Swimming Cattle Across the Canadian - By Captain Ira Aten, Texas Ranger
[From J. Marvin Hunter’s Frontier Times Magazine, April, 1941]
In 1898 there were three divisions of the XIT ranch lying south of the Canadian River—the Escarbada No. 5, Spring Lake No. 6, and Yellow House No. 7.
When Spring came to the ranch our first detail of work was to gather our yearling steers and deliver them to Buffalo Springs division, which was on the extreme north end of the ranch adjoining a section which we boys called "No Man's Land." We would commence this work just as soon as the cattle and horses could "stand alone." We used this term to express the condition of the animals because the cattle were very poor and the horses had been running loose in the Canadian brakes horse pasture all winter and generally were able to be ridden about the tenth or fifteenth of April.
Our next detail of work, or "roundup," would commence about July 10, and continue for a month or six weeks. This work was the big branding job of the year. On the Escarbada division we branded from six to nine thousand calves each year, depending on the severity of the previous winter. During this branding we did not carry any herd so the boys would not have any night guard to stand when they were working so hard at branding. A cowboy usually worked about sixteen hours a day in the roundup season of the year and his pay was the whole sum of $25.00 per month, he furnished his outfit consisting of saddle, bridle, blanket, slicker and bed. The ranch furnished the grub and horses and the big broad prairie to roll out his bed on.
About the tenth of September we started our third roundup of the year. During that time we would gather our beef herd, fat dry cows and such barren cows as we could guess, together with old bulls, and deliver them to Channing for shipment to the stock market in Kansas City. During this roundup we also branded all the calves dropped or missed since the July branding. The shipment to Kansas City usually consisted of about 1,000 head of beef cattle from Escarbada division and if the market was good we were sent back to gather a second herd for shipment, which sometimes would carry us way into November before we could finish and it would be very cold standing night guard and sometimes caught in a snowstorm.
Late in December we gathered up the bulls. I always tried to get this job done quickly so the boys could all go home for Christmas. Should it happen we would be delayed in this work from any unforeseen cause, I would allow every one who wanted to, to go home for the holidays and I would pick up the camp and windmill men to finish the job.
We did not make any regular roundup of the cattle to gather the bulls, but just drifted through the cattle and gathered the bulls, finding some ten or a dozen in bunches at this time of the year, with others hanging along the fence lines trying to get back their winter pasture. Again at this time we gathered any unbranded calves to be found and branded them, as it was unsafe to allow any unbranded calf to go through the winter near the New Mexico fence line. I always impressed upon the boys the idea to braid every calf over three days old, as to allow it to remain unbranded might make a thief out of an honest boy.
We ran one bull to every twelve or fifteen cows and they were turned loose the first of July, which brought the time to drop calves about April 1, and would last until up in September. In this way we were able to get from 60 to 75 percent calf crop, depending on the loco weed and the severity of the winter. Our yearly losses were from 5 to 10 per cent from all causes. The wolves took their share; the black-leg and bog in the Spring at heel fly time also accounted for part, but the greatest loss came in years when the loco weed was at its worst, which was about every three or four years after we had plenty of rain in the summer and fall. It seemed to hit us worst in the fall and winter. Many of our best horses became locoed and were never much use after that. Should a cow become badly affected by the loco weed it was better to knock her in the head as she was sure to die from the effects of the weed before spring. The loco weed was the worst on the plains. It did not grow much under the Canadian river banks.
Among our losses we counted only cattle and calves which had been branded. It must be understood that we did not feed the cattle in those days, but they had to rustle for themselves or starve and in that way they were more subject to eat the loco weed. However, any poor cow, heavy with calf, which would be found close to a camp would be picked up by the camp main, taken to camp, and fed hay.
When we started out in the spring to gather the yearling steers, ten riders were used, each man having ten horses. With the regular outfit was also a horse wrangler and a cook. The horses at that time of the year were all fresh from their winter rest and many of them had to be broken over again. Among the mounts for each man were given two fresh broncs each year, which made things very interesting for the boys during the first two or three weeks of work.
Each day we usually made two roundups so that we would not have to throw large bunches of cattle together for any great length of time. We would then cut out the yearling steers, allowing the cows to go, as they had begun dropping their calves and were in poor condition. These cattle had been so accustomed to running to the roundup ground, which was always at some watering place, at the first sight of the cowboys on the circle and hearing their cowboy whoops, that they would break and run. The cows with little calves would be dropped out but usually followed along behind us as fast as the little crooked legged fellows could travel and they would generally get to the roundup ground about the time we turned the herd loose. Cutting off from its milk (as many of them were still suckling) took a good cowboy and a good cow horse. All the king’s horses and all the king's men could not have held these yearlings from their mothers at night, particularly a stormy night, on their own range, and so it was necessary to pen them at night in pens located at convenient places about the ranch for branding purposes. When such a pen was full the animals would be taken to the Trujillo 5-wire fence bull pasture until the herd had been collected together and by that time the yearlings would be pretty well weaned and could be handled quite easily. All the cows which had dropped winter calves were also gathered and branded on this work.
