Scatterin’ the Drive

by Curtis Fort

Llano Estacado

The Dickinson ranch in southeastern New Mexico, was put together by Walter King Dickinson in 1910, and enlarged by buying out homesteads that joined him. His son Wilson Gordon Dickinson took over in the 40s and it passed on to his son Walter and his siblings in the Early 60s. My Father, Byron Fort, worked for Walter’s Grandfather, Father, and was still with the outfit in the 70s, managing the ranch for Walter. I loved the country, and the neighbors, at the Luera, but I decided to drift back to Dickinson’s, where I grew up, as I was doing some art work and needed to be more accessible. I much preferred a rough country, but with wanting to build my career in art, I felt I had better chances back at Tatum, and I knew this would be a cowboy job. I have mixed feelings about these plains and I couldn’t wait to leave them when I got out of high school. My Dad was all cowboy and a cowman, and he had been with the Dickinson ranches for thirty years in 1976 when I went back there from the Luera Ranch. Walter had sent word to me for the last few years to come work for them and they had recently added some more country with a camp. The staked plains or Llano Estacado is as good a cow country as there is when it rains . . . with shallow wells of good water, not much scenery and nothing to break a cold norther. Lots of Buffalo and Grama Grass cover the country. As my Dad would say, the best ranches in this northern part of Lea County were those that were about half tight country, and the rest sand. In dry years that shinnery oak in the sand will sure get cattle through a summer in good shape. It usually rains in July or August and makes winter grass . . . usually!

So I moved to the only camp on the outfit and my folks Byron and Ruby Faye were at headquarters. George Littlefield was the first to use this range establishing a headquarters at the four lakes in 1880, twelve miles west of Tatum, founded in 1910. As the open range days began to fade, Texas cowmen with some money, lots of cow sense, hard work, and know how, came in and aquired some large tracts of land . . . forty, fifty or up to one-hundred sections. These were people like the Dickinsons, Andersons, Joe Lane, Gravy Field, Medlins, Lees and others whose descendants still are holding the outfits together.  On the Dickinson outfit the only scenic or interesting place was Ranger Lake on the north end of their range. It was a two mile long alkali lake with some fresh water springs around the edges. It was discovered by Cap Arrington of the Texas Rangers in the 1880s, while trying to find how the Apaches could cross the Llano to raid and plunder in Texas, then escape back to the Mountains in New Mexico. He came to the Yellow House Springs, northwest of present day Levelland, Texas, left a couple men and supplies and pulled out to the south and west cutting sign. About forty miles later they rode to the top of a small hill. As they reached the top, they saw the lake below them and found sign of many Indian camps around the springs. There were lots of fresh horse tracks, most headed to the west. Arrington camped there several days and found four alkali lakes fifteen miles west, with a great fresh water spring and lots of recent Indian sign. Fifteen miles past there they came to the edge of the Caprock and from the top they could see the Sierra Blanca mountains, the home of the raiders, eighty miles to the west. After Cap Arrington’s discoveries the Texans were able to follow the Indians across the Llano and stop many of the damaging raids.

I had a good house, horses, and job working for the outfit I was raised on. I still learned things from my Dad, as I had years before. The best parts, as in most cow country, were the spring and fall cow works . . . and neighboring! My favorites were helping the Price outfit and the Nines . . . both the bigger ranches in our range. They were outfits that roped out their mounts each morning before daylight, mounts that were well bred and snorty! They loved the life and liked to work cattle a-horseback. I’ve worked in several ranges but never worked with any better punchers than the tie-hard men in southeastern New Mexico. Dad and I worked together every day. Most of us realize at some time that our folks had a lot of knowledge, and we often realize it too late. My Dad was raised on this dry, hard country on the family homestead settled by his folks in 1912. He came through rough times as a teenager during the depression, leaving home to cowboy before he was able to finish school. He was making thirty dollars a month on Turner Hutchinson’s ranch at Crossroads, N.M. As we rode together, Dad didn’t say a lot, but when he did, it was the truth, and was the history of that range.

There was a pasture halfway between my camp and headquarters called Waggoner. When we were prowling the range between our camps we’d meet at the middle well in Waggoner. Just to the west of that mill, Dad showed me a spot where a puncher named Buttons was killed by a horse around 1945. Buttons was a young man, nineteen or so, who drifted south from the farmland around Portales. Dad said he was a hard worker and wanted to be a sure-enough cowpuncher. He had worked for Dad, and was then working for Zack Taylor to the east. Zack had sent him over to help Dad with a few days of fall works. After several days working he needed to head back to Taylor’s, which is now where Rusty Henard ranches with his wife Nikki, and their family. Dad had a three-year-old bronc that Buttons wanted to break for him. Buttons wanted to lead him back to Taylor’s that day. Dad told him no and that he’d bring him over in a few days. But Buttons said that he could have that bronc leading good by the time he got home, with the help of this big stout Taylor mount! Dad already had him where you could rope and halter him, and he seemed like an honest bronc, if there’s such a thing. He rode with Buttons to what is now the Bledsoe Highway, then just a graveled road. Dad said the bronc was leading fair, but knew he’d be worried. Dad saw the dust of another cattle truck so he had to turn back to go load it. When he looked back, Buttons was just getting to the gate into the Waggoner pasture. The next morning Zack Taylor came driving up and was anxious, asking Dad where Buttons was. Dad knew something bad had happened, as it was only seven or eight miles to Zack’s from where he had left Buttons the afternoon before. They got into Zack’s pickup and Dad directed him to where he had last seen Buttons leading the bronc. They drove on in to the Waggoner Pasture. As they headed for the mill, they saw Button’s horse and the bronc grazing in the distance. The range is very flat, and as they approached, they saw Buttons on the ground. The two horses were tied together and the bronc’s lead rope was still tied hard to the saddle horn, but with a lot of slack. From reading sign they figured Buttons had too much slack in the lead rope, and got it under his mount’s tail. As you all know any ranch mount will go to bucking in that situation. The bronc probably hit the end of it when Buttons’ mount was in the air, then jerked the horse down on top of him. Thirty-one years later as we sat on our horses, staring at the spot where they found him, Dad would talk softly with sadness in his voice. Buttons had risen up on one arm and they found him that way. His hat had blown up against a cactus and hung there. I still think about him. He died four years before I was born, but we both wanted to make a hand!

After two years of those plains I had to drift back to the hills. Ten years later my folks moved to their own place. I salute them for being hard working, God fearing cow folks. Just as my Dad did with the Dickinsons, my folks taught me to work and do my best whatever the job, and to be loyal to the outfit you ride for. As I write this (2013), Mother has been gone fifteen years and Dad will be ninety-eight March first. He fell three months ago and broke his leg and he’s having a hard time. But Dad has seen a lot of hard times on the Llano Estacado.

Suggested Reading: Cowboy Life on the Llano Estacado, By V.H. Whitlock; George W. Littlefield, By J. Evetts Haley