Littell's Living Age/Volume 133/Issue 1713/Cattle-Herding in the Great West

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From The Spectator.


The American cattle-trade is exciting so much interest in England, where two of our most pressing needs just now are cheaper meat and outlets for our boys, that any authentic information about it is of value. We are glad, therefore, to be able to print the following extracts from the last letters received from the son of a contributor. We may state that eighteen months since he "hired" with a Colorado cattle-king, Goodnight by name, to go down to Texas, and drive up a herd; and at the end of the drive he and his companion, a young Scotchman, were taken into partnership. Towards the end of last year the rumor of an unoccupied cañon on the borders of Texas tempted them south, and they struck it in November.

January 1, 1877.

It has been a long time since I wrote last, and I am afraid it will be some time before I shall have a chance to send off a letter, but I mean to be prepared for it. Goodnight left here on the 4th of November, and by the next night we had all the things down the mountain. We were able to make a "kinder" road (very much "kinder," you might have thought) for the first third and last third of the hill; but the middle was too steep, and we had to unload the wagons and carry the things down on our backs. We then let the wagons down, hind-end first, with a rope attached to the pole and turned once round a tree, and a man at each wheel. We got everything down safely, and broke nothing, which was lucky. Almost the first thing done in the cañon was the slaying of two wild turkeys, which were very good eating. We drove the cattle down to where we are now, about twelve miles from where we struck the cañon.

Everything went on much as usual — with the exception of two snow-storms, one on November 13 and the other on November 22, but these are still fresh in my mind, as we had no house, and doing everything, especially getting out of bed, in a snow-storm is "bracing," to say the least of it — until December 11, when riding along down the river alone on "Cubby" I espied a bear. I immediately threw the persuaders into "Cubby," and ran him up to the bear, who, of course, at first sight of me, made off as fast as possible. I kept circling round, keeping him in the open till I had killed him. I had no gun with me, only my six-shooter. I shot fourteen times before I got him to stop, but I think I only hit him three times. Shooting "on the dead run" (the way they say "at full gallop" out here) is very good fun, and exciting, but with me as yet it is very chance-work, as about all a fellow can do is to throw the pistol down towards the object and pull trigger. I have heard of good shots on horseback with a pistol, but haven't struck any yet. I skinned my bear and brought the hide into camp, when I rather surprised "the boys," as though we knew there were bears down here, having seen their tracks, we did not expect to see them without hunting them. Ley Dyer (one of the boys) has "shot a bear since, and we have been living on him for some time. The meat is the most delicious you can imagine. I never saw any meat as fat as the bears we have killed. Their skins are so glossy, and when running they seem to tremble all over. The only kind of bear we have seen yet is the black bear. On the 5th, I struck "an outfit," hunting a cattle range. They were rather vague about where they were, and from what they told me they were thirty miles out of their reckoning, and they did not even know the name of our river, although they knew that it was somewhere in the country. The next day I struck two fellows hunting cows, or rather travelling over the country on the spec, of finding cattle which a large company lost on the drive from Texas to Kansas. The "Texas drive" this year was about two hundred and seventy thousand head of cattle. The company they are working for lost about two thousand, and drove about seventy-five thousand. One of the fellows is a Scotchman, and reminded me very much of John; they are here yet, and will be, as long as they like. Anybody striking an out-of-the-way place like this stays there as long as he feels so disposed. On the 15th, we finished the first room of our house, and so felt easy about future storms. On the 16th, we went down the river to kill some turkeys for Christmas, and on a little stream about fourteen miles down we got fourteen. I killed my first (I have just come out of doors from helping to "get away" with the last of them). The reason I have been seeing everybody is that I am the only one riding every day, as the cattle are very little trouble now, and seem contented (I don't know if it is because they can hardly get out), and the rest of the boys have been working on the house and corrals. On the 22nd, I washed all my clothes, a very great undertaking, as I had a large collection — in fact, every stitch I possessed — not having washed. my clothes since we left the Canadian. On the 23rd and 24th it snowed. We all shaved and "greased up" with bear-oil for Christmas, — the only thing we could think of doing, as we had run out of all grub except flour; but then flour, bear, buffalo, and turkey is pretty good lining. On the 25th, Christmas-day, Ley started up country to find what had become of our provisions, and corn for the horses, as they were over-due nearly a month. It snowed again on the 28th, and the snow is on the ground yet. We all think it must have been a pretty severe storm in the outer world (i.e., out of the caÑon), as we are pretty far south. Yesterday we repeated the shaving and greasing-up for the new year. It is very curious how it changes fellows, shaving off their beards. Ley Dyer has a very slight growth on the upper lip, and shaving it off made him look very long-faced and large-toothed. Dane (another boy) is also ambitious as to his upper lip, and so shaved it, and his side-whiskers, and underneath his chin, till he looks rather like a navvy, and a pugilistic one "at that." They say that Johnson and I look like "winged outfits" about the head, as nobody wears side-whiskers out West. All these items I gather from my almanac, which I have kept ever since I struck the States, and am sorry the new one has not come in time to begin on at once. I now, having got rid as it were of the old year, will wish you all, or rather will hope you have had a merry Christmas and a happy New Year. I did hope to get off a letter in time for Christmas. These fellows, the lost cattle-hunters, who in their travels of six weeks struck Fort Elliot, with the exception of which they never saw a white man till they came here, say it is one hundred miles any way you make it. You may think it strange that we do not start out and go there, but any journey down here means two fellows away for an indefinite time, and our horses are too poor (through delay of corn) for us to hunt anything but cattle, although, of course, we should like to go to the fort for letters. They have a weekly mail there which comes from Fort Dodge on the railway. They call it two hundred miles from Elliot to Dodge. I do really hope you are beginning to understand the amount of uninhabited country in these parts, — it has become a pet hobby of mine thinking about it. The buffalo are pretty thick here. The main herd is about one hundred and fifty miles south-east of us. The Scotchman saw it two years ago, and says it was about one hundred miles long and fifty broad, and I have always heard they are pretty close packed in the main herd. I don't think I told you about the first buffalo I killed. I was luckily on "Cubby," who, as you know, is my favorite, and exclusively my own horse (doesn't "belong to the concern," as Goodnight would say). I ran "Cubby" right up alongside the buffalo, within about ten feet, and commenced firing with my six-shooter. I brought him down at the sixteenth shot, having, of course, to load and throw out the shells "on the dead run;" very exciting and jolly, and not at all dangerous, as long as you don't tumble off your horse at any sharp turn after the buffalo is wounded.