We usually arrived at the Canadian river about the last of May or early in June, which was the rainy season over in New Mexico. On the particular drive of which I am writing, we had over 3,600 head of yearling steers—the largest herd we had ever driven North. As we left the ranch with the herd we could see great black clouds hanging over the tributaries of the Canadian river over in New Mexico. They had been in the sky for the preceding week or ten days and we were wondering how high the river would be when we reached it. The day before we arrived at the river it had rained and that added to our troubles.
Our suckling yearlings were about weaned and they were fairly easy to hold in the herd at night and the last night we made camp before reaching the river we did not have any serious trouble, but the yearlings were restless and wanted to walk and walk all night. The next morning I rode ahead of the herd down to the river, several miles away, to look over the ground and estimate what we would be up against when we started to cross. I found the river booming out of its banks. The current was very rapid and much driftwood was speeding downstream. I rode back to the herd and told the boys we had a bad river to wrestle with. Not a single smile creased the faces of the boys when I told them this news as they realized we were in for a tough time. It was enough to make one's hair stand on end to face that flooded river with 3,600 head of yearling steers. When faced by any flooded stream I had made it a practice to keep the cattle from water the day before at noon so they would be thirsty and take to the water with a rush when we came to the river. As it had rained heavily the night before and there were puddles of water standing all about, I knew it would be useless to try to get the herd to take to the river that day.
We threw the cattle back on a hill where there was no water and grazed them until the next day, hoping by that time the swollen river would recede, but no such good luck was in store for us. I determined to risk crossing at noon as the cattle were getting thirsty and so far as we could judge it might be a week or two before the river would go down. We had an early dinner and then about noon drove the herd down to the river.
Being very thirsty by that time the leaders rushed into the water, drinking as they went in, and were in swimming before they realized what had happened. When an animal starts to swim it looks straight ahead and seldom turns around to come back but will try to follow any object ahead of it. Often, if the riders are not watchful, the animals may go downstream with the current and come out on the same side they went in.
When crossing a herd of cattle in flood time the boys would always take off their boots and part of their clothing while others would strip to the skin. The boys had great arguments who had the best swimming horse and thought about as much of him as they did of their cutting or night horses. Not every horse will swim when a rider is on his back. Some will turn on their side and float downstream with the current until the rider gets off; others will sink like rocks. In either case the rider would slide off behind, grab the horse's tail and give it a severe twist. This would wake up the animal and start him swimming for the shore. Such peculiarities made it necessary that each rider know the habits of his swimming horse. The boys would take off their flank cinches or tie them up so as to give the horses a chance to expand with plenty of air to keep afloat.
The boys knew their places on the downstream side of the herd and followed in as the cattle took to the water behind the remuda. When cattle strike the swift current of a stream they will not make much effort to swim straight across unless they are forced to by the men on the downstream side. The boys splash water in the faces of the cattle; some would whip them over the heads with their ropes. Where the leaders go in swimming water, the herd is sure to follow and sometimes will come out on the opposite bank a quarter or half mile below where they started in, making a rainbow or arch in crossing. It usually takes about an hour to put such a herd as we had across a river after starting in (if you have good luck) and it is a beautiful and exciting sight to witness if you are standing off on a hill.
When the leaders of the herd get into wading water they were turned upstream to where the horses were and the herd then made a greater effort to swim straight across the river. Most of the boys would return to the water and help keep the cattle from drifting downstream so far as to get completely out of control. Anyone who has had the experience will agree that it is no joke to swim a large herd across any river, particularly the Canadian, with its swift current and red, muddy water. As the river was very high and dangerous, we decided not to undertake bringing our wagon across, so we carried our beds on the horses and such grub as we could get along with—flour, bacon, coffee and salt. From there on we would use pack horses and left instructions to our cook to remain where he was until we returned, some ten or fifteen days later.
The previous year we had reached the river just as the rise had fallen and it left the river very boggy with quicksand. Some of our steers bogged down at the edge of the water going in and coming out and we had to dig them out. When an animal bogged down in quicksand the only way to save him is to dig his legs out by our hands, turn him on his side and let him crawl on his knees and flounder out. To try to pull him out by the neck often means death to the animal.
On the occasion just mentioned, as our team neared the opposite bank of the river our two horses bogged down and one of them rolled over on his side and it was with great difficulty that we kept him from drowning. One of the boys jumped off his horse and held up his head while the other men unhitched them. We then had to dig out his legs after which he floundered out onto solid ground.
