The Usurper of the Range.
By William Jones
The Harvard Monthly, 30 March 1900
OLD BRINDLE was a stately matron of three hundred cattle roaming over the southern prairies of the “East range.” As the cattle fed in the face of a morning breeze, the old long-horn would go grazing at their head with a dozen or so of the older cattle close by her side. After the cattle had had their fill, and the sun was nearing the zenith, they would lazily drop in behind their leader heading for a willow creek. Wherever the old cow was, whether she stamped dozingly in the sparing shade of the silvery, crackling leaves of tall cotton-woods, or was down in the hollows among the high reeds brushing off the black, stinging flies, there, or near by, the herd was sure to be.
Brindle had a trick, when a new-born calf of hers was able to walk, of slipping out of the herd by night and coming to the ranch, twelve miles away. The fourth time that Brindle had done this thing was in a second week of May, on the night when we had just come in from the Spring round-up. A full, round moon, high in the heavens, went floating in and out of slowly drifting clouds. As the night was warm and the “dog shanties” seemed close and musty, we had spread our tarpaulins on the soft, new green before the foreman’s cabin. Murmuring winds were moaning over the plains from the south. Except for the merry tinkle of pony bells in the pasture, and the joyful or plaintive whinny of a mate calling to another, all was silent in the camp.
All of a sudden the fence creaked, then an upper rail toppled over, falling to the ground with a heavy bump.
“Hay, you, git away from ‘em saddles!” yelled a cowboy, thoroughly waking everyone else with a ringing oath.
“Ma-a-a-ah,” came an answer in a low, muffled, rasping moo from a long-horned creature peering above the blankets that lay spread over the saddles.
Dick, our foreman, was first at the fence.
“Well,” we presently heard him drawl with a merry laugh, “well, Brindle, ole gal, ef ‘taint you sho’s I’m livin’! What you nosin’ roun’ yar for anyhow?”
When a half dozen of us had joined him, we found the old brindle cow craning her neck over the fence and begging for salt by lapping her drowel-like tongue over the palm of his outstretched hand. And it was not long before Fanny, his little girl of name, came bounding out of the cabin and perched herself upon a top rail.
“Daddy! Oh, daddy!” she suddenly exclaimed excitedly, as she slung her left arm about her father’s neck. “What’s ‘at down thar in front of ole Brindle’s feet! Down thar in the dark! In the corner whar the moon ain’t shinin’!”
“Bless your sweetness, dearie,” answered Dick, climbing over the fence with his girl, “ef Brindle ain’t fetched home ‘nother doggie!”
Instantly up sprang a white-faced, red-coated calf, staggering, and bracing himself upon four limber legs.
“Bet a hoss, you’re King Baldy’s kid,” chuckled the foreman as the little fellow slipped under the mother’s belly to evade Dick’s gentle pat on the head.
“I’ll sure eat my gun ef ‘at sneakin’ little doggie ain’t the juiciest what Brindle’s come to camp with yet,” yawned a sleepy, bare-headed cowboy.
“An’ a rollickin’ bull, too!” added another who, straddling the calf, held it fast between his legs. After holding it a while for Fanny to fondle, he gathered the soft, velvet-skinned creature in his arms, and we all went down to the cow lot, Brindle following at our heels.
We stood for a while outside of the corral, after Dick had slammed the ponderous bars back into place, and watched the other two cows in the lot rise to their feet to welcome the old cow with her calf. They were young brindle cows, one four, the other three years old. Both were daughters of old Brindle. Although they were brindle-brown like her, they had not horns so long and so broad as hers. Kind and gentle like the mother, they were, with her, the only milch-cows taken from all the cattle of the range. We left the happy family group standing there in the moonlight, the two daughters standing face-to-face before the mother. All three cows were contentedly chewing their cuds, while the calf plunged and dived for his milk as if to butt over the mother.
