A Day's Drive With
By Rufus Fairchild Zogbaum in 1885
Softly outlined in dark masses, a wall in the east against the clear sky,
over which the first faint flush of early morning is slowly stealing,
height upon height, rise the mountains. Gray in the shadow of still
lingering night, the wide plain stretches at their feet. In the blue dome
above, the stars, going to rest after their nocturnal vigil over the
slumbering earth, extinguish their shining lanterns one by one, and the
moon, veiling her mild face in the fleecy folds of a soft, low-lying white
cloud, is slowly sinking below the horizon, as if fleeing in maiden
modesty before the ardent gaze of the coming sun god.
Rosy red, glowing as with a deep warm fire, brighter and brighter grows
the sky; darker, yet more clearly in the rich purple of their shadows,
loom the mountains, until the sun, shooting long, glittering shafts of
yellow light up to the zenith from behind them, sheds the reflection of
its approaching glory far over the level surface of the prairie, chasing
away the shades of night and rousing sleeping nature from her dreams.
Down in the camp, in
the shelter of a grove of low trees hard by the bank of the little
stream which cuts through the plain, winding in graceful curves until
lost in the mouth of the canon over there in the mountains, they are
already astir, and the smoke of the watch-fire, replenished with an
armful of the dry sage-brush and burning brightly, rolls upward in a
straight blue column, while the black face of the negro cook, shining
like polished ebony in contrast with the huge flapping white felt hat
that overshadows it, is bent over the camp kettle, filled to the brim
with steaming coffee for the mens' breakfast, some of whom stand,
stretching their limbs and yawning, around the fire, while others
wander down to the stream to make their hasty toilet, calling to one
or two sleepy comrades looking up with slumber clouded eyes and
disheveled heads from out of the heap of blankets and buffalo robes
spread on the ground. The horses are picketed near by, and are
cropping the nutrition bunch grass; and scattered on all sides for a
mile or more over the plain, some still lying on the soft ground,
others standing reposefully in little groups, chewing the cud and
sniffing the sweet, cool morning air, are hundreds of sharp-horned,
half savage cattle, their forms relieving dark against the
yellowish-brown expanse of prairie.
Up comes the sun over the mountains;
brighter and brighter glows the sky. Away off there, loping
stealthily along, now stopping for a moment to look back over their
shoulders, now trotting on again, a few coyotes are sneaking back,
with drooping bushy tails and pointed ears, to the cover of the little
coulees and mound-shaped buttes at the base of the hills, like coward
prowlers of the night seeking their dens at the coming of the light.
The discordant, laughing cry of the magpie, flitting from bush to bush
by the banks of the little river, mingles with the whistle of the
broad-winged curlew, and far, far up in the heavens two black specks
in the blue ether, swinging round and round in great circles, an eagle
and his mate are soaring.
Rustle now, boys, rustle for you have a
long and hard days work before you. You must get away in the cool of
the morning, for these hundreds of cattle must be driven through the
narrow canon in the mountain today, and the evening must find them
slaking their thirst in the cool streams and feeding on the rich bunch
grass on the Great Plains on the other side of the divide. Rustle
there, you lazy fellows! No time for monkeying round now. Roll up your
bedding, pack your wagon, get your breakfast, and away!
A picturesque, hardy lot of fellows, these
wild cowboys, as they sit on the ground by the fire, each man with his can
of coffee, his fragrant slice of fried bacon on the point of his knife
blade, or sandwiched in between two great hunks of bread, rapidly
disappearing before the onslaughts of appetites made keen by the pure,
invigorating breezes of these high plains.
that brawny fellow with the crisp, tight-curling yellow hair growing low
down on the nape of his massive neck rising straight and supple from the
low collar of his loose flannel shirt, his sun-browned face with the
piercing gray eyes looking out from under the broad brim of his hat.
