A Day’s Drive With Montana Cowboys

Montana Cowboy

Montana Cowboy

By Rufus Fairchild Zogbaum, 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 canyon 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 nearby, 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 canyon 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 around now. Roll up your bedding, pack your wagon, get your breakfast, and away!

Cowboys at the chuck wagon, vintage art by R.F. Zogbaum.

Art by R.F. Zogbaum

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.

See 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.

His 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 heart’s content.

Oh, 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 center. 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 canyon through which it is to pass.

Cattle Drive by Barbara Lightner

Cattle Drive by Barbara Lightner

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.

Tending cattle in Montana

Ranch hand Kyle Conlin moves cattle in the Gravelly Mountain Range. USDA Photo by Preston Keres.

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 canyon 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 polished 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 wildflowers — 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.

Bitterroot Mountains, Montana

Montana Mountains

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 the 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. The 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 campfire 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.

Montana Ranch, 1900. Colorized

Montana Ranch, 1900.

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.

By Rufus Fairchild Zogbaum, 1885. Compiled and edited by Kathy Alexander, updated June 2023.

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 watercolor paintings. A Day’s Drive With Montana Cowboys appeared in Harper’s Magazine in July 1885, Volume 71, Issue 422.

Also See:

The Cattle Trails

Cowboys on the American Frontier

Montana Main Page

Trail Blazers & Cowboys