"A San 'Tone boy will be a man when he crosses the Red River."
* * *
That's what Shanghai Pierce told me, but my Mama wasn't seeing it, not her little Henry, me being still a shaky colt just turned sixteen and nowhere near his full growth. Why couldn't she understand I craved the adventure—no, the challenge—that's what I needed. When South Texas' most famous trail driver promised he could turn me into a man, there was no holding me back.
What finally decided Mama wasn't all my importuning or whining; it was something more basic. You see, Mr. Pierce was paying real honest-to-God gold, something a mite scarce in South Texas ever since the Blue Boys came marching in back in '65 and turned all the folding money in folks' mattresses into kindling for the stove.
So one bright morning, I saddled up and rode off to see the world, me who'd never been farther from Pa's corn field than the Methodist Meeting House down to the Crossroads.
Eleven of us there was, counting Mr. Pierce. The cook and the wrangler had their jobs so that left eight cowhands—don't never call me a "cowboy." Even back then I didn't like being called "boy" not at my "growed-up" age. Two of the hands was dark of skin, and not that long from being "property", but on a dark night in a stampede, you didn't notice. Come to that, after a couple of weeks on the trail, I began to feel like "property" myself. And not just because the thick red Texan dust had begun to seep deep into my skin. So there was eight of us to move twenty-five hundred head, a mixed herd, steers, cows, and all of them bound for some Easterner's dinner plate.
* * *
The sellers had the job of shoulder-burning the SP trail brand, so we had no real work to do before turnover count. The wrangler herded the remuda into a rope corral and we drew our cavvy of five horses each. I guess I proved what my Pa said: it's better to have luck than good looks because my first choice was a sorrel gelding with a white stocking on its right foreleg. I called him Single Sock, and you'll be hearing more about him. We spent a day or two getting to know our string and setting around the campfire—me and real men, what a rush—and swapping stories—well, I mainly contributed the big ears for the story-telling, and of course, I believed everything they said. Something I'm a mite less inclined to do these days.
On delivery day the sellers roused the herd and started it on the move. We drifted in and paired off with the sellers' hands, moving the herd easy, funneling it down between two "reps" from each side, each man holding a pegging rope in which he tied a knot for every ten head that passed between them. When we was done, Mr. Pierce and the sellers compared the counts: one man was one over, one was one under and two agreed. So that was the accepted count: 2517 and all that was left was to deliver the herd at the Abilene stockyards, not more than seven hundred miles north.
My Great Adventure had begun.
The trail routine I'd get to know like a broke-in boot began the next morning: up at first light, coffee and ham in our bellies and the herd roused and on the trail before the first sliver of gold edged over the horizon. I was accorded the honor, me and Reb, him who had seen the big world from Shiloh Church to Chickamauga, of the most responsible position in the whole drive, so the older hands told me, riding "drag" to make sure no steer got a hankering to drop back and mosey home. Dusty work, drag is, trailing after ten thousand plodding hooves, but I took to it, filled my belly with a couple pounds of good Texas dust, and kept the herd moving.
* * *
Then it was time for night herd. Only one of us needed, Mr. Pierce said, with a clear starry night and the herd traveled hard enough that day to drive out its home-bound yearnings and no marauders, either two-foot or four-foot, expected. I got two hours in my soogans before Jessup's boot nudged me awake to pull my shift. "Two hours," I was told.
"How will I know?" me not boasting one of those fancy pocket watches you see suspended from the gold chain that stretches across a banker's broad belly.
"Just watch that star." Jessup pointed to something he called the Big Dipper and told me how two stars always pointed to my timepiece. "When it sets, rouse the next man."
I circled the herd slowly, singing some quiet hymns to pass the time, full of the excitement of being away from home and having a real man-size job. Round and round I went, picking a different hymn each time. After awhile I started to eye the star, trying to calculate how many times I'd have to circle the herd. My blankets sure started calling out to me, but that star was moving real slow, it seemed.
Finally, it got real hard to see the star—not that it had finally made up its mind to let me rouse my relief. No, sir. Just more eyestrain trying to make it out against the paling of the sky. Then a hand rode out. "Just had breakfast," he told me, "I'm first on the day shift."
Well, you can believe I was dead tired by the time I started guzzling coffee, and then it was time to switch horses and begin the day's drive.
We was just getting ready to put the herd in motion when Jonah, he's the Wrangler, sidled over to me. "The boys sure appreciate your pulling their shift."
"I don't think that durn"—I hadn't been far enough away from Mama to get more salty than that—"star ever set."