lower limbs clad in the heavy chaps or leather overalls stained a deep
reddish-brown by long use and exposure to wind and weather, his revolver
in its holster swinging from the cartridge-filled belt, and his great
spurs tinkling at every stride, as, having drained the last drop of
coffee, he puts down the can, and turns from the fire toward the horses,
picking up as he goes the huge heavy leather saddle, with its high pommel
and streaming thongs of rawhide, that has served him as a pillow during
the night. Quickly his Cayuse is saddled, the great broad hair-rope girths
tightly synched, the huge bit slipped into the unwilling mouth, and with a
bound the active fellow is in the saddle. Paw, pony, paw; turn your eyes
till the whites show; lay your pointed ears back; squeal and kick to your
buck away! You have found your master; for the struggle does not last
long. The practiced hand, the heavy spurs, and stinging whip soon repeat
the almost daily lesson, and with one last wicked shake of the head the
wiry cayuse breaks into his easy lope, and away goes horse and rider to
their appointed station on the flank of the great drove.
The others soon follow,
camp is broken, the wagon securely packed ready for the road, and the work
of the day commences. The cattle seem to know what is coming. On the edges
of their scattered masses the steers lift their heads and gaze, half
stupidly, half frightened, at the flying horsemen; as the flanks are
turned they begin closing in toward one another, moving up in little
groups to a common centre. Now and then a steer or some young bull, more
headstrong or more terrified than his comrades, breaks away and canters
off clumsily over the prairie. In a moment lie is pursued, headed off,
turned, and driven in toward the herd again. As they close in mass to use
an apt military phrase rounded up on all sides by the swift-riding
cowboys, they are gently urged onward by the drivers in the rear, until
the whole herd is slowly moving forward, feeding as they go, in a loose
wide column, headed toward the break in the mountains that indicates the
mouth of the canon through which it is to pass.
Gradually the prairie is
crossed; quietly and gently the nervous brutes are crowded more closely
together; two or three of the men gallop on ahead to the opening of the
pass, guarded by two cone-shaped mounds like redoubts thrown out to
protect the entrance to the fastnesses of the mountains, in order to head
off stragglers and to turn the leaders of the herd into the narrow trail
that runs in between the high, tree-covered, rocky walls of the canon. So!
so-o-o! gently calling, quietly and patiently urging, the drivers bunch
the horned multitude together into one almost compact mass. So-o-o! So!
gently! gently! push, boys, push in from both sides, curb your horses, and
keep them quiet. So! so! drive slowly from the rear, press on
slowly, yet firmly, until the head of the herd enters the pass.
Patter! patter! patter!
the rushing, confused roar of hundreds of hoofs striking the hard roadbed,
a queer sound, filling the air with a low yet penetrating noise, like the
falling of millions of hailstones on dry leaves, not the heavy and sharp
ringing tramp of iron-shod horses, but a shuffling, soft, although
distinctly marked muffled rolling, something like that produced by the
distant passage of a heavily laden freight-train. Slowly, irresistibly
onward through the wild canon, the frowning walls of sandstone and
gigantic pines towering on one side, on the other and below, rushing and
foaming over its rough bed, the river pushing forward like a stream of
liquid lava from some vomiting crater, long drawn out in a crowded, dense
column on the narrow, winding trail, moves the mighty herd. A thick,
smoke-like cloud of yellow dust through which the sunlight breaking lights
up the tangle of horns, swaying and tossing in the distance like foam
cresting the angry billows of some dark, storm-lashed torrent hovers
above; a heavy, sweetish odor fills the air; and mingling with the
pattering rush of the hoofs and the roar of the stream comes the
occasional booming bellow of some frightened steer.
Very slowly and
cautiously the herd moves forward; sometimes there is a halt in front;
those in the rear crowd up more closely; very gently, and with soothing
cries, the experienced cowboys urge them on again. It is ticklish work,
for a momentary panic may drive scores of them down the precipitous sides
of the mountain. Already this morning an unfortunate steer, pushed in a
sudden, panicky rush of his companions over the edge of the trail, has
fallen down into the foaming torrent, and been dashed to death on the
jagged rocks a hundred feet below. Riding slowly in the rear, look along
the trail and over the backs of the advancing cattle up the canon ahead.
