A Cow Hunter’s Court

It was an intensely hot afternoon, the air close and heavy with humidity, an hour when all Texans who can do so take a siesta. Judge and counsel were snoozing peacefully on the gallery of the distant court house, and the two bailiffs guarding the “jury room,” overcome by habit and the heat, were stretched at full length on the ground, snoring in concert. This situation made the opportunity for a friend at court. Shang Rhett was the friend awaiting this opportunity. Stepping lightly out of the brush where he had been concealed, a few paces brought him among the jurors.

“Howdy! boys ? ” Shang drawled.” Pow’ful hot evenin’, ain’t it? Moseyin’ roun’ sort o’ lonesome like, I thought mebbe so you fellers ‘d be tired o’ talkin’ law, an’ I’d jes’ step over an’ pass the time o’ day an’ give you a rest.”

Shanghai Rhett approaches the jury

Shanghai Rhett approaches the jury

A rude diplomat, perhaps, Shang was nevertheless a cunning one. Several jurors expressed their appreciation of his sympathy and one answered: “Tired o’ talkin’! Wall, I reckon so. I’m jes’ tireder an’ dryer ‘n if I’d been tailin’ down beef steers all day. My ol’ tongue’s been a-floppin’ till thar ain’t nary ‘nother flop left in her ‘nless I could git to ile her up with a swaller o’ red-eye, an’ — ” regretfully — “I reckon thar ain’t no sort o’ chanst o’ that.”

“Thar ain’t, hey?” replied Shang, producing a big jug from the brush nearby. “‘Pears like, ‘nless I disremember, thar’s some red-eye in this yere jug.”

Upon examination, the jug was found to be nearly full; but, passed and repassed around the “jury room,” it was not long before the jug was empty, and the jury full.

Shrewdly seizing the proper moment before the jurors got drunk enough to be obstinate and combative, Shang made his appeal. “Fellers,” he said, ” I allows you all knows that Jim’s my friend, an’ I reckon you cain’t say but what he’s been a mighty good friend to more’n one o’ you. Course, I know he got terrible out o’ luck when he had t’ kill this yer Arkinsaw feller. But then, boys, Arkinsawyers don’t count fer much nohow, do they? Powful onery, no account lot, sca’cely fit to practise shootin’ at. We fellers ain’t a-goin’ to lay that up agin Jim, air we? We ain’t a-goin’ to help this yer jack-leg prosecutin’ attorney send ol’ Jim up. Why, fellers, we knows well enough that airy one o’ us might ‘a done the same thing ef we’d been out o’ luck, like Jim was, in meetin’ up with this yer Arkinsawyer afore we’d had our mornin’ coffee. What say, boys? Bein’ as how any o’ us might be in Jim’s boots mos’ any day, reckon we’ll have to turn him loose? ”

Shang’s pathetic appeal for Jim’s life clearly won outright more than half the jury, but there were several who, while their sympathies were with Jim, ” ‘lowed they’d have to bring a verdic’ accordin’ to the evidence.”

“Verdic’? Why, fellers,” retorted Jim’s advocate, “whar’s the use of a fool verdic’? ‘Sposin’ we fellers was goin’ to be verdicked ? This is a time for us fellers to stan’ together, shua’. I’ll tell you what le’s do; le’s all slip off inter th’ brush, cotch our hosses an’ pull our freight fer home. This yer court ain’t goin’ to git airy jury but us in Llano ’till a new one’s growed, an’ if we skip I reckon they’ll have to turn Jim loose.”

This alternative met all objections. In a moment the “jury room” was empty.

Shortly thereafter the two bailiffs, awakened by a clatter of hoofs over the rocky hills behind them, were doubly shocked to find the only tenant of the “jury room ” an empty jug.

One of the bailiffs sighted some of the escaping jurors and opened fire; the other hastened to alarm the court. The latter, running toward the house, met the judge and counsel who had been roused by the firing, and yelled out: “Jedge, the hull jury’s stampeded! Bill’s winged two o’ them. Gi’ me a fast hoss an’ a lariat an’ mebbe so I’ll cotch some more.”

Two or three jurors who were too much fuddled with drink to saddle and mount were quickly captured. The rest escaped. Of course, the court was outraged and indignant, but it was powerless. So Jim was released, thanks to Shang’s diplomacy and eloquence. And, by the way, in the dark days that came to ranchmen in 1885, Jim, risen to be a well known and powerful banker in City, furnished the ready money necessary to save Shang’s imperiled fortune; and when at length he heard that Shang was at death’s door, Jim found the time to leave his large affairs and come all the way up from to Llano to bid his old friend farewell.

For two or three years after the Civil War the cow hunters were busy accumulating cattle. From Palo Pinto to San Diego great outfits were working incessantly, scouring the wilds for unbranded cattle.

Directly an animal was sighted, one or two of these mad riders would spur in pursuit, rope him by horns or legs, and throw him to the ground. Then dismounting and springing nimbly upon the prostrate beast, they quickly fastened the beast’s feet with a “hogtie” hitch so that he could not rise, a fire was built, the short saddle iron heated, and the beast branded. The feet were then unbound and the cow-hunter made a flying leap into his saddle, and spurred away to escape the infuriated charge sure to be delivered by his maddened victim.

Rounding up cattle

Rounding up cattle

In this work horses were often fatally gored and not a few men lost their lives. Notwithstanding the fact that it was such a downright desperate task, the men became so expert that they did not even hesitate to tackle, alone and single-handed, great bulls of twice the weight of their small ponies; they roped, held, threw, and branded them. The least accident or mistake, a slip of the foot, a stumble by one’s horse, a breaking cinch, a failure to maintain full tension on the lariat, slowness in dismounting to tie an animal or in mounting after it was untied — any one of these things happening meant death, unless the cow-hunter could save himself with a quick and accurate shot. Indeed the boys so loved this work and were so proud of their skill, that when an unusually vicious old ” moss-back ” was encountered, each strove to be the first to catch and master him. And God knows they should have loved it, as must any man with real red blood coursing through his veins, for it was not work; I libel it to call it work; it was rather sport, and the most glorious sport in the world. Riding to hounds over the stiffest country, or hunting grizzly in juniper thickets, is tame beside cow-hunting in the old days.

The happiest period of my life was my first five years on the range in the early seventies. Indeed it was a period so happy that memory plays me ft shabby trick to recall its incidents and fire me with longings for pleasures I may never again experience. Its scenes are all before me now, vivid as if of yesterday.

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