"Ever hear of the Pole Star?" he asked. That's when I learned my first manly Life Lesson: the one that stayed with me forever. "Don't never trust nobody."
Knowing cowhands, the way I do these days, not much should have surprised me. Now I get my kicks out of teaching a new hand his "astronomy lesson", so I figure I've got payback.
After that, Solomon, one of the Darkie drovers, kind of adopted me. I didn't know enough that he was supposed to be called "boy," and in return he didn't treat me like the boy I still was. I was drooping in the saddle that second day when he drifted over and gave me the advice that settled me down. "Let them see you can take a joke, and you won't get so many of them." Sure enough, I still got my share of greenhorn attention, but I took it in good humor and we all got along pretty well.
* * *
That was my second Life Lesson: when folks are snickering at you, the sting goes away when you laugh along.
Cattle ain't the brightest creatures in God's wide earth, and that's good and that's bad. The good part is that once you got the herd moving, the only idea they can get between their horns is to follow the rump plodding ahead of them. The bad news is about the same—but I'm getting ahead of my story.
* * *
Mr. Pierce told us a drive went easy if we got the cattle into a routine. So every morning we caught and saddled and roused them at first light. The point men cut out their special friends, the steers that liked to bull their way to the front, and started them north. Before long, the herd was strung out a half mile and we hands was just lolling in the saddle alongside them or, for Reb and me, trailing in their dust.
The chuck wagon would pass us early and stop on the nooning ground where we took shifts powering our motors for the rest of the day while the herd did some midday grazing. By the time we slapped our saddles on fresh horses and started again, Mr. Pierce was back from his scout and told Coosie where to night-camp. It did seem to me that he was a good deal more thoughtful about letting the herd have its beauty rest than the two-footed folks along, but Solomon reminded me maybe I'd rather get the pay he promised me than what he had in mind for them.
Like maybe you know, Texas, the part we was trailing across, is as flat as a pancake before the molasses, 'cept where some creek-carved gullies take it into their mind to cut across our way. Off west, the tops of the Blue Mountains broke the plane of the tableland that was Texas, a banquet spread for the trailing herd, the spring grass still being lush and nourishing and not too badly grazed over by passing herds that early in the season.
After a week on the trail, the herd was getting trail-broke nicely and me and Reb got to know some of steers almost personal. "Brownie's lagging again," Reb would say to me, or "here's old Bess coming," I'd tell him, them being the names of our laziest companions on the trail, the ones that maybe had an idea they were skillet-bound and were in no hurry to get to Abilene.
Not long after leaving home range, we began having some cows that got a bit ornery with us, this being a wet herd. When a calf got dropped, the little toddler couldn't keep up, not at fifteen miles a day, so Jessup, he seemed to take to the chore, would drive the calf off trail somewhere. We'd hear a single shot, and then Jessop would saunter back into his position riding swing. Mama cow would keep giving us work, trying to turn back to find her baby. After a couple of days, she gave up—or maybe just forgot—but likely we'd have another mama or two claiming our attention by then.
We bedded ourselves down in night-herd pairs so wake-up calls didn't steal sleep from them not coming on shift. Maybe you think sleeping out under the stars, a gentle breeze wafting through the sweet smell of the sage as your dreams start their pleasant ramble through your head is a great adventure. I sure did, up until that first night—well, the second night, the first night I spent much time in the blankets.
Let me tell you, I never yet found a camp site as soft as a featherbed. If I spread my blankets before dark, maybe I could knife-blade out the bigger rocks, but a couple of nights on the hard ground and ever after I blessed the man who thought up straw-filled mattresses. And that sweet smell? Like as not it came from the herd, even half a mile away, me being too polite to mention my fellow trail hands.
As to food, the coffee was hot, and the chuck was plentiful. Some days we ate salt pork and beans; other days, for variety we'd have beans and salt pork. On a special occasion, Coosie would open a can of stewed tomatoes and spoon out a mouthful to each of us. It fed the inner man, but Delmonico's it wasn't.
One day, the craving for a strong injection of hot, thick Arbuckle's being high at the end of the day, I headed straight for the pot. Me being a fellow who don't like to make himself or his horse work more than necessary, I rode right up to the cookfire and swung down, which I guess is up there with the "Thou Shalt Nots" they got in the Good Book. I learned a powerful lot about my ancestors from Coosie, mainly the four-footed ones, as well as about how a horseman scattering sand into the skillet or cook pot could stand to go without dinner.
Some say it don't count as a "Life Lesson," but anyone who knew Coosie will tell you "always approach the fire from downwind" is awful durn close.
We'd been trailing north three weeks the night Single Sock taught me my next two Life Lessons all at the same time.