Sometimes the road descends until the stream licks the earth at its side,
spreading in little shallow pools across it, sometimes cutting through it,
as it curves abruptly around some point of rocks, only to re-cross it
again further on.
And now the canon widens,
and, succeeding the high rock walls and great trees, its sides gradually
merge into gently rising, grass-covered slopes; the river too is broader,
its surface shining like polish-ed silver, and betraying its onward
movement only by an occasional soft ripple and low lap-lap of the water
against its overhanging banks, from which, breathing out the sweet
fragrance of thousands of newly opened buds, the wild rose bushes hang
down their slender branches. Away up the slopes, dancing and nodding their
pretty heads in the soft breeze, the gaily colored wild flowers -- yellow
sunflowers, daisies, and blue harebells mingle their bright hues, melting
into one another on the distant round hill-tops, covering them as with a
carpet of the softest velvet.
Let the herd move more
easily now, drifting slowly along, and opening its ranks a little, so as
to enable the hungry brutes to crop at the fresh juicy grass as they go;
you have leisure to open your saddle-bags and take a little lunch, sur
le pouce, and a swig of whiskey and water, if you have any. Or you can
light your pipe as you let your bridle fall on your Cayuses neck, and
lounge in your saddle, folding your arms, and resting your elbows on the
flat, round top of the high pommel, keeping, however, a watchful eye on
your charges lest some adventurous two-year-old wander away from the drove
and lose himself in the deep coulees or ravines that, cutting through the
rounded spurs of the hills, run down to the edge of the trail. Although
the sun is now high in the heavens, and pours down the full power of his
rays, the breeze tempers the heat, and there rises no blinding, choking
dust from the soft grass, except a little cloud now and then where some
tyrannical bull or surly steer widens the space about him by a short,
vicious charge at some encroaching comrades. The afternoon wears slowly
away, the herd constantly advancing, except for a short halt now and again
at some inviting spot, where the grass grows luxuriantly or the stream
crosses. The hills are smaller, there are wide openings between them, and
soon a broad plain, rich in the marvelous color of its shifting light and
shade, and covered with brown waving grass and great patches of
bluish-gray sage-brush, stretches to the far horizon, flat and apparently
level as a billiard table, full of promise of rest and refreshment for the
hot and tired beasts.
There are plenty of good
camping places this evening. Grass there is in abundance; the herd is
still following the course of the rivulet, so water in plenty is at hand;
and fuel of the best for a camp fire can be had for the trouble of cutting
a few armfuls of the sagebrush.
The cattle feel that the
hour of rest has come, as, unrestrained by the drivers, they wander at
freedom out on the prairie, or stand knee-deep in the water, drinking it
in long draughts, and elevating their dripping muzzles to moo forth their
contentment. The horses are unsaddled and allowed to browse, and as the
sun is sinking in the west and the fires are lighted, all hands busy
themselves in preparation of the evening meal.
The long twilight sets in, gradually melting
into the shades of night; silence reigns over the prairie, broken only by
the far-off yelp of the prowling coyote, or the crackling of a dry twig as
some restless steer moves about in the sage-brush. The tired cowboy, the
events of the day briefly discussed with the after-supper pipe by the
glowing embers of the fire, spreads his bedding on the ground, rolls his
blanket about him, and, his head resting in the seat of his saddle, and is
soon buried in the dreamless sleep of the hardy frontiersman.
Added July, 2005
About the Author:
Rufus Fairchild Zogbaum (1849-1925) was both a writer and an artist.
He wrote a series of military articles for Harper's Monthly as well as
other stories. He is also renowned for his water-color paintings.
A Day's Drive With Montana Cowboys appeared in Harper's Magazine
in July, 1885, Volume 71, Issue 422.
Glacier National Park in
Jon Sullivan, June, 2004
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