Published on December 15, 2013
A Fine Drive
By Johnny Gunn
Looking up into the deep blue of a Nevada spring morning, late season frost starting to burn off the sagebrush, Sam Tyson smiled gently, letting the last drop of coffee slowly slip down his throat. He raised his right hand and brushed coffee and early morning dew from both sides of his thick, drooping moustache. "Gonna be a fine day to move these cows up into the high hills. A fine day, indeed."
The lazy ST sprawls along the Humboldt River in north central Nevada, covering open range for a couple of thousand acres, and shares space with deer, antelope, big horn sheep up high, quail, sage hen, and rabbits. There are enough coyotes to keep a range rider busy, and in the timber, one might very well run into a mountain lion or two. Ground squirrels and badger put enough holes in the ground to ruin more than one good horse each season, and rattlesnakes seem to know just when to mess with your mind.
"We'll be in the last of the snow in two days, boss. It was a good winter with heavy snow up there. Means a wet spring and summer. Yup, I do smell rain, but not 'till it gets a bit warmer. Need that heat to make those thunderstorms." He smiled knowing that Tyson already knew everything he had just said. "We'll hit mud and some running creeks up there higher. I already spread the word to keep the herd in tight. Get 'em runnin' in that mud and we get injured animals." He raised his right arm high and gave the signal to get the herd moving.
"Been a cold winter, Tweed. This drive will be good for my old bones. Sunshine, high mountain air, so sweet and warm, and open fire cooking. This will straighten me right out." Sam Tyson came to this country back in the early 1850s when he was in his early twenties, built the ST from open desert to thriving cattle ranch. Nearing eighty, the old man is wondering if this will be his last spring drive.
"All these years, Tweed, and I still tingle with anticipation every spring. Missed one spring drive, back when that fool horse fell on me and broke both my legs. What a miserable summer that was." He had to laugh, remembering how frustrated he was, just sitting on the porch all day with both legs in casts from his crotch to his heels. "All these years, and what I remember is the drive I didn't do," and there was more laughter from both men.
The next several hours were filled with getting the herd lined out, keeping it together, teaching the young steers to stay with the herd, close to mama, and following the well worn trail that will lead them, ten miles a day, into the high mountains, still caped in the last of the winter's cloak. A break at mid day, many of the buckaroos changing horses, not old Sam, a biscuit of hard tack and some cold meat from a coat pocket, washed down with canteen water, and the herd continued its plodding march.
First night's always a little anxious. The herd wants to go back home, or someplace other than where they are, the young ones are curious, and getting the routine of setting up camp is slow. "What do you think, Tweed? Good day, I'd say." Sam was squatted down near a small fire, in front of his teepee, a tin plate full of hot stew in one hand, a tin cup filled with hot coffee in the other. He set the coffee down, pulled a spoon from his shirt pocket, and took a full measure of stew. "Just right. Hey Cookie," he yelled across the open area, "Damn good stew." He got a friendly wave back.
"Remember the year the night hawks quit in the middle of the night? Just rode off, and took about fifty nice calves with them. Took me two years to round those boys up. No real law around here back then, so, well, we strung 'em up, pinned signs on their bodies that simply said, "rustler" and left 'em for the vultures and ravens.
"Had to do things that way, Tweed. Area's a bit more civilized today, I guess, but we are on our own. Man's got to take care of his business, Tweed." Tyson's foreman had been on the ranch for many years, was as close to the old man as a son might be, and nodded in full agreement as the boss talked, reminisced.
"It wasn't just a few years ago we had to drive our cattle to what they called a market. Elko was the market. Population was in Reno and Virginia City. Didn't make much sense."
"Think that might be why they built that railroad, Sam?"
"Sure. We bring these steers and cows back down come fall, them steers will be fat and ready for the feed yard, and that railroad will haul 'em off. I miss those old trail rides, though."
The two men talked long into the night and finally fell into their bed rolls, snoring up a storm in moments. Sunrise came early for old Sam Tyson. "I can feel every mile of that trail this morning," he grumbled, pouring a tin cup full of boiling coffee at the chuck wagon. "Just give me a biscuit and some side meat this morning, Cookie. I'm still full of that stew from last night."
"Let me put some bacon grease gravy over those biscuits, boss. Long ride today, you need your strength," and he chuckled, knowing Sam Tyson never turned down biscuits and gravy, on the trail or at the main ranch.
Some mornings around a trail drive camp are hectic and filled with action, horses raising hell, buckaroos talking loud and long, cattle bawling and stomping, and orders being given in every direction. Tyson sat on a stool alongside the chuck wagon, sopping up hot gravy, smiling broadly as he watched all the activity. His eye drifted up into the clear sky and picked out a couple of ravens doing their own brand of ballet, and then he watched as a young buckaroo tried to throw a saddle on a young gelding not quite ready to be saddled. His laughter was infectious as Cookie joined in the vista.
