As part of writing the Western novels in my "Ames Archives" series, I spend a fair amount of time and money looking up original sources, written accounts of the Old West from people who were there and lived its reality. (Recently, in this series, we heard from famed scout Billy Dixon about the Second Battle of Adobe Walls, which sparked the Red River War of 1874-75.)
One of the scariest events for a cowhand was a stampede by the herd. It could be sparked by almost anything: the scent or a glimpse of a predator such as a wolf, bad weather, a rattlesnake's warning buzz, or the eruption of a bird from a bush or a clump of grass beneath a steer's feet. Stampedes were a routine, expected occupational hazard on the journey from Texas to Kansas and beyond, and a herd might endure literally dozens of them before arriving at its destination. (One infamous herd experienced well over 30, and lost 90% of its cattle before reaching the railhead. The owner went bankrupt.)
Stampedes were deadly dangerous to the cowhands who had to stop them. In the fourth Ames novel, as yet unnamed, I've written about a typical stampede, drawing on the historical records in my possession. What you are about to read is fiction, but it's nevertheless very true to life, and dovetails precisely with actual accounts. It may as well be fact, from that perspective. It brings a sobering dose of reality to the often romanticized job of a cowhand.
As the afternoon drew on, ugly, angry thunderheads began to brew in the sky, soaring higher as they watched. The bright sunlight faded fast as the clouds turned gray and heavy, lightning flickering among their crowns.
Lee Jarvis, trail boss of this herd, rode up to Tyler, shaking his head. “Don’t like the look o’ this one lil bit. We got a big thunderstorm comin’. The cattle are already sensin’ it, and they’re gettin’ spooked. I reckon I’m gonna set camp a couple miles clear o’ the herd tonight, just in case, and double the night herd riders.”
“Good idea. Draw on the floating outfit for that, too. We’ll help.”
“I’ll be glad of it. Thanks.”
As they made camp, without having to be told, the teamsters pulled all the wagons, including Tyler’s chuckwagon, into a defensive circle, as if expecting an attack by Indians. The teams were watered at a nearby stream, then led inside the circle, which was roped closed behind them. The wagons could not move without them, so they had to be prevented from stampeding, no matter how wild the weather might become.
The cooks prepared a meal in haste. It was less appetizing than their normal fare, but that was understandable given the need to get everyone fed before the storm broke. No-one complained.
After supper, the hands would normally have gone to sleep. Not so this night. Nobody took their bedrolls from the wagons. Instead, they stood around, staring out at the grasslands illuminated by sudden flashes of lightning. They smoked cigarettes and sipped at mugs of coffee, their wordless tension almost palpable. Some changed the night horses they had selected – animals that remained saddled, with loosened girths, during the dark hours, to be available as quickly as possible if needed. Tyler noted that they were choosing bigger, stronger horses, more likely to keep their feet if they were buffeted by other horses or cattle.
Suddenly, just after ten, the storm broke. A forked bolt of lighting speared out of the sky and hit the earth less than half a mile from the herd. A split-second later, a deafening clap of thunder battered their ears. As the first raindrops fell, fat and pregnant with menace, there came a low rumble, growing in intensity almost by the second. The ground shook. Everybody knew what it meant. Even as Tyler yelled, “All hands! STAMPEDE!”, they were running for their night horses, tightening the girths, vaulting into the saddle, and turning them towards the herd. The teamsters rushed to the roped-off gaps between the wagons and stood by with their bullwhips, ready to turn back any attempt by the teams to escape their confinement. The scared oxen and horses surged against the wagons, rocking them, but could not break through.
The lightning flashes were coming often enough that the riders could see the herd as if in flickering, momentary images, heading south at a dead run. Their massed hooves pounded out a deadly drumroll of destruction for everything in their path. They might keep going for hours, if they were badly enough spooked and no obstructions got in their way. The cowhands spurred their horses to a full gallop, trying to race up the side of the herd to reach its head. Once there, if they could turn the leaders, the entire herd would start milling in a tighter and tighter circle, choking its momentum and stopping the stampede.
Riding so fast at night, when neither horse nor rider could see the ground clearly, held hazards of its own, besides the deadly horns and hooves of the longhorns. A horse dropped its foot into a prairie dog burrow. Its leg bone snapped like a twig. With a scream of agony, the animal somersaulted, throwing its rider clear over its head. He bounced on the hard ground, yelling in pain as several of his bones broke; but he was far enough away from the herd that none of the cattle ran over him.
