Following my recent heart attack, I’ve found my writing activities severely disrupted. Part of it is the sheer amount of time I have to spend on cardiac rehabilitation classes, seeing doctors, and other related activities. However, much of it is due to medication issues. I’ve been put on one of the most recent anticoagulant/blood-thinner medications, which is doubtless very effective at what it does, but also plain whups my butt! It leaves me breathless, dizzy (particularly when I stand up too quickly), and exhausted if I try to work too hard. (That may be intentional, for all I know, to stop cantankerous old farts patients like me from trying to do too much.)
As a result of all that, my writing has suffered. I think the projects on which I’m currently working will be delayed for up to six months as I battle through the aftermath of this episode. One ray of sunshine, however, is that I’d almost finished the fourth novel in my Ames Archives Western series. In the limited time I can devote to writing (including the small hours of the morning while lying in hospital, recovering), I’ve finished “A River of Horns”.
I hope it’ll be published in e-book format on Monday or Tuesday next week, God and Amazon.com willing.
It’s been a fascinating project to write “A River of Horns”. There are so many facts and details about trail driving cattle that people just don’t know, or which had become obscured beneath the overblown Hollywood legend and pulp fiction narratives of the cowboy and his era. I had to research this book very thoroughly indeed, in order to ensure that it’s accurate. I read many of the surviving original accounts of trail drives and cowboys’ lives, and learned from all of them. The incidents I describe fictionally all really happened, in approximately the way I describe them, to trail drives and cowhands in real life.
Even the economics of the cattle business (which I’ve tried to lay out for readers in an interesting, entertaining way) are true. For example, many big cattle ranches started out with no land at all! A man with drive and ambition would hire a few cowhands, even if he didn’t have a home to live in. They’d all camp out on the range, with a cart or wagon for their supplies, while they rounded up unbranded stock (so-called “mavericks“). He’d brand them, gather enough to form a herd, and drive them to market in Kansas or elsewhere; then he’d come back to Texas with the money he’d earned, and use it to buy the land that would later grow into a major ranch. Then he’d do it all over again, year after year, until his “cattle empire” had become established. Some men made good money (and later became ranchers in their own right) by contracting with a number of small ranches and farms to collect their cattle into a larger herd, then drive them to the railhead in Kansas for a fee of a dollar or two per head, plus expenses.
In later years (the 1880’s and after), big money entered the picture with the advent of British and northern American investors, who transformed the cattle industry into something approaching what it is today. However, the first twenty years or so saw individuals who wanted to “make it big” do so on the basis of their own very hard work, gathering and selling cattle to raise money to found the big cattle ranches. That’s what Charles Goodnight, Oliver Loving, John Chisum, Samuel Burk Burnett and others did; and that’s what my protagonist, Walt Ames, and his partner, Texan trail boss Tyler Reese, do in this book. I hope you enjoy it.
I published an excerpt from this book a few weeks ago. Here’s another, describing how the longhorn’s “blood call” could be used to entice wild cattle out of the dense brush in which they lived. It may sound far-fetched, but it was real, and used in the early days of cattle gathering in areas with thick brush. (A quick note: a “muley” was a longhorn without any horns. They were not desirable in a herd, because they could not defend themselves against bullying by other cattle, which created unnecessary disturbances.)
Three days later, as the sun was dropping towards the western horizon, Tyler looked around him. The banks of the Pecos River were obscured by dense brush, in some places a mile deep. If any wild cattle were to be found, this was the sort of place they’d choose to hide from their enemies. They would be as good as invisible, and the brush was thick enough to be almost impenetrable.
“We’ll make a start right here, tomorrow morning,” he said with satisfaction. “Come on. Let’s head away from the brush for a few miles, so we can make camp without alertin’ them with our fires.”
That evening, one of the ten steers was slaughtered. Before the cook cut it up and prepared it for supper, a bucket of blood was drawn from the big vessels in its neck, then the carcass was skinned. A flap of its hide was cut off and tied over the top of the bucket to prevent spillage, then the hide was folded and set aside.
