THE THRILLING ADVENTURES OF A TEXAS COWBOY
G. W. Mills
From J. Marvin Hunter's Frontier Times Magazine, January, 1951
My father and mother were both born in Somerset, State of Kentucky. I first saw the light of day on June 2, 1857, and in the fall of 1872 my father with his family, including myself, emigrated to Texas. Our mode of transportation was by way of wagons, there being no railroads convenient at that early date. My father came to look after some land somewhere in the broad domain of Texas, he knew not exactly where, that had been left him by an older brother, Henry P. Mills, who died while serving as a soldier in the Texas War of Independence. We settled near Lockhart in 1874, and at the age of about seventeen, I went to work on the M. A. Withers ranch, one of the biggest ranches of this section at that time, which was due west of Lockhart about four miles, as the crow flies. I think it would be of interest to the reader to have some idea of the appearance of that ranch, as it appeared to me then a mere lad; it was located on a little flowing stream known as Clear Fork and abundantly fed by many springs. This creek was fringed with timber, pecan, walnut, elm, hackberry, and wild plum, on either bank, and dipping into its crystal waters were the weeping willows. The creek abounded with an abundance of fish such as bass, channel cat and the silver perch. The old ranch house stood back about three hundred yards east of the creek, on the summit of a gradual sloping hillside which commanded a view of the beautiful stretch of valley country roundabout and where it was swept by the gentle southern breeze.
About one hundred and fifty yards from the house were the corrals, covering about four acres of ground, and these corrals were divided into various pens, in which we "rounded up" from time to time, the great herds for marking and branding. As a matter of course these pens were built to endure and were very strong, as cattle in those days were wild and in this exciting work none but well built pens would hold them. The unitiated will probably be interested in knowing just how these corrals, as we termed them, were built, when material was not so plentiful as now. The material was largely oak rails which we had cut and hauled by ox teams about five miles from the timbered country of Caldwell county. The posts were of fine cedar timber obtained from old Mountain City in Hays county. These corrals had to be much higher than the ordinary fences as the infuriated longhorns would in their desperation to be free try to go over the top or break them down. Once the material on the ground, we dug deep wide holes, about seven feet apart, and in these we placed two of the cedar posts in such juxtaposition as to hold the long rails which we piled one on top of the other until they reached the top of the high posts. That being done, some of the old timers bound the ends of the posts together with wire, or stout strips of rawhide, but at about the time of which I write we began to bind them with smooth wire. The subdivisions spoken of above were divided into branding pens and horse corrals. We would not be true to the picture we are now attempting to paint in words if we fail to mention the singularly attractive feature of the setting of these particular corrals. They were shaded by large spreading liveoaks, hoary with age, where we hung up our saddles and leggings and various and sundry camp equipage, under which we slept on our blankets and saddle pillows, and partook of our frugal fare. Some of these grand old monarchs of the forest still stand —the pride of the Texas cowboy. It must be realized that we had no fences arbitrarily deciding the bounds of our little empire and our cattle and horses roamed at will over the hills and valleys, covered with the rich, luxuriant curly mesquite grass, upon which they grew sleek and fat.
After three weeks work on this busy ranch none but the life of a cowboy appealed to me. Around the old camp fires at night I heard the tales of the older men of their exciting life on the trail, and naturally I felt like going the route that those I knew, admired and trusted had gone. Right here I want to put it that, fortunately for me, I was associated with a few of the grand old stockmen of early days, to whose fine, though rugged characters, I am indebted for that training which carried me safely through many trying times.
In March 1877, as our boss was not to drive that year, I secured employment with Ellison and Dewees who were going to drive about six herds up the trail from this section to Ogallala, Nebraska, on the South Platte River. In the six herds there were about fifteen thousand head of mixed cattle, being about 2500 head to the herd, each herd having its boss and trail outfit, which we will now attempt to briefly describe. The boss is the man in charge of the herd; then there were eight cowboys, one "horse wrangler," and cook who drove the wagon, drawn by two yoke of oxen—the wagon containing our provisions and bedding, the provisions being replenished from time to time from the "out posts," sometimes hundreds of miles apart. We received our herd in the western part of Gonzales county, the herd being in charge of N. P. Ellison, a cousin of Col. J. F. Ellison, a grand old cow man who owned the cattle.