"Mornings are something special, eh Cookie? Look at all that action out there. Hell, people would pay just to watch this if it happened in a city somewhere. Good gravy by the way," he chuckled, wiping the last little bit from his plate. "Remember a few years ago when some fool buckaroo shot off his pistol and the whole herd came through camp just as you were puttin' grub in the plates? What a show that was. Wiped out the wagon, tore up everybody's teepees, horses running amok. What a show," and he was again filled with laughter.
"I don't think I used the word show, boss. No sir, that wasn't one of the words I used that morning," and both men were laughing hard as Tweed walked up to fill his coffee cup.
"You two are sure having fun. No injuries to cows or men, boss. We'll be ready to move out shortly. Want me to saddle up for you?"
"No. You take care of the cattle and the men, Cookie will take care of the wagon, and I'll saddle my own horse." He was just a little bit gruff saying that, then smiled, loosening up some. "It kind of goes with the territory, Tweed." He walked over to watch as the camp boys were tearing down the teepees, rolling up the bed rolls, putting everything in the wagon, to be set up again in just a few hours. "Good work, boys. Make sure Cookie gets everything he wants, and get plenty of wood along the ride. As we get higher, the nights will get colder."
The hustle was slowing down around the camp as Sam saddled the stud and mounted for another long day. "I can smell the mountains, smell the air getting thinner, feel the changes in the air. God, I love a trail drive." His muttering to himself had been a way of life for a long time. "There's just one thing missing from all this," he was thinking, mostly out loud. "I should have married that little Shoshone girl years ago. Should have sons and daughters riding with us every year."
Those thoughts stayed with him most of the day, and after supper that night, with a fire blazing in front of his teepee tent, he brought the subject up with Tweed. "Shoulda married up with that pretty little Running Antelope," he said. "Well that's a whole 'nother story, eh, Tweed? I'm thinkin' it's about time to take up whittlin' or something."
"You'd get excited and cut a finger off," Tweed chuckled, settling down by the fire. "Herd's moving along fine, weather's good, Cookie's fixin' some pretty good grub. This sure ain't the time to tuck 'er in."
"'Member a few years ago, Cookie got all upset and angry at us cuz we didn't tell him at every opportunity how good his food was? Damn near poisoned the whole crew, Tweed," and the old man rocked back and forth, laughing. "Good chuck, Cookie. Good chuck," he hollered over toward the wagon. The two men heard some grumbling coming from that direction and laughed some more among themselves.
"I love these trail drives, we've only been out two days and I'm feeling this one," Tyson muttered, shifting himself around some. "Might just be my last one, Tweed." The two men got very quiet for a few minutes, watching the fire, tending the fire, taking fresh hot coffee from Cookie.
"Never did have any kids," the old man finally said. "You're the ranch manager, Tweed, how'd you like to own this spread? You might as well be my son, been with me all these years, puttin' up with all my gettin' in the way. We get back, let's see if we can put that together."
Tweed sat silent, tears rolling down crusty, sunburned cheeks, unable to say a word. Old Sam finally got up and sauntered into his teepee. "Won't be hard to do. You're already in my will."
"Morning already?" he said, trying to get unsnarled from his bedroll. "What happened to sleep time on this drive?" The camp was alive with movement, Tweed was standing at the tent entrance, coffee in hand for the boss. "Can't be morning," he grumbled, fighting with his boots.
"Cookie said you were snoring so loud last night you damn near spooked the herd," he laughed. "Be light in an hour, boss. Beans, bacon, and biscuits, hot and ready, and the crew is raring to go. Roll 'em out, Sam."
The old man snorted, grumbled, coughed, but when he emerged from his tent he had that Sam Tyson smile across his face. "Must have been like that log we hear about. Feel good this morning, Tweed. Muscles sore and tied up, back aching for my old rocker on the porch, and my lips are burned brown from that blazing sun yesterday. Yeah, feels good."
Tweed gave him the run down on the herd and crew, and what they might look forward to on this day's ride. "Two streams and lots of rock is the best way to describe today. We'll be going a lot slower on today's trail. Be in the trees tonight, and then into high pasture tomorrow."
"I think I need an easy ride today after yesterday. Wasn't that many years ago I would have spent the summer up here with the herd. Getting' soft, Tweed, that's what it is. Not old, just gettin' soft." He was still chuckling to himself when he found the old stud and brushed him down. "You gettin' soft too old man?" he said, throwing the blanket and saddle up. "We still got some good miles in us, pard."
He was watching one of his young hands working to get his horse saddled, and felt the anger rise when he saw the man smash a fist into the horses nose. "Tweed, bring that boy over here. He needs to have a chat with me." He held the reins of the stud as Tweed brought the man to him.
