A Cow Hunter’s Court

Night Herder

Night Herder

The night camp is made beside a singing stream or a bubbling spring; the night horses are caught and staked; there is a roaring, merry fire of fragrant cedar boughs; a side of fat ribs is roasting on a spit before the fire, its sweet juices hissing as they drop into the flames, and sending off odors to drive one ravenous; the rich amber contents of the coffee pot is so full of life and strength that it is well-nigh bursting the lid with joy over the vitality and stimulus it is to bring you. Supper eaten, there follow pipe and cigarette, jest and badinage over the day’s events; stories and songs of love, of home, of mother; and rude impromptu epics relating the story of victories over vicious horses, wild beasts, or savage Indians. When the fire has burnt low and become a mass of glowing coals, voices are hushed, the camp is still, and each, half hypnotized by gazing into the weirdly shifting lights of the dying embers, is wrapped in introspection. Then, rousing, you lie down, your canopy the dark blue vault of the heavens, your mattress the soft, curling buffalo grass.

After a night of deep refreshing sleep you spring at dawn with every faculty renewed and tense. Breakfast eaten, you catch a favorite roping-horse, square and heavy of shoulder and quarter, short of back, with wide nervous nostrils, flashing eyes, ears pointing to the slightest sound, pasterns supple and strong as steel, and of a nerve and temper always reminding you that you are his master only by sufferance. Now begins the day’s hunt. Riding softly through cedar brake or mesquite thicket, slipping quickly from one live oak to another, you come upon your quarry, some great tawny yellow monster with sharp-pointed, wide-spreading horns, standing startled and rigid, gazing at you with eyes wide with curiosity, uncertain whether to attack or fly.

Usually he at first turns and runs, and you dash after him through timber or over plain, the great loop of your lariat circling and hissing about your head, the noble horse between your knees straining every muscle in pursuit, until, come to fit distance, the loop is cast. It settles and tightens round the monster’s horns, and your horse stops and braces himself to the shock that may either throw the quarry or cast horse and rider to the ground, helpless, at his mercy. Once he is caught, woe to you if you cannot master and tie him, for a struggle is on, a struggle of dexterity and intelligence against brute strength and fierce temper, that cannot end till beast or man is vanquished!

Thus were the great herds accumulated in  Texas after the Civil War. But cattle were so abundant that their local value was trifling. Markets had to be sought. The only outlets were the mining camps and Indian agencies of the Northwest, and the railway construction camps then pushing west from the Missouri River. So the Texans gathered their cattle into herds of 2000 to 3000 head each, and struck north across the trackless Plains. Indeed this movement reached such proportions that, excepting in a few narrow mining belts, there is scarcely one of the greater cities and towns between the 98th and 120th meridians which did not have its origin as a supply point for these nomads. Between the years of 1866 and 1885, 5,713,976 head of cattle were driven northward from Texas.

Cattle on the Range

Cattle on the Range

Afterwards, the range business on a large and profitable scale was practically done and ended. In  Texas there were very few open ranges capable of turning off fair grass beef. With the good lands farmed and the poor lands exhausted, the ranges  become narrower every year; and every year the cost of getting fat grass steers was eating deeper and deeper into the range man’s pocket. Of course, there were still isolated ranges where the range men still hanged on, but they are not many, and most of them would later fall prey to the plough.

When the range man was forced to lease land in, or buy water fronts in the Territories and build fences, his fate was soon sealed. With these conditions, he soon found that the sooner he reduced his numbers, improved his breed, and went on tame feed, the better. A corn shock is now a more profitable close herder than any cow-puncher who ever wore spurs. This is a sad thing for an ola range man to contemplate, but it is nevertheless the simple truth. Soon the merry crack of the six-shooter will no more be heard in the land, its wild and woolly manipulator being driven across the last divide, with faint show of resistance, by an unassuming granger and his all conquering hoe.

The range man, like many another in the past, has served his purpose and survived his usefulness. His work is practically done, and few realize what a nobla work it has been, or what its cost in hardship and danger.

I refer, of course, not alone to the development of a great industry, which in its time has added millions to the material wealth of the country, but to its collateral results and influence. But for the venturesome range man and his rifle, millions of acres, from the Gulf in the South to Bow River in the far Canadian Northwest, now constituting the peaceful, prosperous homes of hundreds of thousands of thrifty farmers, would have remained for many years longer what it had been from the beginning — a hunting and battle ground for Indians, and a safe retreat for wild game.

What was the hardship, and what the personal risk with which this great pioneer work was accomplished, few know except those who had a hand in it, and they, as a rule, were modest men who thought little of what they did, and now that it is done, say less.

 

By Edgar B. Bronson, 1910. Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated October, 2017.

About the Author: Edgar Beecher Bronson was the author of The Red-Blooded Heroes of the Frontier. This article is a chapter this book, published by A. C. Mcclurg & Co. in 1910. Bronson worked not only as a reporter and a writer, publishing a number of books and articles, he was also a cowboy and a rancher. The text as it appears here; is not verbatim, however, as it has been edited for clarity and ease of the modern reader.

Also See:

Cowboys, Trail Blazers & Stage Drivers

Kit Joy – The Evolution of a Train Robber by Edgar Bronson

Triggerfingeritis – The Old West Gunman by Edgar Bronson

 

 

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