* * *
Texas being so flat, the morning's zephyr didn't have nothing to meander it gentle and by mid-morning a cutting wind swept down from the north to play its games with us, finding its way through the arm holes, around the collar, between the very fibers of the light work shirt I had pulled on when the morning sun promised a normal sweat-soaking day on the Texas plateau.
By noon the wind had brought a mess of water, the rain dropping like Noah needed to be building his arc, a steady, pelting, drenching rain, cold as all get out and maybe sent purposely by my old friend the Pole Star to make a simple trail hand's life one of misery. But them Eastern bellies needed to be filled, so we kept the herd moving and by supper time the rain had eased into a drizzle, just enough to let us know that we wasn't going to dry out any time soon, and enough to keep the herd restless so not a head would bed down.
And if they wasn't going to sleep, neither was we. Mr. Pierce doubled the night guard and told us to cut out our best saddle horse. Single Sock and me had got to know each other pretty well by then and soon he'd get a chance to prove how good he was.
The night-herd chore didn't seem so bad, not at first. We couldn't wear our slickers, of course, because a flash of color might startle them cows—didn't I tell you they wasn't gifted with a full load of smarts?—but we was already soaked down to our union suits, so it didn't matter much. I'd learned lots of new songs I could sing, ones maybe I wouldn't be belting out at the next Hymn Sing, not where that old Methodist preacher could hear, but they reminded me I was doing a good manly job. So I just jogged around, partly dozing as I went. My four-hour shift was nearing its end—not that the Pole Star was giving me a clue but I'd learned about Orion and his belt and my blankets were beckoning.
Then I noticed sparks when my bridle touched Single Sock's mane. That was something new. Not long after that I saw little blue flames that seemed to come right off the tips of the horns of one after of my drowsy trail companions. It bathed the whole herd with a gentle blue glow against the night's blackness. I thought it a sight of wondrous beauty.
Of course, I don't see it that way no more. Nowadays, I get ready for all Hell to bust loose, which it promptly did. With the first crack of lightning the herd was on its feet and running.
Them lazy cows? Somehow they didn't seem as lazy when they began trying to shake the earth off old Atlas' shoulder. But why did they all take it in their mind to run for me? I figured my job was to stop the stampede and it looked like I'd have to do it all by my lonesome. All through the drive, I'd never had a problem getting Old Bess or Brownie to pay attention when I said "get a move on you ornery hunk of beef," but I didn't know none of the thunderers by name and they didn't look much of a mind to listen no how.
What's a trail hand to do? Admitting he don't know squat never comes easy for a man, not that I claimed that honor yet. But old Single Sock had come to know me well enough that he wasn't going to pay me no nevermind anyway. He turned tail and galloped, with me going along for the ride and pretty soon him and me had left the herd far behind us.
When he finally stood panting, I looked around and couldn't see no other hand in the blackness but I could hear the herd—likely folks in Fort Worth could hear it. Not wanting to be left out in the dark by myself, I pointed Single Sock toward the sound. Finally, I got close and there was Jessup and Solomon racing for the front of the stampede and closing in on the leaders. Jessup yanked off his hat, began beating his leg like his thigh was covered with a mess of hairy tarantulas, all the time screeching like a banshee. Once Solomon caught up, he began doing the same. I couldn't see what good making a fool of myself would do, but I didn't have no better idea, so I joined in.
You ask me, them lead steers didn't want no part of our screeching, because they turned left away from Jessup. We kept making our throats hoarse, and pretty soon them cattle was going back the way they came, and then they was running into the tail end of the herd, and the stampede had been turned into what drovers call a mill with the herd running in a circle until it tuckered itself out and got down to serious sleeping like nothing ever happened.
So Single Sock taught me one of the most important Life Lessons: when you got ten thousand tons of beef thundering at you, don't do no thinking, just skedaddle
There was a second Life Lesson as well: Unless you're an almighty wise old coot, which you ain't, you don't know your horse's job near as good as he does, so back off and let him go to work. Later I learned that applies to men too.
We was four weeks out of San 'Tone and still in Texas. Now that may surprise some of you as live in them postage-stamp states back East, so let me put it this way. If we started trailing north from Washington City, we'd have been bowing down to Queen Victoria by now. You see, we live large out here; we ain't near as crammed together as you fellas.
* * *
There was a river ahead and I was kind of glad to hear the news. Back in the day, when I was just a green hand, crossing a river was some challenge, but now I must have crossed half-dozen rivers, some even big enough to have names on the maps, like the Colorado and the Brazos. So when I tossed my bedroll in the chuck wagon, I figured for a hand like me, how big could one more river be?