"You're new on my ranch, son. Don't think we've been properly introduced. My names Boss, what's yours?" Tweed smiled, knowing he's heard this conversation before.
"They call me Smiley, boss. Smiley Rafferty," and he stuck a big hand out to Tyson.
"Well, Smiley Rafferty," Sam said, shaking the young buckaroo's hand, "there's a few things you need to know to work here. Them old cows out there are the only reason you're working, and the only reason you get paid, and you only have one tool to work them old cows with. Want to guess what that tool is?"
"I guess it would be me," the young man said, just a little proud.
"No, son, not you. That fine looking horse you just smacked. You wreck or ruin the best and only tool you have, you can't do much work, and would be out of a job. I ever see you mis-treat another horse and you'll be packin' out. Got it?"
The cowboy stiffened, took a deep breath knowing that he damn near lost his job, said yes sir, real fast, nodded at Tweed standing there with a grim look on his face, mounted his cow pony and rode toward the herd.
Sam mounted and walked the horse toward where the herd was bedded, watching the sky blaze its way into daylight. "Don't think that boy'll do something dumb like that again, eh Tweed?" and he smiled, nudging the big stud along.
A sunrise cold wind kicked up for a few minutes and the chill felt good wafting across his craggy old face. "Just look at them colors, old man," he said to the horse. "Have to tell Tweed to keep his eyes open for thunder storms later today. A mornin breeze like this, and colors like them, I can smell rain."
He was working the left side of the herd as they started out, Tweed way up front and Cookie way in the back. Jack "Angry Cougar" Sam rode up and said what the old man had just said. "Thunder today, boss. I can smell it."
"Me too, Jack. When they hit, keep the herd in close. We don't need to hurt any of them, or us," and he laughed, saying it. "'Member when they had to drag three of us off this damn mountain, Jack? Herd bolted, horses spooked, lightning struck Cookie's chuck wagon. Busted ribs and legs and arms, horses down for good, and lots of cows and calves pretty bad hurt. That was a mess, jack."
"My arm still hurts thinking about it, boss. Jake trailed out early this morning. Hopes to find a nice big buck for supper tonight."
"Now you're talking, Jack. Get on up to the lead and tell Tweed about the thunder. We'll be crossing a couple of creeks, so we want to have everyone prepared. Fresh venison for supper. Yes, sir, now you're talking," and he watched the big Indian lope off to find Tweed.
The crew watched the clouds boil and build all morning and it was early afternoon when the first rumbles of thunder echoed down the mountain sides. The cattle fidgeted and got spooky, some of the horses became a little more difficult to control, and Tweed had the crew as prepared as possible for whatever might happen. He rode up to Sam Tyson, grim faced.
"Best to hold 'em up boss. This looks to be a real gully washer coming down on us."
"Give the word, Tweed. Put most of the crew on the herd to hold 'em, and plan on keeping them there all night. Change 'em out every few hours so everybody stays sharp and ready. Cookie got enough wood to keep a fire going all night?"
"You've got some really good camp boys this year, Sam. He's set.," and the ranch manager rode off to hold the herd and get ready for a major thunder storm. Lightning was blasting the mountains like an artillery barrage, the thunder rolling as a constant background. The herd was bawling almost as loud as the thunder and getting a little more anxious with every bolt of lightning splashing into the ground. The smell and taste of each bolt was in everybody's mouth.
Sam Tyson had been in situations like this hundreds of times, didn't think twice about what to do. Walking his horse very slow, he worked his way back and forth across what he considered his flank, the area of the herd he needed to protect, as every buckaroo on the drive was doing. Singing softly, ballads from his childhood, barroom ballads from other times, even a Christmas carol or two, he and his drovers calmed the herd.
The storm was just about directly over the top of the herd when the first drops of cold rain splashed down, building in intensity to an almost blindingly heavy squall. A man couldn't see thirty feet, and then the rain turned to hail, heavy, large chunks of ice, and that added to the misery. The herd got louder, the bawling was followed by more and more movement, the buckaroos having more and more difficulty keeping them in place.
A bolt of lightning crashed into the middle of the herd, the thunder peeling back and forth off the mountain sides, the herd in full flight in half a second, cowboys spurring their mounts in immediate pursuit, Sam right along with them. With lightning hitting all around the herd, they weren't able to go in any one direction, and it took the buckaroos about fifteen minutes to have them in some kind of order. Tweed was directing traffic and men kept their wits about them, saving the herd from disaster.
"Sam, you OK? You hurt?"
"Damn it, Tweed, I think my leg's busted again." He was still in the saddle, his right leg out of the stirrup and just dangling at an odd angle. "Big old cow swiped me pretty hard with a horn as she went by, Tweed. Can you get me back to the chuck, wherever Cookie might be?"
