Scatterin’ the Drive 10/10

This is the first story, hopefully of many, about punching cows in the Southwest . . . mostly in New Mexico. I’m thankful that I was on horseback to see some of the wonderful cow country God made. Down the road, I’ll have some of my amigos share one or two of their tales with us.

When I went to the Bell Ranch along the Canadian River, George Ellis was the Manager. When “The Bells” was a thousand sections (up to 1947), he was Assistant Manager under Albert K. Mitchell. George and his wife, Martha, whom we all called “Mattie”, loved “The Bells”. It was their life. That ranch, over the years, has had some great Wagon Bosses . . . one of them was Leo Turner. I was fortunate to have been there when he “scattered the drives.” This first story pays tribute to Leo. He’d worked for lots of big outfits and when I got to “The Bells” he was now the boss. But you wouldn’t know it as he had a firm, but kind way of “shootin’ powder.” He was always willing to take the roughest trail or stand the longest guard.
I arrived in May of 1969 and Leo roped out nine head for my string. There were 120 saddle horses in the remuda . . . lots of sorrels, a few bays, blacks and duns. It took awhile to learn my own string. The last year I worked there I helped Leo rope out the mounts.
The Bell Ranch took pride in raising their mounts, as a good outfit should. There were several bands of mares and some outside studs for new blood. They bred for stamina, looks, good bone and cow savvy. The colts were weaned, slightly halter-broken, and turned out until they were cut as twos. They were gathered again at threes to do their part in operating “The Bells”. Horses played a large part in the operation of that ranch as they were wrangled and caught every day, no matter what the season. In the spring when you bring in those winter horses, you’d better pull your hat down when you step aboard.
Leo Turner was a horseman. He loved good horses and I’m sure that’s one reason he liked the Bell Ranch. His legs had a slight bow from lots of years in the saddle. I loved to listen to his Diamond-A stories about the years he was working at Victorio Land & Cattle. Leo made lots of horse tracks at the Gray Ranch and Armendaris. Leo’s Grandson, Sam McDonald, who used to visit “The Bells” when he was just a kid, is a puncher at the Gray Ranch today.
I always liked the names of the horses and some sure enough reflected some traits of their “personality”. Some names I remember are Tom Cat, Lightning, Fooler, Rim Rock, Rio, Portecito, Sox, Huerfano, Snuffy Smith, Dagwood, Denver, Lukey, Pickles, and one horse named Rocket . . . who showed me why he was given that name. These horses weren’t hauled around in trailers, they were ridden. As they say, “Wet saddle blankets make good horses.”
It was fun to work for Leo. He made you feel like you were part of the team instead of someone they could do without. When he was scattering a drive, he’d look over at you and say, “Do me a favor and drop off over here and throw everything toward that butte yonder.” When we were prowlin’ a pasture, he’d pull up on a hill and roll a smoke and say, “Burt, if you and Missoula don’t mind, why don’t ya’ll prowl all that below the Huerfano and east of the creek. Curtis, you and Gary work around Bell Mountain and, by the way, at them big boulders off the north end, there’s a great Indian camp. You better look that over.”
Just about every day, Leo and George would have a “powwow” out under the wagon shed. George knew that range. He had a plan and he’d ask Leo and his crew to carry it out in their way. Then George would go to the office and leave Leo and his crew alone to get it done. After one of these “powwows” Leo might meet us up at the long saddle rack, get his rope to rope-out horses, and say, “Well, they must like our work, they keep wanting more of it.” I remember once we were trotting along to the back side and a young cowboy, belly-ached about the low pay. Leo looked over at him and said, “If you want a raise, just eat more.”
The Bell Ranch, as a real cow outfit, fed all the beef, gravy and biscuits (big as your fist) we could handle. Leo’s wife, Lana, did the cooking at the headquarters cook house and besides the standard steak and gravy, there were pies and cobblers that would win any county fair.