"Today's bath day," I told Commanch when I slapped on my saddle. Should have taken Single Sock, but I worked him hard the day before. And it was just another river.
Then, whilst the point hands got the herd moving, Mr. Pierce took the rest of us to give the river a look-see. We followed the trail about a mile and saw that the herds that came before had shifted, some angling off east, others west, and some going straight on. Mr. Pierce said each trail boss judged the river conditions as he found them. We went straight and pretty soon saw some trees up ahead, like grow along river banks, and then we came over a small rise and there it was before us.
Well, Howdy! Right away, I could see this wasn't the Brazos. A full mile across it seemed, though later someone told me it was "only" three thousand feet. The current divided into several channels, some sandbars separating them. Wide it might be, taken all in all, but see it as several streams and a fellow wondered what all the fuss was.
The debris along the river bank told us that the gully washer we had ridden through had driven the river to flood, but that morning only occasional chunks of driftwood bobbed in the current. In another day it seemed like we'd barely get our boots wet, but Mr. Pierce pointed to clouds off west, with streaky lines telling us that rain was falling. Maybe that was far away, but water flows downhill and all that water would be upon us by morning. So we pushed forward.
Like always we stripped to our birthday suits, there being none of the softer sex around to make us bashful, folded our shirt, pants and union suit up, weighed them down with our boots and gun belt, and stirruped up, wearing only our Stetson, the knee-slapping tool a trail hand beats all out of shape in the face of some dumb cow hankering to go her own way.
Mr. Pierce had us string out the herd to more than a mile in length, so when the leaders showed their natural reluctance to get their hooves wet, they could be edged forward without the herd bunching and milling in confusion. By the time me and Reb brought up the drag, the herd was spread out in a big half moon, arcing upstream, and curving back in homage to the demands of the river. The swing riders was working hard, yelling and pummeling their thighs with their hats, especially them on the downstream side. I could see the river hankered to feed some beef to the sea gods way down in the Gulf of Mexico.
The river was swift and the bracing coolness welcome against the already building of heat and, like I said, me being an old river hand by now, how much trouble could it be? But before long, Commanch wasn't walking no more but had taken it into its mind to swim and I was wishing I had Single Sock between my thighs. A swimming horse needs freedom, so I let loose of the reins and buried one fist in a manehold with gentle slaps, or maybe not so gentle, on the neck to try to tell Commanch where I wanted it to go. Not that it paid a peck of attention.
Maybe it was fun, at first at least. I don't know. I was too busy riding forward, then back, watching for Bessie or Brownie or any of my most "friendliest" acquaintances. I guess that's why I didn't see it coming, just a piece of driftwood, not too big, with its leafless branches reaching out at odd angles.
I don't know what Single Sock would have done, but it turned out Commanch was just as green as me. Too late, I slapped Commanch on the side of the neck to turn him away, but a swimming horse has a mind of his own—the branches hit, and tangled Commanch's legs. My saddle went one way and I went another.
As the water closed over my head, I recollected someone saying, "You don't drown by falling in the water. You drown by staying in the water." It seemed like I had a chance to prove that true.
Few of us hands could swim. Where in the arid lands of Texas was there enough water? All I could figure was to flail with my arms and kick with my feet, and see if something happened. After an hour or so, it seemed, I saw daylight and gulped in a breath of air, but only one before I went down again. When the water closes over you the second time, the coldness gets to you. You start wondering which of your so-called buddies poured concrete into your boots. Then you remember, you ain't wearing any boots and kick harder. I saw daylight again and my lungs gasped for air, but all I got was a half mouthful of dirty water. Going down, I heard a voice whisper to me, "three times, that's all a man gets." My legs were kicking, my arms was flailing, but they didn't seem to do no good. Then my arm brushed against something—a rope, I thought, someone had tossed me a rope. I grabbed it. Right away I could tell it weren't no rope but I didn't have nothing better to do, so I got my hand around it anyway, and held on tight.
I bounced along, sometimes up for air, sometimes down into the turbulence, long enough to wish I'd paid more attention to that old Methodist preacher's jabber. Finally, that Texas steer clambered up the bank, and headed after the herd, dragging the hundred-ten pound weight latched to his tail. Bumping across the dirt and rock, the notion came to me that I was alive and I let go.
And that was my last Life Lesson: when you're cold and wet and in over your head, find something you can hold tight and don't never let go.
So now you know about my Great Adventure. Mama had been right. Her little Henry hadn't been ready for a trail drive.
But I had crossed the Red. Now I was a man.