On this trip we had with us the following boys, not a one over twenty-three years of age: W. M. Ellison, son of the boss, E. F. Hilliard, W. F. Felder, E. M. Storey, Albert McQueen, Ace Jackson, myself, two negro cow hands and a negro cook.
We left the Lockhart pasture about the first of April, took the Chisholm Trail and "lit out." My first stampede was on Onion Creek; as usual, this occurred at night, about 12 o'clock. The herd was bedded about one hundred yards from the wagon, two men on guard. In their fright the cattle broke for the wagon, and we asleep at the camp, being aroused by the roar of trampling hoofs scrambled up on the wagon. One of the older men jumped up and shook a blanket before them and turned them off the other way. The first thing I remember was the boss calling out, "Boys, get down and get your horses." It was then that I discovered that I had quit my pallet and was astride one of the hind wheels. Of course, we hurriedly got our horses, went around the cattle, after about a mile's run, held them, and they quieted down; old hands at the business will know that we slept no more that night. This trip was marked by excessive rainfall, big rains falling at night, and one hail storm, adding greatly to the hardship of the cowboy's lot; but we didn't mind it much, and with songs and jokes kept up our spirits.
When we arrived at old Red River Station, where the old Chisholm trail crossed, we found the river up, and several herds waiting to cross; we stopped on the east side of Panther Creek and pitched camp. I want to say here that that stream was rightly named. We killed a fat yearling, I won't say whose it was, tied a rope to one end of the front bow of the wagon, the other to a small tree; the cook hung the beef on the rope; when the boys came in at 12 o'clock to wake up the third guard he discovered a panther, standing on his hind feet eating the meat off of the rope, just on the opposite side of the wagon from where we were sleeping. He opened fire with his forty-five on the panther. We thought "horse rustlers, " now commonly called horse thieves, had attacked the camp; the noise of the firing stampeded the cattle. As the boys sprang out of their blankets some had their forty-five's ready and some made for the horses where it took but a moment to saddle and then off for the cattle. In the rush E. M. Storey sang out, "Who is that? If you don't speak out, I'll cut loose on you" and then we recognized the voice of E. F. Hilliard, calling out in the inky darkness from the direction of the firing, in excited tones: "It's a damned panther; he's eating our meat off the rope. " This was about twenty feet from where we were sound asleep, sleeping as only Texas cowboys can. By that time the herd had gotten a good distance away. We made a run to overtake the herd; finally rounded up a part of them that night, and the man on guard checked another part further away. The balance we found next morning in the valley of Red River; rounded all up and started back to camp about five miles away. We counted them, always a part of the program, to see if we had lost any. To show that our work was not all "rough work," and that we had our "bookkeeping" department, though ever so simple, I shall tell how this counting was done. The herd was allowed to string out; two men went on ahead, some distance in width between them; the others pointed the herd in their direction and so that they would slowly go between them; then they counted, and with a knot on the saddle string, or some other convenient method, tallied them by hundreds, each calling out to see if they had agreed; then knowing the number that we started with, we knew if our round up had been complete.