It was a regular practice of mine to take the lead team off in crossing a flooded river as there was always danger of the wheelers getting their feet tangled in the stretchers of the lead team. Then, two of the men would tie their ropes to the end of the wagon tongue and could pull much more than the lead team.
Getting a horse out of the mire was just a minor detail of our troubles, however. Our wagon had settled down in the sand to the hubs. We then carried out our bedding and grub and floated out the wagon bed. We had to dig out each wheel; take it off and carry it out and then carry and float out the running gears. The rear wheels had settled down so far in the water and sand that the boys had to dive down many times to unscrew the nuts so as to get off the wheels. It took us all afternoon to get out our wagon and it was some job.
Not daring to undertake bringing our wagon across the river this time, we camped on the north bank for the night, looking back wishfully at our chuck wagon and the cook waving his big white apron and laughing at us, hollowing "come and get it." He was having a real vacation.
The next night we camped on the Rita Blanca, south of Ealy Moore's horse pasture. It had started to rain again and many range cattle had drifted in on the Rita Blanca flats. I knew our herd could not be held during the night storm without becoming badly mixed with the range cattle, although they had been fairly well trained for the trail and our milk calves were not giving us much trouble. Still, many yearling steers had just been gathered in the Rita Blanca pasture and the mother cows were running everywhere in search of their calves. With this difficulty facing us and not wishing our cattle to get mixed up with the range cattle which might take us all the next day to cut the herd, we let down the horse pasture fence on the south side and turned our cattle loose in there. The yearlings, trying to go back home held to the south fence and did not track up the pasture very much. If Ealy ever knew about it he never said anything to me. My invitation to the boys from the south end of the ranch was to use my horse pasture in every emergency.
After getting our cattle out of the horse pasture the next morning we trailed the 101 Ranch and camped for the night on a big flat. It looked like it was going to be a very stormy night and we knew the yearlings would give us much trouble. The old reliable cowboys tied up two night horses so that when one gave out the other would be fresh. Nothing tires or worries a man so much as to ride a tired horse. It is a sort of disgrace for a cowboy to let his herd get away from him and we did not want that to happen to us.
It rained all night and the cattle gave us much trouble. We could keep track of the herd only by the flashe sof lightning which lit up the sky. Yearlings do not stampede and run like grown cattle. They will jump and run; many of them would start bawling and then the run would slacken and they could easily be turned into a mill. Big steers are more subject to stampede than cows or younger cattle. When a large herd of 4 to 6 year old steers stampede there is something doing. It is only 45 or 50 years ago when Amarillo was the largest range cattle shipping point in the world, that a large herd of steers from the South Plains stampeded and ran four or five miles before the leaders could be turned. No good cowboy dares to ride in front of the leaders of such a stampede. He follows at the side of the leaders and watches until they become winded and slacken in their run and he gradually turns them on a wide circle and into a mill. My instruction to my men was that the men on the right hand side of the herd always do the turning of the leaders. Men on the left hand side would drop back and give the leaders a chance to circle back in the running line of cattle which we cowboys called a "mill."
It is quite amazing as well as aggravating to see a new cowboy ride at neck break speed on the opposite side of the leaders to run them twice as far as if he had dropped hack and given the man on the right a chance to turn them.
During the run of such a stampede not a sound can be heard except the clatter of hoofs and the knocking of horns. The cowboy lonesome wail has but a little effect on them until they get over their fright and run. Some of the cowboys were up all night with our herd, which seemed determined just to walk and walk, not so much to run.
When I went back to camp after daylight everything was floating in water. Some of the boys had come in worn out and were sound asleep with water all about them. Our flour and salt were ruined and to make things still worse, a coyote had come into camp and stolen our bacon. The storm finally wore itself out and the only men with dry matches were the ones who had been up all night.
We drove the herd on a few miles to a windmill and corral where we found some dry wood and made coffee and cooked our flour dough the best we could, without salt. I was afraid to kill a beef without any salt, as there was danger of making the boys sick—they were so hungry. I told them to drive the herd up across the railroad and I went to the nearest section house to get some flour and salt. That section house was near where Dalhart stands today. We had a great feast that night as the cattle, being worn out, gave us but little trouble.
The balance of our trip was easy. The herd trailed out the next day northeasterly across the sandhills—a beautiful sight to behold as they straggled along almost in single file from hill to hill.
During my ten years as foreman of the Escarbada division of the great XIT ranch, I had some as good cowboys as ever straddled a horse and as brave as any matador in the arena. They were not afraid of man or beast—nor of the Canadian river in flood time. Some of these boys worked for me six and eight years, and it is with great respect and appreciation for their faithful service that I write these lines. Some of the old boys have passed over the Great Divide and many of us who are left, see the sun setting in the West.
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