Scatterin’ the Drive

by Curtis Fort

Winter Prowlin’ At Vermejo

As we went on with the winter chores of riding through the cattle, and finishing doctoring those bulls, we were all still in shock at the terrible incident with Mr. Drake’s death. We caught horses every morning, and Bill John sent us on many missions prowling. It was good to get away from the corrals and not have to mess with those bulls. They were back in the bull pastures on hay waiting to be turned with the cows in the spring.

Jim Peebles, my Bell Ranch amigo, had hired on around February and was holding down the Windmill Brimmer Camp. Jim’s brother Marshall hired on, so they sent him over to the Brimmer Camp, and Charlie came back to the headquarters’ bunkhouse and rode every day with us. The Brimmer Camp was several miles south of Mary’s Lake in the Brimmer Canyon. That canyon goes for twenty miles and finally, at the mouth, goes into the open country several miles northeast of Cimarron. That winter I went over several times and helped them work cattle. One time I went it was sure cold and Marshall roped out a big dun named Sofia. Now that’s kind of a sissy name but Bill said they bought that horse as a colt from a little settlement named that over by Farley, another suburb of Clayton (probably forty miles from Clayton). Anyway, Sofia was a good mount but would buck, and wasn’t a kid horse. When Marshall untracked him you could see the horse was swelled up. So Marshall turned him around, twisted that left stirrup, jobbed his foot in that ox-bow and stepped aboard. That horse was big and stout. I had him in my string when I first hired on. He was a good mount, and tough, but I had taken two broncs into my string the fall before, so turned him in with the extra mounts and Bill put him in Marshall’s string. Well, Sofia fell apart and Marshall stayed right in the middle of him. I knew then he would do to “ride the river with.” Jim and Marshall were fun to work with and they weren’t afraid of any horse. They would rip a loop on a runaway, no matter how rough the country. They were tie-hard men and liked that “feel” when something big and full of snort “hits the end“ of that 30-feet of nylon. They both packed heat of the 357 caliber and could shoot. In May the boss asked me to drive them up to La Cueva Camp, as that would be their summer camp. They demonstrated they could “catch” fish with those pistols, better than I could with a pole!

All the Vermejo camps were punchy . . . no electricity or generator-eating diesel that made noise. Wood stoves were for cooking and heat. Water came from wells with a hand pump and was carried into camp in a bucket. The outhouse was out back. Those cabins were log, nothing fancy, but well-built and comfortable. Each had one or two bedrooms with big iron beds with springs over which the camp man rolled out his tarp-covered “hot roll.” There were kerosene lamps, homemade chairs and tables, pegs in a long board on the wall to hang hats, coats, and all. These camps were located in pretty spots and most had a creek running close-by. Each had a set of pole corrals, saddle house, and a barn for horse feed. If it was also a winter-camp, there would be a large barn for cottonseed cake or protein blocks. Those camps were a long way from headquarters and it took men that liked solitude. A cup of coffee and good smoke was the best part of the day. I think they knew they had a special place and they enjoyed the quiet, appreciating Mother Nature. Most eventually married, had children and enjoyed all that goes with a family, but I think they had great memories of solitude, and cooking what they wanted.

About this time my cousin Max Fort came to stay with us a few days. It was fun visiting and getting to show him some big country. The first morning I roped out Badger from my string for him and we all got saddled. It was plenty frio, about 20 degrees. Jim and Marshall Peebles had come down to headquarters from the Brimmer Camp, had supper at the cook house and stayed at the bunkhouse. They needed to get some chuck at the commissary and Bill had cut out couple more mounts for their strings. Bill told them to take them in the bobtail truck, and told Max and I to jump our ponies in, too. He told me someone had seen a couple of pair over by Mary’s Lake lately. They had been in the higher range, but were on the east slope, and were in good shape. They needed to be picked up and driven to the head of the Guachapin Canyon, where we would drift them down to the Bobcat Tank, where the feed man was breaking ice for the stock. Eventually they would wind up with the rest of the stock in that range. Bill told us we could then prowl all the way down the canyon and back up the river, which we knew was 15 miles or more. But that’s why we drew those big wages . . . mainly we rode for the outfit and wanted to make a hand! So needless to say, Max and I were looking at a long circle. While Jim was warming up the bobtail and Marshall was loading those mounts, Max and I trotted up to my house, a hundred yards or so, to get a lunch to roll up in our slickers. Max held our mounts, and I went in and got some biscuits, steak, and jalapenos, which we put in bags and rolled up in our slickers. I knew they were waiting on us down at the corrals so without thinking, I didn’t twist that left stirrup, or pull Jesse James’ head around like I should have, but jumped up, jobbing my left foot in the stirrup. He did not like that, and fell apart, bucking down the hill towards the horse corrals and bobtail truck. I’m not a bronc rider, but somehow rode ol’ Jesse in one stirrup, and swung aboard. He had me bucked off a couple of times, but bucked back under me, so I got him pulled up. An hour later, we jumped our mounts out of the bobtail, and waved adios to the Brimmer Camp men as they drove off. We split up and made a circle cutting for tracks. Pretty soon I heard Max holler. I saw he had jumped them and was throwing them towards the canyon. I whipped and spurred to fall in with them and we turned them towards the gate. We got them into the canyon where they would get water, grass and cake, and then we hit a trot to cover a lot of miles. When we rode into headquarters it was nearly dark. We unsaddled, gave our mounts a chip of hay and headed for my house where we got warm for first time that day. We enjoyed a big supper of elk, gravy and biscuits.

The next morning was exciting, as Bill had said we could go with Richard Holcomb to hunt lion that day. Richard was not only a cowpuncher, but a great lion and bear hunter. Vermejo let him hunt all he wanted and he could bring a client along. That way he could charge them for a good hunt and Vermejo kept their lion population down like it should be. So I caught Max a good rock stomper called Timber, and I caught Friday for myself. I never knew why he had that name but he was a tough little bay horse, and hard to shoe! Richard had stayed at the bunkhouse, and his lion dogs were in a good hay filled stall at the horse corrals, with food, and water. Richard had his own mounts and we loaded our three caballos and the dogs in the bobtail truck. We drove up to the Leandro Creek area, unloaded, and then hit a trot to an area of range called “behind the wall.” The wall is a 100 -200 foot rock wall that works its way through the Sangre De Cristo Range. Richard knew that country well, and it was a mild winter for that high range, so we got up into some really rugged country. Richard believed in his mount carrying him down any hog back or narrow trail. Max and I have talked about that day over the years and we both agreed there were several times we would have preferred to step off and lead our mounts. But Richard stayed mounted, and we didn’t want to look like sissies, so stayed mounted. Max told me he just knew we would fall off a trail that day into oblivion . . . but at least it would have been a western place to cash in . . . The Vermejo!