“What are they gonna do with that?” a young cowhand inquired, nose wrinkling at the raw, unpleasant smell of blood.
“You’ll see, young ’un,” a grizzled older hand replied with a tolerant smile. “You’re about to learn what they mean by the ‘blood call’. We did the same sometimes, down on the Neuces River in the old days. It was the only way we could roust some o’ the worst of them ole ladino steers out o’ the thorn thickets.”
“What’s a ‘ladino’?”
“That’s a steer that got away young. It’s spent its life livin’ alone in the thick brush, and it knows it’s the boss. It takes sass from nothing an’ nobody, least of all no cowhand. It’s wild, it’s mean, and it’ll kill your hoss, or even you, as soon as look at you. You mark my words, boy – a big ladino will fight a grizzly bear to a standstill, an’ even kill ’em sometimes.”
“He ain’t jokin’,” another hand agreed fervently. “Don’t ever relax when you’re herdin’ wild brush cattle, and stay clear of their horns. They’ll gut your horse in a heartbeat, an’ rip open your leg from fork to foot if you get careless in the saddle. Friend o’ mine bled to death that way back in ’67, afore we could get him to a doctor. Sid went right through the War without a scratch an’ made it safe home, only to meet up with a killer ladino.” He spat sourly into the fire.
Sober nods and grunts of agreement from several old hands, and Tyler too, assured the young cowhand that the speakers weren’t joking or exaggerating.
Tyler added, “Try to keep a way open to get clear, just in case, and keep your gun handy. If one o’ them takes a dislike to you, and you can’t get out of its way for some reason, there’s only one way to stop it. I know we allus say you should never use your gun near cattle, ’cause they’ll stampede at the drop of a hat; but when it comes to fresh-caught, still-wild ladinos, you ain’t got a choice in the matter. In a tight spot, it’s them or you. All those of you who’ve never dealt with wild brush cattle afore, team up tomorrow with someone who has, and learn from them.”
That sobered everyone. Clearly, this would be no ordinary roundup.
Tyler rousted the hands out of their bedrolls at four the following morning. No fires were allowed, so the hands had to make do with a cold breakfast of the remains of last night’s supper, without coffee. They mounted their horses and walked slowly towards the brush along the river, one of their number carrying the bucket of blood, another toting the bloody hide. One group of hands drove the nine surviving steers along behind them.
Tyler halted the group about a mile from the brush, and checked the wind direction. It was blowing out of the west. He positioned the hands downwind from where he’d place the hide and blood, and warned them to move very quietly when the time came. “Form a half-circle as you come up to them, then spread out to surround them as you move them forward. Stay back an’ keep still until you see me make a move.”
Tyler had the hand carrying the hide spread it, bloody side out, over a convenient bush. The man with the bucket took off the cover and poured the smelly, turgid blood over the hide, so that it spread out on the ground around it. That done, they made themselves scarce while Tyler rode back to get the tiny herd he’d brought along. He and a couple of hands drove them towards the bush and the blood.
As the first rays of sunrise broke over the horizon, the animals suddenly scented the blood. Their heads lifted, their nostrils quivered, and they began to move faster, showing excitement. They broke ranks and surrounded the hide over the bush, hooking at it with their horns, pawing the red mud beneath it. A steer cut loose with a long, tremulous bawl, and more and more of the cattle took up the refrain.
“There they go!” Tyler enthused as he and the other hands rode off, stopping half a mile away behind a clump of brush. “Now to see if that fetches more of them.”
“I’ve got ten dollars that says we’ll see at least fifty come out o’ brush that thick,” an old-timer said.
“No bet,” Tyler retorted. “That’s why I chose this place.”
Sure enough, within minutes a shadowy form could be seen hovering just inside the edge of the brush. As soon as the steer was convinced that there were no enemies about, it hurried out of the bushes and over to the group of bawling cattle, adding its voice to the chorus. It was followed by another, then another, then a small group. More and more cattle made their appearance, and the herd pawing and snorting around the hide and blood-soaked earth grew larger and larger.
