by Curtis Fort
Fall 1974 Vermejo
September first was here. Our mounts were shod and the first thing to do was to gather the dry cows out of a big pasture in the high country and work them. That summer Jim Jackson and his wife Val had held down the La Cueva camp way up in the high range. I loaded all six of my string in the bob tail truck, tied my bed and saddle on top and drove thirty miles to La Cueva. That was a great week! Jim and I left every morning gathering the mountains in Valle Vidal Pasture that stretched from La Cueva Camp to Clayton Cabins. The pasture had Comanche Creek right through the middle of it. The west side was the top of the Midnight Range and the east side, the top of Little Costilla Peak. On the south end of that pasture was a camp called Clayton Cabins, and several cowboys from the lower division of Vermejo were camped there gathering the lower half of the pasture. We were gathering a thousand cows that were dry that spring and were now fat from a summer in the high range, and hopefully bred. Jim and I would leave his camp every day and work some canyons and timber. What we came out with on Comanche Creek, we’d drive to the south end and throw in a big holding pasture. Charley Duran and Jim Taylor would trot down from Number One camp and help us. We had a big breakfast and didn’t eat until supper, except for the stick of jerky in our pockets and cold water from the plentiful mountain creeks.
Way up a canyon was an old mining camp with cabins and shacks. Some still had old iron bedsteads, and stoves. There were holes in the side of that mountain where they had searched for gold and silver. One looked especially interesting, so we hobbled our mounts and Jim found a pine limb with lots of pitch and crawled in. When he could stand up, he got his torch lit and said, “Come on.” I knew there were no snakes at that altitude, but was a little concerned that it was Miss Mountain Lion or Mr. Bear’s home we were visiting without an invitation! There were rails for those ore cars, and Jim went back quite a ways with me following that torch. But when the little hole we crawled in looked like a dish pan, I had gone far enough. We didn’t have any nuggets in our pocket when we crawled out, but that fresh air, big clouds and a fresh smoke made everything right again. For ten days we gathered and finally had all those dry’s in that big trap by the Clayton Cabins. Then we gathered them and went off the high range down through Windy Gap to the Ring Camp. It was quite a sight to see a thousand big dry’s coming down the trail off that mountain. At the bottom we trailed them to the Ring Camp pasture. What a great camp! All the corrals, main camp, and bunkhouse were made of logs. Slim Burmiester was a Vermejo puncher for many years, and the Ring Camp was his summer camp, then he wintered at the Van Houten Camp. The lower and upper crew camped there and we were several days working, and pregnancy testing those cows.
While we were camped there, the Wagon Boss of the south half, with headquarters just out of Cimarron, drove back to the Cimarron headquarters. The next morning when he showed up, he had three new punchers with him . . .Doug Johnson, Gary Loveland, and Dan Salome. They were all good fellas and craving the cowpunchin’. We had eaten breakfast, and already were mounting up and getting the kinks out. The lower boss and new hands had eaten at the cookhouse at Cimarron, and were a little behind. We had left four or five mounts from the lower crew’s remuda in the corral for them. Those new fellas were young and a little nervous as they unloaded their beds, saddles, war bags and all, and they knew the crew was waiting for them to get mounted. The boss that had hired them went in the corral, caught his mount and told the new boys, “There’s your mounts.” He didn’t offer to rope them out, so they were trying to get them to turn to them with their bridles, and those horses kept turning away. I felt sorry for them as they didn’t know if this was a real outfit, where they get their ropes and catch them, or some outfit that chases them around with their bridles, saying “Whoa!” So, I nodded to Jim, who definitely savvied what was going on. I opened the gate, and quick as a wink, he roped out each horse and held them so they could get their bridles on them and get saddled up. They were young but had savvy and we have been friends for all these years. They all became top hands, and men to ride the river with.
After a few days working those cattle, the upper crew left there with the open cows on a long day and one-half drive to Castle Rock, where we dropped them in one of several holding pastures to be shipped the end of October. We didn’t see the lower crew the rest of the fall, as they had a big country to work, same as us. The “Park” crew pulled out to Number One camp with mounts, beds and all. There were lots of frosty mornings, with bull elk a-whistling. Jim Taylor would scatter us out to gather a certain part of that high range and we’d throw all the cows we gathered each day into the Costilla Vega. The Vega was a big holding trap with lots of grass and the Number One and Costilla Creeks came together about the middle, so there was plenty of water. We camped there two weeks gathering cattle into that vega. Every few days we would drive them to the top of the Costilla Range, down the Bernal Trail, which ended at the Elk Trap, then into all that country around Castle Rock Camp. What a great crew to work with . . . Jim Taylor, Charley Duran, Ron Beers, Bill Dabney, Bob Heath, and others.
Those cattle knew it was fall and time to drift to lower range. There were always a few pair that might give us the slip, but eventually we’d get a loop on them. Bull elk would be bugling in every direction, and the aspen were at their peak of golden color. It rained and snowed a lot that fall, and I was glad I had used lots of Neat’s-foot oil on my riding outfit. Usually we’d be getting to Number One Camp around two o’clock. We would unsaddle and turn our mounts in with the remuda in the horse trap. Next we’d all pitch in peeling spuds and getting the wood stove going. If the roundup came together around one, the boss would have a couple of us hit a trot towards camp and have the coffee ready and the meat and taters a-sizzling when the rest got there. Those wood stove meals at that altitude were sure good. Then some of us would rest, or reset a shoe. About four thirty, a puncher would saddle-up and jingle the horses, and we would rope out tomorrow’s mounts and keep them up. Of course, the next morning they would get a feeding of oats while we were frying eggs. By the tenth of October we moved the remuda and all to Castle Rock and spent the next few weeks working, weaning, sorting, culling and drifting all the mother cows to winter range. We had cut out the bulls at the Torres Vega Pasture at bottom of Gold Creek and Bernal Trails, so we would deal with them later and they wouldn’t be in the way with all the works at castle Rock. That was a lot of work at Castle Rock, so we camped there until the first of November. There were lots of holding pastures that were loaded with grass and well watered. With all the work, the cattle didn’t suffer much shrinkage and we had some better horses. After all the calves were worked, we’d pen several hundred cows each day and put them through the chute where the vet would preg-test them. Those not bred went to town, and the keepers were all driven from there to the head of big canyons, where they would winter. What a great fall work . . . working with good punchers in a beautiful range. We finished up November first and drove all the horses to headquarters. The camp men headed for Cressmer, Costilla, and Shuree Lodges to guide hunters. The rest of us, who lived at headquarters, would guide from there.