Scatterin’ the Drive

by Curtis Fort

Vermejo Summer 1974

By late April we began to gather and brand calves in the winter range and push them above the drift fence. All those canyons we wintered in were fenced half way down so we threw the cattle below the fence in January and back above in the spring. The cowboys spent long but good days working those canyons and burning a WS on the calves. We drifted the cattle closer to headquarters and eventually 30 miles more to the high country. By May 1st we were still branding and pushing those cows and calves toward headquarters and beyond. Charlie Price, a good friend of mine from Tatum where I was raised, showed up to visit as he’d just graduated from high school. He is all cowpuncher, same as his brothers Sid and Sterling, and their Dad, Tommy. Tommy was a hero of mine, and my Dad’s good friend, as they had neighbored for years. A few of us cowpunchers loaned Charlie mounts because he can handle anything you choked down. We enjoyed having him work with us for a couple of weeks. All the herds of cows, calves and bulls were finally pushed up the Bernal or Gold Creek trails to eventually arrive in that high range of good grass, big creeks and pretty country.

One day we were driving a bunch by Mary’s Lake (named for the movie star Mary Pickford). She, along with Doug Fairbanks and others, owned Vermejo in the late twenties and thirties. A big Hereford bull decided to head for other ranges and before you knew it, here came Charlie, mounted on a big dun horse. He ripped a loop on that bull’s horns, waved the slack to him, and the rope sure got tight when Mr. Bull hit the end of it! I was proud of Charlie for catching him. Jim Taylor, who always had a hungry loop, picked up both hocks and went to the end of it! Two or three of us bailed off and had to grunt hard to tail that brute over and put some dirt in his eyes. Mr. Hereford bull decided it would be better with the herd than dealing with those punchers. We spent some long days pushing those pairs closer to the summer range. We were always laughing and joking around as it was good to be on horseback, or as my friend Tommy Pearson of the San Simon outfit says, “. . . just riding a pretty horse and letting your feet hang down.”

As most big cow outfits, the Vermejo realized the cowpunchers had been locked down since Christmas with winter feeding, calving, and spring roundup. They agreed that everyone should celebrate the Fourth of July and be thankful for our freedoms. From the RO’s in Arizona, to the Fork’s in Texas, the Fourth is celebrated with a rodeo. Riding rank horses and roping . . . that’s a cowpuncher’s life . . . and they love it. Prescott, Arizona and Pecos, Texas still argue, both claiming to have been the first to have a rodeo, and they both have a big one on the Fourth. I like the way Will James tells it in one of his books, and it’s probably the way rodeos started. He tells that when shipping their cattle on the railroads, big outfits would camp within a few miles of each other at railheads. They day-herded their cattle while they waited their turn to load the train. This took several days, so with idle time, cowboys held roping and riding contests. The LX outfit bet the LS outfit they could ride any of their outlaws and vice versa, and pretty soon the Hash Knife’s and XX outfits did the same. So you had a contest of real cowpunchers doing what they did at work every day. Vermejo let everyone off for several days. The Fourth of July Rodeo, at Cimarron, NM, is one of those special events to celebrate the holiday. They open with our national anthem, then a prayer thanking God for our freedoms and those who gave their lives for this nation. It still goes on today. If you want to meet real cowpunchers, their wives and families, they’ll be there. Just go to the Fourth of July Rodeo, at Cimarron or other cow towns.

We all got back to work and it was a good time to start on the broncs. The high country camp men packed salt and watched for cows with “brisket,” a disease from the high elevation. They put out horse tracks everyday. As with most high country outfits, the time to start those broncs was in July, when it was as warm as it would be in that range. We had been prowling after the Fourth, as most of the cattle were in the high country. But it was a riding job so we were always on horseback, which was good. Jud had taken over the ramrod position since Bill John went to run an outfit at Clayton, New Mexico. One day when we were catching fresh horses, we could tell he couldn’t figure what powder to shoot. Then he lit up like a light bulb as we finished saddling up. He told us to hit a trot and find the mares and colts and see how they were doing! He said he’d seen ‘em a month ago up around the state line. The fact was that the grass was lush everywhere, the elk kept big holes in the fence and that all the pastures were big, so, who knew where they were? Ronny, Frosty and I covered lots of country looking for the mares and their colts. It was pleasant as there was green grass, cool weather and we were a-horseback. We would cut their sign, but we knew they were okay and somewhere on the outfit. About the second day we rode in around 6:00 p.m. and were unsaddling. We had just put our saddles on the racks in the saddle house with our wet blankets on top, rolled a smoke, and Jud drove up to quiz us about our luck at finding the mares. He knew they were out there and we knew it was just busy work, but when we said we were getting closer he said, “Ah, hell, there’s an ocean on both sides of ‘em, so they’re okay.”

It was time to start riding the broncs to replenish the remuda! Ronny was the bronc stomper, and Jud told me to “swamp” for him. That meant for me to help him forefoot, get them saddled and after Ronny made the first few rides, I would put some miles on them. Starting around August 1st, Ron and I met at the saddle house, saddled a couple of top mounts and hit a high trot to the Castle Rock Camp, seven or eight miles west of headquarters. Castle Rock was a big camp with corrals, houses etc., all of big logs in the middle of a beautiful open area. There were patches of big pines at the foot of the Vermejo Mountains, and it looked like everyone’s idea for the setting of the “dream” ranch. Ron and I came into one of the big traps, gathered those broncs and hit the corrals with them the first try without spilling them. They were just past two years old, had been slightly halter-broke when weaned, and besides being castrated in June, were out in the big range. They didn’t realize it was time for them to earn their way on the Vermejo and they’d find out soon that they were here for a purpose. So one at a time we tied up a hind leg, sacked them out, put a saddle on them and Ron stepped aboard. He liked riding those colts. He could ride a bucking horse but still had a way with those young horses. After a few saddles, I would start putting a ride on them after I’d helped him saddle a new one. Just before noon I’d go to the camp house to get the wood cook stove going and we’d have some fried taters and elk. Then we’d wash it down with fresh coffee and back to the broncs. We kept our bedrolls and some groceries at the camp house with a pickup, so we could come to headquarters a couple times a week. Ron and I enjoyed each other’s company as we rode those colts out through the pines and on bigger circles up in the aspens. We talked about Will James, Kit Carson and many more of our heroes who had put out tracks in that same range. We kept a couple of our top mounts over at Castle Rock but we went through most of August riding those young horses and putting miles on them. We were in a mighty pretty mountain range, always seeing elk, deer, turkey, and pretty often, bear. It was a good August and one I’ll never forget.