In the morning Dick pulled down Brindle’s big cow-bell from a dingy rafter of the “dog shanty.” Dick had unbuckled the bell from the old cow’s neck every Fall on turning her and her grown-up calves loose together. So once more Dick strapped on the bell, and let down the bars. She passed on out, the young brindles following, and swung up the lane, stepping to the rhythmic ding-a-dong of the bell. When the foreman put up the bars, the calves moved up; and poking their noses through the same opening, they watched the “hang arounds,” the fat, lazy cattle that always browsed about the ranch, follow, one behind the other, the old bell-cow out on the prairie beyond the end of the lane.
Then the two little cousins sauntered off toward the pony pasture by way of the bars at the lower end of the corral. They stopped just outside of the bars when they saw that the little stranger was not coming. Then they coaxed him on by blatting together a “bur-ur-ur-ur.” The little bull turned his snow-white face toward them in an indifferent sort of way, then walked slowly over to the shade of a hay-covered booth and lay down like a dog, planting his nose snugly in the soft lap of his flanks.
In the course of a week, the Kid—for somehow the name had by that time fastened itself upon him—became more responsive to the friendly offers of the two little heifers. So every morning after the cows had gone, the three calves fed off down the pasture, in the direction of the willow creek, and arrived there in the shade of the willows about the time when the scorching heat of the sun began to pour from the leaden skies. And while the sun was nearing the crests of the red sand hills that jutted along the fringe of the western horizon, the calves fed slowly back to the corral. They took their places, side by side, at the bars, and gazed longingly up the lane. Then followed the burst of a blatant chorus that would break forth at the sight of the old bell-cow and her herd turning into the lane!
The small measure of milk Lena used in the cooking was all that Dick ever robbed from the calves. Such fun it was for Fanny to watch the calves after their supper have out their little play with the mothers. Oftentimes she had her mother and father wait before going up to the cabins with the milk to watch the calves standing face-to before the mothers, slightly tipping their heads and blissfully closing their eyes as the cows lapped their faces. Brindle, in particular, would lap long and soothingly the beautiful, white face of her son, smacking her tongue as if the little head were as delicious as a lump of salt.
Then the calves would have their turn at being let loose into the lane. Away they would go with a blat, kicking up their heels as they dashed into the herd of the dozing “hang arounds.” The older, sedate heads, lazily chewing and gulping their cuds as they lay in the road on their sides, barely ever more than winked an eye when the three milch-cow calves clattered past, trailing behind them a whirl of dust. But the “hang-around” claves were never loath to bounce to their feet and join in the joyful frolic.
By the time the Kid was a month old, the little heifers had chosen him leader, choosing him according to a code known only to calves that grow up on the plains of the Southwest. And not until the Kid had become their leader did the two cousins ever venture to explore the strange, mysterious expanse that stretched away from the end of the lane. And so, on many an evening, the Kid, in big-boy fashion, would lead his happy playmates up the road. Where the road leaves the lane, and where the cow paths branch off from the road, there the Kid would halt. The little party would then bunch together, and while facing the plain before them, would put their heads together, doubtless whispering in the ears of one another the tales their mothers told them of the hungry wolf that roamed yonder through the gloom of the silent prairies in search of little calves such as they. When a coyote suddenly yelped near by, the calves would turn tail and come bolting back in a body, the Kid doing his best to hold the lead.
One evening, Fanny and Dick were fondly cuddling the Kid at the bars before letting the calves out for the night. Just then King Baldy swung into the lane, chewing and mumbling to himself a heavy bass “bu-wu-wu-wu-wu.” Now and again he stopped to paw showers of sand and earth over his shoulders. Then he lifted his upturned nose, pointing it toward the “East range,” and bellowed a slogan pitched to a yell.
“Hear your daddy, babe?” chuckled Dick, spanking the Kid with a gentle slap as he passed out of the bars. “Trot ‘long now,” added Dick, putting up the bars, “an’ tell the ole man, ‘howdy.’”