Two of the most eager among the cowhands were not so fortunate. They raced their horses towards the leading cattle, ready to turn them, starting the milling movement that would halt the herd; but their luck ran out. Another lightning bolt struck the ground, a few hundred yards from the left side of the running herd. Thunder crashed instantaneously. Instinctively, acting as one, most of the herd swerved hard to the right – only to find the two cowhands and their horses directly in its path. The cattle didn’t even hesitate. The two riders and their mounts were slammed down and submerged by a sea of heaving bovine bodies, each weighing hundreds or even thousands of pounds, and sporting four cloven hooves that ripped and tore at everything beneath them.
The other cowhands had stayed further out from the herd, all too aware of the risks involved. The sudden turn put a few of them in a position to cut the corner on the leading cattle, racing across their front to their left sides. As soon as they could, they began closing in, urging the leading steers further to the right. The herd began to turn inward on itself, forming a tightening spiral that ate its own speed and forward movement. As the cattle were crushed closer and closer together, they had no choice but to slow down. Chests heaving with exertion, hearts pounding, much of the herd eventually shuffled to a halt. However, some cattle near the outer edges and the rear were able to break away and race off into the night. The cowhands let them go. They could be rounded up in daylight, when the darkness no longer hid the dangers.
Tyler and Lee circled the herd, making sure the hands were spread out at regular intervals, keeping control of the mass of animals. “Stay put until dawn,” they told everybody they saw. “We don’t know how far back the wagons are, but it’s gotta be several miles. We don’t know what direction they are, either. Wait until we can see.”
It was a thoroughly unpleasant night, made worse by torrential rain that lashed the herd and its handlers at intervals. There were sporadic attempts by some of the cattle to run from nearby lightning and thunder, but the hands were able to turn them back. Nobody had brought their slickers with them, so they had to endure soaking wet clothes, shivering in the strong wind in between rain showers. It was made worse by fear for their three absent comrades. Tyler and Lee had checked and verified everyone who’d come that far, but no-one had seen what became of the missing men.
With dawn came the first opportunity to check the cattle. As they got them moving towards where they thought the bedding ground was, Lee had two hands run a quick trail count. When he heard the result, he cursed savagely, and went to find Tyler.
“It’s bad,” he said without preamble as he drew up his horse. “We had 3,210 head when we left Las Cruces. Right now, we’re at 1,824.”
Tyler opened his mouth to swear explosively, but restrained himself with an almost physical effort of will. He took a few deep breaths before saying, “That ain’t good. I reckon we’d better keep the herd here for a few days while we go looking. You’ve got the floating outfit, and I’ll send messengers to the nearest herds, askin’ them to stop for a few days, so they can send you some o’ their people to help.”
“Thanks, boss. It’ll be best to move the herd a lil bit each day. There ain’t enough grass here to keep ’em all fed longer than a day or two.”
“I’ll leave that up to you. Why don’t you handle the herd, and I’ll search for the missin’ steers?”
“That works. Thanks.”
They detached the scouts and several of the floating outfit cowhands to look for the three missing hands. There was no immediate sign of the two who’d reached the head of the running herd, but the cowhand who’d been thrown from his horse was soon located. He was in a bad way, with an arm, a collarbone and several ribs broken, and his face badly lacerated from scraping along the iron-hard ground. He’d slid through dung of some kind, so his wounds were anything but clean. His injured horse stood nearby, broken leg hanging, unable to move.
Taking pity on the animal, a cowhand removed the saddle, then shot it to put it out of its misery. Others hurried back to the wagons, and returned with two long poles, a cross-piece and a tarpaulin. They improvised a travois behind a horse, and lifted the injured man onto it as gently as possible. He tried to be stoic, but couldn’t help moaning in pain at every jolt as the horse towed him back to the wagons. Blood frothed on his lips, a sure sign that one of the broken ribs had penetrated a lung. As the others saw it, their hearts sank. They knew that out here, far from a doctor, recovery from such an injury was very rare.
A rider hurried back to tell Tyler and Lee about their discovery. Both men listened with bitter apprehension. The very fact that nothing could be seen of the other two missing men was itself a clue as to their likely fate. Tyler said sadly, “I’ll take the floating outfit and ride back up the trail left by the herd as it ran. You get the cattle bedded down, and see to it that the cook makes the best breakfast he knows how for everyone. Save some for us. We’ll eat when we’ve done searching the tracks.”
The cowhands made no complaint as they collected spades from a supply wagon, knowing they would probably need them, then formed a long line on either side of Tyler. They set off, riding back in the direction from which they’d just come. They knew if that if they had been missing, their comrades would have been looking for them in exactly the same fashion.
