Scatterin’ the Drive – 11-10

Bill John Wooley — While I am on the subject of Wagon Bosses, one of the best that ever scattered a drive was my amigo, Bill John Wooley. Bill John was raised east of Springer and had been at Vermejo since he was a young man. He was the Wagon Boss on the north,  and the lower half was handled by a cow crew out of the Cimarron Headquarters.

Our half was from 7,000 to 12,500 feet in elevation, and like Bill John told me, “I’ve been here 18 years and I’d be lost on the lower half.”
When I hired on at Vermejo Park Ranch, it was September 1, 1973. We had to shoe-up as fall comes early in that range. Bill roped-out Friday, Jesse James, Badger, Silver and Sage for my string. We were a couple of days shoeing our mounts and getting ready for the fall works. This was the heart of the Maxwell Grant, 750 sections. I worked with some great cowpunchers . . . Jim Taylor, Ron Beers, Doug Johnson, Gary Loveland, Jim Jackson, Charley Duran and more. The first few days I was there we gathered some country around Mary’s Lake and Brimmer Canyon while the high country camp men were starting to throw pairs into the Costilla Vega. Ronny and I, along with Bill John, lived at Headquarters, so we were together on a regular basis. Bill was always dropping Ron and me off to work some country. I asked Ron, “Do you boys ever stretch your hemp”? . . . He asked me what I meant . . . I said “. . . rope something just for the heck of it”. He told me that whatever I could catch, he’d be there to help me out . . . and he was . . . every time!
Vermejo brings to me the memories of frosty mornings, 60 degree days, bull elk whistling, the smell of pine and piñon . . . and history! I love the American West and its history! At Vermejo I was always aware that I was putting out horse tracks on top of those made by Kit Carson, Ute Indians, Clay Allison and many other wild characters.
Bill John Wooley had put out lots of horse tracks on that northern half. He knew just how much you could do in a day.  He’d say, “Curtis, if you and Ron will work behind the wall and trail the stock down to Leandro Creek . . . then make a drag on that country above Cressmer Lodge . . .” If we’d “leaned-over” that day, we’d just get it done and our ponies were tired. We didn’t toss and turn trying to sleep at night. The best part was after sunset. We’d be at Castle Rock, La Queva, No. 1, or Ring Camp and we’d all pitch in to cook supper on that Home Comfort wood stove. Before supper, a coffee and Bull Durham smoke would be accompanied by Leandro or Slim telling about a fall works years before . . . tales of bucking horses, wild cows and good punchers. Bill had seen lots of cow works.  He’d tell a story or two and then he’d look straight at me, narrow his brow and say, “I was on that point, looking off at Gold Creek, and saw you come out in that clearing and “fairground” that red neck, high-horned cow!” I was worried, then he grinned and said, “She’s give us the slip before and I’m glad to see she got gathered. I’ll make sure she goes to the sale ring when we ship the culls in a few weeks.”
This fall works was one of the best ever! Our horses were lined out and I was working with good men. The aspen and oak brush were already turning golden by mid-September. We’d jig to the timber line. It takes a good horse to go that high and work through all that timber. Many times I found a point to study the country from 10,000 feet and up. I thought I could see clear into the Panhandle. What a beautiful country! Every day was fun. It was exciting to jig into a big mountain range with a good crew and come out with a big gather of cattle. It gets in your blood, that high country.
As we got time to visit, Bill was a little older . . . but we both craved cow punching. I asked him if he’d ever drifted to other ranges, to ride more horses and see different outfits. With a grin, he told me that he had. He told me that several years ago, he and a couple of Vermejo punchers decided to go to Arizona . . . way out West.  They quit right after spring works, rolled their beds and loaded them along with their saddles into Bill’s pickup . . . then pulled out. They made the 4th at Prescott and had lots of fun. Bill was quite a bronc rider and between him and his partners, they won enough to keep them afloat until late summer. They were planning to work for the Babbitts, the RO’s, Big Boquillas and Double O’s. These were all sure-enough cowboy outfits! They are places I always wanted to work. I have friends like Dan Crowley that worked for them during that time and they were sure-enough “western.” They were doing it “right” then and hopefully still are.
But there was something pulling at these New Mexico cowboys. It was the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range. . . with the aspen turning and the bull elk bugling up in the high country. Fall in the Cimarron Range is where these punchers were longing to be . . . where the “Plains meet the Rockies.” From the Vermejo, east to the Panhandle and south to the Canadian was the cow country that they loved. So they loaded their outfits and headed back.  Funny, the Boss just happened to still have their mounts waiting.
When I was at the Vermejo, they had 9 – 10,000 Mother Cows. We handled half of them along with bulls, mares, colts, etc.  The fall works were every day September 1st through November 1st. All that range around Castle Rock Camp was saved through the year as a big holding pasture.  This included the Mary’s Lake, Rock Creek and Gold Creek Range. Castle Rock was a painter’s dream. Log camps, and big cross-tie corrals . . . and it was all situated at the foot of Little Costilla Mountain. Because trucks could get in to there, lots of cattle were shipped and sorted there. The mother cows were drifted down to Headquarters and on to winter range. There were lots of big pine tree canyons that all drained into the Vermejo River. In a normal year it rained, grew lots of feed and had been empty since we gathered it all that spring.
The only time the two crews worked together in the fall, was early September.  We’d move up to La Queva Camp and the Cimarron boys would camp at Clayton Cabins. This was all in the high range and we had 1,000 dry cows in one big pasture that was between these two camps. We’d be a week or more throwing into a holding pasture . . . then trail them off of Windy Gap down to the Ring Camp where we spend several days “preg” testing, etc. We drove the shippers from there to Castle Rock. As we drove that herd, we always waved “adios” to the Cimarron crew. That was the last we saw of them until Christmas!
We would drop each herd in a trap at Headquarters, and then in a couple of more days we’d have them located in the winter range. Late one afternoon we were counting a herd through the gate out of Rock Creek Canyon. There was one cow that had tried to give us the slip all the way down Rock Creek. We never had a chance to “school” on her or we’d have spilt them all! After she went through the gate, I decided she needed a lesson. So in two jumps I whacked it on her and threw her the slack. Ol’ Friday took the jerk, best he could. Ronny saw this and in two seconds he was on his way on a big bay called Troubles . . . a good circle horse, but not known for his reining ability. Ronny had it tied, roared by, picked up both hind feet and tried to slow Troubles down. They hit the end, Troubles swallowed his head, threw Ronny off, and Troubles jumped “a-straddle of the rope”. You cowboys can picture it . . . I stepped away just as Troubles and the cow hit the end. It was a big wreck! Ol’ Jim Taylor, all cowpuncher, roped Troubles and helped straighten this mess out! We’d just reset our saddles and were assessing the damage when Bill John Wooley came down the Canyon on Banjo. He was driving the remuda. He pulled up, borrowed the “makins” and struck a Blue Diamond match across his horn. As he puffed his smoke, he was surveying the rope burns, broken reins, snorting horses and all. He said, “Any problems?” We said, “No.” He grinned as we all fell in behind the remuda. He could read sign better than a Comanche. He knew and was glad he didn’t have a crew of sissies!
Bill worked other ranges as did I, but I would go by and visit him over the years.  The last time was by his wood stove west of Springer in 2002. He’s now roping out fresh mounts on the Lord’s range!