“I ain’t never seen or heard tell o’ the like!” a young cowhand whispered in awe as he watched.
“Hide hunters have,” another replied. “Buffler sometimes do the same thing when one of them is shot. They’ll gather round, beller, and hook an’ paw at it. That’s how some hunters keep a herd together to be shot. They lung-shoot a bull, so the others will gather round as they smell the blood, then shoot as many as they can before something spooks them and they run off.”
For over an hour, the cowhands watched as the number of cattle grew. The blood frenzy spread among them, causing them to bellow and paw the blood-soaked ground. Cows and calves that were too small to force their way through the throng to the center circled the outskirts, bawling in complaint at being deprived of access to the source of their excitement.
At last Tyler moved forward. There were well over a hundred cattle there now, and if he waited any longer, some of them were sure to notice the waiting cowhands. Looking around, he saw all his hands begin to follow his example, moving carefully so as not to startle the cattle. Closing in, they formed a ring around them, and began to urge them gently away from the brush towards their camp site.
At first the longhorns moved slowly, without complaint; but within minutes the wilder bulls realized that something was amiss. They were being pushed further and further away from the thick brush that had until now been their protection and concealment. Bellowing their anger, they tried to break back and get away. Fast-riding cowhands wielding lassos intercepted them, and cattle thudded hard to the ground as their hooves were caught in the flying loops and immobilized. It sometimes took two or three falls before a particularly stubborn steer could be persuaded to stay with the herd.
When they had reached clear ground, half a mile from the camp site, Tyler had the hands thin the cattle into a narrow procession. He and another man rode ahead, then turned to face inward. As the cattle were driven between them, they pointed to every branded animal they saw, or any branded cow with an unbranded calf. They also picked out every male animal more than about a year old that had not yet been castrated, and all the muleys. The cattle they designated were cut out of the herd and driven back towards the brush, allowing them to escape. When the counting and checking was over, there were sixty-one unbranded cattle remaining, plus the remaining nine head they’d purchased from the rancher.
Tyler had intended to make two or three gathers before branding, but the size of the first day’s haul persuaded him to change his plans. Fires were kindled, and the animals brought down in turn with ropes. Handlers kept the ropes taut while a red-hot branding iron was applied to the right hip, producing a clear Circle CAR insignia. Hair sizzled and burned as the brand was applied, and the longhorn jerked and bellowed at the pain. If necessary, while it was still distracted, another cowhand quickly removed its testicles with a sharp knife, producing yet more bellowing and struggling. After brushing the brand and wound with pitch as a rough-and-ready disinfectant, the animal was released to rejoin the herd.
By mid-afternoon, the work was done. The cowhands moved the enlarged herd a few miles along the Pecos to another likely-looking location, and made camp several miles away. The balkiest and most aggressive steer among their recent captures was killed for supper, and its blood and hide appropriated for the morning. Normally only two or three hands would ride night herd over the cattle. However, because of their wildness and recent capture, Tyler allocated six men to every watch of the night. No-one complained, because they understood the need for exceptional vigilance until the cattle grew accustomed to the loss of their freedom. Fortunately, because there were so many hands available, the extra work would not be an intolerable burden.
They all felt a glow of satisfaction as they ate supper around the camp fire. Tyler admitted, “I never expected to get so many on the first gather. Given luck, I reckon we may come up with a good few hundred head along the Pecos.”
“And if Jess does the same along the Colorado, we’ll have a decent-size herd when we rendezvous at El Paso,” an old-timer added.
“Let’s hope he does.”
“Our hosses are gonna be worn out by then, though,” a cowhand noted. “We only brought three mounts apiece with us.”
Tyler shrugged. “Yeah, but that can’t be helped. There should be several hundred more waitin’ in El Paso, if Walt’s friend has come through for us. Once we have them, we can rest these hosses for a while.”
I hope you enjoyed that snippet, and the previous one too. Look for the publication announcement for “A River of Horns” on Monday or Tuesday.