We bedded the cattle on the same bed ground that night; I and my pal stood guard from two o'clock in the morning, until day. On guard, one rides one way and the other the opposite direction around. As I got on the round on the side next to the creek I heard the most horrifying yell, or more of a scream, that I had ever heard in all my life. This blood-curdling scream came from a bending tree about sixty yards from the herd; my thick hair went straight up and has never fully settled down since that memorable night. The cattle jumped up, and about that time I met my pal coming toward me. Instantly I said, "What's that?" His reply betrayed his fright also, although he had been up the trail before. In language picturesque and accurate he replied, "The scream of a panther," with some adjectives before that name which assured me that my hair was not standing on end for nothing. From then on until daylight we just rode around together. Next morning we told the boss that we had rather swim Red River (then three hundred yards wide in swimming water) than to stand guard assisted by panthers, ready to spring on man or beast. A conference was held among the bosses and it was decided to cross some of the herds that very day. We hit the water about 10 o'clock, and crossed our herd first, four other herds following. Of course the outfits assisted one another in this hard and dangerous work; in this crossing one of the boys had a horse which refused to swim, and the man had to jump off onto a wild steer's back, but with pluck made a safe landing on the other side. This put us into the Indian Territory and new precautions had to be taken to save us from attacks by the Indians, the several herds keeping close together to be of mutual help, in case of a surprise attack. The next river was Washita, and we had to swim that also, narrow but deep and very swift. About a hundred miles further on we came to the North Canadian River, swimming also, narrow, deep and swift. When I swam across and came out on the opposite side on the second bank, I got down to pull off my boots and let the water out, and wrench my socks. A few scattering elm trees were ahead and about the time I got my boots off I looked up toward the trees and saw my first Indian, who looked about six and one-half feet tall to me, standing backed up against one of those elm trees, with the eagle feathers in his head, a long rifle standing up in front of him. He had on buckskin clothes with a dandy fringe on them. My hair rose again very suddenly, so I lit straddle of my horse and ran on out to the front cattle; the other two boys thought I was just seeing things because I was badly scared. They did not believe there was an Indian down there, but when they finished crossing the herd, and came on up with the wagon, there were about fifteen Indians showed up with the one I had seen acting as chief, who claimed that he was the noted chief "Spotted Tail." He told the boss he wanted "wa-wa," meaning beef. Then I had it on the boys and it was their time to get scared. The boss knew it was best to use a little diplomacy and so he told us to cut out four or five of our "drag yearlings," and turn them over to them. The Indians had just as soon have these lame or given-out cattle as any. Of course, Indian-like they wanted more, but we out-talked them, telling them there were more herds behind and they would gladly give them some of theirs. Then the chief put up his' spiel for "chuck," meaning flour, bacon, etc. And they talked like they meant to have it. We explained that our supply was short but just to wait on the big supply coming on behind; they left us and went on to meet the other herds, and we moved on out of their zone that evening. We saw no more Indians on that trip, and we did not look for any. On Salt Fork, there came up a rain and lightning storm, and I saw unbelievable doings of the lightning; it beat anything I ever saw, the lightning would hit the side of those hills and gouge out great holes in the earth like a bomb had struck them, and it killed seven or eight head of cattle in the herd back of us and two horses out of the "remuda," which being interpreted means the saddle horses. Nothing more eventful occurred and in about a week we arrived at the famous and renowned, Dodge City, Kansas, a familiar name to all cow men in that day. Then we provisioned and started on the tail-end of the journey to Ogallala, about three hundred miles. We arrived there about August 1st, our cattle all in good shape, in better condition long ways than when we left; they were there delivered to the various purchasers who removed them to their respective ranches in that great cow country. Our faithful saddle horses, wagons and all were disposed of with the cattle. On the night of August 20, this being 1877, I went to call on Col. J. F. Ellison, he being indisposed and stopping at the Gass House, and also to get my "time," which really means wages, about $180.00, then a small fortune for a young cowboy. Upon this visit to Colonel Ellison, I was introduced to two guests who had called to pay their respects; they were two brothers, Joel and Joe Collins, handsome young men, products of the West. About a week afterwards in that very neighborhood, the Union Pacific was held up, eighteen miles west of Ogallala, and the robbers rifled the express car, taking $100,000 in gold but scorning to take a huge amount of silver, which perhaps was too heavy to take with them in their hasty flight. Joel Collins was in this very hold-up being with the notorious Sam Bass gang who successfully did the trick. About a week afterward, Joel and George Hereford were killed by a detachment of United States soldiers and their part of the loot recovered, about three miles south of what was known then as Buffalo Park, on the K. P. Railroad. Upon getting my time, I lit out for home over the U. P. Railroad. On the way back I fell in with some wild and woolly green cow boys, making their first trip on a train, just like myself. At Grand Island the train stopped for breakfast; we got off and on the way to the eating place, a negro suddenly came around the corner of the house, beating one of those huge gongs making a most terrific din of noise. We were scared senseless, and it was all I could do to keep one of those boys from shooting that darkey. He contended that he would let no d--n nigger stampede him by beating on a tin can. It is hard for you who have always travelled and become accustomed to the ways of the city to understand just how puzzling civilization is to a boy raised up on the Texas frontier, whose life is very simple, and who knows cow trails far better than he does paved streets, and the camp fires the only hotels he ever saw until forced out into the world.
