Scatterin’ the Drive

Southwest Stockyards, El Paso

In the Fall of 1969, it was time to drift back to NMSU from another great Summer at the Bell Ranch. Marvin Gard and I ran into each other and had a big visit. He told me all about winding up in Montana after the branding at “The Bells” the past Spring. He hired on with a big outfit with ranches across the West.

They had him ride a bus to Montana. On the way through Nevada, an old cowboy got on, saw Marvin was a cowpuncher and knew his bed and saddle were in the luggage rack. He said, “Don’t let these Nevada ranchers see you as they always need new ‘Punchers’. They’ll send you out on the wagon and you’ll never come in. I was out so long this Spring, my kids didn’t know me when we pulled into Headquarters.” We always wanted to go there.

We both needed work, so through a friend we hooked up with Tom Selman. He owned Southwest Stockyards in El Paso, where they processed lots of yearlings and sent them on to grass out west. Every weekend, Marvin, his brother Ernest and I left early from Las Cruces to go to Southwest Stockyards. We’d arrive just after sun-up. Tom was fun to work for . . . a little cranky like “old” people get when they pass 40! He had done lots of “cowboyin,” and as a kid, worked for Bob Crosby, the Steer Roper. He said they got up early and Bob would have a big pot of pinto beans ready. He’d tell them to get a plate and eat all they wanted. That was breakfast.

At Southwest we received thousands of 350 to 600-weight crossbred cattle from Mexico, the South and probably some from Oklahoma. We called ‘em all “Oakies.” They usually had lots of ear on them. Our main job was to brand, vaccinate and dehorn everything. Most were bulls, so they needed to be cut. That first weekend I cut several hundred. None died, so I was named “Chief Surgeon.” We had a Powder River squeezer with a good, long chute from the crowding pen. There was an hombre we called “Crazy Ramon,” who worked with us. I could understand enough of his “lingo” to tell him that when we opened that squeezer we didn’t want to wait. We wanted one lifting it off the ground! Southwest Stockyards bought hotshot batteries by the case and Ramon used ‘em well! That long chute would hold eight to ten 400 to 500-pound cattle. I told Ramon to keep them “buzzed-up” and on the “go.” He’d walk up and down “jobbin’” them and it sounded like a choir, as all of them had a different bellow . . . but when we opened the squeezer they were “huntin’ a hole”! We were paid by the hour, but we worked non-stop. I think we made $1.25 per hour and we worked hard because we liked to feel like we could look Tom in the eye when he gave us that check.

There was a roof over the branding chute. In a normal day there would be several scoop-shovels of horns that Ernest “knocked off.” He also “ticked” them and kept the air full of that blood-clot powder. Marvin branded, worked the squeezer and I cut. Sometimes Ramon was so fired up with the hotshot that a calf in the chute would jump on top the one in front of him, rear up and fall backwards. Wedged upside down like that, they’ll die fast and we couldn’t get a horse close enough to pull them up because of the roof over the chute. I told Ernest to pick out a big calf in the crowding pen and buzz him up. Marvin and I would take a short rope and tie it around the horns of the one that was upside down. We would tie a loop with a bolin knot and Ramon would slide the gate open. Then 500 pounds of fire-breathing beef would leap over everything! When he jumped over the one that was down, we’d drop the “collar” over him and he’d hit it so hard it would jerk the downed one straight up. Ramon would apply more “juice” so that we’d have two of them in the squeezer, which was really wild!

That Fall, Marvin, Ernest and I branded thousands of crossbred critters. At Thanksgiving we had time off from school and spent night and day making those high wages. We branded all day, then worked all night loading a train close to Juarez with cattle going to grass out around Bakersfield, California. We only had one or two pot-bellies, so it took all night. I remember going with the last truck-load. It was just after daylight when Tom drove-up and said, “Get your saddle, crawl on the caboose, help shape ‘em up and I’ll fly you home.” That word “fly” did it. I may have thought I was a “wild” cowpuncher, but I didn’t crave that . . . so I passed. Now I wish I would have gone as that was the last livestock I ever loaded on a train. There never was another chance to ride the caboose.

Around Christmas Tom told Marvin and I to throw our saddles and beds into one of his pick-ups and go help at an outfit he had between Sierra Blanca and Van Horn, Texas. We found the set of pens off the interstate when it was just getting light.

Owen Gray ran this outfit. Tom had this Hot Wells Ranch and ran 1,000 Brangus heifers with 100 Corriente bulls. Our job was to help Owen gather that ol’ desert ranch that ran into the Diablo and EagleMountains, and to ship these bred heifers to Arizona and California. As we pulled our “kaks” out of the pickup, along with our leggings, bridles and all, Owen introduced himself. He was a nice fellow, probably 50 or 60, with gray hair and a moustache. I liked him. You could tell by the lines in his face and by his walk that he was all cowpuncher. He said one of us had to ride a mule that day. In the early-morning light, I could see fifteen or twenty horses in a pen along with the ears of a mule sticking up. So I told Marvin I’d flip him for the mule. Luckily Marvin got the mule, or so I thought. It turned out that the mule was the best mount in the remuda. Owen pointed out a gray horse for me so I rolled a loop on him. He wouldn’t turn to me and I flipped the slack over a cross-tie. I wish I could have gotten another turn. As that gray hit the end he sat back hard, pawing and choking, then jerked the rope through my hands. Old Frank (at the “Bells”) had made me a horn-knot out of a chain-link, and it flew like a bullet and caught Marvin above the eye. He went down like a beef. I got him propped up against a post and by the time I had this horse saddled, Marvin was back among us. The gray was a goodlooking horse but as you all know, looks are deceiving. He bucked and I managed to ride him, but all day he would “try” me if he thought I was napping. That first day we “jigged” a long way to the top of the Eagle Mountains and started to throw cattle toward some holding pastures. Each day we caught fresh horses and gathered that country. We shipped those bred heifers to their destination and the bulls went to New Mexico and on farther West. We did rope a lot of runaways and sure enjoyed Owen Gray. When we threw our outfits into the pickup and headed to El Paso, we felt that “works” would have never happened without us!

Tom sent me back that winter for a week or so. I stayed at Headquarters and Owen and I stayed a-horseback, scattering and locating another set of cattle. The Southern Pacific Railroad went right by Headquarters. All the corrals, saddle house, etc. were made of cross-ties. Each evening around 6:00 p.m., I’d wrangle the horses for our next day’s mounts. The tracks ran along the horse pasture fence and the 6:00 o’clock train would roll by. The guy in the caboose would wave. With my hat pushed back and my spurs jinglin’, I knew he must have been envious of that cowboy wranglin’ the horses.
I returned to Southwest Stockyards where Tom had leased a bunch of fields. After the frost hit the alfalfa, Marvin, Ernest and I put 1,000 or more yearlings there. We moved our beds and horses to a camp there and prowled those cattle, roping and doctoring. We had a few good wrecks. As it could get cold in that valley and there wasn’t much scenery on those fields, we were all looking forward to Spring and drifting back to cow country. Ernest threw his saddle and bed in with mine and we headed for the “Bells,” cravin’ more cow works!