The calves nosed about the fence for a minute, then started off up the lane. They stopped after going twenty yards or so, and shot back and forth their outstretched ears at the sight of the big bull striding among the “hang arounds.” Although the Kid seemed curious to get a nearer view of the stranger, he was quite unwilling to take the lead. One of the heifers nudged him softly on the hip with her nose and started him going, at first slowly and with a cautious step. Coming finally within four steps of where the bull towered over three cows that lay chewing their cud at his feet, they stopped, and sniffed inaudibly, their gently bobbing noses as they eyed the stranger from horn to hoof. There was something mysterious, something curious, in the big, dirty white face of the bull which particularly caught the Kid’s fancy. His curiosity went even so far as to see if the blunt, black-leathery nose felt as tender as his mother’s. Cautiously putting one foot forward at a time, the Kid craned his neck, and felt his way toward the stranger’s nose. He was bracing for a final effort when an ugly shake of the shaggy head suddenly whirled him tail to from the bull. The Kid then called to his companions, and the three gambolled off into more agreeable company.
I the morning, King Baldy followed the milch-cows and the “hang arounds” out on the prairie. That evening Brindle failed to come up as usual with her brindle daughters. The Kid was not let out with the other two calves. Then the great big calf, now five months old, bawled a deep, hoarse blat the whole night long. And his two friends would not desert him, joining even at times from their place outside the bars in the blatant wail.
The Kid was turned loose with the young brindle cows on the morning of the third day. He passed out of the bars at the top of his speed, dodging from cow to cow in the herd of the “hang arounds,” as he searched in vain for his mother. In the middle of the afternoon, the Kid came trotting down the lane, the foam dripping in web-like shimmering threads from his mouth. Dick met him at the bars and let him in. He hurried through the corral into the pasture and found his playmates feeding down by the willow creek. Then the three calves met and “ba-a-a-ah-ed” in chorus into one another’s faces.
A week later, on an afternoon when we were fighting a prairie fire on the “East range,” we came across old Brindle feeding with her herd. Dick lassoed the cow and took off the bell, letting her be where she was.
Holding the cattle on our own unburned ranges kept us in the saddle during most of the murky, hazy-blue days that now followed. So the brindle-cows were turned loose with their calves, and the Kid along with them.
During that mild winter the Kid fed with the ponies among the hay-stacks, feeling quite at home with the hornless, bushy-tailed creatures. In the Spring, he joined the herd of “hang arounds.” He kept with them all the while we ere out on the Spring round-up. He continued to come up regularly every evening while we were branding the Spring calves. But when we were off on the trail with the beeves, he began to stay out a night, two nights, and then a week at a time. Finally, when we were branding the Fall calves, he went off for a whole month.
Dick had grown so fond of the Kid that he had let him go well on toward his second year before thinking seriously of branding him and of marking his ears. And this was a privilege never before given an animal of the Turkey Track ranch. But the possibility of the pet wandering off on another range, and there being “stringed for a maverick,” troubled Dick the more he thought of it.
Accordingly, one evening when the Kid came sniffing round the fence with several lazy, fat “hang arounds,” he was enticed into the corral. He licked salt from a board at his feet without so much as a glance at the fire which was heating the branding-iron. He did raise his head, however, when Dick dropped the loop of a lasso about his stubby horns. When the noose tightened, the Kid, like a kitten begging for a caress, came and rubbed his white head against the leather leggins of the old cowman. Dick dropped the lasso. Leaving the branding to the men, he left the corral that he might not see it done.
At first it was tame and clumsy. It was mingled with mirth and pathos, like butchering a sheep that will not show a wink of fight. The Kid grunted very uncomfortably as he lay on his side with all four feet tied together. Finding himself “hog tied” when he tried to rise, he began to sniff nervously and roll those big, round, glistening eyes beseechingly up at the men. The Kid twitched when the heated iron singed his hair, but he bellowed with all his lungs when the branding iron roasted the sign of a turkey-track into the skin of his left side. Clots of blood smeared the snow-white face when a cowboy took a knife and “under cropped” his ears. The Kid was then untied and the men took to the fence. He rose to his feet with a snort and hooked the air savagely. Then the trotted out of the bars. He went on past the cattle in the lane, turned to the left on reaching the plain, and made straight for the “West range.”