We arrived at Austin on time and there I took one of those old-fashioned stages to Lockhart, feeling like I had seen the world and with much pride telling the boys all that I had seen and been through with. The younger boys looked upon us fellows who had been up the trail as heroes, and of course this very thing incited others to want to go. It was the life ambition of many a one to make such a trip. You were not a graduate in the cowboy's school until you had been.
In '78 I was back on the comfortable old Withers Ranch. In '79 my old friend and boss W. A. Withers took through a herd and I went with him. We crossed the Colorado at Webberville and arrived at Taylor about the 22nd of April. A rain, a terrible rain, came up about four o'clock in the evening, raining all evening and all night. It was very cold and we came very near freezing to death. At that spring time period several horses and cattle died of the cold; every horse that we rode that bitter night was unfit for service the balance of the trip, so dreadful was the exposure. You understand cattle drift before windblown rain, and by morning we were at Hutto, eight miles away; we had had no supper and no breakfast, and not until noon did we have anything to eat. When these `drifts " take place every man and the boss is in front of the herd, holding them as much as possible; there are no shifts then, but every man to his post all night long, and the nights are long, too. On that memorable night I well recall my associates: M. A. Withers, in charge; G. B. Withers, G. W. Brock, A. N. Eustace, C. W. Pope, W. M. Ellison, Joe Lewis, the scout, Barney Roland, better known as "Pard," and Edmundo Martinez, the Mexican horse-wrangler. Next day it was still bitterly cold but the rain had let up, leaving the country covered with water. About noon we got back to camp, and our appetites, always good, were now ravenous and we looked forward to boiling coffee and hot grub of some kind. Instead, imagine our disappointment, at finding the trifling cook housed up in the wagon covered in his blankets, and hadn't prepared a thing, hadn't even started a fire. Mr. Withers, always mindful of his men, was outraged and hauled him out of there with a demand to know why he didn't have the boys something to eat. He evasively replied that he couldn't build a fire in that water. Mr. Withers gave him his time and told him to "light a shuck." I can see that cook now making it over those hog-wallows, filled with water, to the nearest town. Under a camp wagon is usually suspended an old cowhide called the "caboose," and in that we throw stray pieces of wood, etc., as long as we are in a country where it can be had, just for use in such emergencies. It came in handy that time, sure, and some of the boys got it out, and with a lavish use of the oil can we soon had things going, some of the boys doing the cooking. We were not particular and after a hearty meal our spirits were up again ready for any turn of fate in the cowboy's lot. The next day we picked up a boy from old Gonzales county, filled with the spirit of adventure, by the name of Joe Knowles, and he cooked the balance of the way up.
We went the old Chisholm Trail and crossed the river at Red River Station. Nothing exciting occurred until we got to Turkey Creek, Indian Territory; there the trail had been changed to turn northwest, and hit the western trail at the Long Horn Round Up on the Cimarron. The new trail had been marked out by a buffalo head set up about every half of a mile.
