A Day’s Drive With Montana Cowboys

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 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.

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, compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser-Alexander, updated June 2018.

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




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