The herd had left a great brown slash in the grassland, over a hundred yards across. Within it, every living thing had been beaten flat – grass, bushes, even animals. A few low humps of dirt showed where individual steers had tripped and fallen, to be pulverized, smashed into the ground by their fellow cattle. They were no longer recognizable as longhorns, so much dirt had been pounded into and over them.
At the point where the second lightning bolt had struck, diverting much of the herd to the right, its trail split in two. The wider section turned right, but a smaller section carried on straight, showing where some of the missing cattle had gone. However, there was still no sign of the missing men or their horses. Tyler split his party, a third following the smaller trail, two-thirds turning right with him to follow the larger.
Almost immediately one of the hands halted his horse next to two low mounds on the prairie. He stared in horror for a moment, then bent over and vomited. Even as Tyler and the others turned their horses towards him, he raised a hand and called, in a strangled voice, “Here they are!” He reached for the canteen of water slung on his saddle and rinsed out his mouth, spitting.
They gathered around. A few turned to one side and vomited in their turn. The remains of the horses were barely recognizable, and the two human bodies had disintegrated. They could no longer be identified at all. The cattle had pounded them so deep into the dirt that there was nothing left of the cowhands except bloodstained mud and tiny fragments of bone. The only signs they had been there were ripped, torn leather fragments from their saddles, the heel of one boot, and a single broken pearl grip from a sixgun, showing pale through the dust.
Tyler swallowed hard, fighting to control his gag reflex. At last he said softly, “All right, it’s the worst job in the world, but it’s got to be done. Some of you dig two graves over there.” He pointed to the side of the scar left by the stampede. “The rest o’ you, help me gather up what we can.”
“Hell, boss, ain’t no use gatherin’ up what’s left!” a cowhand objected. “We’ll never know who it was, or what part of ’em, or even if it was them or their horse. Let’s read a few words over ’em right here, then leave ’em be.”
“If you was them, is that what you’d want your friends to be sayin’ about you right now?” Silence. “Come on. Get to work.”
The grisly task was soon done, simply because there was so little to be collected. The hands remounted, and gathered around the two low mounds on the grassland. Tyler said, “I ain’t much of a prayin’ man. Anyone want to read over ’em?”
A gray-haired, grizzled cowhand reached into his saddlebag. “I’ll do it, boss.”
The others removed their hats as he turned the pages until he came to the ninetieth Psalm, and read it aloud. At the stern words reminding listeners of their fate, many of the cowhands blinked back tears. When he had finished, he closed the Bible, and thought for a few moments. Eventually he said, “Lord, we ain’t none of us saints here. We done wrong, all of us, an’ I guess we’ll do wrong again. Even so, we’re askin’ you to remember Charlie an’ Nathan here. They did their best, never shirked a day’s work an’ never let down their friends. They died tryin’ to help us all. Please be mindful of ’em.” His final “Amen” was joined in a ragged chorus by the rest of the hands.
As the old-timer replaced his Bible in his saddle-bag, the others put on their hats once more. Tyler said to him, “Thank you, Brewster. That was well said.”
“Thanks, boss. You gonna write to their families?”
“To Charlie’s, yeah. Nathan was an orphan. Injuns got his family when he was eleven. He was raised by friends o’ the family, but I don’t know who they were or how to reach ’em.”
“All right.” The cowhand sighed.
“I’ll make a marker,” another hand offered. “A man should have something to show where he lies.”
“Do that, please, Ross,” Tyler agreed. “We’ll be stayin’ here several days to gather up the strays. When it’s ready, we’ll come out here an’ plant it together.”
As it happened, there were three names on the memorial when they finally erected it. The injured cowhand died, four pain-wracked days after the stampede. It wasn’t only his punctured lung that killed him; he’d also developed blood poisoning from his lacerations. They’d been carefully cleaned, but too late to prevent infection setting in. They wrapped him in a blanket and carried him out to where his comrades had died, digging his grave beside theirs. “At least the three of ’em will be company for each other,” one hand muttered when it was over. The somber crew rode back to the still sadly depleted herd.
Well, there you are - the reality of a cowhand's life.
Following my recent heart scare, I'm finding it difficult to get back in the writing groove. I fully expect to do so, of course; but spending several hours, three days a week, traveling to and from cardiac rehabilitation classes, plus another few hours participating in a medical research study, plus the effects of the additional medication I've been prescribed, is taking its toll. I may have to delay a number of my current projects by a few months.
However, I'd almost completed the fourth Walt Ames novel before this complication. It only needs a little work to polish it up and get it ready for publication; so you may see it this year, rather than next, just so I don't keep you waiting too long for another book! We'll see how things go.