Scatterin’ the Drive

by Curtis Fort

The Question Mark Outfit

In 1978 I felt that I needed to try the art game, and I wanted to drift back to the hills. My uncle Buddy Fort offered me the use of his home in the Hondo Valley. He lived in Midland, Texas, and would go to Tinnie on weekends to play polo. So I moved there, exercised his polo mounts every morning and worked on sculpture the rest of the day. Mr. and Mrs. Titsworth, who had the gas station across the road, let me use a small house as my studio. It was a good summer, with lots of rain, and I like that Hondo Valley.

My friend Carl Lane Johnson of the Nine outfit at Tatum, had bought a ranch at Carrizozo a few years before, and he knew I missed working cattle. Carl sent word to come help them brand for several days in June. So I took my bed and saddle and headed for the Question Mark outfit, west of Carrizozo. They had been branding a couple days when I got to headquarters late one afternoon. It was cool and pleasant there on the lawn after another hot day, and Carl and Larry were planning the next day’s works. Carl’s twins Jarrod, and Justin, along with their sister, Melanie, were rolling out their cowboy beds. Another cowpuncher or two had beds and were sitting on them enjoying one more cigarette before rolling in. It doesn’t take long to spend the night on a Lane-Johnson  outfit. Besides cutting a new man a string of horses, they give him a lantern and tell him he will catch up on sleep this winter. Larry Dean, who ran the outfit for Carl, met me at the yard gate and made me feel very welcome. Larry worked very hard and kept that outfit in good shape. I threw my bed over in one corner of the yard, Larry and I rolled a smoke and visited. To this day, thirty-five years later, he’s one of my best friends.

Larry was raised on his folks’ outfit up around Wall, South Dakota, and all he craved was punchin’ cows. After he did a stint in the army, he was working for an outfit in Montana. It seems they had kinfolk who had ranches in New Mexico, and said if he ever wanted to go down there they’d tell him who to call. He decided it would be a good adventure so he took them up on the offer. A month later he had his bed, saddle and all in his pickup, and headed south for the Land of Enchantment and a ranch job at Magdalena. He said it was a long way, and the closest he came to turning around was south of Belen, when he saw that sorry country. He was really wondering what the word “enchantment” meant. After working that Magdalena country for a while, he met Carl Lane and came to the Question Mark, named for the brand Carl acquired for the ranch from his father, Carl A Johnson. That brand is still used by Jarrod on his range at Caprock, New Mexico. Larry and I have put out a lot of tracks together on different ranges, and hung our saddles and wet saddle blankets on the corral fence at many camps. We know so much on each other, that if Larry gets to be Governor, I’m a good bet for Secretary of State.

The question Mark was a cowboy deal just like all the Lane-Johnson holdings. They scattered the drive way before light, and if a critter tried to run off, they had him caught and back in the drive in no time . . . with a little dirt in his eye, and a changed attitude! Every roundup was held against a fence and worked on horseback. The horses were good, stout, well-bred quarter horses with good withers and long legs. They were tough and could make the outside circle on those big pastures. As on any cowboy deal like the Lane-Johnson holdings, there have been many a puncher who got a new crease in his sombrero from having his head stuck in the ground by those horses! They kept a band of mares and a stud at their Diamond-half ranch west of Jal, New Mexico. Justin uses that diamond-half brand on his range today.

I remember going with Larry that fall to the Jal outfit, having lunch at the Double X camp with Carl Lane’s Father, Carl A. We loaded up a bunch of good, weaned colts to bring to the question Mark. As with all real cowboy outfits, the Lane-Johnson ranches believe that wet saddle blankets make good mounts, and I agree. They had those tiger-striped cows, handled them a horseback, calved their heifers a horseback, and had no problem with those cattle. It was always fun working those high-horned cows who had a mind of their own, and would sure test you on the drive or in the corral. But they raised a calf, and hustled a living in that desert range. Larry would start putting out protein blocks around the first of the year. With some winter moisture, those cattle would quit the blocks on their own by March and hustle those winter weeds and spring grass. Most cattle I’d seen would just wait for the cake wagon and get poorer. I decided then, if I ever got to own or run a place, I’d have those horned, tiger-striped cows with Charolais and Beefmaster bulls on them. They’ll sure raise a big calf, on a lot of different ranges.

Larry and Carl neighbored with a lot of good folks, including Sterling Spencer, of the Bar W Ranch, which was acquired by his great-granddad, William C. McDonald, around 1911. Governor McDonald was New Mexico’s first governor when we achieved statehood in 1912. That fall we helped Sterling several times. One day, after weaning a bunch of calves, sorting and weighing them, then eating a big noon meal at headquarters, we were going to take two bunches of cows in two directions, as the trucks hadn’t arrived. Most of y’all know it’s a chore to drive cows away from their calves. Larry and a few cowboys started east to cross the Corona Highway with 200 cows. I was at the corrals with Sterling and couple others, fixing to take another herd south. We looked up and they had spilled them, so Sterling told me and Sammy to go help. I rode by the ranch shop, picked up a couple of cans and put rocks in them. We threw those cows back together and started them east again, down the fence. I handed a can to Larry and we built a fire in that herd rattling those cans. It’s amazing how that disturbs even gentle stock. We had that herd flying when we crossed the highway. Sammy and I pulled up to shut the gate, while Larry and the crew kept the herd going. Up roared a red sports car with New York license plate, that had thankfully stopped as we flew across the highway. A blonde gal jumped out of the car with her camera, and asked if we could do that again. As we mounted, Sammy politely tipped his big black sombrero and said, “No ma’am, but come back this time next year and we’ll do it again!” As Sammy and I hit a lope to catch up with the herd, we had a good laugh. Life was good punching cows in the Carrizozo range!

Other outfits Larry neighbored with, were Tony Gable; Duncan Major from the Monte Prieto outfit; Jim, and his son Loren Patterson from the Orndorf Ranch north of Bingham; Bob Curtiss, Rabbit Ward, Sammy Roper, and Preston Stone from north of Capitan; and Morgan Maxwell, Windell Wells, and Ernest Copeland from that Claunch range. Carl’s twins were typical boys and craved cowpunchin’, as did their sis, Melanie, who was a good hand, but added a little sweetness to offset the boys’ snails and dog tails! Good ol’ Carl Holden would help cook, or drive the spraying rig. He was older and raised in the Caballo Mountains on the Rio Grande.  One morning at breakfast that fall of ‘78, he said they drilled a well on the Armendaris which was so strong, that when they put the pipe in and a valve at the top, it pushed the pipe out of the well. One of the hands had to climb up the pipe 20 ft. and open the valve so it’d go back down! Maybe he stretched them a little.

By that fall I wound up making the Question Mark my headquarters, as I was lonely and afoot. Thanks to the Question Mark, I had a home and good mounts. That’s a time I’ll never forget, and since then I have tried to help someone that’s having a hard time the way Carl Lane and Larry helped me.