Cookie used an old trick with rags and kerosene to get his fire going and it was a raging inferno when Tweed and Tyson rode up. "Help me get him off this horse, Cookie," Tweed said, "and have a couple of your boys get his tent up and take care of his horse. He's bad hurt, Cookie."
They eased him off the stud and laid him on a bedroll next to the fire. "That leg's been smashed pretty bad, Sam." They got his chaps off and cut his pant leg off high on the thigh. "Got you right in the lower leg, Sam. Both bones broke all to hell and coming out through the skin. You really took it, this time."
"Get Raging Cougar over here, Tweed. He'll know what to do. Might lose my leg? Damn that thunder. Well, get Jack here and then you get back to the herd. Cookie, get to cookin' old man, these boys gonna be hungry and cold." Between the pain, cold, and wet, old Sam Tyson passed out.
"It's morning, Sam. I got some hot coffee here for you." The Cougar, as they called him, was kneeling beside the old man in his teepee tent, his long Shoshone face filled with sorrow. "I had to do something horrible last night, boss."
"I know. What did you hit me with?" he asked, feeling the lump in the middle of his forehead.
"Just my fist. I had to, you know that. No man should have to face the pain of losing his leg. I made it a nice clean cut, boss, and there shouldn't be any infection. I'm so sorry," and the big buckaroo had tears streaming down his face.
Sam Tyson was very quiet, very still, finally reaching out and taking the man's hand. "Cougar, you've been a good friend, a good hand all these years. You did what you had to do. Now, as I feared when we started this ride, this is my last cattle drive. Have Tweed send a man down to the home ranch and bring a wagon up for my last ride home."
Two cowboys rode down to the ranch to get the wagon, and Tweed had Jack stay with Sam while they took the cattle the last way up to the summer grazing. Cookie left plenty of food with the old man, knowing the Cougar would take good care of him.
"Looks like that old rocker on the front porch is going to get plenty of work when I get back down there," he snickered on the second day after his accident. "Jack, see if you can find a couple of good stout limbs that I can carve some crutches from. I'm not gonna just sit on my ass for the rest of my life. I got work to do around that old ranch."
On the third day Tweed came back to the camp. "Left two men up there for the summer, boss. We'll need to re-supply them a time or two. The old line shack stood up to the winter well and there's plenty of grass and water."
They were back at the home ranch three days after that. Sam made the trip back sitting upright in the back of the wagon, telling stories, joking with every cowboy that rode up to see how he was doing, having a good time despite the desperate problem he was facing. He was spending a great deal of time carving on a pair of limbs Cougar found for him.
"Tweed, I want you to join me on the porch tonight, after supper," he said after they got him in the house and into bed. "In fact, here's a better idea, have Cookie set up a table on the porch and we'll have supper together." It took about two minutes and Sam Tyson was snoring as loud as anyone had heard in years.
"That old man is tougher than the hardest rock you've ever seen," Tweed said to Cougar as they walked out of the bedroom. "I can't imagine how I would feel if I lost a leg like that. He thinks it's just a new adventure for him."
"I think he has the right attitude, Tweed. That's what I think."
"That's the way to fix a steak, Cookie. Good job," Tyson said, settling back in his old rocker, lighting a big cigar, sipping from a snifter of good whiskey, giving the stump of his leg a good rub down. "Seems to be itching more today, Tweed. Hope that means it's healing. Bumped it once today, and damn me if that didn't hurt." He settled back, took another long drag on the cigar and blew smoke into the stars above.
"This old ranch has been good to me, Tweed. Very good," and he brought out a sheaf of papers he had tucked into the rocker. "Time for it to be good to you. This is the deed to the property with one little clause. The ranch is yours, lock, stock, and barrel, but I get to keep the house and live here for the rest of my life. You OK with that, old friend?" and he handed the papers to his ranch manager.
Tweed once again found himself unable to speak. He just looked at Sam, holding out those papers, and the tears flowed gently. He took the sheaf of papers, and held onto the old man's hand, squeezing it softly, finally giving it a kiss. Not a word was said for another hour as the two men sat on the porch, watching that big Nevada sky, hearing the late night sounds of an active cattle ranch in the late 1880s. Tweed helped the old man into the house, got him tucked into bed, and simply said, "This is your home forever, Sam Tyson. Forever," and put out the light.
Mr. Gunn is retired, devoting his time to fiction writing. His collection, "Out of the West ... Tales of the American Frontier" (Bottom of the Hill Publishing), was released in December 2010. His short fiction can be found in The Storyteller and Rope and Wire. He lives with his wife Patty, a couple of horses, some rabbits and chickens, and one goofy goat north of Reno, Nevada.