flowers will wither, die, and crumble, and are gone. But the memory of Mrs. Jones will live in my life always. She loved, lifted, gave — and forgot the gift.

MINNIE LEWIS

(To be continued)