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Scatterin’ the Drive

by Curtis Fort. 

When Winter Sets In. 

We hung up our saddles for the next six weeks to guide hunters, while Bill John kept on prowling and staying a-horseback.

Starting the first of November, the cowboys, farm crew, and mechanics guided hunters. The high country was hunted out of Costilla and Shuree Lodges. The cowboys that spent the summers there, like Jim Taylor, would show hunters that range. Ronny and I guided out of headquarters, along with the other punchers and farmers that lived there. Those hunters were willing to pay a good fee to hunt there. It was great hunting because it was private and managed right, and they loved being on a special place called Vermejo. Guiding was fun and I made life long friends, like Ray and Gracie Olive from Vernon, Texas. I sure learned a lot from Ray about hunting, and he was a great shot. A few years later I spent several days with him hunting on his lease on the Pease River. I spent many enjoyable nights at his and Gracie’s home in Vernon, Texas. The next year when they came to hunt, Ken Olive, their eldest son, came with them. He had just finished college and was a great shot and hunter, like Ray. Over the years Ken and his wife Marie have become friends, and we spend a couple of nights each year at their camp in Kingwood, Texas. His brother Don, and wife, Cindy, have also been friends for many years. Ken, Don and I have been on some great antelope hunts together on the Diamond Half and Question Mark outfits in Lea County, New Mexico.

After six weeks of up at 4:00 a.m. and bed at 10:00 p.m., it was nice to catch a horse and get back to our real job of being a-horseback. We mostly helped Bill John pick up a pair here and there that he’d found and thrown in a trap, or some we had seen while guiding. He gathered a lot of ‘em, as Bill was all cowpuncher and a great roper. So if there were some he knew he’d need help on, they were plenty wild, and we were more than happy to help him. Some wild chases with roping, bellowing and slobbering took place. Then the camp men cut out their strings and drifted to their camps. Their camp pardner would haul their beds, groceries, war bags and all on the camp pickup. Christmas was upon us and I pulled out to spend Christmas at my folks in southeastern New Mexico. I was back at Vermejo by December 27th. Winter had definitely intensified with lots of snow and very cold nights. The next morning the cow manager said that he had forgotten about some cattle that were dropped in a pasture several miles to the east up on a mesa, and they were probably very thin. Now, if I would have been the manager and forgotten that, I wouldn’t be much of a manager and would have been sent down the road. But they are bosses and I’m just a cowboy. Bill John and Ronny were still gone for Christmas and were due in that night . . . but he needed me to go get those cattle. He was just too busy in the office to go help me.

Snow was a foot deep at the park when I roped Jesse James and got my wood on him. He was seven years old, tough as a boot and could go all day. He was very touchy and you had to twist that left stirrup, easing your foot in it, keeping the left rein very tight. You had to do that in July when it was agreeable weather, so you dang sure better do it at ten degrees. I loaded him in the bobtail truck and drove several miles up on top of a mesa where the snow was two feet deep. It was a long, very cold day, but a good feeling when I got those cattle down Road Canyon to some grass and I gave Jesse a good bait of oats. He was a cowboy’s mount. I sure ran that big old claw-footed tub at my house full of hot water that night.

The next day a new fella, Charlie Duran, hired on. He was just out of high school, craving the cowboy life, and wanting to make a hand . . . which he did. The next morning Bill told me to take Charlie and a load of hay and cake to those bulls at Torres Vega. It was one of those mornings that I didn’t mind getting in a feed truck, as it was cold and another snow falling. It was nice to crank up the heater in that vehicle and be warm for a little while, even though we were sweating after loading all that feed. We had good visit while sliding around on that bad road for fifteen miles. I couldn’t figure why they waited until the roads were terrible and hard to get feed to the cattle. Another case of we were cowpunchers and we weren’t drawing those high wages to make those big decisions! We passed the stage stop and went up the creek to where Gold Creek flows into the Vermejo. We blew the horn and soon those bulls drifted in. We were basically stuck as it was so wet and muddy, but our mission was to feed those bulls. We started carrying those bales out a-ways and cut the wires to spread it out. Now, those big Charlois bulls were snorty and walking out through them wasn’t fun, as some of them would “eat your lunch.” One of those bulls would run Charlie to the truck, blowing snot on him, and he’d dive under the truck. Then he would pop out again and carry another bale, then get run back. The same would happen to me and we had lots of laughs that day. Thirty-seven years later I consider him a close friend and another “man to ride the river with.” Charlie liked to hunt and was good with firearms. His favorite was a lever-action 30-30. Once I saw him hit the target every time, shooting as fast as he could pump the lever . . . just like that TV show, The Rifleman. A few days later, Bill roped out some mounts for Charlie, and he went to the Brimmer Camp to help Jim Peebles.

The next morning, after we’d saddled up, the boss scattered us in different directions. He sent Ronny and I up the Vermejo a dozen miles to gather those bulls at Torres Vega and bring them to headquarters. Snow got deeper the further we went and was twenty-four inches as we went through the gate by the old stage stop. We hit a trot as much as was possible through that snow to the north end, and scattered out, while pushing everything south. In the middle of the pasture along the Vermejo about where Gold Creek flowed in, there was an old one-room camp and a small barn with a pole corral. Ron and I were cold and thought we’d stop there under the roof of that old barn to eat the sandwiches rolled up in our slickers. So we hobbled our mounts and I scraped a hole in the snow under that shed. We found some old boards for a fire and somehow got it going. We hobbled our mounts off to the side and thought we’d see what was in that old, one-room camp. We rolled a smoke and Ron dug a match out of his leggings to light them as we stepped into that old camp. The walls were papered with newspaper from the 1930s and 1940s so we spent awhile reading the news ten to twenty years before we were born. We didn’t stay long as we had a lot to do before sundown. The whole country had a blanket of snow so I kicked some snow on our little fire after we ate. We threw those bulls south and counted through the gate and we were short a few. We had a long way to go and no time to make another circle so we made a high-level decision, called common sense, and took what we had. It was a long, cold trip down the river and it was frozen solid, with the trail crossing it many times. We got to the holding pasture at headquarters just at dark, dropped the bulls there and hit a trot to the saddle house. There we unsaddled some tired mounts and threw them each a chip of hay. Then we headed to our casas, with a light snow falling at 10 degrees. It was another night of filling that claw-footed bath tub with hot water.