By Andy Adams in 1906
The evening before the Cherokee Strip was thrown open for settlement, a number of old-timers met in the little town of Hennessey, Oklahoma.
On the next day, the Strip would pass from us and our employers, the cowmen. Some of the boys had spent from five to fifteen years on this range. But we realized that we had come to the parting of the ways.
This was not the first time that the government had taken a hand in cattle matters. Some of us in former days had moved cattle at the command of Negro soldiers, with wintry winds howling an accompaniment.
The cowman was never a government favorite. If the Indian wards of the nation had a few million acres of idle land, “Let it lie idle,” said the guardian. Some of these civilized tribes maintained a fine system of public schools from the rental of unoccupied lands. Nations, like men, revive the fable of the dog and the ox. But the guardian was supreme–the cowman went. This was not unexpected to most of us. Still, this country was a home to us. It mattered little if our names were on the payroll or not, it clothed and fed us.
We were seated around a table in the rear of a saloon talking of the morrow. The place was run by a former cowboy. It, therefore, became a rendezvous for the craft. Most of us had made up our minds to quit cattle for good and take claims.
“Before I take a claim,” said Tom Roll, “I’ll go to Minnesota and peon myself to some Swede farmer for my keep the balance of my life. Making hay and plowing fire guards the last few years have given me all the taste of farming that I want. I’m going to Montana in the spring.”
“Why don’t you go this winter? Is your underwear too light?” asked Ace Gee. “Now, I’m going to make a farewell play,” continued Ace. “I’m going to take a claim, and before I file on it, sell my rights, go back to old Van Zandt County, Texas, this winter, rear up my feet, and tell it to them scary. That’s where all my folks live.”
“Well, for a winter’s stake,” chimed in Joe Box, “Ace’s scheme is all right. We can get five hundred dollars out of a claim for simply staking it, and we know some good ones. That sized roll ought to winter a man with modest tastes.”
“You didn’t know that I just came from Montana, did you, Tom?” asked Ace. “I can tell you more about that country than you want to know. I’ve been up the trail this year; delivered our cattle on the Yellowstone, where the outfit I worked for has a northern range. When I remember this summer’s work, I sometimes think that I will burn my saddle and never turn or look a cow in the face again, nor ride anything but a plow mule and that bareback.”
“The people I was working for have a range in Tom Green County, Texas, and another one in Montana. They send their young steers north to mature–good idea, too!–but they are not cowmen like the ones we know. They made their money in the East in a patent medicine–got scads of it, too. But that’s no argument that they know anything about a cow.”
“They have a board of directors–it is one of those cattle companies. Looks like they started in the cattle business to give their income a healthy outlet from the medicine branch. They operate on similar principles as those soap factory people did here in the Strip a few years ago. About the time they learn the business they go broke and retire.”
“Our boss this summer was some relation to the wife of some of the medicine people Down East. As they had no use for him back there, they sent him out to the ranch, where he would be useful.”
“We started north with the grass. Had thirty-three hundred head of twos and threes, with a fair string of saddle stock. They run the same brand on both ranges–the broken arrow. You never saw a cow-boss have so much trouble; a married woman wasn’t a circumstance to him, fretting and sweating continually. This was his first trip over the trail, but the boys were a big improvement on the boss, as we had a good outfit of men along. My idea of a good cow-boss is a man that doesn’t boss any; just hires a first-class outfit of men, and then there is no bossing to do.”
“We had to keep well to the west getting out of Texas; kept to the west of Buffalo Gap. From there to Tepee City is a dry, barren country. To get water for a herd the size of ours was some trouble. This new medicine man got badly worried several times. He used his draft book freely, buying water for the cattle while crossing this stretch of desert; the natives all through there considered him the softest snap they had met in years. Several times we were without water for the stock two whole days. That makes cattle hard to hold at night. They want to get up and prowl–it makes them feverish, and then’s when they are ripe for a stampede. We had several bobles crossing that strip of country; nothing bad, just jump and run a mile or so, and then mill until daylight. Then our boss would get great action on himself and ride a horse until the animal would give out–sick, he called it. After the first little run we had, it took him half the next day to count them; then he couldn’t believe his own figures.”
“A Val Verde County lad who counted with him said they were all right–not a hoof shy. But the medicine man’s opinion was the reverse. At this the Val Verde boy got on the prod slightly, and expressed himself, saying, ‘Why don’t you have two of the other boys count them? You can’t come within a hundred of me, or yourself either, for that matter. I can pick out two men, and if they differ five head, it’ll be a surprise to me. The way the boys have brought the cattle by us, any man that can’t count this herd and not have his own figures differ more than a hundred had better quit riding, get himself some sandals, and a job herding sheep. Let me give you this pointer: if you are not anxious to have last night’s fun over again, you’d better quit counting and get this herd full of grass and water before night, or you will be cattle shy as sure as hell’s hot.”
“‘When I ask you for an opinion,’ answered the foreman, somewhat indignant, ‘such remarks will be in order. Until then you may keep your remarks to yourself.'”
“‘That will suit me all right, old sport,’ retorted Val Verde; ‘and when you want anyone to help you count your fat cattle, get some of the other boys–one that’ll let you doubt his count as you have mine, and if he admires you for it, cut my wages in two.'”