Scatterin’ the Drive

by Curtis Fort

Drifting to the Gila Range

By November 1st it was hunting season and time to start guiding hunters. It was a welcome break from cowpunchin’. On the first hunt, my friends Ray and Gracie Olive asked for me to guide them and their son Ken, who had just finished college. They were sure good folks from Vernon, Texas, and became life-long friends. For the next six weeks it was long hours, but lots of fun. Most of the hunters came from Texas. All the folks I guided were sure nice, and after sixty straight days of fall works, it felt good to warm up that new Blazer or Cherokee and run the heater. I lived at headquarters. The hunters stayed in nice rock cottages by The Stables, which had been turned into the lodge where all the great meals were served for the guides and hunters! It was called The Stables, because it originally was a stable, remodeled into a nice dining area.

The folks I guided loved to hunt and loved the West. They were interesting people. I usually guided a couple, a man and his wife, who had 7 days to hunt for an elk, deer, turkey, and bear, if they were lucky enough to come across one. There were lots of bears, but when the hunting started they got pretty shy and we just didn’t see them. One fella I guided from Louisiana, Bob Hargett, got an elk and deer and had a big time. I stayed in touch with him and enjoyed visiting his ranch in Louisiana a few years later. Although they had seven days to hunt, most hunters would have their game in four or five days. It was nice to have a day or two in between hunts to just relax, sharpen my knives and write a few letters. I would sit by the wood stove and not have to be up at 4:00 the next morning.

Around mid-December the last hunters left. Even though it was very cold, it was great to get a-horseback and return to cowboy days. That fall of 1974, the cow market had fallen apart so there weren’t cowboy jobs anywhere! I had cowpuncher friends working from Texas to Arizona and Oregon, who all wrote each other, and were glad to have their jobs. So they stayed hooked! Vermejo, owned by Pennzoil, had cut back, trimming the crew. I was thankful to have my headquarters job. Jim Charlesworth, the new manager, had switched from feeding cake to protein blocks. One day I’d load a pickup with a couple of tons of protein blocks . . . then the next day, I would load a horse, drive down in the Vermejo River range that I fed, and prowl those cattle. I took care of 700 cows, and they were wintered in the Salyer, Chimney, and Vermejo River canyons. The ranch finally had a good boss after Bill John. Jim Charlesworth became the main cow boss and a General Manager who left you alone if you were doing your job. That winter it was good working for the Vermejo . . . a-horseback, feeding, long winter nights to read and do some sculpting. It was a time I’m very thankful for!

My amigo Jim Taylor and his wife Francie were at the Windmill-Brimmer camp. On feed days we’d both come out on our feed route at the old Horse Ranch on the Vermejo River around noon. We’d each be carrying a lunch and I had the coffee pot. We’d get out of the cold under a bluff, build a fire, make coffee and visit. I always learned more about the Vermejo range visiting with Jim as he had put out a lot of tracks on that outfit. There was a bunch of bare ground from erosion along the creek just above that old camp, which was a big Indian camp. It was always fun to stroll over that camp and find nice arrowheads. Many times we would help each other gather and work cattle. Once that winter I was at Jim’s camp helping him work some cattle and his wife Francie, was helping. She was a cowgirl, and good help, besides being a lady. We had gathered a brushy canyon and Francie and I were holding the gather, waiting for Jim to work the herd. He had stepped off his mount a little ways from us, and was re-setting his saddle. Francie rode over to me and asked us to come to their camp on the next Tuesday for Jim’s surprise birthday. For some reason I didn’t hear her say anything about supper, and just figured on some cake! The next Tuesday Lloyd Bowen and I made a big circle on a really cold day, and unsaddled at sundown. I told him to eat supper at my house, and then we’d head to Francie’s for cake. The roads were open, so we loaded up on elk meat and gravy at my camp, and then headed to Jim & Francie’s for cake. The roads were open and it was a clear, ten degrees, so we drove the 15 miles to the Brimmer Camp. When we got there the camp was nice and warm with the wood cook and heating stove a roaring! They were expecting us and there was a full set table with a big turkey and dressing, all the trimmings, and Francie was stirring the gravy. She pulled a pan of the prettiest rolls you’ll ever see out of the oven, and to this day, I have never been so full. We were not about to tell them we had eaten because Francie had worked all day on that meal. I think it was a couple days before I felt like eating.

It was a great time, that winter, feeding, riding and working with good hands.

I love that Vermejo headquarters because it sits in that ‘park’ along the river . . . what a good place to winter. As spring began to show we started branding in the winter range. We would gather the lower end of a canyon, brand the calves and drive them up the canyon and through the drift fence. They would heal up in that range while we were doing the same in all those canyons. We caught horses every morning and jumped them in that bob-tail truck, because it was a long ways to that day’s gather and branding. The Caliente Camp man fed the Caliente, Cottonwood and Merced Canyons, which wintered one thousand cows. Other winter country was the range that Jim Taylor took care of . . . Pooler, Gachupin, and the big Van Brimmer Canyon, which all those drained into. We finished all the branding and throwing the cattle into the summer range by July 1st. It was a good summer, with good horses in a beautiful mountain range. I had many good friends visit me that summer, and it was great to show them some of Vermejo and its history.

That summer I had a one-week vacation. I drifted down to see my folks and over to the west side of New Mexico to visit my old college friend Lee York at Horse Springs. Lee and another good friend, Tommy Higgins, had come to visit me several times at Vermejo. We had all met at NMSU in Las Cruces. Lee had a nice ranch there at Horse Springs, and I liked that range. Catron County is the biggest county in New Mexico. The county seat is Reserve, about as big as my hat, but real cow folk’s, and country people. Lee told me of an outfit in that range that was looking for someone to live there and take care of it. It was called the Luera, so thought I would check into it. I wouldn’t trade those Vermejo days, but for me, it was time to drift and see new country. So in late August, after that trip in the summer to western New Mexico, I figured that this was the range to try. I contacted the owner of the Luera on the phone in Houston. He also owned the Slash outfit, forty miles south of the Luera at Beaverhead. I decided to see this new range. So I gave two weeks notice to the Vermejo, ordered some USGS maps of this new country and got ready to drift! A cold rain fell all day as my friends helped us load and clean that house at Vermejo. The next morning we pulled out, sliding around on those slick roads, and headed for the Luera, 45 miles southwest of Magdalena. It was a long way from Vermejo!