It was a hundred miles from Turkey Creek to Long Horn Round Up. We arrived at Dodge City early in June, sold our steer yearlings there to the well-known cattle firm of Day Brothers, moved on up to the Smoky River, sold the cows to J. R. Blocker; then lit out for Ogallala, Nebraska. At about thirty miles from the last named place, we pitched camp about a mile from the spring which curiously enough opens up right in the bald prairie and forms the head of the stream known at Stinking Water. Here I had an experience with lightning that I know rivals the experience of any man who ever went up the trail; how we escaped death I have never understood. The storm hit us about 12 o'clock at night, there was some rain, and to the northwest I noticed just a few little bats of lightning; then it hit us in full fury and we were in the midst of a wonderful electrical storm. We had the following varieties of lightning, all playing close at hand, I tell you; it first commenced like flash lightning, then came forked lightning, then chain lightning, followed by the peculiar blue lightning; after that show it rapidly developed into ball lightning which rolled along on the ground; after that spark lightning; then most wonderful of all it settled down on us like a fog; the air smelled of burning sulphur; you could see it on the horns of the cattle, the ears of our horses and the brim of our hats; it grew so warm, we thought we might burn up with it, and M. A. Withers and Joe Lewis, old timers, told me afterwards that they never had seen the like in all, of their experiences. Needless to say we were all on guard that night; the cattle did not give us so much trouble as the constant flashes keeping them from moving so much. We delivered at Ogallala and lit out for Texas.
Under the same leadership we drove two herds in 1880 to Fort Griffin, going what was known as the Western trail. We threw them together at Ft. Griffin, M. A. Withers taking full charge. There were about 4500 mixed cattle in that herd. It looked like a "round up" when turning them off of the bedding ground. When we arrived at Beaver Creek near Pease River we had a terrible rain, a veritable cloud-burst; raining all day, all night and all next day. The ground got so soft it was belly deep to a horse, and they would give out in a short distance, as tough as they were. For two days and nights we were without any sleep. We were in the saddle all of the time except when we snatched a bite to eat, and to change saddle horses. The prairie was simply covered with prairie dogs, which had been run out of their homes in the ground by the water.
On this trip when we left Washita, we were expecting to find plenty of water at the South Canadian, and found it dry as a powder house. That was nearly thirty miles through the hot sun dunes to Wolf Creek— sixty-five miles without any water. The cattle milled all night, suffering for water and "lowed" piteously. Next morning we hit the trail early. Late that evening we arrived at the brow of the old slope down to Wolf Creek, with six men ahead to hol d the lead cattle back. They made a run for the water, which they had smelled for some distance; ran through an Indian camp, stampeding the Indians and their horses; cattle and men all went off in the river together.
Here we sold the cows, about five hundred, cutting them out of the great herd. Then we mosied along up to Dodge on the Arkansas, camped just opposite old Fort Dodge, five miles down the river. Held here for ten days. On the Fourth of July, 1880, about two o'clock in the evening, the awfulest hail storm came up a man ever saw. The hail stones nearly beat us to death; it knocked over jack rabbits like taking them off with a rifle; it even killed a few yearlings and many fleet antelope, but the cow hands had to stick to their posts, although we nearly froze to death—on the Fourth of July. We had knots and scars all over our hands and backs. The ice lay about four inches deep on the ground next morning. Ten miles back at Mulberry next morning we found ourselves when day broke. It was so dark during the storm, in the day time, that you could not see a man ten feet away. We had no supper, nor breakfast, getting back to camp next morning at ten we found the cook fixing to leave, thinking surely that all the men had been killed. We were a hardy lot or we should have been, no doubt. No wonder "tenderfeet" did not survive those experiences.
I guess this about concludes my story. I met many brave and fearless men during those times. I want to say in conclusion that many of these men were tender hearted and as gentle as a woman; they were rough outside but refined in heart and soul. Of all of them, I shall always remember Mark Withers who was always thoughtful of and devoted to his men.
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