Scatterin’ the Drive

October, 1973: Vermejo. 

We made several trips that fall bringing herds that Jim Taylor and Leandro Martinez had gathered out of the timber and we put them in the Costilla Vega. Every week they would have another gather in the Vega, and we headquarters punchers would bring them down to pastures around Castle Rock Camp.

While those high country guys were gathering their range, we were gathering all the country on the east side of the Vermejo Range and throwing them into the Castle Rock pastures. Ronny, Larry, Tom and I followed Bill John on some long circles. We worked everyday from the tenth of September to November first to get the fall works done.

By mid October Jim Taylor brought his bed and horses to work with us, and Leandro stayed in the high range to gather the last ones. Jim was a good hand, knew the Vermejo well, liked to laugh, and you could count on him when the chips were down. He was raised on the Moise Ranch at Santa Rosa, New Mexico, that his dad managed. Years later I would stop as I went through Santa Rosa and visit with Jim’s dad. He was a great fella, and would keep me up on what big outfit Jim was working for. I always admired Jim for working on lots of outfits all across the West. Jim Taylor has been a friend of mine since we worked together at Vermejo. While I was there Jim held down La Cueva camp in the summer and the Brimmer Canyon camp in the winter. We worked lots of range, roped a lot of wild cows together (most needed it) and he is a fella I admire. As Zane Grey wrote, he is “a man to ride the river with.” In all the outfits he worked for, Jim was well respected for being a good hand with horses. His string had good mounts because he made them that way.

I remember one day, while Bill John and I were riding through that Adams and Bartlett Lake pasture, he told me about his amigo Bill Johnson getting killed there a few years before, right there in that pasture. Years later I asked Jim Taylor about it. He said he worked for Bill Johnson and he was all cowpuncher. Johnson was breaking all the broncs and the wagon boss left or got fired. So the boss position was handed to him because he was a good hand. Seems a wild cow ran off and Bill roped her. His horse fell apart, went to pitching and got his legs over the rope. When the cow hit the end of the rope, it flipped that horse and he came down on top of Bill. He didn’t live to make it to the hospital. Bill was another cowpuncher that loved his work and gave his life ‘for the outfit’. I salute him and wish I could have worked with and known him.

Every herd we brought out of the high country, either down the Bernal Trail, or down Gold creek, were thrown into pastures around Castle Rock Camp. Castle Rock Camp is in a beautiful spot located in the middle of a big vega at the foot of the Costilla Range. There was a log camp, with a kitchen and rooms to roll out your beds. A set of big corrals were made out of two-by lumber and cross ties, very similar to a set of railroad shipping pens. Of course, there were barns for feed, horse corrals, and a saddle house. This camp was where all the calves were weaned and shipped, and the cows were pregnancy tested and culled. South of the camp a mile or so, is a hot spring that comes out of the ground right under a big rock that resembles a castle. That is where the name of this camp originated. By mid-October we had most of five thousand cows and calves in the Castle Rock area and were starting to work them.

One morning as Bill John roped out our mounts at headquarters, he told me to load my mount in a trailer and go to Number One Camp to help Leandro bring some cattle down the trail. It was just good daylight when I pulled up to that camp. We had a cup of coffee then hit a trot to the vega. There were only ten or so pair and we drove them up to the top of Bernal Trail, then down the trail to the Elk Trap, where we left them. Afterwards, we hit a trot back up the Gold Creek Trail to Leandro’s camp. It was a long ways, so Leandro and I visited all the way. He was twice my age and had seen a lot on Vermejo, so it was interesting to hear his experiences. As we rode into camp and unsaddled, he pitched a big hunk of hay to our mounts. Inside, we got a fire going in the cook stove and put the coffee on. He told me to peel some of those spuds and he’d be back soon. The coffee was just beginning to boil when Leandro walked in with some fresh trout from the Number One Creek that flowed through his horse corrals. We had fried trout, fried taters, seasoned with Tabasco, and some camp biscuits he whipped up. What a feed! All was washed down with that good, boiled coffee. As I was driving off of the mountain by the lakes and down through Gold Creek, I thought of this great day. Just then, it dawned on me that it was my birthday . . . October 19. It was one of my best as I’d rather have been there than any big party. The next ten days were quite busy working several thousand pairs at Castle Rock. All fall, as we brought herds down Gold Creek and Bernal, we cut out all the bulls and put them in a pasture named Torres Vega. On the south end was a shore-enough old stage stop, still standing and in pretty good shape. The north end was the Colorado line with a big, rough hogback ridge running through the middle from north to south. It had brush and timber on the east side and pretty much open country on the west. About the middle of the pasture the Gold Creek flowed into the Vermejo River. There was plenty of grass and the cattle would do well there until winter. Then we’d drift them down to headquarters.

Several days that fall we worked over at the Brimmer Camp, where Jim Taylor always wintered. We were working several hundred cows the ranch had bought, branding them through a Powder River Chute. There was a gentleman with us named John Neary. He was a nice fella, a professional writer hired by the Audubon Magazine to write a story on Pennzoil buying Vermejo. He was snapping photos and studying all the cow works. It was a cold, overcast day with snow flurries, so it was great when Bill John said, “Let’s eat dinner!” This means noon to country folks. Our dinner was sandwiches the folks at the cookhouse fixed for us and great camp coffee. I poured John a cup of coffee and took it to him as he sat on the ground, eating. I sat down beside him and visited. He was very interesting and had lived in New York while writing for major publications. He now lived in Santa Fe with his wife, Joan, and three sons. As writers are very inquisitive and good at their work, he asked me about my neck rag, cuffs, and our cowboy garb. I told him all of it had a function, and that cowboys are proud to be cowboys, so they don’t wear bib-overalls if they can help it. John was staying at Casa Minor, one of the rock mansions at headquarters, and I invited him to my house at the cowboy end of the park. I told him how I loved books on the cowboy life and had a few, and that I would show him it really wasn’t any different than 100 years ago as it still took cowboys and horses to get the job done. One night he came to my casa and we had a great visit. We became good friends and for the next thirty-five years we had lots of great visits. I spent many a-night at John and Joan’s Santa Fe home. His interest in cowboy life and subsequent article in the Smithsonian Magazine on my bronze sculptures, had a huge impact on my life. John passed away in 2011 and I miss that amigo.

The next week or so at Castle Rock was full with lots of cow works . . . weaning, shipping, and just fun, working cattle with good cowpunchers. Trucks could get to Castle Rock, so all the calves besides the keeper heifers, were shipped from there. Then we drove all the cows to winter camps . . . Brimmer, Caliente, Horse Camp and others.