Not once in all that winter, the next summer, and the winter following did the Kid show up at the ranch. Often in summer, while riding the western range, we found him with the wildest long-horns that roamed among the sand hills and the stripling shrubs of the black-jack oaks. And in winter he was seen feeding among the tall reeds of the low river bottoms. There he found shelter from the piercing winds of the north and occasionally nibbled a sweet bite of green, tender blades of grass.
We were rounding up the whole range the summer when the Kid was four years old. Cow-outfits from various parts of the Territory came to drive away their cattle that they found in our herds. We began first with the “East range,” gathering the cattle together on the salt-grounds that lay by the Chisolm trail in the lap of three high-prairie hills.
By the sunrise of one morning, two hundred cowboys were scattered in every direction over the prairies, riding over butte and into hollow, and starting cattle streaming towards the salt-grounds, sending them off with a lively yell and with the pop of a six-shooter. Some of the cattle bolted along in closely packed bunches; others strung out in broken lines. Again, a herd of a dozen cattle was jumped at the head of a dry-weather creek. In its course down stream over buttes and prairies, it gathered to itself herd upon herd, so that by the time it arrived at the round-up ground, it was swollen into hundreds.
Thus the cattle kept pouring in till the shadows of the horses lay directly under their bellies. Bulls were pawing the sand and bellowing wildly. Cows lowed themselves hoarse as they wandered aimlessly through the squirming mass of cattle in search for their lost calves. Calves blatted till they frothed at the mouth. And the steers, tossing up their long horns, mooed in deep, solemn voices. In and out and round this herd of three thousand cattle swung the gigantic form of King Baldy. When he could, he strode forth to meet every herd that came in “sp’ilin’,” as Dick said, “for a fight.” Not a bull in the last five years had been able to withstand his savage rushes.
The men were riding up with fresh mounts and circling the herd for the “cutting out,” when old Brindle, with her herd from the south, popped into view over the hill. Out went King Baldy to meet her. Fifty yards away he stopped, and while Brindle’s herd streamed into the bellowing din of the other, he pawed and hooked sand over his shoulders as a challenge to any bull in her herd.
All at once the old bull pricked up head and tail at the sight of a white-faced, red, round-bodied bull dropping from the rear and pawing up the sand with a belching roar. Old King Baldy bellowed at the stranger, and the stranger bellowed back. Then the bulls edged sidewise toward each other, their heads close to the ground and their necks swelling all the while. Fifteen feet of each other, each bull pulled himself into a hump and gathered all four legs close together. Suddenly a knot as large as a man’s head bulged quiveringly up in the back of each bull’s neck.
At this moment a cowboy dashed at full speed past the bulls and dropped his sombrero in the grass between their noses. Instantly both bulls bumped heads, crashing like the pop of a gun as they locked horns. The stranger had “got the jump,” and at once had the old bull going backward on the run. Then the King got tangled in the paths of the Chisolm trail. The next thing he knew he was set flat on his haunches, and then with a bellowing groan was sent sprawling over on the back and sides. In the nick of time the cowboys dashed up with a whoop, swinging lassoes or popping six-shooters as they came, and drove the stranger off before he could gore the King.
Dick sat thoughtfully in the saddle as he watched the old bull pick himself up and skulk sullenly off on the plain, alone and apart from everything. But his square, sun-burned face lit up with an expanding beam as his eyes followed after the victor making straight for the herd, the cattle giving way to him as he entered.
“Well, well,” muttered the old cowman, fingering his chin. “I reckon it’s a case o’ the Kid a-grabbin’ the old man by the seat of the pants an’ gettin’ a down-hill pull on him. You’re the ram-rod Kid, of this range.”
And within a week the old King had joined the lazy “hang arounds” leaving the son lord of the eastern range.