Leo rode for the brand! As a cowboy should, you stayed with it until the mission was accomplished, no matter what the weather or the time. If you were in town at the 4th of July Rodeo, and someone said something bad about the outfit, there’d be a fight. In those days, cowboys were proud of the ranch they rode for. As Leo said, those ol’ outfits were the end of an era.
Managers in those days were used to getting all the cowboys (and good ones) that they needed. Some of those really bad horses that should have gone to town, were kept as part of the remuda. Cowboys were hurt pretty regularly and sometimes were killed, but they considered it part of being a cowpuncher. Leo used to say, “When they hand you that check each month, you can reach out with a steady hand and look ‘em in the eye.”
Leo knew that there’s no better tool on a ranch than a rope. It way out-classes a pair of pliers, post-hole digger or windmill tool. We used those, too, but when a puncher is at a straight-riding outfit like “The Bells”, along with his saddle and outfit, he needed to be able to rope. Knowing when and where was the key. Leo could rope . . . not only could he throw a consistently good “Hoolihan” in the rope corral, but when some cow quit the herd with a figure-nine in her tail, no one liked to “school” on her better than Leo. As he’d say, “Pull her horns together, put some dirt in her eye and make her stay in the round-up.” He showed me a loop I’d never seen . . . how to fore-foot a runaway. He called it “tip-toe in.” If you’re right handed, run up on them a little to the left of the center, roll a big blocker loop over their right shoulder and turn off. With practice, you’ll pick up both the front feet. It shore busts ‘em good! They don’t get wilder and they don’t want to try to get away. You don’t have to get your loop off before they get up, like when you fairground one. Just give ‘em slack and when they spread their front legs, the loop falls off.
One spring, when we were out with the wagon works, it was dry and hot . . . kind of normal for New Mexico. We were camped at the Seco corrals, in my favorite pasture, the 100-section “Seco”. It’s a shame they split it up a few years ago. Leo and crew made a big circle, held the roundup just south of the corrals, then changed horses and worked the herd. They didn’t need those bulls in the corral and they’d cut the drys and throw them into the trap to go in with the day herd. Leo was riding a sorrel pony named Alley Oop. As he was cutting a dry, Alley Oop tried to buck him off. Leo rode him and got him pulled up. After we penned ‘em and ate dinner, Leo decided to drag calves on Alley Oop to take some of the “edge” off of him. When we were branding, there were two draggers, and a couple of sets of flankers. Old Frank dehorned and George branded. Someone else ear-marked and cut. Just as we let a calf up, Leo was dragging one out and old Alley Oop fell apart for no reason. He could pitch hard. After three hard jumps he spun and wrapped Leo in the rope. One more hard jump and Leo came loose, but he was hanging upside down. The rope was tied to the saddle horn and wrapped around Leo’s belly, with a big calf tied on the other end. To further complicate things, Alley Oop got a hind leg over the rope. Alley Oop kicked Leo in the ribs while he hung there. This whole wreck took about 10 seconds to get to this point, the time it took for me to get to my leggings and pull out my hunting knife. Then I cut the rope. We gathered Leo up and got him in the wind-miller’s pickup. He had a concussion, broken ribs and was bruised up pretty good so they took him to Tucumcari, which was 50 miles away. One week later Leo was back at the wagon. We would hold his horse’s head while he got on. Once he got in the middle of the horse, he was the same as ever.
He was a good boss . . . cowboy, cowman and friend. He was “one to ride the river with.” Leo and Lana retired around 1980 to southern Arizona and he passed away in 1984. I’ll never forget Leo Turner!
There is some great history on the Bell Ranch. If you want to read about it, you’ll enjoy the following books that tell it like it was:
Cattle Men & Horses, by Jack Culley
Bell Ranch As I Knew It, by George Ellis
Bell Ranch – Cattle Ranching In the
Southwest 1824-1947, by David Remley
For more info on Cu