January 9.

On the morning after I had written the above, Walter got into camp with letters and tobacco, so you can fancy what a jolly evening we had. You should have seen the boys going for the baccy, — they got it off his saddle before he had time to get down. I got your letters from Offley, also C.'s, L.'s, and P.'s. Please thank them all. I can so easily imagine you all at Offley, and everything going on "as per usual." Thinking of how people at home, especially in country places, seem to have certain things to talk about and do at certain times, is a great source of amusement to me. I was very much struck with it on my run home last year, especially at Mr. Davies's church, where the fellows seemed to all have on the same coats, etc. Four days ago Ley and I started down the river on an exploring expedition, and he took it into his head to rope ("lasso," as the yellow-backs have it) a buffalo. He threw his rope on to a buffalo cow, and shot her twice. The cow then commenced "coming for" him, and his horse getting scared, "let into bucking," and spilt Ley on a stump. He got very badly shaken, and can do nothing yet, but I hope there is nothing else wrong. For two or three hours he lay and could not move at all, and I had to move him when he had to change positions. The first thing he said was, and is what I believe everybody has in their minds when badly hurt, "I tell you, Hugh" (my name in this latitude), "this thing of life is a mighty uncertain kinder business."

I am getting terribly heavy. We all weighed a week ago, and I turned 12 st. 1 lb. in my shirt-sleeves, and am the heaviest in the "outfit," except Goodnight. I put it down to the bear-meat. Yesterday, I struck a buffalo-hunting "outfit" (isn't it a handy word?); there were five of them, and they were busy skinning the carcases, leaving all the good meat. It is terrible to think of the hundreds of thousands (fact) of buffalo killed every year for their hides, and the fearful waste of meat. There are hundreds of men who do nothing else, from year's end to year's end. I suppose the buffalo will be almost a thing of the past in twenty years. Since we have come down here we have not killed any cattle for meat, and shall not for years, unless for a change.

It has been a fearful winter, as, far up north, cattle were frozen. We were very lucky, moving down here just in time. I hope in a few months we shall be so fixed that you can send papers, as Goodnight brings down three thousand head more cattle in the spring, and consequently the "outfit" will be larger. We are a little "mixed" about the Eastern question, but suppose from what we gather from sundry stale papers that there is to be no war. It would be horrid to be fighting at home; a fellow would never feel easy out here, and would be badly tempted to cross the "Duck Pond," which, I suppose, would be very foolish, for by the time we got to know of it out here it would be half over. A waggon (we are past the stage of the waggon) starts up the country the day after tomorrow, and I start down the river to-morrow, so only have to-night to collect my thoughts, as it was only settled that the waggon should go this, morning. It is getting very late, and I cannot summon up any more ideas, although I have not written half I want to.

Things have never looked so well for us before, as now we have got the cattle into a place where they can hardly get out, and the only things we have to fear are horse and cattle thieves. Our expenses are comparatively over. Of course we have been under very heavy expenses till now, as it takes so many men to move cattle about the country, and you are more liable to lose them, and they never do as well and "breed up" till they are settled and as it were at home. I shall not enter on this any more till next fall, when we shall sell our beef, and I hope to send you a very favorable report in figures. In this life there is a very happy combination of business and pleasure, as a fellow is always running across game which other men have to hunt, and then very often don't get.