BEN DRAKE'S EXCITING LIFE ON THE RANGE
Cora Melton Cross
Frontier Times Magazine, January, 1928
TRAILING cattle to Northern markets had passed from the embryo stage to a profitable business venture between 1866 and 1871—the year Ben Drake made his first drive. But the financial development in no wise lessened the hardship and danger encountered on the long, tedious, whooping up of the herd from two to four months at a stretch. The weather then was not merely an entrance wedge to polite conversation, but a thing to be reckoned with and endured. Swimming was classed neither as an art nor accomplishment, but a necessity; the one alternative for the cowboy who must cross bankful streams, minus bridge or ferry. Torrential rains were the order of the day and stampedes were of such common occurrence that the trail driver mentions them, merely, as part of the daily routine, unless marked by some outstanding feature.
Despite privations indescribable, happenings thrilling and hazardous, discomforts and suffering past endurance the trail held a fascinating lure that once experienced was seldom overcome save by a crucial situation demanding a radical change in the scheme of things entire. Thus it was with Ben Drake, who talks so interestingly of nine years of life up the trail.
"I was born twenty miles below Austin and grew up to the beginning of my tenth year working cattle." said Drake, continuing with, "and it was in the year of '71 when I was but 12 years old that I went with my first trail herd to Abilene, Kan. Tid and Kinney Murchison owned the cattle, 2,800 head there were, and their brother, Pete was herd boss. Cal Young, Pincher Stahl. a fellow named Butler and a big Swede who, because we never could pronounce his name, went by the 'handle' of 'Peter Swede,' and a few others I cannot now recall, were on that drive. It was a long and hard one, too, on account of hail and stampedes. One storm broke all records for the size of hail stones and it pretty nearly broke up Murchison's herd, too. The cattle ran hog wild and such a time we did have rounding ‘em up again. That storm impressed me so, boy as I was, that I determined, if I ever got home again, I would stay. But when we got to Abilene and I had seen the sights and started on the back trip, I lined up for the next drive Murchison was to make, which was as soon as it could be started. We had the same boss and bunch of cowboys and drove to the same market. But there was 2,700 cattle in that herd.
"Murchison Brothers seemed satisfied with my work and wanted me to make another drive with them. By this time I felt at home with their outfit and also on the trail and was glad of the chance to go again. We started that time with 2,900 head, making the total of the three drives amount to 4,800. That drive was exciting from start to finish, first one thing and another out of the ordinary happened all the way. But the climax came one afternoon as we were striking camp for the night. Bang! bang! bang! went the six guns in quick succession over the hill from our camp, followed by more rapid firing. Leaving the cook in full charge, we jumped our mounts and were off to see what it was all about, When we got there we saw one cowboy after another fire his gun and fall until nine of them lay piled up together dead as Heck. Nobody was left of that outfit but the cook was boss.
"They said it all started over one of the boys finding a stake pin and when he began tying his horse to it another rode up and claimed he'd seen it first. They got to fightin' and first one and another of the outfit joined in until it was a free for all and shootin to kill. We stayed and helped dig a grave big enough to bury ‘em all in and without ceremony or coffin we wrapped each one in his blanket and planted him, that was all. But do you know, it sort of struck me then, and does now, that something like that maybe caused the fellow to write the song that was so popular on range and trail. 'Oh, Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie.’ Not altogether the thought of loneliness surrounding it, though God knows it was bad enough, but knowing that coyotes would scratch up the body and with the buzzards' help, pick the bones clean, you know that sort of makes a fellow feel like he would like to have a coffin and a weepin' willow over his grave.
"Somehow that buryin' sort of put a damper on all of us for the rest of the drive up. Then, when we started back and began to feel kind of natural again, came a day when Tom Hamilton, one of our own outfit, got sick. It was on the border line of Kansas and the Indian Territory, and what I mean he was sure sick. We tried to get a doctor, but of course, it ended with tryin'. Tom got to sufferin' so that he begged me hour after hour to shoot him. But I never could just raise my six-gun and shoot a fellow lyin' helpless and sufferin' like he was even if he would have considered it a favor, and when he could not stand it any longer he just up and died. We buried him as best we could, and when I got back to Cedar Creek, in Bastrop County. and told his brothers George and Andrew about it, they asked me to go with ‘em and help to bring his body back and I went. I felt a whole lot better, too, when we buried the bones near his old home.
"I made my fourth drive in the year of '74 from Williamson County to Abilene, Kan., with a herd of 2,000 owned by Tom Daly and John Snyder, Al Boyce bossed the herd. The trip was tiresome and uneventful excepting for severe thunderstorms and stampedes. I couldn't blame the cattle for runnin' either, for lightning just played tag all over them. It sure made a good boy out of me whenever it began forking out from their horns, I always stopped cussin' and went to singin' good religious songs.
In '75 I hit the trail to Nebraska with the same outfit and boss Bub Armstrong, Cal Joplin, with his brothers Cy and Ed, and several other boys that I have forgotten the names of, went along and we had one more time. Lots of stampedes, that were caused I guess, by so many buffalo and deer. There were 2,500 cattle in the herd and sometimes you could not hardly see 'em for the buffalo. We ate venison and buffalo steaks until we couldn't stand the sight of one.
The next year I went with Snyder and Daly to Wyoming and it surely was one rough trip. Rains were heavy and streams bankfull; it was cold and snowy and the herd of 2,500 old Longhorns well nigh unmanageable. They drifted terribly before the northers and snowstorms. But we finally got 'em to where we meant to take 'em and I went back to Williamson fully determined to stay put for a while. When I got there I ran into a herd that was passing through on the way to Utah. It was from the Saul ranch, bossed by one of Saul's boys, and I was off again. I know I have said a lot about rain and hail and cold and all sorts and brands of weather. but if all the other drives could have been rolled into one, with all of the misery we had suffered, it could not have equaled that one to Utah. I swam every stream we had to cross on the up drive, then rode with my clothes frozen plum stiff.
"That last drive filled my craw full for a while and I didn't try it any more until '79, when I did my last trail drivin' with Saul again. We ran into heavy rains that trip, too, in the Indian Territory, Couldn't keep a fire burning to cook a meal of victuals for two days and no grub ever will taste as good as that breakfast the morning of the third day when we broke our fast.
"It was along about then that I got shot in the stomach and leg and the boss took me to an Indian camp. We were in the Territory, and he told the chief to take good care of me until I got well. There were nine Indians, counting the squaws. besides a big passel of children, all living in two tents, but the chief put 'em all out of one of them, and fixed me in it; then he doctored and watched after me for a long three months. I fared like they did as far as food was concerned. if they starved I did likewise, When they ate so did I.
"When I got so I could hobble around a little the chief went to Texarkana and got the United States Marshal to take me to Austin and from there I went to my birthplace, twenty miles farther on. I started in all over again helping with the stock and farm, for I knew my trailing days were over—a fellow can't ride bucking bronchs with a lame leg. It has been pretty tough for me to just potter around instead of running my pony nicketysplit, like I used to do. But I will never forget the old trail driving days when boy as I was, I rode and drove, drank black coffee, ate camp chuck and slept on a slicker in the rain as sound as if I had been lyin' on a feather bed."
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